A/N: Provoked by the Zap2It description of SPN 6.11, though it's a parallel I've been pondering since 6.07, and inspired by the George Strait song "The Breath You Take." No bashing implied; please don't bash in reviews, either.


The Breath You Take
By San Antonio Rose

October 2008

"You may still think that you're Elizabeth. But you're not."

The words should have stung. She should have felt guilty. Instead she realized, for the first time, that she couldn't really feel anything like true emotion, not like she saw in John. It didn't make sense.

Was John right? Was she no more than an artificial reconstruction of Elizabeth Weir's consciousness, all of her thought patterns and memories but none of the essence? Was her inability to ascend less a fault of her nanite-constructed physical form and more a result of not having a soul?

She needed to figure it out before she made her next move. And she wouldn't get the chance if she stayed with John.

The time she'd spent in Atlantis' computers told her where there was a quantum mirror that the expedition hadn't yet discovered. So as soon as she destroyed Koracen, before John could recover from the shock, she ran to the nearest transporter and made her way to the mirror room. It didn't take long to find a reality in which Atlantis remained deserted, and she stepped through.

As chance would have it, that reality also was one in which Janus had managed to convince the council not to destroy his time-travelling Jumper. Elizabeth let out a sigh of relief. She had all the time she needed to make her plans.

Her first order of business was to create a new Replicator body that resembled her usual appearance and retained full ability to replicate and shapeshift, since she'd tired of being 'Fran' shortly after inhabiting this body. There was just enough power left in Atlantis' ZPM to power the Replicator table for that one task. Then she set about getting back to Earth, which mainly required dredging her memory for the schematics of the Jumper hyperdrive that Rodney had built, using the empty 'Fran' model as material to replicate both the hyperdrive and sufficient ZPMs to cross the intergalactic void, and recalling a safe spot on Earth where she could land the Jumper without garnering media attention.

She chose Roswell, NM, purely for the irony.

The Elizabeth Weir of this reality was still working for the UN, she found through a quick Google search at the local library. There was no telling whether the Replicator's presence would cause entropic cascade failure for either of them, but she didn't want to press her luck; it was surprising that she'd managed to get this far without any problems. So instead of hanging around, she hacked the SGC's network just long enough to learn that there was a quantum mirror at Area 51, then slipped past the security measures under cover of darkness and found another reality to step into.

She would observe her fellow humans. She would examine her own mind. She would figure out whether or not she really was Elizabeth Weir. And she had all the time in the world to get it right.


November 2011

Sam Winchester was well and truly confused, and the longer he pondered his soulless state, the more confused he became. He'd had more than his fair share of suffering, if his memories were reliable (and they seemed to be), and he was determined not to suffer more than a paper cut in the future if he could help it. But he thought he remembered good times, too, and emotions that he couldn't understand—feelings for Dean, Mom, Jess, Madison, Jo, Ellen, Bobby, Ash, Cas, even Dad, feelings that were stronger than the mild affection he felt now. Yet if Dean was right and having a soul meant suffering... why should he want to have his soul back? He was comfortably numb. There were things he didn't understand about Dean, things he did that he probably shouldn't have done by Dean's standards, but he was fine. He was happy. And if he was hurting innocents in the line of duty... well, that was why Dean was there, right, to be the good cop to his RoboCop?

But Dean wouldn't stay if Sam didn't at least try to get his soul back. And Sam wanted Dean to stay, even if he couldn't quite figure out why he made a better partner than any of the Campbells.

He was still trying to puzzle his way through the conundrum while Dean was out getting breakfast when the image in the full-length mirror in their motel room suddenly changed. No longer did he see his own reflection; instead, there was a brunette who appeared to be about 40 looking at him as if through a window. As he grabbed for his gun, the surface of the mirror rippled, and the woman stepped into the room.

"Hello," she said simply.

Well, she couldn't be a Bloody Mary (if there even were more than one, which he doubted) because he hadn't invoked her, but whatever she was, it wasn't normal. He shot her between the eyes and was rewarded with the sound of metal striking metal, the sight of what should have been a bullet hole being no more than a ding in solid metal plate, followed by a crinkling sort of sound as the ding suddenly repaired itself. Startled, Sam went for his knife, but before he could strike, the woman easily caught his wrist—and her hand felt as cold as lifeless metal.

"Please don't damage me again," she said calmly. "It's not very pleasant."

"Christo," snarled Sam.

Her blue eyes remained as unperturbed as Cas's as she frowned in confusion. "I'm sorry?"

"What are you?"

She sighed and let him go. "That's my question. I used to be completely human, but now... well, it's kind of a long story."

He blinked. "Are you an alpha?"

"A what?"

"First of your kind."

"Probably not, although I might be the first human turned into a Replicator instead of a Replicator taking human form."

"Replicator?"

"I'm a machine with the consciousness of a human." At his frown, she sighed again. "It might be easier for me simply to show you. But doing so would require that I probe your mind. It may be somewhat painful."

Sam was suddenly glad Dean wasn't there, since all his abduction jokes from their last case had just come back to bite him. "Probe where, exactly?"

She pressed her fingertips to his forehead. "I'll have to push harder, though."

Now, if Dean had been there, he'd have observed for the umpteenth time that Sam currently had zero instincts regarding what was trustworthy and what wasn't, what risks were worth taking and what he ought to run from. He would have noted that even if this woman-shaped thing were an alpha, the fact that she came out of a mirror marked her as something Not Normal and Not To Be Trusted, possibly even To Be Feared. And he would definitely have thought that having his brain probed in an attempt to gain information about this possible alpha was not a risk worth taking, even though she asked permission first.

As it was, Sam thought only, Can't be worse than Cas probing for my soul, and nodded his agreement. And found out that having metal fingers pushed into your skull ran a close second to an angel putting his fist into your chest.

He hadn't slept in a year and a half, so he had almost forgotten what dreamspace looked like. It startled him to suddenly find himself standing in the Oval Office with two versions of the brunette, one standing beside him, one slightly younger and sitting on the couch with a man whom he assumed must be the President, though he wasn't any of the Presidents Sam recognized.

"Yes," the woman beside him said as if reading his thoughts, "I do come from a different reality. That's President Hayes, and I'm Dr. Elizabeth Weir. This is where it all started, the day President Hayes informed me that I'd be taking over Stargate Command. I was a career diplomat, but they wanted a civilian put in charge, and somehow Vice President Kinsey thought I'd be the puppet he wanted at the helm. So President Hayes had to tell me that aliens were real and that we'd been sending exploration teams to other planets for seven years. It rocked my world, I can tell you."

Quickly and succinctly, Dr. Weir showed Sam the story of her life after that day: the battle with Anubis, the decision to resign in favor of leading the SGC detachment in Antarctica, the discovery of Atlantis, the three years spent leading the expedition to the flying city of the Ancients. The unfortunate first encounter with the Asurans. The nanite infection that reminded Sam of Dean's description of djinn poisoning. The battles that marked the third year of her tenure, especially the conflicts with the Replicators. The flight from Old Lantea and the injury that should have killed her had Rodney McKay not reprogrammed the nanites to save her. The raid on Asuras. The struggle with Oberoth. Her final order to John Sheppard to leave her behind. Being turned into one of these nanite-built robot things. Being hunted by the other Replicators until Atlantis destroyed Asuras once and for all. Trying and failing to ascend to a higher plane of reality. Koracen's really bad upload-yourself-to-subspace plan. Elizabeth's disastrous return to Atlantis and Col. Sheppard's last words to her.

She withdrew her hand then, and Sam gasped and staggered as he adjusted to being alone in his head again. He didn't think there'd been permanent damage, but that had hurt.

"I've been searching for the truth ever since," Dr. Weir concluded. "Traveling from reality to reality, trying to sort out who and what I am." She paused. "But you understand, don't you, Sam? Your story's a lot like mine in some ways, sacrificing yourself for those you love and being dragged back from Hell without your soul."

That was when Sam realized that she'd downloaded his memories at the same time she'd shown him her own. Dammit, she'd said she was probing his brain; he should have recognized the possibility that she could mine his consciousness. Shapeshifters did, after all.

Before he could really react outwardly, she touched his face as gently as an android could. "Please don't be angry, Sam. You're the only being I've encountered who could possibly know what I'm going through. And you've shown me that a human is more than the sum of his or her experiences, memories, even consciousness. Liam was wrong; humans truly are more than biological machines. And the soul can't be replicated."

She dropped her hand before continuing. "I can never be human again, even if I manufacture a human body to house my consciousness. My soul is gone; I know that now. And I have no friends in Heaven or Hell to bring it back. The only way I can redeem myself is to make sure that we, the last Replicators in Pegasus, can never harm my friends again. But Sam, I would give anything to be able to feel again, to be truly alive again, to have John's trust back and maybe even win his love. You have that chance."

Sam's frown deepened. "But Dean said having a soul means suffering."

She chuckled. "'Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.' But you know as well as I do that there's more to life than discovering that your brother had been taken by the fairies. It was your love for Dean and Dean's love for you that allowed you to overpower the Devil himself—that's a feat no one else can boast of. Hasn't it puzzled you that you can't experience anything stronger than mere pleasure now? Don't you remember what it was like to feel love and joy, to show kindness and gentleness and to receive them in return?"

Sam sighed. "No, I don't really remember. But it does kind of puzzle me. I mean, I kind of remember it happening, but I don't understand why. And I don't know why I remember the things that I do recall from that past life."

"There was a George Strait song I heard a few realities back: 'Life's not the breaths you take / But the moments that take your breath away.' I didn't understand it then; I do now. You and I may be breathing, existing among humans, but we're not really living, even if you're closer to it than I am. But you have a chance to experience that again, Sam, to truly live again. Don't throw it away." She paused. "Thank you. I know now what I have to do."

And with that she turned and stepped back through the mirror, which shimmered and went back to normal.

As he rubbed his forehead one last time to dispel the memory of the pain, Sam still wasn't sure he understood the benefit of having a soul. But apparently it was something a genuine alien robot desired enough to spend three years searching hundreds of realities to figure out whether or not she had one, when she hadn't been patient enough to spend a full year figuring out a way to escape subspace. If so... maybe there was more to it than Dean was letting on. Maybe Sam did want his soul back after all.


October 2008

Elizabeth left the Jumper in an underwater bay, since she'd landed a few minutes before she'd come through the mirror the first time. Then she made her way back to the mirror room, stepped back into her own reality, shifted her appearance back to that of 'Fran,' and waited in the shadows beyond the transporter until the time loop closed. John ran down the corridor seconds after her past self vanished into the transporter, and she stepped out with her hands raised in surrender.

"I'm sorry, John," she said. "I just needed a moment. I'll come quietly."

She knew that once she suggested relocating the Replicators to another planet, Rodney would redirect the dialing sequence to send them to a space Gate, and she was almost looking forward to stepping out into the cold embrace of space. It wasn't suicide, not really... you can't kill something that isn't alive. And the real Elizabeth Weir had been dead since the day she was captured.

Her Replicator remnant, incapable of anything so human as hope, could only wish that the real Sam Winchester would someday live again.