Swim 'Til You Drown

By Illyria13

Disclaimer: I own nothing. Not the characters or the lyrics or anything you might recognize.

Timeline/ Spoilers: There will be a few spoilers for the season 3 ep. "Behind the Blue line" as well as a lot of talk about Matt, the friend that died in a friendly fire incident that Sam talks about. I used the name 'Matt' because I liked it better than 'Ben', so hope everyone's on the same page.

Warning: Suicidal thoughts/actions and some cursing.

Notes: This story started out with a single scene (about 2000 words) that I wrote shortly after I completed my other Flashpoint fic. I never really thought I'd write much for it other than that scene and now, well, I'm blown away. I really hope you like it as much as I do!

I'd also like to point out that this was originally a one-shot, but because of the length, I decided to split it into 2 parts, which I'm not sure I liked doing. Let me know what you think!

Summary: Guilt is a powerful motivator, and he has so much to be guilty for.

Part 1: "Lost 'Til You're Found"

/

"Now the sun's gone to hell

And the moon's riding high

Let me bid you farewell

Every man has to die

But it's written in the starlight

And every line on your palm

We're fools to make war

On our brothers in arms."

-Dire Straits,"Brothers in Arms"

/

"You could have killed him. Why didn't you?" -MacLeod

"I wanted to. But we were brothers; in arms, in blood, in everything except birth. And if I judged him worthy to die, then I'd have to judge myself the same way." -Methos

-Highlander, "Revelations 6:8"

/

"You can't just bury stuff. It'll come right back up to get you."

-Xander, BtVS, Season 3, "Dead Man's Party"

/

He wasn't sure what it was he expected to see when he exited the locker rooms and headed towards the workout area, but he does know that it wasn't the man standing just to the side of the front desk. It is a mixture of shock, surprise, panic and slight fear that fills him, and Sam stops in his tracks abruptly, frozen by the presence of the man he knows as Matt's father. Recognition is in the eyes of the other man too, and both seem to be struck silent, not knowing what to say. Sam unconsciously appraises the other man, taking in the well-lined face and the addition of more grey hairs than the last time he'd seen him, and feels a familiar stab of guilt and pain.

Matt's father finds his voice first, speaking in an even tone that is unnerving in its civility.

"Sam."

"Sir."

There's a moment of silence, awkward and tense, and Sam swallows hard, sensing danger in the air even though he cannot tell why. He wants to speak, to break the silence, but he's been a soldier for too many years, and waiting for your superiors to speak has been drilled into his head. And while Matt's father is neither an officer nor a superior, he is older, and the respect Sam holds for the other man is enough for him to bite his tongue and wait.

He never used to be good at waiting, but years behind the scope of a rifle has taught him a great many things.

"How are you, Sam?"

The innocuous question catches him off-guard even if he doesn't show it, and Sam responds automatically, the social niceties ingrained in him from childhood forcing him to answer.

"Good, Sir. And yourself?"

A strange look danced across the other man's face before melting away, the polite mask of serenity returning, and Sam cannot decipher what he'd seen, if he'd actually seen anything at all. Then the other man is speaking again, a small smile on his lips that doesn't match the glint in his eyes.

"I suppose congratulations are in order. Getting into the SRU and all; it's rather difficult, isn't it?"

He's unsure as to how he should respond to that, aware of the subtle hostility just grazing the surface of the words, so he settles with a neutral response.

"Thank you, Sir."

Again, silence. The continued pauses and jilted conversation is starting to make Sam's skin itch in a distinctly unpleasant way. He recognizes this feeling, knows it intimately from years in a war zone. It's the sign of danger, like a scream of warning that rents the air in the early stillness of dawn, and Sam has learned never to ignore it. Instincts and gut feelings can keep you alive, save you from the things that you never see coming. Listening to them has kept him alive so many times over both the course of his military service and his time here at the SRU, and right now, with every fiber of his being yelling at him in warning, is no time for an exception.

But like Eve facing the snake in the Garden, like the cat that just couldn't let go, there is an emotion capable of overpowering even the strongest of instincts: curiosity.

He and the other man are hardly on speaking terms; Matt's father was well aware of the circumstances of his son's death, something which had caused a rift between the burgeoning relationship between Sam and his best friend's family. In fact, the last time they had actually exchanged words was at Matt's wake, and it had not ended well. It was brief, but unpleasant, and Sam had walked away with the understanding that this was the way things would be from now on. And a part of him had agreed, accepting it as punishment for his crimes and a way for him to atone, even though he knew he would never be forgiven.

So for the man to be here now, face to face with his son's killer, Sam knew that there had to be a good reason, and wanting to know it is what stops him from walking away. But despite that curiosity, and the self-loathing part of himself that says he deserves whatever is coming, he knows that he has to be careful. He doesn't want anyone to get caught in the crossfire, especially the people here, because he's lost far too many people in his short life and he doesn't think he can handle losing any more.

If there's one thing that the SRU has taught him, it is that people are dangerous. When pushed to the edge, when dangling off of it, when hurt and broken and angry and lost, people are dangerous. They're unpredictable as well, because in the midst of drowning in their troubled emotions, they'll grab hold of anything and anyone around them, and drag them under, too. Because of this, he keeps his senses on high alert, not for his sake, but for everyone else's, and hopes that no one gets involved.

And despite all the questions running through his mind and the tension building to thrum under his skin, Sam keeps quiet. He doesn't try to initiate a conversation or attempt to determine why the other man is there because he knows, he understands, that the other will explain himself in due time. It simply requires a little patience which, like waiting, is another skill the military had taught him, a handy one that he's put into practice quite a bit over the years. He looks at Matt's father with a silent but watchful eye, sees the moment he finally breaks, and Sam feels a small spark of satisfaction at finally getting the answers to this anomaly in an otherwise normal day.

He watches as a hand reaches up to run tiredly down a face and a deep exhale escapes him before the other man looks up at Sam.

His eyes seem to pierce right through him, and Sam nearly takes a step back before he catches himself. But the damage is done; the warning hum in the back of his brain reaches a crescendo in pitch and Sam knows with sudden clarity that what happens next is going to break him. It's going to be painful and bloody and jagged, like being ripped apart piece by piece only to be sewn back together in order for the process to start again and there's nothing he can do to stop it. All he can do is attempt to weather the storm and hope that maybe, just maybe, there'd be something left when it was over.

Matt's father began to speak, his voice a low, smooth baritone that held more power in its words than a yell.

"I don't know what to say to you, Sam. Every time I've thought about this moment, every way I ran it through my mind, I never quite knew how to start. So I figured, why not just look you in the eye and go from there? Maybe, if I didn't try to plan it, it would all somehow work out; that the words would come to me." Another exhale, a breathy sigh that showed the strain beginning to crack his voice, and even through his own dread and discomfort, Sam understood just how difficult this confrontation was for the other man.

"And now, here I am, and I still have no clue…I don't…," a shaky hand ran through his hair and Sam feels his own throat ache at the hitch in the other man's voice. "All I know is what I feel when I look at you: the pain and the anger and…," Matt's father broke off again, his eyes looking off to the side briefly before returning their gaze back to Sam's.

"I hate it, you know. I hate that I hate you. And I hate that I feel such an emotion when I see you because you were a part of my son's life and I know that you meant something to him. But he's gone, and you're not, and I hate you for that." The other man looked at Sam, a beseeching and near-pleading expression on his face, arm coming up in an attempt to reach out before he aborted the movement, and Sam doesn't know what to do. He wants to say something but doesn't know what, and his indecision comes from the guilt that is squeezing his chest and getting tighter the more the other man speaks.

But silence is the language he lives in. It comforts him and soothes him in a way speech never could because it held no expectations and asked for nothing in return. Silence was just silence, empty and open, capable of being filled but still as desirable when not. It was void of human trappings and emotional minefields, a neutral ground upon which to stand.

Sometimes neutrality was more than just an option; it was the only recourse left. And silence becomes the lifestyle of choice, the world in which he dwells, because everything else has been taken from him.

So he keeps his mouth shut and holds his head high, blocking everything else out and allowing the other man to spill all his pent-up aggression and anguish upon his shoulders. It is the burden he is cursed with and what he has brought down upon himself, and Sam refuses to let it go.

"I tried to forgive you. I tried in so many ways. I tried to rationalize it, to explain it to myself in such a way that I could understand it and somehow move on. I told myself that Matt wouldn't want me to blame you, and that he would want me to find a way to live with it. And I tried; I really did try. But I can't."

And suddenly, he wants the other man to stop speaking. He wants to grab him by the arm and drag him into another room because he doesn't want to have this conversation in the middle of the SRU. He'd like to go even further and throw him out of the building entirely because facing this man is one of the hardest things he's done and Sam can hardly bear to listen to what he has to say. But he doesn't move, doesn't attempt to stop the flow of words, frozen by the surrealism of the moment even as the numbing sensation that had crept into his limbs began to fade away, disappearing under the crushing remembered pain. It's been a long time since he's truly thought about Matt, about what happened to his best friend, but this is the second time in weeks that he's been forced to face it, and he wants to laugh, because he'd always known deep down that he'd never be able to escape it. He'd run as far as he could, as fast as he could, taken the Hermes express and everything, and still ended up here.

But that is the way of all things, good and bad: they always, always catch up to you.

"Matt was my only son, my only child, and you took him away from me. There's no explanation for that, no excuse you could give that would ever make that okay. I don't want to blame you, Sam. I know that you were like a brother to him, and it's because of him that I tried to forgive you. But when I think of you, all I can see is him." His voice broke. "All I can see is the funeral. All I can see is the grave. And all I can hear is the rain as it hit the lid of his-," he broke off and looked away, and Sam can scarcely breathe through the tightness in his throat. He's vaguely aware of his team only a few feet away in the training room, oblivious to the pain he's going through as he faces one of his many demons. A part of him wants to call out to them, to seek out the shelter of their protection; to beg them to come and save him from this excruciating confrontation. But he doesn't, because the other part of him whispers the cold, dark truth: he has no right to ask to be saved.

So he stands there, trapped by the pain and anger in the other man's voice, the sheer weight of it adding to his own and drowning him under the onslaught, and waits to be condemned. He doesn't have to wait long.

"You took something from us, something we can't ever get back. Our joy, our happiness, and our laughter- it's all gone. You took away all the good things we had and left only the worst for us to choke on."

He can understand where the other man is coming from; what it's like to be hollow inside, to be left with only the bad parts of life. How it feels to be helpless and hopeless, lost and condemned; to be broken, and to break in return. When Matt had died, a part of Sam had died with him, and it was a part that he didn't think he would ever get back. And it makes him feel helpless, and it makes him feel broken, cold and frozen in time at the moment of Matt's death.

Sometimes he wonders if this is what death feels like.

"All we have now are memories. The memory of his first steps and his first words. The memory of his prom. His first car. His graduation. How proud he was of joining the military. But sooner or later, those memories are going to fade and there'll be nothing left for us to cling to." Tears fill the other man's eyes and he swallowed hard. "A lifetime of memories will be just wiped away and we'll… we'll lose him again. Can you understand that?"

And Sam has nothing to say to that, nothing to fight back with. There are no words that can make it better, no actions he can undertake that will undo what he has done or rewrite the pages of the past. Worst of all, he understands it intrinsically, because all he, too, has left of the man who was the brother he'd never had, are memories. Except his are soaked in blood and he can't remember the happier ones anymore.

"I tried to forgive you, Sam. It only made me hate you more."

He finally found his voice, unable to stand there any longer without action, his stoic mask barely hiding the turmoil churning underneath. He feels compelled to say something, anything, to this man, even though he'd sworn to take his vitriol without complaint.

"I'm sorry."

But his words seemed to break the dam holding the older man's emotions back and the control he'd held over himself.

The fist to his jaw made his head snap to the side, breaking his footing and causing him to take a step back. He shakes his head, a bit dazed, but doesn't attempt to defend himself. He won't fight back. He can't. He deserves everything the other man has to throw at him, both his words and his fists, and even then it won't be enough to assuage his guilt. There's no amount of punishment that will ever make him feel better, no amount of blood he could give or pain he could feel, but he thinks that even a little bit will help go towards paying off his debt. Another punch pushes him back further, and he tastes blood in his mouth as the force of the blow causes him to bite down on his tongue.

"You bastard! How dare you think that'll make it okay! I don't want your apologies. You-," he surged forward, pushing Sam back and pinning him to the wall behind him with one forearm across the blonde's throat.

The raised voice and his predicament had finally caught the attention of his team, as well as other various SRU members. Sam hears them coming to his aid, rushing forward amidst yells and commands, but he has eyes only for the man in front of him. He has eyes only for this lost, grieving father, and the pain he has brought down on this family. He can see it clearly, written in every crease and line on a face carved by time and the torment that can only come from loss. And Sam hurts; deeply, achingly, because looking Matt's father in the face is like losing Matt all over again.

"I'm sorry," he gasps out, struggling to speak around the feeling of his breath being cut off. "I'm sorry."

Sorry for living. Sorry for killing his best friend and brother. Sorry for all the pain and sorrow felt and the empty, gaping hole left behind in the living. Sorry that there is nothing he can do and no words to say; that he has ruined these people's lives and left them to pick through the wreckage.

He looks into hateful eyes, etched with pain and grief, and realizes that sorry is the most worthless word in the dictionary.

But it's all he has to offer, all he has to give; a useless and empty apology that does nothing but cause further pain.

He nearly falls over when the other man is pulled off of him, hands steadying him as he draws in much-needed oxygen. His eyes have slid shut, but where one sense has been dulled, the others are in full force, catching every sound and shift in the air surrounding him and cataloguing them into the familiar and unfamiliar.

Strong footsteps, heavy and loud with confidence and the arrogance that can only come from command, and a deep growl that demands answers; wanting to protect because protecting is engrained in his very core. Ed.

Softer ones, no less in confidence or control, accompanied by a voice that resonates caring and concern (safety and warmth); the kind of voice that gains attention by catching it rather than demanding it. Greg.

Gentle hands on both sides, not restraining or confining but supporting, careful in touch yet strong and sure. One set is feather soft, more of a brush against the skin on his upper arm and shoulder, hesitant in fear of causing pain but growing bolder as they search for injuries; a touch against his throat causes him to flinch and lash out instinctively, batting them away, and the set of hands retreats in apology and understanding. As team medic, this set of hands is used to the combativeness of a confused patient and know it is far better to allow calm to set in, in order to treat more effectively. And he knows that the moment he is ready, the hands will return to help, demonstrating all the care and caution with him that they use when handling computer parts and wires. Spike.

The other set is less deterred, unmoving even as he tries to push them away in his confusion. This one is merely a calming presence, steadying and helping him remain upright, a bastion for him to lean against. He doesn't, despite how comforting it would be, knowing he needs to maintain a façade of strength. But he knows the support in these hands, and acknowledges it by allowing them to remain. And a part of him recognizes the person attached to the set merely by the touch they bestow upon him, because there is only one person that he knows that can combine the no-nonsense attitude of a father with the steel of a warrior, ready to defend that which he cares about. Wordy.

Not as close but still nearby, the dulcet tones and sweet scent of perfume register last, nearly hidden by the bodies between him and them. But he knows the owners and knows that they are not a threat; they are the female warriors of the team, like the Amazons of old, fierce and powerful. One is more known to him while the other is newer, but both are equally might and defensive of those they know, gentle at times and ferociously protective when needed. Jules and Leah.

He senses it all, everything and everyone, all the inquiries and demands directed towards him and Matt's father, and draws it in; but it's all too much, knowing and feeling and having, so he blocks it all out, not wanting to have to deal with everything at the moment. Instead, he focused only on the simple act of breathing, in and out (and it was far easier than trying to understand what had just happened), trying to hold onto sanity in the midst of all the turmoil. He succeeds, and gradually his breathing slows, evening into a normal rhythm only slightly faster than usual, easily explained as due to the adrenaline coursing through his system and his quickened heartbeat.

A touch brings him out of his thoughts; he opens his eyes a bit and sees brown staring directly into his own blue.

Wordy has a hand on Sam's shoulder, helping to steady the blonde man as his brain adjusts to the situation and the sudden influx of light. The concerned look on his face shifts into a slight frown of worry as Sam wobbles, nearly falling over as his head spins from the combination of air and two successive blows to the face. He leans in slightly, trying not to jostle the sniper any further, as he tries to get his attention.

"Hey, you okay?"

When there's no answer from the blonde, the frown deepens.

"Sam? Hey." Wordy shakes him slightly, almost gently. When it elicits no response, he tries again, harder, his voice rising. "Come on, Sam, you with me? Hey!"

Sam finally manages to find his voice enough to say something, wanting the other man to stop with the shaking because it wasn't helping his dizziness. He can also tell by the sudden silence that the others have turned their attention onto him, and he reaches up to push Wordy's hand away in order to prevent further shaking.

"Quite yelling, Wordy, I'm fine."

The quelling looks from every direction lets him know that nobody's buying it.

He swallows hard, coughing as his abused throat protests the action. He reaches a hand up to gently touch the heated skin and wonders idly if it's going to bruise. He scoffed internally. Of course it was going to, and probably rather spectacularly at that. Another touch on his shoulder, this time from Spike, brings him back to the matter at hand, and he looks up to see another round of concerned glances being passed among his team. He wants to get angry or irritated at them, at the whole damn situation, but he's just too tired, so he ignores their silent communication with each other and instead looks straight ahead, waiting for something to happen. But his eyes land on the man directly across from him, slightly hidden by the imposing figure of his team leader, and he barely manages to suppress a flinch when he locks eyes with him. Matt's father looked back at him, a cold look of anger evident in his eyes, and all Sam hears are the accusing words he'd spit into his face.

He looks away, a violent shiver wracking his body, causing Wordy and Spike to tighten their grips in both reassurance and support. He spares them both a glance of thanks, owing them that much, but jerks his head back to face Ed when he clears his throat.

"Alright, now that I've got everyone's attention, does somebody want to tell me what the hell is going on here?"

Ed looks expectantly at him, but Sam doesn't answer, too lost in memories that he'd rather forget but were now violently assailing him. They taunt him, reverberating through his head in an endless stream of pain, and he clenches one hand into a fist at his side while his other hand rubs unconsciously at his sore throat. But he doesn't know if it aches from more than just physical pain even as the uncomfortable burn in his eyes speaks of a deeper agony.

"Sam? You want to share why this guy attacked you?"

"I didn't attack him." It's a protest that nobody there believes.

"Oh, really? Then what were you doing?" The other man goes quiet, but Ed refuses to let up. "Fine. You didn't attack him. 'Attack' is not the correct word. How about 'assault'? I think 'assault' works better."

His team leader steps closer, looming in the other man's space, and gives an intimidating, mirthless smile.

"Did you know that what you just did is assault? I could have you arrested for attacking a police officer. Is that what you want? 'Cause I could also tack on some other charges if you want to keep up the silent act. Come on, answer me!"

Ed's demand is accompanied by a slight shove and Matt's father responds to the challenging move.

"This is between him and me. It's none of your business!"

The tall bald man smiled coldly. "Oh, you made it my business. You made it everybody's business when you came in here and assaulted him in plain view of everyone! Nobody touches a member of my team that doesn't have to answer for it, you hear me? Do you understand?"

Afraid that Ed was seconds away from decking the other man, and not wanting to think of the grief that that action would bring, Sam intervened.

"Stop."

Spike and Jules hear him, he can tell from the looks on their faces, but they aren't the ones he needs to reach, so he swallows hard and speaks again.

"Stop."

It's a command now, louder than before, and it is his tone rather than what he says that gets the attention he'd been aiming for. He almost shifts under the expressions he sees but doesn't, not wanting to display his discomfort. Instead, he focuses on the two at the center of the confrontation, directing his attention towards calming both men down before things got any further out of hand.

"Let him go, Ed. Just…let him go."

"Sam-,"

"He didn't do anything," wrong his mind finishes, "so let him go."

The bald man is shaking his head hard even before he stops talking.

"No. No way, Braddock. I'm not letting you…this isn't just going away. He doesn't get to walk."

A flash of anger, white-hot in its intensity, jolts through him, and Sam's mouth fires off before his brain realizes it.

"Well, I'm not pressing charges, so yes, he is."

His wrath fades under the flash of hurt that crosses Ed's face, and Sam breathes deeply, reining in his temper. He understands what the other man is doing, he really does, because he knows what the confrontation between him and Matt's father had looked exactly like what it was: an argument, though rather one-sided, but one nonetheless. Ed is trained in the same things Sam is, in reading the body language and emotions of others. And Sam knows what the other had read in both him and Matt's father: anger and pain, two of the most volatile emotions in the entire human spectrum of feelings.

Ed is desperate now, protective in his anger, trying to find an understanding that is beyond his reach. And he wishes that the other man would stop questioning, stop pushing, because Sam doesn't know the answers. He barely understands what's happening here. All the blond knows is that he owes Matt's father, owes him a debt of tears and blood, and that this is simply another part in paying it.

And Sam can't let him continue in this vein. It would only bring further grief down on somebody who had already lost so much.

He softens his voice, an aching, tired plea threading his words.

"Ed, please. Just let it go. Please."

He doesn't know whether it's his words or his tone that gets to the older man, but something does, and his expression loses some of the hardened edge. His voice is softer as well when he speaks again, and Sam thinks that he's never heard Ed use that tone of voice before.

"Why are you protecting him?"

"It's not him I'm protecting." Liar. Always lying, always hiding; always pretending that things are better than they are. But what will you do when it becomes too much to hide away?

He shakes his head internally, damning the voice, because he can't think of such things, not now, not ever; it's why he's always pushing them away.

While Ed's face is a mess of tired confusion and barely-checked anger, Greg's holds a blend of understanding and concern as he steps towards Sam.

"Are you sure, Sam?

"I'm sure." He just wanted this to be over. Hell, he wanted the whole damn day to be over.

His eyes assessed the blond, and Sam braces himself, knowing he just needed to hold on for a little longer. Resignation is written all over the Sergeant's face, but he nods once, slowly, before gesturing towards a couple of the SRU officers.

"Alright, guys, you heard him. Escort him out of the building, please. And sir?" Greg directed his attention to Matt's father, his eyes hard. "Leave quietly. And do not come back."

It wasn't a request and Sam could see that the other man understood it. He'd forgotten, however, that some people aren't capable of just letting things go and as Matt's father levels a glare at him, Sam wonders if he'd underestimated the depths of this man's ire at him.

Ignoring the officers surrounding him and the tense, clearly on-edge stances of Sam's team, he speaks one more time, his words flat and vindictive.

"I know you, Sam, and I know what you've done. There's no forgiveness for you. I'll never forgive you."

Sam jerked his eyes over to meet hazel eyes a shade lighter than Matt's green, and swallowed at the truth he sees written in them.

At the blonde's side, Spike shifted closer, nearly moving his body in front of Sam's as if to block him from the man's anger while Wordy stepped forward, a protective glint in his eyes. "Get him out of here."

The tense postures of his team relaxed as the officers did as they were told, the tightly-wound emotions slowly seeping away at the removal of the threat. Sam, however, remained exactly as he was, a whirlwind of thoughts dancing through his mind too quickly for him to process. And even though he'd wanted nothing more than for that horrible confrontation to be over, he became increasingly aware of the fact that nothing had changed.

He stared after the retreating figure of Matt's father, three other SRU members escorting him past the front desk and out of the building, and realized that he felt numb; not angry or hurt, guilty or sorrowful, but completely empty.

"Sam, you're bleeding."

At the sound of Jules' voice, he drew himself back to the present and felt the sting of open air against his lower lip. Reaching up causes his hand to come away bloody, and he is suddenly aware of a copper tang in his mouth. But he swallows down the mouthful of blood instead of spitting it back out because it's a mark of his guilt and he won't let it go. He can't. And "won't" and "can't" aren't really so different after all.

"Sam?"

He looks at his team, his gaze moving from the red on his hand to zero in on their expressions, and bites his tongue harder to prevent himself from yelling at those same damned looks from before. And he does what he's always done; he pushes it down, locking it away in a box in a corner of his mind, suppress ignore repress until it's nearly overflowing.

He turned on his heel with military precision and headed towards the gym, walking away from the other members of his team. He ignores their attempts to get his attention and disregards the glances the other SRU members are giving him. It was none of their business nor was it their concern; he didn't have to explain himself to anybody.

It's over, it's done, and he doesn't want to think about it anymore.

Besides, he was late for workout.

/

He taped up his hands methodically, years of experience making him swift, and before long he was in front of the punching bag. He did a few warm-up punches, testing his weight and getting a feel for the bag. And then he was gone, blocking everything out around him, focusing intently on the bag as if it held all the answers. As if this one bag was responsible for everything wrong in his life and this was his chance, his one shot; if he could just get a handle on this then he'd have a handle on his world, and if he could just get that, then…he'd be okay…

But it's not going to happen; he's learned this, because if it was it would have already happened, all those times before. And he knows this, he does, but sometimes it's hard to admit that things are never going to be okay. They aren't going to get better.

The thought makes a sudden burst of anger rush through his veins and he delivers some hard jabs to the bag. His vision dims, narrowing down to a single object, a target, and if there's one thing he's good at, it's always hitting what he's aiming at.

Except he isn't; if he was, he wouldn't have hit Matt, wouldn't have killed his best friend and ripped apart his family and destroyed his own life. He wouldn't have been here to face down another soldier, a soldier just like Sam. Except he wasn't just like him because he was dead in the ground; dead at the hands of the SRU, by a man who was supposed to have saved him, stopped him from seeking the death he had craved. He should have been able to save him, because if there was anybody who could understand the wish to die, it was Sam.

And then the memories were upon him, mixing with the action of punch-jab-kick and everything fades away as he's lost in the haze-

- of bullets and sand, smoke and blood, bodies on the ground and the few left standing. Rubble and dust and tires and flames, and a city burns around him as he runs; runs through it all, needing to get out, because he needs to get high, needs to find a perch. He has his orders and this all around him, is a distraction, just for him, all for him, because his orders are to get high and wait. Wait for the silence after the bang, for the cover of night to end and the sun to shine anew.

Left, right, right. The crackle of leather giving under fists.

He dodges a shot and then he's there, climbing higher and higher until he's at the top. Rolls behind the cover of some rocks and assembles his rifle in seconds. And then he waits. He hears explosions and gunshots, the screams of the wounded and the death rattle of the dying and blocks it all out. His duty is here, his mission is here, and though inwardly he flinches at the knowledge that these men were sacrificed just to get him up here, he refuses to dwell on it.

He can't. He has work to do.

Right, left, kick; bag swaying with the force of pent-up anguish.

Night is gone, chased away by the hot desert sun. He's been there for hours, overlooking this stronghold, biding his time with a patience that would surprise those who used to know him, the boy that he was before he became a sniper. And he feels the tension in the air like a hidden warning, vibrating in intensity even as he knows it's getting closer to time. The order comes in a few minutes later; he acknowledges, then waits just a bit longer for the first sight of his targets.

He's cleared to fire and it rings in his ears even as he looks down his scope.

A flurry of punches and kicks, a fighting style they didn't know he's trained in.

He fires once, twice, three times and more, over and over in a mix of heat and noise. Smoke curls from the barrel as the blood runs into the sand and he spots his targets on the ground, unmoving, dead at his hands. He's a concealed predator, the sniper on the rocky hill, and he is the one with the power.

The bag is shaking furiously, helplessly, under his onslaught.

He meets up with the other members of the squad at the end of the hill where they'd been waiting for him. Together, they head into the area, sweeping for targets he might have missed and checking the ones that he did. Then they come across a figure, and his world falls apart when they turn him over.

Blood dots the leather like blood on a uniform, and it's been nearly three years but he can still see the blood. Bones crunch and crack under the strain, red bleeding through the white like blood welling in the sand; skin tears at the impact and now his hands are covered in red. Except they already were, they always have been, ever since a mission that stained them red forever.

Familiar green eyes stare up blankly at the sky but to him, they're accusing. And he's damned now, damned with a river of blood on his soul, because he's shot his friend, he's shot Matt, and nothing will ever be the same. Shocked glances and frantic murmurs, disbelieving and angry and afraid, fly around him, but he can't hear them through the roaring of blood in his ears and the distant howl of pain.

His name is called from a distance, weights clanging against steel as they're hurriedly placed down. Footsteps move rapidly towards him and now new voices have joined in, a cacophony of his name and commands thrown about, mixing with the voices in his memory.

But as much as he wants to fall to his knees and scream, he doesn't. That happens much later, after a funeral that he can barely stand to attend and he has the feeling that Matt's parents want to forbid him from being there but he can't blame them. Because he's stolen their son, their one and only child, and he can't even look in a mirror so how could they possibly stand to look at him?

He leaves a few months later, unable to stand the desert anymore with its' red sands, and hopes he can find a way to redeem the blood on his soul. He joins the SRU and prays to make a difference, because this is his only chance at living.

"Alright, that's enough! Sam, stop it!"

But now he doesn't know what to do. Because if this is living, then he might as well not, and it's all just too much to take. The screams of the wounded, the moans of the dead, the tears of the living and the bones that fill graves; all he's ever seen, all he's ever felt, is pain. And the pain keeps growing, keeps festering; keeps destroying lives and leaving him to pick up the pieces that remain. But it was too hard. And sometimes, it took everything he had not to fall to his knees and scream to the skies for mercy. He wants someone to save him. He wants someone to lessen the burden, if only for a brief moment. But he doesn't dare ask for it because he does not deserve it.

So he does what he can even as he struggles against the waves of despair. And sometimes, it's enough for him to sleep, at least for a few hours. But other times, more often than not, it's nowhere near enough, and the peaceful respite is beyond his reach. And in those moments, he looks in the mirror and sees the truth staring back.

He wasn't good enough. He was never good enough.

With one more powerful kick, a maneuver performed with a frightening blend of fury and concealed rage, he sends the punching bag flying. Arms snake around him from behind suddenly, restraining and holding him back, and his hands are captured by his wrists. It is then that he becomes aware of the voices talking to him; one is directly in his ear and he can barely hear it over the pounding rhythm of his pulse and the thudding beat of his heart in his chest.

"Come on, buddy, that's enough…it's alright, Sam, just calm down…I got you, Sam, I got you…"

He feels himself being pulled backwards a little, his feet stumbling on the mat in protest and he slowly becomes aware of everything around him. The roaring in his ears subsides to a dull echo and now he begins to hear everything. His eyes gradually sharpen even as they burn from the sudden influx of color and light, but it's forgotten as they shift and land on the man standing in front of him. With a flash, the entire scene is burned into his memory as he takes it all in.

It's Wordy in front of him, holding his wrists tightly in his own hands, a deep look of concern etched into his face and eyes. Ed is the one behind him, arms wrapped tightly around Sam in a restraining hold and it's his voice speaking into his ear in a soothing litany. Sam's eyes dart around, taking the rest of the room in with a detached sort of vigilance-Jules and Leah to one side, Greg and Spike on the other- and then they fall on the punching bag discarded on the floor. Everything comes back to him, and instantly, he realizes exactly what he's done.

He'd lost control, of himself and his surroundings, but the worst part of it all is that he'd done it in front of his entire team. Add to that the whole scene with Matt's father and he'd be lucky if they didn't pull him from active duty before hauling him off for a face-to-face with Dr. Luria.

He feels raw, exposed; all of his secrets spilling out through the cracks in his armor, laid out in front of the others in all their blood-stained glory, whispering of failure and weakness and cowardice.

They stare at him, and it feels like they're looking into his soul, pulling back the layers of his skin to see the blood that stains him, that has seeped into every crevice and fiber of his being. His skin crawls under Ed and Wordy's touch, and he feels the urge to get as far away from them as possible. He doesn't want them to touch him. He doesn't want to taint them. It's an irrational desire but since he feels likes he's losing his mind, it's rather on par. He wants to run, as far as he can, as fast as he can; he fights it, however, because running is always a sign of hiding.

And while he knows he's a coward, it's much harder to admit such a fact to his team.

So he runs in a different way.

"Get off of me."

It'd be a threatening growl if he had the energy but his actions of the past- minutes? hours? his whole life?- have taken everything he had.

"No. Not until you calm down."

Typical Ed, commanding and arrogant and caring. It would've warmed him once but not now; not with ghosts hanging in front of his eyes. The thought makes all of his strength and will leech away and he feels the tension in the tall man behind him as he braces for Sam's reaction.

"I am calm."

But his actions belie his words. Instead of fighting like they expect, however, he goes limp, and the sudden increase in weight nearly makes Ed drop him, causing him to curse as he struggles with both Sam's dead weight and with keeping them all upright. Wordy tightens his grip on Sam's wrists to help, almost to the point of painful, but Sam doesn't react. He barely feels it, too intent on his own emotional agony as he forces every iron bit of his control onto keeping it in. It's too much, it's all just too much, and he's afraid that if he opens his mouth to speak, the only thing that will come out will be screams. The kind of screams he sheds in the privacy of his own head, the ones he releases in the forms of fists against leather; the ones heard in the staccato rapid-fire of his rifle on the range and the whining of glove against rope as he repels down the side of a building.

The next thing he's aware of is the sensation of the mat under his legs and his head hanging down as he tried to restore the blood flow to his brain. He can feel his chest heaving, lungs burning as he tries to draw in breath, and black spots are beginning to appear in the corners of his vision. Through the roaring in his ears, he can hear someone gasping, wheezing, choking on air that won't stay in their lungs, and in some part of his mind he realizes that the person he is hearing is himself.

"Sam? Can you hear me? I need you to listen to me, buddy."

He'd like to, he really would; only, it's kind of hard when his ears are ringing and the world is spinning.

"You gotta breathe, Sam, or you're going to pass out."

Except, passing out sounded really good right about now. It'd be an escape, a way out of the memories and the questions and the concern surrounding him. Even through the panic and confusion shrouding his mind, he could understand that.

He'd try to explain that to the idiots that were yelling at him, but that too would require breath.

"Damn it! Snap out of it, Sam!"

If only he could. Snap out of this world. Snap out of this life. Snap out of blood on his skin and cold, dead eyes, and the pain he feels every single fucking day he goes home and realizes no, it isn't today. Snap out of the desperate, hopeful wish every time he thinks is today the day I die? and the crushing disappointment when it isn't.

Through the screams echoing faintly in his ears and the darkness encroaching on his vision, he wonders if this is finally it. But then another thought comes on the heels of the other, and it is that he is already dying; he just hadn't realized it yet.

The epiphany would have knocked him off his feet if he hadn't already been on the ground.

It's a slow death, he thinks, drawn out and labored, suffering and exhausting, but he wouldn't have it any other way. He deserves no other way. And after nearly three solid years of anything but, he feels that maybe, finally, he'll see the end.

In the silence of the night, when he hears the voices of the dead whisper across his skin and gunshots ringing in his ears, he jolts awake and reaches for his rifle. And he despairs when he doesn't feel it, because the cold steel of his gun is the only thing that chases away the hot, suffocating sands of the desert. But he is no longer in the desert, even if his mind seems to be stuck in the memories of what he'd lost in a foreign land. There is no rifle at his side, no soft breathing of his fellow bunkmates; no hard metal under his back or the dry dust of sand stuck in his throat. There is only silence and emptiness and the bitter feeling of being completely and utterly alone.

His is a slow death, he thinks. He has no right to wish for something different.

Peace, finally.

But a moment later, he feels the world shake as his body is shifted, arms supporting him by his shoulders and a hand coming to rest briefly on the back of his neck, rubbing the taut muscles.

"Alright, Sam, come on. Listen to me, listen only to my voice."

Go away, he pleads silently, beseeching and begging, go away. I don't need you to save me. There's nothing for you to save.

Fingers grasping his hand, moving his palm forward to rest against a solid warmth, and he feels a flutter underneath his fingertips that matches the blood rushing through his veins.

"Feel my chest under your hand. Feel the movements as I breathe. You hearing me, Sam?"

He doesn't have breath to reply even if he'd cared to. If he did, it would have been something along the lines of yes, I can fucking hear you, you told me to listen didn't you? And for some inexplicable reason, he started trying to laugh through the wheezing in his lungs, making his predicament even more problematic.

He wonders if oxygen-deprivation twice in one day was a bad thing.

And just when he thinks he can't take any more, the rhythm under his hand finally registers. His heartbeat began to slow, matching the whoosh, whoosh of blood running through veins and lungs filling. Gradually, slowly, inch by excruciating inch, the blackness receded and he can finally breathe; taking in deep breaths of fresh air makes his head swim, but he does it because the voice tells him to and he'd been following the instructions without even being aware of it.

So he's breathing and awake, no longer close to passing out even if a little dizzy, with a deep lethargy that has settled into his bones.

He expects elation, disappointment, some kind of emotion, anything. It doesn't come.

Hands take hold of his head gently and lift it slightly in order to meet his eyes, and Sam feels an unsettling sense of déjà vu as he finds himself gazing into the same concerned brown eyes from earlier. Wordy is kneeling in front of Sam, looking into the blonde's eyes for coherency and trying to get a sense of whether or not he was with them. Sam looks back into the other man's face, blinking dazedly, tiredly, and tries to summon even a shred of gratitude for helping him in his panic. But it, too, doesn't come, and idly, Sam thinks that something is really wrong with him because apathy is never a good sign.

A hand comes into his vision, startling him and breaking him from his daze. It comes to rest on his throat lightly, measuring his pulse he realizes; he blinks and it's gone. A few seconds later, he realizes that the buzzing he is hearing in his ears is actually not a buzz but rather, spoken words, and he forces himself to listen.

And suddenly, he's there, sitting on the floor in the workout room, his team surrounding him like a shield against the outside world. His hands are throbbing, his lungs and chest are aching, his head spins with dizziness, and his throat feels grated, like somebody had reached down with a razor and torn it into shreds. He reaches up to touch it instinctively, but somebody gently catches him about the wrist, bringing it softly back down to rest on his knee, and he realizes why the moment he catches sight of it. His hands, both of them, are bleeding, the skin on the knuckles torn and scraped raw by the impact of thinly-wrapped skin against leather. Little trickles of red are drifting across the pale skin and down his fingers, beading on the tips in tiny red drops; as he watches in a detached sort of fascination, one breaks off to fall onto the leg of his shorts.

"Hey, Sam, come on. I need you to answer me, alright? Are you with me?"

He nods absentmindedly, his eyes still locked on the blood.

"Come on, look at me, please."

And because it is Wordy, who's helped him before, because he asks instead of demands, Sam puts all his effort into lifting his eyes back up to meet the other man's. At the connection, Wordy smiled.

"There you are. That's good, Sam. Okay, now I need you to stay with me. Keep focused on me, you got that? Don't try to think about anything and don't try to move. Let us do all the work." The other man gestured to Spike and Ed, who proceeded to get into position to help lift the blonde man to his feet, one on each side behind him while Wordy remained in front, keeping hold of the damaged hands in order to prevent further harm. He addressed Sam one more time with an admonishment not to allow any kind of movement not directed by one of his three supports.

"Remember, no moving. Let us take all your weight, got it?" Sam nods, knowing they're waiting for an acknowledgement and then forces himself to remain as still as possible. Normally, he'd hate being so helpless, so reliant on others, but since he knows he isn't going to be able to get up by himself (and he definitely doesn't want to remain on the mat), there's no other choice but to let them help.

The change in altitude causes his head to swim even more and he swallows the rising nausea as the world tilts. The guys are gentle, though, making what could have been a rather rocky ride into a smooth transition from down to upright. When they let go, they remain close, ready to catch him if he looses his precarious balance. After a few moments without incident, Wordy taps lightly on the wrist within his grasp with his fingers to get his attention.

"Alright, now, let's get these hands cleaned up. You up to showering first, or do you want me to just clean them?" Wordy paused for a moment. "Sam?"

The call of his name jarred his voice loose.

"Shower."

It's not much, but it's enough for some of the apprehension in the room to drain away, and Sam catches sight of a few smiles, albeit small and brief, crossing his teammate's faces.

"Okay then, let's go. But when you're done, you and I are going to have a serious talk about the mechanics of wrapping your hands properly before you attack the punching bag."

And just when they think he's back, when Sam feels like he might be back in reality, everything falls apart.

"Copy?"

It's the wrong move. A single word that throws his mind back into chaos, into smoke and ash burning in his throat as a voice drones into his ear; a single word from a memory that had shattered his world and ripped out the foundations beneath him.

He isn't aware of falling, muscles and tendons going loose as his legs crumble under him, nor is he aware of people barely catching him or of hands cradling his head and neck as he lays supine on the floor. All he's aware of is the sudden onslaught of sensations and pictures, piled up on one another in an unsteady tower of pain and tragedy.

And then he's slipping under again, drowning in the waves, caught in the undertow, too far out and too far gone.

"Copy, Base." His voice sounds hollow to his ears, echoing the one in his head from that horrible mission all that time ago.

"Shit."

"Did he-,"

"No, no, no, no, Sam, stay with me. Come on, you gotta focus on me, hear my voice, hear me, right here, right now."

But Sam isn't in the here and now at the moment.

"You aren't there anymore. It's okay, you're safe. Sam, come on, work with me here."

Silence reigns for an indeterminate amount of time before he hears it again. Desperation and anger have flooded Wordy's voice and he lashes out with the full force of those emotions.

"God damn it, Braddock, you are one stubborn bastard, you know that?"

He isn't sure what gets through, the tone or the words or even the use of his last name. Whatever it is, it's enough to break the endless loop of tragedy playing in his head.

When he comes out of it this time, everything is different.

He's lying on the floor, head pillowed in someone's lap and surrounded by every single one of his teammates. He takes in the sight detachedly, eyes rolling slightly as he tries to register the input of information. Greg and Leah are the two figures standing upright, her eyes darting back and forth between Sam and the door, as if looking for intruders, while Greg's are focused only on the blonde man. Jules and Ed are sitting nearby, Jules resting her hand on Ed's shoulder in comfort while his gaze, like Greg, is fixed solely on Sam. He realizes an instant later that the person cradling his head is Wordy, leaving Spike to be the figure on one knee next to him with his hand on the pulse in his wrist.

Nobody makes a move to touch him except for Wordy and Spike; given their positions, it's unavoidable.

Spike leans forward, flashing a small light into his eyes (where did he get that?), and though it burns, Sam doesn't react. He succumbs to his ministrations; he lets his teammate poke and prod, answers his questions in monosyllabic form and focuses on using every ounce of his slowly slipping control to maintain his hold on sanity.

"Sam? Talk to me. How you doin', bud?"

Turning his head, he stared over at the punching bag on the floor, realizing that, under all the tiredness weighing his limbs down and the white noise filling his head, he still felt numb.

And the only coherent thought that passes through his head is repression clearly isn't the best way to handle your problems.

He needed a shower.

/

The water burned as it danced across his torn fists, the flesh ripped and burned from the force from which he'd hit the punching bag, and blood seeped from the ragged cuts. It flowed across his knuckles, his palms, his wrists, dripping off the tips of his fingers onto the shower floor. He watched it swirl down the drain detachedly, the red turning to pink as it mixed with the clear water until it disappeared from his sight.

If only he could scrub his soul clean like he can his body.

But life doesn't work like that. People make mistakes, people make choices, and the ability to do both is what constitutes free will. And because people have free will, they also have consequences, because you cannot have one without the other. Even though he knows this, it doesn't make it any easier.

The problem with consequences is that a person has to live with them. They don't go away or magically fade into nothing; they stay with people, reminding them time and again of the flaws in their thinking, and of the past that will never be free. For Sam, his consequences are in the form of ghosts, hauntingly silent and silently haunting, and the ghosts of Kandahar refuse to stay dead. But a part of him wonders if it isn't the ghosts that won't lie still, but him, because he cannot seem to let them go. Is holding on to his sins the reason why they haunt him?

Perhaps this is the greater tragedy: that the dead cannot find peace because the living won't allow them to. And this refusal to let go, to cling to things that are long over and people who are long gone, is what brings even the strongest of men to their knees. So why do it?

Because people are selfish. Because they go through their lives expecting nothing to change and when it does, they don't know how to handle it. So they fight to hold on to the things and the people that they lose, and don't care how far they have to go to do it.

Deep down, Sam knows the truth: that letting go of his dead would mean that they are gone forever. If he keeps the guilt close, as a part of himself, then they too will remain with him. The problem came, however, when he'd reached the point where he'd wanted to set them free, to try and move beyond the guilt, but still keep a small part of them within. But he didn't know how to separate it. He didn't know which part was the guilt and which was him and which was them.

So he thinks that maybe that's the point. He needs to stop trying to remove something that is a permanent mark on his soul.

The water falling from the faucet feels like rain falling from the sky, and he sinks into a sound that reminds him of what he'd lost. And he's lost so much, felt every single one that he wonders if there's truly anything else left to lose.

He blinks, and the water is off.

He's dressed before he knows it, his uniform looking even darker against his pale skin. He finds himself standing in front of his locker, and his eyes land on the opened door and the familiar pictures stuck there. A shiver wracks his body despite the heavy heat of the air and he steps back, the urge to run rising. He spins around in order to avoid the pictures, and catches sight of himself in the mirror.

The mirror is fogged from the steam still drifting through the air, making his figure more of a shadow in the reflection. He moves toward it in a daze and reaches out, swiping a hand across the surface in one swift movement. It leaves streaks of smeared water across the glass but he can still see through it to the person he sees.

His skin is pale even in the heat of the foggy air and he can see the dark bruising beginning to form on his throat. The sting against his lower lip is made apparent by the appearance of a large split in the skin; it is surrounded by red and slightly swollen, all which he can clearly see in the mirror.

His uniform is the solemnly dark colors of grey and black, and he is struck by the similarities to himself now and himself past. His SRU uniform differs from his military one only in color, his blonde hair still regulation-short, and his blue eyes are flat, his expression shuttered, as if he is preparing himself to walk out onto the battlefield.

He takes it in, his entire reflection, and realizes that a stranger is staring back.

When his arm moves, causing his hand to brush against the holster buckled around his thigh, and he looks down to see that he had armed himself without even knowing it. And as he touches the gun, he marvels at the fact that the metal is still cool even though the locker room has become stifling hot from the heat of the shower. Putting it back into the holster but leaving his hand to hover over the gun, he looks back up into the mirror.

And his eyes are no longer blank; instead, a dozen different emotions swirl through the blue, and he watches as it shifts from longing to pain to desire before coming to settle on determination.

Because he knows what he needs to do.

He sneaks out of the building, slipping away under the watchful eyes of his team, and sends them a silent apology. He can't face them right now, if ever again, and he thinks that in the end, it won't matter. There's nothing that they can do for him; no actions to take or words that can be said to make this alright. Because it will never be alright, and even though he understands this, knows it down into his very core, he has to try. He goes at it alone because he has to, because he knows that his team would never accept, cannot accept, inaction as an option; that sometimes, nothing is all that can be done. And he is alone because this is the way it has always been.

He decides to go to the graveyard, the one place that houses so much of his pain. There, he knows that he will find a part of what he's looking for, if not all, because a graveyard is the resting place for the dead.

And there are ghosts in his past that need settling.

/

End Part 1.