SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
SalR323
salr323

Future Imperfect

Some strong language again in chapter 16...



Chapter 15

“So,” Matt said, happily watching her walk into the kitchen, “first day back, huh?”

“Yeah. At last.” Sam smiled, although he thought she still looked wan as she reached for the coffee. She hadn’t been sleeping well these past couple of weeks.

Taking the mug from her hands, he shooed her towards a chair. “You’re sure you’re okay? I know you haven’t been sleeping, and the doctor said if you weren’t feeling a hundred percent you could--”

“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Really. This is what I need. I need something to take my mind off…things.”

“Okay,” he agreed, setting her coffee in front of her and heading off in search of the Cheerios. “If you’re sure. I just don’t want you getting too tired. You’ve been exhausted the past couple of weeks and I--”

“Matt?”

He looked over his shoulder as he pulled the Cheerios from the cupboard. “Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

He smiled at her earnest expression. “What for?”

“For putting up with me. I know I’ve been difficult to live with.”

“Oh, that,” he laughed. “Well, I do what I can.” A frown fluttered over her face as he crossed the room towards her. “Hey,” he said, tilting her chin up towards him and kissing her softly on the lips. “I love you.”

She nodded, but her eyes glistened with tears. Again. She was still so emotionally vulnerable, so unusually open with her feelings that he couldn’t help worrying. Sam had always been so strong, so in control of herself and the world around her. He wondered if she was suffering from some kind of post-traumatic depression. “Everything’s going to be okay,” he told her, running a soothing thumb over her cheek. “You’re going to be okay.”

Nodding, she turned away and blinked back the tears. “I’m sorry,” she muttered, pulling in a deep breath and obviously trying to shake off her melancholy mood. “So, what are you doing today?”

Taking a seat opposite her, he sipped at his coffee and watched her start to eat. “I’ve got a meeting this afternoon,” he said. “But I’m gonna skip out if it runs late. I’ll be home by seven.”

Another faint smile crossed her lips. “Thanks.”

“Anytime. You want to get Chinese tonight, to celebrate your first day back?”

“Sounds good,” she said, glancing at her watch. “Talking of which, I need to go.”

“You’ve hardly touched your breakfast,” he objected.

“Don’t fuss.”

“I’m just worried--”

“I’m fine,” she snapped, melancholy turning to irritation as it had so often the past couple of weeks. And then, with another deep, controlling breath, she sighed. “I’m sorry. I’ll get something at work, okay?”

He got up and gave her a brief, warm hug. He wished it could make everything right. “Make sure you do, hon.”

She hugged him back, but it was only a swift squeeze of her arms before she turned to go. “See you about seven.”

“Don’t work too hard!”

She nodded and grabbed her keys off the counter. “You know me.”

He just rolled his eyes, but his humor faded as she left the room and he sank back into his chair full of worry. She still wasn’t herself - irritable, restless, and over-emotional. It wasn’t Sam. And he didn’t have a clue how to help her.

***

Daniel could feel the meaning of the words hovering like distant birds, mere specks against the brilliance of the sun. If he could just focus a little more, just make the right connections, he knew that the writing in front him would resolve before his eyes into something legible and meaningful. The solution was just out of reach, just a heartbeat away, if he could only--

“Daniel?”

The voice from the door scattered his thoughts and he couldn’t help his involuntary tut of irritation. “What?” he snapped, looking up. “Oh! Jack.”

“Am I interrupting?”

Daniel nodded. “Yes, actually. But that’s…that’s… Why are you here?”

With a cautious glance over his shoulder, Jack slid into Daniel’s office and closed the door. “Came to see Taylor.” He glanced around the room, absorbing everything. “You got a bigger office.”

“It’s one of the perks,” Daniel agreed, sitting back in his chair and watching his friend curiously. He was out of uniform, and the black sweater and jacket seemed to accentuate the gray in his hair. He looked tired. “So, Jack, what’s going on?”

Dark eyes turned and briefly met his before sliding away. “I, uh, told Taylor I couldn’t take the advisory position.”

Well that was news! “Why not?”

Jack shrugged. “I’m leaving town. Selling the house.”

Okay. Something was obviously up. “That’s a little…sudden. Isn’t it? I was looking forward to working with you again."

Jack laughed darkly. “Yeah, right.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Oh, come on, you never liked working with me!”

“I did.”

“Did not.”

“Did.”

“Not.”

“I--” Frustrated to have been drawn off track Daniel stopped, drew breath and said, “You didn’t answer my question.”

“I can’t remember your question.”

“Why are you leaving town?”

Jack shrugged, thrusting his hands deep into his pocket and toeing the floor self-consciously with his the tip of his boot. “Because I can’t stay.”

He didn’t really need to say more. The doleful expression on his tired face, the slumped shoulders and the guarded, careful eyes told Daniel everything he needed to know. But he assumed Jack had come here for a reason, even if he would never acknowledge it to himself. Daniel guessed his friend wanted - needed - to talk. He took a deep breath, “Is it Sam?”

For a moment Jack closed his eyes, and then nodded. “I’m an idiot.”

“Not always.”

A smile played along Jack’s lips, but it was too weak to linger long. “She made the right choice,” he said sadly. “I can’t blame her for that.”

“For what it’s worth, I know she cares about you,” Daniel offered. “Deeply.”

“Yeah,” Jack nodded, giving him a tight smile. “Just not enough.” There was no answer to that, and so Daniel chose to remain silent. Jack was the last person to tolerate platitudes and, in his experience, silence was often the most useful kind of conversation. “I guess,” Jack carried on quietly, “it was never going to happen. I mean, if it was going to happen it would have been years ago, right? Not now. It’s too late now.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me too.” Clearing his throat, Jack looked up and Daniel saw the iron resolve in his face. A lesser man would be crushed, but Jack O’Neill soldiered on. Daniel suspected it was the only way he knew how. “Come over some time, we’ll hang out. I’ll be around until the house is sold.”

Daniel nodded. “I’ll bring the beer.”

That vague smile touched is lips again, but left his eyes well-alone. “And listen, if you see Sam…” He frowned and dug a hand back into his pocket, pulling out a folded envelope. For a moment he toyed with it, tapping it against his fingers as if making a final decision. And then, resolutely, he offered it to Daniel. “Would you give her this?”

Daniel took the envelope cautiously, wondering what he was getting himself into. “What is it?”

Jack’s eyes met his, as dark and inscrutable as a midnight ocean. “It’s goodbye.”

He looked down at the envelope, creamy-white with ‘Sam’ scrawled across the front in Jack’s bold handwriting. And his heart ached for his friend, for both of them. “I’ll give it to her.”

“Thank you.” Daniel glanced up, words of sympathy brimming on his lips, but Jack stopped him with a raised hand. “Don’t,” he warned. “Nothing more to say.”

With a sigh, Daniel nodded. That was Jack’s way, it always had been - the way of the warrior crap that had driven Sam nuts.

“Don’t forget the beer,” Jack reminded him, turning with a tight smile towards the door. “I’ll get the snacks.”

Daniel laughed, torn between admiration and pity. “It’s a date.”

And with that Jack was gone, slipping out of his office and out of the SGC for the final time. Daniel sighed, glanced down at his dusty translation and pushed it aside. He wasn’t in the mood for the past, there were enough problems in the present without digging around for more. Picking up the envelope, he stuck it into his pocket and went to look for Sam. Today was her first day back, and he doubted very much that Jack’s letter would make it a happy one.

***

She’d only been away three weeks, but still her office had a strangely alien feel about it. Familiar, yet new, as if everything was slightly different. The dregs of coffee in the mug on her desk were dry, her papers piled where she’d left them before she’d gone home that fateful evening. It was as if her office still existed in her old life, the life when Jack had been bright on the horizon and her world had been full of impossible hopes. But now everything was dark, shadowed by the choice she’d made and the pain she’d inflicted upon him and upon herself. She wondered if she’d live the rest of her life in this gray half-light of misery. She wondered if she would ever feel like herself again, ever smile or laugh. She wondered if she would ever care enough to try.

She sighed heavily, dropping her bag onto the desk and shaking her head to try and clear the gloomy cobwebs. Focus. She had to focus on the job. It had pulled her through countless times before, and she was counting on it doing so again. The job, her work - it was the single constant in her life, the one thing she didn’t screw up on a regular basis. Work, like the mountain itself, would bury her grief until she could face the world without tears.

She sat down and switched on her PC, leafing through the papers in her in-box. There was nothing urgent - obviously someone had dealt with the important things while she’d been away. Taylor, she guessed. Her stomach grumbled and she remembered Matt’s entreaty for her to eat. He was right, she’d never concentrate if she didn’t eat. But her appetite had been feeble since *it* had happened… Not since her abduction, as Matt thought, but since her final meeting with Jack. Her stomach was tied into a knot that refused to ease and there seemed no room for food. But nonetheless she would try. One thing her eight years in the field had told her was to eat when you could, not necessarily when you were hungry.

Leaving her PC to boot up, she headed out of her office and towards the canteen. She passed a number of familiar faces and nodded her thanks to their greetings, but the smile on her lips felt forced and every corridor of the SGC seemed to remind her of him. Of Jack.

It was ridiculous. He hadn’t worked there for four years, but it was as if those four years had been washed away and all she could remember was how it used to be on SG-1 - the banter, the laughter, the loyalty. Back in those days she’d never thought it would end like this, never imagined a time when she and Jack would be strangers. Those golden days had seemed immortal. But now they were long gone and so was Jack. Gone forever, as good as dead. Worse than dead, because she’d driven him away with anger in his heart.

She felt the familiar bulk of tears in her throat and swallowed hard. She would not, under any circumstances, cry at work. Not over this. Angry at herself, she pushed open the door to the cafeteria and forced herself to choose breakfast. She would eat, she would work, and she would not succumb to the incapacitating pain.

Deliberately she did not look at Jack’s usual table in the corner of the room, deliberately she passed by the Jello-O and the cake. Deliberately she piled a Danish and an orange juice onto her tray and paid for them without comment. Deliberately she took the food back to her lab, passing by Jack’s old office without looking at the door, and deliberately she stepped inside and--

Saw Daniel.

“Hey,” he said, rising from the chair where he’d been waiting. “Good to see you back.”

She forced a smile. “Daniel. How are you?”

“Me? I’m good,” he said, watching her with an unsettling intensity. “How are you?”

“Fine,” she lied, not looking at him as she slipped around her desk and sat down.

Daniel sat too. “How are the feet?” he asked mildly, but his scrutiny didn’t diminish and she felt as though he were turning her inside out with his sharp, blue gaze.

“Fine,” she said, concentrating on her breakfast.

He didn’t say more, but she could feel his eyes peeling her as she took a mouthful of pastry and washed it down with a slurp of juice. She wasn’t hungry and the food sat heavily, making her queasy and irritable. “Was there something you wanted?”

His eyebrows rose at her uncharacteristic tone. “Ah, no, not really.”

She glared at the Danish, more angry with herself and her black mood than with him. She was pondering what else to say, fighting shy of an apology for her temper, when he spoke again. “I saw Jack this morning.”

The world crystallized into vivid, abstract lines of shock, and a chill ran up her spine, tightening the skin on her scalp. Jack. He’d seen Jack? He was here on base? Blood rushed to her face and she had to work a bead of moisture into her mouth before she could ask, “How is he?”

“He seemed…he seemed unhappy,” Daniel replied honestly, and his words tightened the knot in her throat. She didn’t know what to say, how much Daniel knew about what had and hadn’t happened-- “He told me,” Daniel said in answer to her unspoken question. “About you and him. I’m sorry.”

Sam’s blush deepened with shame but she forced herself to raise her eyes to his. “What must you think of me?”

His smile was gentle, if sad. “I think you’re probably unhappy too.”

“I don’t know how it got so screwed up,” she said with a sigh. “I always tried to do the right thing.”

“Maybe that’s the problem?”

She fixed him with a look. “Meaning?”

“Nothing,” he replied, shaking his head as he back-tracked. “Um, Jack asked me to give you something,” he said and reached into his pocket. “Here.”

He was holding an envelope out towards her, and she took it with icy fingers. A letter. He’d written her a letter? “Thank you,” she said softly, wishing she couldn’t *feel* him so intensely, just from the sight of her name written in his familiar hand. He’d sent her a letter? Why? What could he have to say to her now? She was frantic to read it, but terrified at the thought of what it might contain. Perhaps the anger she’d seen blazing in his eyes as he’d stormed out of her life? She stared until the black ink seemed to run before her eyes and in the distance she heard Daniel clear his throat.

“I’ll catch up with you later.”

She looked up, surprised to see him already standing by the door. “Thank you.”

“If you want to talk…?” He winced awkwardly and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Well, you know where I am.”

She didn’t answer, her eyes had returned to the thick paper of the envelope and the bold sweep of her name. Jack wrote like he spoke, blunt and to the point. Whatever the letter contained, she had no doubt it would pierce her right to the heart. And so the one thing she knew for sure was that she wouldn’t be reading it at the SGC.

With rigid self-control she pulled open the top drawer of her desk and slipped the letter inside. Later. She’d read it later, at home, where she could give way to the emotions it would provoke far from prying eyes.

The rest of the day passed in an agony of suspense as the hands on the clock crawled around the dial. All she could think of was her letter and what it might say and whether it would crush what remained of her heart. From time to time she pulled it out, fingering the heavy paper and devouring the sight of her name written in his writing. Pathetic. But she couldn’t help it - the letter represented her last contact with him, and for that alone it was precious.

At last the hour crept towards four-thirty and she figured she could skip out without comment. It was her first day back, after all, so she could take a little leeway. With a fluttering heart she closed down her computer and stacked her papers back into her in-tray. She added a couple of things to her ‘To Do’ list for the morning and then sat back and stared at her empty desk. Now was the time, and she found that as it drew nearer her anticipation was transforming slowly into fear. What would the letter say? He must hate her for what she did at least as much as she hated herself - did she really want to read it? But, in all honor, could she avoid it? Whatever he had to say to her, she was honour-bound to hear it. And so, with a liquid stomach, she pulled the letter from her desk and slipped it into her pocket. Just the half-hour drive home and all would be revealed. For better or for worse.

But the half-hour turned inexorably into an hour, and longer, as traffic snarled up on the freeway. Sam cursed softly at the crawling traffic, dragged to a halt by ghoulish rubber-neckers eyeballing the three-car wreck on the other side of the road. And all the time the letter called to her and her stomach churned queasily around the Danish that had sat leaden in her gut all day. She was half-tempted to just rip open the envelope in the car, but was afraid she might find herself having to drive through more tears. And so she waited. And waited. And at last she was off the freeway and skimming through the empty streets towards home.

But it was almost six before she pulled into the driveway and she knew Matt would he home in an hour. Unable to wait a moment longer, she slammed out of her car and into the house abandoning her bag and coat on the nearest chair as she pulled the letter from her pocket and walked into the bedroom.

Sitting on the bed she stared at it again, turning the envelope over and lifting it to her nose as if she could detect his scent on the paper. Her mouth was dry and her hands were cold as she slowly slid her finger beneath the seal and opened the letter. It was a small, single sheet of paper as creamy as the envelope and closely written in his bold, firm writing. Her eyes scanned the letter, picking out words - ‘my fault’, ‘idiot’, ‘I loved you’ - trying to take it all in at once and making sense of none of it. Her hands were shaking and her breathing short and sharp as she stared at the liquid writing, willing it to stay still so she could make sense of it. “For God’s sake,” she hissed aloud, crushing her eyes shut and sucking in a deep breath. “Get a grip.”

Blowing out a sigh, she made herself read slowly and carefully from the top.

Dear Sam
I know you said we shouldn’t keep in touch - and you’re right - but I couldn’t leave things like we did in the park the other day.
I was a jerk walking off like that and I’m sorry. You needed me to understand and I turned my back on you. I don’t handle that kind of situation well - I guess you knew that. But I want you to know that I do understand, and that I think you made the right choice. Matt’s a good man and can offer you way more than I can. And maybe one day I’ll be big enough to be happy for you. But not today - sorry.
I should never have come back to the Springs and I should never have let things go so far that afternoon at my place. I was an idiot. I was an idiot to tell you that I loved you, I was an idiot to kiss you and I was an even bigger idiot to think it had changed anything. But I did. I thought it had changed everything. What can I say? You always were smarter than me.
I’ll be out of the Springs for good pretty soon, but before I go you need to know that I don’t blame you for how things ended between us. I shouldn’t have expected anything different from ‘Major Samantha Carter’ - you’ve always put honor and duty first. It’s who you are.
And you will always have my respect for that, if nothing more.

Faithfully yours,
Jack

Sam had to swallow hard after she’d finished reading. It wasn’t what she’d been expecting. There was anger there, for sure, barely hidden beneath the surface. But there was more self-recrimination than she’d expected. He blamed himself? She was the one who’d dragged him down to the Springs, she was the one who had finally given in and kissed him! She was the one who’d told him that she loved him, and then the very next day told him that she couldn’t see him again. She was the one who had married a man she cared for dearly while she simmered with an unresolved passion for another. She was the one who had screwed up.

She read his words again, the restrained anger and hurt scratching across her heart like fingers on a chalkboard. ‘You will always have my respect, if nothing more.’ Nothing more. She didn’t want to damn him to a lifetime of unrequited love, but the thought that he could feel nothing for her but respect made her sick. Because she knew that she would always love him. Always.

Just thinking about it made her chest clench painfully. She loved him and she’d hurt him and she missed him. Helplessly she pushed herself to her feet and across the room towards the dresser where she kept her secret momentos. She pulled out the photos and his sweater - the one she’d borrowed and would now never return. Pressing her cheek against the soft fabric she closed her eyes and let her tears come. Again. How long would this go on? How long would she be hovering on the edge of this emotional pit? Sinking back onto the bed, his sweater over her lap, she picked up the photos and pored over them, savoring the memories they aroused like a starving woman remembering a feast. That golden day on the beach was where it all began - where the embers of their relationship had flared back into life and she’d begun to realize that he had never left her heart at all. It seemed like an age ago, a fragile moment where the world had been full of possibilities. But now they were all dashed against reality and against her resolute duty. He’d been right about her - she had always put duty and honor first. Like it or not, it was who she was.

But sitting there, missing him so much her lungs burned, she wondered what kind of person it had made her. Had she been so intent on putting duty and honor before everything that she’d lost sight of what was important? If she’d bent the regulations all those years ago, would she be sitting here now as miserable as sin? Would she have broken Jack’s heart? Would her own heart be betraying the love of her husband with each painful beat?

Was Matt paying the price for her rigid adherence to duty? Yes she loved him, but not with the passion she felt for Jack. She never had. Matt had been a refuge from her wild feelings for the colonel, and she’d fooled herself into thinking that safety was what she wanted. But it never was, and although every chance of a life with Jack was over she knew that Matt could never fill the hole he had left in her heart. All she could hope for now was that her regrets wouldn’t turn into a resentment. Because Matt, of all of them, did not deserve the pain she had brought down on herself and the men who loved her.

How long she sat there, staring at the photos and the letter, she didn’t really know. But eventually she was startled from her thoughts by the sound of a key in the lock swiftly followed by Matt’s cheery, “Hello!”

With a thundering heart she snatched up the letter, photos and sweater and pushed them to the back of the drawer. She wiped her hands over her face, hoping that her eyes weren’t too puffy from tears, and was just about to call out when she saw that one of the photos - her favorite, where they were staring into each other’s eyes and she was holding his sunglasses - had escaped her panic. Snatching it up, she slipped it hurriedly into her side table as Matt’s footsteps clumped down the corridor.

“In here,” she said, running nervous hands through her hair. “I’m just changing.”

Matt opened the door. “Hey,” he said, smiling at her as he entered. “How was the first day back?”

“Oh, you know,” she lied, “fine. Boring.”

He held out his arms to her. “I missed you. Come here.”

And so she did, holding him and trying to calm her racing, confused and aching heart. Everything was wrong. Everything was backwards.

The world was upside-down.

***

Chapter 16

At last things were easing up, Matt thought, as he watched Sam back her Volvo out of the driveway and head into the base. She’d been back at work for a month now and although she was still quiet and withdrawn, at least some of her usual vivacity was breaching the surface again. And last night they’d made love for the first time in…well, a long time. He felt as though they’d turned a corner, and that if he just hung in there the Sam he married would break through the shroud that had enveloped her since her abduction.

He smiled, tipped the remains of his coffee into the sink, and headed into his home-office to start work. It was one of the advantages of the job that, when the mood struck, he could decide to work from home. And today was one of those days. He had a couple of proposals to read through, some sales figures to chase and--

Bleep. Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep-bleep.

His cell started ringing bang-on eight o’clock and he cursed under his breath. Communications technology, he sometimes thought, was the curse of the modern world. You could spend all day communicating and never get a damn thing done! He answered the call grudgingly, opening his briefcase at the same time and pulling out the stack of proposals he’d brought home the night before. “Matt Hutchinson,” he said shortly.

There was a pause before a female voice said, “Matt? Hi. It’s Laura Hartstone.”

“Laura,” he smiled, “great to hear from you! How’s the research going?”

“Fine. Thank you, it’s going well.” But she sounded very tense for an author who’s project was going well and his suspicion was instantly aroused. “What’s up Laura? Anything I should know about?”

There was another long pause before she spoke again. And when she did her voice trembled slightly. “Actually there is something I have to tell you,” she said. Matt grimaced and tried not to imagine her $30,000 advance disappearing down the toilet. “But it’s not about the book.”

He frowned, pushing aside the stack of papers and leaning back into his reclining chair. “What then?”

“It’s… I’m sorry, but it’s about your wife. Samantha.”

His heart stammered in confusion as a hundred incongruous images clashed in his mind - Sam had been in an accident, had been taken sick, had been abducted again! But why was Laura Hartstone calling him about it? She didn’t even know Sam. He shook the bewilderment from his head, “I don’t understand, what do you--”

“She’s having an affair.”

The words slammed into him, and like a good left-hook he never saw them coming. “What?”

“She’s having an affair, with…with my ex-boyfriend. With Jack O’Neill. I’m sorry, I just thought you should know.”

Matt was in free-fall and his only parachute was denial. “That’s bullshit. Who the hell do you think you are, making those kind of accusations? You don’t even know Sam and--”

“It’s true,” came the faint voice down the line. “Ask her yourself. It started in Florida - that day they spent together on the beach. That’s why Jack went down to Colorado Springs, to be with her. But I think they were involved before, when they worked together.”

Matt was shaking his head, refusing to accept the poisonous words. “You’re wrong. He was her commanding officer, that’s all. And…and Sam wouldn’t do something like that. She just wouldn’t.”

“Look,” Laura said, her tone sharpening, “if you don’t believe me, that’s fine. But I swear it’s the truth. Ask her yourself. Ask her to show you the photos they took on the beach.”

He blinked. “What photos?”

“Just ask.” She was silent again, and then, “Look, if it was me I’d want to know. But if I’m out of line, then I’m sorry. But I swear it’s the truth.”

It couldn’t be the truth. It was impossible! He hung up the phone and stared out the window into the bright winter sky. Sam having an affair? No way. No *way*! O’Neill hadn’t even been in town until her abduction… Although, thinking about it, he had turned up pretty damn quick. And hadn’t he said something about having been in town already? Not that him being in town meant anything. It was a little odd that Sam hadn’t mentioned it, but maybe she hadn’t known?

And when was she supposed to have been having this affair? She was at work all day and hadn’t gone out for a single evening in weeks. There was the problem of her unusual emotionality, but that was easily explained by the trauma of her abduction. No, there was no way Sam was having an affair. He would know, she couldn’t hide something like that from him. No way. No way at all.

Determined to ignore the very idea, he pulled the pile of papers back in front of him and began to read from the top. But after only a few moments his nervous stomach was distracting him. What on earth could Laura Hartstone hope to achieve by making such an unfounded allegation? Why would she risk pissing-off her publisher? That didn’t make sense either.

But an affair…? He couldn’t believe it. But then he remembered her weeping over their wedding photos that night, shortly after she’d been returned to him. Been returned to him by Jack O’Neill who, now that he thought about it, had been acting mighty strange when he’d taken him down to see her in the mountain’s infirmary. She’d never talked about it, about what had happened or why she’d sat up all night looking at the photographic history of their relationship. But he remembered thinking it was odd at the time - what would their marriage have to do with some psycho who took her hostage?

Suddenly antsy, he stood up and started pacing around the small room. Could it be true? Could she have been considering leaving him? Could she still be considering it? Maybe he should just ask her, as Laura had suggested. Maybe he should call her now… But then he remembered her fragile state and knew that calling her out of the blue and accusing her of having an affair probably wasn’t a smart idea. Even at the best of times she’d rip his head off for that one.

Perhaps he’d just take a quick look through her things? See if he could find the photos Laura had mentioned. See if there was anything to make him take the accusations seriously. He didn’t expect there to be, but if he looked then his mind would be eased and he wouldn’t have to bother Sam with anything.

And he’d drop Laura Hartstone from his books faster than he could hit redial.

***

Fifth sat staring at the door to the small cell in which he’d been imprisoned since his surrender six weeks earlier. Outside he could hear footfalls and readied himself, rising slowly to his feet as the door opened.

The face that peered inside, before stepping fully into the room, was familiar, yet subtly different from the one he remembered. “Hello Samantha,” he said, glancing over her shoulder at the heavily armed soldier who followed her.

She smiled. “Hello Fifth. Ready to go?”

He nodded. “The Asgard have been generous. They have forgiven me.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “They have.”

“What about you, Samantha? Have you forgiven me?”

A flicker of pain crossed her features, and he realized that it was pain that had marked her face since their last meeting. “I have,” she said, but there was sadness in her voice.

He looked at her closely, his mind whirring through his memories of her hidden secrets and trying to match them to the darkness he saw in her eyes. “You are unhappy,” he said out loud. “Why?”

She shifted and uneasily glanced at the man standing behind her. “You can wait outside,” she said.

“Colonel, I--”

“That’s an order Major.”

With obvious reluctance the man withdrew and Samantha closed the door to the cell, turning back to look at Fifth. “I didn’t like what I saw,” she admitted quietly. “I didn’t like the woman you showed me.”

He was surprised by her candor. “And that makes you unhappy?”

She nodded. “I’m trying to be a better person. I guess I should thank you.”

“I only showed you what you already knew,” he told her, taking a step closer and delving into her eyes in pursuit of a truth he felt was hidden. “Tell me, Samantha, how are you trying to be a better person?”

She shrugged and flushed. “I’m… I’m not betraying my husband anymore.”

Curious he took another step closer and she drew back a little, uneasy. “Do not be afraid,” he assured her. “I will not enter your mind. I just…” He reached out his hand and lightly touched the side of her face, feeling a shimmer of emotion coursing into him. He felt her unhappiness, a deep and profound loss, and it dragged heavily through her weak, human mind. “How can you live like this?”

Her eyes were wide and determined. “I have no choice.”

But he shook his head. “No. There is always a choice, isn’t there Samantha? Didn’t you teach me that? There is always a choice, if you are willing to pay the price.”

“Colonel Carter?”

The voice, gruff and heavy, came from outside the cell and Samantha startled away from his touch. “Major?”

“The Asgard are waiting for us in the gate room, ma’am.”

With a curt nod she turned back to Fifth. “It’s time.”

He followed her silently from the room, his mind still full of her sadness. He wondered if he had done this to her. Had he forced her down the wrong path out of anger at her betrayal? Had he shown her a distorted image of her past? He felt the seeds of guilt germinating as he passed the endless gray doors of the humans’ Stargate complex, each one marking the passing of what little time he had left with her.

At last they stopped, Samantha passed a white card through a device on the wall and a large door opened into a vast room. He followed her inside and his eyes came to rest not on the huge Stargate looming above them, but on the small and delicate Asgard standing before it. “Welcome, Fifth,” the Asgard said in his sing-song voice.

Fifth bowed his head slightly. “Thank you, Thor, for your patience.”

“You are very young,” Thor reminded him with a paternal sternness. “You have much to learn.”

He glanced over at Samantha. “I do.”

She smiled at him, an encouraging smile despite the clouds that hovered in her eyes. “We’ll see you again,” she promised.

“I hope so, Samantha. And thank you.” She just gave a short, tight nod as Thor’s small hand reached out to touch his arm.

“Come,” the Asgard said. “The others are waiting.”

With a surprising strength for someone so small, he led Fifth towards the ramp of the Stargate and the shimmering wormhole within. But Fifth walked with reluctant feet, still struggling to think of something more to say to Samantha, something that might put her on the path towards a happier future. He slowed, turning to look at her for the last time. “Samantha?” he said. “Be careful that you do not betray yourself. Your happiness is as important as theirs.”

And with her surprised look fresh in his mind he felt the cold pull of the wormhole and knew that a new chapter of his life had begun.

***

Fifth’s parting words hovered in Sam’s mind for the rest of the day. In a strange way he knew the ins and outs of her messy life better than anyone, and during their last, brief contact she’d felt a definite connection. It was as if he could see into her heart more clearly than she could herself, which - let’s face it - wasn’t difficult.

Be careful that you do not betray yourself.

The words ran through her mind as she stepped out of the elevator and into the cold air of the parking lot. Winter had set in with a vengeance and the morning news had forecast snow this evening. She was glad she’d put her snow tires on a week ago. She jogged through the frigid air and slipped into her car, sparking the engine and waiting for the heating to come on before she started driving.

Be careful that you do not betray yourself. Your happiness is as important as theirs.

But was it that easy? Could she be true to herself and true to the men she loved? Wasn’t it more important to stay true to her word? That at least was objective, even if it meant that her own happiness was sacrificed in the short term. But wouldn’t the ‘right thing’ have it’s own rewards eventually?

She shook her head at the imponderable questions and shifted the car into reverse. The fact was, she’d made her choice and was doing her best to live with it as well as she could. Matt, at least, seemed happy and she had vowed that she would be happy too. She *would* be happy. They’d even talked, again, of starting a family. Maybe this year. It would have to be soon, she knew, because otherwise it would be too late. Her children would be her happiness, the family she had long postponed would fill her life.

The streets were dark as she sped through the early evening traffic, but there were no delays and she was home in less than half an hour. Always a good start to the evening. Matt’s car was in the drive as she pulled up, but she was surprised to see the house in darkness.

Her natural instinct to be suspicious of the unusual sent a practiced bolt of adrenaline rushing through her as she climbed out of the car and headed up to the front door. It was locked and nothing seemed out of place as she turned the key and flicked on the light. “Hello?” she called into the silent house. “Matt?”

There was no answer. With a deepening unease she closed the door and made her way into the living room. She couldn’t see much in the dim light from the hall, so switched on a lamp sitting on one of the side tables.

“Matt!” She jumped with surprise to see him sitting there in the darkness, his blue eyes glistening and his face haggard. So concerned was she by his appearance that she didn’t notice what was strewn across the coffee table in front of him. “Matt, what’s wrong? Are you okay? My God, what’s happened?”

He looked up at her with ice floating in his eyes. “How could you do it?”

She blinked, all confusion. “Do what?”

“I can’t even look at you,” he choked, turning away from her but not moving from the sofa.

And somewhere in the back of her mind Sam heard alarm bells ringing; her heart accelerated and she went cold. “I don’t know what--” And then she saw them, spilled across the table like blood at the scene of a crime. The photos, Jack’s sweater. His letter.

“You must have thought I was so stupid,” Matt grated, and she was mortified to see tears in his eyes. “I mean…to keep these…these *things* here? In our bedroom! In *our* fucking bedroom!” He kicked his foot angrily against the table, scattering the photos until some fell on the floor.

Sam felt the blood drain from her cheeks. “Matt… Oh God, I’m so sorry. I never meant to--”

“Shut up!” he yelled, driving himself to his feet and stalking to the other side of the room. His shoulders were shaking and when he span back to her his face was wet with tears. “How long?” he hissed through gritted teeth. “How long were you…doing it?”

She shook her head as she answered, “No. You’re wrong. We weren’t-- Nothing happened, Matt. I swear, nothing happened.”

“Fuck that!” he shouted, storming back to the table and snatching up Jack’s letter. “I read the goddamn letter, Sam. I *can* fucking read!”

Her head was in a whirl, the words in the letter spinning away from her. What had he written? She couldn’t remember. “I-- We never--”

“What? You never fucked him?” Matt snarled. “That supposed to make me feel better?”

“No, I--”

“You were having an affair!”

The accusation hung on the still air like a tolling bell. He was expecting - hoping - that she would deny it. But she couldn’t. In her heart, she knew he was right. In every way but the physical she had betrayed him.

His angry face turned as gray as ash. “How long?”

She didn’t know how to answer. How long had she loved Jack? She couldn’t tell him that. “I…I don’t know.”

He crushed the letter in his hand and threw it back on the table. “Bullshit.”

“Matt… Look, just listen to me will you?” He was swaying slightly where he stood, very pale, breathing fast and unevenly. He was scaring her. “Come on,” she said quietly, moving towards a chair, “sit down. Let me…let try and explain.”

Sparks flew from his eyes like fiery steel. “You have no right to even ask me to--”

“No,” she agreed, keeping her tone as soft and even as she could. “I don’t. I don’t have any right, Matt. But I want you to understand what happened - and why I’m here now. With you.”

He stared at her for a breathless moment, but she could see his anger fraying at the edges as he moved on stiff legs to the chair furthest from her and slowly sat. But not a single muscle relaxed. He said nothing, just stared at her until she started speaking.

“Jack and I have always been close,” she said, willing her voice not to reveal more feeling than she should. “But we’ve never had any kind of…romantic relationship and --”

“He kissed you,” Matt ground out. “He loves you.”

Sam felt a blush heat her cheeks as she nodded, glancing down at the crumpled letter and remembering his words. “Yes,” she admitted. “He kiss-- We kissed, once. And he told me he loved me.”

Matt’s blue eyes were steady on her, awash with hurt and suspicion. “What did you tell him?”

Her heart catapulted into her throat at the blunt, pertinent question. “I…” Oh shit. “I…I--”

“Do you love him?” He ground out the words like corn through a mill, rough and gritty.

Slowly she found herself nodding. “Yes,” she whispered, refusing to lie to him. “But I love you too. I’m not leaving you, Matt.”

Tears leaked from his eyes. “Why not?”

“Because you’re my husband.”

He stared at her and then looked away, wiping his hands over his face. Standing up he moved towards the kitchen. “That’s it?” he asked after a moment, his back turned. “Because I’m your husband?”

“Yes,” she replied, uneasy with his dismissive tone. “And because I love you.”

He nodded slightly and wiped a hand across his eyes again. When he spoke his voice was firmer, but edged with something sharp. “What if I wasn’t?”

“What?”

“What if I wasn’t your husband? Would you still be here?”

The question knocked her sideways - or rather, her instinctive answer did. No. It sprang out of her heart, guileless and pristine. No, I wouldn’t. I’d be with Jack. Her stomach plunged at the moment of self-revelation, dizzying her with doubt. How could she admit that to him? It was insane. Admitting it to herself made her sick to her stomach. So she lied. What choice did she have? “Yes, I would.”

His head sank in relief, but he still didn’t turn around. Instead he walked into the kitchen and she could hear him rummaging around in one of the kitchen drawers. When he returned he held a trash bag which he wadded into a ball and threw at the coffee table. It landed with a soft thud amid the evidence of her treachery. “Get rid of it,” he ordered.

The demand tore at her heart like nails. Get rid of it? Get rid of the few, meager momentos of Jack? It was all she had left of everything she was giving up for Matt. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t get rid of it. “Matt,” she protested, “please don’t. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just--”

“If it doesn’t mean anything,” he grated, “then put it in the trash.”

She couldn’t. She couldn’t do it. Her mouth was dry, her throat tightening around sudden panic. “It’s all I have. Please don’t ask me to get rid of it. You read the letter - I’ll never see him again. He hates me now!” She bent down and picked up his sweater and one of the photos. “It’s all I have left…”

“Either it goes or I do.”

“No. Matt, please--”

“It’s his *stuff*!” Matt yelled, kicking out at the side table and setting the lamp wobbling. Crazy shadows danced around the room, bouncing off his angry face. “For fuck’s sake - how the hell do you expect our marriage to survive if you won’t even get rid of his goddamn sweater?”

Her fingers knotted in the warm wool. It felt like her memory of him and her heart was tearing apart. Tears sprang into her eyes; Matt was right. She should have gotten rid of everything weeks ago. Keeping it was weak and foolish. And it had already almost wrecked her marriage. If Matt had never found it… With tears spilling down her face she picked up the trash bag and fumbled it open. Crumbling inside as she moved, she carefully placed Jack’s sweater in the sack, followed by each of the pictures, and finally the letter, crushed by Matt’s angry fist - the letter that she’d read almost every night for the past month, the letter full of anger and affection and goodbyes. Her eyes were so blurred with tears that she could make out none of the crumpled words, but as she let the letter fall into the sack she sent out a final, heartbroken goodbye to the man she was blotting from her life. ‘I’ll always love you, Jack. Be happy.’

“Is that everything?” Matt demanded, snatching the bag from her reluctant fingers.

“Yes,” she mumbled, wiping the tears from her cheeks and looking up into his angry face. She deserved his anger, she reminded herself. She had earned it.

But it was only when he’d slammed out of the house to toss the bag into the dumpster that Sam remembered the photograph that had slipped away the night she’d read Jack’s letter. The photograph of her staring into his eyes. She hadn’t seen it go into the trash - it was safe in her nightstand where she’d hidden it. And although she knew she should go find it and cast it out with the rest, the stubborn kernel of defiance in her gut that had always caused her trouble refused to let her move.

It was just a photo. What harm could it do?

***

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