The morning dawned cold under heavy skies pregnant with snow. It was a silent, expectant day and the chill without seemed to seep into Sam’s cold house as she opened her eyes with a sinking feeling of dread. Another day of apology at the end of a week of angry silences. It had been over ten days since Matt had found out about Jack, but like the weather outside the atmosphere was still oppressively icy.
Gritty with lack of sleep, Sam rolled out of her empty bed and into the shower. She didn’t want to face Matt in her vulnerable, undressed state and so washed and dressed quietly before padding into the kitchen. When she’d made the coffee - white, two sugars as he preferred - she headed with great trepidation into the living room. Matt was sprawled along the length of the sofa - he hadn’t slept in their bed since the night it had happened - and she perched on the closest chair, setting down his coffee on the table. He was still asleep. Unlike anyone field-trained, Matt would sleep through anything. And Sam took a moment to study his sleeping face in the dim half-light of the morning.
She hated that she’d hurt him, and she knew she deserved his anger. But the confrontation of the previous week had stirred other feelings too; a silent contempt of his ignorance - how could he *not* have suspected? - a resentment that he’d forced her to abandon her memories of Jack, and a claustrophobic panic that her life was forever tied to this man.
He had a power over her now that he’d never before possessed. She was the betrayer, the adulterous wife who had been grudgingly forgiven. And he would make her pay for her forgiveness, make her sweat out her punishment over the years to come. Of that she was certain, and she had no choice but to endure it because the crime was hers and so were the consequences. But still the thought was oppressive, and sitting in the gloomy room, listening to his quiet snores, the future stretched darkly ahead. This was the life she’d made, she reminded herself, this was where duty and honor had lead her.
Matt stirred, rolled over and opened his eyes. For a moment he looked at her as if wondering where he was, and then she saw the memories surface in his eyes and his face darkened. He sat up. “What time is it?”
“Seven,” she said quietly, pushing the mug towards him. “I made coffee.”
He glanced at it but didn’t move to touch it. “I’m going into the office today.”
He got up, inelegant in his boxers and t-shirt. “Don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Sam sighed at his dismissive tone, but reminded herself that his anger was justified. “I thought we could go out,” she suggested quietly. “Get dinner.”
The gaze he turned on her was baleful. “Out?”
“I thought it would be nice to--”
“For god’s sake,” he snarled, snatching the blanket off the sofa and heading towards the bedroom. “It’s not that easy, Sam.”
She didn’t follow, feeling gauche and inadequate. She guessed dinner was a mistake, but she couldn’t face another ice-box evening staring at the walls. How often could she apologize?
Jack wouldn’t act like this.
The thought sprang fully formed into her mind, complete with an image of him folding her into his forgiving arms. She shook her head at herself. Jack wouldn’t act like this? After she’d married Matt, he hadn’t spoken to her for four years! She was kidding herself; any man betrayed would act like this. And some much, much worse.
She heard the shower splashing but didn’t move from the dark living room. The thoughts of Jack rooted her guiltily to the spot. He was no saint and had faults enough, but try as she might she couldn’t cast him out of her heart as easily as she had cast out his letter. In her mind’s eye she could see his face, the smile behind his eyes and the warmth he disguised with humor and bluster, and she closed her eyes and wished herself to him.
Just for a moment.
Jack surfaced unwillingly from a restless night into a cold, gray morning. The drapes were open - he’d been in no fit state to close them the night before - and the clouds glowered heavy and ominous outside. They reflected his mood well.
He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling, gathering the will to move. He really did need to get up, because the realtor was coming over with another perspective buyer this morning and he needed to make the place look as presentable as possible. He really had to sell; being in the Springs was a slow torture that was eating at his sanity. Knowing she was there, so close but untouchable, was a torment that never eased. I do love you… Her final words taunted him with dashed hopes. She loved him - she *loved* him! - and he adored her. But it wasn’t enough. It had never been enough.
With a growl he rolled out of bed and grimaced at the thudding of his head. Drinking himself to numbness hadn’t worked either, he remembered bitterly. Nothing could get her out of his heart and mind.
He showered, straightened up the bed, threw out the empty Scotch bottle, and made coffee to disguise the smell of whisky. Just as he was taking his first sip the doorbell rang, and he answered it to the bright, cheery face of Bella Johnston, his realtor.
“Hi Jack,” she beamed, with a familiarity that made him cringe. “I have a lovely couple to see your house this morning - Bill and Martina Bandaras.” The couple in question smiled pleasantly and he attempted to reciprocate.
“Come in,” he said, in a voice decidedly more gravelly than usual. He hoped the house didn’t smell like a bar.
“Now this is the entrance hall,” Bella announced. “I just adore the way the stairs lead down here into the living room, and wait until you see the view from the picture window…” Off she trotted, her cheap heeled boots clacking on the floor, flashing the white price tags that clung to their soles with each step. Jack wondered if he should hire someone more up-market.
He did his best to keep out of the way, listening to Bella babble away extolling the virtues of his house. The Bandaras couple were polite, but he didn’t think they’d fallen in love with the place. On the way out, Bella stopped to give him a reassuring smile. “Are you going to be in later, Jack? I may have another buyer who’d like to visit this afternoon. I’ll bring the key if you’re not home.”
“I’ll be here,” he nodded. Where else would he go on a cold, gray winters day in a city that haunted him?
Bella flashed him an over-white smile. “Okay! You have a great day Jack, and I’ll see you later.” And then she leaned closer and whispered, “The coffee aroma is a little clichéd by the way. You might want to try baking some bread to create the right, homey feel.”
Bake bread? What the hell was she talking about? “I don’t bake,” he told her, opening the door and letting in a blast of icy air. “You have a great day Bella.”
Her smile was uncertain, but whether it was due to his surly response or the wisps of snow blowing in the air as she stepped outside, Jack didn’t know. Or care. But he was beginning to consider abandoning his house to Bella’s care and retreating to the cabin until the sale was made. He didn’t think his battered and beaten psyche could stay so close to, and so far from, Sam for very much longer without imploding. And yet something kept him there, an invisible anchor line binding him to his misery.
Perhaps it was his just punishment for loving another man’s wife?
The snow was falling heavily by the time Matt crawled into the driveway. He’d left the office early, not wanting to hit the inevitable snow-bound traffic on the way home. The last thing his sour mood needed was a couple of hours freezing his butt off watching idiots sliding on ice like they’d never driven in the winter before.
And so he reached home while the last of the daylight was lingering in the gray afternoon, but his heart was as heavy as the clouds overhead and home didn’t seem welcoming. Sam’s car was gone, so he assumed she too must have gone into work. But his heart beat suspiciously and he squirmed in his skin to think that she might be with *him*. As he drew to a halt and switched off the engine his wipers flopped to a halt and the snow began to land and melt on his windscreen, soon building up a thin layer of opacity. He shivered but didn’t move, unmotivated to walk into a house as cold as the snow.
She loved another man. She’d kissed another man, given herself to him like a tramp. And not just any man, but Jack O’Neill. What the hell did she see in him? He was old and irritable, bullish and ignorant. He was the sort of bone-headed military bigot Sam hated. What did he have that Matt didn’t? It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t rational. It wasn’t even explicable!
But he saw everything differently now. Sam’s tension when they’d run into O’Neill in Florida made a new, sickening kind of sense - it was sexual tension he’d sensed, not unease. And O’Neill’s eagerness to help find Sam when she’d gone missing made him nauseous with rage… What a damn idiot he must have seemed to O’Neill - the stupid, gullible husband who sent the wolf to save the sheep.
And beneath his fury and humiliation there beat an incessant, bitter pain. He loved her, but she didn’t love him. Not enough to stay loyal to him, not enough to resist whatever charms she saw in Jack O’Neill. He hated her for that, he wanted to rage at her and shake the treachery out of her until her heart bled like his. And he wanted her to hold him and tell him she was wrong, that it was all a mistake and that she’d loved only him. And, most of all, he wanted to believe her.
With heavy fingers he opened the car and stepped out into the icy wind, buffeted fiercely by the snow. A storm was brewing, he could feel it in the whipping wind as he hurried up the stairs and into the silent house. But the storm seemed to linger around him, following him inside with oppressive tendrils.
Dropping his briefcase carelessly in the hallway, he ambled aimlessly into the kitchen and opened the fridge. He wasn’t hungry, it was just habit, and nothing appealed to him so he shrugged off his coat and went back to hang it on its peg. Sam’s jacket was gone. She had to be at work. But he couldn’t shake the suspicion that she was somewhere else and wondered if he should call her. He just didn’t know what he’d say - it would seem obvious he was just checking up on her and he didn’t want to look desperate. So, bottling his suspicion, he headed into the bedroom to change out of his suit.
Typically of Sam, the bed was unmade. It was as if all the military discipline with which she worked unraveled at home and she spilled over into chaos. Matt flung the covers over the bed, irritated at having to pick up after her. Sitting down on the edge of the bed he pulled off his tie and, as he sat, his eye wandered across the room to her dresser and the draw in which he had discovered her lies. The memory made him queasy, the jolt of betrayal still fresh in his mind. Suspicion and envy twisted bitterly in his gut, turning the world brittle with his unresolved anger. He’d never imagined she could lie to him like that, so smoothly and without any apparent guilt.
But she ended it, he reminded himself. Even the letter had confirmed as much. Shouldn’t he be comforted by that? Perhaps, but it didn’t soothe him. She *loved* O’Neill, she’d admitted it. She loved him and she’d kept the momentos of her affair, souvenirs of her betrayal. If she’d truly repented, wouldn’t she have gotten rid of them? If it had really been over, in her heart, would he have had to force her to throw them away?
He sighed heavily and flopped backwards on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. And then he wriggled, feeling something lumpy digging into his back. He sat up and pulled back the covers to find Sam’s bottle of hand cream, guaranteeing 50% stronger nails, hiding in the bed. What was the matter with the woman? What the hell was so difficult about opening the drawer of her side table and dropping the damn thing inside?
With an irritated grunt he did just that, letting the bottle thud into the assorted bits and pieces she kept next to her bed. A couple of books, a magazine, nail polish and--
His heart contracted so suddenly he stopped breathing. There at the back, its edge just visible between the pages of a magazine, was the glossy edge of a black-and-white photograph. He stared at it, cold with dread, knowing in his heart what it was and what it meant. Yanking the magazine from the drawer, scattering the rest of the contents on the floor, he pulled out the photo. It felt like the final nail driving into his heart.
Sam and *him*, sitting so close they could have been in each others arms. She was gazing into his eyes, his sunglasses dangling from her fingers as if she’d just pulled them from his face. And there was such a look of anticipation in her face, so bright and intent, that it broke Matt’s heart. He could see love there, pouring out of the flat image like water from a pitcher.
Numb fingers dropped the photo onto the bed, watching it nestle sordidly in the crumpled sheets. She’d lied. Again. She’d promised that everything had gone in the trash, but instead she’d been sleeping with this next to her bed. How much more was there, he wondered? What other squalid secrets had she hidden around the house? What other lies had she told? Just a kiss, she’d said, but how could he believe her? He backed away from the bed, horrific images of O’Neill pounding into his wife turning his mind crimson with rage and humiliation. How many lies had she told? Had they laughed at him while they screwed? Had they done it here? On his bed?
A growl ripped raw from his throat, and he span away from the picture so fast he stumbled to his knees. He couldn’t look at that smug, old, ugly, bastard face. How dare he? How dare that son-of-a-bitch touch his wife? On hands and knees he gasped for breath, blind with rage and mortification. She’d played him for a fool, they both had. Maybe they she still were? Maybe she was still lying and even now they were together? His fingers touched the edge of the bottle of hand-cream, the slight contact a fuse for his frenzy.
“You bitch!” he screamed, hurling the bottle across the room and splattering its contents all over the wall. He was on his feet in an whirlwind of fury, ripping aside all reason as he kicked out at the side table and sent it crashing to the floor. “BITCH!”
He wanted to hurt her, hurt the world! He kicked again, hard, at the side table until it cracked and splintered under his savage blows. But it still wasn’t enough, not nearly enough to ease the violence of his hatred. Blinded by fury, numb with desolation, he raged from the house and out into the teeth of the storm. Revenge was the only thing on his mind, and it beat like a banshee in place of his cold, dead heart.
The snow was driving blindingly at the windscreen as Sam crawled the last few feet along the street to home. But even at a snail’s pace she could feel the wind buffet her car and was glad she wasn’t on the freeway.
With relief she pulled into the driveway, glad to be home and - she admitted guiltily to herself - glad that Matt’s car wasn’t there. She’d have a little time to decompress before the evening freeze set in. She knew she shouldn’t be thinking such thoughts, that his anger was more than justified and that she couldn’t expect his forgiveness immediately. But she couldn’t help herself - there was only so much self-recrimination a woman could take.
Pushing open the car door against the wild wind, Sam hurried to the house through the heavy snow and fumbled for her keys. She sighed with relief as she stepped inside, the silence and warmth very welcome. With a shiver she shrugged off her jacket and deliberately remembered to hang it up. No point in pissing Matt off even more than-- Hang on, what was his coat doing there?
“Hello?” she called out. But there was no answer.
With a shrug she headed into the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. She was hungry and the snow put her in the mood for something warm and comforting. She grabbed the bread and threw a couple of pieces in the toaster - nothing like hot, buttered toast to cheer you up on a miserable day.
Heading towards the bedroom she almost tripped over Matt’s briefcase, lying in the middle of the hallway. He wouldn’t have gone to work without it - he must have come home and gone out again. She picked it up and set it to one side. Where was he? Unsettled, she carried on to the bedroom. If he didn’t get back soon, she’d call him.
She pushed open the bedroom door, but something was blocking it from opening. A flurry of fear fluttered in her throat as she shouldered the door and heard something slide across the carpet.
“Matt?” she called, sidling into the room.
Her side table lay broken on its side, blocking the door with its contents spilling onto the carpet. The bed was messy and unmade, and some kind of cream oozed down the far wall. But then her eyes fell on something else, something that perhaps her unconscious mind was prompting her to seek out. And there, almost hidden in the rumpled bed covers, was the final photo.
The one she hadn’t thrown away.
She closed her eyes, surprised to feel anticipation flickering through the guilty pounding of her heart. Anticipation and hope. He’d found the photo, the dice were spinning again and the dull certainties of the morning were once more whirling in eddies as violent as the snowstorm outside. And in a sickening flash of insight she understood her sudden hope - it was why she had kept the photo in the first place. She’d wanted Matt to find it. It was her final card, the ace she was using to force him into making a decision she couldn’t make herself.
She wanted him to leave her.
What sort of spineless cowardly bitch was she? Disgusted by the truth, she couldn’t bring herself to answer.
Jack lay drowsing on the sofa, nursing his hangover and eyeing the TV through hooded eyes. He really should move, but what was the point? He had no where to go, no one to see. So he might as well stay prone on the sofa until Babbling Bella returned with yet another hopeful couple to show around the house. Another couple who would smile politely and not return.
He wondered what he was doing to drive people away. It was a pretty cool house, after all. Great views of the mountains, everything in working order, even the yard was in shape. Perhaps he was giving off bad vibes? Laura had been hot on crap like that - ‘vibes’, auras and karma. Who knew, maybe she was right after all? Maybe the depression that infused him had seeped out and into the house itself, lending the place a mood as dark and unwelcoming as his own?
It was as good a theory as any.
His lazy contemplation was interrupted by a vicious gust of wind punching into the windows with a loud thud. Jerking upright he gazed out at the dark, snowy afternoon. The storm was here now, in full force, and he guessed Bella wouldn’t be trailing her clients around his house after all. They’d be nuts to come out in weather like this. He flopped back on the sofa and dug the remote out from under the cushions, flicking through the channels to find something worth watching. He’d just found a re-run of Futurama - certainly not as good as The Simpsons, but okay in a pinch - when someone thudded loudly on his front door.
Bella was braver than he’d thought! Switching off the TV he hurriedly punched the sofa cushions into shape and headed for the door. Maybe it was a good sign that these people had come out in the teeth of a storm? They must really want to see the place.
He pulled open the door, holding it against the sharp wind that blasted into his house. But Bella wasn’t there, instead there was a man looming on his porch, blond hair snow-covered, his thin shirt totally inadequate to the weather. It took a moment for Jack to recognize him as Matt and then--
The fist would have hit him square on the nose if he hadn’t turned just in time and sent the blow glancing off his jaw. But the door flew from his grasp and slammed wide open as a second punch followed the first and sent him staggering into the wall of his hallway.
“You *bastard*!” Matt yelled, slamming shut the door. “You fucking bastard!”
Jack pushed himself up the wall, instincts taking over as he backed away, keeping his hands up. “What the hell are you--”
“She’s my *wife*!” Matt snarled, stalking him along the hallway. “You stay away from her you fucking freak!”
He recognized the ferocious rage in Matt’s eyes, and knew it was dangerous. “Easy,” he said, knowing he could do far more damage to Matt than Matt could ever do to him - unless he was armed. “Come on, let’s not do this--”
Matt went for him again, lunging towards him in a hail of fists. Jack dodged the first blows of the inept assault, but Matt was fighting without reason and a couple of punches landed solid and true. Jack staggered again, spinning away from Matt, still holding back. He didn’t want to hurt the man; despite everything, he was Sam’s husband. And he was right, Jack had been a bastard. “Look,” he said, “whatever you think’s going on, it isn’t. Nothing’s going on. I’m leaving town.”
“Did you touch her?” Matt snarled, prowling closer as Jack backed into the living room.
“That’s not the point, is it? The point is I’m--”
“Did you fucking touch my wife?!” Matt yelled into his face. “Did you--”
“*Liar*!” The fist came out of nowhere, slamming into his jaw and sending him sprawling to his knees. “I read your fucking letter, you piece of shit!”
He was on his feet, but not before Matt landed a heavy kick to his side that sent him crashing into the glass coffee table. He thudded to the floor in a shatter of glass, but twisted back onto his feet in a heartbeat as the glass crunched underfoot. And then the colonel took charge, throwing restraint aside as he circled his enemy. “If you read the letter,” he grated through a throbbing jaw, “then you know it’s over.”
“Over?” Matt spat. “It’s not over.”
“It’s over,” Jack repeated. “Sam ended it, okay? Her choice.”
“You expect me to believe that? You’re a lying bastard!”
“Then ask Sam!” He moved closer, waiting for the right moment. Circling. “She’ll tell you the same thing.”
“She’s a liar too. She cheated on me, remember? She kept--” He choked off his words, his voice thickening with angry tears. “She won’t let you go, you bastard.”
“Sam can do anything she wants. She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever known.”
Matt shook his head, kicking out at the shards of glass and sending them flying dangerously. He looked desperate. Wild. “But she *won’t!*”
“She chose you!”
“It’s not enough!” he shouted, launching himself at Jack, fists flying. “It’s not enough!”
But this time Jack was ready. He seized the flailing arms and with an experienced twist of his shoulder threw Matt off balance, landing him hard against the wall and pressing his forearm across his throat.
“It’s enough,” Jack hissed into Matt’s face, heart racing with adrenaline and anger. “She chose *you*. Twice! It’s enough.”
Matt’s head moved slightly and he choked out his words past Jack’s arm on his throat. “But she *wants* you.”
God! If only it were true, he’d be out the door before Matt knew what had happened. But he knew Sam better, it seemed, than Matt. “She chose you,” he repeated, loosening his hold on the man. “Go home to your wife.”
“…adore the way the stairs lead down into the living room. And wait until you see the view from the-- Oh. My. God!” Both men turned to see Bella Johnston staring wide-eyed at them from the hallway as she took in their aggressive pose and the shattered coffee table. Behind her stood a very shocked couple, open mouthed and speechless. “Mr. O’Niell!” Bella screeched. “You will *never* sell your home with this sort of attitude!” And in a flurry of apologies she was gone.
Jack turned slowly to Matt whose head had slumped back against the wall, eyes closed. Stepping away, still wary, Jack released his hold on him. Matt didn’t move and Jack could see the fight draining from his slack limbs. “I’ve been an idiot,” he whispered without opening his eyes. “I loved her so much.”
The words stung, echoing Jack’s own feeling. “Then be with her,” he said gruffly, almost choking on the jealousy that rose in his throat. “It’s over Matt. You’ve won. Go be with her.”
Matt said nothing, but his blue eyes were empty when they opened and stared at Jack for a long, final time. And then he turned and trudged to the door. He stopped before he opened it and spoke without turning around. “I’m sorry about the table.”
Jack almost smiled, rubbing at the bruise he could feel swelling on his jaw. “I didn’t like it anyway.”
Matt nodded but didn’t speak as he turned the handle and disappeared into the snow-bound evening. And as Jack watched him go he felt as though the last chapter was ending. With everything out in the open, it really was over.
The final whistle had blown and the score was Matt: Everything, Jack: Zilch.
Daniel sighed contentedly. There was nothing like being inside, with a good book and a glass of fine red wine, while the world went to frozen hell outside. He actually liked snow, from inside his apartment. He could appreciate it very well from the comfort of his sofa, and unlike Jack or Sam he felt absolutely no need to strap a couple of planks to his feet and go sliding all over the place.
Snow was fine, outside and on Christmas cards, while he was warm and comfortable reading about the finer points of Phoenician culture. And this really was an exceptionally good cabernet sauvignon. He took another sip and relaxed further, banishing all thoughts of the SGC from his mind until--
Grumpily, Daniel set down his wine and padded over to the intercom. Who on earth would be calling around in this weather? He pressed the button. “Hello?”
“Daniel! Let me in, I’m freezing my ass off!”
So much for a quiet evening. “Come on up, Jack.”
He just had time to stow the cabernet sauvignon and dig out a couple of beers when he heard two loud raps on his front door. He pulled it open and Jack pushed inside, wet with melting snow and bundled up to his eyes. Yanking off his hat, hair standing out in all directions, he said, “You have to call Sam.”
Daniel’s eyebrows rose. “I do?”
Jack nodded. “Right now.”
“Do you want to, ah…” Daniel said, indicating Jack’s jacket that was dripping all over his nice wooden floor. Tutting in irritation, Jack pulled off his jacket and draped it on the coat stand. It was only then that Daniel saw the large, dark bruise forming along his friend’s jaw. His heart sank. “What happened?”
Wincing, Jack touched his face. “Call Sam,” he repeated. “I tried to call her at work, but they said she’d gone home. You need to--”
“Okay!” Daniel replied, holding up a hand to quiet him. “I’ll call her. Just tell me what happened.”
Jack grimaced. “Matt.”
“He knows,” Jack said, flicking Daniel an embarrassed look. “He read the letter.”
Shit. “Does Sam know…he knows?”
Jack rolled his eyes impatiently. “I don’t know! That’s why you have to call her.”
Daniel grimaced, leading him further into his apartment. “Maybe we should just leave it alone, let them sort it out between them. If we interfere--”
But Jack was shaking his head, pacing. “I have to know she’s okay,” he insisted. “Matt was…he was crazy. I’m telling you, he was on the edge. I don’t want him to-- If he--” He rubbed again at his jaw. “Sam can handle herself, but he was wild.”
Daniel’s eyebrows rose again. “He hit you?”
“Yeah, and some,” Jack replied, wincing as he sat down in the chair. His hand pressed against his ribs. “Ow.”
Genuinely concerned, Daniel slowly sat down opposite his friend. “You okay? Do you need a doctor or--”
“No, I don’t need a doctor,” Jack snapped. “I need you to phone Sam!”
Daniel reached for the phone. But before he dialed a thought occurred. “What about Matt? You didn’t kill him did you?”
Jack’s glare was sour. “Funny.”
“I’m serious! You’re special ops trained and he’s…he’s a book publisher!”
“He’s fine,” Jack muttered. “I hardly touched him.” He prodded gingerly at his ribs. “Although maybe I should have.”
Still eyeing Jack, Daniel hit speed dial and waited for the phone to ring. It only rang twice before Sam’s anxious voice said, “Matt?”
“Ah, no. It’s me.”
“Oh, Daniel,” she sounded disappointed. “Hi.”
Jack leaned forward in his chair, straining to hear the conversation. “Ah, listen,” Daniel said, squirming awkwardly, “I think you should know that Matt-- He seems to know about you and Jack and--”
“Is he there?” Sam interrupted. “Is he with you?”
“No. He’s not. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
There was a long pause before she replied. “I’m fine, I’m just worried about Matt. He found out last week - apparently Laura Hartstone told him - and today--”
“Laura Hartstone told him?” Daniel repeated for Jack’s benefit.
The blood drained from his friend’s face, turning it white and rigid with a fury Daniel had only occasionally glimpsed. His heart began to thud heavily - this was bad and getting worse. Jack got to his feet and stalked to the window, staring out into the snow.
“Yeah,” Sam carried on, oblivious. “We had a fight. But I thought-- Well, anyway, today he found something else. A photo. And now he’s gone. I don’t know where he is. He hasn’t even taken his coat, and in this weather…”
“He’ll be okay,” Daniel tried to assured her, although she was right about the weather. It was a bad night for anyone to be out. “Maybe he just needed to, um, get some space?”
“In a snow storm? Daniel, what if he’s--” She swallowed her words. “I’ll never forgive myself if he gets hurt or--”
“Maybe he’s gone to a bar?” Daniel suggested. “You want me and-- You want me to go look? Check out his locals?”
She sighed. “No, don’t. Not in this weather, it’s not safe on the roads.” And then, after a long silence she added, “I’ve messed everything up, Daniel. I feel like my whole life I’ve been making wrong decisions, one after the other. And now I’ve hurt him so badly. And not just him, either.”
As she spoke, Daniel looked over to where Jack stood glaring balefully out at the snow. He looked as screwed up and miserable as Sam sounded. It was a nasty, painful, complicated mess. “You’ve always done what you thought was right,” he told her quietly, watching as Jack’s ears pricked up. However lost in thought he seemed, Jack O’Neill never missed a beat. “What else can you do?”
“That’s the thing,” she admitted, “I don’t know if I *have* done what I thought was right. I mean, I’ve always followed the rules but they’re not always right are they?”
Daniel winced at that, surprised that it had taken her so long to come to that understanding. “No they’re not,” he agreed. “But that doesn’t mean you were wrong to follow them - your intentions were good.”
She laughed dryly. “The path to hell, Daniel.”
“You’re not in hell yet.”
Jack turned from the window as she spoke, eyes fixed on Daniel as if through him he could somehow connect with Sam. Down the phone line she sighed, “Look, Daniel, I gotta go incase Matt calls.”
“Okay,” he agreed. “If you need anything…”
“Thanks. I’ll call.”
“Actually…” There was a hesitation in her voice, a reluctance that spoke of guilt. “Could you-- If you see Jack, could you tell him something from me?”
Daniel’s eyes flashed back to Jack, who was still watching him intently. “Tell Jack what?” he repeated. His friend’s dark eyes widened, utterly focused on the telephone as if it were the only thing in the world.
“Tell him he was right, it changed everything. Tell him he was always smarter than me.”
“Okay,” Daniel said slowly, without much idea what the cryptic message might mean. “He’ll understand that?”
“Yeah. Look, I gotta go Daniel. Thanks. And if you hear from Matt…?”
“I’ll call you. Take care, Sam.”
And she was gone, but Jack was still staring at him like a hungry dog watching a bone. “What did she say?”
Daniel tossed the phone onto the sofa and rose to his feet, coming to join Jack at the window. “She said that you were right, that ‘it’ changed everything and that you were always smarter than her.” He glanced at his friend out of the corner of his eye. “Make sense?”
Jack’s brow furrowed and he nodded slightly. “Something I said in the letter.” Obviously he wasn’t going to elaborate, and his pensive gaze turned back to the whirlwind of snow outside Daniel’s apartment.
“Matt’s not there,” he added when it became evident that Jack wasn’t going to speak again. “I guess he didn’t go back after he visited you.”
Jack rubbed a weary hand over his face. “I hope he hasn’t done anything stupid.”
“Probably in a bar somewhere, rat assed.”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Thanks,” he said, “for calling her. I didn’t want to call her at home incase…”
Daniel nodded. “Probably a good idea.”
Jack moved towards the door, snagging his heavy coat from the stand. “I’ll see you around.”
“You’re leaving? It’s a blizzard out there. Stay for a while. Have a beer.”
But Jack shook his head, brow furrowed and his whole body jittery with nervous tension. He looked like he was about to face an army of Jaffa. “I can’t,” was all he said. “I’m too…” He shrugged, failing to find the right words. “I just need to go.”
Daniel gave a small nod - at times like this, Jack’s restlessness was a force impossible to contain. “Be careful.”
He gave a tight, unhappy smile. “You know me.” And with that he opened the door and quietly left. After a moment Daniel turned back to the snowstorm blowing outside and wondered whether to retrieve the cabernet sauvignon. But the cozy mood had dissipated; Jack had brought the storm inside and Daniel couldn’t shake its chill.
The hands on the clock ticked inexorably towards midnight and Sam sat in the semi-dark living room watching them with a maudlin fascination.
He’d been gone seven hours. Seven stormy hours filled with snow and uncertainty. It left seventeen hours until she could report him missing. Her mind flitted through images of his car crumpled at the side of the road, or of him face-down in the snow, drunk and slowly succumbing to hypothermia, and she made a silent pact with a god she only occasionally believed in. Bring him home safe, she implored, and I swear I’ll make him happy. Just bring him home.
But God remained silent, as he always did. Occasional belief, she figured, didn’t count for much in the world of the divine. She sighed and got back to her feet, anxiety churning relentlessly as she paced, too nervous to sleep. Too guilty to rest.
Her life floated in tatters around her, like the ragged remnants of a once grand ball-gown. So much promise, so much anticipation and expectation had been bound up in its elegant fabric and sparkling jewels. Her glittering career, her extraordinary adventures, and her precious friendships had all been woven into the weft of her life. And now they were unraveled, ripped apart by the choices she had made. For a decade she’d placed her career and ‘the job’ ahead of everything else - she’d married Matt because he fitted the picture so much better than Jack had ever done. He was the stable, attractive, pleasant man who anchored her and gave her the hope of a future with children and a life beyond her frenzied work at the SGC.
But that had never been a good enough foundation for a marriage, and at the first sign of trouble the whole unstable edifice was crumbling. And she could have endured it, accepted the consequences of her mistakes, had it not been for the fact that she was bringing Matt and Jack down with her.
Fifth’s words came back to her again, her constant companions over the past weeks. Be careful that you do not betray yourself. Your happiness is as important as theirs. And she knew his advice had come years too late. She’d already betrayed herself, every time she had denied the truth in her heart. How long had she loved Jack O’Neill? Eight years, maybe? For eight years she had denied it, turned her back on a profound truth and now she was paying the price. They were all paying the price.
How noble she’d felt all those years ago, sacrificing her love for the greater good. How romantic it had all seemed. But it was neither noble nor romantic, it was simply a lie. Her whole life with Matt had been based on that lie. And the lie had destroyed everything. Her only hope for salvation was that Matt would come back to her, safe and forgiving. And that, together, they could move on and she could salvage something from the tattered remnants of her once beautiful life and make it work. Make the lie work.
If he came back to her. If he wasn’t freezing to death in a crumpled car, his blood the final stain on her conscience. Sam shivered, and for the third time that evening she found her car keys in her hand as she grabbed her jacket. And for the third time she stopped at the front door. What if he called? What if the police did? What if he came back and she was gone? He’d think she was with Jack. And what were the odds of her finding him anyway? He could be anywhere in the city, or beyond. And the storm wasn’t easing. She could do no good crawling through the icy streets, staring through a fogged windshield for Matt’s car - as impossible to find as a needle in a snow-drift.
She closed her eyes and let her car keys fall to the floor. She had to wait, she had no choice but to wait.
“Come home, Matt,” she murmured into the silent house. “Please come home.”
But he didn’t answer.
The constant flip-flop of the windshield wipers was dangerously soporific as Jack crept along the snow-bound street towards the fifteenth bar he’d visited since leaving Daniel’s. And he was still stone-cold sober. Cold, being the operative word. Despite the aggressive heating in his rental car, the sub-zero temperatures in the small hours of the morning left him chilled to the bone as he finally pulled into the large and mostly empty parking lot.
He drove around in a slow circuit, scanning the cars. Nothing. With a sigh he slowed at the entrance, searching his mind for another likely spot, when his eyes came to rest on a dark shape in the far corner of the lot. Low, sleek and covered in snow. He threw his truck into reverse and headed towards it. The car had obviously been there for hours, given the snow piled on its roof and windows. But the license plate was still visible and Jack felt a sharp burst of relief when he recognized it.
Pulling in next to Matt’s car, he killed the engine. He’d found him, at last. Or at least his car. If Matt wasn’t in the bar then things could be serious. Grimly, he pushed open the car door against the weather and stepped out into a crunch of snow. Dragging his hat low over his face he stomped across the parking lot towards the bar entrance. As he approached a tall man, bundled against the weather, pushed out of the bar trailing a little music and light into the white night. He nodded to Jack and Jack nodded back as he caught the door and stepped into warmth and noise.
It was large and impersonal, lit dimly by lamps in the booths and on the tables, while country music twanged in the air. Balls clicked on a pool table in one corner, but Jack paid it little attention as he walked further into the bar and began scanning its customers. Mostly men of a certain age, out drowning their sorrows at the end of the day. Or at the beginning of the next, however you saw it. He pulled off his hat and gloves and shrugged off his coat in the humid heat of the bar, his eyes probing the darkest corners of the room until they stopped at one of the furthest booths. He had to squint to make sure, but there, sprawled headfirst over the table, was Matt Hutchinson. An impressive array of shot glasses were scattered across the table, his head resting amid the debris. He was either asleep or unconscious, Jack decided, as he made his way to the bar and ordered a beer. And he was responsible; he’d reduced him to this state. Something to be proud of, huh?
He ordered a beer and held the bar keeper’s attention with a look. “That guy over there,” he said in a low voice, “is a friend of mine. I need to make sure he gets home okay.”
The bar keeper, a plain blunt-faced man, glanced over at Matt. “What is it? Woman trouble?”
Jack grimaced. “Something like that. Look, I’m gonna call him a cab. You got a card or something, so he knows where his car is in the morning?”
The barman nodded and produced a business card from beneath the counter. “You want me to call a cab? I know a firm who’ll take guys in his, uh, state.”
Jack gave him a thin smile. “Thanks. Appreciate it.”
It took a good half hour for the cab to turn up, and Matt didn’t move a muscle the whole time. Jack watched him intently, reminding himself over and over that this was the man Sam had chosen. Whatever the meaning of the message she’d sent via Daniel, she had still chosen Matt. Whatever else their kiss might have changed, it hadn’t changed that fact. She had chosen Matt, she wanted her marriage to work, and he was there to send Matt back to her. It was a slim reparation for the damage he had caused, but it was all he could offer.
“Someone call a cab?” The voice came from the doorway where a man stood dusting snow from his heavy coat.
“Over here,” Jack called, grabbing his own coat and heading towards Matt. “I’ll get him.”
Jack approached Matt warily. “Hey,” he said, keeping his distance. The last thing he wanted was another fight. But Matt didn’t respond. “Matt,” Jack called in a louder voice. Still nothing. So, moving closer, he shook the man’s shoulder, gently at first and then more vigorously. “Hey, Matt. Come on, wake up. Time to go.”
Blearily Matt half-lifted his head, but there was no recognition in his drunken, blurry eyes. “Wha…?” he murmured, his head starting to sink again.
“Time to go,” Jack repeated, tugging on his arm to get him on his feet.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Jack agreed, pulling harder until Matt was forced to stand. “Come on, cab’s waiting.”
Zombie-like, Matt staggered towards the door and the waiting cab driver who looked at him with a resigned displeasure. “Don’t puke in my car,” he warned.
Matt just blinked.
“Where’s your coat?” Jack asked Matt. Drunk as he was, he’d freeze his ass off in just a shirt; many a drunk had frozen to death too out of it to know they were cold. Matt’s response was incoherent, so Jack slumped him down on a chair and forced Matt’s heavy limbs into the sleeves of his own coat. It was a little wide across the shoulders and tight across the stomach, but it would do the job. He glanced up at the cab driver. “Give us a hand, will you?”
Between them they manhandled Matt across the icy parking lot and towards the cab, pouring him into the back seat and shutting the door. Handing the driver a hundred bucks, Jack said, “Make sure he gets inside, okay?”
The money seemed to brighten the guy considerably. “Will do.”
As the cab pulled out into the snowy street, Jack followed in his car. Initially he intended to go his own way once they reached the freeway, but somehow he didn’t. After all, he thought, he really should make sure Matt got home, just in case the cab driver’s good will couldn’t be bought for a mere hundred dollars. If he could just make sure Matt got inside then he’d know he’d be okay. Sam would be there, she’d take care of him.
His stomach tightened pathetically at the notion of being taken care of by Sam. How ironic, he thought bitterly, that while Matt was drowning in alcohol-sodden misery Jack actually envied him! And while it was certainly prudent to make sure Matt didn’t end up face down in a snow-drift, Jack couldn’t deny that the chance of seeing Sam - just glimpsing her - one last time was a powerful motive in following the cab back to her house.
And so as the cab pulled up into Sam’s driveway, Jack stopped his truck on the street and killed the lights. Waiting in blackness he watched as the cab driver pulled Matt from the car and helped him stagger to the front door. His chest tightened around his heart in anticipation as he waited. One last time, he told himself sternly. He’d see her one last time and then it would be over.
The cab driver rang the bell and almost instantly the door whipped opened in a flood of yellow light. Sam stood there, burnished in gold, reaching instantly for Matt in heartfelt relief. “Thank God!” she exclaimed, her voice faint over the distance. “I was so worried!” One arm slipped around Matt, helping him stagger into the house. “What do I owe you?” she asked the cab driver.
“Nothing, ma’am,” he assured her. “The guy at the bar settled up.”
Even from the road, he could see the curiosity in her bright eyes. “Which guy?”
“Didn’t catch his name, ma’am. Tall, grayish. Forties.”
Sam’s eyes closed a fraction of a second too long for a blink, and she said thank you. But her voice was too quiet for him to hear. As the driver hurried back to his car, Sam moved to pull her door closed. But at the last moment she glanced out into the night as if she knew he was watching. He felt her eyes wash over his dark car for an instant, and then she turned and was gone.
The soft click of her closing door rubbed like a burr at the loss he already carried. The pleasure of seeing her was barely worth the pain of saying goodbye again. But it was done, his last duty had been fulfilled. Matt was home where he belonged and unless he was the world’s biggest fool he’d be staying there. Who wouldn’t stay, when Sam’s arms welcomed you home?
“You’re a lucky bastard, Matt Hutchinson,” he told the dark night. “The luckiest bastard alive.”
The day after the storm passed in silence. Outside the snow lay heavy under threatening skies, deadening every sound and leaving the world mute and gray. Inside, nothing but the ticking of the clock on the kitchen wall and the sound of Sam’s soft footsteps stirred the air.
Matt kept to the bedroom, nursing his resentment alongside his hangover.
But at last, as the afternoon faded into evening, Sam heard the shower splashing in the en suite. Half an hour later Matt appeared in the doorway to the living room where Sam sat staring out at the dying day.
“Hey,” she said quietly, uncurling her legs and sitting up nervously straight. Matt looked pale, dark rings sunk his tired eyes and his shoulders slumped wearily. He didn’t say anything, just came and sat down heavily in the chair next to the cold fireplace. “Can I get you something?” she offered. “Coffee? Maybe some--”
“I don’t want anything.” His voice was thick and gravely, spent. He stared out of the window and after a moment said, “I don’t remember how I got home, but I do remember why I left.”
Sam winced, and although she knew it was utterly inadequate she felt compelled to say “I’m sorry.”
Matt’s expression didn’t change. “I’ve always known that I loved you more than you loved me. I mean someone like you… I knew I was out of your league but I--”
“Matt, don’t. I--”
He talked right over her. “I never realized there was someone else. I never *thought*--” He shook his head, eyes dipping to stare at his hands laying still in his lap. “I never realized I was your second choice.”
His words hit home like smart-bombs, deadly accurate. Sam’s mouth dried as she tried to formulate a soothing platitude, but for once she seemed incapable of lying to him or herself. “I didn’t realize either,” she admitted. “I was…I’d spent too long trying to live up to other people’s expectations. I didn’t know what I was feeling.”
“And now?” he asked, raising his eyes to hers. “Do you know what you’re feeling now?” Fingers of anxiety curled into a fist in her gut and she didn’t know how to answer him. The truth was too harsh, too impossible to admit. She couldn’t find the words, didn’t know what to say. Matt looked away, frowning at her silence. “I thought about leaving,” he said in a harsher voice. “I thought about just packing a bag today and walking out. But then…” His gaze was on her again, less weary and more angry. “Then I thought, that’s exactly what you want me to do. Isn’t it?”
“No.” The denial was instant. And false. Hadn’t she already come to the same conclusion?
Matt obviously didn’t believe her. “That’s why you kept all that stuff in our bedroom. You wanted me to find it. You wanted me to leave and make it easy for you, right? Walk out so you can go running to him?”
“I never meant any of this to happen. I hadn’t talked to him for four years and I--”
“I’m not leaving,” he blurted. “If you want to be with him, then you have to go.”
“I already told you,” she said, her own anger building. “I’m not going to leave you. You’re my husband and I owe--”
“You owe me the truth,” he snapped. “If you stay, it has to be because you love me. And only me. I won’t be second choice any more.”
Panic pushed Sam to her feet. He was driving her to the edge, taking away her cozy compromises, refusing to allow her the comfort of doing her duty. Blindly, she struggled to hold onto the middle ground. “I don’t want to leave you, but you can’t expect me to just stop caring about Jack. I can’t--”
“And you can’t expect me to live with that!” He was on his feet too, his face heavy with resentment. “I won’t do this anymore, Sam. You’re my wife! I won’t share you.”
“But I’m not seeing him anymore!” she insisted. “I told you that. It’s over. Whatever it was, it’s over and--”
“Bullshit. You still love him. You said so last week!”
“But I’m not *seeing* him!” she protested. “What else can I do?”
“Stop loving him.”
“I can’t just stop--”
“I can’t accept that!”
The room rang with silence in the wake of his words and Sam felt her mind reeling. Everything was falling apart. She couldn’t leave him, it was wrong. It was terrifying. “But I love you too.”
Matt shook his head, blue eyes splintered with anger. “That’s not enough.”
“Are you telling me to leave?” Her heart was racing, face flushed with panic and confusion.
“No. Don’t try and put this on me, Sam. You screwed it up.”
“I’m trying to fix it!”
He stared at her, his eyes softening for a moment in a flutter of hope. But then they hardened once more. “You can’t fix something that never worked.”
“It worked,” she protested. “We were happy.”
“Were we?” He moved closer, she refused to back away and he didn’t stop until he was right into her personal space, angry and intimidating. But she held her ground. “How could you have been happy with your second choice?”
Her voice came out short and harsh. “It wasn’t like that.”
“Did you think about him?” Matt pressed. “Wish I was him? Imagine I was him?”
She pushed past him, but he grabbed her wrist and held her back. “It was all a lie, wasn’t it? Our whole marriage.”
“No!” She yanked her arm out of his grasp and backed away, rubbing at her wrist. “I loved you Matt. And I still want to make this work - I meant it when I said ‘till death us do part. You’re the one pushing me away!”
He laughed, a dark miserable sound. “Oh, you’re such a martyr! Poor Sam, sacrificing herself for duty and honor.” He barked another bitter laugh and turned away, stomping towards the window. “You really think I could live with you, knowing that you were only here because you’re too damn afraid to leave?”
“I’m not afraid!” she shot back angrily. “I’m trying to do the right thing!”
“I don’t want to be the ‘right thing’!” He span back to her, simmering with hurt and a need to be understood. “Don’t you get it? I don’t want you to stay because you *have* to, I want you to stay because you *want* to.”
And with a bolt of understanding, she knew he was right. That was the crux of it - why did she want to make her marriage work? Because she wanted to be with Matt? Or because it was the right thing to do?
Their eyes met and held for a long time as she nodded in slow understanding and sat down on the sofa. Her mind was a whirl of disorder as she gradually began to realize that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons just wasn’t good enough. It was all very well to honor the vows she’d made before her family and friends, but in doing so was she condemning them both to a life of duty and not love? Her feelings for Matt were warm - although tainted now with guilt - but they stood no comparison with the love she’d long felt for Jack. Where Matt was steady and tranquil, Jack was unpredictable and exciting. Her love for Matt was as comforting as baggy sweats and cocoa on a cold evening, but her love for Jack was as intense and uncontrolled as a solar flare. It burned with a heat she couldn’t ignore. And it brought her to life even as its power threatened to overwhelm her.
If she stayed with Matt she knew she would be living with that fire, damping it down but never extinguishing it. For four years it had smoldered untended, but in all that time it had never died. And she knew without doubt that it never would; the sun would go cold first.
She looked over at Matt, still standing by the window staring at her with hurt eyes in his soft, sad face. Guilt made her nauseous and she longed to run from the moment and the truth she had to speak. But her sense of duty, if good for nothing else, was enough to make her stand her ground and tell him what he deserved to hear. “I don’t know what Jack feels about me anymore,” she said, remembering his bitterness the day she’d told him it was over. “But I don’t think I can ever stop loving him. If I stay, that will always be part of me.”
Matt’s eyes fell from hers and he seemed to sink into himself, diminishing in size. “You can’t expect me to live with that,” he whispered in a voice choking with tears. “You can’t expect me to live with you, knowing that you love him more-- That I’m still the second choice.”
“I know,” she nodded, gathering herself and rising to her feet. “I know I can’t.”
Tears stood in his eyes when he lifted them to her again. “You’re leaving?”
She tried to swallow around the sour mix of guilt, regret and remorse in her throat but it was impossible and her voice came out as a whisper. “I think I have to.”
He said nothing, turning away as silent tears escaped. She felt physically sick and ached to reach out and comfort him. But she had no comfort to offer. She didn’t even have the right to try. And so silently, under a pall of disgrace, she walked into the bedroom and began to pack.
It was over. Her marriage was over.
And she was alone.