Prompt: Sam/John. "The last to fall were the buildings, distant and solemn, the gravestones for an entire world." (Partials, Dan Wells)
Latin. "We are forever"
It was hard to believe even when seeing it. From orbit, the once blue planet had been shrouded in grey. Down on the ground, everything was covered in ashes and dust. If it hadn't been for the puddle jumper's HUD, he'd barely be able to see anything.
Not that he really wanted to see what the world had become. A place so filled with life, now devoid of it. Nearly seven billion gone, just like that. He could only hope they'd had a quick end. Reports hadn't been kind in that regard.
Radiation. Firestorms. Toxins. Those who hadn't managed to get out or sought shelter in the first wave, would've faced anarchy and chaos in the second. Whatever contingency plans governments had prepared for catastrophes would've gone out the window in the apocalypse.
Imagining it, John's fingers clenched upon the controls.
Outside the puddle jumper's windows, the world began to create shapes out of the greyness. Ethereal at first, then solidifying as he descended closer to the ground. The first familiar sight was a forest, but not one he recognised. Each tree was twisted, blackened, split in half or crumbling into dust. The ground was a mix of black ash and grey dust, like a blanket of snow in winter.
He'd heard the term nuclear winter many times, but never thought he'd see one for himself. It hardened his insides.
With great familiarity, John closed himself off from what he saw. Focused only on the HUD, on the feel of the puddle jumper as it soared through the air, on the few landmarks below him that he could use for extra confirmation.
When he finally reached his destination, he spared his surroundings only a cursory look. Then, after setting down the puddle jumper, he walked to the back and began to put on the Atlantis EVA suit he'd brought, as well as a large bulky backpack. He shut the front compartment, then opened the hatch onto the wintery scene he'd seen from the air.
Minutes later, his footprints were the only signs of life in this location. Everything else was dead. The trees, the buildings, the debris, the remains… John tried not to think too closely on the latter as he passed them. Tried not to imagine their desperate trek towards the same opening in the mountain that he was aiming for. How they must've tried to outrun the four horsemen, succumbing either to toxins, radiations or exhaustion.
He focused singularly on the opening in the mountain. Held up his Ancient life-signs detector, confirming what Atlantis had picked up from space in their planet-wide search. There was energy on in the facility within, as well as a single life sign. Human. At least fifty yards down.
It should've lightened his steps, but it didn't.
With a stone in the pit of his being, John pushed open the outer bunker door and lumbered slowly down the long sloping hallway until it bent further inwards. According to ABC protocols, he should've scraped off the worst of the contamination here before entering the next chamber, but removing his EVA suit was out of the question. He'd had to hope the quarantine protocols within would be enough.
So long as he got in, of course.
John approached the last heavy-duty bunker door and the wall-mounted radio next to it. Confirming the life sign once more, he sighed and picked up the radio.
"Sam, I'm here."
No answer. Like all the other times they'd tried to contact the bunker.
That voice again. His voice. Except John was sitting right there, in front of her, so whoever was outside had to be some kind of impostor. Or, as everything else, just a figment of her imagination.
"Shouldn't you get that?" John raised an eyebrow and winked at her. "Sounds like a really handsome dude."
Sam chuckled weakly and shook her head. "It's just in my head. Like you."
"So? Never stopped you before." He rose to his feet, walking over to the wall-mounted radio in the control room they were in. His fingers ran over the metal, tapping it lightly. It came to life again.
"Sam, come on." The other John's voice sounded desperate. "Pick up the radio or open the door. I'm freezing my buttocks off out here."
John smirked. "Think you should take it. Poor bloke doesn't deserve being kept on tenterhooks."
Meeting his gaze, Sam bit her lower lip. Every nerve in her body was trembling. Paralysing her. She'd only felt that way a few times before. When she'd faced Anubis's Kull warrior. When she'd faced Fifth. When she'd faced the end of the world.
She'd promised herself she'd never feel that way again. That she wouldn't let anything make her feel that way again. If she responded to those hails, though… Tears flooded into her eyes.
"I can't," Sam said and rose to her feet. Not looking at the radio, or at John, she stormed out of the control room.
Nothing seemed to work. Beating down hard on the practice dummy with his bantos sticks, John could feel that fact drive every angry little motion in his body. Whatever the hell he did, whatever the hell he said, nothing got her to pick up that radio.
He'd half begun to believe the sensors were all wrong. That she had to be dead and someone had taken to wearing her transponder like some twisted memento, which was the only way to account for why it was still moving around down there.
The part of him that believed that wanted to beat someone half to death, if only to make that terrible gut-wrenching feeling within him go away. But all he had was a practice dummy and a faceless enemy, so here he was.
Night after night.
Teyla's voice sounded from the doorway of the gym. Quiet, calm, and penetrating his skin as it always did. Delving into his depths whether he wanted her to or not.
It was annoying.
John gritted his teeth and twisted on the heel of his foot, delivering a double blow to the dummy. "I'm fine."
She never believed that. Nor did he, but that was another matter entirely.
"I'm sorry," Teyla said, quiet again. Solemn. Whatever she was apologising for, however, John didn't want to hear it. Didn't want to acknowledge it. "I know it must be painful—"
Even he could hear his own snappishness, and he knew it wasn't deserved. Ever since they'd received the message from Earth that they were under attack and sending whatever refugees they could, she'd been there for him. Day or night. A gentle word, a sparring partner, a friend. Someone who knew exactly what stakes he had in all this. Correction: the only one who knew. And he hadn't even needed to tell her.
Another annoying fact.
With a yell, John gave the dummy a series of hits, chest aching with pending exhaustion, air short and hot, skin covered in sweat. At the final blow, he stood there, heaving for breath, eyes narrowed, bantos rods at his sides, and desperately wished he had a face for the dummy.
Instead, Teyla stood next to it, forcing herself into his line of sight. It broke his spell. Blinking his eyes, John straightened, wiped sweat from his brow, and moved resolutely away to the rack where he could put away the rods.
"Let me come with you next time, John."
"No, I need to do this myself." He picked up a water bottle and downed nearly half of it in one gulp. Heart racing, he met Teyla's gaze. "It has to be me."
Teyla didn't respond. Didn't sigh. Instead, after staring at him for a long time, she simply approached him, grasped his shoulders, and offered her forehead in that traditional Athosian gesture. An acknowledgment.
It was almost enough to make him smile.
"This is getting kinda ridiculous, you know." Crouching down outside the tent fort, John peered in through the opening. "You can't stay in here forever. It isn't healthy for you."
Staring into the roof of the tent, Sam chuckled brokenly. "That's not what you said before."
"Things change," John said. His voice had grown more resolute lately. Harder, almost. Certainly annoying. "You're not alone anymore."
Sam's lower lip trembled. "Yes, I am."
It's just my imagination—it's just my imagination—it's just my—
"You don't really believe that," John pointed out. Down on all fours, he slipped into the tent and plopped down onto his back next to her. She hardly felt the impact anymore. Nor his warmth.
It made her throat clench painfully.
"I'm not going to be around forever, you know." John's voice grew even solemner, the baritone rumble echoing even less than it'd used to, yet still burrowing deep beneath her skin. Familiarly. Comfortingly. "But that other guy, he's real. He's not gonna go away."
"They all go away," Sam said, tears welling up in her eyes.
Images of her friends – her family – flashed through her mind. Some had been ages since she'd seen, before the end. Others had been after the end, but before this bunker. Each memory was a gaping wound, echoing hollowly in her chest. Cam's laughter. Vala's jokes. Daniel's smiles. Teal'c's hugs. Jack's eyes…
A ghostly touch trailed across her hand. She looked up into John's gaze, her vision blurry. His outline was washing out like blots of aquarelle paint. Merging into the background. Disappearing.
"Don't go," she whispered, throat clenching hard with restrained sobs.
John smiled. "It's the only way."
Faced with the bunker door and the radio again, John tried not to feel. Tried not to despair.
It was hard.
With a heavy motion, he picked up the radio…sighed…and spoke. "Sam, it's me again."
He stared at the closed door and then closed his eyes, trying instead to picture her as he'd seen her last. On the platform in the Atlantis gate room. Smiling and saying she'd soon be back, he just had to hold the fort until she did.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here when..." He sighed again. Words felt empty, leaving him with only one possible option. Platitudes and condolences. Stuff that never felt enough when it counted. At least not for him. "I'm sorry."
John took his finger off the transmitter button, counting the seconds…then the minutes. Then he opened his eyes and looked around him, imagining not for the last time how it must've been in those frantic, desperate days that'd cause her to come here – alone.
The way he saw it, she must've been forced to do so. She'd never have gone down willingly. Like he'd learned in that alternate reality many years ago, Colonel Samantha Carter would've gone down guns blazing, sacrificing herself for the needs of the many, crashing her ship into the enemy's if need be. So, if she was here alone, someone had put her here.
Then again, maybe she and her friends had agreed to rendezvous here, and she'd been the only one to reach it before the final end. That, on its own, could've been such a devastating blow that wouldn't let her open that door. But he had no way of really knowing.
That's what really terrified him.
And it's also why he couldn't give up.
Tears streamed down Sam's face as she clutched her legs tighter to her chest. The concrete was cold at her back and her buttocks had long since fallen asleep, but she really didn't care.
All she cared about was the voice on the wall-mounted radio. The voice that'd left her and could only be heard on that device. A disembodied voice that could just as easily be another figment of her imagination.
The voice sighed again. "Look, Sam… I'm not going to go away."
Sam pressed her eyes into her knees, attempting to stem the flow she no longer managed to hold back. Unwillingly, John's face swam to the surface of her mind. The familiar look when he sighed. The familiar look when he then met her gaze. As if she was being really stubborn and he was trying to make her realise that. Or as if the pain he felt was too difficult to articulate, and only meeting his gaze could make her see that.
"Might be annoying to you to hear my nagging voice up here every day, but you better get used to it." The voice let out a slight chuckle.
The John in her mind's eye switched a sigh to a smirk and a quick wink, his expression playful and equally as familiar as his pained one. Sam struggled not to chuckle herself. Struggled not to let herself feel. To be carried away. She'd already burnt herself on that.
"I don't care how long it takes," the voice said more resolutely. "One day you'll open that door…and I'll be here when you do."
Sam buried her face deep into her palms and curled into ball upon the concrete floor.
Deep within, she knew he was right.
When the door finally opened, John thought for a second that he'd been transported into some kind of alternate reality. A waking dream of sorts. He held the radio tightly in his hand, staring at the slowly widening gap in the door and expecting to see some alien, strange face appear in it.
No one appeared, so he had to put away the radio and approach it himself. Slowly, hesitantly, as if he might step upon a time-delayed bomb or booby-trap. His heart began to beat rapidly against his ribcage, anticipation rising alongside a sudden burst of adrenaline.
There was no one within the antechamber, however. But he guessed that could all be part of the ABC decontamination procedure: minimise contamination. At least there had to be someone within the bunker. The door couldn't have opened on its own.
Closing the door and sealing it behind him, John waited until the air had sucked back into the room before he proceeded to take off his EVA suit and backpack. He left it in the antechamber and walked into the next one. There, clothes and a towel had been laid out, so he discarded his own clothes and got into the decontamination shower.
After dressing, he approached the last door that'd lead to the main bunker, but his hand paused upon the handle. Suddenly, he didn't want to open it. Didn't want to see, have his bubble burst, or—
What're you waiting for, idiot?
Heart hammering in his chest, John pushed the door open and stepped out onto a walkway. Below him, at least four flights of stairs disappeared into the darkness. There was no one on them, causing him to check his corners…
And there she was. Pressed up against a door leading to an escape hatch. Trembling all over. Eyes wide. Lower lips stuck between her lips. Tear tracks on her cheeks. Thinner, paler, gaunter – but still her. Still Sam. Beautiful, clever, hurting Sam. Alive. Alone.
"Sam," he breathed. His chest ached painfully, his limbs desperate to move.
A sob burst past her lips. "Are you real?"
John's neck tensed. Something desperate lined her voice. Something painful. Something that made his voice hushed, his steps slow. "Last time I checked, yes. Every part of me."
She squeezed her eyes shut, pressing herself tighter against the door to the escape hatch and shaking her head in disbelief. He wanted nothing more than to pull her into his arms and squeeze her tightly, never letting go.
"Here." He held out his hand, half forgetting to breathe. "Feel for yourself."
Sam opened her eyes, stared at the hand, frozen. Then, breath stumbling, her arm shaking, hesitating, she reached out to touch it.
And collapsed into his arms when she did. Broken, relieved and desperate.
John never let go.
Each step was slow, careful, as if treading on holy ground – or afraid to trip and fall. Like always, she expected the ground to feel fragile and felt disconnected when it wasn’t. No matter what had happened, it remained firm beneath it all. Even as everything else had turned to dust.
She’d chosen her moment just as carefully as her steps. Had found a vantage point that could’ve been a popular tourist attraction once – before Earth fell. Before people fell. Before the trees fell.
The last to fall were the buildings, distant and solemn, the gravestones for an entire world. Sam watched the moment through her EVA helmet visor – the silent collapse, the silent weight of achievement, greed and inevitable downfall all rolled up in one - until the ash and dust blanketed everything in shades of blacks and greys.
She remained in the haze: tears on her skin, eyes blown wide, limbs frozen in place. Time passed. The ash fell. The world fell.
Then it all faded away, and she looked upon John’s face instead. Grey-haired, wrinkled, but with a touch of fierceness in his gaze…and something softer. As always.
Silently, he held out a wrinkled hand and clasped hers strongly. She let him help her off the platform and then linked her arm closely with his. Standing still for a moment, she rested her head on his shoulder, eyes closed. His thumb brushed across her wet cheeks and his lips pressed a kiss upon her brow. She exhaled deeply.
“Thank you,” she said eventually.
John simply nodded, held her closer, then began to guide them out of Atlantis’ holographic room, past the queue that’d lined up outside for the anniversary, and back to their quarters.
Back to their home. Their family.