The house was silent except for the hum coming from the fridge in the kitchen. Sam crept across the tiled floor in her socks and pyjamas, careful not to wake the other occupants. Her eyes scanned the work surface for the pot that she knew housed the back door key, and once found, soon placed it into the lock and slipped outside.
The air was mild, a little on the cool side maybe, but not something she wasn't used to. Granted there wasn't a camp fire to provide any heat and she was normally in something more substantial than striped cotton trousers and a strappy top. But then she was normally on another planet somewhere, watching out for bad guys.
She found a deckchair still out on the lawn and, after adjusting it slightly, laid back to stare up at the stars. They shone brightly, with no cloud to mask her view, and Sam almost thought they were taunting her. Either that or giving her one last show.
She traced the constellations in her mind, willing her mind not to wander. She'd come out here to... to what? She knew it was the burden in her heart and mind that prevented her from sleep, and not jet lag or the pull-out bed that she had just vacated in the den. She wondered what her brother would think if he woke up in the morning to find her asleep in a deckchair in the middle of his garden.
Gingerly, she pulled a cigarette out of the packet she'd bought at the airport, placing it between her lips before cupping her hands to light it. She leaned her head back and watched a trail of smoke waft up to the stars above her. The fumes that hit her lungs threatened to choke her, but she refused to cough, stubborn in her ways to punish herself for something she wasn't quite ready to face. She swallowed down the overwhelming feeling in her chest, before finally releasing a breath through her nose.
Her eyes stung but for some reason she didn't care. And maybe that was the point anyway.
She hadn't had a cigarette in... Well so far back she couldn't remember.
She remembered trying one for the first time. When she was a teenager and peer pressure was rife. Her father was away a lot and she knew he kept a packet stashed away in his room. She'd only stolen one so that when it came to smoking one at school she would look like she knew what to do. She wasn't counting on it making her throat burn or her lungs lurch the way they did. The appeal was instantly lost and at the time she couldn't grasp why anyone would want to do something when they didn't even like it.
She'd smoked a few since then but never more than once in a blue moon. Mainly when others in the Air Force offered – normally when she was far away from home, where the skies were lit up with fire fight and the heat that filled her chest was somewhat a comfort. There were other times, like now, when it was just some random impulse that she couldn't quite fathom, and she could never even finish more than one.
She looked at the stick in her hand, squinting at it with an odd pique of curiosity, before taking a long drag on it and stumping it out on a patch of grass beside her.
Just another thing she did that she didn't quite understand.
She looked up at the stars again, their brightness becoming somewhat blurry. She took a deep breath and blinked. The pain in her chest hadn't gone away. Suddenly, she realised what the point of buying the packet was for. Not that it had ever worked, she realised now...
The back door creaked quietly behind her, and it wasn't until she heard a shuffle across the grass, that Sam realised she was no longer alone. Her brother pulled up another deckchair beside her and sat himself down without saying a word.
They glanced at each other in silence for a moment, before Mark nodded to the somewhat full packet that sat in her lap.
"Smelt the smoke..." He said, somewhat an explanation for him being there.
Sam glanced at the packet and the stumped out cigarette. "I don't normally smoke..." She said.
Mark gave her a small smile. "Didn't think you did..."
They sat in silence for a moment, and Sam felt her eyes being drawn back up to the stars again.
"Can't tear you away, huh?" He motioned to the stars above with his own head, before reaching for the packet resting on her stomach.
Sam merely gave him a look as she chucked him the lighter. "I'm here aren't I?"
Mark lit his cigarette, and then adjusted his chair, leaning back to mimic his sister. The smell suddenly made Sam's stomach curl, but she said nothing as she bit her lip and willed her body not to betray her. Mark gave her a long look before flicking away some of the ash.
"Sorry," Sam mumbled, realising her tone was harsh and that the words that tumbled out weren't really what she had wanted to say.
"You could have brought Pete with you, you know?"
Sam paused, holding her breath. "I know," she almost sighed.
Mark turned his head to face her. She astutely avoided his gaze.
"I'm not in love with him."
She surprised even herself, the words appearing loud and calm as they escaped into the midnight air. It felt strangely liberating to have them escape, and yet the suffocating feeling she had been experiencing for days now, still clung onto her chest.
"I thought I was..." Sam took a deep breath and continued to stare up at the sky. "But there's a difference between loving someone and being in love with them and..."
The cigarette was left to burn silently in Mark's hand. "Sam..." He didn't know what else to say. "You can't force yourself to love someone..."
The pain suddenly shifted from her chest to her throat. Sam felt the tears build up in her eyes and yet she continued to blindly stare up at the night sky as though it held all the answers. Strangely enough, she felt it did. She was clinging onto something that had been her life for several years, something that she loved and couldn't bear to leave. And yet she knew that all the while she had still been yearning for something else. Someone else, if she was honest with herself.
"What happened?" Mark asked softly. Sam couldn't help but turn to face him at the sound of his voice. "Last time we spoke, you were happy."
A few tears tumbled down her cheeks and Sam merely shook her head. "You wouldn't understand."
"Everything I do is classified..."
Mark studied her face for a few moments. "And this has caused problems between the two of you?"
Sam shook her head again. "That's not what I mean..."
Mark pursed his lips.
"I lost my best friend not that long ago... Cassie's been coping okay and I thought... Pete's been great, he really has but..."
Almost subconsciously her mind flicked back to her first day back from the mission. The visions that Fifth had implanted in her mind were lingering just beyond reach and the minute Pete mentioned a trip away to the country, something inside her snapped.
"Will you just stop?"
Her words were too loud, her arm suddenly pausing in mid air, faintly gesturing at him in some sort of accusation.
Pete merely stared at her hand, before turning his eyes to her face.
Sam closed her eyes and pursed her lips before pulling her hand back swiftly. "It feels like you're smothering me..."
Sam cringed at his stutter. "All this... need to look after me, to pamper me, it's... suffocating..."
"Suffocating..." Pete echoed again. Sam merely bit her bottom lip and stared at her hands. "Sam, you were missing for several days! You come back acting all weird... God knows where you've been or what happened!"
"I just told you what happened."
Pete studied her face for a moment. "No," he said, his voice now quiet and calm. "You told me that something happened... off saving the world again... and if no one came back hurt or missing, how different is that to any other time you do this?"
Sam couldn't answer him. The truth was someone had got hurt and someone had gone missing... only she'd trekked across the galaxy to save him and now he was back on Earth, safe and sound... And so why was she still upset?
She bit her lip and shook her head, avoiding Pete's gaze. She didn't have an answer to give.
"He got one of his mates to do a background check on me," She said, coming back to reality.
"Pete?" Mark asked.
Sam nodded her head. "Part of me was so angry when I found out and yet the other part..."
"Was simply glad for the fact that he cared enough to want to figure you out?"
She bit her lip, eyes still stinging. "Why is it...?" But the words got stuck in her throat, part of her unsure if she had a right to try to place blame on her past. Mark seemed to hear her silent question anyway, as her eyes sought his in the darkness. "Every relationship I've had has ended up being a disaster..."
Mark snorted. "Me and Dad were hardly good role models, were we?"
Sam shook her head, careful not to let any more tears fall. "Could you ever imagine me talking to Dad about boys? He would've killed every one of them..."
Mark let loose a humourless laugh. He shook his head from side to side, a slither of smoke spilling from his mouth as he did so. He tapped the cigarette again, watching the ash fall to the ground before stumping it out and turning in his seat to face his sister. "You were the first person I told after I asked Kelly to marry me."
Sam felt her eyes widen, her breath suddenly caught in her throat. Her chest tightened again, only this time for a different reason. "I didn't know," was the only thing she could think of to say.
Mark merely shrugged in response. "You're family..."
A long sliver of silence filled the air and Sam hastily added a quiet "Thanks," desperate to fill the void. "I mean it..." She continued.
Mark caught her gaze and nodded silently. "What about that guy you were going to marry?"
Sam frowned. "Jonas?"
"Yeah..." Sam sighed. "Like I said... disaster."
"He...I..." She shook her head and took a deep breath. A faint sad smile was on her lips when she glanced at her brother next. "It wasn't about either of us falling out of love... I guess that was why, at the time, it all hurt so much. Some may say that we simply grew apart, but in reality I guess it was more than that." She turned away and stared at a patch of ground beneath her feet. "He was turning into someone I didn't like, someone I couldn't respect... He tried to use how I felt about him to try and manipulate me, and ultimately, that turned me into someone I didn't want to be either..."
A beat of silence hung in the air. "It got nasty, didn't it?" Mark asked. "Kelly suspected... neither of us knew how to ask you at the time..."
"Yeah well we were hardly on great speaking terms at that moment in time..."
Sam simply shook her head. "I got out before it could get that bad," She added, piercing her brother with her gaze. "He just... He saw something, out there... " She waved her hand in the air. That act alone reminding her of why she was out here in the first place. She snapped it back to rest on her stomach. "It changes people sometimes..."
"It's no excuse," Mark stated. Another few seconds of silence filled the air and Mark studied his sister as she in turn studied her feet. "You ever hear about him? You know, what with you both being in the Air Force?"
"Yeah," Sam squinted over at her brother. "He followed me to Colorado." Mark's eyebrow silently rose into his forehead. "Died not long after... mission went sour..."
The mood changed, leaving Mark not knowing what to say. What did you say when some guy who hurt your sister ended up dead? Both pairs of eyes automatically gazed up at the stars again.
Pete. What could she say about Pete? He'd never done anything wrong. Except the background check. And she'd still been willing to sweep that under the carpet, despite the fact that she knew, had it been anyone else or any other time in her life, she probably wouldn't have stood for it. Guilt. That was what it was, she surmised. Guilt for allowing him to fall in love with her when she already knew deep down that she was in love with someone else; could never love him the way he wanted her to; the way he deserved to be loved, just like everybody else.
"Do you remember when I told you that my job is more than just star gazing?"
Mark glanced back at her, part of him wondering about the sudden change in subject, before nodding his head. She'd told him once that she did covert missions that sometimes took her out of the country for stretches at a time. At first, he almost thought it was an excuse for not visiting as much; not believing her until he noticed that the numbers of medals on her uniform were rapidly increasing.
"Something happened on my last mission." She paused, uncertain of how much she could say without delving into classified territory. "I was... injured, while trying to save a member of my team..."
"I was unconscious most of the time. I kept... dreaming... or hallucinating... You remember that farmhouse we visited when we were kids?"
"Great Aunt Mable's?" Mark asked. His eyes were narrowed, still studying her, wondering where this was all leading to. "The one in Montana?"
Sam nodded. "Yeah... I kept seeing it in my dream. I was trapped there with Pete. None of it felt real somehow..."
"Because it was a dream?" Mark prompted, his words half statement, half question.
"Because I realised that I should have been happy hanging out with Pete in the countryside instead of..."
"Instead of what?"
"Instead of thinking how wrong it was." Sam sighed silently to herself.
Mark's eyes merely swept up and down her body, checking for signs of injury no doubt.
Sam pursed her lips, trying to capture his gaze. "I'm okay," She added, struggling to tame the quiver in her voice. From the look on her brother's face, he didn't believe her anyhow. "My team saved me. We were back in Colorado a few hours later..."
"Just like that?" Mark asked, his tone holding a hint of something she couldn't identify.
Yes, he'd always been a bit sceptical and wary of the military, what happened with their parents couldn't change that, but they'd mostly stayed on good times throughout their lives. Their biggest blip was when Sam was leaving the academy and heading out to fight in the real world. Mark hadn't understood why Sam would want to follow in their father's footsteps, putting her own life at risk given their mother's untimely death. Sam meanwhile hadn't wanted to question anything about anything she was doing, providing she was enjoying it. Which she was.
"Just like that."
Sam awoke the following morning, her chest heaving and sweat dripping down her back. She sat bolt upright in bed, the remnants of a scream still ringing in her ears as tears pricked in her eyes. The knock on the door revealed that it wasn't just in her head, that it was all murmured out loud, and Kelly appeared from the other side, head trapped between the door and its frame.
"Want some breakfast?" She asked, instead of voicing the words she had wanted to say. It was obvious that Sam had had a nightmare without pointing it out.
Sam had nodded, and after a quick shower had joined Kelly and Abby, her niece at the kitchen table.
"Mark and James have gone to soccer practice," Kelly announced. She poured Sam some hot coffee and plonked a plate of toast in front of her, almost daring the other woman to protest. Sam opened her mouth to do just that, but promptly shut it again when she saw the look in the other woman's eyes. Kelly was bringing up two children after all. "I need to drop Abby off at a friend's, before doing some shopping. Want to come?"
Sam used the food in her mouth as an excuse not to respond, instead faking a smile and nodding her head in submission.
Abby had disappeared in no time and Sam soon discovered that Kelly didn't really need to do any shopping after all.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Kelly asked, swirling a wooden stick around in her paper cup as they sat at a table on a sidewalk outside a coffee shop.
Sam paused momentarily. "About what?" She stirred her own stick around and used it to fish out her tea bag.
Kelly shrugged. "The nightmare. Or Pete. Both... You choose."
Sam glanced at the other woman's face. Her sandy brown hair was tied back, but slithers of it still fell around her ears, framing her face. She was a similar age and Sam couldn't contemplate being happily married with two kids and a good job and how that all worked without dropping the ball somewhere.
"Mark told you?"
"About Pete?" Kelly merely scrunched up her nose slightly. "He just said that you were thinking about breaking up with him."
Sam stared at the tea in her cup. "I only went out with him as a favour... I didn't... I didn't expect it to...carry on like it has..."
"Sam..." Kelly leaned into her sister-in-law. "If you don't love him, then give him the boot!"
Sam's eyes widened and she stared Kelly in the eyes. "I thought you liked Pete?"
"I do! I just don't think he's the right guy for you... And you obviously don't think so either, or you wouldn't be out here moping about it."
Sam bit her lip and merely shrugged her shoulders.
"I'm serious!" Kelly continued. "Life is too short to carry on with someone if your heart's not in it. And what if you meet some else, what would you do then?"
The fact that Sam studiously ignored Kelly's gaze was a big giveaway.
"I don't want to talk about it," The words left her lips before she even had a chance to realise what she was getting herself into.
"Is there someone else?"
"I would never cheat on Pete," Sam replied. Her words almost sounded rehearsed even to her own ears.
"That's not what I asked," Kelly merely hit back.
"Sorry," Sam sighed, "It's just that it's..."
"Sam, every relationship is complicated. Mark and my relationship has hardly been a walk in the park..."
"Seriously?" Sam frowned.
"Hey," Kelly pointed her stick at her, "No changing the subject."
"I'm serious," Sam replied. "You and Mark always seem so...solid..."
"Well," Kelly shrugged. "I guess we are, now... but that doesn't mean that it has been easy." Her eyes flicked back to Sam's. "Mark thinks that you believe losing your Mom has had its affect on you forming relationships..."
"Be blunt about it, why don't you?" Sam muttered.
"I'm just saying that it had a big effect on Mark forming relationships, too, okay?" Sam merely peered up at the other woman's eyes. "You know, people always make a big deal about Mark and your father not getting along, but they forget that all of that stems from the type of relationship that he had with your mother."
Sam pursed her lips, head tilted, eyes narrowed. She couldn't remember much about Mark and her mother. She knew he must have memories of his own, but all she could remember of them interacting were of family events, of them all together.
"You know," Kelly began, her voice all soft and dreamy this time. "I almost didn't marry him because of that."
"Because of what?" Sam almost whispered.
"Part of me thought he was only asking me to marry him because he wanted a family so badly... that he needed to be loved by somebody... that he simply wanted somewhere to belong..."
"What changed your mind?"
"The little things..." She smiled to herself. "Made me realise he really meant it, despite everything else..." She sighed. "I guess it's what keeps us together now, truth be told... that and the fact that I love him, of course."
"Of course." Sam barely squeezed the words out.
Kelly's own words merely echoed in her mind.
"You should see someone."
Sam glanced over at her brother, his words sounding loud in the cool night air. They were sitting in the back yard again, unlit cigarettes sticking out of their mouths despite the fact that neither of them smoked. Or liked it for that matter. They both knew it too.
"About the nightmares," He added casually.
Sam sighed. "I've seen the base shrink already..."
"And he signed you off?"
"Bar some instructions to rest from my normal doctor, yes... I wouldn't be cleared for duty otherwise."
Silence filled the air again and Mark finally lifted the lighter up to his cigarette. Sam watched the spark turn red, the smoke drifting upwards. Feeling her eyes on him, he turned, studying her for a few seconds before chucking her the lighter.
"Is there someone else?"
Sam turned the object around in her fingers before ignoring the man sitting a few feet away, and lit her own cigarette in some form of defiance.
"Is there anything you and Kelly don't talk about?"
"Of course," Mark shrugged. "We're married." But his dry humour failed to spark a smile upon his sister's face.
Sam took a deep breath, her eyes suddenly stinging. But it didn't help, and she took a deep drag on her cigarette, letting it engulf her lungs. It was only when it made her choke, tears breaking their dam, that she sat up and flung it out of her hands, disgusted with herself about what she was doing, how she was using it to keep pushing everything out of her mind.
"I thought I'd lost him..." She whispered. The tears began to flow more freely now and although she'd began to wipe them away, part of her knew there was no point.
"What are you talking about?"
Sam felt her lip tremble at the softness of his voice. "On that last mission? I let it cloud my judgement and..." She faltered, forcing herself to take a deep breath. "I can't do it anymore... The fraternisation rules are there for a reason..."
"Air Force?" Mark forced the words out of his mouth.
She bit her lip to stop it from quivering. "I haven't done anything wrong," She said, finally. "Neither of us has." She looked up as Mark met her gaze. "You have no idea how much I love my job – I would never jeopardise that."
Mark merely nodded. "I know... I may not know everything about you, but that I do know..."
"I didn't want this to happen – you have to understand that."
It was almost like she was pleading with him, and Mark could see the pain in her eyes. "I believe you..." His voice was soft, almost like a whisper.
He automatically reached for the packet of cigarettes again, sticking one to his top lip, the moisture keeping it there while he contemplated lighting it. He glanced over at Sam and the tears on her face, and thought better of it. He chucked the unused cigarette away, making a mental note to pick them up at some point before his kids could find them.
"Does this guy feel the same?"
Sam nodded. "At least I think he still does... We haven't talked about it much since... well Pete...not that we talked about it much to begin with... Except..."
"He said he wants me to be happy with Pete..."
Mark shook his head. "Sam, if this guy loves you, he's not happy about you being with Pete."
Sam pursed her lips. "Yeah... that's what I figured..." She sighed to herself.
"Have you spoken to anyone else about this?"
Sam turned her head, looking him right in the eye. "Everyone else is military Mark, I mention I have feelings for another officer and my life goes up in flames..."
"So," Mark stared back. "What? You've been toying with this on your own for God knows how long?" Sam's silence gave him his answer. "And no one's noticed?"
"I wouldn't say that..." Sam bit her lip.
Mark's eyebrow simply rose. "Don't ask, don't tell is still the motto then?"
"Mark..." Sam warned. His voice was sounding more harsh and bitter as the conversation went on. The man simply shrugged. "You think any of this has been easy?"
"No, I didn't mean-"
"Then what did you mean?"
Mark merely sighed. "I thought you came here to figure this stuff out?" He asked impatiently.
Sam didn't answer and turned her head away.
"I'll still love you, you know..." His voice was quiet and Sam had to strain to hear him. "Whatever you decide... just... just don't push us away this time..."
Pulling her bottom lip between her teeth, Sam risked a glance at her brother, tears threatening to fall again. "Okay..." She whispered.
After several long periods of silence, Mark got up to leave. After hesitating for what felt like an eternity, he placed a kiss upon the top of her head, before rustling her hair and walking away. "Night," he called quietly, leaving her sitting alone in the darkness.
Sam glanced at the half empty packet of cigarettes. "Night," she called back.
She watched the ball sail through the air, James's legs running across the grass to the other end of the garden and Abby's squeal as she scrambled for the ball before her father could catch it.
Somehow her family managed to put everything into perspective for her. Despite the fact that Mark has been giving her that look, the one he's been giving her for days now. Pity and understanding all rolled into one. They hadn't talked much about things before. It surprised her that they were talking about it now. She was trying to heal herself, the only way she knew how.
Janet's face came unbidden, unrelenting into her mind. Tears suddenly sprang into her eyes, and she shook her head, conscious of the fact that she was lost in her own world while the rest of the family played on.
Her reverie was broken by the shrill sound of a phone ringing. Sam gazed into the house, her cell phone bleeping in its familiar tone. It had taken a quick glance at her sister in law, before she felt the courage to pick it up. Reality was returning and maybe in more ways than one.
"Carter," She'd answered after taking a deep breath.
Her sigh of relief was almost audible. "Sir?"
"You okay?" He asked, concern clear in his voice. Then, almost tripping over his next words, added, "Cassie mentioned that you'd gone away for a few days... I just wanted to make sure that you're okay..."
Sam slid into a kitchen chair, the joy at hearing his voice mingled with all the uncertainty she was feeling. "I'm okay..." She replied, her voice soft. There was a pause as they both tried to ignore the lack of truth in her words.
She almost thought she could feel him nod his head. He cleared his throat instead. "Family okay?"
Sam glanced out of the window, at the figures running in the sun. "Yeah..." She knew he couldn't work out if it was her need to escape or her need to make sure that her family were safe, that drove her here.
"Good..." There was another awkward pause, and Sam bit her lip, heart pounding. "It gets better, you know..." His voice was barely audible and Sam closed her eyes, savouring the sound.
"I hope so," She whispered back.
The pause this time was comfortable, and she felt herself wanting to make him stay on the line longer. Only words failed her and before she knew it he was saying goodbye and making her promise to call when she was back so they could all meet up for drinks.
"Jack..." It was her heart's last ditch attempt, and she hadn't meant to voice his name. He paused but didn't correct her. Her breath hitched, and the words she wanted to voice didn't come. "Thanks," She said instead, and he seemed to think that was enough, as he told her she was welcome and hung up the phone.
And as her heart soared over the sound of his voice, all she could think about was how Pete hadn't called.
Sam poured two fingers of vodka into two glasses and doused them with ice and lemonade to disguise the alcohol. Wandering back outside, she placed the second glass in front of Kelly and watched as the woman's eyes bulged out of her head as she took a gulp.
Kelly swallowed a cough and glanced warily at the culprit in question as Sam took a seat next to her on the patio. "Was that Pete?" Kelly asked with one eyebrow raised.
"Nope..." Sam took a sip of her own.
"Ah... so that explains the vodka..."
Sam watched the kids run down the garden again. "I'm not sure if I'm relieved or disappointed that he hasn't called..." she admitted.
Sam nodded. He was either waiting for things to cool down or knew what her going away had meant.
"Can you not be both?"
Sam glanced at Kelly. "I guess..." she agreed, eyes turning back to the glass in her hand. She stirred the straw around and watched as the ice made ripples in the liquid.
"But the other guy called?"
Sam couldn't fathom how this woman managed to do that. She sighed. "Yeah, the other guy called..."
"Have you ever been given something you've always wanted, only to find out it was nothing like you thought it would be?"
"You can't let that stop you," Kelly said, her voice all matter of fact. "What if you were to miss out? What if it's better than you actually expected?"
"What if it's not?"
"Only one way to find out..." Kelly took a careful sip of her drink this time. "Besides, isn't that what you've been doing with Pete?"
"What do you mean?"
"Convincing yourself that you want a normal life and finding out that it's not actually all it's cracked up to be?"
Sam didn't speak, merely cocked an eyebrow in her direction.
"Sam, you're one of the most academic women I know... and on top of that you're a soldier. It's understandable that both you and Mark have 'family' issues, but whatever life you end up carving out for yourself, is simply that – your life. You don't have to fit into society's version of a life just because that's what others dictate. It doesn't suit you. Never has. Stop forcing it... let whatever is meant to happen, happen..."
Sam stared out at the rest of the family in the garden, her head tilted in thought. "You think I should go back to Colorado..." It was more of a statement than a question.
"Only if you're going to do something about it." That tone was back.
Sam merely stared at her glass. "How do I sit back and allow something to happen and yet put myself out there at the same time?"
"Samantha," Kelly said, her name on a drawn out sigh. "How long have you wanted this?"
Sam bit her lip and shrugged, her own sigh audible. "I honestly don't know any more..."
"Well then, I think you have your answer..."
"The war's not over."
Mark looked across at her, the darkness swallowing most of her face as she gazed up at the stars. He didn't know what war she meant. Real? Mental? With God? Or her heart?
"What if it never will be?"
His words made her turn to look at him, pursing her lips and thinking hard. "I can't think that... I have to believe it all will be someday, or how can I go out there, day after day? Putting a stop to this..."
The lack of smoke this time was noticeable. Strangely enough neither one of them missed it.
"So, that's it?" Mark's voice had somehow grown softer. "You're going to go back and carry on?"
Sam shook her head. "It wouldn't be fair to Pete if I did, would it? Don't worry I'll let him down gently-"
"I'm not worried about Pete!" Mark exclaimed suddenly.
Her brother's eyes bored into hers and Sam found that she couldn't look away. "You don't have a right to be angry!" She said. "You have a right to feel many things, but anger..." Her words faltered and she shook her head mindlessly. "After everything that's happened, Mark... you can't just sit there and dictate to me how I should live my life, not after what you did-"
"We all played a part in what happened, Sam."
"Yeah, but some of us didn't have a choice..."
"Sam..." Mark sighed. "I learned some time ago that I can't keep blaming what happened, for my own actions over the years. I have to shoulder some of the blame myself. No one forced me to do what I did, despite the fact that everything was purely a reaction to how I felt."
"Then why?" She whispered. "Why did it take Dad to be the one to reach out?"
"What has this got to do with anything?" Mark cried. "What has this got to do with you? With this situation you've found yourself in? How does Dad fit in with Pete and this guy? This war you keep raging on about?" His voice drifted into the night air. For a few moments all that could be heard was their breathing. "What happened to you out there Sam? What made you suddenly question everything?"
"I've always questioned everything..." Came her indignant reply. Sam wiped at the tears that had slipped out and wetted her cheeks. She sucked in a deep breath before speaking. "They invaded my mind... made me see some things, remember things..."
"Who did? What things?" He whispered.
"What was it like?" She asked instead. "What was it like cutting yourself off from the Air Force and heading out into a world without the military?"
Mark didn't answer.
"I was fourteen, Mark..." Her voice sounded thick with unshed tears. "My brother had left home, and my dad was away a lot and my mom..."
"You had a choice Sam."
"You told me only days ago how much you love your job... What does it matter how or why you joined the Air Force?"
"It matters to me."
"Because if I hadn't, maybe thing s would be different..."
There was long pause, silence enveloping them within the darkness. Mark shifted in his chair, the wood creaking slightly under his weight.
"Maybe you wouldn't have met him..." Sam's eyes met his. "This guy you can't have? Maybe this was how it was meant to be?"
But Sam couldn't get the image of Dr Samantha Carter out of her mind - non-military and yet still with the Stargate program. Still with the man she loved.
"What if it wasn't?" Her voice but a whisper.
"And what difference would that make? You can't change it..."
The long pause was interrupted only by Sam's sniffles. "I care about him more than I'm supposed to..." Another series of tears fell down her cheeks and suddenly it was as though the dam had broken and everything came flooding out.
Mark jumped out of his chair and pulled his sister into his arms. "I know you do... but you can't change that."
"I know... I just...sometimes wish I could..." The words got swallowed up by her sobs again and she let them take their course, surprised by her own sudden weakness and how, right now, none of that mattered anymore.
After a moment, she pulled back, finding handfuls of Mark's shirt scrunched between her fingers and a wet patch on his shoulder. She opened her mouth to apologise, the words sticking in her throat when she caught his gaze. "Thanks," she said instead.
"Hey, what are brothers for?"
They shared a smile before she let go and Mark stood up from her chair.
"Here." He passed her a tissue, pulling his hands back to rest in his pockets. "Want to hang out inside?" He asked, his elbows swaying by his sides. "Stay up and watch some crappy late night movie like old times?"
Sam nodded. "I'd like that."
"Good." Mark replied. "But if you steal my popcorn I'm so telling..."
Sam's laughter filled the air as Mark helped pull her to her feet. "Some things never change..."
"And you're okay with that?"