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Not In Death, But Just In Sleep

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“Back so soon?” Sam asks, peering over her magnifying glass.

“We found something,” Daniel says with a grin. “Something you’re gonna like.” His eyes twinkle and he gently rocks back and forth on his heels. He’s clearly giddy, and it’s contagious.

“What is it?”

“We have no idea. Well, no, that’s not true; we know that it’s an artifact.”

“Well, that’s usually a good place to start.” Sam can’t help but smirk a little. It doesn’t go unnoticed, and Daniel tosses a quick eye roll in her direction.

“My point is… it’s an artifact. An artifact that was giving off some very interesting readings when we found it.” He smiles again. “There’s also the fact that it completely changes its shape every time someone touches it. We don’t have a clue how it’s doing that, and I figured you might want to-”

He doesn’t even have a chance to finish his sentence; Sam practically leaps out of her chair and makes a beeline for the doorway. “…come and take a look,” Daniel concludes with a soft chuckle.

When she turns around and looks back at him, she’s smiling broadly. “Well?” she asks. “Aren’t you coming?”

But his legs are frozen in place. He’s aware that he can’t seem to separate either of his shoes from the floor, but he doesn’t quite have the motivation to care. His heart sinks deep into his stomach, and even though he’s not sure why it’s happening, he’s very sure of the fact that it’s one of the coldest, most horrible feelings he’s ever felt.

“Daniel?” There’s a look of amused concern on Sam’s face. She repeats his name, and it echoes in his head.

“Daniel.” He jumps at the hand on his shoulder and shivers slightly at the chill that creeps up his spine. When he looks up, it’s not Sam who’s staring at him. “Daniel,” Janet says again, “how long have you been here?”

He has to force himself to look around, to remind himself of where he is. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “I… I’m not sure.” His voice is quiet, a lot quieter than he intended it to be. Janet exhales softly beside him.

“Get some rest,” she tells him. “You know I’ll call you the second anything changes.”

“Janet, is-”

“Don’t force me to make it an order.” Her voice is quiet, too, but the bags under her eyes speak volumes. She doesn’t wait for him to respond before she turns away from him, maneuvering around him and checking the monitor beeping calmly next to the bed. She scribbles a few notes on her clipboard before she turns and walks away, but Daniel hears another barely-audible sigh pass her lips as she leaves.

He runs a hand over the lower half of his face as he turns his attention back toward the bed. The infirmary’s always a little cold, but it never fails to feel colder in situations like this. Despite the circumstances, he chuckles, albeit grimly.

“He’s gonna kill me,” he mutters into his hand. He doesn’t care that she can’t hear him, and he doesn’t completely believe that she can’t. Still, when Sam’s eyes remain closed, when she doesn’t so much as twitch at the sound of his voice, the silence is deafening. “He’s gonna kill me,” Daniel repeats as he finally gets up out of the chair, his back popping uncomfortably as he goes.

Lizzie rushes at Jack, pigtails flying behind her, waving and calling a goodbye to her friends. “Daddy!” she cries, as he picks her up and swings her around.

“Hi, sweetheart,” he says, smiling. “What’s that?”

She presents him with the paper she’s been clutching in her hand, and proudly says, “I drew it today! For you! There’s me, and Mommy- see, she’s got her tiara on- and you!”

He holds her with one arm, and takes the picture in his other hand. “What’s that next to you?”

“That,” she says, “is my dog.”

Oh. Now that he knows what he’s looking at, he can make out floppy ears and a tail, and four legs. “But we don’t have a dog.”

“I know,” Lizzie says, sounding mournful. “Daddy, Cassie says that when she first got here from…” she looks over her shoulder at the cluster of children and teachers outside the school. “From Toronto, you got her a dog. How come you didn’t get me a dog?”

“Well, that’s…” Jack pauses. He’s going to have a talk with Cassie about this. “The thing is, Lizzie…” But his phone begins to ring, and he hands the picture back to Lizzie as he fishes it out of his pocket. “Hello?”

“Jack.” It’s Janet, and he can’t place it right away, but there’s something off in her voice.

“Hey, doc. I hope this isn’t about yesterday, I tried to explain to your lovely wife that’s she’s just overreacting-”

“Jack,” she interrupts him. “It’s Sam.”

Give it to me straight, Jack had said. Of course, he didn’t say it, but she heard it in his voice, clear as a bell. Give it to me straight, tell me if this has any hope of getting better, tell me whether or not she’s going to die.

She can still hear the way her voice shook when she said, “It doesn’t look good, Jack.”

Janet takes a deep breath and shuts her eyes as she places the phone back on its hook. It could be worse, she thinks. It could be a lot worse. She could’ve dropped dead right there and not given them any kind of sliver of hope to hold onto. There could be evidence of permanent damage. Whatever the artifact had done to Sam, it could’ve done to others.

Even though none of that happened, it doesn’t change the fact that after five hours, the coma persists, and it’s still not clear to Janet why Sam’s in it in the first place. She feels like she’s gone over the sequence of events dozens of times, but she still can’t find any answers. The frustration, not to mention the anxiety, is beginning to gnaw away at her stomach.

“Come on, Janet,” she mumbles to herself. “That’s not going to help anyone.” Her back straightens as she reaches for another clipboard. Maybe this time she’ll see something different or remember a crucial detail. Maybe this time there’ll be an obvious answer that she overlooked. Maybe this time, she won’t have to stand around feeling stupid and useless, wondering what kind of doctor she’ll be if she can’t even save her best friend.

“So what did you get?” Sam had asked, her eyes dancing as she approached the containment unit.

“I’m sorry?” An amused smirk slowly formed on Janet’s lips.

“Daniel said it changed into a boomerang when he touched it,” Sam replied. “Dr. Lee apparently got a plain old cylinder, which I hear he’s not happy about. What about you?”

“I didn’t get anything,” Janet said. “I haven’t laid a hand on it.” She started slowly pacing around the unit, keeping a watchful eye on it. “I know everyone’s excited about this, but to be perfectly honest, I think we’re being a little hasty. We placed it in the containment unit as soon as it came in, but it’s still changing for people despite the lack of unprotected contact.” She stared at the artifact, now in the shape of a water pitcher, and shook her head. “No one’s suffered any kind of ill effects, but Sam, I’m not wild about this.” She stopped moving and made absolutely sure that Sam met her gaze. “The minute we see anything happening that looks even remotely dangerous, I want you to pull back.”

Sam nodded, knowing that look on Janet’s face all too well. It was usually one that was directed at Cassie or Jack or even Charlotte on a particularly bad day, and it had always proven effective with them. Still, she’d never been one to not err on the side of caution, and she slipped her hands inside the containment unit’s gloves with great care.

Sam couldn’t help but think that it certainly seemed harmless enough. And if Daniel was still walking around after having actually touched it, then there probably wasn’t anything to worry about. The artifact itself looked ancient, naturally. She thought it was probably golden back in its heyday, but now it was encased in a hard, blue crust, and maybe that was the way it always was. The water pitcher shape was nearly perfect despite the bumps and chips of the crust, and it was really quite beautiful in its simplicity.

“Well,” Sam said, glancing at Janet, “here goes nothing.” Somewhat tentatively, she reached out and gently placed a gloved hand onto the artifact. She waited, and she could feel Janet’s eyes on her, watching her like a hawk. If somebody dropped a pin in that room right then…

A soft crumbling sound reached her ears, and she lifted her hand away. The artifact began to morph right there in front of them, and the smoothness of the way it changed itself was breathtaking. It effortlessly contracted into a pea-sized chunk and then ballooned out, elongating to take up nearly the entire length of the containment unit. It expanded upward for a moment, giving itself depth, while its edges became more defined and the corners rapidly became sharper. The left end rounded itself out, the right came into a spiky point. In the miniscule span of about thirty seconds, it changed itself completely. The containment unit now housed a long, powerful-looking sword, with an ornate handle that almost looks like a blooming flower. Or a big fat black widow spider. It really could’ve gone either way.

“Wow,” Sam said. It’s about all she could say, really. Even Janet looked impressed.

“How are you feeling?” Janet asked her.

“Fine,” Sam responded, running both hands across the sword. It failed to respond to her touch that time, but she thought she might’ve been disappointed if it had; she almost chuckled aloud at the thought of Dr. Lee’s jealous face as he lays eyes on this.

“Oh, can you do me a favor?” Sam looked at the monitor directly behind her. “Can you read me the numbers that are on there? If there are any?”

Janet nodded, although her gaze lingered on the artifact as she walked toward the computers. “Yep, you’ve got some things here. Starting from the top, we have…”

But Sam didn’t hear her anymore. She didn’t really hear much of anything, save for her own breath filling her lungs, but failing to leave them. Her ears were filled with a low, muffled tone, and everything suddenly seemed very sluggish. It was as if time itself was slowing to a stop and she was the only one who realized it.

More importantly, though, there were hands covering hers. She blinked a few times, just to make sure she wasn’t imagining it, and they were still there. Looking up, she saw eyes, and a face, and a very real-looking man standing right there in front of her. He smiled at her gently, and when she looked down again, she saw his hands sink and disappear through the gloves.

She was vaguely aware that her knees had buckled, and the last thing she heard as she descended into darkness was Janet yelling her name.

Jack has seen Sam injured before, seen her near death, seen her unconscious and hooked up to machines in the infirmary. He’s almost lost her more times than he cares to remember, and it’s terrifying, every single time. There’s always a hollow, aching feeling inside of him that he knows he’ll never recover from if Sam doesn’t survive.

He had dropped Lizzie off with Cassie- feeling like a jerk for lying to her, telling her everything was fine, and Mommy just needed help with something at work- and made it to Cheyenne Mountain in record time. He’s been standing at the foot of the bed for a good fifteen minutes, trying to understand how this could have happened, how even though she’d given up off-world missions since they’d adopted Lizzie, something had come through the gate to prey specifically on her. He can’t quite get his head around it, how something always seems to go wrong.

“I’m doing everything I can, Jack,” Janet says, standing beside him. He’d forgotten she was there.

“I know,” he says, still staring at Sam, so still and unlike herself. He tears his eyes away and turns to look at Janet. “Hey. I know you’re trying.”

She nods. “I’ll figure it out.”

He looks her right in the eyes, hoping she can tell that he trusts her. "There's been no change?"

She shakes her head, feeling small under his steady gaze. "She's been exactly like this since it happened. I can't... I can't find any explanation. Daniel touched it with his bare hands and he's absolutely fine."

Jack turns away from Janet, his eyes settling on the heart monitor which beeps persistently next to the bed. "Daniel brought it back?" His voice is flat and even, same as before, but something in the set of his jaw has changed.

"Yes..." she thought she'd mentioned that. "He's the one who found it. They came back early from their mission because it... because he wanted her to see it."

Jack is turning to leave the infirmary almost as soon as the words are out of Janet's mouth, and she calls to him, softly, "It's not his fault, Jack." But her only answer is the beeping monitor, and silence from her friend. She places her hand against Sam's cheek. "Be strong for me, Sam, all right? Just hang in there until I can figure out what's happening to you."

"Oh, Samantha."

Janet turns, and there's Charlotte, still in her lab coat, having come straight from the hospital. She crosses the room to stand by Janet, who's suddenly overcome with the desire to crumple into her wife's arms and cry, but she can't, not here.

"Darling, you look terrible," she says, and Janet can't even muster the will to care that Charlotte shouldn't be calling her that where anyone could hear, let alone the fact that she's just been insulted, if gently. "Darling" is harmless enough, and she's just relieved that Charlotte is there.

"Come to my office," Janet says, and Charlotte obeys, casting a worried glance over her shoulder at Sam as she goes.

Janet shuts her door and is wrapped up in her wife's arms immediately, her head fitting just so under Charlotte's chin, like always. "I don't know what to do," she says, the words that have been eating at her since this happened, that she didn't dare say out loud to anyone but Charlotte.

"Shh," Charlotte says, rubbing Janet's back and feeling her almost collapse, letting Charlotte hold her up. "It's all right."

Janet lets a few tears spill out of her eyes, and realizes with a far off, detached remorse that she's going to leave mascara on Charlotte's lab coat. But Charlotte just continues to hold her, murmuring into her hair, "It's all right. You can cry. I'm here." Janet belatedly remembers the security camera perched in the corner of her ceiling. The chance that anyone’s watching her office right now is slim, but she wouldn’t give a damn even if it weren’t. Let them see.

“Charlotte, I’m scared.”

When Jack finds Daniel, he’s poring over a dusty volume, having rejected the idea of “getting some rest” in favor of searching for any reference, anywhere, to a shape-shifting object, anything that might shed some light on why Sam was the only one hurt out of the half-dozen people who had touched the artifact.

“Hey,” Jack says from the doorway, and Daniel snaps to attention.

“Jack.” Daniel watches him wander into the room, stopping in front of his desk. “How’s she doing?”

Jack looks away from Daniel for a moment, and then back. “Same.”

“Ah.” He closes his book and pushes it aside. “You know she’s a survivor, Jack, she’ll make it through this,” he says, though he’s not sure Jack is even listening.

Jack picks up one of the books from Daniel’s desk, flips through the pages without really seeing them. “It took us a long time to get to where we are now. Sam and me.”

“I know,” Daniel says cautiously.

“I think… I loved her from the first day I met her. I know, that’s a cliché, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. And if not it was pretty damn soon after that.” He puts the book down, picks up another. “I don’t know if it was that fast for her. I never asked. But it was fast for me.”

“I know, Jack,” Daniel says again, and he knows where this is going. He knows exactly how this is going to play out, and he’s sure that he deserves it.

“You brought that thing back.”


“You brought that thing back, and now Sam’s in a coma.” Jack tosses the book he’s holding back on the desk, and it makes Daniel jump.

“I thought it was safe,” he says, and it’s a weak excuse, but it’s all he has.

“You thought it was safe. What exactly, Daniel, would possess you to think an ancient, shape-shifting object giving off unexplainable energy readings was safe?

“I’m sorry.”

“Damn it, Daniel! I didn’t come this far just to lose her to another one of your goddamn archaeology digs!” His expression, dazed at first, has turned hard and angry.

“I know how you’re feeling right now, Jack. I know what it’s like to have your wife in danger, to be completely powerless to help her.” Jack doesn’t answer, so he continues. “I hope you know that I’m going to be here for you.”

“Stop,” Jack says, sounding almost disgusted. “Stop acting like she’s already dead.”

“I’m not, I’m just saying, you know damn well I’ve been down this road before. So don’t put words in my mouth, and don’t act like I don’t care that Sam’s in there because of me.”

“Yeah. Because of you.” Jack turns and walks away, leaving Daniel at his desk, unable to respond.

Jack doesn’t notice Vala hiding outside the door as he leaves. She’d heard almost the whole conversation, for once not daring to barge in. She waits until Jack has turned a corner before poking her head into the room. “Daniel?”

He’s sitting at his desk, head in his hands, and the sight of him so obviously wracked with guilt makes her heart ache just a little bit more. He looks up at her as she says his name. His eyes are red and he looks exhausted, like he hasn’t slept in days, though it’s really only been a few hours since this all began. “Oh, have you come to berate me, too?” he says, and the bitterness of his tone makes Vala wince.

“No, Daniel,” she answers, entering the room and hovering nervously by his desk. “I came to see how you’re doing.” She places a hand on his shoulder, and he tenses but doesn’t shrug it away.

“You shouldn’t be worrying about me,” he says. “You should—you should be worrying about Sam.”

Vala pulls an extra chair around the desk and sits down next to Daniel, taking his hand in her own and stroking it gently with her thumb. “I’m capable of worrying about multiple things at once. Right now I’m worried about Sam, and about you thinking this is your fault.”

He doesn’t answer her, Jack’s words still ringing in his ears. Vala puts her head down on his shoulder, and they sit quietly for a few minutes, until she remembers something. She lifts her head, looks at Daniel curiously. “Daniel…” she says. “It’s made you think about Sha’re, hasn’t it?”

He pulls his hand away. “This really isn’t the time.”

“You’re right,” she says, quickly. “I’m sorry.” She puts her head back down and grabs his hand again, but it’s only a few seconds before she’s lifting her head again. “Do you think about her a lot?”

“You really want to talk about this right now, when Sam could be dying?” His voice is harsh, and it takes her by surprise.

“Maybe I don’t want to think about that,” she answers, very quietly.

“Well maybe we have to think about that, Vala!”

“No! Because you know as well as I do that she won't just roll over and say 'Oh, sorry, everyone, I really can't be arsed to try to live today, goodbye!' She won't give up and neither should we!” Suddenly Vala feels tears building in her eyes, and she shakes her head and blinks them away quickly, because she won’t cry, not now. Not when there’s nothing to cry about, not when Sam could wake up at any minute.

“I know she won’t give up,” Daniel says, calmer this time. “But you can only face death so many times, what if… what if this is Sam’s last time?”

Vala doesn’t know quite what to say to that, so she reaches up, placing a gentle hand on his face, just looking at him for a moment, before drawing him to her. She puts her arms around him, and he relaxes, finally, letting her hold him.

It’s a while before he speaks again, and when he does it’s just above a whisper. “Yes. I think about her all the time. It doesn’t mean that… it doesn’t take away from what I feel for you.”

“Oh, Daniel,” Vala says. “I don’t think I’d like it much if you didn’t think about her.”

Daniel lets out a shallow breath. “I loved her. And I miss her. And I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for not being able to save her. And if Jack—if Jack has to feel the way I felt, the way I still feel, because of something I brought here? I can’t handle that, Vala.”

Vala places a kiss on his temple, and she’s sure her heart must be cracking inside her chest. “I’m sorry, Daniel. I’m so sorry.”

This doesn’t feel right.

She feels weightless, like she’s in that state of floating, dreamlike exhaustion one enters just before falling asleep. Yet, despite this, she feels immeasurably heavy. Breathing feels like it’s become ten times harder, and it’s as if there’s a huge lead weight crushing her chest.

Why am I asleep? Sam wonders. I don’t think I’m supposed to be sleeping right now. She tries to remember something, anything that might give her a clue as to why she feels vaguely hung over, but it’s like sifting through a fog. She knows that the answers are right in front of her, but she just can’t make her brain work. She can’t think of anything helpful, but she does know that she really doesn’t want to look at the back of her eyelids anymore.

Slowly, she forces her eyelids open and immediately regrets it; everything is white, and this bright assault on her vision spears a twinge of pain through her head. Her hand shoots up to cover her face and she groans as her head continues to throb. And it’s not just her head: her entire body feels the same way. Everything hurts and she’s plagued by hard aches everywhere. Whatever happened must’ve been pretty eventful, to say the least.

Pretty eventful… She repeats the words to herself and tenses as she does, and then it all comes rushing back in an instant. The artifact, its transformation, the hands on the gloves and in the gloves and sinking into her hands-

It’s more than enough to get her eyelids to fly open, brightness be damned. She looks at the backs of both of her hands, half expecting to see angry red bruises, but there’s nothing there. Even when she turns them over, runs her fingers across her skin, there’s nothing, and she breathes a small sigh of relief. Still, she shivers slightly as she recalls the odd sensation of those hands, so whole and real-looking, just slipping effortlessly through the gloves and making contact with her skin and going deeper, deeper, deeper.

She suppresses another shiver and slowly eases her back off of the floor. A wave of pain and dizziness forces her to slow down, close her eyes and take a few more breaths. In the center of her chest, right above her heart, a dull ache flares up. It’s an odd ache, a hollow ache, almost like it’s the smoking aftermath of a hole carved into her body. She places a hand there and attempts to steady her breathing. Inhale. Exhale. When did it become so difficult?

She’s never been one to succumb to panic, but as she looks around at the room, completely white and utterly empty, she feels her blood run cold. The question creeps into her mind, and she tries her hardest not to think it, but it’s too late. Am I… dead?

The emptiness in her chest feels cavernous, like there’s something missing. Like something’s been taken from her.

Like something’s been removed from her.

The color drains from her face again as she realizes with a slow, creeping horror that wherever she is, she’s not alone.

The sound of fingers typing on a keyboard reaches her ears and she looks to her right. She spies her laptop a few feet away, placed squarely on the thighs of another person. Her hands go to her sides, but of course, there aren’t any weapons there, so all she can do is stand up, slowly and carefully, on unsteady legs.

The typing ceases. The man looks at her and smiles gently. It’s the same smile she saw just before she blacked out.

“Greetings,” he says to her, gently folding her laptop closed and tucking it under his arm. When he rises out of his chair, he’s so painstakingly tidy and well put together that he looks like some sort of 1950’s businessman. He wears a brown suit and red tie pressed so impossibly neat that the presence of the slightest wrinkle would probably crack them, and his hair looks so slick and carefully arranged that it resembles sculpted clay instead of hair. There’s no hint of a beard on his face, almost like one doesn’t even grow there in the first place. For as many aliens and weird things that she’s seen over the years, this guy’s ridiculous level of perfection is truly bizarre, and Sam eyes him warily as he approaches her.

Before he gets too far into her personal bubble (which, admittedly, is fairly large at the moment), he stops and bows deeply at the waist. “I am honored to make your acquaintance,” he says. Sam takes a step backward for good measure.

“I have laid in wait for many years,” the man continues, seemingly oblivious to what Sam thought were her obvious displays of discomfort, “patiently looking forward to this destined day. I was beginning to think you would never come!” He regards her with what seems to be incredibly grateful, heartfelt adoration, and gets down on one knee.

Sam holds back about a metric ton of wisecracks. Really good ones, too. Ones she’s sure Jack would be oh-so-proud of. Instead, she merely says, “Okay. Well… who are you?”

The man looks up at her and cocks his head slightly to one side. “I am the object you have touched.” He says it so matter-of-factly, like she should’ve seen it written across his forehead. “I am that which will protect my people from all evil, and you…” He pauses, looking at her with that same adoring face, which is beginning to get a little weird, to say the least. “You are the chosen warrior with which I will merge. And together, we will lead the world to salvation.”

Sam blinks. Her mouth opens, but no words come out. After a moment, she exhales loudly, her cheeks puffing out in mild exasperation.

Oh, boy.”

Jack sits by the bed and holds Sam's hand, nearly as unresponsive as she is, until Charlotte appears by his side and places a hand on his shoulder. "You should go home and get some rest, Jack."

A year ago he would have ignored her, shrugged her hand away and stayed with Sam all night, but Lizzie is waiting for him- Lizzie needs him. So he rises from his chair, hanging onto Sam's hand for an extra second before letting go, and lets Charlotte lead him out of the SGC.

He follows her to her house to pick up Lizzie, where Cassie meets them at the door, looking like she's been crying. "Is Mom coming home?" she asks.

Charlotte shakes her head. "No, I don't think so."

Lizzie appears from the next room, looking worried, and Jack's chest constricts painfully but he can't blame Cassie for not keeping it together. "Where's Mommy?"

Jack opens his mouth to answer her, but he can't, and Charlotte saves him. "She's still at work, sweetheart."

Lizzie's face falls. "Still?"

Charlotte nods. "And so is Aunt Janet, but you know what? Cassie and I are going to go home with you and your daddy, and we're going to make you dinner and keep each other company, how does that sound?"

"Good," Lizzie says, and grabs Jack's hand. "I'm hungry."

Jack looks at Charlotte and she meets his gaze, and he hopes she knows he'd thank her if he had the words. "Come on," she says. "Let's go."

Lizzie fidgets in the car, turning the events of the afternoon over in her mind. Mommy's always home in time for dinner, and Daddy's never this quiet. And she's sure it wasn't their chess game that Cassie was crying over, but she wouldn't tell her what was wrong. She looks at Jack, who stares straight ahead at the road and doesn’t say a word, as if she’s not right there in the car next to him. It’s starting to make her stomach hurt, and maybe she isn’t so hungry after all.

When they get home, Charlotte and Cassie disappear into the kitchen, and Jack leads Lizzie over to the couch in the living room. "C'mere, Lizzie."

She climbs into his lap and snuggles up against his chest, listening to his heart, before she asks again, "Where's Mommy?"

Jack holds Lizzie to him tightly, knowing he can't put this off- but how can he explain what's happened to their six-year-old little girl, when he can’t understand it himself? "Something hurt Mommy at work, today."

Lizzie is perfectly still in his arms. "What was it?"

He hesitates, not sure how much Lizzie should know, how much she can handle. "It was a sword. A very old sword."

Lizzie shivers, and his heart breaks. "Did she get cut? Did Aunt Janet have to give her stitches? I can help, Daddy, I have my first aid kit."

Jack shakes his head. "No, sweetheart, she didn't get cut. She... Mommy's asleep, and we can't get her to wake up."

Lizzie squeezes her eyes shut and clutches at Jack. She knows what that means, she knows that it's bad. Tears start to spill out of her eyes, and she quakes a bit as she says, "I want Mommy to come home."

"I know," he says, rubbing her back gently, but she only cries harder.

"I need Mommy. Daddy, I need Mommy, I need Mommy!"

Jack holds his daughter while she cries, his heart breaking more with every desperate sob. It's a while before it tires her out, and she slumps against him as he carefully chooses his next words. "Lizzie… when your first family got hurt, that was- that was scary. You were sad for a long time. And if Mommy...” he stops for a moment. He can't say "if she dies," he can't say those words. He starts again. "If she doesn't come home, that's going to be really hard. But listen to me, okay, that'll just mean that everything bad that's ever going to happen to you already happened. So you shouldn't be scared, because all the bad stuff will be over. And Mommy doesn't want anything in this world more than she wants you to be safe and happy. All you have to do is be happy, for Mommy, okay?"

Lizzie's only answer is a fist closing around a handful of Jack's shirt, a habit she falls into when she's scared.

"All you have to do is be happy," he repeats. "That's all Mommy needs you to do."

Lizzie doesn’t speak for the rest of the evening, staying close by Jack’s side. She obeys him when he asks her to please try and eat some of her dinner, but when he tells her it’s time for bed, she shakes her head and latches onto his arm. “No.”

Jack looks down at her clinging to him, and he knows he can’t force her, not tonight. He’s never been the disciplinarian, anyway. So he picks her up and carries her back to the living room, where he turns the TV on low, and settles down on the couch with Lizzie in his lap. She hides her face against his chest, and though she protested bedtime, it’s not long before her breathing evens out and he can tell she’s fallen asleep.

He thinks he can hear Charlotte in the kitchen with Cassie, but he can’t hear what they’re saying, and he doesn’t strain to listen. He stares at the television for a while, trying to shut his brain off and just sit- he can make it through the night if he doesn’t have to think about it. He’s sure he’ll be awake all night, but fear and heartache are exhausting, and eventually he closes his eyes.

He dreams about Charlie’s funeral. The church full of people, that sick feeling in his stomach, and his son inside a closed casket. It startles him awake, and it takes him a moment to remember why he’s on the couch instead of in his bed next to his wife.

The TV’s been turned off, but the lights are still on. Charlotte’s leaning against him, and Cassie’s fallen asleep with her head on her mother’s shoulder. Jack shifts slightly, and Charlotte stirs.

“Sorry,” he says, hoping he won’t wake Lizzie, too.

“It’s all right,” Charlotte says. “I wasn’t having a terribly restful sleep.”

“Yeah.” They sit in silence for a moment, listening to their daughters’ steady breathing. “This shouldn’t be happening.”

“I know.”

“Everyone keeps saying she’s strong, and she’s a fighter, but that doesn’t mean a damn thing, sometimes. I’ve seen plenty of strong people not make it home.”

Charlotte turns her head to face him. “She has a lot to live for, Jack. Yes, she’s strong, and no, that’s not always enough. It looks bad, you know I won’t lie to you and tell you it doesn’t. But if anyone can beat the odds, it’s Samantha. You know that.”

Jack reaches for the remote. “I don’t think I want to go back to sleep.”

Charlotte slides the remote out of his hand and turns the TV on. “I’ll find us an infomercial.”

“What is it about my head that makes everybody want to get in it?”

The man looks up at her again. He’s still kneeling. “I’m sorry?” he asks rather innocently.

Sam shuts her eyes and brings a hand to her forehead, absentmindedly massaging her temples. “Never mind,” she says. “Look, would you- would you please get up?”

The man cocks his head to the side again and blinks a few times. Sighing audibly, Sam gestures with both hands. “Stand up. Please.

He stands up slowly, bewilderedly staring at her the whole time as if the concept is foreign to him. Sam notices that he’s still holding her laptop under his arm, and when she looks at it, she swears she can feel that ache in her chest flare up. Once he’s at his full height (and he isn’t that much taller than she is), she nods approvingly.

“Thank you,” she says. “Now… who are you?”

The man’s brow furrows and he glances from left to right. “I am… the object that you have touched.”

Oh, God, I wish Daniel were here. “No, uh… your name. Do you have a name?”

He really seems to struggle with this one. “Name…” He licks his lips, almost as if he’s trying to taste the word there. After what feels like an eternity, his eyebrows shoot up and he smiles. “Oh! A name! No, my forgers gave me no name. I am a weapon, after all.” He says it cheerily, like he’s very proud of this fact. “But you have a name,” he continues. “Your name is Samantha. You like it when people call you Sam.”

She nods slowly, suspiciously. “That’s right. How did you know that?”

“Oh, it’s all in here.” The man finally takes her laptop out from under his arm and makes his way back to the lone chair. The more Sam sees him with it, the more on edge she feels. She follows him, taking slow steps and watching as he sits down and opens it up again. “There are many things here. It’s taking much longer than I anticipated for me to look at all of it. I’m nowhere near finished. But,” he looks up at her with that same oblivious smile (it’s really starting to get on her nerves,) “that’s all right. If we are to merge, then I must know everything about you. It isn’t possible otherwise.”

Yeah, about that.” Sam clasps her hands in front of her and takes a deep breath. How can she explain this in the simplest of simple terms? “Look, I’m…” She trails off, watching him not pay the slightest bit of attention to her, his gaze instead focused on her laptop screen. “You must know by now that this isn’t my first… merger.”

“Of course,” the man replies, his finger gliding over the touchpad. “Others have been here before.”

“Then I’m sure you’re aware of how painful these things usually are for me.”

“It’s all right.” He doesn’t take his eyes off the screen, seemingly enthralled by the laptop’s contents. “This is different. It is not painful when you open yourself.”

Sam looks away and shifts her weight. If he’s seen how she felt after Jolinar, the entity, Anubis, and especially Fifth, and he still doesn’t get it, then she’ll clearly have to go about this a different way.

“Well, why do you want to do this with me?” she asks. “Half a dozen people touched you before I did, so why didn’t you choose one of them?”

“Oh, I do not choose,” he tells her. “It is destined. Only those with the holy element within them are eligible to merge.”

The ‘holy element’? Sam thinks for a moment, and then it comes to her. “Naquadah,” she says. “You reacted to the naquadah in my blood.”

He’s still so wrapped up in pilfering information from her laptop that he smiles again, but doesn’t say anything in return. The list of questions Sam wants to ask keeps growing, and she feels her patience stretching very thin.

“Where are we right now?” She gestures at the white walls around them.

This gets the man’s attention. “Oh,” he remarks casually. “I thought you would recognize it. It is your own mind, after all.”

“This is my mind?” Sam raises a skeptical eyebrow.

The man nods. “Yes, of course. It’s the only location where merging can take place.”

“Right,” Sam says somewhat flatly. “Of course.” She pauses and folds her arms across her chest. “So, if this is my mind, then where are we in the real world?” She’s pretty sure she knows the answer to this, but she just wants to hear him say it.

And say it he does. “I am within your… ‘containment unit’. You are sleeping.”

Sam shuts her eyes and breathes deeply, hoping he can’t see all the different ways she’s currently calling him an idiot. “You put me in a coma.”

“It’s all right,” he replies. “We will wake up once we have merged.”

“It’s really not all right,” she says. “And you’ll notice I haven’t exactly consented to merging.”

The man stops abruptly and looks at her, his brow furrowed with incredible concern, like she’s just pulled a rug out from under him. Sam’s quite surprised when he actually sets her laptop down beside the chair and stands up.

“You… you do not wish to merge?” he asks, his tone full of quiet disbelief.

She has to admit she feels a little bad for him now; this is probably all he knows, all he’s been “programmed” for. She shakes her head slowly. “No. No, I don’t.”

“Why?” He takes a desperate step toward her.

“Well, for one thing, I’m… kind of already merged with someone else.”

The man looks positively baffled. “You have not merged. If you had already merged with another weapon, I would not have been able to make contact with you.”

“Look, there are a lot of people who are probably very worried about me right now. I can’t have them expecting the worst.” Sam tries to make eye contact with the man, but he fidgets, increasingly distraught. “You have to let me wake up.”

“No!” She’s taken aback by the strength of his reply and the panic on his face. He looks white as a sheet. “If you awaken and we have not merged, then I… I will not survive. I will not survive and the war will be lost!”

“What war?” Sam asks.

“The war for my planet!” He begins to pace back and forth in front of the chair. “We have been fighting our enemy for many years. They- they live on the other side of the planet and they want to plunder its resources and use them for evil! I was designed and created to assist our best warriors, to lead all of us to victory. You- you are not from our world, I know this, but I am sure the others will accept your help regardless!” When he finally meets her gaze, he looks so frantic, like a lost child desperately searching for a familiar face. This time, Sam is the one who looks away from him.

She waits for a moment before she speaks again. “You were found on a deserted planet,” she says, trying her best to keep her voice low and even. The calmer she is, the better he might be able to take it. “I wasn’t there at the time, but you were apparently buried in the middle of some ruins. Aside from some stray plants and weeds, there were no signs of life anywhere.”

She watches his shoulders sag. He stares at her, his eyes filled with hollow fear.

“I think your war is over,” Sam quietly says. “I think it’s been over for a very long time.”

He’s still looking at her, but his eyes appear so distant. Slowly, he collapses back down into the chair and stares at the floor. The room is deathly quiet.

“We must merge,” he finally says, reaching down for the laptop. “I do not wish to die.”

“Maybe we don’t have to do that.” Sam kneels down to his level. “There’s a lot of technology on my world that might be able to help you. We might be able to transfer you into something that will let you survive. If you’ll let me wake up, then we can-”

No!” His fingers fly across the keyboard, typing vigorously. Sam gasps and brings her hand to her chest, which suddenly feels like it’s on fire. “If you awaken, I will die! There is no other way! I must complete my mission!”

“I told you,” Sam says, gritting her teeth against the pain. “There’s no mission for you to complete anymore!”

He ignores her and continues typing. The keystrokes are hard and angry, and every single one seems to drive a needle into her heart. Sam tries to keep her breathing as even as possible, but there’s that horrible pressure on her chest again, and every inhalation feels like a gasp for air.

“I have tried many times to open this file,” the man says. His tone seems much colder now. “Every time I have failed. It has many protections. But I broke through others. I will break through these.”

She cries out against a new burst of pain and wonders how much of her he’s seen, what he’s seen, where he’s seen, who he’s seen. It’s certainly not the first time someone’s invaded her mind. It’s not the first time someone’s sifted through her thoughts and memories and feelings, leaving their fingerprints all over things that aren’t theirs to touch. It’s not the first time, but it still hurts like all hell.

She extends a shaking hand toward him. “Give me the laptop!” she yells. He glances at her quickly and says nothing. “If you want to get into that file so badly, then I’ll get you in! Just give me the damn laptop and I’ll do it!”

His fingers freeze. The pressure lifts and the pain stops, and Sam draws in a few grateful, albeit shaking, breaths. The man studies her for a moment, looking from the laptop to her and back again. The desired file still lies before him, locked and unopened. He looks at Sam once more before carefully lifting the computer from his lap.

“Return it to me when it is open.” He turns it around very slowly, and sets it down on the floor in front of her like it’s made of glass. “Do it quickly.”

Sam holds his gaze for a few moments before snatching the laptop up. He makes no move to stop her, and for that, she’s relieved. Scanning the screen, she sees a mess of files everywhere, all of them entirely personal. There’s Janet, Daniel, Teal’c, Cassie, Charlotte, Cam, Vala, and Jack of course. There are quite a few of him open, and she closes each one carefully and methodically until the screen is clear of every file except the locked one.

She stops when she sees it. It’s no wonder this one was giving him so much trouble: it’s Lizzie’s file. Her chest constricts just a bit. She assumes that every memory she has of her daughter is in here, and she thinks- no, she knows it’s nothing she wants this man to see. Ever.

Slowly, she rises off of the floor, typing with one hand as she goes. She feels the man’s eyes on her, but keeps her gaze focused on the screen.

If this is my mind, she thinks to herself, then we’re playing by my rules.

She looks up at him as she hits the final key. Energy crackles in front of her, and a shield spreads itself from the right wall to the left in an instant. The man leaps to his feet, stunned and very, very angry. Sam can’t help but smirk a little as she takes some very large steps backwards.

A spark of light fizzles and forms into a bright, pulsing orb in the man’s hand. His eyes blaze with fury and he flings the orb at her, but it bursts into nothing against the shield.

Sam’s back reaches the south wall and a door materializes behind her. She glances down at the laptop screen. The shield’s holding, and it’s holding quite well. That being said, she figures she’ll have to make more - a lot more - if she’s going to buy herself enough time to try to wake herself up. As it is, the man already has another complete ball of energy in his hand, and he wastes no time hurling it at the shield.

We are going to merge!” he shouts at her, quaking with rage.

“No,” Sam says to him, turning the doorknob behind her. “No, we’re not.”

Jack slowly becomes aware of a few things as he wakes the next morning: one, he’s on the couch alone, though Charlotte is standing at the window across the room, murmuring into the phone. Two, he hasn’t a clue what he dreamed about after falling asleep again, which he assumes is a blessing. Three- his neck hurts. He rubs at it absently as he stands up to stretch, and Charlotte turns around.

She looks pale and exhausted, on-edge with worry- she looks like she did when Cassie was sick, when Janet got hurt- and he’s sorry. Charlotte never asked for this, not the way the rest of them did, but she’s been impressively strong through it all.

“I fell asleep,” he says, slightly disbelieving.

“You needed it,” she answers him, and then says into the phone, “Hold on, Janet.”

“Yeah, well,” he says. “You needed it too. Doesn’t look like you got it.”

“I slept a little. Lizzie’s in the kitchen with Cassie, eating breakfast.”

Jack holds out his hand for the phone. “That’s Janet?” Charlotte hands it to him. “How’s Sam?”

“The same,” Janet says, and it’s the answer he expected but it still makes his heart sink. Janet sounds about the same, and he wants to tell her again that he knows she’s doing her best, but he’s simply out of encouragement for anyone else. It feels a bit selfish, because he’s supposed to be a leader, supposed to be the one telling everyone that it’s going to be okay and they’re going to make it out of this, but all he can think about is Sam, and how much he needs her, and how terrified he is by the idea of living without her.

“Jack,” Janet continues. “I think you should bring Lizzie in.”

He feels the air being sucked out of him, and he can barely feel his limbs; it’s remarkable that he doesn’t drop the phone. He’d told her not to sugarcoat it, he needed to know the truth, but she’s telling him to bring Lizzie in to say goodbye. He hands the phone back to Charlotte and turns to walk away, barely hearing her say “Janet? We’ll be there soon,” as he goes.

He finds himself in his bedroom, their bedroom, eyes passing over their bed- neatly made, because Sam insists, though she can’t quite train him to stop tossing his Air Force t-shirts in a ball on top of the comforter when he gets dressed in the morning.

There’s a framed picture on their bedside table- the two of them at their wedding reception, laughing, Sam backing away as Jack threatens to smash cake in her face. (“It’s tradition!” he’d said, and she’d shielded her face, shouting, “It’s a cliché!”)

Jack braces himself against the dresser, shutting his eyes and trying to remember how to breathe. He stands there for a few moments, completely flooded with thoughts of Sam. The way her hair smells, how she fits in his arms like they were made just for each other. Her laugh- that perfect Sam laugh that he’s the cause of more often than not. He thinks about how happy they’ve been, how everything in his life had finally seemed right.

“Jack?” He turns to see Cassie standing nervously in the doorway, biting her lip and glancing nervously around the dark room. “We’re gonna leave in a few minutes.” Her eyes are red, like she’s been crying again that morning, and Jack feels terrible for barely stopping to think how Cassie must be feeling.

He joins her in the doorway, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, Cass. It’s not over yet. Don’t give up on her.”

She nods, looking unconvinced, and he hugs her as she begins to sniffle, repeating, “Don’t give up on her.”

When they arrive at the infirmary, Teal’c, Cam and Vala are there with Janet, and Jack remembers with a pang how many people this is affecting- how many people love Sam. It’s hard to keep that in mind, when the pain of the past day has been so isolating that he can’t think of anything but Sam, and Lizzie, and his own paralyzing fear.

On any other day, Lizzie would have rushed to her unofficial aunts and uncles, chattering excitedly about princesses and tea parties, and did they catch any bad guys since she’s seen them last, and did they find anything cool or see anything exciting. But on this day, she drops Jack’s hand and runs to Sam’s tiny infirmary bed as soon as they enter the room, climbing up and laying beside her mother, pressed close against her side. “I’m here, Mama,” she whispers, and Vala has to turn her head away and hide her face, because she can’t bear the sight.

Janet thinks she should tell Lizzie to be careful not to tug on Sam’s IV or jostle any of the monitors, but she doesn’t say anything, just holds her hand out to her own daughter. Cassie takes the offered hand and squeezes, and finds herself quickly wrapped up in her mother’s arms. “I know, baby,” Janet tells her, though Cassie hasn’t said a word. “I know.”

Jack’s not sure he can bear the weight of all these eyes on him, on Sam, but Teal’c blessedly seems to understand. “Perhaps O’Neill and Elizabeth would like to be left alone with Colonel Carter,” he says, effectively shuffling everyone out of the room. Vala lingers in front of Jack, lips pressed together and looking like she wants to say something, if only she knew what or how. Instead, she throws her arms around his neck for a few seconds before leaving to catch up with Cam.

Jack sits down in the chair by the bed and takes Sam’s hand. Lizzie stays perfectly still and quiet, with her head tucked in the crook of Sam’s neck. After a while, she asks, “Does she know we’re here, Daddy?”

Before he can decide how to answer, an alarm sounds—unscheduled off-world activation—and Lizzie, always made uneasy by loud noise, tenses visibly. “Hey, it’s okay,” Jack tells her, and the inaccuracy of the statement would be laughable if he were capable of such a thing.

In a few minutes, Jacob’s entering the infirmary. “How’s she doing?”

Lizzie lifts her head. “Grandpa. Mommy won’t wake up.”

Jacob’s eyes soften. “Hey, pumpkin. Will you come give me a hug?”

Lizzie looks torn, like she can’t stand the thought of leaving Sam’s side for even a second, but still she sits up and hops off the bed. She runs over to Jacob, who bends down and picks her up. “Jack?” he says as he approaches his daughter, eyeing the beeping monitors.

“She’s the same,” Jack says. “She’s been the same for almost a day.”

“Grandpa,” Lizzie says, sounding suddenly hopeful. “Can you bring a Selmak to help Mommy get better?”

Jacob shakes his head. “I’m sorry, pumpkin,” he tells her, his voice cracking slightly. “I wish I could. I wish it worked like that.”

Her lip quivers. “Why can’t it? Selmak helped you get better, right?” Her voice is tiny and desperate as she looks back at Sam. “We need to help her get better.”

“I’m sorry, Lizzie,” Jacob says, and he means it more than any apology he’s given in his life. “This isn’t the same as what happened to me, honey. We don’t know why your Mommy can’t wake up. I don’t think a symbiote—a Selmak—would be able to help her.”

Lizzie wriggles in her grandpa’s arms. “I need to get down. I have to go lay with Mommy.” She’s at Sam’s side again in an instant, but before she can climb back onto the bed, Cam is poking his head in the doorway.

He nods at Jacob, then says to Jack, “I’m sorry to barge in. I thought maybe Lizzie would want to go get some cake with me. Take her mind off things.”

“No, Uncle Cam,” she answers. “I can’t. I have to stay with my mommy.”

“Hey, princess,” he says, crossing the room to stand beside her, placing his hand gently on top of her head. There’s another chair by that side of the bed, and he sits down. “Come sit with me for a minute.”

She’s reluctant, but she lets Cam pull her into his lap. “This is pretty scary, huh?” She nods, and he continues. “You know, my dad got hurt when I was a kid. Not too much older than you. I was pretty scared, then.”

Lizzie looks up at him curiously. “What happened?”

“His legs got hurt pretty bad. And my mom and my little brother and me- we were really scared. We didn’t know if he was going to be okay.”

“Was he okay?” Lizzie’s eyes are wide, and Cam thinks maybe he should be telling the story differently.

“He was okay,” he says, leaving out the months of recovery, of learning to walk on new legs. “He got to come home, and soon enough, everything was normal again.”

“I’m scared Mommy won’t be okay.”

Cam meets Jack’s eyes as he hugs Lizzie close to him. “I know, sweetheart. But you know what? Your mommy is just about the strongest person I know. And she loves you more than anything else in this whole world. And I think she’s trying as hard as she can to wake up right now, because she knows you’re waiting for her.”

Lizzie sniffles, rubbing at her eyes. “I want her to wake up now.”

“She will, before you know it. I know you’re scared, but listen. You know what made me feel better when my dad was hurt?”

Lizzie shakes her head. “What?”

“Cake,” he says. “And my grandma’s macaroons, but we’re going to have to settle for cake today, okay?

Lizzie looks over her shoulder at her parents. “And then we’ll come back?”

“Then we’ll come back,” Cam promises.

Lizzie stands up and turns to Sam again, leaning over and kissing her cheek. “I’ll be right back, Mommy. I won’t go too far.” She reaches up for Cam’s hand and he takes it, leading her out of the infirmary.

Jacob stands by Jack, and reaches down to stroke the side of Sam’s face. “I’d like to speak to Dr. Fraiser.” He sounds like any parent would, with an injured or sick child whose doctor couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

Jack nods. “Go easy on her, Jacob. She…” She’s trying, they’re all trying. “Sam’s her best friend.”

“Of course.” Jacob nods and turns to go, and Jack is left alone with his wife.

It’s a few minutes before he says anything, and when he does, he’s almost startled at the sound of his own voice. “Hey, Sam.” He squeezes her hand. “I promised myself I wasn’t going to say goodbye to you, so that’s not what this is. This is just me talking, okay? This doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re going to wake up.”

He pauses for a moment, watching Sam’s chest rise and fall. “I’m sorry I didn’t retire sooner. I’m sorry I wasted all that time. That was- that was stupid. I know you’d say it wasn’t, and it had to be like that, because we were saving the world, but you’re more important to me than the damn world. It won’t mean anything without you, so just… don’t leave me, Sam. I don’t care if you keep me waiting all week, just don’t leave me. You saved me, you know, you made my life make sense again, and I don’t think I can do this without you. I need you, and Lizzie needs you. So whatever’s happening to you, I need you to fight it.” He draws a shaky breath, squeezes her hand again. “Please, just fight it and come back to me, okay, Sam? Please.”

Sam takes a deep breath as she looks at the room. It’s a lot smaller than she thought it would be. A lot smaller. She thought a getaway room in her own head would be larger, or at the very least, lead to more rooms. That doesn’t seem to be the case, and worse than that, there’s a whole lot of nothing in here. No materializing doors, no magic “wake up!” buttons, and most discouraging of all, no weapons. Just white walls and herself.

She glances back at the door for a moment. It’s completely still and the room is quiet, which means the shield must be doing all right. And it is, but it could be better. Her laptop screen displays 84%, which drops to 82%, which drops to 79%.

She exhales loudly and moves farther into the room; there isn’t time to stand around and wonder what to do next. As she drops to one knee, she mentally lays a plan of action out for herself: shields first, then weapons. Alternating between the two should buy her enough time to… to do what exactly? She has no idea how she’s supposed to wake up, and Mr. Merger out there certainly isn’t going to tell her. Even if she manages to get her hands on a zat or a P90, what would she do with them? Would they even work?

She shakes her head and balances the laptop on her thigh. Too many questions, not enough action, and setting up the shields should be more than enough to keep her focused. Staying calm was always the key, as it would be again here. She thinks there still might be time to make him see reason, to see that he needs to let her go. Maybe.

Her fingers begin to hit keys, and these simple movements alone do wonders for her stress level. Funny how it always seems to work out this way. She really isn’t sure how exactly these shields are working, and why it seems that it’s not the algorithms so much as her desire to create them that brings them into existence. But, she reminds herself, it’s her mind. Maybe everything’s not as logical in here as she’d like to think.

She has two new shields up in under a minute, which is nice considering that the original now stands a shaky 30%. It falls rapidly, and Sam hurriedly opens another command prompt window.

She hesitates, her fingers hovering over the keys. What’s she supposed to type? “find ‘zat.exe’”? It couldn’t possibly be that simple. Or stupid.

And yet, there are no stupid ideas when crazy people are trying to kill you. She types it and smacks the Enter key, and her eyebrows shoot up at the result. “Access denied”.

“Interesting,” she whispers, eyes narrowing. She quickly types a few more – P90, staff, flamethrower (“It’d certainly go a long way towards making me feel better,” she mutters under breath) and they all throw up the same message.

As she brings up the shields’ window, she thinks it stands to reason that there will be no success on the weapons front. He’s clearly gone to great lengths to lock her out of integral actions such as defending herself, keeping her memories private, and being conscious, just to name a few. She gives a quiet, yet indignant huff. Even without a weapon, she thinks, I’ll still kick his-

She stops cold.

Weren’t there supposed to be two shields up?

She begins to type again, much faster than before. “There’s no way,” she says. “He couldn’t have torn through it that quickly.”

She stops again when she sees the number for the remaining shield. Her eyes widen as she watches it go from 90% to 50% in one fell swoop. 30%. 10%.

“Oh my God.” She wastes no time bringing up another. Her fingers fly over the keyboard as she tries to keep her mind focused on the calculations, tries to imagine the numbers to keep the fast-approaching panic from rising too far into her chest. Another shield springs to life, but it’s much closer to the room. He’s getting closer.

She takes three quick glances: two to her left and right and one at the door. There’s really nowhere to go once he- if he makes it inside (she doesn’t have to be totally pessimistic. Yet.) Maybe she’ll just have to throw down the laptop and tackle him. Or give him a good, solid punch in the jaw. Or-

Numbers, Sam. Numbers, she reminds herself. “And, from the looks of things,” she thinks aloud, “I need all the numbers I can get.” The shields are dangerously close to falling faster than she can get them up. He’s shredding them like paper with two hits, three at the most. As soon as one goes down, she brings another up, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep this momentum going. There’s no room to pause and think about anything, and she’s typing as fast as she possibly can. If he starts being able to bring them down with one hit…

A thunderous boom makes her jump. In the split second that she’s startled, she realizes with no small amount of stomach-turning horror that he’s skipped past the one hit stage and gone right to plowing straight through them. It’s like they’re not even there. More thudding comes from the front of the room.

Suddenly, there’s an ear-splitting crack, and a giant ball of energy flies inside, smashing into the wall to Sam’s left at an alarming speed. She drops to the floor immediately, shutting the laptop and laying flat, covering it with her body. For a second, she thinks it’s a little silly to be guarding the thing like this, but on the other hand, she has a sneaking suspicion that she really shouldn’t let it get destroyed. There’s not a whole lot of time to think about this, however, as another orb breaks through and there’s a slight breeze as it whizzes right above her head. She swears she feels the floor shake as it slams into the wall behind her, sending tiny dust particles raining down.

A soft hissing sound reaches her, and she dares to take a quick glance at the points of impact. Where once there was smooth whiteness, there now exist two very large and very cracked craters in the wall. They sizzle ominously.

So much for tackling him.

For a moment, she can’t hear anything other than the sound of her own pulse pounding against her ears. She takes the apparent pause in her ass getting handed to her to quickly pull the laptop out from under her and open it. As she does so, hears a dull hum, and when she looks at the screen, she sees why: an energy buildup. Two energy buildups. Three. Four. One in front of the room, one behind it, one above it, and one below it.

The hum grows louder and Sam can’t stop the color draining from her face. There is, quite literally, nowhere to run.

And, from the way the energy pulses around the little map of the room in angry red bursts, this is going to hurt. A lot.

She slams the laptop closed and takes a deep breath. Tightly clutching the computer to her, she curls into a ball, shuts her eyes, and waits.

The room implodes with a deafening roar.

Her hand twitches.

It catches Jack off guard. Really off guard. He’d been teetering on the edge of sleep without realizing it, the exhaustion of the day finally catching up with him. As a result, he’s not sure if he dreamed it or imagined it or hallucinated it, and he supposes he may never be sure. But it wakes him up just the same, and it gives him enough pause to hold his breath and watch her hand in his.

The rhythmic beeping of the monitors hasn’t changed. He listens to it for what feels like hours, but he hears nothing new, and he sinks into his chair ever so slightly as he surrenders to logic.

He silently moves to readjust their hands, and he feels something slip against his palm. It tickles his skin just a little, and he inadvertently jerks his hand out from under hers.

And that’s when he sees it: red. A small drop of red hovering on the edge of his palm, forming a trail from the middle of his hand, where there lies a streak of- of what?

He leans forward, gives it a quick sniff, and feels his stomach clench: it’s blood. Quickly, he turns Sam’s hand over, and is greeted by the sight of a deep red gash right in the middle of her palm. It glistens under the lights. It’s fresh, and it’s not the only one. His eyes follow a trail of everything from tiny scratches to minor cuts all the way up her arm, and Janet’s name is out of his mouth as soon as he reaches the one on her forehead, slashed right across her temple.

Their eyes meet as she approaches, and he can see it written all over her face that she has no idea what this is.

He really doesn’t know how much more of this he can take.

Janet ushers him – shoves him – out of the infirmary and calls for nurses and supplies, leaving him standing in the hall with his back to the door, staring down at Sam’s blood smeared across his hand.

He kicks the door down (which isn’t difficult since it was halfway off its hinges) and slowly steps inside the room, or what’s left of it. Debris crunches under his shoes and clouds of white dust clog the air. The man quickly glances around just to make absolutely sure there are so surprises waiting for him. There aren’t.

He finds her in the middle of the room, her black shirt a stark contrast to all the white. She lies face down on the floor, unmoving and covered in small chunks of wall. He’s sure she isn’t dead, because if she were, he would currently have the total control he so desperately seeks. This, then, will have to do.

A small twinge of fear twists his stomach as he closes the distance between them. He stops and looks down at her, remembering her words. I think your war is over. There’s no mission for you to complete anymore. There’s a lot of technology on my world that might be able to help you.

He’s supposed to merge no matter what. As soon as he’s activated, it’s his duty above all else to merge as quickly as possible, so that he and his chosen warrior can enter the fray immediately. The warriors weren’t supposed to be difficult, but then again, they weren’t supposed to be from other worlds, either. Even so, if a warrior were to decline a merger, not only would it be unheard of, but it would be punishable by death. Winning the war is all that matters; all warriors know this. All weapons are made of this truth.

Or perhaps winning the war is what did matter. Maybe she’s right, maybe it is over. Maybe he has no reason to live and hasn’t had one for many years. Maybe there are miraculous devices on her world that would allow him to live without a warrior to host him.

And maybe she’s lying, and maybe these promises are just a trick to get him to surrender. Maybe she’s really an enemy not from another world, but from the other side. Maybe she’s stolen him and activated him in order to trick him into believing the war is over, when it might still be raging fiercely.

Maybe that’s what’s in the locked file.

Or maybe she really is just a woman from another world with people who miss her, caught up in this fight that truly isn’t hers.

He draws a few shaking breaths and clenches his fist. As his breathing gradually becomes more even, his jaw sets in steeled determination, and he kneels down. He’ll find out sooner or later. All her truths will be open to him eventually, even if he has to rip them out of her.

Something catches his eye as he reaches down, and it’s her laptop, nestled under her arm. It’s the perfect opportunity to take it, but he realizes he doesn’t need it; everything he needs lies elsewhere. He pulls it away from her and flings it across the room, watching as it scrapes along the floor until it skids to a stop inches away from the wall.

He turns back to her and takes her wrist, limp in his hand, and turns her over. She doesn’t move. He only allows himself a few more moments of doubt before he steels himself again, places his hand against the center of her chest, and pushes.

Eventually, his hand breaks through and sinks inside. She silently flinches against it.

As his arm gradually slides farther into her, a hint of red catches his attention and he stares at her hand, still and vulnerable and streaked with her own blood.

It’s a few moments before Jack can process what’s happened, that he’s been thrown out of the room, that that’s a terrible sign. As soon as his exhausted brain can catch up, he’s turning around and shoving the door back open.

“Jack, I need you to wait outside right now.” Janet’s voice is stern and loud, her best doctor voice, but Jack ignores her.

“What the hell is happening?” he shouts, as he tries to get past the wall of nurses and Janet to be with Sam again, but they form a barrier that he can’t shove through.

Janet whirls around as a nurse tends to Sam’s injured hand, and the look on her face is so stony that Jack takes a step back. “I don’t know,” she says. “You need to give me space to work.”

“I’m not leaving her,” Jack says, though he takes another step back.

“Then you can stand over there,” Janet answers as she points to the opposite wall.

He obeys her this time, backing up to stand against the wall, and watches quietly as the flurry of activity around Sam dies down. He tries to swallow his panic, closing his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them again, Janet’s standing in front of him. She places her hands gently on his arms.

“She’s stable. Whatever was happening… it stopped.” Her voice is much gentler now.

Jack looks over Janet’s shoulder at Sam, bandaged now, and swallows. “For now.”

Janet’s eyes are clouded with worry as she answers, “Yes. For now.” She pauses. “Jack, maybe you need to get some air.” He starts to shake his head, but she continues. “I’m sure you haven’t eaten today. Starving yourself won’t help Sam. I’ll call you the moment anything changes.”


“No arguments. Do you know how mad she’ll be when she wakes up and finds out I’ve been letting you run yourself ragged this whole time? You’ll be in that empty bed next to her before long if you don’t take care of yourself.”

Jack walks back to Sam’s bed and runs his fingers lightly over the bandage on her palm. “I’ll be back,” he says.

Janet’s not sure which one of them he’s talking to.

Jack wanders down the hall, considering lunch for a brief moment, but he’s not hungry. Janet won’t be pleased, but he’s terrible at following doctor’s orders and she knows that. He wonders where Jacob disappeared to, and if Lizzie’s all right with Cam, but it’s not much of a surprise when he finds himself standing in Daniel’s doorway again.


Daniel looks up from his computer- he’s gone through all of the relevant books he could think of, and moved onto electronic resources. “Jack! I didn’t think you’d- I’m surprised to see you.”

“Oh, yeah, well. You know how unpredictable I am. Keep ‘em guessin’.” He sits down across from Daniel.

“Jack, I want to- I want to apologize to you.” Daniel’s face is pale and unshaven, and the dark circles under his eyes are impressive. Jack wonders if he’s left the mountain at all since this started.

“Stop,” Jack says. “Don’t do that. You don’t need to do that.”

Daniel shuts his laptop. “I do. It’s my fault that this is happening.”

“No, it’s actually not, so just. Stop.”

Daniel sighs. “I’m sorry, regardless.”

“Well, cut it out, will ya?”



“Right. So…”

Jack shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “I just wanted to come by and… well, I just wanted to come by.” He wants to apologize, he truly does, but he can’t even begin to think of what he might say that would be enough.

“Do you want to talk?” Daniel asks.



They sit quietly for a few moments before Daniel opens his computer again. Jack picks up a pen from Daniel’s desk and clicks it a couple of times. “Whatcha readin’?”

“Oh,” Daniel sighs. “Everything. I’m trying to find out what the artifact might be. How it works.”

“Ah. Find anything?”

“No.” Daniel looks at Jack for a moment, and then back at the computer. This is the only way he can help Sam, and it’s not helping at all.

Jack doesn’t say anything else, so Daniel opens a new document and begins reading through it.

“Lizzie’s been through a lot,” Jack finally says.

Daniel stops reading. “She has. But you’ve done a wonderful job with her, she’s doing so well. She’s happy.”

“I don’t know how much more she can take.”


“It’s hurting her.” Jack looks down, he can’t meet Daniel’s eyes. “She’s got cuts all the way up her arms, on her face… they’re just there.”

“Oh, God, Jack, I don’t…” Daniel trails off.

Jack tries to push the thoughts away, but they come anyway- his daughter losing a parent again, he and Lizzie trying to survive without Sam. It’s bleak. “I don’t know how good I’d be for Lizzie, without Sam.”

There’s no answer for that, no good one anyway, but Daniel tries anyway. “You’re her father, Jack. You’ll always be good for her.”

Jack looks away, eyes landing on something Egyptian he doesn’t recognize on one of Daniel’s shelves. “I’m just gonna sit here for a while, if that’s okay.”

Daniel nods. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s okay.”

Sam hears a voice, small and distant, echoing in her mind like a hazy dream. Something lightly nudges her shoulder, and she’s pretty sure she should care, but she’s just so tired. Everything feels so damn heavy all over again.

It’s only after a few moments that the voice becomes clearer and she can actually hear the words it’s saying.

“Mommy? Mommy, get up. You have to get up.”

Now she cares. Instead of being greeted with white as she opens her eyes, she sees nothing but black. She feels a nudge on her shoulder again and turns toward it, blinking hard as a very blurry Lizzie slowly comes into focus.

“Lizzie?” she murmurs. “What are you doing here?”

She pushes her little hands against her again. “Mommy, please get up.” Her brows are furrowed with concern. “I’m scared.”

Sam tries to reach out to her, but her arm seems unwilling to respond. Her whole body aches and nothing will move. “Why are you scared?” she asks.

Lizzie shudders visibly. “He’s gonna find me.”


“That guy. He’s gonna find me, he’s gonna take me away, I don’t want to go!” Her eyes quickly pool with tears, and Sam tries to reach for her again, but her arm feels like it weighs a thousand pounds. Her frustration grows exponentially, followed closely by the slightest hint of panic.

“Nobody’s taking you anywhere,” Sam assures her. “You’re safe, remember?”

“No, he’s gonna find me! You have to get up!” Lizzie pushes hard this time before collapsing onto her shoulder, burying her face there as tears spill from her eyes.

Sam can’t take it anymore, and her fist clenches as she forces her arm to move. It’s like pushing against increased gravity, and the pain is enough to make her sweat. Eventually, after putting forth a world of effort, she manages to place her hand atop Lizzie’s head. She draws a shaky breath and asks, “Who is going to-”

And then it hits her.

“Oh my God,” she says. “He’s gonna find you. Lizzie, where is he?”

Lizzie lifts her head and her face is soaked with tears. Sam does her best to wipe them away, but stops halfway through. Her stomach sinks with cold realization.

“He’s right here,” she whispers. Lizzie sniffs and puts her head back down, one hand clinging to Sam’s sleeve.

“Oh, God,” Sam says, her heart racing. “He’s right here.”

She comes to her senses with a hard gasp that doesn’t quite complete itself, and as she chokes on air, she finds the man hovering over her. His eyes are shut and he seems lost in intense concentration. Her chest aches with such agonizing, splitting pain that every breath is horribly painful and insufficient. Whereas before it felt like nails were driving themselves into her heart, now it feels more like dozens of knives.

It takes her a moment to connect why. She follows the path of his arm down and thinks she must be seeing things when it just stops right below his elbow. A few blinks later and she realizes, with stomach-churning horror, that the rest of it is inside of her. She grabs him instantly, her hands gripping so hard that her own arms tremble, but his eyes fly open.

“Don’t interfere,” he snaps at her. A cry of pain escapes her as his elbow sinks and vanishes into her chest.

“Don’t you care?” Sam hisses, her hands still closed around the man’s upper arm. “Don’t you care how much this is hurting me?!” She tries to pull his arm out, but the strength won’t come to her.

“I told you not to resist!” the man exclaims. “You bring this pain on yourself!”

His arm slides slightly farther in, and she shuts her eyes against it. “Well, what the hell else do you expect me to do?!”

Merge with me!” His face twists with fury.

She grits her teeth and glares at him, suddenly gripped by a surge of adrenaline, and pushes on his arm as hard as she possibly can. It gives ever so slightly, and the tiniest sliver of it emerges from within her.

As hard as it is to do in her weakened state, she succeeds in lifting both legs up and wastes no time ramming her boots into his stomach. He gives a pained yell as the impact sends him flying backwards, his arm lifting out of her chest like a retracting snake. It’s not an easy parting, and a sensation not unlike a sharp blade being yanked out of her overwhelms her; she would’ve screamed had the need for oxygen not been a little more important.

She rolls to a standing position without hesitation, but very quickly finds she lacks the energy to maintain it. In between gulps of air, she staggers backwards and lands hard on her shoulder against the wall. Her shaking legs buckle under her and she sags to the floor, watching as the man spits dust out of his mouth and rises to his feet. She keeps her hand planted firmly against her chest, as if everything might just spill right out if she lets go.

“What did you do?” she asks around hard, ragged breaths. There’s no way she can fight him like this, so she hopes talking might stall him for a while. His response, however, is to sharply fling a ball of energy in her direction. She ducks as best as she can and it just barely misses her head. For a very tiny fraction of a second, she actually feels compelled to laugh. Every time I think this can’t get worse…

“What resides in the locked file?!” He doesn’t move any closer to her, but he does conjure up another crackling energy ball.

Sam spies her laptop diagonally across from her against the wall. It’ll take a bit more than a dive to get to it, and as long as her legs feel like Jell-o, she’ll never make it without getting nailed by one of those orbs. With her free hand and her back braced against the wall, she slowly pushes herself up off of the floor.

“You won’t see it,” she says, trying to keep her voice and breathing even. “I’m not showing it to you.”

Another orb slams into the wall next to her shoulder. She spies small wisps of dust out of the corner of her eye and tries not to concentrate on how awful that sizzling sound is.

“I will see it,” the man asserts as he walks briskly toward her. “I will see all of it, everything that remains. You cannot stop me.”

He creates another energy ball and raises it above his head, all the while getting closer and closer to her. He’s certainly not leaving her with too many options, so she takes a deep breath and steels herself.

As soon as he’s in front of her, he makes a move to bring the orb crashing down upon her, and she takes that split second of preparation to drive her elbow straight into his chest. She’d been aiming for his throat, but still didn’t quite have the strength to reach it. It takes him completely off-guard just the same, and the orb in his hand vanishes with his distraction. As he curls inward from the blow, she sends him careening into the corner with a slightly sluggish (by her standards, anyway) backhand across the face. She’s gone and racing toward the laptop before he even hits the wall.

She half-stumbles, half-dives for it, and comes up just a few inches short. Silently cursing at her body’s failure to recover, she desperately reaches for it, listening intently to the pained, aggravated sounds coming from the man. She can already hear his footsteps behind her, but her fingertips graze hard plastic and she manages to get the laptop into her hands. Of course, now there’s no time to actually do anything with it, so as the man continues his determined approach, Sam does the next best thing: she pushes herself to her feet with every ounce of strength she has, meets his furious gaze, and swings the laptop hard into his head.

It’s more than enough to send him sprawling to the floor, but not quite enough to knock him out. As he goes down, he pops off another ball of energy that hits her squarely in the stomach. The impact is powerful, sucking the air from her lungs and sending her flying. After what feels like an eternity, her back slams into the ground all the way across the room. She feels dizzy now, dizzy and exhausted and terribly numb. Every muscle in every limb stings painfully and refuses to budge.

She hears the man approaching again and realizes that she can’t feel her laptop in her hand anymore, vaguely recalling the feeling of it slipping from her grasp somewhere around the middle of the room. The man’s footsteps are too quick, and he’s standing over her already, and it’s all she can do to keep him from duplicating within her field of vision.

When he reaches down for her, she somehow manages to swing at him, but she’s too weak for it to do any good. He easily grabs her by both wrists and drags her across the floor, lifting her limp body up and slamming her back against the wall.

“You should have surrendered to me long ago,” he hisses. She feels her pulse throbbing against his strong grip on her arms. “If you open yourself completely to me now, I will cause you no further pain.”

Her muscles tense, and when she lifts her head, she can tell he’s taken aback for just a second at the power of the glare she directs at him. “That’s not… going to happen.”

He returns the glare and pushes on her arms, and she’s startled by the pressure of the wall behind her suddenly lifting away. She can feel herself moving backwards, but there’s nowhere to go, unless…

Sure enough, when she turns to look at her arm, she watches it sink away into the wall, which still appears quite solid despite the fact that her body’s slowly but surely being swallowed by it. She mumbles a quick, “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” as she looks down at herself, half in the wall and half out of it, and utterly unable to do so much as twitch a finger (especially since she can’t see her hands anymore.)

The man steps back for a moment and looks her up and down. Evidently satisfied that she won’t be able to do something like kick his guts out of his stomach, he moves back in and places his palm flat against the center of her chest. Her breathing quickens and she winces as he pushes, clenching her teeth to keep tortured cries at bay. It doesn’t take long before he breaks through and she screams, her voice caught halfway between agony and rage. She notices that his arm seems to be slipping through much easier this time, and getting much farther; his elbow’s gone within the first five seconds and she feels an enormous amount of pressure.

Suddenly, he stops, and she gasps against a raw, paralyzing burst of pain. He stays very still and her eyes widen.

“Don’t,” she says. There’s a note of pleading in her voice. “Let her go.” She can hear Lizzie’s voice echoing through her mind again: He’s gonna find me, he’s gonna take me away, I don’t want to go!

He yanks a fraction of his arm out and Sam inhales so sharply that it hurts. “Oh, God, leave her alone!” But she knows it’s beyond that now. He’s gotten the access he’s desired. She shuts her eyes against the crushing fact that she couldn’t stop him.

She sees Lizzie on the day they found her, huddled in a dark corner amongst broken chairs and fallen debris, her gaze hollow and distant with the horrors she witnessed. She stares at Sam, and she remembers all too clearly the way her heart ached at the sight of her, small and afraid and absolutely certain that it was her turn to die.

Sam draws in a shaking breath and keeps her eyes shut. I’m sorry, Lizzie, she thinks. I’m so sorry.

The man draws his arm out in one swift motion, and Sam screams again.

She doesn't talk about it- she's always been a proponent of moving forward rather than dwelling on the past- but Vala dreams of Qetesh, of being trapped inside herself, with a great deal of frequency.

She spent her first days screaming, as loud as she could, for as long as she could, as Qetesh assumed control of her body. Qetesh spoke to her only once- "Stop that. No one can hear you." And then Vala was cut off. She could no longer even try to scream, could hardly even think in words. She could only watch, but not feel, even as her body moved and walked and touched things, people. She was utterly alone.

Sometimes it wakes her in the middle of the night. It was harder, before Daniel. She would wake up in the dark and just for a moment think she was still there, in her own personal prison, before she remembered that she was herself again, that she owned herself again. Now her eyes snap open and land immediately on her Daniel. She feels her arm slung possessively around him, the warmth of his body the greatest comfort she could ask for, and it's easier than it's ever been to relax, to release the memory of her nightmare. He would never leave her behind. None of them would.

She's sure Samantha knows this to be true about herself, as well, and it's all that keeps Vala from unraveling. They will find a way to save Sam from this. She won't allow herself to entertain any other possibility.

Vala wanders up to the observation room above the infirmary, where she finds Teal’c, as still and silent as a statue. She stands next to him, and they watch as Janet and Jacob hover over Sam, speaking in hushed tones. Vala notices the bandages on Sam’s arms and face. “Teal’c, what’s happened?”

“Colonel Carter has sustained a number of external injuries, the cause of which is unknown,” he answers.

“What, so they just appeared? She just starts bleeding from a head wound and nobody notices how it happened?”

“Dr. Fraiser is unable to find an explanation.”

Below them, Janet looks defeated as she speaks to Sam’s father. Vala leans close to the glass. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

“I believe they are discussing the fact that it now appears Colonel Carter is experiencing a great deal of pain.”

Vala casts a sideways glance at Teal’c. He looks about as worried as she’s ever seen him- which isn’t saying much, exactly, but she knows he’s just as upset as she is. “I don’t understand,” she says. “She’s in a coma. You can’t feel pain in a coma.”

“And yet she does,” Teal’c says. “Dr. Fraiser seems quite certain.”

Vala closes her eyes for a moment, thinks, oh, God, Samantha. She takes a breath and asks the question she wouldn’t dare pose to anyone else right now. “Do you think she’s going to die?”

He considers this for a long moment. “I do not know. But I do not believe it is time to give up on Colonel Carter yet.”

Vala shakes her head. “No, no, I wouldn’t, I…” She pauses, and takes a step back. “I’ve never been to a Tau’ri funeral.”

Teal’c turns toward her, and she thinks in any other situation he might be raising one eyebrow heavenwards in response. But today he just looks at her. She looks back, frowns, and feels lost.

“Funerals are much the same on any world,” he says. “It likely would not be far removed from what you are accustomed to.”

Vala looks back at the glass, at her friend motionless and injured and in pain below them, and silently begs whoever might be listening that her first Earth funeral not be Sam’s. She has steadfastly refused to cry until now, but as she blinks, two tears roll quickly down her face. As she sniffles and wipes them away, Teal’c offers her his hand, palm up. She takes it, gripping tightly.

They stand quietly together, and hope.

He eases her out of the wall, being surprisingly careful as her limbs slowly slide out from within the solid whiteness. It’s almost as if he’s afraid she could shatter to pieces at any moment, and Sam honestly feels like she might.

He went in a few more times, saw a lot more things. Some of them she liked and remembered often, but wouldn’t necessarily want to share with a stranger. Most of them, though, she’d rather forget. And of course, he saw every last thing of Lizzie. Every tea party, every story time, every nightmare she’d ever had about her well-being. Sam had done a lot more screaming and a lot of struggling against the wall, but all that had done was make her throat raw and her body sore. Now she hangs slumped over the man’s arm, thinking that her breaths sound awfully strained and shallow, and that this pain is too much.

“I do not understand,” she finally hears him say. “You put so much effort into keeping memories of a little girl from me. It isn’t as if warriors do not have children. Plenty do.” He pauses, and then says again, “I do not understand.”

She doesn’t respond, but she does tense against him, and she’s sure he notices. “I suppose it does not matter,” he continues. “I am finished. We are ready to merge.”

Sam tenses more, but he keeps talking. “Your failure to accept this from the start will no doubt be controversial among our peers. But you are…” He stops, and she swears she can hear him wincing. “You are clearly a skilled warrior, to say the least. Despite everything, I feel lucky that you have come to me. We will make a beautiful combination on the battlefield. Flawless, even. And we will surely-”

She’s had more than enough of his prattling, and she’d been moving a shaking hand up his arm ever since he started. He’s silenced by her palm slapping ungracefully over his face, and she feels him mumble a question into her skin. Whatever it was, it doesn’t matter: her answer is a hard shove that he tries to struggle against. He attempts to hold her with him while moving away from her hand, but she breaks free and stumbles away from him. It doesn’t last long before her legs give out and she falls rather painfully onto her stomach. She lies still for a moment, exhausted and attempting to catch her breath.

I’ve got nothing. The words pop into her head as she stares blankly at her hand, reddened by bruises and scratches. Talking didn’t work, stealing her laptop didn’t work, and even though it’s rather grudgingly, she exhales with the silent admission that she has no plan.

She can’t begin to guess what (if any) concept of time there might be here in her mind. She has no way of knowing how long she’s been out in the real world, and shudders at the thought that she might have been lying comatose in the infirmary for a week already, or even longer. Or maybe it’s only been a couple of hours or minutes or seconds, she just doesn’t know. And although she does know that none of them would ever give up on her, there’s only so long that they can keep trying. They’ll have to be practical at some point.

On the bright side, this whole merging business probably won’t be an issue anymore if she’s dead.

Merging. Now that she thinks about it, she never really asked what it entailed. Maybe it was completely harmless. Maybe she’d be awake right now if she’d just done it.

Maybe there were one too many “maybe”s happening right now. Maybe I’d just like to go home. Even as a thought, it sounds refreshingly sardonic. She feels lucky to still be capable of that.

She hears his footsteps approaching, slow and drawn-out against the floor. What’s he doing, sauntering over here? She huffs quietly, weakly. If he wants to do this so badly, then why hasn’t he just done it?

An excellent question. Why hasn’t he just done it?

Her eyes narrow. Maybe she’s not done talking after all.

“You’re wasting your time,” she says between breaths as the man concludes his approach. “And I think you know it.”

He says nothing, but she can feel his eyes on her. “If you’ve really seen everything there is to see about me, then you know you’re not getting out of here.”

“Because you’ll kill me?” He folds his arms across his chest. “You have tried that. You have failed. I am the one who can kill you at any moment.”

“Right,” Sam says, “and why haven’t you done that?”

He doesn’t answer. Now she’s getting somewhere. She really feels like she’s going to be flying blind with the rest of this, and it even sounds like a bit of a long shot when she thinks about it. Considering her distinct lack of options at the moment, though, she hopes beyond hope that her guesses are right.

“You haven’t killed me, and we haven’t merged, and you’ve had a few clear opportunities to do both. Those concentrations of energy you kept throwing at me? For as much they hurt, all they ever did was stun.” She takes a few ragged breaths, trying to keep herself under control so she doesn’t ruin this momentum with idiotic bravado.

“You’re afraid.” She attempts to keep her voice as flat as possible. “You know that if I don’t kill you, my friends will.” She draws in a deep breath. “Even if they have to kill me to do it.”

Why?” He sounds genuinely flustered. Bingo. “Why would these people end your life just to eliminate me if they care for you so much?”

“Because,” she says, “they know that’s the way I’d want it.”

“I would kill all of them before they could!” the man shouts. His voice shakes.

“But you don’t think you can,” she calmly states, “because we’ve brought down gods together. And you don’t know how you could possibly win against that.” She pauses just long enough to catch her breath. “You’re scared of every single one of us.”

That finally does it. The man snaps, his rage flying out of him in a loud, aggravated yell. His shoes slam against the ground as he marches past her. She lifts her head just enough to see where he’s going, and isn’t too surprised when it’s to her laptop, still laying a few yards away from her. He roughly yanks it off the ground and returns to stand in front of her, holding it above her head like a trophy.

“If I were so afraid of you,” he says, sporting an almost crazed look in his eyes and a sneer on his face, “then I would not do what I am about to do.”

He rips it open, and it makes her wince. He moves the lid back as far as it can go, until it’s at a 90 degree angle in the wrong direction. The ache in Sam’s chest returns with a vengeance, and she can’t tell herself that he’s doing this to her laptop when it feels like it’s happening to her.

The lid quivers under the tension and strain until it finally cracks and snaps off, leaving the two halves of the laptop in each of the man’s hands. The need to scream is overwhelming, but no sound will leave Sam’s throat. When the man slams the monitor half of the laptop into the wall, it feels like he’s just done it to her head.

“I will kill them all.” His teeth are clenched in a horrific grin. He throws the other half of laptop to the floor, stomps on it until little plastic chunks begin to fly out of it, and just when Sam thinks she can’t possibly take anymore head-splitting pain, the man conjures an energy ball. It’s much bigger, and it’s much brighter, and it crashes straight down onto the keyboard and decimates it. When the dust clears, wisps of charred, black dust are all that remain.

Sam continues to stare at it as her vision grows dark. She attempts to take a breath, but none will come.

It’s a while before Jack stands up and tells Daniel, “I should get back.”

Daniel looks up from his computer, blinks, and realizes that Jack’s been sitting silently across from him for half an hour. “Of course. Please let me know if anything changes.”

Instead of turning to leave, Jack hesitates. “You should come with me.”

Daniel looks almost startled. “Oh, no, I should really keep—”

“You’re important to her,” Jack says, cutting him off. “You should come with me.”

Daniel looks at Jack for a long moment, then stands. “Okay.”

When they reach the infirmary, Sam is not how Jack left her. There’s that same awful frenzy of activity again, and shrill beeps blare from the monitors. Janet and two nurses block Jack’s view, and he catches the phrase “her pressure’s dropping” among a litany of words he doesn’t understand.

Sam’s father is standing to the side, and Jack shouts at him. “Why didn’t anyone come get me?”

“It began just before you got here,” he answers, but it’s Selmak’s voice, as though Jacob can’t focus enough to speak.

Daniel feels frozen in place as a thousand thoughts race through his mind- the loudest, that he deserves this, not Sam. Suddenly, Vala is by his side, though he’s not sure where she came from. “What’s happening?”

Daniel turns and grabs her by the arms, and her eyes are wide and frightened. “What’s happening?” she asks again.

“Go find Cam,” Daniel tells her. “Make sure he doesn’t bring Lizzie here. Go now.”

Vala nods quickly and peers over his shoulder at Sam for the briefest of moments before she goes, panic rising in her throat like bile. Not Samantha, not Samantha, please.

The frantic beeps become one sickeningly long tone, and the line on the monitor is perfectly, unforgivingly flat.

He’s somewhat relieved to see her eyelids eventually slip shut. It would drive him absolutely insane to have her staring at him, even in death. He watches her for a few minutes just to make sure she’s down, watches her back to make sure it doesn’t so much as twitch. Once satisfied that it’s really done, he exhales. It surprises him a little.

She was right, he’s scared, and he’s forced to admit it as he stands over her, shivering with both tapering adrenaline and fear. He’s frightened beyond all measure of her, of the people he saw again and again, those constants in her memories. The emotions she associated with them were so strong that they threatened to overwhelm him numerous times. As a weapon, he was crafted to deal with these things, but on his world, there was nothing outside of the war. The most any weapon could ever expect to see and feel were memories of famine, destruction, lost mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, physical and mental hardships of training. Warriors suffered, and that’s why they fought, and weapons were meant to recognize and embrace suffering, to channel it and use it as fuel for fighting.

But she was different. She was a warrior, and yet her suffering did not define her in the way it defined the warriors of his world. As she had proven to him (he runs a hand over the still-stinging bruise on his face, feels the persistent ache in his head,) it only served to make her stronger. She didn’t even require a weapon to use it.

He shakes his head. None of that matters now. He inhales slowly and looks down at her again. She hasn’t moved, at all, and the room is very, very quiet.

No one will stop me, he thinks as he kneels and lowers his hand toward her still form. Not her, not her friends, no one. I will go back to my world and none of them will be able to-

He stops abruptly, hissing in pain as his hand collides with something just above her back. His eyes narrow as he holds his fingers and feels them stinging. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear he’d seen a pulse of light that looked exactly like one of her energy shields, but, he thinks, that’s impossible. He can get through them now, and she certainly can’t make them if she’s dead.

Steeling himself, he moves in again, faster this time. Sure enough, just before he’s able to touch her, it happens again and he retracts his hand with an aggravated cry. He quickly goes for another attempt.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

The voice stops him cold.

He knows this voice. He’s heard this voice all over her memories, seen the face of the person it belongs to hundreds of times.

And there’s no possible way that he can be hearing this voice speaking to him right now.

The man whirls around and stands up in one motion, and meets blue eyes staring at him from behind rectangular glasses. Up until this point, he’d felt like he possessed free reign in this space, but the expression on the face of the man before him begins to change that.

“Step away from her,” Daniel says, “right now.”

The man swallows the flood of panic threatening to consume him and sneers, although it’s a little shaky at first. He hopes Daniel won’t notice. “Why should I?” the man asks. “Whatever you’re hoping to do here, you’re too late. I’ve already killed her. She’s dead.”

“No, she’s not. And you should step away from Sam,” Daniel says, taking a few steps toward him, “because she’s my friend. And you’re done hurting her.”

The man stands his ground and eyes Daniel smugly. “And if I don’t?”

“Then I’ll beat you until you cry for your uncle!”

The man turns quickly to his left, to the source of the new voice.

“What?” Vala asks with a shrug. “Some other family member of yours, then.”

“It’s ‘cry uncle’, Vala.” Another voice, another direction to turn. “And that doesn’t mean he’s literally gonna do it,” Cam tells her. “It’s just an expression.”

Vala throws up her hands with a dramatic sigh. “Oh, fantastic, more of your Earth humor.

“Um, guys?” Daniel clears his throat. “I think we’re getting a little off-point here.”

“Indeed, we are.” The man takes a step backwards towards Sam as he whirls around again, and this time Teal’c is standing next to Vala. “However, I believe discussion of the ways in which we shall inflict pain upon this individual…” He pauses and regards the man with a threatening stare. “…is still relevant.”

The back of the man’s heel makes contact with the shield surrounding Sam, and he makes a startled sound as he tries to regain his footing. With a swift motion, he brings up both of his hands, energy brimming in his palms, and lets a barrage fly at the people around him. Thick dust clouds obscure their forms and the air crackles with electricity.

With another sneer, he waits for the mess to clear. They are fools to come here, he thinks. He has no idea how they’re here, but he figures, silently laughing to himself, that it definitely doesn’t matter anymore.

The dust finally settles, and the man’s eyes widen.

“Well, that obviously didn’t work,” a new voice declares. The man is absolutely horrified to find that they’re all still standing around him completely unscathed, with three new additions to their numbers. Some of them even dare to regard him with bemusement and bafflement.

Heels click against the floor as one of the new individuals saunters closer to him. “Do you want to try it again,” Charlotte asks, the smirk on her face far outclassing anything the man could ever hope to pull off, “or do you just want to high-tail it out of here now?” She looks him up and down before adding, “Nice suit, by the way. Very snappy. At least you’ve got some sense in that department.”

“Charlotte,” Janet mockingly warns as she and Cassie come to stand beside her. “Don’t compliment the crazy man.”

Charlotte shrugs innocently. “What? Look at him; he looks like he was ripped right out of a magazine.” She wants to continue, but thinks better of it when she sees the look Janet’s giving her. She shuts her mouth and shifts uncomfortably. Cassie grins and does her best to hide her laughter.

“What is this?” the man asks them, his eyes still wide with revulsion. “How are you here?!”

None of them say anything. They throw each other puzzled glances before Vala finally speaks. “Um,” she begins, gesturing dramatically. “You’re killing our darling Samantha. We’re going to show up.”

The man shakes his head. “That is impossible. This is her mind; it is impossible for you to be here.”

“Well, see,” Cam says, “the funny thing about that is… we’re not really here right now.”

“But you said it yourself; this is Sam’s mind. And you’ve certainly sifted through enough of her private thoughts to know how important she is to us.” Janet folds her arms across her chest and glares at the man.

“Then, as I suspected,” the man states, straightening somewhat, “you are not real. You cannot harm me.”

Teal’c raises his chin disapprovingly. “That is correct,” he admits rather grudgingly. “We cannot.”

“But we’re certainly doing a good job of freaking you out,” Vala says with a mischievous grin.

Enough!” the man shouts. He shuts his eyes. “You can do nothing. You are illusions. She is alone.”

When he opens his eyes again, he sees Daniel staring straight at him. The corners of his mouth twitch and eventually pull up into a warm smile.

“No,” he says. “She’s never alone.”

The man clenches his jaw. He turns his back to all of them and looks down at Sam’s still form. Maybe… just maybe he can still break through whatever it is that’s protecting her. He brings an energy ball to life and raises it above his head.


He looks to his right and is startled to see a little girl rushing toward him. He recognizes her immediately, and in shock, steps out of her way. She plants herself in front of Sam, spreads her arms out wide, and stares angrily at him.

“Stop hurting my mama!” Lizzie yells. The man gives her an intimidating stare, but she stands her ground. He feels an odd sense of foreboding as he looks at her, and his chest clenches as if he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“You’d better do what she says.”

The man turns very, very slowly.

“‘Cause I’m pretty sure if you don’t, she’s gonna kick your ass.”

Jack casually approaches him, sizing him up as he walks. “Hell,” he continues, “we’ll both kick your ass.”

He’d seen this man more than anyone else. There were many files devoted to him, locked away in a massive block of data and when he first laid eyes on it, the mere thought of trying to make heads or tails of it seemed daunting. The emotions Sam associated with this man were amazingly complicated. And yet, in the end, they had been the simplest and the strongest and the purest of all.

This was the man to whom she’d entrusted her heart, and who had entrusted her with his.

“Hi,” Jack says, smiling broadly as he completely and utterly invades the man’s personal space. “Would you kindly get the hell away from my wife?”

“You cannot harm me,” the man repeats, although his voice is a bit softer now.

Jack looks past him and frowns. “He knows? Already?

The others shrug with varying degrees of innocence. “Well.” Jack turns back to the man. “Apparently we can save the universe, but we can’t keep a secret.” He shifts uncomfortably and glances away for a moment. “This is awkward.”

Lizzie looks up at him as she tugs on his pant leg. “Daddy, we need to get Mommy. We have to do it now.”

“She’s right, Jack,” Daniel calls out from behind the man. “Sam doesn’t have a lot of time; you’ve gotta go.”

“Ah. Right.” Jack claps his hands together, but he hesitates. “What about the rest of you? Aren’t you coming with us?”

“Oh, Jonathan.” Charlotte draws his name out with no small amount of dramatic flair. “Don’t be so dense; this is your job, yours and Lizzie’s. We were just the welcome wagon.”

Jack opens his mouth to fire off a retort in Charlotte’s direction, but is interrupted by Lizzie tugging on his pants again. “Daddy,” she says. “We gotta go.

“Yes,” he agrees, pushing past the man and kneeling down next to Sam. “Yes, we do.” He says that last part more to her than to anyone else.

Lizzie looks on worriedly beside him as he gently brushes a few strands of hair away from Sam’s face. He carefully takes her hand and turns it over, and his thumb runs over the dried blood from the gash in her palm. Muttering a “geez” under his breath, he turns her over onto her back and, without a word, takes her limp body in his arms and gently lifts her from the ground. He makes a point of leveling a hard glare at the man as he walks past him, and the man flinches for a fraction of a second. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

The man watches Jack and Lizzie walk past him, walk past the others still stationed in a disorganized circle around him, and his hand balls into a fist.

You cannot harm me!” he shouts in one last attempt at defiance.

“No,” Jack says, coming to a stop in front of a wall and gazing back over his shoulder. “But Sam can. And she will.”

The man’s knuckles are white, and his fist begins to shake as Jack and Lizzie step through the wall.

Vala rushes down the hallway, not sure exactly where she’s going, where they’ll be, but as she turns the first corner she almost runs right into them. Cam is leading Lizzie toward the infirmary, her small hand in his.

“Cameron!” Vala puts up her hands to halt them. “You can’t go back to the infirmary.”

Cam stops, and she can see it pass over his face- fear, denial, bargaining- there are stages to this sort of thing, she’s heard, but she’s not sure they’re supposed to cycle as rapidly as they seem to be doing.

Lizzie looks up at Vala, and Vala thinks she hasn’t seen her looking so solemn since the day they found her. (“It’s not so bad, Earth,” she’d told the little girl in Sam’s arms, feeling compelled to reassure her. “You’ll like it, I promise.”)

“But I need to go see my mommy. Uncle Cam said we’d go back.”

“I know I did,” Cam says, looking down at Lizzie. “But we can’t go back just yet.”

His voice sounds funny, Vala thinks. Thick. She’s seen grief in a hundred forms, on dozens of planets, but she’s never experienced it like this. With a family.

Lizzie’s eyes travel worriedly, suspiciously, between Cam and Vala. “Why?”

Vala bends down to Lizzie’s level and hopes that her face won’t betray her. She’s an excellent liar, but she’s never had to lie like this. “Because they’re trying very hard to wake your mommy up right now, and it’s best if we don’t get in their way.”

She’s not sure if Lizzie buys it. “Where’s my daddy?” she asks.

“He’s helping. You’ll see him very soon, don’t worry.” Vala thinks for a moment. “What do you say we go and find a television? It’s almost time for General Hospital.”

Vala holds out her arms for Lizzie, who lets go of Cam’s hand and wraps her arms around Vala’s neck. “Oh, you’re getting big,” Vala says as she lifts Lizzie off the ground to carry her. “You’re such a big girl, Elizabeth. We’re so proud of you.”

She holds Lizzie tightly, and tries to block out the image of how Daniel’s face had looked when he told her to go. He’d looked very much like he thought this was the end. “Come along, Cameron. You can watch with us. We’ll tell you all about the characters, won’t we?”

Cam starts to shake his head, as if he’s about to leave Lizzie with her and run back to the infirmary, as if he thinks he can do something to help. But he catches Vala’s eyes, and she pleads with him silently to go with her.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “Okay. Let’s go.”

They end up in Sam’s science lab, empty but for the three of them, because Vala thinks Lizzie will feel comfortable there. They sit on the spinning stools that Lizzie loves, in front of a tiny television placed atop one of the counters. Vala holds Lizzie in her lap, and wonders if it’s already over.

Janet sees Charlotte in her periphery, and spares exactly half a second to wonder where Cassie is, because she shouldn't be here. Half a second, and then her focus is back on Sam, on chest compressions and please, please, don't do this.

"Come on, Sam," she mutters- and thinks, not for the first time, that this truly isn't up to her at all. Whatever this is, she's starting to believe that Sam has to beat it herself. Janet loses all concept of time, all concept of anything beyond the steady rhythm of trying to keep Sam's heart going, but a voice in the back of her mind tells her it's been too long.

Charlotte's hands are on Jack's shoulders, firmly trying to guide him away as Daniel and Jacob remain frozen beside them.

"Jack. Jack, we need to go, you don't need to watch this."

His eyes are wild, and his voice a bit too loud as he says, “Let go, Charlotte.” If it were anyone else, it might scare her. But it’s Jack, and the only thing scaring her right now is how long it’s been since Samantha’s heart stopped beating on its own.

“Listen to me,” she says. “There’s nothing you can do to help her right now, and you don’t want to stand here and watch this, all right?”

He jerks away from her. “She’s dying! Don’t tell me what to do, don’t tell me to walk away.”

Charlotte pulls her hands away. She could lie to him, tell him that Sam’s not dying, but she’s always been truthful with him before, and from the looks of it he’s barely processing a word she says anyway. She reaches for him again, but this time it’s to take one of his hands in her own.

“Then you let me stay with you. Okay, Jack? I’m right here.”

But his eyes are on his wife, and he’s too far away to answer her.

The room is narrow, small, and dimly lit. There’s a faint chill in the air, and Lizzie shivers slightly as she and Jack emerge from the wall. It ripples behind them, not unlike the Stargate, and they stand there for a moment, just staring at the room.

“Crap.” Jack’s eyes scan the way the shadows play out like little mountains along the walls.

“Daddy,” Lizzie asks, staying close as he bridges the short distance to the wall across from them and gingerly lays Sam down beside it, “are we gonna be able to help Mommy?” There’s an odd quality to her voice, an almost resigned one, like she’s already accepted the possibility that Sam might die here.

“Yeah,” Jack says, his voice sounding distant and distracted in Lizzie’s ears. He puts two fingers against Sam’s neck and doesn’t realize that he holds his breath for a moment. “Yeah, we’re gonna be able to help her.”

He feels no pulse under his fingers, and it’s clear that Sam isn’t breathing. Jack runs a hand over his face and exhales. He has no idea what to do, and this is Sam’s head, and he’s not really here, so CPR would mean a whole lot of nothing.

“Come on, Sam,” he says to her, lightly slapping the back of his hand against her cheeks. “Don’t leave us yet.”

Lizzie quietly sits down next to them, looking from Sam to Jack and back again. Eventually, she looks at the floor; she knows this won’t work, and just like Jack, she doesn’t know what to do. She wishes that she had a magic wand, just like in all her princess movies, and she could wave it and Sam would wake up.

Her brow furrows with that thought. She doesn’t have a magic wand, but maybe… maybe they can still make magic happen anyway.

“Daddy,” she says, her expression serious.

Jack turns to look at her. There’s something distinctly sad in his eyes, and when he speaks, his voice seems quiet. “What is it?”

Lizzie hesitates, but still regards him with a determined look. Eventually, she says, “You’re Mommy’s prince, right?”

Jack looks confused. “Uh… you mean like in the princess stories?” Lizzie nods. After a moment, Jack shrugs. “Yeah, yeah, I guess… I guess you could say that.”

There’s a spark in Lizzie’s eyes. “And Mommy’s your princess?”

Jack nods slowly, like he’s trying (and failing) to figure out where this might be going. It’s certainly not a new feeling for him, and he gradually gives in and looks to Lizzie, waiting for her to finish. She stands up and her eyes are locked onto his.

“Then you have to do like in the princess movies,” she says. “If you’re Mommy’s prince, then you can wake her up with true love’s kiss.”

It takes Jack a moment to realize that she’s serious. His mouth opens, but no words emerge. He closes it and silently looks to Sam, and then at Lizzie again.

“But that’s such a cliché,” he says. “It’s so old, the Ancients probably knew about it. That would never work.”

Lizzie makes a face at him. “You have to try it.”

“Liz, c’mon, it’s not-”

“Try it! Try it, you have to!”

Jack puts his hands up in surrender. “All right, all right.” Lizzie seems pleased and very hopeful as she darts closer to him. She watches him intently as he moves back to Sam.

The already dim lights of the room flicker. Jack glances up at them before he looks at Sam again. She hasn’t moved and her face looks awfully pale. If he’s going to do anything, it has to be now, otherwise he may not get a chance at all.

He sighs to himself as he slips one hand behind Sam’s head and the other behind her back. As he lifts her closer to him, he tries not to think about how fragile she feels in his arms or how her lips appear to be just barely tinted with blue. Instead, he mutters a quick, “This is weird,” before he lowers himself to her and softly places his lips against hers.

He doesn’t know how long he should stay like this and regrets not asking Lizzie how long a “true love kiss” was supposed to last, and was it really a true love kiss if the other person is a little preoccupied with unconsciousness and can’t kiss back? He can’t help but feel like Sam would have more than a few moral objections to this whole idea, and he’s pretty sure he does, too.

But when he feels her twitch under him, he thinks that maybe it was worth it after all. He backs off slowly, and is greeted by the relieving sight of Sam’s eyelids fluttering open. Lizzie presses right up against him, watching with wonder and amazement as her idea actually works.

“Sam?” Jack says her name quietly, almost whispering it. She says nothing, and her eyes appear dull and unfocused even as she stares straight at him, like she’s not seeing him at all.

He’s about to speak again when her eyes widen and she inhales sharply and launches into an awful coughing fit. She pushes past him and he holds her steady as she doubles over, gasping for air. He briefly wonders if she’s registered that he’s here, but he no longer has to when she grabs his sleeve and holds it so tightly that her arm shakes.

“Mommy, are you okay?” Lizzie asks between her mother’s coughs. Sam swallows hard and tries to breathe normally as she looks up at Lizzie, and her relief at seeing her here in front of her evaporates some of her tension. As soon as she gets herself a little more under control, she immediately wraps Lizzie up in a tight hug, perhaps the tightest she’s ever given her.

“I was really scared that you weren’t gonna wake up,” Lizzie whispers, hugging her back. Sam wants to say something, anything back to her, but can’t find the words. She continues to hold her as she concentrates on breathing.

“Are you okay?” she finally asks Lizzie, breaking the hug only so she can check her for bumps and bruises.

As Sam runs her fingers through Lizzie’s hair, she smiles and nods. “I’m okay, Mommy,” she tells her. “It’s okay. You kept me safe.”

Sam hesitates and swallows again. The ache in her chest says otherwise, but before she can say anything about it, she feels Jack’s hand on her shoulder.

“Hey,” he says. “You scared the crap out of us back there.”

Sam laughs, weakly but gratefully, and covers his hand with hers. She coughs a few more times before asking, “What happened?”

Jack shrugs. “Doesn’t matter. You’re here now.”

She squeezes his hand and takes a quick look around the room. Her shoulders sag slightly with disappointment. “But still not awake.”

“Not yet,” Jack replies, “but you’ll get there.”

She exhales shakily, drops her head, and shuts her eyes. “God,” she mutters. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up.”

All three of them stay silent for a few moments. Jack’s hand remains on her shoulder, and Lizzie wraps her arms around Sam’s, quietly clinging to her.

There are many questions buzzing through Sam’s mind (most of them starting with “what” and “how the hell”) but she asks the most obvious one. “Where is he?”

Jack looks toward the wall where he and Lizzie entered. “Out there.”

Sam shakes her head. “I don’t know what to do.” She gazes at the wall, half-expecting the man to come blasting through it, but she can’t hear any ominous sounds of destruction coming from the other side. A good sign, for once. She turns to Jack and stares him straight in the eye. “I don’t know what to do.

She’s not sure what it is that she sees in Jack’s eyes in that moment, but it resembles a little too closely the same look he gave her the first morning that she was set to go through the gate without him. Resigned. Disappointed. Hopefully not regretful, but maybe. It had only been there for a second, and then he’d blinked or she had and it was gone, replaced instead by quiet pride, by the confidence that his team- Cam’s team, would be just fine, and Sam would most definitely return to him by the time the sun set.

The same thing happens here. He says nothing, but instead drapes her arm across his shoulders and helps her off the floor. The blood rushes out of her head, and she feels dizzy and cold. Her knees buckle, but he keeps a firm hold on her, and eventually she regains the strength she needs to stand.

“We brought you a little something to help you out,” Jack says, still keeping a hand on her back even after she’s let go of him.

“God, I hope it’s a bazooka,” Sam mutters, running a hand through her hair as she blinks away the last of the stars swarming her vision.

“Not exactly,” Jack admits with a wince. “But it looks pretty cool anyway.”

When she finally looks up, she’s surprised to see none other than the artifact, still in sword form, with its blade planted firmly into the ground a few yards in front of her. She swallows a thousand questions, only to have a thousand more pop into her head. Lizzie gazes at her expectantly and Jack does the same.

“No,” Sam finally says. “No, what is that?”

Jack glances from her to the sword. “Well, obviously it’s a pony. We know how much you’ve always wanted one.”

Sam gives him a look. “That,” she says, gesturing toward the sword, “is what you brought to help me.”

Jack’s gaze shifts from left to right as he awkwardly shifts his weight. “…Yep.”

“Yeah, okay.” Sam feels torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to curl up in a ball in the corner. “The last time I touched that, it didn’t really go over so well.”

“Well, this is different.”

Sam looks at him, not making any sort of effort to hide her bafflement, and he merely stands there with his hands in his pockets. After an agonizingly long pause, he offers a small shrug, and she shuts her eyes and covers her face with one hand. Lizzie quietly watches the exchange, suppressing little giggles because she’s sure it’s nowhere near appropriate right now.

“What am I supposed to do with that?” Sam finally asks.

“Trim the hedges.”


“Look, you’ve used weirder stuff to get yourself out of jams before.” She has to admit she can’t argue with that. “An Ori staff,” Jack continues. “A plasma torch. A knife up against-”

Sam puts her hands up to silence him, but he finishes anyway. “-a very big and very sharp blade.”

“Yes,” Sam says with a sigh. “Thank you.”

Jack smiles broadly. “Anytime.”

Lizzie can’t take it anymore, and the laughter she’d been trying so hard to contain slips out for just a second. She immediately covers her mouth with both hands and looks from her mother to her father with wide eyes.

A smile slowly spreads across Sam’s face, and she ducks her head and laughs. She feels overwhelmed at the sound of her own laughter; it seems like it’s been eons since she’s been able to do so. In that moment, she’s very sure of three things: she’s sore, she’s exhausted, and she really wants to wake the hell up.

She kneels in front of Lizzie, takes both of her hands away from her face, and smiles at her as she holds them. “Well, Lizzie,” she says to her. “What do you think I should do?”

Lizzie straightens before she speaks, and puffs out her chest just a little bit. “I think you should kick that guy’s butt.”

Sam grins. “Yeah. I think so, too.”

She gives Lizzie one last hug before she stands and turns back to face Jack. There are a lot of things she wants to say, and she can tell there are a lot of things he wants to say as well. It’s a very familiar situation. There’s something almost comforting about it now, as their words silently pass between each other. The corners of their mouths tug into small smiles almost simultaneously. She takes a few steps backwards, keeping her gaze locked with his for as long as possible before she swivels around to close the distance between herself and the sword.

Sam stands in front of it for a moment, staring at the way it sticks out of the floor just slightly askew. It looks like it’s been cleaned up quite a bit, as the blade is actually visible as opposed to being covered by rough blue crust. She tentatively reaches out to touch the handle, hesitating for only a few seconds before she just grabs it, hoping that she won’t end up dead on the floor as a result. She braces for some kind of pain or dizziness or even subtle tingling, but there’s nothing, and she quietly breathes a sigh of relief.

Tightening her grip on the sword, she yanks on it as hard as she possibly can, and to call this “overkill” would be an understatement; it slides so easily out of the floor that she stumbles backwards with it. It isn’t even heavy, and in fact, she thinks it’s quite light for a sword. Not that she’s ever had to fight with one; she’s not as lucky as Cam.

She adjusts her grip on the handle a few times, turning it over against her palm, and ends up catching her reflection in the blade. A hint of red near her hairline catches her eye, and she winces as her fingers brush the wound there. She’s definitely been in better shape. But, as it turns out, she finds herself filled with new energy, and knows that’s not a coincidence.

“Sam.” She turns at the sound of Jack’s voice and sees him standing with Lizzie, holding her hand and looking at her with that resigned expression again. “Do what you have to do,” he continues, his voice soft. “Just come home.”

There’s a lump in her throat all of a sudden, and she looks away from him as she attempts to swallow it. Her eyes fall on the sword again, the way she’s holding it in her hand. It seems a little unsteady, a little too foreign. But it’s her last line of defense, and she’s grateful that Jack and Lizzie brought it to her.

“Listen,” she begins, trying to keep her voice even. “I just want you both to know that I-”

She stops when she glances up again and finds herself staring at empty space. She turns around in a full circle, scanning the room for them, but they’re not here, and she’s alone.

She looks down at the sword for a third time. Strengthening her hold on it, she tests it with a few small swings. It’s still as light as a feather, but still sturdy enough that it should be capable of doing some serious damage. Taking a deep breath, she faces the wall before her, and steps through.

Her boot makes contact with absolutely nothing on the other side, and she yelps in shock as she scurries backwards from a ledge that definitely wasn’t there when she left. She glances behind her, expecting her back to hit the wall she just came through, but there’s nothing, and there’s no evidence it had ever been there.

She looks back at the ledge again as she continues to step away from it. It’s dark brown, nearly black- the color of charred earth. Instead of seeing the white she’d grown so accustomed to, she’s stunned to see that the entire floor now sports this deep, dead color, while the walls are nothing but black. And, in fact, they aren’t even walls now, they’re silent invitations to the empty darkness she nearly fell into. She has no idea how far down it goes, but she gets an icy feeling that she wouldn’t ever be coming back from wherever it is. She feels like she’s standing on top of a mountain, and it’s enough to make her shiver. The cold breeze that hits her doesn’t help matters.

There’s a noise behind her and she whirls around, holding the sword in front of her defensively. The man stares back at her from the opposite side of the plateau, his eyes narrow and his jaw set hard. Without a word, he puts his hands out in front of him, and a wave of energy quickly forms into a sword of his own. It glistens against periodic crackles of electricity, and Sam thinks that this is really it. One of them is going to die here.

“You don’t have to do this!” she yells at him. “We don’t have to do this! You can still let me go!”

The man doesn’t move. “It is far too late for that,” he replies, his voice strong and clear.

She really doesn’t want to do this; she’s never liked to kill. But if it’s between him and her, she knows what choice she has to make.

“I guess it is,” Sam says, and tightens her grip on her sword.

“Dr. Fraiser.”

Janet ignores the nurse and continues her chest compressions. One, two, three, please, Sam.

“Dr. Fraiser.” She says it louder this time, and Janet looks up.

“I’m a little busy right now, what is it?”

The nurse looks frightened, almost, as she says, “It’s been fifteen minutes.”

Janet shakes her head. It can’t have been. “No, you must be mistaken, it’s barely been half that.”

“It’s been fifteen minutes,” the nurse repeats, and she doesn’t dare say it, but it’s more than time to call it.

Janet truly never imagined it would come to this. As many times as Sam had come home bloodied and broken, as many near-death situations her best friend had been in, she’d never actually believed that Sam would die. Which was naïve—stupid, even—and she knew it. She’d lost count long ago of how many of her patients here had died, how many people she just hadn’t been able to save. The fact that she loved Sam didn’t make her invulnerable, didn’t keep her safer than anyone else, but this moment doesn’t feel like it could possibly be real.

Janet stops what she’s doing, looks at her watch, looks at that awful, blaring monitor. There’s a strange rushing sound in her head, and she feels like she’s going to throw up as she says the words. “Time of death, 15:12.”

Jack can feel Charlotte squeezing his hand, hard enough that it should hurt, but it doesn’t. She’s crying, too, he’s vaguely aware of that, and so is Jacob. Daniel stands next to him, completely silent.

He wills his limbs to move, to carry him across the room, and eventually they do, forcing Charlotte to release her grip on his hand. The nurses have backed away from the bed, but Janet hasn’t moved, and he can see tears running down her face as he sinks down to his knees, simply unable to hold himself upright any longer. He puts his head down against her shoulder, and all he can think is that this can’t be happening, this can’t be the end, because everything with Sam always felt like a beginning.

And then there’s a beep.

And another.

And another, in perfect rhythm. And when he looks up, the heart monitor is displaying peaks and valleys in a steady progression. A normal heartbeat.

It’s a nurse who speaks first. “She’s back.”

The man’s sword is on hers in an instant, the clang of metal meeting metal ringing in her ears. Sam’s a little startled by his strength, which is already enough to push her back slightly. She struggles to keep her sword steady and it quivers with the effort. Glancing up, she meets the man’s gaze. It’s cold. Determined. Unforgiving. It’s a look she’s seen directed at her from hundreds of eyes before, but that doesn’t make it any less chilling.

Out of the corner of her eye, she checks the distance behind her. She thinks she’s got a ways to go before they hit the edge, so if the man wants to push her back this badly, then so be it. Keeping a firm grip on her sword, she lets up just enough to use his strength against him. The sudden slack in her effort throws him completely off, and she’s easily able to slide past him as he stumbles forward. She comes up behind him quickly, already in mid-swing, but he’s fast. He whirls around with alarming speed, bringing his sword up to block her blow. So much for that, she thinks, and attempts to back off again.

He won’t let her go so easily this time. He lurches forward and swings hard, leaving a large, sweeping trail across her field of vision. She narrowly misses getting his sword embedded into her shoulder. The man doesn’t stop for a moment, continuing his assault with startling ferocity, and Sam ducks and weaves and marvels at his speed. He’s extremely fast. Exceptionally skilled. And judging by the way his sword keeps whizzing past her, whirlwind-loud in her ears and way too close to her skin, he’s also extremely pissed. Not the most encouraging combination.

Their swords clash repeatedly as Sam tries to turn things to her advantage, or at the very least, find some kind of opening to really hit him hard. No such opening presents itself and she starts to feel like she’s whacking a force shield. They go around in a bit of a circle, their swords’ clanging relentlessly. The reverberation of every hit travels easily through Sam’s arms, and she can feel her muscles aching already. Keeping herself focused proves to be a lot more difficult than she previously thought, especially due to her constantly having to check the ground to see if she’s about to fall off of it.

Her mounting frustration gets the better of her for just a fraction of a second, and it’s enough for the man to break through and slice a deep cut across her cheek. She flinches away from the sudden sharp pain, and therefore has no hope of guarding against him swiftly carving another trail of red across her upper arm. Of course, he gets her right arm, the one she’s holding the sword with, and it’s all she can do to keep holding onto it at she stumbles backwards. He doesn’t follow her, and instead only seems to watch with perverse glee as her free hand instinctively flies to the fresh wound. She doesn’t have to wonder for too long how deep it is, as her hand immediately slips against liquid. A tickling sensation on her face signals the dripping of more blood out of the gash on her cheek, and while she knows she doesn’t have the luxury of worrying about either of these things, she takes the momentary break in the man’s attack to catch her breath.

The man doesn’t use the obvious opening, but instead, starts talking. “Lizzie and I,” he says, half-declaring her name like it’s some sort of prize, which automatically makes Sam’s stomach clench. “We really have much in common.” He pauses for a moment, and Sam assumes he’s watching her to see if she’ll react. “What with both our planets rent asunder by war,” he continues, “we’d clearly have plenty to talk about.” His eyes are wild. “I think we’ll get along well.”

His taunts hit her in the gut, every single one, and she shoves down all her urges to charge at him; she won’t give him that advantage. Her glare is hard as she brings her sword in front of her again, ignoring the throbbing pain in her arm. He regards her with the same nasty grin, but it fades gradually into a smirk and then to nothing as she stands still.

He quickly comes at her again, and she still doesn’t move, waiting until the last possible second to dart out of the way. When she swings at him, her blade makes contact, tearing through his sleeve and sending drops of red flying. He hollers in pain, and this time it’s him whose free hand slaps over a wound. He almost looks shocked to find that she’s drawn blood, shocked to see his own hand covered in red, and he stares at her, mouth slightly agape. She’s already primed and ready for another strike, her sword steady in her hands.

“I don’t why you’re so surprised,” Sam says. “You should’ve seen that coming.” She allows a small smirk to dance on her lips. “After all, you know everything about me, don’t you?”

The man readjusts his sword, pointing it toward her like a spear, and rushes forward. She just barely manages to get out of his way as he flies past her, and she slices at him again, nailing him on his back just below his shoulder. She can hear him grit his teeth, but he appears unfazed as he immediately turns around and rushes at her for a second time. His sword comes uncomfortably close to her thigh, but she successfully slaps it out of the way with her own.

They go through another tedious and stressful period of blocking each other’s blows, and Sam finds herself translating the fight to math in her head to keep herself calm. Not only does it help, it starts to reveal his patterns: high angle, middle arc, low angle. Right side, left side, center. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sometimes he mixes things up a bit, coming in extra low after a high swipe or favoring the center more than the right or the left. But it’s still a pattern, and she watches it intently as their swords continue to clash.

She can’t help but wonder if he senses her watching it, picking it apart in her mind like it’s a set of gears in a machine, because he suddenly swoops in hard, pushing her own sword back against her. It shivers perilously close to her face, and he’s practically right on top of her, so close that she can hear him breathing. She feels herself going backwards again, and not by choice, so she plants her boots down and tries not to slip out of position.

“How do you know they haven’t just let you die in the waking world?” the man asks, grinning deviously.

“I don’t,” Sam evenly admits. “But I don’t think they have.”

“Because they entered your mind to help you when I killed you?” His grin expands.

“They didn’t. That wasn’t them.” Sam deftly meets another low strike. Their swords shake near her leg. “That was probably my subconscious keeping me alive. I thought you would’ve known that; it’s not like it’s the first time it’s happened.”

The man returns to the center, Sam blocks it again. “Your will can only take you so far.”

He breaks off suddenly, dodging her sword as it comes down without any resistance to stop it. Sam feels him trying to move behind her and follows him, but before she can turn to face him, she feels a sharp pain suddenly explode from her thigh and spies a red streak out of the corner of her eye.

The few seconds she struggles to remain standing are all that the man needs to grab her by the wrist, wrench one hand away from her sword’s hilt, and swing her around until her back is to him. When he stops, she feels a slight pressure and a sharp chill across her shoulder blades.

“Only so far,” he repeats, leaning close to hiss the words into her ear. He swiftly slices his sword into her back and an anguished yell escapes her as her knees buckle under the weight of the pain.

The man tightens his hold on Sam’s wrist and swings her again. Once he has them facing each other, he lets go, and as Sam begins to fall, he kicks her in the stomach as hard as he can.

She shuts her eyes as she flies backwards, both with the overwhelming, screaming pain and the hope that this isn’t going to send her over the edge.

She’s not dead. She’s not dead. Still in a goddamn coma, but she’s not dead, and it’s this fact that Jack holds onto as he wills himself to stand.

Janet is scribbling on a clipboard, and seems dazed, almost. For just a split-second he hears her pronouncing Sam dead again, but he shoves it out of his mind. No. She’s not dead. Janet shakes her head as if to clear it, to chase away her own replaying memory of calling her closest friend’s time of death.

Charlotte, wiping tears out of her eyes, has grabbed onto Daniel’s right arm because she can’t hold onto Janet. He rubs at his eyes as well, as Jacob moves to stand beside his daughter’s bed again.

He reaches out to run his hand along the side of her face. “Keep fighting, Sam.”

Jack rests his hands lightly on Sam’s arm, and finds himself unable to speak. Not dead, he repeats silently to himself, but winces as he’s unable to keep from finishing that thought with yet.

As if on cue, a bloody slash appears on Sam’s shoulder, just as it happened before, and then another on her face, right under Jacob’s hand. Jacob pulls away from her quickly, his hand smeared with her blood, and shouts, “Dr. Fraiser!”

But she is two steps ahead of him, having sprung into action already. As she hurries to tend to Sam’s new wounds, a spot of red appears on the sheet above Sam’s thigh, growing quickly.

Jack, having taken a step back, finds his voice. “Doc, do something!” This awful back and forth is too much, and he closes his eyes for a moment, nauseated.

“I’m trying,” is Janet’s panicked reply. “This isn’t my fight, Jack. It’s Sam’s.”

Sam slams onto her side, feels the ground scraping her skin as she rolls, and thinks, As if I need to bleed any more today. She’s already lost the sword and hears it clattering somewhere behind her, so she tries to shift her weight as best she can to stop her dizzying movement. It doesn’t do much, but it does slow her somewhat. After a few more agonizing seconds of tumbling along on the floor, she comes to a stop and lies on her stomach, just trying to breathe.

She doesn’t waste much time there and is quick to push herself up, one shaking arm at a time, while shutting her eyes against her swimming, swirling vision. When she cracks one eyelid open and glances to her right, her breath catches in her throat for a split-second as she finds herself looking down at darkness and realizes she’s right on the edge of the plateau. Even though there’s nothing to see down there and she’s not afraid of heights, she’s overcome by an odd sense of vertigo just the same. Lacking the strength to actually get up off of the floor, she pushes herself away with both arms and rolls in the opposite direction. She comes to rest on her stomach again, far enough away from the edge that she won’t do something stupid like slip off.

The man’s footsteps echo chillingly, and she spies her sword just a few yards away. He’s already moving toward it, and she curses silently as she hauls herself up again. Her stomach aches from the force of his kick, her back screams with its new bloody tear, and her leg throbs and shakes under her as she tries to stand on it. There isn’t time to worry about any of this, despite the fact that she feels like she could fall over right now and not get up ever again. Shaking off the last of her dizziness, she races toward her sword, and watches as the man does the same.

For a moment, she thinks there’s no way she’ll reach it before he does, not while every step she takes sends paralyzing waves of pain throughout her body. He’s close and already reaching for it when she dives to close to remaining distance, snatching it up and away before the man can even think about touching it. For good measure, she slices at his calf and rolls out from under him as he collapses onto one knee.

Before she really has time to think about it, she rams herself into him, tackling him to the floor and sending his sword skidding away. They wrestle with each other for a few moments, but it’s finally Sam who slams his back against the floor and places her blade right up against his neck. She breathes heavily, sweat misting on her forehead as pain threatens to overwhelm her.

The man laughs and slams his fist into her arm, right where her wound is, before she can go about slicing his throat open. The pain is raw and explosive, immediately breaking Sam’s focus and making it easy for the man to roughly shove her off of him. As soon as she hits the floor, he puts his other arm out beside him and opens his palm. His sword vibrates slightly before being pulled toward him like metal attracted to a magnet. The hilt swiftly comes into his grip, and he quickly prepares to strike her. Before he can, she guards herself with her sword, and the two blades lock against each other again. The two of them rise up off of the floor slowly, their swords tangled together.

The man grins at her. His eyes are wide and glinting with a spark of certifiable insanity.

“Do you know what merging is like?” he asks, pushing harder against her sword.

Sam resists a very real urge to roll her eyes. “No,” she replies through clenched teeth, “but I’m sure you’re going to tell me whether I like it or not.”

He waits until her gaze locks with his before speaking, almost as if he wants to make sure he sees her reaction. “Merging is the most beautiful feeling in the world. There is nothing that could even hope to compare with its absolutely consuming ecstasy.” He pauses, grinning again. “Nothing except, perhaps… the night he retired.”

That actually startles her, and he’s able to push her back a few steps before she comes to her senses. Her heart hammers in her chest as a wave of nausea sweeps over her. She knows exactly where this is going and she almost can’t believe it. But she remembers with stomach-churning clarity the way he’d lingered on that memory, hovering over it like a vulture. Whether it was from intense curiosity or perverse fascination, she thinks she’ll never know, but the hideous feeling of violation would be staying with her for a very long time.

“Absolutely magnificent,” the man continues, “to think that someone would give up everything just to be with another. That is the essence of merging, don’t you see? To reach out and grasp that most exquisite happiness.”

She knows it won’t do any good, but Sam takes a good, hard swing at him anyway. Predictably, he blocks it and resumes his blathering.

“You opened yourself to him that night, and he opened himself to you, and you’d never been so filled with joy.”

“Because I loved him,” Sam spits. “And what you want isn’t anything like that.”

“It isn’t?” The man, annoyingly enough, remains unfazed. “Two beings coming together, learning everything about each other, their bodies melting together to become something more powerful. It’s merging.” The man adopts his previously crazed look. “And the opportunity I presented to you was different. It was better. And you dared to reject it.”

The area beneath his hands begins to glow, and Sam’s stomach drops as she realizes he’s gathering energy. It passes through the hilt and up to the very tip of the blade of his sword, making it pulsate brightly.

“You dared to reject it,” he repeats, his grin transforming into a snarl, “and as such, you will never wake up.”

He slides back, reaching up and swinging his sword down in a powerful slice, and the pooled energy exits it in a hard rush. Sam tries to hold her ground, but quickly finds herself overpowered. Her back slams against the floor a few feet away with a familiar, albeit much more painful sense of failure. She lies there, shaking as she tries to get up, tries to ignore the creeping numbness in her limbs, all while keeping as tight a hold on her sword as possible.

As soon as she pushes herself into something at least slightly resembling a sitting position, she finds the man’s sword pointed inches from her face, already alight with another dose of energy. He stands before her, a confident smirk on his lips.

“How will he feel, knowing he will never share another night like that with you?” he asks. “How will he react, never again being able to hold you in his arms, never again being able to whisper promises of eternal happiness into your skin?” His eyes narrow as his smirk grows. “How much do you think it will crush him having to live the rest of his life without his most beloved for a second time?

He raises his sword above his head, but Sam leaps up just as he brings it down. Instead of being knocked away by the wave that comes at her, she maintains her position and holds the sword in front of her. It shivers against the force of the wave, but it acts like a shield, drawing the energy away from her and into itself. The man’s mouth drops as he watches Sam’s sword glow and crackle with his own energy.

The sword already feels like a lead weight in Sam’s hands, and she fights the urge to let it drop. She glares at him as she starts to raise the sword above her, arms shaking with the effort, and the man backs away.

“The day I merge with you,” Sam shouts, “is the day hell freezes over!” Energy swirls around the sword above her like a raging storm. “And I’ll never let you stop me from going home!

She swings the sword with everything she has, and the man can only stand there, wide-eyed and horrified as his own energy envelops him. He screams as it hits him, passing through him in a sizzling, unavoidable wave. Although he never hits the floor, he stumbles backwards and his sword falls out of his hand, dropping to the floor with a loud clatter. His legs tremble as he struggles to stay standing, and his head drops as he moans in pain.

Sam needs no further encouragement, and seizes what she’s sure is the only opportunity she’ll get to do this. As the man sways weakly, distracted by the paralysis threatening to consume him, Sam rushes toward him. It only takes a few seconds for her to grab him by the shoulder, pull him toward her, and plunge her blade into his stomach.

The man makes no sound save for a small gurgle. He tries to wrench himself free of Sam’s grip, but she tightens her hold until the tips of her fingers are white and drives the sword in deeper. When his knees give out, she goes down with him, making sure her sword stays exactly where it is. He falls back onto the floor and she grabs the handle with both hands, using her weight to force the blade farther in, enough so that it’s lodged tightly in the floor and he’s stuck there, unable to do anything but twitch. Blood bubbles out from his stomach, while a trail of red begins to slip out of his mouth.

He stares at Sam, and she stares back, not taking her hands away from her sword. She knows she should probably pull it out to speed this up, but from the way he’s looking at her, she thinks it’s already too late for him anyway. His free hand, quivering and smothered in red, reaches up toward her. He laughs weakly.

“I should have known,” he mutters, “that it would end this way.”

His hand doesn’t make it to her before the light in his eyes fades. His chest falls with one final exhalation, and his arm drops to his side. He stays completely still and his body, pools of blood and all, gradually begin to fade away, disappearing as if he had been a simple illusion.

The bleak atmosphere he’d created slowly starts to restore itself, the dark blacks and browns disintegrating to once again reveal the familiar white underneath. The cold plateau dissolves out of existence beneath Sam’s feet, replaced by the pristine white floor with no perilous edges to speak of. She is finally alone, still gripping the handle of her sword in this bright white place that is her mind.

She keeps her hands on her sword as she crumples to her knees, shaking and taking huge gulps of air as her stockpile of adrenaline finally leaves her. Only then does she realize just how deep into her bones her exhaustion runs, and she has to resist the compulsion to simply collapse onto the floor. She closes her eyes second and allows herself to feel relief at the fact that it’s finally over.

A sharp pain in her left side shoves her out of the moment, and she brings a hand to the spot. It slips against something wet, and her eyelids fly open. The pain intensifies exponentially, and she feels something slipping down her leg as she realizes the entire area is damp and amazingly tender. She brings her hand back in front of her, and the color drains from her face when she finds herself staring at a hand covered in blood.

She sways slightly under an unexpected wave of dizziness and her vision begins to swirl. She puts her bloodied hand back over her injury, wincing at the quiet squishing sound as she lets her fingers explore the wound. It’s deep, very deep and very warm, but the rest of her suddenly feels so cold. When had this happened? How long had she been bleeding out like this? More importantly, why was it even an issue? Without the man here to control her head, she should be awake by now, shouldn’t she?

Her breaths rattle in her chest and she feels herself titling to the side. With one hand still on the sword’s handle, she tries to hold onto it to keep herself upright, but her tired fingers slip away despite her best efforts. She falls onto the floor on her side, the side where her injury resides. A small, pained sound escapes her, and she turns slowly onto her back. Her hand finds the wound again, and even though it probably won’t do any good now, she presses against it as best she can. It’s not much given her current state. She glances down, sees a crimson puddle expanding beneath her at an alarming rate, and diverts her gaze to the ceiling instead.

Her eyelids feel heavier with every blink. She can hear an awful shallowness in her breaths, each one a struggle. After all that… Sam thinks bitterly, sadly, trailing off as the parts of her mind that haven’t yet shut down retreat to visions of Jack and Lizzie.

I guess as long as they’re safe, then…

Her eyelids slowly flutter closed.

“Hey! Who said you could sleep?”

The sound of the voice jerks her back to consciousness, and when she opens her eyes, blinking a few times to clear away the blurry mess that is her vision, it’s Jack’s face that she sees staring down at her.

“C’mon, get up,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s time to go.”

Sam snorts derisively. “Come to escort me to the pearly gates?” She winces against a small burst of pain.

Jack glances off to the side, puzzled. “Last I checked, you don’t believe in the pearly gates.”

“Yeah, well.” Sam pauses as she takes in a few ragged breaths. “Given the circumstances, maybe I should.”

He doesn’t say anything in reply to that, so she stares at the ceiling again, trying to concentrate on the currently arduous task of inhaling and exhaling. She’s so tired, and everything hurts, and she aches for any kind of relief. Her eyelids begin to close again.

“Sam.” His voice, calm and surprisingly soft, brings her back a second time. He kneels down beside her, and only then does she see the concern in his eyes. “Don’t do this now,” he tells her. “Not when you’re so close.”

Her pulse quickens against a sudden flood of emotion. Some of it is aggravation, most of it is fear. She looks away and presses harder against her side. “So close to what?” she asks, barely able to get the words out.

Jack doesn’t answer. He moves to brush a few strands of hair from her face, but stops halfway, his hand retreating back to his side. It makes Sam’s heart clench, and she suddenly feels desperate for some sort of contact with him, if only to let her know that she is, in fact, still alive. Her throat burns with building tears, and she swallows hard.

Jack’s gaze remains locked with hers. “Just get up,” he urges.

Sam exhales sharply, gritting her teeth with frustration. “I can’t,” she says after a shaking breath. “It hurts.”

She thinks she must be scaring him again, and when his eyes shift to that awful, sad thing that cuts her heart right in half, she wishes she wasn’t. “I’m sorry,” she chokes out, a few tears rolling down the side of her face.

After a moment of silence, Sam says, “Tell Lizzie that I-”

Sam.” Jack shuts his eyes against her words.

“Jack, please.” The tears are starting to slip out faster than she can control them. “Tell her-”

“Stop it,” he says, just a little too forcefully. She flinches. He takes a breath. “Just stop,” he murmurs. “You can tell her yourself. It’s not time for you to be saying this crap yet.”

Another moment of silence passes between them. She can’t tell which of them is more scared right now, but when she shivers against cold sweat, she thinks it must be her. Breathing was already hard before, but now it’s almost impossible against tears that just won’t stop.

She shuts her eyes in an attempt to regain at least a sliver of composure, but loses it all over again when she says, pleading, “I really don’t want to die here.”

Jack’s reply is simple: “Then don’t.” It makes something click inside her, gives her the calm she so desperately sought, and she stops shivering.

“What do I do?” she asks, her voice barely above a whisper. “How do I wake up?”

“Over here, Mommy.” Sam can’t turn her head fast enough toward the sound of Lizzie’s voice, and for a moment, her chest tightens: Lizzie shouldn’t see her like this, but she actually looks surprisingly calm for someone whose mother is dangerously pale and bleeding all over the floor.

Lizzie smiles. “Go through here,” she says, pointing behind her at another plain door in the wall. It’s not too far away, only a yard or two, but she seriously doubts her ability to get there in her current condition.

She turns to Jack again. “That’s it?” she asks.

“That’s it,” he responds with a small smile.

She looks back toward the door, and Lizzie is gone, no longer standing in front of it or anywhere at all.

“It’s time to come home, Sam,” she hears Jack say, but when she turns toward him, he too has vanished.

Alone again, Sam stares at the ceiling.

Her heart hammers, not with nausea or fear or pain, but with renewed determination, as she studies the distance to the door. It’s not that far, she assures herself. It’s really not that far.

She concentrates on Jack’s last words to her as she tips herself over, flopping onto her stomach and gasping at the white-hot sting coming from her side. Slowly, she pushes herself up, propping herself on one elbow and breathing hard. For a minute, she sees two doors, but manages to blink the dizziness away.

She glances behind her and spies her sword still stuck in the floor. It’s the last she sees of it as she takes a deep breath and begins to pull herself forward, leaving a trail of red in her wake.

The infirmary is in a frenzy again. Nurses hand Janet supplies as she requests them, and her vision starts to tunnel around Sam. Her pulse is all over the place with her erratic heartbeat, and the sheets are stained with her blood. There’s a gaping wound in her side now, near her abdomen, and it’s been dripping onto the floor for God knows how long, its flow of blood seemingly unstoppable no matter what Janet tries to do. She starts to feel frantic again, thinking that she can’t let Sam die now, not like this, not when she went to all the trouble of coming back to them. It may not be Janet’s fight, but she’ll be damned if she doesn’t do everything in her power to help Sam win.

She’s not sure who’s in the room now, although she knows that if she were to turn around, she’d find Jack still there. She honestly can’t imagine what this must be like for him, he who was always the first to arrive and the last to leave the infirmary any time Sam had been injured, and that was when they hadn’t even been together. She tries not to dwell on it too much, the fact that he had always been so adamant about protecting her, even when doing so wasn’t within his power.

She needs to get this wound under control. Sam is dangerously close to needing surgery to close the damn thing, and Janet only wishes that statement was a joke. She’s losing blood faster than they can get it into her; the still shrill beeping of the monitors is evidence of that..

“All right, everybody listen up!” she declares, commanding the entire room’s attention with a single sentence. “We need to get-”

She’s interrupted by the sight of Sam’s body lurching up. At first she thinks she’s seizing, but gasps silently when she realizes her eyes are open.

Janet wonders if she might be seeing things, if her desire for Sam to awaken has pushed her brain into manufacturing some kind of cruel mirage, but it’s very real. Before she can check to see if Sam’s aware of her surroundings, her eyes meet hers, and the relief Janet feels is palpable. It’s only temporary, though, as she spots trails of moisture running down Sam’s face and watches her struggling against the tube in her throat.

“Shh, Sam, it’s all right, you’re all right,” Janet reassures her, placing a firm hand on her arm. She waits for Sam to meet her gaze again before she continues, and there’s a hard pang in her chest when she sees how scared she looks. “Listen to me, okay, Sam?” she says, keeping her hand on her arm, while the other presses lightly against her cheek to prevent her from turning away. “You’re all right. You were in a coma. Do you remember what happened? Just nod yes or no for me.”

A nurse murmurs in Janet’s ear that it appears the wound has finally begun to clot. If this keeps up, she might call it a miracle tomorrow. Meanwhile, Sam nods slowly at first, but then more forcefully. She remembers, and that’s something.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Janet continues, “and we need to put you under to take care of-”

Sam shakes her head at that, her eyes wide with panic. Janet holds her shoulders to try to keep her still. “Sam,” she says, “Sam, you have to listen to me.” She stops moving and stares at Janet again, a thousand words trapped in her throat. “If we don’t do this, you could die. Do you understand?”

Sam blinks rapidly, tears spilling from her eyes. Her breaths are quick and short, and the monitor reflects her heart rate: stable, but high. After a few moments, it begins to drop to something a little more acceptable, and her breathing becomes more even. She nods her head slowly, staring at Janet with silent trust.

Janet nods in return, places her palm against Sam’s cheek, and then steps back to call for more supplies.

When they finally administer the anesthesia, Janet sees a clear spark of determination in Sam’s eyes, and feels a little more confident in telling herself that she’ll be okay.

She sleeps for an entire day.

When Sam’s eyelids flutter open, the infirmary is quiet, save for some beeping that she eventually recognizes as her own heartbeat. It’s steady and even, and she takes some comfort in the sound. She swallows with ease, grateful that there’s no longer a tube jammed down her throat, unsettled by the faint copper taste on her tongue. She looks down at herself, sees her arms wrapped in clean white bandages, senses a piece of gauze taped to her cheek.

She doesn’t know if she should feel sick with the fact that it all really happened, or appreciative that she really did make it out alive.

She is sure of one thing, though: she doesn’t want to be alone, and she knows Janet won’t be far away. She mumbles her name, thinking it sounds absolutely indecipherable and there’s no way she’ll ever hear it, but Janet appears over her anyway a few footsteps later.

“Hey, Sam,” she says, smiling softly. There’s something distinctly relieved in her eyes. “How are you feeling?”

Sam blinks slowly and answers truthfully. “Like shit.”

Janet chuckles, thankful to see a little bit of her humor so soon. “Yeah,” she replies. “I’ll bet.” She pauses, takes a breath. “You sure gave us a run for our money this time.”

Sam swallows again. “I know.”

They don’t say anything for a few moments. Eventually, Janet puts a reassuring hand on her arm and moves to tinker with her IVs.

“Where’s the artifact?” Sam asks quietly.

Janet doesn’t answer right away. “Destroyed,” she finally says. “Apparently, not long after you came out of the coma, it just exploded into dust right there in the containment unit.” Sam swears she sees a small smirk on Janet’s lips. “And I’m fairly certain we won’t be going back to that planet anytime soon.”

Sam’s quite relieved to hear that; they certainly don’t need more of those things being carted back to Earth. “Where’s… everybody?” she asks next.

“Right outside,” Janet answers, the smirk clear on her lips now. She completes her task with the IVs and turns back to Sam. “I told them to go home quite a while ago, but no one really left. They’ve been waiting to see you, but I can tell them to come back later if you-”

“Send them in,” Sam says, her voice a little stronger this time.

“Are you sure?”

Sam nods and looks right into Janet’s eyes. “Please. Send them in.”

Janet smiles, says, “Okay,” and then heads for the door. When she opens it, Sam hears an awful lot of scraping of chairs and scuffling of boots, followed by a silence that she can almost see in her mind’s eye, all of them standing there holding their breath. Janet’s voice is only a murmur in her ears, but she can hear her talking to them in what is very clearly her doctor voice, and the corners of her mouth tug into a smile.

They poke their heads through the doorway and enter eagerly, albeit cautiously, in a cluster. Relief is on every single one of their faces, and that combined with the fact that she’s so happy to finally see them makes Sam’s heart flutter. Maybe she really should’ve taken this a little slower, but she doesn’t care, and her smile has no hope of leaving her face.

There’s a sniffle, and then another, and Sam realizes it’s coming from Vala. She’s right at the front, standing between Daniel and Cam, and she puts a hand to her mouth as she tries to hold back an imminent flood of tears. She puts up a good fight against them, but as soon as she meets Sam’s gaze, she’s gone, and she lets a loud sob out into her hand. Her fingers grasp for Daniel’s, and she moves to embrace him, but finds that he’s a little overcome with some emotions of his own. Not satisfied with the prospect of not being able to hide in someone’s hug, she glances around for a few seconds before leaping on Cam, wrapping her arms around his neck and sobbing into his shoulder.

“Ow, ow, ow.” Cam winces and tentatively returns the gesture.

Vala peeks out, her face streaked with tears. “Don’t ever scare us like that again.”

Burying her face back in Cam’s shirt, she passionately resumes her crying, and Daniel and Cam move to lead her out of the room. "Take it easy, Sam," Cam tells her as he pats Vala's back awkwardly.

"We'll be back soon," Daniel says, and Vala nods emphatically, wiping at her eyes.

Teal'c approaches the bed as they depart, his eyes soft. “Colonel Carter,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. “I am glad you are well.” Sam immediately reaches out and grasps his hand, really only catching a few of his fingers as she hangs onto him. Very gently, Teal’c takes her hand and places it between his own. They stay like that for a few moments before he bows his head briefly and leaves.

Charlotte and Cassie are next, each taking a turn to gently squeeze Sam's hand. "We love you, Sam," Cassie says, as Charlotte, momentarily unable to speak, blinks away her tears.

Janet leans over the bed and kisses Sam's forehead softly. "Welcome back," she says as she straightens, and her voice threatens to break. "I'll be back to check on you in an hour. Sooner if you need anything." She trails after her wife and daughter, leaving Jack, Lizzie and Jacob with Sam.

She breathes in, taking in the sight of them. “Hi,” she says, and is a bit surprised at how soft and shaky her voice sounds, and how that one word is all she can manage to say, when she feels so much. She did it. She survived, she made it back to her family, and here they are. She hurts, but she knows it’s not nearly as bad as it should be- Janet must have given her something really good.

Sam reaches weakly for her father, who stands to her right. “Hi, sweetheart,” he says as he takes her hand, his voice as quiet as she can remember it ever being, his eyes full of tears.

Jack stands on the other side of the bed, his hand resting on Lizzie’s back as she clings to his pant leg. “It’s about time,” he says, the corners of his mouth turning up. “I was getting tired of waiting.” There’s something in his eyes, she thinks, something tired and relieved and full of love, and she wants more than anything to be wrapped up safely in his arms instead of lying mostly immobile in an infirmary bed.

She breathes in and out, steadily. “I’m sorry I kept you from the Simpsons,” she says, and is pleased when he smiles in response, reaching for her other hand. See, she tries to tell him with her eyes, I’m okay, I can make jokes. Don’t worry.

Her eyes rest on her little girl, still plastered to Jack’s side. Lizzie is usually quite talkative, but she’s been silent this whole time. Sam realizes that she must not be an entirely reassuring sight, all bandaged up like this. She feels an uncomfortable tugging in her chest as she thinks about how scared Lizzie must have been, so dangerously close to losing another mother.

Sam aches inside, a completely separate ache from the ones caused by her physical wounds. She almost didn’t make it back to them, back to Lizzie. She would have missed so much, she would have missed her daughter growing up, becoming the strong, smart, beautiful woman that she knows Lizzie will someday be. She feels a tear slipping out of her eye before she can stop it. Don’t cry, she thinks. You’re here and you’re not going to miss anything.

“Hi, baby,” she says to her daughter. “I know it looks bad, but I’m okay. I promise. Everything’s going to be okay now.”

Lizzie blinks at her, letting go of Jack and reaching for Sam, running her fingers lightly over Sam’s unbandaged cheek. “I missed you, Mommy.”

“Oh, honey,” Sam says, her voice cracking, and she can’t stop the tears from spilling out of her eyes, now. “I missed you too.” Lizzie’s bottom lip quivers a bit, and Sam laments to herself, again, that she is stuck lying down, because now she wants more than anything to hold Lizzie tightly, to stroke her hair and kiss her cheeks and her forehead and her perfect little nose.

Lizzie has started to cry, hands back at her sides, her shoulders shaking with the release of what Sam knows is far too much tension for one tiny little girl. “I didn’t know if you would ever wake up,” she says, and her words dissolve into sobs that make Sam’s own tears start to come faster.

Jack drags a chair up to the bed and sits, pulling Lizzie into his lap so he can hold her while she cries without lifting her up and away, too far from her mother. Lizzie grabs for Sam’s hand, and Sam holds on tight, hating that she’s hurt too badly for Lizzie to get in the bed with her. “I’m sorry I scared you,” she says. “I’m so sorry you had to be scared.”

Lizzie sniffles and nods- forgiveness. Jack’s eyes lock with Sam’s and he nods too- it’s all right, everything is all right. “You helped, you know,” she tells Lizzie, still gripping her hand.

Lizzie lets out another tiny sniffle, and then says, “I did?”

Sam nods. “You did. I knew you were waiting for me, so I knew I had to try as hard as I could to get back to you.”

Lizzie’s eyes brighten. “That’s what Uncle Cam said! He said you were really strong, Mommy, and you were trying really hard to wake up for me.”

Sam smiles again as she thinks of Cam, of believing. “He was right.”

Lizzie leans toward Sam and lowers her voice, “And he said that cake and macaroons are the best thing for feeling better, but I was glad we just had cake. I don’t like macaroons.”

Sam lets out a short laugh, and oh, God, she’s glad to be back.

Janet returns after precisely one hour, just as she said she would, and gives Sam a dose of something lovely that takes her pain away completely this time. It leaves her feeling drowsy and warm, and she feels herself drifting off to sleep again, though she can’t imagine how she could possibly need to sleep more.

She feels Jacks fingers on her forehead, gently brushing her hair away from her face, and hears him tell her that it’s okay, she should get some rest. She wonders if she was protesting sleep out loud.

“Janet,” she says, and thinks that her voice sounds awfully slurred.

“Yes, Sam?”

Oh, good, Janet’s still here. “Can I have some Jell-o, later?”

Janet smiles and shares an amused look with Jack. “Of course. Blue, I assume?”

“Mmhmm. And Jack should have some too, he’ll be sad if he gets left out. And Lizzie. Oh, but hers should be sugar free. And mine. And Jack’s, just to mess with him.”

“Hey.” Oops. He heard.

Sam can hear Lizzie giggling, and she thinks it might just be the best sound in the world. “Take a nap, Mama. We’ll have jell-o when you wake up!” She closes her eyes and allows herself to drift off, comforted by the knowledge that she’ll wake up soon.

She spends the next few days in and out of the haze of Janet’s magical pain killers. Jack and her father are both by her side more often than not, but she insists that Lizzie go back to school, as she’d already missed two days. Jack brings her by in the afternoons when school is over, and it’s the best part of her day, seeing Lizzie light up as she enters the room, bounding towards her to tell her everything she did in school that day.

Vala comes by every day at precisely 2:00 p.m., to watch One Life to Live with Sam on the little TV she had dragged from the science lab and set up on a tray at the foot of Sam’s bed. She chatters to Sam during the show, sometimes about the characters, sometimes gossiping shamelessly about SGC personnel, but always pulling Sam’s arm into her lap and petting it absently, as if to remind herself that her Samantha really is okay.

Charlotte and Cassie come together, always cooing and fussing over Sam, something she wouldn’t tolerate from anyone whose last name isn’t Fraiser. They tell her they love her so many times she loses count, and it’s nice, she finds, to be reminded so often.

Cam pops in regularly to see how she’s doing, and to make fun of her when she’s high on pain medicine. His grin only gets wider when she gains the strength to lightly smack at his arm when he laughs at her. “Okay, Sam,” he says. “You just keep dreamin’ about those squirrels, they sound friendly.”

Teal’c visits in the mornings, usually, always looking pleased as he tells her, “You seem to be recovering quickly, Colonel Carter.”

And Daniel… Daniel comes by less often, and when he does there’s guilt written so plainly and deeply on his face that it troubles her. So she tries to make him smile and usually succeeds, and knows that when she’s well enough, she’ll fix this.

On the third day after she wakes up, Sam realizes that Janet has literally not left the SGC for the entire time she’s been back in the land of the living, and she’s sure she didn’t leave before then, either. “Janet,” she says, as her friend stands over her, making notes on a chart. “You need to go home and get some rest.”

Janet quirks an eyebrow as she puts her clipboard down and turns her attention to Sam. “How about you let me worry about that, and you don’t worry about anything just yet.”

Sam shakes her head. “You need to sleep, too.”

“I’ve slept a little,” Janet answers dismissively, patting Sam’s hand.

“Right, on the couch in your office?” Sam says, rolling her eyes.

That smirk shows up on Janet’s face again as she says, “Wow, you must really be feeling better.”

Sam sighs. “Go home to your girls, Janet. I promise I’ll be fine.”

Janet purses her lips and changes the subject, but she goes home that night, looking much more well-rested and relaxed in the morning.

Sam feels well enough to start getting bored on the day, a week after waking, that Janet finally declares her cleared to go home. She is shaky on her feet, but Jack steadies her, hand at the small of her back, and she leans on him gratefully. She’s sure that she’s never been quite so happy to be going home.

She inhales the smell of their house as soon as they set foot in the door. It’s a little odd at first, like breathing in the air of a new planet, but it’s not a new planet: it’s home. Once the familiarity sets in, Sam sighs silently to herself as a warm wave of comfort washes over her.

Jack stays close and Lizzie stays closer as they all settle in. At the same time, though, Lizzie seems awfully far away; she never quite bridges the distance between herself and Sam and appears reluctant to actually touch her, as if that act alone would shatter her like glass. Sam, then, is the one who has to take her hand and give it a squeeze every now and then. Lizzie squeezes back at least half the time, but otherwise stares at Sam, like it hasn’t yet sunk in that her mother is really there.

All three of them eventually get hungry and rummage through the refrigerator and a few cupboards before determining that shopping really needed to happen yesterday. Jack shrugs, says he’ll take care of it tomorrow, and orders them all Chinese. Lizzie fidgets all through the lo mein and the sweet and sour chicken, because of course she can’t wait to open her fortune cookie, and almost knocks her plate right off the table in excitement when it’s finally time. They crack them apart simultaneously, absent-mindedly munching cookie as they read the little slips of paper.

“Your instincts will lead you to great opportunities,” Lizzie reads, holding her head up high as she conquers the big words with ease.

“The dog runs blindly in the golden sun.” Jack frowns before crumpling it up and tossing it onto his plate.

Sam leans her elbows on the table, a small smile on her face as her eyes pass over her fortune.

“That good, huh?” Jack asks. “Aren’t you gonna share with the class?”

Her smile becomes a smirk rather quickly. “Nope. I think these things are like wishes,” she teases, mostly for Lizzie’s benefit. “If you share them, they might not come true.” She tucks the paper into her pocket while Jack mumbles, mostly to himself, about visually-impaired canines.
Sam will repeat the words to herself more than a few times that evening, and will slip the paper back out at least once to read them again: “You will continue to take chances and be glad you did.”

Night sneaks up on them fast, and any bedtime protests Lizzie may have had saved up dissolve quickly under a series of very big yawns. Sam and Jack both fully expect her to want to crawl into bed with them tonight, and are surprised when she shakes her head no.

“Are you sure?” Sam asks her.

Lizzie nods, and then silently takes Sam’s hand. “Will you read me a story?” she asks, looking up with big eyes.

Sam smiles; she feels like she could read her about five stories, and she runs a hand through Lizzie’s hair as she says, “Of course.”

She smiles over her shoulder at Jack as she lets Lizzie lead her away, and he smiles back.

“Here,” she’d said to him earlier that day, just before they departed for home. “You probably won’t get to read it otherwise.” She’d had enough energy to write her report before they left and seemed eager to get it over with. She laughed every time someone would ask her what happened, say something like, “Somebody else wanted to get inside my head; what else is new?” and keep smiling. But Jack could see the shadows in her eyes as she talked, and so he never asked. He did, however, always wonder.

He lies flat on their bed, his eyes on the ceiling and his hands behind his head as his mind wanders to the words she’d written. They’d finally filled in the missing pieces behind her seemingly random injuries, but he’s still trying to wrap his head around the fact that the artifact had basically been sentient. While they all sat around being baffled and worried and thinking an object was killing her, it had really been a person all along. Her words in the report had been so professional, as usual, almost as if she’d said, “Some guy in a sword beat the crap out of me and wouldn’t let me out of my own head for two days, but it was no big deal.” But as Jack lies on his back, listening to the muffled sounds of ripping tape and tearing gauze as Sam redresses her wounds, he thinks that all of this is going to leave him very unnerved for a very long time.

He’s so lost in thought that he doesn’t notice her come out of the bathroom until she’s standing over him. She’s holding the tape and some rather large bandages in her hands, looking like she wants to say something.

“I, um…” She looks down at the supplies. “I’ve got one on my back that I can’t really reach, and-”

She doesn’t even finish her sentence before Jack sits up, puts his hand out, and says, “I’ll take care of it.”

Mumbling a “thank you,” she hands him the tape and the bandages sits with her back to him on the edge of the bed. She moves to lift her shirt, but he stops her with a steady hand on her arm, and begins to lift it himself.

It’s been a week, but her body’s still a minefield of scrapes and scratches. Most of them are barely noticeable now, but to Jack’s eyes, they’re glaring reminders of what he wasn’t there to prevent. His gaze comes to rest on the large white bandage on her side (he still hasn’t quite gotten the image of her leaking blood all over the infirmary floor to leave him alone) and before he’s even aware of what he’s doing, his fingertips brush the area. His touch is light, but Sam draws in a breath and stiffens slightly. He mutters an apology and resumes raising her shirt.

“It’s okay,” she insists softly. “It just surprised me, that’s all.”

But he’s already gone again, drawn in by the huge, neat white line all the way across her back. He tries not to think about it too much, about what must have led to this. He eases some of the tape off, waiting until she’s ready to rip the whole thing away in one go. He makes it fast, but he still feels her flinch and hears her hiss in pain.

Her wound is still an angry, glaring red, and Jack feels a discernable pang of… he isn’t sure what. As he goes about covering the area with a clean bandage, he finds himself gripped hard by the fact that it hadn’t been something, but rather someone who had done this to her. He wonders if the former would really be any easier to deal with, but something about it being the latter tears at his insides in a very real way.

He finishes quickly, lightly smoothing out a few bumps with his palm before bringing her shirt back down. Sam starts to turn toward him, hand outstretched for the bandages as another “thank you” leaves her lips, but Jack only puts a hand on her shoulder.

“I’m not finished,” Sam says. “There are more I have to-”

“I know,” Jack replies, reaching for more bandages. “I’ve got it.”

She tries to protest, but he says, “I’ve got it,” again. She stares at him staring at her for a few moments, vaguely aware of the warmth creeping into her cheeks, but she eventually nods in agreement and relaxes somewhat.

He moves efficiently, redressing every single taped up spot she hasn’t gotten to yet. He stays silent the entire time, and his hands are warm and gentle on her skin. She’s a little embarrassed by this show of protectiveness, but she lets him work, and eventually settles so far into it that she’s lulled into an almost drowsy state of contentment. She loses all sense of time and only half-snaps out of it when she realizes he’s pulled his hands away. When she turns toward him, he brings a hand to the gauze on her cheek, softly running his thumb over it.

“This one done?” His voice so low that she can practically feel the vibrations pass into her.

She nods slowly. “Yeah.” It comes out as a whisper, so soft and quiet that even she’s surprised by it. His arm shifts slightly, and he cups her face in his hand, his eyes studying her with quiet concern. Her heart twitches in her chest. She slowly brings her hand to the side of his face and then to the back of his neck, drawing him toward her.

Her kiss is soft, so soft that it almost feels like a wisp of air on her lips, and she hopes he can hear her thinking, It’s okay. I’m okay. And maybe he does hear her, because as she begins to back off, his hand comes around behind her head and pulls her back in. He kisses her with just the slightest hint of desperation, as if to say, I’ll fall apart without you. Don’t ever leave me.

She presses herself into him as much as she can without it hurting, and when their lips finally part, she has to catch her breath. He doesn’t let go, and she doesn’t want him to, and she leans her forehead against his shoulder as he eases them both down onto the bed. Her hand, freshly bandaged and still sore, finds his, and she threads their fingers together as she closes her eyes. He squeezes gently and continues to hold her.

A soft sound from the doorway catches their attention. When they sit up and turn around, they’re only half-surprised to find Lizzie standing there, tightly gripping one of her teddy bears in her arms.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she says quietly.

Gentle smiles spread across their faces. “Well,” Jack says, “you’ve come to the right place.” He turns to Sam and asks, “Didn’t she come to the right place?”

Sam grins. “She did.”

Lizzie scurries into the bed, settling herself, as always, between Sam and Jack. Her face is pressed into her bear’s head, and she stares quietly at Sam.

“Are you okay, Mommy?” she whispers.

Sam eases down slowly on her bandaged side. “Yes,” she replies, “I am.”

Lizzie holds the bear tighter. “Does it still hurt?”

Sam smiles and lightly runs her fingers through Lizzie’s hair. “Yes, but you don’t need to worry about that.”

Lizzie doesn’t look entirely convinced, but she snuggles in against her bear and it doesn’t take long for her eyes to close. Jack quietly moves to shut off the lights, and when he returns, his eyes meet Sam’s in the darkness. He places his hand on top of hers in the space between their pillows, right above Lizzie’s head, and Sam lets out a soft sigh as she drifts off to sleep.

She dreams of Jack, of framing his face with her hands, holding him close to her and soaking up his warmth. He leans in next to her ear, whispers things that make her laugh, and as she pulls him even closer and kisses him, she thinks she can’t possibly be any happier. The sheets feel soft and cool against her skin, and Jack shifts above her, murmuring now about safety and security and You can sleep; everything’s fine. And everything is fine, and Sam smiles against his bare shoulder.

But then suddenly everything isn’t fine, and a horrible chill works its way up her spine, and it’s no longer Jack’s voice that she hears and it’s no longer Jack’s face that she sees and it’s no longer Jack’s skin pressing against her own.

“Hello, Sam,” the man says, smirking dangerously as his voice vibrates against her chest. “Did you miss me?”

His mouth is on hers immediately, and his hands are like ice on her wrists as he forces her arms to her sides. She fights him with everything she has, but his body smothers her and razor-sharp pain explodes through her arms as his hands vanish into her skin. She ends up screaming into his mouth as she feels the same thing happening to her legs, and his arms, already deeply embedded, trace a familiar path to the center of her chest.

“I told you this would be glorious,” he whispers, his breath hot against her neck.

She almost spits in his face, but he goes in deeper (she’s not sure just how much deeper he can get) and she thinks for a moment that she must be suffocating, because her chest is a firestorm of agony and she can’t get any air into her lungs.

Unexpectedly, he chooses this moment to slip his arms out, and she shudders at the sudden reprieve. He slides forward so that his face is right above hers, and brushes some of her hair away from her forehead.

“Where is Lizzie, Sam?” he asks. His hand travels down the side of her face and the curve of her neck before settling on her shoulder. “Show me our beautiful little girl.”

His arm plunges back into her body with crushing force, and her scream echoes in her head as she jerks awake, her chest burning with every breath.

She stays completely still, her eyes wide in the darkness as she tries to steady her breathing. She turns her head to look at the clock and shuts her eyes in frustration; it’s barely been 40 minutes since they turned out the lights. There’s a lot of night ahead of her. She tries not to let this fact agitate her further, but her chest continues to burn with pressure that she knows isn’t really there and her knowledge and her feelings refuse to intersect. Irrationality finally overwhelms logic, and she sits up, bringing a hand to her chest and breathing as softly as possible.

She glances over at Lizzie and Jack and is surprised to see they haven’t moved. She takes the opportunity to get up quietly, keeping her eyes on them with a clear sense of guilt gnawing at her stomach as she slips out of the room.

As soon as she’s in the kitchen, she braces herself against the counter by the sink, shutting her eyes and trying not to pay attention to how warm her face feels. Her muscles begin to shake and she stiffens, fighting these crashing waves of emotion with her entire being.

But eventually, it gets to be too much. Her hands ball into fists and a quiet, “Damn it,” escapes her as she leans over the sink, hot tears falling onto the plastic.

“Daddy, wake up.”

Jack stirs at the little pushes on his shoulder, and Lizzie’s face slowly comes into focus as he tenses awake.

“What is it, Liz?” he asks her, leaning on an elbow as he tries to wipe the fatigue (and possibly drool) off his face.

When his vision finally clears somewhat, he sees what must have her so worried: namely, the absence of Sam in the bed next to them.

“I woke up and Mommy wasn’t here,” Lizzie says. “Where did she go?” She doesn’t say that she’s scared, but Jack can see it very clearly in her eyes, big and round and full of worry. He can’t say he isn’t a little unsettled, either; if she left the room, he should’ve heard her. Retirement’s making you soft, jackass, he thinks as he rubs at his eyes.

“S’okay,” he mumbles half into his hand. “She probably just went to the bathroom.” He gives her what he hopes is a reassuring pat on the arm before throwing off the covers. “You stay here; I’ll go see where she went.”

Even in the darkness of the house, it doesn’t take him long to find her. He sees her on the couch as he makes his way through the kitchen, her back to him and her shoulders slumped as she sits there in the shadows. He moves toward her, but she stands slowly before he gets there, and he hears something that sounds suspiciously like a sniff as she does something that looks an awful lot like wiping her face. She places her hands on her hips as she inhales deeply, and lets it all out in a shaky exhalation.

When she finally turns around, she jumps at the sight of him standing across from her.

“God, Jack,” she says breathlessly. “What the hell are you doing?” Her voice shakes slightly, sounds a little rough in his ears.

He doesn’t move from where he’s standing. “Lizzie and I didn’t know where you were,” he replies.

Sam sniffs again, swiftly running a finger under both eyes before clearing her throat. “Well,” she says, straightening. “Here I am.”

Jack stays where he is, and she looks away and swallows because she knows she has no hope of fooling him. She wants to force a smile onto her face, but none will come, so she just walks toward him, muttering, “Let’s just go back to bed.”

He catches her lightly by the wrist as she walks past him and her whole body tenses as she wrenches it out of his grip, half on instinct, half on her dream’s freshness in her head. She regrets it immediately. Even so, Jack still doesn’t move, and for a second, that pisses her off more than she can say. It fades quickly, and she feels new tears pooling beneath her eyelids as she brings a quivering hand to her forehead.

“Sam.” All he says is her name, and that’s enough to get her to turn to face him. What little light there is in the room reflects off of the moisture in her eyes. She still won’t look at him and something in Jack’s chest aches. Astonishing, he thinks, that the sight of her with tears in her eyes can still fill him with such misery.

“When I was in there,” she begins, not bothering to clarify that “in there” refers to her mind instead of some sort of prison like her tone would suggest, “he spent a lot of time going through all of my memories. And I mean… all of them. Everything and everyone I’ve ever…”

He’d read her report, and he knows these things, but there’s a big difference between reading it in short, official writing and having her recount it to him like this. He says nothing, and continues to listen as she talks, her voice low.

“But there was one group of them he was having a hard time getting into.” She finally looks at him then, and there are two wet streaks running down each side of her face. “It was Lizzie.” Her voice wavers and she catches herself, taking a deep breath as she averts her gaze again.

“I told myself,” she says, her eyes becoming increasingly distant and haunted, “I swore to myself that I wouldn’t let him see any of those memories. I said to myself that he wouldn’t get anywhere near them, that I would protect her from him. Just like a good mother would do, right?” She laughs then, and it’s a bitter sound, so cruel and dripping with self-loathing. “But what I said and what actually happened turned out to be two very different things.”

Tears are running freely down her face when she meets his gaze again, and he almost flinches at the sight of her eyes, so full of anger and guilt and pain, all directed at no one but herself.

“I couldn’t protect her. I gave it everything I had and it still wasn’t enough.” She pauses, but her gaze doesn’t leave his this time. “I failed her, Jack.” She practically spits the words out, her voice barely above a whisper.

As she stands before him, shuddering now under the weight of her own anguish, Jack tries to find the words, any words, that he can say to her to make this better. There are none, and he knows it. He can’t make it better. But he can do what he’s always done: he can be there for her.

“He’s dead, Sam,” he says quietly. “He’s dead, and you’re here.”

That’s all it takes to crumble the last of her defenses, and she lets out a sob, and then another, and she’s already reaching for him as his arms envelop her. She clings to him so hard that she shakes, and he says nothing, but he doesn’t need to, because his strong yet gentle hold on her says everything.

She doesn’t know how long they stand there and she doesn’t know how long she empties her grief into his shirt, but she feels absolutely spent when he eventually leads her back to bed, like she’s literally cried all the tears she could ever cry and there’s simply nothing left. She practically melts into their bed and barely notices him adjusting the covers over her.

Her eyelids slip shut with ease, and she doesn’t dream again that night.

Vala doesn’t realize she’s been twiddling her thumbs until she looks down at her hands in her lap. She rolls her eyes, sighs loudly, and shifts in her seat.

“It’s awfully hot,” she says.

Daniel doesn’t seem to hear her; he continues to stare out of the car window, his hand still perched on the steering wheel.

“Hot and stuffy,” Vala continues, leaning over a little bit. Daniel still doesn’t move. She leans over further, creeping closer until she’s right next to his ear, sure that he’ll have to be annoyed enough to look at her now. When he doesn’t so much as twitch, she draws in a huge breath until her lungs are completely filled, and then blows a tiny little puff of air into Daniel’s ear.

That certainly does it. He jumps up so high that his head almost hits the roof of the car, and Vala can’t help but smirk at him as he flails around, slapping at the side of his head.

“What the hell was that for?!” he exclaims.

“I didn’t come all this way just to suffocate in your car,” Vala snaps in reply.

Daniel stares at her, absolutely baffled. “What?!

Vala gestures out the window. “Aren’t we going to go in?” she asks. “I, for one, refuse to sit out here all day. I’ve got reruns to catch up on and blog entries to write, I’ll have you know.”

Daniel looks out the window again and stares up at Sam and Jack’s house. It’s certainly not an intimidating place, but today, he feels like it might swallow him whole.

“Daniel,” Vala says, her voice much softer this time. He’s caught a little off-guard by the shift and turns toward her, and her eyes are full of such genuine concern that it flips his stomach right over. Vala waits a moment before she says, “Samantha really misses you.”

He suddenly finds that he can’t meet her eyes anymore, and he turns around to gaze at the house again. He searches for words, but only comes up with a guilt-ridden, “Yeah.”

“I’m serious,” Vala continues. “She practically hung onto my every word when I talked about you, like she…” She trails off, only able to finish her thought in her head: Like she was desperate to hear anything and everything that might have told her how you were doing, because everyone knows you didn’t visit her as much as you should have.

“We’ll go in,” Daniel assures her, but his voice is too soft and he’s distracted again by whatever false and terrible things he must be telling himself about this whole ordeal being his fault.

It drives her crazy all the time, the way Daniel tries to take everything onto his own shoulders. It’s something that initially made her suspicious of him, how he always wanted to solve everyone’s problems and take everyone’s pain away. Eventually, she realized it was something that only made her adore him more, but there always comes a certain point, she notes, where it all crosses a nauseating line and suddenly he’s sacrificing himself for all of them and her stomach is tearing itself apart and she can’t sleep because she keeps thinking about how awful and stupid and devoid of joy life would be without him.

She’s been watching him closely for the past week, watching as he stares off into the distance more often, talks even less, and always fails to respond to her teasing. She’s tried as hard as she can to pull him out of this, but nothing’s worked, and this, she decides right then and there, is the last straw. She’s not going to watch him silently rip himself to shreds for even one more day.

Without a word, she flings her door open, crosses in front of the car, and pulls hard on his door. He has no time to protest as she leans over him and unbuckles his seatbelt, and some rather rude questions sputter out of his mouth as she yanks him out of the car. She doesn’t look back as she keeps his hand gripped firmly in hers, unceremoniously dragging him up to the house.

He bitches and moans the whole way up, tries and fails to stop her from ringing the doorbell. For a split-second, she wonders if she might have just made things worse, but when the door opens and Sam stands before them, her face brightening more with each passing second, Vala knows beyond all shadow of a doubt that it was completely and utterly worth it.

Lizzie bounds up to them almost as soon as they’re in the door, already back to her energetic self. A translucent pink cloth flows behind her like a cape, and a tiny silver tiara lies perched on her head.

“Aunt Vala! Uncle Daniel!” she excitedly exclaims. “Are you coming to my tea party?”

Vala grins. “Oh, we wouldn’t miss it for the world! After all,” she says, kneeling down to Lizzie’s level, “what’s a tea party without its most honored guest?” She not-so-subtly points to herself, which makes Lizzie giggle.

“Uncle Daniel, are you coming, too?” she asks him, her eyes bright.

Before he can say anything, Vala stands, throwing a glance in his direction. “I think,” she says to Lizzie, “that our darling Daniel and your mother have some things they need to talk about first.”

“Really?” Lizzie looks from Daniel to Sam and back again, before asking, “What kinds of things?”

Daniel opens his mouth to speak again, but Vala cuts him off with a wave of her hand. “Oh, terribly boring adult things,” she says, spearing the words theatrical flair. “It’s like when Daniel makes me watch the channel with all the history things on it-” she punctuates “history” with an incredible roll of her eyes, “-instead of the one that has all my shows.”

Daniel really looks like he wants to say something now, but Lizzie giggles again, her nose crinkling in mock-disgust. She lets out a long, “Eeeewww!” before she darts to Vala’s side and takes her hand.

“Well, then, I guess we’ll be off,” Vala says over her shoulder as she lets Lizzie lead her away. She looks at Daniel until she’s sure he’s meeting her gaze and adds, “Take your time; we’ll save some cookies for you.”

As they disappear into a doorway, Daniel hears Sam laughing quietly beside him. After a moment’s pause, he says, “I don’t make her watch the History Channel.”

Sam laughs harder. “Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee? Beer?”

Daniel playfully narrows his eyes. “It’s the middle of the afternoon.”

“Ah, but don’t we have all sorts of ‘terribly boring adult things’ to talk about?” Sam smirks at him teasingly as she opens the refrigerator. “I’d need a drink after that.”

“Well, I really don’t need any-”

“Daniel,” Sam interrupts him, easing the door all the way open. Daniel can’t see everything, but he can see an entire row of nothing but brown bottles. And then some. “Have a beer,” Sam finishes.

Daniel blinks, blinks again, and after a little thought, asks, “Jack’s been doing all the shopping?”

Oh, yes.” With two bottles in hand, Sam shuts the door with her hip and goes about rummaging through drawers for a bottle opener. “I mean, it’s not like we’re starving. But I sent him out with a list this time. Otherwise, he tends to come home with…” She trails off, gesturing absently.

Daniel is quick to finish her thought. “…with Froot Loops and beer.”

“Exactly.” The caps come off with tiny hisses and pops, and Daniel, who suddenly feels like he could have about three drinks, gratefully takes a bottle from Sam. They make their way to the couch in silence, sit in silence, offer a small toast in silence, and sip in silence. They both think of things to say, but it’s all so painfully trivial and so unlike them (“Gee, nice weather we’re having.” “Gee, these cushions are awfully fluffy.” “Gee, this beer sure tastes like piss.”) and they swallow the words right along with the alcohol. The awkwardness of the moment seeps in gradually, and once it’s there, it’s impossible to ignore. They try to avoid each others’ gazes and keep sipping.

Eventually, Daniel’s eyes come to rest on the gauze on Sam’s cheek, and even though he only looks for a second, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Sam slowly lowers her bottle to her lap, this time keeping her eyes on Daniel as he takes another swig.

“Daniel,” she says, finally breaking the silence, “I’m okay.”

He lowers his bottle as well, his gaze focused on the rim, but he looks Sam straight in the eye when at last he says, “You almost weren’t.”

“Well, this isn’t the first time that’s happened.”

Something shifts in Daniel’s eyes. “You almost weren’t okay because of something I brought back.”

“This isn’t the first time that’s happened, either.”

Her stomach clenches with regret as soon as the words are out of her mouth. It certainly isn’t the way she intended them to come out, and she tries to communicate as much, but suddenly can’t seem to form even the most basic sentence. Daniel doesn’t look at her as he sets his bottle down on the coffee table, and when he rises from the couch, Sam feels a burst of panic in her chest as it occurs to her that he might actually leave. She practically throws her bottle on the table in her haste to follow him and calls his name twice, but he keeps his back to her. It’s only on the third time, when her voice shakes slightly, that he turns to face her.

He meets her gaze and his eyes, glistening with the weight of tremendous guilt, cut right into her soul. She looks at the floor, willing herself to calm down and gather her thoughts.

“Daniel, I…” She trails off, and a small chuckle escapes her. “I can’t take this anymore. You don’t call, you don’t return my calls, and every time you came to the infirmary, I-” She hears her tone growing increasingly desperate, pauses, and takes a breath. “Why are you-” She stops again, allows letting this eat you alive to die in her throat, because she knows the answer, the answer being that it’s Daniel.

A curious feeling of determination envelops her as she meets his eyes again. It’s almost as if he’s dangling over the edge of a cliff with nothing to support him but her hand gripping his arm, steadfastly refusing to let him fall.

“This wasn’t your fault,” she says, her voice completely even.

“I brought that thing right to our doorstep,” he says quietly. “I told you all about it. I said, ‘Hey, Sam, come take a look at this crazy thing we don’t actually know anything about.’ I might as well have put you into that coma myself.”

“I went in there of my own volition, Daniel.” Sam replies. “And there was no way to know what the artifact really was. We’ve done this for years; we take this risk all the time.”

“Yeah.” Daniel slides his hands inside his pockets and looks at the table. “But things are different now.”

His words blindside her a little bit and she honestly isn’t sure what to do with them, or how to feel about them. “What does that mean, ‘things are different now’? What’s different?”

Daniel continues to stare at the table, so Sam steps closer to him. “Daniel,” she says a bit more forcefully. “What’s different?” Her mind runs through a thousand different possibilities, and something finally occurs to her that pushes toward anger. “Is this about me not going off-world anymore?”

“No,” Daniel responds. “Not directly.”

“Then what is it?” Her frustration grows exponentially, or maybe it’s just fear. Sam feels an odd sense of foreboding at the direction this conversation seems to be taking.

When Daniel looks up at her, he smiles sadly. “Lizzie already lost her family once.” He can’t look at her when he says, “And so did Jack.”

Now it’s Sam who turns away from him. She’s had this conversation with herself a dozen times. It’s what made her decision about off-world missions final. Her jaw is set hard when she faces him again. “Plenty of people on the base have families.” She could list them, but Daniel knows them as well as she does.

“They do,” he agrees.

“And you would treat me differently than them?”

Daniel shakes his head. “No. No, of course I wouldn’t.” Even as he says this, his thoughts tell a different story, and he shakes his head again. “You know what, though?” he says, his voice stronger. “Yes. Yes I would, and I already do. I already do treat you differently.” He watches her eyes flare and knows this isn’t exactly helping his case. “But it’s not for that reason.”

Sam relaxes somewhat, although she’s still looking at him expectantly, suspiciously, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“God, Sam,” Daniel continues, laughing almost cynically. “We’ve been to hell and back over and over again, we’ve- we’ve waltzed up to death’s door too many times together for me to not treat you differently.”

The guilt returns to his eyes as he says, his voice quieter, “You’re my family, too. And the whole time you were in the infirmary, all I could think was, ‘That’s my friend. That’s my friend who I care about and who I love, and she’s in there, hurting and dying and fighting to stay alive because of me. And if she can’t, if she can’t fight off whatever this is that’s trying to kill her, it won’t just be me who has to suffer for it: all my other friends will, too.’”

Sam wants to stop him, but can’t find the words. Even if she could, she wouldn’t be able to get them past the lump forming in her throat. She looks down and shuts her eyes and tries to keep breathing.

“All my other friends will, too,” Daniel murmurs again. “And Lizzie will lose another mother, and Jack will lose…” He isn’t sure how to finish his sentence. There isn’t a word in any language that will convey the conversations they’d had over the past two days or the emotions contained within. There isn’t really a way to sum up what he knows Sam means to Jack, either, so he eventually settles on the only word that comes close: “He’ll lose you.”

Sam gives up on standing, sinking back down into the couch and leaning against an armrest. As Daniel settles back into the spot beside her, he glances at her and immediately notices how miserable she looks. “I’m sorry,” he apologizes softly, but Sam just shakes her head.

“No,” she says quietly. “No, it’s okay.” She reaches for his hand, swallows as she holds it in hers. “You know you can’t blame yourself for this forever. You know you can’t.” She doesn’t add a ‘please’, but it’s written all over her face. “If only because,” she continues, “I can walk out of the mountain at any time and never go back. That’s a real option that I have, and the thought did cross my mind after we adopted Lizzie.” She squeezes his hand a little harder. “But I didn’t take it. And I can’t.”

Daniel squeezes back. “Because you love it.”

Sam nods slowly. “I do. I could deal with no off-world missions for a while, but I could never leave all of this behind completely.” She gives him a small, playful smirk. “Besides, there isn’t anyone else who’ll listen to you when you’re excited about your latest archeological find.”

Daniel laughs. “There isn’t anyone else who’ll listen to you when you’re excited about your latest scientific breakthrough.”

“That’s not true,” Sam says through a chuckle. “Lizzie listens. Although sometimes I think she’s just humoring me.”

Their tension all but evaporates under a wave of warm laughter. They continue to hold each other’s hands as they sit.

“You were right, you know,” Sam eventually says.

“About what?” Daniel asks.

“About things being different now.” She gives him another smile, sweeter this time. “There’s more to this than my apparently never-ending thirst for knowledge and saving the world.”

Daniel almost asks her to elaborate, but has a feeling he knows what she’s going to say before she says it. The smile on her face says almost everything.

“It’s funny,” Sam begins. “It really kind of snuck up on me, but one afternoon I realized just how many times I think about Lizzie during the day. Every time you leave for a new planet, I wonder if any kids will be there, if there’s anybody she’d get along with. When we find a race more advanced than we are, I wonder if they’ll have any magic cure-all medicines, and if you’ll come back and suddenly we’ll be living in a world where we don’t have to even think about cancer. When you find cool new artifacts,” she pauses a moment to nudge Daniel’s shoulder with her own, “I wonder if they’ll be capable of helping us defend ourselves to the point where we don’t have to worry about much of anything anymore.”

The idealism of her statements catches up with her, and she rolls her eyes at herself. “I know it’s never going to be that simple, but… I always wonder.”

Daniel smiles at the thoughts, remembering the days when the two of them might’ve taken them completely seriously. Sam leans her head back against the couch, and they sit, letting moment after moment roll by in calm, contented silence.

“Don’t you have a tea party to attend?” Sam asks.

“Ah,” Daniel says. “You’re right. I don’t want to miss my share of cookies.”

Sam lets out a snort of laughter. “Oh, please. By now, they’re all gone.”

Daniel draws out a, “Yeah,” as he lifts himself from the couch. “You’re probably right.”

He starts to move toward the doorway the partygoers had disappeared into, but Sam’s voice stops him.

“Hey, Daniel?”

He turns around, and Sam smiles at him gently before she steps forward, closing the distance between them by drawing him into a hug.

“Don’t stop bringing me cool new artifacts, okay?” she murmurs into his ear.

Daniel gratefully returns the embrace. “Like I could ever stop.”

They don’t notice the movement coming from the doorway, and don’t see Vala and Lizzie’s heads poking out.

Vala looks down with a smile and whispers, “A wonderful interlude to our party, don’t you think?”

Lizzie continues to watch her mother hugging her uncle, and she grins.

“Back so soo-”

The rest of Sam’s question is lost in her surprise as she glances up from her magnifying glass. She straightens and blinks a few times as she studies SG-1. They stand in the doorway to her lab looking tired, peeved, and covered head to toe in what appears to be thick green slime.

“What in the world happened to you guys?” Sam clears her throat to will away the urge to start snickering.

Cam, Daniel, and Teal’c say nothing, but merely point accusatory, slime-dripping fingers toward Vala. She looks startled by this and her jaw drops.

“Don’t look at me!” she exclaims.

“You are the one,” Teal’c says, raising an eyebrow, “who laid hands on the orb.” He looks strangely calm for someone drenched in goop, but his movements are stiffer and his annoyance is clear.

“The orb we told you not to touch.” Cam scowls as he wipes some green from his forehead.

Vala turns her nose up at both of them and turns to Daniel for help, but his expression isn’t too welcoming, either. He rolls his eyes and attempts to shake some of the slime from his glasses.

“W-Well,” Vala stammers. “The thing was made of gold. You can’t possibly expect me not to touch it.”

Sam smiles as a laugh almost escapes her; she just barely manages to reel it back in. “So I take it the mission was…” She doesn’t want to use the word “successful”, but it certainly sounds like they didn’t come back empty-handed.

“…was interesting,” Daniel says.

“…was ridiculous,” Cam offers.

“…was extremely unpleasant,” Teal’c finishes while Daniel and Cam nod their heads.

Vala huffs indignantly. “We managed to bring the thing back, at least.”

Cam leans closer to her, his eyes narrowing. “And why don’t you tell Sam just how we were able to do that?”

Vala hesitates. Very, very quietly, she answers, “Because it was stuck to my hands and it wouldn’t come off.”

The three men grumble aloud. Vala stomps her foot in frustration. “Oh, stop it.

Sam bites her lip as she grins. “So if you brought it back, where is it now?” She’s almost afraid to know the answer and has a vision of the orb spewing slime all over the gate room.

“Somebody managed to wrestle it into a containment unit,” Cam says. “But we can’t quite get it to… ‘turn off’.”

Sam’s eyebrows shoot up. “You mean it’s still…?”

Teal’c stares off into the distance. “Indeed.”

“Actually, that’s kind of why we’re here,” Vala interjects. “We were kind of hoping you’d be able to…” She gestures with her hands as she searches for words.

“…figure out what makes this thing tick,” Daniel finishes for her. “Or at the very least, just make it stop shooting slime.”

Sam grimaces. “Guess I’ll need to find some gloves,” she says, and moves toward one of the shelves.

“I’m gonna go find a shower,” Cam declares.

“At least it doesn’t smell,” Daniel mutters under his breath.

Sam chuckles as she searches for her gloves. Where had she stashed them? She vaguely recalls a memory of Lizzie standing in the doorway with rubbery purple hands on her hips.

“Should we bring a camera?” Vala asks, her tone full of something resembling innocence.

“Why?” Sam throws her a puzzled glance mid-rummage.

Vala grins playfully. “For Jack, of course. I doubt he’d be able to resist the image of you all covered in-”

Sam practically chokes on her objections. “No!” she exclaims after just a bit of sputtering. Vala’s grin only grows as Sam’s cheeks redden. “No.

“I don’t know,” Cam says as he begins to walk out of the doorway. He waits until he’s properly hidden, save for his head peeking out, to add, “He’d probably appreciate it.”

Sam can’t believe he’s actually encouraging this, and when her hands finally clamp down on her gloves, she wishes he didn’t dart away so quickly so she could throw them at him.

The others shuffle out, but Daniel stays behind. His eyes fall onto the puddle of slime they’ve left behind. “Oh, sorry about the mess,” he says, lifting his boot and frowning at the way it sticks.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sam replies, slipping the gloves over her hands. “It’s only gonna get worse, right?”

He chuckles as she comes to stand beside him. “You know, they may be right about a camera.”

She gives him a look and tightens a glove, deliberately letting it snap loudly. “Get out of my lab,” she tells him teasingly.

Daniel puts his hands up in mock surrender and leaves without another word.

“Just another day at the office,” Sam mutters to no one but herself, smiling as she walks out of the room.