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Lifelines

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Lifelines

Part One

 

This conversation has been bouncing around in my head for a few months now.  I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to write anything in, quite literally, ages. But somehow, this one wouldn’t let go.  So, thanks go to my husband, who has been pulling extra weight and letting me sleep in a bit because I’ve been staying up to the wee hours typing. He humors me, bless him.

 

For the record, I watch the Hallmark Christmas movies. I’m a bit of an addict. Just hanging that out there.

 

Also, thanks, Janice.  My mojo is in your debt.

 

 

 

 

 

“You know, back home, the temperatures are in the low teens.”

 

Waves crashed melodically in response, accompanied by the lull of the lazy mid-afternoon breeze tickling through the palms overhead like fingers on strings.

 

“Crappy windy, too.  Gray.”  A long sigh crossed between them.  “Gloomy, one might say.  Gloomy and crappy gray.”

 

More waves.  A few yards from where they’d unceremoniously dumped their packs, a wedge of sand shifted and then slid down an incline as something—probably one of the strange pearlescent crabs native to this planet—burrowed into the dune.

 

“Traffic’s probably crap, too. Ice on the roads, maybe.” The Colonel shifted against the pack he’d propped up as a backrest.  “The weather chick said it would rain the whole damned week.”

 

Sam rolled her eyes, grateful for the hat that she’d pulled down over her face.  She’d been hiding her expression too much, this mission.  Holding back on what she really wanted to say, how she’d really wanted to react.  That made her feel small and petty, two emotions that had never sat well with her. What did her dad always say?

 

‘It is what it is.’  Own it and move on. 

 

Yesterday—day one of this mission—she’d tried to make the best of it and ignore the hollow sullenness that had embedded itself in her over the past several weeks.

 

It hadn’t worked.

 

It wasn’t that the planet itself had been a disappointment. Small, deserted, paradisiacal, its white sand beaches and sapphire-blue waters had been as alluring as the seemingly unending rows of neatly designed Ancient obelisks.  Daniel had decided even before the MALP had returned from P62-856 that SG-1’s next mission would be investigating the long phalanxes of carved pillars running inland from the beach.  Sam had agreed to the mission itself. She’d been as enthusiastic as Daniel to find out what the pillars were.  It was the timing of the thing that had stuck in her craw.

 

“I hate that time between Halloween and Christmas in the Springs.”  O’Neill spoke up again. “At least it sometimes snows around the holidays.  November is just wind and sleet and gray skies.  Maybe when we get home, there’ll be snow.”

 

Reaching out, he plcked a twig from a random plant half-buried in the sand.  “Maybe all that rain will be snow, instead.  It’s supposed to snow on Christmas, isn’t it?  Thanksgiving—not so much.  Mucks up the football.”

 

Sam sighed again, raising a hand to tilt her hat back away from her face. 

 

“Technically, Sir, Thanksgiving is considered one of the ‘Holidays’.  And it’s in November.”

 

He cocked a brow in her direction, his expression one of surprise.  “You speak!”

 

“Sometimes.”  Sam narrowed her eyes.  “When it is appropriate.”

 

The Colonel flared his dark eyes dramatically. “Channeling Teal’c, are we?”

 

“Whatever.”  She used her most dismissive tone, but her scowl had threatened to turn into a smirk. Damn that the man could usually figure out a way to make her smile. “Anyway, I’m right. The term ‘the holidays’ refers to the time period extending from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.”

 

“You’re right.  It does. Although Thanksgiving’s what—a solid month before the real ones?”

 

“Give or take.”  Sam made a tiny shrug.  “But it’s close enough to get lumped in with the rest of them.”

 

“It’s closer to Halloween.  Why don’t they lump it in with that holiday?” The Colonel sat forward, resting his forearms on his knees.  He’d long since dispensed with his overshirt and had loosened the ties on his boots. In the sun, his black tee-shirt showed a slight dampness at the base of his throat.

 

It was hot—regardless of the breeze.

 

“Equidistant.  Depending on where the days fall.  Halloween’s date is a constant, as is that of Christmas. Thanksgiving is on the fourth Thursday, so that’s the variable in the equation.”

 

“Variable, shmariable.”  O’Neill rolled his eyes.  “Leave it to you to mess up a perfectly good discussion with math.”

 

Sam considered her answer.  She hadn’t really wanted to be pulled into this kind of conversation.  Over the past four years, she’d learned his patterns, and knew exactly what the Colonel was up to. She’d let her guard down in answering him in the first place, and now was endangering her entire sulk.

 

The man knew her too well—knew which tack to take in order to cajole her out of a bad mood.  She didn’t know whether to be impressed or annoyed by that. But she didn’t want to be impressed by him right now.  She didn’t want to be anything-ed by him right now.  Besides, being annoyed suited her purposes better, so she scowled in response. “Dunno, Sir.” 

 

“You’d think they’d keep the Fall holidays together, and give the Winter holidays their own glory, right? Solstices being what they are, and all.”

 

Sam humphed, hoping that wriggling her boot in the sand might have been considered an answer.  Bringing a hand upwards, she yanked the brim of her cap further down over her forehead, then regretted having done so. But taking it back off would have seemed like a surrender of sorts.  Or an admission.  Or whatever. Damn it.

 

It was hot.  The hat made it worse.  She was sweating inside the stupid thing, and the smell of her own heat made her even more irritated.  Like the Colonel, she’d taken off her BDU overshirt and was just wearing her trousers and tee—but she’d stubbornly kept her boots laced up tight, and had refused to take off that infernal cap.  Dumb. Dumb.  Dumb.

 

The fact that she could acknowledge the futility of her own ridiculous protests and be childish enough to persist in them somehow made the entire situation even more obnoxious.  Against her will, she heaved a sigh.

 

“Pretty day.”

 

She couldn’t—wouldn’t respond this time.

 

“Prettier than it would be at home.”

 

Sam pretended to have found a keen interest in the way the sand spilled casually around the toe of her boot as she lifted it up and down. 

 

“It’s hot, but nice.”  The Colonel straightened his back, stretching upwards. “Even though I’m sweating like a goat.”

 

“Do goats sweat?” Crapnabbit. Where had that come from?  She really hadn’t meant to answer.

 

“Dunno.”  O’Neill tossed the twig he’d been playing with over his shoulder. “But just so you know, I’m not going to sniff one in order to find out.”

 

She couldn’t help the twitch that drew the corner of her lip upwards. “You’ve sniffed worse, Sir.”

 

“That, I have.”

 

She looked over at him, and then quickly away. He had an expression on his face she hadn’t seen in a while. An expression that reminded her of more heat—furnaces and heavy equipment, coal fires stoking and condensation running off the walls.  She bit her lips together, trying to will away the images, an exercise in futility, if past experience was any teacher. It had been a long time since she’d seen the Colonel so unshuttered. 

 

Too long, and yet still not long enough for the memories of that time to have subsided. 

 

Sam looked out towards the water. Painfully beautiful, the ocean seemed unreal.  It was almost unnaturally blue—the water so clear that even from a distance, she could see down to the sand at the bottom.  Up above, the sky mirrored the color of the waves, the clouds echoed the fluffed white of the foam at the tops of the crashing surf.  Where birds soared in the updrafts of the breeze, fish darted amongst the currents beneath the water.  So, so perfect. 

 

Beside her, he shifted again, lurching upwards with a remarkable lack of grace.  Out of the corner of her eye, Sam watched him brush the sand off his legs and then his butt and back with his customary matter-of-fact efficiency. Bending, the Colonel unlaced the rest of his boots and slipped his feet out, shucking his socks and throwing them onto his discarded footwear. He stood still, toes splayed in the warm sand, an odd frown on his face.

 

“It’s a crime.”

 

“What is, Sir?”

 

“Wearing shoes on this beauty of a beach.”

 

“Yeah.” Sam gave a slow nod.  “But you’ll be in a world of hurt if an Al-kesh shows up. Stuck in a battle situation without shoes.”

 

“I scoff at that.”  O’Neill snorted.  “Have you ever tried running in soft sand while wearing combat boots?”

 

“I have.”

 

“And how did you like it?”

 

Sam offered half of a wry smile. “It pretty much sucked.”

 

“My point exactly.”

 

“But it’s better than being caught off-guard, barefoot and—” Damn if he hadn’t drawn her into a conversation again. Sam cut herself off and pinched her lips together.

 

“Pregnant?”

 

Sam’s brows shot upwards.  “Sir?”

 

“Isn’t that the cliché?”  His dark eyes captured hers.  With the brevity of movement typical of him, he angled, and then dropped next to her in the sand.  “Barefoot and pregnant?”

 

“I guess.”  Sam fought off a stammer.  “But as luck would have it, neither of those conditions currently apply to me.”


The Colonel grinned—not as much to her as at her. After a moment, he cocked his head and breathed out.  “Well, I’ve got the barefoot part down.  If I can accomplish the other, we’ll know that I am, indeed, a rare breed of awesome.”

 

Without wanting to, Sam snorted. “Whatever, Sir.”

 

He settled in companionably, his broad shoulder a few inches away from hers, their knees closer than they really needed to be. Just for something to do, Sam lifted her hand and took off the infernal hat, tossing it off to one side. With her fingertips, she tousled her limp, damp hair, letting it catch the breeze.

 

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him watching her. She lowered her hands to rest in her lap.  She counted her breaths—2, 3, 4—until he spoke.  She made it to 11.

 

“So, is it the holiday that’s got you peeved, or just life in general?”

 

“I’m not—“

 

“Major.”  Oh, that tone.  He expected a real answer from her.

 

Spreading her hands, she rasped her palms against the rough fabric of her BDU-clad knees.  “I don’t know.  Life in general, I guess.”

 

“We all have those moments.”

 

She shrugged.  “I suppose.”

 

“Not that big a deal.”  He flattened a hand on his thigh, focused on it. “It happens to the best of us.”

 

“It’s not too professional.”

 

“Probably not.  But it’s human.”

 

Sam screwed up her lips as she tilted her head to one side.  “True.”

 

“So?”

 

But she just sat, stubbornly silent. Brooding. 

 

“You’ve had some time off, lately. Cassie says you’ve been hanging out at their place a lot.”

 

“Do you really want to talk about this?”

 

“Why not?” He passed a hand through his already impossibly messy hair.  “What else is there to do?  It’s not often that we get to do this—you know.  Just talk.”

 

“Because it seems to get us into trouble.”

 

He breathed out heavily, his expression bordering on annoyance.  “Major, I’m in the mood to be chatty. Make nice. Work with me.”

 

Sam sat up straight, leaning back against her pack. Folding her arms across her abdomen, she looked up at the sky before sucking in a deep jolt of salty sea air. “Janet has decided that I’m lonely.  She and Cassie have been asking me to come over there a lot lately.”

 

“I thought that you women-folk liked to gather. Converse.  Gossip.  Do each others’ hair and nails—”

 

“We aren’t in the Sixth Grade anymore, Sir.”

 

A pause, and then his voice made its way over to her. Low, easy, his tone was that of a freshman frat boy trying to impress a Phi Beta Something. “No.  No, you’re not.”

 

Sam had no answer for that other than a droll smirk. She could have chosen to feign offense, but with everything that had passed between them in the past year, that would have been utterly disingenuous.  So, she just blinked and let it slide.

 

“So, I guess no pillow fights?”

 

Shaking her head, the Major looked up at him out of the corner of her eye.  “No, nothing like that.”

 

“Baking cookies?”

 

At this, Carter actually nodded. “As a matter of fact, yes. Cassie likes baking. So there are cookies, among other things.” 

 

“Waxing?”

 

“Sir.”  Sam groaned.  “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

 

“I’m bored, Carter.  I’m here in Paradise and I can’t do anything other than watch the MALP and wait for Dr. Whatshisname to send back data crap.  I don’t do well with boredom.”

 

The understatement of the century. Sam glared at where the radio sat, silent, on the rack mounted on the side of the MALP.  Daniel had taken Teal’c up towards the obelisk farm to try to take some translations, leaving the Colonel and Sam to wait for Dr. Whetton’s communiqué.  Jack O’Neill loved sitting and doing nothing. 

 

 

“If you must know, Janet thinks that I hate Christmas. She’s got this idea that I’m some sort of a Grinch and so she’s made it her personal mission to make me appreciate the holiday.  She’s a total addict, so—” Another shrug.  It was a lame attempt at making it the end of the conversation.

 

O’Neill must have thought so, too. “So, Christmas cookies and what else—watching White Christmas?”

 

“Oh, if only.”

 

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas?”

 

Sam leaned forward, bracing her chin on her upturned hand.  “She’s discovered the Hallmark Channel.”

 

His brown eyes narrowed, then widened, then narrowed again.  “And that’s bad because. . .”

 

“You really want to know?”

 

“I’m desperate, Carter.  Bored and desperate.”

 

She glared at him, then shrugged and barreled forth. “The Hallmark Channel has these stupid Christmas movies on—like—constantly.  And they’re all these formulaic stories about lonely, sweet, deserving women who find true love around Christmas. And there’s usually some sort of Santa aspect.  And a kid. And sometimes dogs, or cats, or angels. Or elves.  There are elves everywhere.”

 

His expression had turned from intrigued to horrified. “Good God.”

 

“Exactly.  It’s like dumping syrup, then sugar, then molasses, then more sugar, then honey on a waffle.”  Sam didn’t even try to quell her shudder.  “And there’s also always an ex—or some bad person trying to win the heart of the good deserving person, and a parent involved somehow.  And there’s always the fear that the girl won’t get the guy and then you have to wait for a whole commercial break to find out if they find each other in the end.”

 

“Sickening.”

 

“And the men always come to their senses and go to the woman on Christmas Eve and propose, and they share this innocent liplock in front of the parents or townsfolk, or kids, or elves, and then live Happily Ever After.”  Carter craned her head around to look at her CO.  “It’s the Hallmark Channel—so they never go farther than the kiss part. Family friendly.”

 

“And how many of these have you watched?”

 

“Dozens.” 

 

“And you haven’t developed diabetes yet?”

 

Her blue eyes widened.  “Janet and Cassie love these movies. They’re on all the time. Around the clock.”

 

“Can’t you just make up somewhere else to go?” The Colonel frowned. “Somewhere more festive? Like—prison?”

 

Sam sighed.  “Janet’s my friend.  She’s just trying to help.”

 

His eyes met hers, and something passed between them, the kind of knowledge that only comes from long hours spent in each other’s pockets.  O’Neill nodded—an answer of sorts.

 

“She’s been worried about me. I admit that I haven’t been terribly fun to be around lately.”

 

The Colonel actually snorted at that.

 

“I’ve been a little bitchy.”

 

“No. You? Impossible!”  His gray head shook once or twice before ending up nodding. “Maybe a little.”

 

“Sir.”

 

“Carter, I know you.  I know you haven’t been—yourself—lately.” O’Neill nudged her shoulder with his own.  “But you’ve got excuses. It’s been a cruddy year.”

 

Sam tilted her chin downwards. “Yeah.  Kinda.”

 

Moments passed in an uneasy silence. Carter knew that it was just a matter of time before the Colonel would start picking away again. She glanced at her watch once, then again, and then a third time before he spoke again.  Eight minutes, thirty-one seconds. 

 

“So, this—mood.  It’s not just the stupid Christmas movies.”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe. Sort of. It’s more me than them.” She straightened her legs out in the sand, thoughtful.  “They’re all basically the same formula, just different stories and actors. But the characters always actually get happy just thinking about seeing each other.  Everything’s new—everything’s wonderful and magical. And at some point in watching these, it got me to thinking that there’s that time at the beginning of a relationship when you’re just all kinds of hopeful and positive.  When you can’t wait until it’s time to see the other person, and you can’t wait for the first times—the first hand hold, or first hug or whatever.  And it’s exciting.”

 

The man beside her stayed silent, but his entire body was intent upon her.  Sam opened, then closed her mouth, working to get the right words out.  There had been a time—before P3R-118—when they’d been able to talk about things of consequence, rather than sticking to the inane or work-pertinent. Ever since coming out of the mind stamp, they’d been careful not to get too close, or say too much. The SGC shrink had tried to delve into the particulars of their experience beneath the ice, but Sam had never allowed herself to think much about it, let alone talk about it.  And since she and the Colonel had remained on the same team, she’d assumed that he’d neglected to divulge details, as well.  Why, she wasn’t sure. That he needed her to continue at the SGC was the obvious reason for him to downplay or ignore what had happened. The only other reason she could think of was that he hadn’t been affected by it as she’d been. She tried not to think about that possibility. 

 

So, in the end, nothing had been said about anything. Typical of their dynamic, she and the Colonel had buried everything and focused on the job.  But right here, in this sand, with the sun and breeze and crashing waves—she was done being buried. 

 

“It’s just that at some point in watching these stupid movies, I came to the realization that I’ll never have that feeling again. It’s one of the best things to feel—the ‘falling into’ part of love.  It’s being really alive, you know?  I can’t imagine never feeling that again.”  She paused, swiped at her hair again, just for something to do. “At the same time, I can’t imagine ever feeling that again.”

 

O’Neill didn’t say anything.  He merely sat and listened.

 

“And we’ve talked about this—I know. Before the mines. Even with Daniel and Teal’c. We’ve talked about how we’re saving the world, or trying to, and keeping civilization going, and allowing our race, our species, to continue.  And that’s important—it’s vital.  It’s our job.” She paused, reaching out to flick some sand off her thigh. “But at the same time, we can’t have that.  We can’t feel that. We’re saving the world for other people to be able to experience those things. But not ourselves.”

 

A movement down at the waterline caught her attention. A crab about the size of a dinner plate tumbled around in the frothy water that reached the shore. For a moment it dug in with a claw as the wave receded, then sank itself into the sand as another, smaller wave smoothed over its pearled back.  Beautiful. Strong.  Solitary.

 

She was sure there was a metaphor there, but didn’t have the energy to find it.  Instead she just admired the crab’s tenacity and will to thrive.  Turning her head, she looked at the Colonel, unsurprised to find him studying her.  His earlier jocularity had dissipated, leaving him more honest than he’d seemed in months. It was as if he’d been wearing a mask since emerging from his stamp.  Like he’d become someone other than he’d started out being. O’Neill to Jonah to—someone not Jonah.  She couldn’t describe it in any other way.

 

The feeling on the beach had become something other than what it had been a few minutes before, too.  And the longer that the silence stretched, the more she felt like a fool, raving on and on about the inconsequential. She couldn’t seem to turn it off now, either.  She’d turned on a spigot and the handle had crumbled in her fingers, and now the words flowed freely from the faucet to gather in a painful pool between them.

 

“I was dating a guy for a few weeks.”

 

Beside her, O’Neill tensed.  Not physically—he would never betray that much of himself—but he’d gone on full alert mentally.  Sam recognized the subtle change in his breathing, the tilt of his head, the way his hands had stilled.  She’d seen him prepare for battle often enough.  This was a different kind of battle, but war nonetheless.  With her?  With himself? It didn’t matter. Her words had put him on guard.

 

“We went out two or three times. Movies.  Dinner.  He was nice. And cute.  Talked a lot about nothing—you know the type. He liked motorcycles. We met at the Bike shop. I was there buying new Fat Babies and he was looking for custom crash bars and skid plates.  Not that it matters, I guess.”  Lame. Lame. She wanted to scream at herself to just shut up, already.

 

The Colonel remained silent beside her, immobile.   Sam’s index finger made a tight circle on her knee, the rugged nap of the fabric of her pants keeping her grounded.

 

“Last Friday we went to a bar. Third date—fourth maybe. We’d met for coffee before our first date. I don’t know if that counts. Anyway, there were—expectations. He was angling for something—physical—but—” Defeated, Sam breathed a groan.  “It was awkward. And confusing.”

 

“Yeah.”  The word meant nothing, but held volumes. 

 

Sam glanced towards him and then back up towards the dunes, where Daniel had appeared at the side of a pillar several hundred feet away.  Too far for him to hear what was being said on the beach, and too intent upon his work to care, he paid the pair below on the beach no attention at all.  Carter breathed inward and barreled on.  “I’ve talked to Janet about him, but can’t really talk to her.  She knows that there are—issues. But I can’t tell her too much because it would jeopardize things. You know?”

 

“Mmmm.”  Again, a guttural response from the Colonel.  One that Sam understood to her soul.

 

Hesitant, Sam pressed her lips together, turning her face into the breeze coming off that impossibly clear ocean. The salty blast filled her nose, her mouth, her throat, her head, bringing a semblance of clarity to the jumble in her mind. Perhaps infusing her with a bit more courage.

 

“She knows more about the ice planet than the others do.”  Sam’s voice was strong, but low.  Just in case that zephyr wind caught her words and carried them further than they needed to go. She turned her head towards her companion, lowering her lids to prevent eye contact.  “I had to ask her to do some extra testing. I had some—concerns.”

 

Silence beside her.  His hand shifted.  Sam looked down to see his large, strong fingers slice through the sand near his thigh. Memories coursed through her—of those fingers on her, testing her.  Learning her skin and her responses.  Inciting feelings that she’d nearly forgotten even existed.

 

“Concerns?”  O’Neill’s tone was like ruined velvet.  Soft, yet hard.  “As in—“

 

She met his gaze in response, nudging a tiny shrug. “Surely you considered that there was a possibility of—consequences.” She cleared her throat. “It’s not like we had any preventative resources.”

 

His dark eyes immediately shuttered. “No.  We didn’t.”

 

“It was negative.”  Sam had to look away from him.  Each time she’d thought of receiving the results, there had been pain amidst the relief.  Inexplicable. She breathed deeply. “So.  There’s that.”

 

“There’s that.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“So Doc Frasier knows that much.”

 

“I didn’t tell her who it’d been. I didn’t mention who might have been the fath—“

 

His interruption relieved both of them. “Yeah. Okay.”

 

“But she knew that something had happened.” Sam pursed her lips and breathed outward heavily.  “I think she knows with who. I think she—guessed.”

 

The Colonel nodded.  “Okay.”

 

“And so I haven’t told her any more. About any of this. About us.  Her career is in as much jeopardy as ours, and with her having Cassie now, it doesn’t seem fair.”

 

“Mmm.”  He was back to the non-verbal responses. 

 

“And so, there’s nobody to talk to.” Sam shook her head, tilting her face away from that stiff breeze.  But it was if the heat, and the wind, and the crashing sound of the waves on the sand were pulling the truth from her.  Once she’d started, she couldn’t seem to stop. “That’s the worst part of the whole thing.  I feel like there’s never anybody to talk to.  What we do—we do as a team.  But we’re still alone. It’s all secrets and solitude and being evasive.  So I meet this cute guy in this bike shop and he shows an interest in me, and he’s not military. He’s an accountant, so no regs. And he takes me out and treats me well and tries to ki—to whatever—and I just—can’t.”

 

Sam knew she was blathering. It embarrassed her, but the dam had burst inside her and she couldn’t wall it back up again. She took a moment and breathed deeply, scraping her fingers through the shag of her hair. “He took me to this bar he likes. We played some pool. And there’s something between us—you know?  He’s not a eunuch, and I’m not a nun.  We’re both adults. It’s been a while, but not as long as it had been before -118—and I guess I realized that I’d missed the contact.  Being with someone that way.  Being wanted.”

 

Still silent, O’Neill seemed nearly monolithic beside her, as if he were made of solid, beautiful stone.  He barely breathed, only a slight flare of his nostrils betrayed his body’s need for oxygen.  If she concentrated hard enough, she could see the throb of his pulse in his throat.  Other than that, he may as well have been Lot’s wife.  A pillar of salt.

 

“And so I kept drinking. Thinking that if I could let down a few walls, I could be different with him.  I could forget, maybe, or just—“

 

His response seemed to have been yanked from him rather than offered freely.  “Move on.”

 

 “Yeah.” Sam nodded.  “That.”

 

He leaned back slightly, stretching one leg out in front of him, his palm putting pressure just above his patella. That knee had to be hurting but face didn’t belie his discomfort.  Physical or otherwise.

 

“And like a moron, I had too much, and he took me home, and I brought him inside, and we—whatever.  And then I just—couldn’t.  It was clumsy. And wrong.  So very, very wrong. I told him to leave. So, he did.  He didn’t come back.”

 

His hand splayed flat in the sand between them, then relaxed a bit.  Sam looked down at it, at the strong, flat beds of his nails, the light sprinkling of hair on the back of his hand, the veins that became more pronounced as his fingers absently teased at the sand beneath them. The ache she’d been harboring for months deepened, opening up within her like a cavern. 

 

With a little groan, Sam pressed the heels of her palms to her forehead.  “I can’t believe I just told you all that.”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

But it wasn’t, and they both knew it. Even so, nobody else would have understood—and they both knew that, too.  For a time, the only sound around them was the whistle of the wind and the rhythmic whoosh of the surf.  The sun sailed behind a random cloud and then out again, giving them a moment’s respite from the heat before bathing them once again in light.

 

Sam chewed on her top lip for a moment before hazarding a look at the man at her side.  “I felt like a complete idiot.  I feel like a complete idiot.”

 

Quiet, his voice was little more than a whisper. “If there’s anything you are, Carter, it’s not an idiot.”

 

“For a while, after we got back, I thought that I hated the mind stamp, and the mines, and the power production pits. I thought that I hated the people who had done that to us.  I blamed them.” She twisted slightly, turning her shoulder against the ocean, angling towards the man beside her.  She leaned forward, crossing her legs, and burying her hands in the warm, fluid sand.  “I thought we had been better off before, being what we were before the ice planet. But then they changed us and took away our regs and then—” Sam’s voice dwindled.  “And then I hated the knowing—you know?”

 

All it took was a look at him to ascertain for certain that he did, indeed, know.  His jaw tensed, and his lips had nearly disappeared into a thin, pale line.

 

“And so I realized that what I really hated was the truth.  To come home and not have that relationship anymore –realizing that with who we were and what we are, we couldn’t—” A sudden ache had closed off her throat.

 

“Yeah.” The Colonel nodded.  “That ‘truth’ thing is really a pain in the ass.”

 

She couldn’t help but smile—a bit sadly—before continuing.  “I could have handled serving as we do, as long as I’d never felt what I felt when I was Thera. Known what it was like to have—what she had.”

 

You. Unspoken, yet it echoed between them.  You. You. You.

 

For the first time, The Colonel’s control seemed to waver.   His jaw tensed once, and then again as his shoulders fell, his chin dipping towards his broad chest. Abruptly, his hand found hers within the sand and covered it, his fingers curling around hers.

 

From up above on the dune came voices. It was Daniel—his words audible without being intelligible.  Shading her eyes with her free hand, Sam looked up, found her other teammates amidst the columns, and then lost them again as the pair headed inland once more. When Carter returned her attention to the Colonel, she found his gaze intent upon her.

 

“The funny thing is that I realized something. Sitting there, a little drunk, on my doorstep.”

 

One eyebrow tweaked upwards, the motion nearly imperceptible, the invitation to continue clear.

 

“I tried to blame the whole thing on them—on that horrid ice city society and their mindless slavery.  But the truth is that it wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t us.” The syllables tumbled, unchecked, from her soul, falling between herself and the Colonel like leaves from an autumn-yellowed tree.  “Jonah and Thera were us.  They were the truth beneath what we have to be in the positions we are currently occupying. And me trying to be with this accountant guy, or you with whoever—or whatever—I don’t want to know—it’s like trying to fill an empty that can’t be filled with anything but—”

 

His fingers tightened around hers, his calloused thumb rasping a path across the top of her fine-boned hand.

 

“And it’s just so damned hopeless. All of it.  I can’t live my life alone.  I’ve spent most of my adult life just—alone.  And after being part of something so—filling—I realize that I can’t exist without anyone to exist with.  But there’s no solution.  I feel like I’m going to die like this, either off-world, being chased by Jaffa, or at home, sitting on my couch staring at the walls.  The silence will kill me.”

 

“Sam.”

 

“So, I’ve been a little bitchy lately.” She looked down at where their fingers tangled in the sand.  “And now I feel like a complete idiot because I’m blathering on about this like some stupid teeny bopper who doesn’t have sense enough to just get over it already.”

 

His hand stilled over hers. The weight of it hot against her skin.

 

“I’m such a freaking idiot.”  She shook her head, her tousled hair glinting in the sun. “I hate being this person.”

 

“You hate being which person?” Jack’s voice drew her back. “Who exactly do you hate being?”

 

She considered that for a moment before looking up at him.  “I hate being weak. I hate realizing that I’m needy, but it’s the truth—I need more.  I hate being this freaking girly-girl who has suddenly realized that I want what the other girls have.  And I hate being a blubbering, whining fool who wants to live in a stupid Hallmark Christmas movie.”

 

For the first time in months, she felt something other than hidden desperation.  In a moment of absolute clarity, she could see herself—soul-bare—defenseless. There on the hot sand, her hand curled up within the Colonel’s larger one, the sharp wind whipping around her, she felt completely revealed.  And it was both terrifying and liberating. 

 

“Sam, you’re not needy. And you’re not stupid.” Angry?  O’Neill’s words had come from a place far from jovial.

 

“Sir, I—I should be able to deal with all of this better.”

 

“And how the hell are you supposed to do that?”

 

She shrugged, exhaled a sick little laugh. “I don’t know.”

 

“Then you can’t beat yourself up about it.” His deep gaze captured hers. “You can’t do what you can’t do.”

 

“That’s not true.”  She turned her hand, her palm flattening against his. “We accomplish things we can’t do all the time.  But this—I just can’t seem to let this go.  I can’t seem to forget. I don’t want to, but I need to.”

 

He didn’t answer for a long, long time. His hand lay heavy on hers, pressing her fingers into the dune. He seemed to be inordinately captivated by the sight of her hand there, almost completely covered by his.

 

“I need to forget it so damned much.” Gathering herself, she stood, pulling her hand away, pulling her heart away.  Getting her balance in the soft dune, she chanced a look at him, at his familiar, intense expression that meant everything while saying nothing. “Almost as much as I need to remember it.”

 

It was too much—too close.  Too raw.  Confession had only brought to light her inadequacies and pathetic, hopeless self. The juxtaposition of the tough kick-ass off-world wise Major with the sullen, morose Earth-bound woman she was becoming was so stark that it was maddening.

 

The Colonel’s eyes were inscrutable, dark, and shuttered.  For the first time in ages, she truly had no idea at all what he was thinking. Sam opened her mouth to speak again, but then closed it tight.  Her hand still carried the imprint of his heat—just as her body had carried the memory of his for the past months.  She closed her palm, feeling the grit, the sand between her fingers. 

 

Damn. Damn.  Damn! 

 

With a little sob, she rose, spinning out of their tableau, her feet making tiny arcs of sand as she plowed through it down the dune. To the water--away from the Colonel, from Jonah and the mess of her life, down the waterfront towards where a grove of palms nestled together at the beach’s end.