Sometimes I wonder why I keep getting up in the morning. Why I still use the same shampoo in the shower, still inhale a few bowls of cereal while I skim the morning paper. More than anything, I wonder why I still go to work. Why I make that damned drive up the mountain every day when I know it'll bring me nothing but heartache.
Maybe I just don't want to disappoint the General, and Daniel, and everyone else. Maybe it's the ugly, dark part of me that wants the opportunity to exact revenge if it should ever sound sufficiently tempting. Maybe it's the wafer-thin chance that one day, some day, things might be made right again.
Or maybe it's just the way I like torturing myself.
I know the others are still shocked I've stayed around. Every single morning, I see it in their eyes. *He's actually here. Another day he's actually here.* And they applaud me for it. They applaud us all, but especially me, because I'm the one who... and I'm actually still here. So surprised. So proud. *Calmed down in his old age. Getting used to losing people he cares about.*
That's nothing to brag about.
* * * * *
More often than not, no matter how off-balance Jack tumbled into the Stargate, he was able to remain on his feet as he exited. He considered it a talent. The others considered it luck.
This time, both luck and talent had failed him.
He hit the ramp, bounced, rolled, and laid there. Motionless.
There was a call for a medic.
* * *
Daniel had taken his glasses off; better to catch the tears that threatened to spill. Normally he'd allow himself the indulgence of weeping, preferably in dark solitude where he didn't have to worry about what others thought of a grown man bawling. But after all that they had been through, he couldn't leave Jack. Not now. Not to go wallow in his own despair.
He still held his right forearm protectively to his chest, clenching and unclenching the fist.
* * *
"Maybe you'd better go," said Janet quietly and, she thought, with admirable restraint.
The Tok'ra lifted her chin, looking down her nose at the doctor. "I still need to speak to Colonel O'Neill, and I have several follow up tests to run on him and Doctor Jackson. You did promise that-"
The doctor glowered and took a menacing step towards Anise who, to Frasier's immense satisfaction, backed away. "Let me put it this way. If you don't get out of here before the Colonel remembers who is RESPONSIBLE for this snafu, I can't promise that you'll LIVE long enough to run another test on a human being ever again."
There was real fear in Anise's eyes now and Janet lapped it up. Cold comfort. So very cold.
"We had no idea that their bodies would build up an immunity to the devices," stuttered the Tok'ra. "You cannot blame me..."
Another step, and now Anise's back was against the wall.
"Watch me," Janet seethed.
* * *
"Son, I can't tell you how glad I am you've decided to stay on."
For a long while there was no response, and Hammond began to worry that Jack would change his mind. That he was changing it this very minute. He hesitated, and then added. "I think it's safe to say... it's what the Major would have wanted. For you to stay."
The reaction was a subtle one: a shifting of his jaw, a tic that twitched behind his left eye.
"Actually," he croaked. "What the Major wanted was for me to leave."
* * *
The visitor entered, closing the door behind her but remaining nearby. There was an unparalleled tension in her body, the only reason Jack didn't immediately rescind the invitation. "Oh," he said flatly, struggling to rein in his fury. "You. You know, you have a lot of nerve coming back here."
"You are probably not happy to see me."
The utter idiocy of the statement played on Jack's last remaining nerve. "I think that's an understatement. In fact, I can't believe Hammond hasn't already sent you packing." He sat up, and Anise tensed even further. "You're already responsible for what happened on PX9-797. Now a second SGC member is dead and you want to try out on ME the same procedure that killed HER because you seem to think I've been brainwashed. This is bullshit! I'm starting to think YOU'RE a Gou'ald... trying to destroy us from the inside out!"
Unexpectedly, Anise's features softened. "I realize that the time in question is a difficult one for you to recall, Colonel. You claimed that everything you told me during the testing was the truth, and I have no reason to doubt that. Unfortunately, the only alternative is that you are a zay'tarc."
Jack ran a hand across his mouth, feeling the guilt beginning to well inside him again. It was always there, of course, the emotional pain that would, on occasion, manifest itself physically until he could feel his heart seizing, his lungs clenching. "What if I lied?"
Anise frowned. "But you said-"
He cut her off with a venomous glare. "Come on. Haven't you ever... made yourself believe something, something that wasn't true... and you believed in it so hard that it wasn't a lie anymore?"
"I don't understand," was the nervous answer.
"You said that I had to be totally truthful about everything. Even what I was feeling at the time?"
"That is correct."
Jack stood. If that was the case, then the answer was simple enough, or as simple as anything else was these days. "Retest me."
* * *
Teal'c frowned as he entered the room, led by Doctor Frasier. "You are going through the procedure?"
"Not on your life," quipped the Colonel. "I don't care what you say. I AM taking you fishing next weekend." His tone was light, but his voice was so very, very tired. He glared at Anise as she adjusted the straps first around his wrists and then his forehead. "But apparently I... have to get something off my chest first."
* * *
"Major Carter was trapped behind a force shield."
No one had to remind him. He could see her now, as he had every night since when he dreamed... hell, every time he closed his eyes. There she was, the desperate expression on her beautiful face slightly blurred by the energy barrier that separated them. Only a moment ago they'd been invincible. Now they were vulnerable, fatally so. "That's right."
There had been a panel on the wall. It seemed almost too easy, but these WERE snakeheads. He'd used a piece of crappy Gou'ald décor and his own two hands to pry it open, and rifle around inside.
*"Sir, there's no time!"*
She was right. God, she was right, that was the hell of it. She might has well have been on the other side of a brick wall, unreachable, and there was Daniel and Teal'c to think of. But she was just so damned close; he could see her and hear her as she told him to leave. He could see the distress in her eyes, and that made all the difference.
He couldn't leave.
"There were sounds."
Sounds of their own labored breathing, of his heart hammering his temples... but over those, the sounds of approaching Jaffa.
"You did everything you could."
Which hadn't been worth shit. The shield had sizzled and shimmered, laughing at his puerile attempts to defeat it. "Yes."
"You couldn't save her."
That had never been in question. "No."
At this point, it was the restraints and nothing else - not pride nor duty nor concern for the well-being of himself and others - keeping him in that chair, in that room. Why had they called Teal'c and Frasier in here, anyway? It felt like they were witnesses to his confession.
*"I know, I know!"*
"What happened next?"
What happened next was something that Jack had spent a long time trying to forever erase from his memory. But like a bloodstain, it remained. It remained.
*"Sir, just go!"*
Panic had lanced through his chest, some great revelation prickling his eyes, a vehement refusal poised in his throat. But it lodged there, and the realization that had been so long in coming faltered in the face of his duty and the anguish in her voice. Like he was, she was afraid. Like he did, she knew why he couldn't leave. But what the two of them thought and felt didn't matter now. It never really had.
She met his eyes across the blue field.
Don't forget about the others.
Don't stay any longer.
Don't die for me.
Don't forget me.
Jack's voice was faint in his own ears. "I tried... but... there was just no way. And Teal'c and... and Daniel..."
He had left her standing there. Standing, all but pressed against the field, watching him leave. With relief in her heart, he hoped. With the knowledge that when it happened, it would happen quickly.
His feet slapped laboriously against the floor as he ran down the long corridor, ran for the exit. It was like being trapped in slow motion.
But it would happen quickly for Sam.
There it was. Sunlight. And his teammates, waiting, even though he had told them to go. Daniel was shouting his name.
And a blue shimmer between them. Another field.
Time was counting down.
*"Jack!"* hollered Daniel, pummeling the field with his fists. *"Where's Sam?"*
"I left her."
He'd left her behind. Left her to die.
*Whatever happened to 'nobody gets left behind?'*
Jack lurched to a stop, no closer to his friends, to freedom, to life, than he had been seconds ago from Sam.
"What were you feeling?" asked Anise.
"Like someone who was about to die." That was close enough to the truth, wasn't it? That pretty much expressed the overwhelming truth that had fallen over him as he had realized the consequences of his actions. There would be no return trip, no rescue party. The mountain was rigged to explode. It was true.
But from the look on Anise's face, it wasn't enough.
Maybe he had imagined the sound of a staff weapon firing, the subsequent cry of agony. It seemed likely that it had been all in his head, considering the distance, but it was easier to think that the Jaffa had taken Carter down before the C4 had gone off. That he wouldn't have been able to help her, even if he had gone back, even if he had stayed with her.
The ship shuddered, and the field fell. Jack went down to one knee, cursing.
"Like a coward. And I realized... that I should have stayed... that I should have died myself before I left her behind."
But it was a bit late to be making that decision. Even as Jack shouted to the others that the fields had gone down, that there was still a slim chance of saving Sam, there were the sounds of approaching Jaffa. There was a great distance to travel. And there was a mountain falling in on itself.
And there was Teal'c, pulling him along by the shirt. There was profound sadness in his eyes as he'd realized what Jack had been unable to say... but he understood as well. Even if she was still alive, they couldn't go back for her.
And chances were she wasn't.
"Why?" prodded Anise.
The answer was so easy, so painfully clear, but at the same time almost impossible to utter. That was why he'd inadvertently lied the first time. He should be saying this to Carter. She should be standing right there, with Frasier and Teal'c listening to this confession.
"Because I cared about her." He paused, closed his eyes. What would it hurt to go ahead and say it? To be totally honest with HIMSELF, for a change? "Because I finally saw what I'd been lying to myself about. What I'd been trying to make myself believe: that somehow, the regulations changed what I felt. I... I loved her. I just did. And that's the truth."
And it was.
* * *
There was shouting in the halls. Something about shots fired in the Gateroom. Secret Service killed. An airman wounded. An untested Tok'ra who had blown his brains across the wall.
* * * * *
Sometimes I wonder why I keep getting up in the morning. My guilt? My stubbornness? The ache for revenge, to make sure that Anise and her indiscriminate machinations don't ruin another life, don't END another life?
But if there was anything Sam taught me, it was that this IS life after death, even hers, even when I blame myself and go to bed each night praying for a second chance. I kept on living after Charlie, right? Kept waking. Kept showering and eating and doing my duty. Kept breathing.
As I dress this morning, I talk aloud to her. I often do. It's my way of fulfilling her last wish, and of keeping her close to my heart.
"So the planet this week is P3R-118. Again. Pretty damn technologically advanced... well, compared to most of the people we come across. They've invented the wheel and everything." I chuckle to myself. "Seriously though, Carter. Big, beautiful buildings, a skyline like nothing else. And the view... they live in this huge dome, surrounded by a glacier. Make for some gorgeous skiing. Anyway, last time there the head honcho gave us a tour of the place. Name is Caulder. He's a little weird, yeah, but the alliance itself looks pretty promising..."