In the darkness, there is fear.
With a final glance over his shoulder, down the institutionally-lit hallway, he steps inside the room. He pauses to let his eyes adjust to the lack of illumination. There is a window on the far wall, but any moonlight or starlight is effectively blocked by chunky vertical blinds. Some light trickles in from the bathroom, but it's feeble, just enough to reveal the doorway and the dismal shade of the carpet. The wall-mounted television is dead and dark. There are two small lamps, on tables near the heads of both beds, but they're dormant as well.
After a brief moment, he steps inside and quietly closes the door behind him. The gun is heavy in his coat pocket.
His night vision comes quickly. In the bed by the window he can see a vague outline. A slightly withered form. It gives a snort and a cough and turns over in its sleep. Bones creak audibly, and Jack quickly loses interest.
In the bed closest to him, the figure tucked beneath the stiff sheets does not stir, or snort or cough, but it breathes. It lives. For the moment, that's all he cares about.
He knows full well he shouldn't be here, but since when has that stopped him? Not many times during the past two years. That much is certain. He threw caution to the wind, he allowed himself to forget about the unquestionable nature of the threat. He let time rush over him like water over rocks, wearing away at him. Softening his defenses. Leading him to make stupid mistakes. This, however... this isn't naivete. It's panic, anger, and desperation. When he'd heard... he'd thought... no, he hadn't thought, he'd just acted, moving without awareness, a prisoner of his own surprisingly-vivid imagination.
He could see it in his mind, and it wasn't any less violent or graphic now that he knew she was alive. His subconscious provided all the details. He didn't know what kind of car she was driving now. Didn't know exactly what stretch of road she had been on. Wasn't sure of the make and model of the would-be-killers' car. But he could see it all. And what was more, he could smell it and hear it and feel it.
It was that vivid.
The smell of rubber burning on asphalt. The sound of metal rending and glass shattering. The jar of the impact. The descent.
The hospital is cool, but he finds himself sweating.
There's an IV. Two monitors displaying vitals. A plastic carafe of water on a swinging table, currently pushed aside. A ghostly light falls from the screen displaying her heartbeat. It falls almost eerily across her face.
She looks better than he had expected, so naturally he's suspicious. What if there's something wrong? Something inside... something the doctors somehow missed? He pushes the thought aside because he knows Frasier's already been here; he narrowly missed running into her on his way past the cafeteria. Frasier wouldn't have missed anything... but she wouldn't be the one in charge. Not here, not at the county hospital. It's likely, in fact, that she's only here to make sure Sam's blood samples don't fall into unclassified hands, and to arrange for a transfer to the Academy Hospital as soon as possible.
Six hours really isn't that long a wait. Especially considering the surgery. Maybe it had in fact been minor, but cutting open the body was cutting open the body, no matter how you, well, sliced it.
A shallow cut near her left temple. A fresh, still-forming bruise on her cheek. A small incision in her abdomen, hidden beneath the bedclothes.
She'd been lucky.
God, he'd been lucky.
There was still the matter of possible broken bones, cracked bones, twisted joints, sprained ligaments, wrenched muscles. But that was okay. He could deal with that. Good enough to know that she was alive. She had survived.
He feels a rush of elated defiance, mocking the would-be-killers from afar... but the sensation quickly fades.
She's in that hospital bed, battered and bruised, because of him.
He had warned her. His initial disappearance, so swift and silent, should have told her something. During their... meeting a year before, if it had actually happened... he had come out and said it. He had told her.
"They said they were going to kill you otherwise."
He's doubtful that this was their attempt to follow through on that promise. If they had wanted her dead, they wouldn't have left the scene after running her off the road. They would have followed her and made sure she was finished off. They were like that... quick and brutal when necessary.
Which meant this was a message. A warning. They didn't pick this day out of coincidence. They've been watching. They know he can't stay away.
But he has to.
He can leave the country. Completely change his identity; he knows the right people. He can become someone else, start over, leave this life behind knowing it's better for everyone involved.
Only it isn't. And he knows in his heart that it's too late for that. There's a reason that, although exiled, he's remained in the US. There's a reason he hasn't already gotten in contact with the right people, and it's not because he's too old to start anew. It's because a part of him will always be here, in this city, with this woman... and he knows it.
And they know it.
Stay and get her killed.
Leave and he may as well kill himself.
The gun in his coat pocket grows heavier by the minute. He closes his eyes, but that's a mistake because in that deeper darkness his confusion and loneliness and guilt only gather strength.
Startled, he opens his eyes. The voice is so low and throaty that he instinctively, absurdly looks towards the far bed. The old woman is still turned away from him - and how would she know his name anyway? - so he redirects his gaze.
Her eyes are heavy-lidded, unfocused, but they're open.
"Hey," he says immediately, stepping closer despite himself. He tentatively rests on hand on the metal side of the bed. She continues to look up at him somewhat dully, and he swallows, searching for something to say. "I thought I told you not to go driving off any cliffs."
Sam's brow creases momentarily as she apparently tries to remember when he's given such advice, but then her expression clears and she smiles. It's a very tired smile, but it'll do. "It wasn't a cliff. It was an... embankment. And I didn't drive off it."
His hand tightens on the metal rail. "How do you feel?"
She closes her eyes, but the small smile persists. "Like I just drove off a cliff."
He's unaccountably grateful for her ability to joke at a time like this. "I have it on pretty good authority," he says softly, "that it was an embankment."
For a moment she's silent, and it seems she's drifted back to sleep. Then she opens her eyes, scrutinizing him more directly. "Are you really here... or is this just the drugs talking?"
Again, her brow crimps and clears. "They're very nice," she says, her words slightly slurred, her lips curving.
He leans a little closer, both hands on the rail now. "I'm really here," he assures her, his tone indicating plenty left unsaid, revealing his nervousness. Here and shouldn't be. Here and shouldn't be.
"The 27th? Yeah. For..." He checks the lighted numbers on his watch. "... six more minutes."
She says nothing in reply, her gaze drifting up and focusing on the tiled ceiling. Jack wonders what she's thinking. What she's remembering. Last year? The year before that? The day when, from her perspective, this all started - the day he left? Finally she speaks. "Why don't you... take a load off?"
He glances over his shoulder and sees a chair against the wall. He looks back at her, conflicted. Eventually a nurse or doctor - or worse, Frasier - is going to stop by to check on either of the patients. He doesn't want to be here when that happens. "I should-"
She anticipates him. "Jack..."
She says 'please' in the most incredible way. Like it's not a question or a request, like it's a command, a demand. Without further complaint he grabs the molded plastic chair and pulls it over to her bedside, wedging himself in with only a small grimace. The hospital bed is a little high, so their faces are just about at the same level, even though they're looking at each other through the rungs of the handrail.
The old woman in the next bed coughs. Sam tenses.
By way of conversation, not to mention avoidance, Jack asks, "Any idea who your neighbor is?"
Turning her cheek against the pillow, she shrugs one shoulder gingerly. "I didn't even realize I had one." She pauses, blinking thoughtfully. "I guess she could be an NID agent... here to finish the job."
She's kidding. He hopes to hell she's kidding. "I think I can take Grandma," he tells her conspiratorially, but her expression is still grave.
"You need to worry about taking care of yourself," she says disapprovingly. He swears he's heard her take the same tone with Cassie.
He leans forward slightly. "Oh really? Which one of us is in the hospital bed right now?"
"I mean it. You don't look... good."
"It's called getting old, Sam," he snorts, although a certain guilty pang in his chest tells him she's right. He just hasn't given much of a damn about himself lately. It was kind of inevitable. He'd gotten used to having a mission in life. To having a purpose. To having people to share that mission, that purposefulness with. Now he has nothing. Now he's just biding time until he dies, and it's driving him insane. Maybe even driving him to destruction.
Once again, he thinks she might have drifted off to sleep. He even hopes she has. But then her voice comes out of the darkness again. "Why're you here, exactly?"
He leans back, looks at the floor, glances around. He swears it's darker than it was just a minute ago. "I... wanted to see you. Make sure you were okay."
Her tone is subdued, quietly angry. "So you're not staying."
Dammit. He closes his eyes. Dammit. "You know I can't." And she knows it's torture for him. Just acting like she wants him to stay is as painful as dismemberment.
"No." The anger is slowly bubbling up, hampered by her lethargy and the drugs. "No, I don't know at all. I understand what the... the NID want. And you're giving it to them. Why? That's what I don't know. We're stronger together. What if you hadn't helped Hammond..." Her voice trails off, and he can tell that the short tirade practically exhausted her.
What she doesn't get, what he doesn't know if he can explain, is that he understands Hammond's motivation now. "What I did back then was for selfish reasons."
She pauses before answering. "Then I want to be selfish too... If you're going away again... I want to come too."
He laughs. It isn't a loud sound, and it isn't a happy sound either. "Not going to happen," he says firmly.
"It's my choice." Stubborn as always.
"For one," he points out calmly, "you're in no condition to go anywhere. For two... you wouldn't leave the SGC behind."
She fixes him with a venomous kind of glare. "Maybe I would."
Jack shakes his head. He's not buying it. "Come on. You're working out of the Alpha Site now. Right? Under Iglesias?" She nods grudgingly. "That's a big move, Sam. You'll be making General any day now." He tries to smile, but she's having none of it. "Or... are you still upset that you lost SG-1?"
The nasty look freezes, and quickly begins to thaw. She sighs. "I didn't lose it," she corrects him tiredly. "It just wasn't there anymore. Teal'c... he's just so frustrated. And he's afraid for Ryac every day. And Jonas..." She smiled unexpectedly. "Don't know if you'd heard... he and his wife had a baby."
"Hadn't heard," he confirms. When he manages to sneak or steal information about the old gang - again, all a matter of knowing the right people - it's almost always about her.
"About three months ago. A little boy. Named him Kieran." The name sounds familiar, and she prompts, "After the doctor... his mentor?"
"Jonas took some time off to be home with him, and Erika."
There's an unmistakable sadness in her voice, in her face. It's written in her eyes. Slowly he reaches through the railing and takes her hand. The angle of his grip is awkward, but it's the contact that matters. It forces her to look at him. "Listen to me," he says resolutely. "You've gotta stop this. Poking and prodding into the NID isn't going to help me. It's just going to get you hurt." He squeezes her hand a little tighter. "Just... get back to the SGC as soon as you can, okay? Get back out to the Alpha Site and you stay there as long as possib;e... they can't get to you there. You lie low until this blows over and then... get on with your life."
"Get on with it," she echoes dully, her hand limp in his.
"You..." He sighs. "I just want you to be... safe. And happy." He's just not sure what happy means for her. Judging by the look on her face, maybe she has a domestic bone in her body after all... maybe she wants to give that a try. Maybe it just means kicking Goa'uld ass early and often. And safe... well. He can't protect her from everything. But he can protect her from him.
Finally she squeezes his hand back. "I want the same thing for you."
Fat chance, he thinks.
Gun. Pocket. Heavy.
But he nods anyway.
And for a long time he sits there, holding her hand. Only when the old woman rolls onto her back and begins snoring does he realize the length of his stay. And he realizes that Sam's fallen asleep.
All the better, really.
Carefully he disentangles their hands, and slowly he stands from his uncomfortable seat. He quickly dips into his not-gun pocket, remembering the first year, searching for something to leave her. After all, she may wake up in the morning wondering if it had just been 'the drugs talking'.
Thirty-seven cents and a half-empty pack of gum. Not exactly poetic.
He thinks for a second, then leaves the chair by the bed. Maybe it will be enough.
Telling himself not to think, not to feel, he crosses the room and opens the door... and finds the threshold blocked. The hallway is so bright that he's forced to squint, raising a hand to shade his face, and he takes a step back automatically. The figure in the doorway doesn't move, simply crossing its arms.