Some Corner of a Foreign Field

Epilogue: "...that is forever [Earth]." (cont.)

August 22nd, 2010

John stared as the digital clock on the nightstand changed digits. 04:34. Then he shifted his eyes to the spot next to him. Still empty.

He exhaled deeply and flipped onto his back, the covers thrown away hours ago because they were too hot and clammy. No sleep tonight. Just his demons whispering at the back of his mind that he'd seriously screwed up this time, that he should've just kept his mouth shut and taken out his frustration on Ronon in the gym like he usually did. Sam hadn't deserved it.

John looked sideways. The digits had changed again. 04:36, and he was still here.

This can't go on.

Rolling out of bed, John stopped only to put on pants, T-shirt and running shoes before exiting his quarters. He started walking, passing Jackson's door down the corridor, but ignoring it. Sam wouldn't have sought refuge there, not with Jackson dealing with Reika's recurring nightmares these days. She wouldn't have done anything to add to that burden, which was just another punch in John's gut. They were supposed to be a team now, to have each other's backs no matter what, and John hadn't.

The hallways of Atlantis were dimmed for the night, but lights sprung on for him. The city sensed his ATA gene and accommodated him. It opened doors, turned on lights, and sent him off in the transporter almost before he'd input a destination.

John walked, his feet taking him down by-now-familiar routes. Down corridors, up and down staircases, through large rooms and abandoned common areas. Each movement processed the confusion of thoughts and emotions within him, making his path clearer. By the time he finally caught sight of his target destination he was ready.

"Airmen," John greeted the two armed guards stationed outside the door, who straightened in response and stepped aside for him.

Pulling out his key card, John swiped it through the device superimposed on the door controls and input his 12-digit code along with his hand print. When the lights showed green, the door opened and he stepped inside.

Despite being brightly lit up, there was a sense of confinement about this room. Along every available wall, there were stacks of big and small containers lined up from floor to ceiling, all carrying the logos of either the SGC, Homeworld Command or Daedalus. Sam had moved it all here after Xiaoyi discovered Janus' lab, giving it the best protection she could under the circumstances. Although people were aware now that a room like this existed, Woolsey had promised there'd be no further attempts at forcibly revealing its secrets, at least from the IOA's side. John appreciated that about him.

"Sam?" His voice carried almost unnaturally through the connected rooms, meeting only silence. Uneasy, John ventured deeper into the room.

He found her seated in front of a desk, shoulders slumped, a square steel device sitting inertly in front of her. An old familiar ache went through him at the sight, almost diverting him from his purpose for coming here.

"Sam?" He tried again, his voice low, gentle, and hesitant.

Exhaling deeply, Sam sniffled and straightened somewhat in her seat. "Still nothing."

"I'm sorry." Approaching her slowly, John put his hand on her shoulder. She didn't shrug it off, which made him take it a step further and squeeze her shoulder softly. As he did, he could feel the tension in her and he sighed deeply. "I'm sorry for a lot of things."

"I know," Sam said softly. With both hands, she rubbed her eyes before beginning to pack away the prototype long-range communication device that Homeworld Command had sent in the Evacuation.

John let go of her shoulder and stepped back to watch her, all the while aching with shame and regret. "Will you come home tonight?"

He knew he didn't deserve it, that he didn't deserve her, but he couldn't bear this distance he'd put between them. If the past two years had shown him anything, then it was that she was part of him whether he wanted to or not. He hoped she still felt the same, that she could forgive him for being a jerk.

"Yeah." Closing the lid on the small container in front of her, Sam paused and exhaled again. "But I'm tired of fighting old arguments, John. It seems that no matter how far we've come, we always come back to the same thing and I can't continue to apologise for what happened to us last year."

John winced, shifting uncomfortably on his feet. "I know, Sam. I'm sorry. It—it just slipped." It was a poor excuse and they both knew it, but it was also the truth. His voice lowered in misery. "You have no idea how much I've wanted to take it back ever since."

Sam finally turned to meet his eyes. Hers were red and puffy, and he wondered of much of that was due to him and how much was due to the device she'd just put away.

"I'm sorry," repeated John quietly, hesitant once more.

He didn't know what else to say. They'd been down this road before and perhaps they would again. Old hurts and pains had a tendency to linger despite promises to put them behind, as this whole thing had proved. His only hope was that they would eventually shrink to a manageable size, and that no matter what happened, they wouldn't let the distance get too wide again.

The ball was in Sam's court, though. John could only stare at her, hoping she'd see the multitude of emotions in his eyes; that she'd see how desperately he wanted to fix this; that he wanted to continue making that one step at a time with her. No one else could measure up.

After a long tense moment, Sam inhaled deeply, pushed back her chair and got to her feet. Then she crossed the few yards separating them and snuggled into his chest.

John enveloped her in his arms immediately, letting out a breath of relief he hadn't been aware of holding. Nestling her head under his chin, squeezing her tight, he muttered, "I love you."

"I know," whispered Sam against his chest, and her fingers dug deeply into his back, pulling him closer until there wasn't any air left between them.

September 28th, 2010

Despite the fact that he'd been beamed up to Daedalus hundreds of times before, Caldwell knew this time was different. For the first time in one and a half years, he wasn't beaming up from Atlantis for a patrol or a rapid response mission within the borders of Pegasus. Instead, that task had gone to the Vestige and the Travelers for an indefinite period of time while Daedalus, by widespread demand and citywide vote, finally went to find answers.

Caldwell wasn't normally a man to be overwhelmed, but now he sought the solitude of the balcony outside the gate room. Inside, the gate room was packed with people and a formal send-off. He was expected to say a few words. He had no idea what to say, though. Any smart comments or famous quotations escaped him; only the grimness of what faced him ahead rested on his mind. So he let the swift ocean wind wash over him instead, committing the feeling to memory. This could be the last time he felt it.

A sea bird cawed overhead. Caldwell looked up to see it streak above the tip of tower T1 on the South Pier. Moments later, a puddle jumper followed it. The hum of its engines sounded for only a moment and then disappeared with the Jumper as it set out towards the large, ragtag-looking Traveler ship landing on the South Pier.

The Maxxon was there to drop off and pick up the weekly batch of resources: foodstuff and large bulks of raw trinium and naquadah that couldn't fit through the stargate in exchange for processed materials from Atlantis's factories and pharmaceuticals from the medical laboratories. Then the ship would head off towards the Genii home world and some other Coalition planets before making its way back to the Traveler home world and the circle would repeat.

'The Chain of Life', some called it. All Caldwell knew was that they couldn't build an advanced society without it. No one aboard Atlantis were farmers, and even though a small group of people were willing to learn from other Pegasus communities, learning took time. That made Atlantis dependent upon others to produce the majority of their food. However, so long as they could provide factories and laboratories, they wouldn't starve. Instead, they'd flourish.

That was the selling point, anyway. Keeping that system alive was more difficult, fraught especially with political and diplomatic issues. As per the Alliance treaty, small groups of both Travelers and Genii had been accepted to Atlantis to either contribute to research, the factories and the laboratories, or to train alongside Atlantis' own soldiers. However, with that many different personalities and cultures living and working together in a society already bruised by internal schemes and different ideologies, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

In any case, that was Caldwell's belief. He would've advocated more caution and time before allowing their allies to send people to Atlantis, but Woolsey had argued that they needed to show trust and that they needed workers. If he hadn't known Woolsey was managing and balancing the whole thing with everything in his arsenal and at least four different contingency plans, Caldwell would've pressed the issue. As it were, he'd decided to show a little trust of his own. He only hoped that Atlantis would still be standing if Daedalus managed to return.

Out on the pier, the bay doors of the Maxxon opened and a flurry of activity commenced as more Jumpers arrived to start shipping crates and chunks of trinium and naquadah to the factories on the West Pier.

At the same time, the door leading inside to the gate room whooshed open. Caldwell turned to glance at Carter, who came up to stand next to him. She was wearing her dress blues, her apparent calm broken by a hint of restlessness when she crossed her arms.

"So this is it, huh," she said carefully, her eyes fixed upon the Maxxon. "You're going back."

Following her gaze, Caldwell sighed. "So it seems."

"We might have to put up your names on the Memorial Wall," stated Carter.

"You might."

There was no sugar-coating that possibility. Going back was risky. Both Caldwell and Carter had emphasised that to the senior council and the masses before the vote was carried out. Essentially, Daedalus was flying in blind, having nothing but out-dated intel to go on. All soldiers knew the dangers of that. Still, this was a democracy and the majority had decided.

Caldwell sighed again. "Let's hope it'll be worth it."

"Do you think…?" Carter hesitated, her voice quiet now. Her slender hands fisted slightly against the fabric of her uniform, the only outward sign that her composure was nothing more than a façade; that she, like everyone else, was full of questions.

"I don't know," muttered Caldwell, his voice barely loud enough to carry on the wind. He was staring fixatedly on the Maxxon when his hands suddenly fisted around the railing in old, unresolved frustration. "That's been our problem all along. We don't know. Don't know who those damn aliens are, where they came from, what motive they had—don't even know what's left standing or not!" He gritted his teeth, unable to continue.

It took a moment for Carter to break the tense silence, her hesitance still present. "By the time you get back, we'll know more."

"If we get back," Caldwell said sharply, knowing that even based on out-dated information, the aliens made the Ori and the Wraith superhive look like child's play. Pushing back from the railing, he straightened and crossed his arms across his chest in an attempt at restraint, then met Carter's eyes. "They could still be there."

"Or not." Carter's tone was calm, but her eyes were glittering with unshed tears. "Like you said, we don't know. But even if they are, you might be able to get away. The Sun Tzu did it and they didn't even have a ZPM equipped." She paused, a distinct waver entering her voice. "Who knows? There could even be survivors. If not on Earth, then off-world."

It sounded like grasping at straws, but a part of him knew that she could be right. When they knew as little as they did, anything was possible. However, giving in to that poisonous idea was dangerous. It only set you up for more heartache and grief if things were, in fact, like they'd always suspected.

Caldwell preferred to be realistic and to expect the worst. After all, the last they'd heard reported from Earth was that the alien ships were wreaking destruction worldwide without discrimination and on a scale that far exceeded any standard 'shock and awe' tactic.

But Carter knew all that. All she asked for was a glimmer of hope, something to keep her going. Even commanders needed that. Otherwise, how would they cope with the weight of the world that'd been lost, but which still clung on to them every waking second, reminding them constantly of all that was gone? That they were on their own now? There had been times since the Evacuation where even he had struggled, hoping beyond hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel and that he'd finally reach it one day.

So in the end, he conceded.

"Maybe," Caldwell said lowly, his frustration bleeding away as the numb grimness of what was facing him returned to weigh on his mind. "We'll see when we get there."

For a moment, none of them said anything. Then Caldwell glanced at Carter, taking in the unshed tears that contrasted her tense posture and the silver birds on the epaulets of her dress blues. There was a matching pair on his uniform, older and more worn out, but still a testament to the responsibilities the two of them had carried alone until Sheppard received his promotion.

That thought sobered him. "If Daedalus doesn't come back, you and Sheppard will be on your own."

"I know," Carter said quietly. She straightened slightly, wiped the corners of her eyes, and gave him a level stare. "We'll keep the ship afloat. Whatever it takes."

Caldwell grimaced, hearing O'Neill's recorded voice echoing through his mind from a flash drive that'd been sent to Atlantis in the Evacuation: 'This is the last order you two will ever get from us: Keep our people alive, whatever it takes.'

"Don't overdo it," Caldwell said lowly. "And don't do anything stupid."

Smirking slightly at that, Carter raised an eyebrow. "Like secretly making alliances with other Pegasus societies that easily outnumber us, building a big honking space gun, or carrying out a military coup d'état against the IOA? Already done that."

Caldwell was tempted to roll his eyes. "Those were necessary. Things are better now."

At least relatively speaking, he thought, his mind going back to the political headaches Woolsey was going to be facing with the Genii and the Travelers now working in the city.

"Right." Carter looked away, still smirking. Then, after a moment, her expression grew solemn once more. "What if I suddenly get in touch with the Odyssey?"

"Then you weigh your options," Caldwell said carefully, skirting his eyes over his shoulder to make sure there weren't any eavesdroppers. "Technically, our mission still stands, but without Daedalus or most of the materials we brought you, which you've instead spent on the Ascalon, you'll have to find another way."

"Maybe they've already found their way home," Carter said, her voice quiet and sober, but with that poisonous touch of hope present in the subtext.

"Maybe," Caldwell acknowledged, even though he doubted it. The ship had been MIA for nearly two years; that was practically a lifetime. Nothing Homeworld Command or they had done since had gotten them anywhere closer to finding them. He wasn't keen on crushing Carter's hope, however. There were still things they didn't know.

"We'll keep our eyes and ears open when we get there." His jaw clenched slightly, his insides churning as he once more became reminded of the path ahead. "Meanwhile…" He paused, indicating the epaulets on Carter's dress blues. "I wouldn't get too attached to those birds. If I don't get back, you'll be offered a pair of silver stars instead. I've already given Woolsey my recommendation."

Blinking, Carter's eyes widened. "But—"

"The military wasn't designed for a triumvirate or dual leadership in the long run and the senior council agrees." Letting his arms fall calmly to the side, Caldwell straightened unconsciously. "As the senior officer, I'd be the natural choice for a General. You're next in line."

Returning her stare to the Maxxon out on the pier, Carter sighed. "Shit."

"Excuse me?" Caldwell raised an eyebrow.

"Sorry, sir." The honorific slipped past Carter's lips automatically. She hesitated, unclenching her fists and resting her hands on her lower back instead. "It's just…I'm not sure I can be both a General and a…" She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "Colonel Sheppard and I, are discussing whether to, um…"

Catching on immediately, Caldwell froze. "Oh."

"Yeah," Carter said awkwardly.

Thankfully, she didn't elaborate further. Caldwell appreciated that. Although he'd come somewhat to terms with Carter and Sheppard's personal relationship since they managed to keep it professional whenever they were in his vicinity, an ingrained part of him was still against it.

He'd been in the military for thirty years. During that time, he'd been both married and divorced, albeit to a civilian, and he'd even suffered a reprimand once for going to dinner with a subordinate officer. Watching two senior officers' relationship unfold openly went against every grain in his discipline and sense of duty. To see the same two officers attempt to establish a family as well…

I'm an old guy, Caldwell realised heavily. I might never come to accept it fully, no matter how professional they are. He sighed internally. Sheppard as a General, though…

"Don't worry," Carter said quietly, bringing him out of his heavy thoughts. "I'll work it out somehow." Despite the shine still present in her eyes, she smiled at him, her spine straight, any hint of doubt gone. She was once more the seasoned commander he'd come to respect. "You just do what you've gotta do, and if you're able to…bring your crew back home. We'll keep a light on for you."

"Sounds good." Meeting Carter's eyes, Caldwell nodded and smiled.

They'll be all right, a voice at the back of his head told him. She, Woolsey and Sheppard will make sure our people are safe. They won't be left behind.

Exhaling gently, Caldwell gave the wonderful view of Atlantis glittering in the sun one last stare, before inhaling the fresh ocean wind for what could possibly be the last time.

"I'm ready," he said.

October 4th, 2010

The almost imperceptible hum from the stasis pods was familiar by now. As she stood in front of them, eyes closed, Shen could see the people encased within the pods as clearly as if her eyes were open. She knew exactly how far she had to reach to touch that warm, glassy surface and let it trail beneath her fingertips.

There was a sense of comfort about this room and these pods that kept bringing her back here day after day. Although there was no scientific or medical evidence for it, Shen thought perhaps that it was because the Sun Tzu crewmembers in stasis could sense her presence and found it as comforting as she did theirs.

A smile began to touch her lips…then she heard footsteps halt just inside the doorway.

Sighing in annoyance, Shen opened her eyes and saw, as she expected, Woolsey's reflection in the pod's glass cover. "It reflects poorly on a leader that he must continually seek out his former opponent for advice."

"Nice to see you too, Shen," Woolsey replied, unfazed by her sharp tone; he even had the audacity to smile fleetingly. He walked up to stand beside her, another thing that annoyed her. That space was reserved for someone else; he was too close, presuming too much familiarity.

"I have no advice to give you today," Shen said, jaw clenched slightly as she turned away from the stasis pod, intending to leave the room immediately.

"Someone tried to sabotage the R&D laboratory."

That made her halt in her tracks. Looking over her shoulder, Shen narrowed her eyes at Woolsey's back. "And you immediately suspect my former associates. Or is it perhaps myself?"

"No, not you." Studying the stasis pods as if trying to see the allure that brought her here, Woolsey's tone was neutral. "As it happens, we've already apprehended the perpetrator. He was caught red-handed by Colonel Carter and two of the lab's Traveler scientists. He confessed immediately."

Shen frowned. "Then I do not see why you might need my assistance."

With a deliberate turn, Woolsey met her eyes. "He claims to be part of a group called the New Yihequan." Shen's eyes widened and Woolsey's narrowed. "Have you heard of them?"

"Not that particular group," Shen said after a moment, her tone alert. "Yihequan was an anti-imperialist movement at the end of the 19th century that incited a rebellion in China and caused a war with the so-called Great Powers." She paused, lips thinning as she realised the significance of the name. "It is also called the Boxer Rebellion. Many were killed, especially civilians."

Woolsey eyed her for a moment, as if gauging whether her words were true or not; Shen was used to it by now. Eventually, he said, "What was their aim?"

"To oppose foreign influence," Shen said matter-of-factly and with the most neutral tone she could manage.

As expected, Woolsey caught on quickly. "So this new group intends to follow in their footsteps, except exchanging the Great Powers for the Travelers and the Genii. They see them as a threat, someone to be driven out, meaning they probably won't stop at this sole attempt." A worried line appeared on his forehead, the only outward sign of his thoughts straying elsewhere.

Something resonated inside her when Shen saw that line, and not in the way she'd expected. Unsettled by the feeling and doing everything not to analyse it, she looked away.

"Some will believe you're their ring leader," Woolsey said after several quiet minutes, his voice almost hushed.

Shen sneered. "I expected as much. A Chinese name for a group must mean a Chinese leader, right?" She scoffed. "American logic."

"Yes, only Americans would think that way, right?" Woolsey's voice dripped with sarcasm. When she looked at him sharply, he raised an eyebrow in challenge and the words died in Shen's throat.

I'm no better. I am quick to label too. She sighed inwardly. Will we ever be able to stop, even now when there are so few of us left?

"I am sorry," said Shen quietly, her jaw tense. "I spoke in haste."

Stepping away from the stasis pods and into the spot next to her again, Woolsey's features softened slightly. "Which makes you just as human as the rest of us. I'm glad to see it."

Uneasy, Shen withdrew her eyes again, but didn't make another attempt at moving away. "So, what advice did you seek from me today? Keep in mind, I do not know who are part of this group, or what they plan to do."

Woolsey sighed. "I know. Given their political inclinations, however, chances are pretty high that you might guess who could be part of this group. That is not primarily what I seek from you, though."

He paused and Shen turned to meet his gaze again. In that moment, he looked tired. Once, she might've relished that. Now, however… She understood all too well. Leadership was a constant struggle, not only with others, but with your psyche as well. If you let it, it would devour you whole and leave nothing behind but an empty shell.

And I wasn't strong enough.

"People who feel the need for sabotage in order to have their voices heard, feel like no one is listening or is interested in listening," Woolsey said, his tone both weary and serious. "They have most likely felt suppressed, discriminated or shunned by the powers that be or others around them. Based on the leading opinions of the senior council, I think I can understand why they might feel that way. We have welcomed the Genii and the Travelers with seemingly open arms because we needed to. In the process, a part of our population has been ignored."

Shen narrowed her eyes, reaching Woolsey's conclusion before it was uttered. "I am no longer a politician."

"No, and I would not ask you to become one either," Woolsey said. "Not today, at least, but perhaps in the future, when things have settled down and bygones begin to fade." He paused for a moment. "However, you are part of this community and you also have a voice. Talk to them."

"I might join them," Shen said lowly, testing him. "I am not convinced having the Genii and the Travelers here is such a good idea either."

Woolsey smiled slightly, which annoyed her to no end; it was as if he knew something she didn't. "You're not alone in that belief, Shen. It is an issue I'll admit is occasionally difficultto navigate, even without the New Yihequan's efforts to worsen it. However, you also know how to appreciate what benefits us. Sabotage of our own labs and resources does not do that." He paused, clearly preparing to leave, his tone changing to reflect that. "Urge them to choose a different route, a democratic one, and I'll find a way to bring you back into the council. Might not be anytime soon, but I can get you there in the end."

"Why would you do that?" Shen narrowed her eyes.

"Because every democracy needs oppositions," Woolsey said simply as he began to turn towards the door. "Unchallenged, one side might gain peace and stability for a time, and things will flourish, but with peace comes the risk of docility and that leaves room for more sinister things for those who know how to exploit it. Even the best of us with the best intentions might fall into that trap."

At that, Woolsey sent her a hard, knowing look. Shen flushed slightly. "However," he continued. "With transparency and contrasts, we'll always be on our toes. We'll always strive to achieve the best possible decisions for our society. It might be extremely challenging and frustrating at times, but it is the price we need to pay for our freedoms." He gave her a smirk. "Besides, every ruler needs its jester to say the things he or she doesn't want to hear."

Shen hadn't expected such an honest answer. She hadn't expected the ghost of a smile that crossed her lips either, or the overwhelming sense of gratitude crashing against her mental walls.

Clearing her throat uneasily, she straightened and turned fully to address Woolsey. "I cannot promise they will listen."

Woolsey smiled, a hint of weariness in his eyes again. "At least you'd have tried. Thank you."

Shen raised an eyebrow. "You are strange, Mr Woolsey. Not many would approach a persona non grata and ask their assistance, especially considering my past actions. How do you know you can trust me?"

"I don't," Woolsey said simply as he walked towards the exit. "But I'm willing to take that chance. After all, we were friends once, Shen." He stopped, staring back at her with an intense look. "I haven't forgotten that."

Her response died in her throat. Watching him leave, Shen felt tears begin to well up unexpectedly in her eyes. Stunned, she quickly blinked them away, forcing her protective mental walls back into place.

But the walls couldn't push back the warm sensation swelling up in her chest until her body felt as warm as the glass surface of the stasis pods. It was like she, too, was enveloped in one of them: protected and appreciated, but most of all seen.

She wasn't alone. That feeling brought tears to her eyes again and she stared, smiling, at the empty doorway as if Woolsey were still there.

Thank you… Richard.

"I'm fine, John. Stop fussing."

Brushing off John's insistent hand, Sam reached out to wipe a clean space on the side of the mirror, which had been fogged with steam from her recent shower. Next to her, in the middle of brushing his teeth for the night, John winced.

"Tha'sh gonna leave a shcar," he said, mouth full of toothpaste and toothbrush, when Sam leaned forward to peel back the wet bandage on her forehead. His hand flew up instinctively to help and curled in restraint when she sent him a glare to back off. Grimacing, John resumed his brushing with a touch of added fervour.

Sam rolled her eyes in exasperation at John's 'Mother Hen routine' and peered more closely into the mirror. If she squinted, she could see the old scar she'd gotten in the Genii civil war crossing underneath today's stitched cut, which was red and swollen.

The sight made her sigh. "Just another day at the office…"

In the corner of her eyes, she saw John twitch and brush harder. Sighing again, she decided to acknowledge his worry.

"Though, I'll admit, I'd hoped I'd met my quota for battle scars."

Eyebrows creased at that, John's eyes skirted to the rest of her body, finding all those other scars that he'd mapped out more times than she could count. With a particularly dark grimace, he reached out to trace one ugly and twisted scar on the left side of her abdomen, which had a matching one on her back. The ghostly touch sent a shiver down Sam's spine.

"Ori staff weapon," he stated, and Sam nodded. She'd told him the story once. He knew how close she'd been to dying at the time; how she'd made her final instructions to Cam. The fact still upset him at times, just as some of his stories upset her.

…And she guessed that was the core of his fussing.

Smiling slightly, Sam reached down to cover his hand with both of hers. "Look, I'm fine, John. It's just a minor cut. Nothing serious. You should see the other guy."

John frowned at the attempted joke, gazed at her until her smile began to feel awkward, then leaned away so he could spit out the remaining toothpaste in his mouth. Once he straightened, the most visible irritation had left him, replaced by a solemn stare.

"What if it wasn't just you?" he asked and slid his hand along her abdomen until it encircled her belly button. Sam tensed, another cold shiver running down her spine. John sighed. "If we're gonna be serious about having a family, Sam…"

Speechless, Sam blinked. So far, they'd just discussed the possibility of starting a family before they got too old, with John wanting more time to think about it. If he'd progressed to this point, however… The solemn atmosphere infected her too.

"I know," mumbled Sam, deciding to leave her immediate question of whether or not he was ready for later. She didn't want to disrupt this moment when John so clearly needed to air his thoughts. "I didn't think about that. The whole thing happened so fast and I just… It was instinct."

One moment, she'd heard the two Travelers she was working with, Mila and Leila, shout out and had run to find the two young women struggling to keep New Yihequan's saboteur still. The next, she'd wrestled the man away from them and taken him down. It was only when blood began to run into her eye that she'd noticed her own injury.

"It'll be different if it's not just me," Sam said with an attempted smile, squeezing his hand firmly and beginning to feel oddly warm and tingly all over as her initial surprise melted away. "I hear a mother's instinct is really powerful."

"I'll still worry. Probably worse." John sighed again and pulled her into a tight hug. "Man, I thought getting you off Tirana and away from all that black ops stuff would stop things like this from happening. Guess even the R&D lab is dangerous business." He waited a beat. "I'm getting you one of those inflatable sumo suits."

Sam laughed and dropped a kiss on John's unshaven cheek before leaning back to look into his eyes. "Before you get ahead of yourself, John, we're not actually trying to get pregnant yet."

John smirked and wiggled his eyebrows. "That could be remedied."

Blushing furiously at his answer, Sam thought of some witty comeback—then gave out a yelp when John suddenly hoisted her up and carried her out of the bathroom, her arms and legs flailing in automatic protest.

As he unceremoniously dropped her onto their bed, Sam's eyes were wide and her mind felt pleasantly clouded, though it could be the painkillers kicking in. "Now?"

Eyes twinkling in a mix of mischief and apprehension, John ran his hands lightly up her legs, thumbs brushing the more sensitive inside. "As you said, we're not getting any younger."

"Oh." Sam grinned stupidly and reached out to pull him even closer, forgetting completely that she hadn't redressed her wound yet. "Okay."

November 15th, 2010

Happiness was very much an attainable goal. Hailey realised that as she sat on the log bench by the graveyard on the mainland, watching Carter run after Reika.

The girl was refusing to wear mittens and a woollen hat, and had turned the chase into a game, running around the graveyard in a large circle with loud squeals of delight every time she escaped capture. Even though Carter was groaning with exasperation and yelling in annoyance at the girl, Hailey thought she spotted a reluctant smile once when Reika laughed until she almost couldn't breathe.

It's a strange place to realise this, Hailey thought as she noticed the rows of grave markers that Reika skipped around on light feet. She knew many of those names. She'd carried them with her for a long time. Maybe I've finally gone crazy. That's what Reese would say, at least.

Recalling the other captain, Hailey felt the familiar hollowness in her chest, and the ball of guilt and grief that lay underneath it for having survived where Reese had not. The tears came easily now, but she'd stopped trying to well them up. Not giving herself release would only feed the emptiness, Dr MacKenzie had told her. She knew what lay behind that door and she wasn't going back. Not with all the progress she'd made.

Her eyes drifted to the smooth black stone erected next to the graveyard. If she went closer, she'd find the names of those who didn't have bodies to bury written in tiny capital letters. They made up four lines on one side of the rock, leaving plenty of room underneath it and on the other sides. Hailey chose not to dwell on that too much. It was just how it was. This was their home now. No matter how peaceful, the future would bring more names.

"You lose a lot of body heat from your head, skipper," Carter cried out matter-of-factly, though with a clear tone of exasperation. Blinking, Hailey turned to look at her. The colonel had stopped on one side of the graveyard, hands on her hips in an intimidating pose. "In this cold, you'll get sick and then you'll have to stay in bed for days. Do you want that?"

"Yes!" Reika yelled back with glee, popping her head out from behind one of the grave markers at the opposite end of the row.

"Fine," Carter said, turning on the spot and marching back to the log bench where Hailey sat. She sat down with a grumble, clutching the woollen hat and mittens in her hands.

"Kids, huh?" Hailey said, smirking. "I was the same at her age."

Cocking an eyebrow at her, Carter gestured to Hailey's slightly red-tipped fingers poking out from her thick jacket sleeves. "You still are, Jenn."

Hailey chuckled. "Someone's gotta keep you on your toes, 'Auntie'."

Carter rolled her eyes and then glanced around to see what Reika was up to. The girl had left the graveyard behind and was currently running in the open field behind it, jumping and skipping amongst the frosty, yellowed grass. If Hailey heard correctly, she was singing to herself and it sounded like a Cash song. That made her laugh.

"What?" Carter raised an eyebrow.

"It's nothing," Hailey said, smirking. "Just figured out who's responsible for the lullabies."

Confused for a moment, Carter glanced back at Reika and seemed to realise what Hailey meant. She chuckled. "John lent her his mp3 player. Daniel's not entirely happy about it given some of Cash's heavier lyrics, but it helps her sleep. That's the important bit."

"Yeah." Hailey's smile slackened slightly. Carter noticed, as always, and spared her a second glance. Sensing the incoming question, Hailey cut her off. "I'm sleeping. At least six hours a night. Eight hours with those new Genii pills we got two months back. Not that I use them much anymore."

"Good." Carter looked back at Reika. They lapsed into silence for a few comfortable minutes, then the older woman suddenly said, "Hope you don't mind that Ronon's coming to dinner tomorrow too."

"I told you not to meddle," Hailey said, grumbling slightly.

"It's not meddling. John wanted to bring a friend. Ronon's it."

"Nice try." Hailey rolled her eyes and brought her fingertips up to her lips to blow hot air on them. Pouting for a minute, she said sullenly, "We're not like that. He's just helped me out. One brother-in-arms to another."

"Sure," Carter hummed, eyes still on the Kadarian girl. The hint of a smirk seemed to cross her lips, but it was gone in the blink of an eye. Not before Hailey had seen it, though.

"We're just friends," Hailey said, annoyed. At that, Carter glanced at her with a full-blown grin and Hailey groaned in exasperation. "Seriously. Stop it."

She realised as Carter's grin widened that her voice lacked the proper amount of conviction and Hailey stood up abruptly, sticking her fingers deep into her jacket pockets. "I'm going back to the Jumper."

Walking away at a brisk pace, her heart pounding, she began to trail back towards the Jumper landing site on the other side of the small forest to the north. In the background, she heard Carter calling out for Reika and the girl responding in affirmation, and knew they'd catch up to her within minutes.

Hailey picked up the pace. Soon, the trees surrounded her and the scene from before began to replay in her mind, over and over until she groaned once more and shook her head forcefully.

"Ridiculous," she muttered to herself, staring at her feet striding forth, one in front of the other on the icy ground. I shouldn't let it bother me. She's just teasing me like she's always doing. That's what families do. Besides, Ronon's just a friend.

Shaking her head again, Hailey lifted her eyes to fixate on the Jumper beyond the trees. From behind, she heard the quick crunching of small feet running on frosty grass and it helped put her mind on other things.

She turned back as Reika caught up and grabbed Hailey's hand like the most natural thing in the world, the girl flushed and slightly out-of-breath but grinning.

"Geez, you're freezing cold," Hailey said as she enveloped and rubbed Reika's small hand in hers. "Should've worn your mittens, kid."

"They're so stupid," Reika said, pouting. She swung her hand back and forth, turning Hailey's arm into a pendulum. "I can't do anything in them."

"Well, sometimes you gotta do things that are stupid." Shrugging, Hailey pulled out the remote to the Jumper with her spare hand and opened the back hatch. "You know, if they get really, really cold, your fingers could fall off. So wear mittens."

A look of horror crossed Reika's face and she jerked her hand back, staring at her red-tipped fingers.

It made Hailey chuckle and reach out to ruffle the girl's pale blonde locks. "You'll be fine, kid. Come on, find your seat."

"Good advice," Carter said moments later as she settled down in the passenger seat, having secured Reika in the back with a seat belt. In the process of initiating the engines, Hailey looked up at her and saw Carter smile. "Maybe you should consider doing something stupid too, Jenn. You're allowed that."

Hailey rolled her eyes and brought the Jumper into the air. "Maybe."

It was the closest she'd get to an answer right now. She just wasn't ready to consider a romantic relationship in her life; she still had her own issues to deal with. She was sure Ronon understood that. Besides, there was always next year…

Unless, of course, the sudden citywide alert from Atlantis on the HUD's interface meant a shitstorm was coming their way.

November 18th, 2010

"They're here."

Chuck's voice was hushed as he looked up at everyone gathered in the operations centre. John's eyes drifted to the wall-mounted screen where the blue dot with Daedalus' IFF signal had come to a halt next to the circle signifying Atlantis.

Any minute, Caldwell would be beaming down for the preliminary debriefing. There would be no smiles greeting him in this room, however. No celebratory cake. The news had already preceded him: there was no hope left in the Milky Way.

John glanced over at Sam; taking in her tense shoulders, pale skin, and almost restless shifting on her feet. Ever since Daedalus radioed in three days ago, she'd tossed and turned all night, had had trouble concentrating and barely eaten. On top of that, she'd become obsessed with the Odyssey again, visiting the classified storage room up to six times a day. It worried him.

The sound of an Asgard beam made John shift his eyes to the bright light covering Caldwell's materialisation outside the conference room. Sam was the first to move towards him and greet him. The two of them shared a silent look before Caldwell glanced to Woolsey and John following behind her.

"Mr Woolsey, Colonel," Caldwell greeted them, taking a step away from Sam, who looked close to tears.

As Woolsey offered his greetings to Caldwell, John met Sam's eyes and raised an eyebrow in silent question. She just shook her head and gave him a watery smile to indicate she was fine, then turned to open the conference room doors.

The whole display of 'Classic Sam Avoidance Strategy' put him on edge, but this wasn't the time or place for dealing with that. Within moments, they were settled in the conference room behind locked doors, looking at Caldwell's evidence and discussing how much detail should be revealed to the general public.

"I had hoped it was some cruel joke," Woolsey said, his grim features tinged with bone-deep weariness as he stared unblinkingly at the wall-mounted screens. "This is…"

On the screens, Caldwell cycled through various scans of various planets that John only recognised by name. Sam, however, knew most of those planets intimately. Dakara. Cimmeria. Chulak. Langara. Edora. Then there were a whole bunch of designations starting with Ps. Sam seemed to know them too. She could probably tell stories about them and her missions with SG-1, could probably talk about the people she'd met, the stories she'd heard.

Seated next to her, John decided this was a moment when being professional meant less than being compassionate, so he slipped his hand under the table and found hers. She clenched it so tightly he almost felt faint, but he didn't mind. At least he was helping somewhat. He hadn't been able to do that the last time.

"As you can see, there was little left to be salvaged," Caldwell said solemnly, eyes passing cursorily over his listeners. He made no comment to the secret yet obvious handholding, a lack of action that only seemed to prove the gravity of the situation, and instead drew his gaze back to the screens. "On all the planets we visited, the surface had been obliterated. No trace of buildings, infrastructure, life signs, nothing." He paused, as if sensing the unspoken question. "Dr Novak and her team are still trying to figure out what kind of energy could have caused this type of damage. They claim it is like nothing we've seen before."

Woolsey shook his head in dazed disbelief. "So the aliens cripple the stargate network, destroy everything and then…just leave?"

"We found no trace of them in the Milky Way," Caldwell said, his voice grave. "Nor of any other ships. Only debris."

Sam's grip tightened. John glanced at her, eyebrows creased in worry, and he tried to squeeze back, but it looked like she didn't notice. She'd fixed her eyes upon the screens, and he wondered if it were the Odyssey that was weighing on her mind again or if it was the countless memories of Earth and the Milky Way that'd become sullied by the unknown aliens' devastation.

Caldwell noticed, but continued to address Woolsey. "We went over as much as we could in the time we'd been given to carry out our mission. The results were the same everywhere we went, including Earth. Nothing had been left untouched; even bunkers three miles down had been torn open in what can only be described as extremely high-precision targeting." His hand upon the table fisted slightly. "The Wraith superhive can't even compare to this methodical level of destruction."

Woolsey looked pained, nearly desperate. "Is there the slightest possibility that someone could've survived? Could they for instance have been abducted, or escaped elsewhere?"

Given what they'd seen, Woolsey was reaching, but John wasn't surprised. The man would have to confront the grieving and angry mob of Earth's surviving inhabitants later. Any shred of hope would've been preferable to this.

A grim line touched Caldwell's lips as he paused for a moment. In the end, he said, "It's impossible to know. Based on what I've seen …it's like the aliens wanted to eradicate all traces of civilisation and sentient life in the galaxy. Even the stargates and spacegates are gone."

"Search and destroy," Sam said, her voice hoarse. Her grip had tightened even further, stopping the blood flow in John's hand, but it was her eyes that drew his attention. They were impossibly hard behind their teary sheen, glinting with old rage. "We waited too long to go back."

"There's nothing we could've done," Caldwell said, his expression equally hard. "In the face of such determination, we'd be no more than a speck on their windshield."

Sam didn't reply, but her lower lip began to tremble, her anger transforming into renewed grief. Feeling the weight himself, John squeezed her hand and then looked solemnly at Caldwell. "Any indication of where they went? Who they are?"

Caldwell's jaw clenched bitterly. "No. We're no closer to that, and I wouldn't recommend trying to get there either."

Frowning deeply, Woolsey leaned forward on his elbows. "What do you mean?"

"If this trip has proven me anything, then it is that we're in no position to fight back against these aliens. They even took out the Nox." Caldwell gestured to the images displayed on the wall-mounted screens. "There are less than a thousand of us left and we're nowhere near levelling the playing field. Going after them now, or even in ten or twenty years, wouldn't just be suicide; it'd be genocide."

"I see." Woolsey exhaled deeply, removing his glasses to pinch the ridge of his nose. A different kind of weariness seemed to sweep over him. John recognised it immediately. Sam had worn it too. It'd been like a second skin to her for a long time, and it'd even popped up again now these past three days whenever she thought he wasn't looking:

Like the weight of our very existence is on her shoulders.

With another sigh, Woolsey replaced his glasses and looked up, regaining all of their attention. "If the alien presence is truly gone from the Milky Way as you say, we will no doubt have the opportunity to conduct further investigations into what exactly happened there, as well as what our enemy might be like. As for what to do next…"

Woolsey paused and eyed them all in turn with the sort of grimness only shared by leaders in times of great trauma. "I'm going to tell our people that we continue to rebuild here in Pegasus. Here, we have allies, resources and shelter: lifelines that will ensure and safeguard our future. It is clear that we won't find those in the Milky Way anymore."

"And if someone insists on leaving?" John asked quietly. Although it was clear to him that doing so was crazy, grief did funny things to people; he'd seen that first-hand. "We've got some discontented and pro-return activists here. This might not dissuade them."

"We'll cross that bridge when it comes to it," Woolsey said lowly. "Needless to say, we cannot really spare anyone, but I would like to avoid using force to make them stay."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that. We can't handle another internal conflict like before," Caldwell said. He turned to Woolsey with a grim look. "Though I imagine you're going to have your hands full nevertheless."

"Yes… I will talk with those it concerns personally," Woolsey said, sighing once more as he rubbed his brow wearily. "Once I know what to say. This is…overwhelming."

John agreed. By the look of Sam's freely running tears, she did too.

November 20th, 2010

There was no reaction to her touch. The communication stone was just that: small, oval, and cold. Sam cradled it in her hand, stared at it, expecting it to transport her consciousness away even now after nearly two fruitless years.

But there was no one to take the call. Just like Earth, except now they truly knew that their homeworld was lost. By contrast, the Odyssey was still missing in action. It could still be out there in one piece, drifting in the coldness of space, but for some reason be unable to respond to her hails.

Fresh tears filled Sam's eyes as her hand clenched around the communication stone. As the pervading sense of failure spread throughout her body, her mind was flooded with scraps of memories that still clung on to her like a persistent virus.

"So, how're you holding up, Carter?"

"As well as might be expected," Sam said, exhaling deeply in the dark of her office. It was past midnight local time and she could feel it. Her body threatened to sag forward against the desk. "We've begun evacuations of the settlements in the superhive's path. We're not leaving them behind just so we can run away."

On her laptop screen, General O'Neill smiled slightly. "That's my girl."

Comforted by his familiar tone of voice, Sam smiled too. "The IOA was notified of our course of action this morning. So far, no arguments."

"And there won't be," O'Neill added with a promise. "We're putting together some supplies for you on the Daedalus once it arrives." He paused. "I think it goes without saying that all holiday passes are revoked until this thing blows over. Good luck with that."

Sam snorted. "Yeah, thanks, sir."

"Anytime, Carter," he said like nothing was out of the ordinary. Then after a moment, O'Neill's smirk faded into a sombre, tense expression that worsened for every silent second that passed.

Unsettled by the sudden change in mood, Sam furrowed her brows. "I take it you didn't just call to check up on us…"

"No." O'Neill's jaw clenched grimly. "Homeworld Command needs that national treasure of yours."

"What's happened?" Sam's neck tensed uneasily, sensing the underlying severity of the call.

O'Neill looked away at someone or something off-screen, then back at her with a sigh. "I hate to drag you into this mess, Carter. Way beyond both our paygrades." He paused, his eyes darkening. "But here's the deal… One of our ships went dark three weeks ago."

Sam squeezed her eyes shut as shivers began to run down her spine. The storage room was cold at night, but it felt practically icy now. Every little breath of air brushing against her skin jumpstarted her nerves, sparking fresh shivers throughout her body, and every shiver made her acutely aware of the cool material of the container she was leaning against.

"Sir, we've got a Wraith fleet headed our way. I can't leave Atlantis," Sam said, her mind reeling.

"You won't need to," O'Neill said lowly. "We're gonna send some equipment to you on the Daedalus along with the extra supplies for Atlantis. You can set up shop in the city once you've relocated."

O'Neill paused and exhaled deeply, running a hand through his cropped grey hair. "Caldwell knows what's going on, he'll be working with you. To give you the gist, though… Once Atlantis' safety has been ensured, the Daedalus will be sent out to locate the other ship and complete its mission. Your job is to prepare her."

Sniffling, Sam looked up and wiped her eyes, the action only worsening the puffiness and soreness of her cheeks. The storage room was eerily shadowed, the only light source coming from a couple of work lights she'd put up after they'd moved everything in here. It played tricks on her eyes and set the SGC and Daedalus logos in sharp relief to the containers they were stuck to, some of which still bore the signs of Xiaoyi's tampering and attempts to open them.

This was all that was left of Homeworld Command. Stacks of containers with their most classified intel, mission reports and selected prototype equipment, like the Earth-adapted long-range communication device sitting in front of Sam.

Sam opened her fist to stare at the cold, purple stone again.

"Is it the Odyssey, sir?" The General's stoic silence confirmed it. "Where did they—?"

"Somewhere far off. Let's leave it at that," O'Neill said, his jaw clenched. "You'll get the details when Daedalus arrives. Secure container, separate access codes, retinal scans, the works."

In front of her eyes, the stone faded away and was replaced by printed words that still haunted her, though not as frequently as it'd done last year.

"—BLUEBELL dispatched to locate YELLOWSTONE—"

The words didn't quite register. Sam sat speechless in the dimness of her office, staring at the folders of fragmented information before her, stamped with Homeworld Command's logo and the words CORE SECRETS, a classification she hadn't even known existed before the Evacuation.

She'd known the Odyssey was travelling long-distance: why else would they need to use communication stones in order to stay in touch with Earth? But she would never have guessed they'd been sent to locate what could possibly be an abandoned Ancient shipyard in Bode's Galaxy, a 16-day journey for a Daedalus-class ship powered on a ZPM, or a 72-day journey without the ZPM. All because of a small mention in a database entry on the stargate's ninth chevron...

"This is—is—," she whispered out loud.

"I know," Caldwell replied from his seat opposite her desk, his face covered in shadows. He looked like she felt: exhausted and worn down beyond belief. "If it still exists after twenty millennia, the shipyard would've been a game-changer against the Lucian Alliance…and maybe even these unknown bastards if the Odyssey had reached it."

Sam bit her lip and let her eyes trail to a different paper, dated much later than the first. "No further contact with BLUEBELL after Checkpoint Golf. Asset never reached target galaxy and was declared MISSING IN ACTION on 15 November, 2008, 1400 hours. Location of YELLOWSTONE is still unknown. Re-assessment of situation therefore deemed necessary."

"What do we do?" Sam asked quietly, mind still reeling from this latest shock. Five days ago, she'd had two simple missions: relocate and hide Atlantis from the Wraith superhive, and prepare Daedalus for an S&R mission somewhere far away. Now, she'd been saddled with many more, the most pressing being the immediate survival of all that remained of Earth's and maybe even the Milky Way's population.

"Prioritise," Caldwell said, meeting her eyes with the same stoicism she'd seen in the General's face on the day of the Evacuation. "Daedalus is needed here, to protect Atlantis and what's left of our people. We can't waste resources by going to look for a missing ship or a place that might not even exist anymore."

A big part of her agreed, but the opportunity this new intel presented couldn't be completely ignored. "Even if it might give us an edge against the Wraith?"

"Even then." Upon the armrests of his chair, Caldwell's hands fisted slightly. "It'd take too long and time's a commodity we can't waste. Not now with the Wraith superhive on our tails. Maybe not for a long time beyond that either: We're on our own. That makes us vulnerable. Who knows what's in store for us down the line?"

"But what if the crew of the Odyssey are still alive?" Sam's eyes were tearing up.

Caldwell's jaw clenched. "They knew the risk."

"I can't leave them behind." She'd personally promised the General that she'd look into this, that she'd do her best to get the Odyssey home. How could she break that?

"I don't like it either, Carter, but we don't have a choice in this," Caldwell said, getting to his feet. Entering the stream of light from her desktop lamp, she saw his face harden slightly. "They've been MIA for a month and haven't responded to the communication stones in that time. Chances are that they're already dead."

"But we don't know that," Sam said slowly. Staring up at him, she blinked away the tears in her eyes, her resolve hardening her insides. "For all we know, the Odyssey could be the reason why those aliens showed up in the first place."

"How? The Odyssey never reached Bode's Galaxy, which means they must've disappeared somewhere in the void between here and there, which spans nearly 12 million lightyears," Caldwell said grimly. "What are the chances that they just happened to run into an unknown alien species whilst travelling through hyperspace at ZPM-powered speed?"

Sam knew he had a point about that, but it wasn't enough. Something had still happened to the Odyssey and the General had ordered her to solve that mystery. "I can't let this go, Caldwell."

Eying her for a moment, Caldwell eventually exhaled and looked worn-out again. "Fine. I won't stop you, but Daedalus stays here. We'll need it against the Wraith. You'll have to find some other way."

"I will."

But she hadn't.

And as the memory faded away, a stab of pain echoed hollowly in Sam's chest and her head filled with the thoughts that had always lingered at the back of her mind since the Evacuation: 'Nothing I did made a difference,' 'I failed', 'I had to make a choice', 'I'm sorry', 'I'm sorry, sir. I failed you too,' 'I didn't find them,' and 'I didn't get them home.'

Then there were those new thoughts that had dominated all others in the past five days: 'Now it's all gone. Completely gone ' and 'We're all that's left. We're on our own.'

All of those churned in her head like the grinding of a wheel, each grind adding to the weight already weighing her down until she couldn't bear it anymore. Her vision blurred angrily and fresh tears ran down her cheeks. Gritting her teeth, she fisted the communication stone until the cold edges of the stone bit into her skin. Then, with a sharp heave, she flung the stone across the room, letting out a yell in the process.

She watched the stone skid across the floor and come to rest in front of the door, but it didn't bring her the satisfaction she'd wanted. Instead, she felt hollower than before and banged her fists into the cold floor in renewed frustration. When she caught sight of the square long-range communication device in front of her, she kicked it violently in the same direction as the stone.

The sudden whoosh of a door broke her out of the spell. Heart pounding slightly, Sam looked toward it, knowing exactly who it was. After all, there were no secrets between them anymore. No self- or duty-imposed barriers either. If she happened to disappear in the middle of the night these days, he knew why and where to find her.

"Okay…" On edge, John stared at the communication stone and device lying at his feet, then scrutinized her next. "That's new."

"I don't know why I'm still trying," said Sam, angrily wiping away stray tears from her puffy cheeks. "It's been two years. Caldwell was right. They're probably dead, just like the rest of them."

John's displeasure with her cynical tone was clear on his face, but he didn't comment on that. Instead, he leaned down to pick up the communication device and carried it inside the room. Sam stared at him returning the device carefully back to its steel case, then looked away, suddenly ashamed of what she'd done.

"Ever since Earth was lost, I just wanted to help them find their way home," she said eventually, thinking of all those nights she'd spent pouring over the files Homeworld Command had sent. "I couldn't do anything about Earth, the damn aliens, about my friends, but I thought: 'if I could just find the Odyssey and bring themhome…'" Her breath hitched and fresh tears welled up in her eyes as the feeling of failure returned. "But I can't, John. They're gone."

She heard the click of the steel case being shut, then the shuffle of feet as John walked over and sat down next to her. Gently, he pulled her close and Sam rested her head on his shoulder, squeezing her eyes shut in an attempt at keeping her tears at bay.

"You've done more than anyone could possibly ask for," John said quietly, dropping a kiss on the top of her head. "You kept us going after Earth was lost and you made sure we survived, whatever it took. Even with all the shit and pain thrown your way, you pushed through and got us to where we are today. Not all have turned out for the best, but you can't take the blame for all of that. We've all had our parts to play."

"It still hurts, though," she whispered, her throat constricting in response to the images of the General, Cam, Teal'c, Vala, Mark and everyone else she'd lost on Earth flashing through her mind. "I can't let them go."

"No one's telling you to." John held her tighter, the words vibrating lowly through his larynx, his exposed skin warm and comforting in the otherwise chilly storage room. "Just do what you've done so far: keep moving forward whatever happens. That's what they would've wanted."

She knew he was right. O'Neill had practically told her so himself the day of the Evacuation: "That's what you keep, Carter. Don't stop smiling." But she couldn't do it alone. After two years, she knew that now.

You need people around you to survive, to accept what has happened and to move on.

You need to love, to not be afraid to get hurt, and to push through no matter how difficult the going gets.

You need to accept that pain doesn't go away, but that it can shrink to a manageable size, and that it's okay to be happy even when you're sad.

She knew all that now.

So, burrowing into John's warmth and soaking up all its comfort and security, Sam managed a smile.


"And so there must be in life something like a catastrophic turning point, when the world as we know ceases to exist. A moment that transforms us into a different person from one heartbeat to the next."

―Jan-Philipp Sendker, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

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