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1. Attraction (n.): [physics] - a force under the influence of which objects tend to move towards each other

The day they first meet she thinks, I know your type.

She’s read his file from cover to cover. More mission details are redacted than not, but the place names tell her everything. East Germany, Bosnia, Sudan, Kuwait, Iraq: a decade in Special Forces, operating behind enemy lines, doing those dirty little things governments want done but won’t officially sanction.

She knows his type, for sure – with her dad in the service she’s grown up around macho, testosterone-driven thrill seekers who live and play on the edge. No women in this man’s Air Force, she thinks. Certainly no scientists.

So she knows what to expect when she reports for duty at Stargate Command, and Colonel Jonathan “Jack” O’Neill doesn’t disappoint. He’s your typical Air Force flyboy, handsome and flashy in his dress blues, regarding her through womanizing eyes. A girl in every port, she suspects.

She doesn’t let him get away with any bullshit, and gives as good as she gets to his wingmen snickering in the corner. Maybe she comes on a little strong, but she’s used to this crap and knows the best way to tackle it is head-on and without compromise.

“Oh, this has nothing to do with you being a woman,” O’Neill says, undercutting his assurance with a lecherous smirk. “I like women. I just have a little problem with scientists.”

“Colonel,” she shoots right back, “I logged over a hundred hours in enemy airspace during the Gulf War. Is that tough enough for you? Or are we going to have to arm wrestle?”

He doesn’t respond; he looks genuinely amused. That’s the first of many times he’ll defy her expectations.

But her surprise gives her pause, time to climb down from her high horse and remind herself that she has to make this work. She’s spent a lifetime preparing for this mission and she’s not going to let some unreformed flyboy colonel get in her way.

***

Sam quickly learns to reassess her assumptions about Colonel O’Neill.

It’s not that her first impressions are wrong, it’s just that he’s somewhat more than she’d expected. There’s something pensive beneath all his swagger and bluster, but he guards it well and she can’t see what he’s hiding. Whatever it is, it gives him depth. He makes challenging decisions, pushes moral boundaries, questions the orthodox. She hadn’t expected him to do any of those things. He’s constantly surprising her.

It doesn’t take her long to decide that he’s a good officer, a good leader, and that she can work with him. But it’s not until after their trouble in the Land of Light that she decides she actually likes him, as a person.

The memories of her behavior in the locker room are confused, barely her own, yet vivid enough to make her blush when she brings up the subject on the walk back to the gate.

“Oh, Carter,” he says, eyes front, “I don’t even remember your earlier behavior.”

She knows it can’t be true because she remembers quite a bit, but she’s grateful that he’s giving her an out. Although she can’t help worrying that maybe he’s lying because the memory is awkward, or weird, or embarrassing and that the whole encounter is something he’d rather forget.

He changes the subject and asks about the minor injury she picked up. She tells him its fine, that there won’t even be a scar.

“Well, good,” he says. “I was concerned.”

“You were?”

“Sure,” he says, with a teasing smile. “If it doesn't heal properly, you'll never wear that sweet little tank top number again.”

It stops her in her tracks. And it’s then, at that moment, that she decides she likes him. She genuinely likes him. Because he does remember, and it is awkward, but he’s telling her not only that it wasn’t repulsive or creepy, but that he’s not going to turn it into a thing.

She’s only too aware of that danger. Even a hint of sexual misconduct – alien viruses notwithstanding – can mean the death of a woman’s military career, and even more so when it involves her commanding officer. At the very least it could become a standing joke, one she’d never live down: Sam Carter? Oh yeah, she’s the chick who jumped her CO in the locker room. Lucky bastard. Play your cards right, maybe she’ll do the same for you.

But Colonel O’Neill doesn’t mention it again. Not once. And neither does anyone else, which either means no one knew or that he’s squashed any rumors flat before they could begin. She suspects it’s the latter. And she likes him for that. More than likes him – she respects him.

She thinks that, probably, she has the best CO on base.

***

Admiration, genuine and sincere admiration, comes later.

It comes while they’re freezing to death in an ice cave that might as well be light years from home. And it’s not just his stoicism in the face of extreme pain, or his stories of walking out of the Iraqi desert with nothing but thoughts of his wife to sustain him. It’s not even his stubborn refusal to give up, or his unyielding faith in her and her ability to save them. Although it’s all those things, in part.

But the moment she feels it, that heartfelt admiration that she’ll never lose, is when she asks whether he’ll have any regrets if they don’t make it out. She’s expecting the conventional answer: No regrets, Captain. It’s been an honor to serve. But she hasn’t yet learned that Jack O’Neill despises clichés.

What he says is, “I’ll regret dying.”

It’s his honesty that touches her, the bravery of giving voice to what they’re both feeling. It’s fatuous to pretend you can die without regrets and he’s lived enough, and lost enough, to understand that better than most. Better than her.

But his bravery goes deeper than that. She knows why he didn’t want to survive that first mission to Abydos, and she understands that his regret is testament to the life he’s clawed back from the darkness. That, she thinks, is the bravest admission of all, and she realises she admires him more than the word can adequately express.

***

Liking, respect and deep admiration: it doesn’t take long for them to coalesce into attraction.

A couple of weeks after he’s been cleared for duty, they’re off-world on a standard recon. It’s nothing dramatic. There are trees – of course – and rivers, but no bad guys or wild animals. It’s a temperate climate in late spring or early summer, so it’s not cold. There’s a tree down over the river and they’re using it as a bridge. The colonel’s taken point and maybe his leg’s not one hundred percent recovered from the break and the PT, or maybe it’s just bad luck, but he slips, yelps, and falls with a splash into the water.

They wait for a startled few seconds and then he breaks the surface, spluttering and cursing, and Daniel starts laughing. Teal’c lifts an eyebrow and Sam tries hard to keep the smile from her face. The colonel looks deeply pissed off.

“Are you okay, sir?” she calls.

The water’s only chest-high, so he’s in no danger. It’s only his pride that’s been wounded. He snatches up his cap before it floats away and jams it, dripping, onto his head. “Fine, Captain. The water’s lovely. Thank you for asking.” And then he wades to the shore and Teal’c helps him scramble up the muddy bank.

They make camp shortly after because it’s getting dark anyway. She and Teal’c build a fire and the colonel strips out of his wet clothes. She catches a glimpse of a lean back and tan shoulders and quickly looks away.

Later, Daniel’s reading by flashlight while Teal’c heats up their MREs. Colonel O’Neill’s soggy uniform is draped over nearby tree branches and his boots are upended close to the flames in the hope that most of the water will drain out overnight.

The colonel himself is sitting by the fire in his spare set of clothes, stripping down his MP5 to dry it and clean it. He doesn’t notice Sam watching him, he just methodically works through the process of field stripping his weapon. Remove the cocking handle, check that the chamber’s clear, slide off the butt stock, remove the pistol grip, remove the bolt head assembly, and detach the forearm: she’s seen it done, and done it herself, countless times. But there’s something about the way his fingers are moving over the pieces that she finds mesmerizing. She can’t take her eyes off his hands.

They’re long-fingered, like an artist or a musician, but strong and competent as he strips the weapon down and pieces it back together. She thinks, out of the blue, that with hands like that he can’t be a bad lover.

It shocks her a little, that thought, but not enough to make her look away. And she smiles to herself because something tingles in the pit of her stomach when he slams home the magazine and lifts his weapon to check the sight. She’s never noticed his arms before either, all lean muscle and taut sinew. Strong, capable and adept. A little sexy, maybe?

As he lowers the weapon, he catches her eye and she knows he’s been aware of her gaze the whole time. An eyebrow lifts. “Did I get it right?”

She grins. “Yes sir. Textbook field strip and clean.”

“Good.” He climbs to his feet. “Hope you learned something, Captain.”

“Yes sir,” she says, straight-faced. “I learned not to fall off a log.”

Daniel chuckles from the other side of the fire and she wonders if she’s crossed a line, but the colonel’s surprise quickly turns to amusement. Something dangerous twinkles in his eyes as he walks around behind her, propping his weapon up against a tree. “Carter,” he says, very casual, “you know I’ll be right behind you when we cross that river tomorrow, right?” And then he tousles her hair as he walks past her, like he sometimes does to Daniel, and says, “Hope you brought your water wings, Captain.”

She doesn’t care that he’s threatening to tip her into the water because all she can think about are those long, sensual fingers tangling in her hair, and the sensation of something bright and exciting igniting inside her.

She thinks it could mean trouble, but she can’t stop grinning.

 

2. Bond (n.): [chemistry] - a mutual attraction between two atoms

Sam doesn’t give it a name, this feeling. She doesn’t even think about it much, preferring to glimpse it obliquely from the corner of her eye. It’s a secret delight that she shares with no one, scarcely even herself.

But she likes the way her stomach sometimes flutters when he smiles, and she relishes the bolts of attraction that strike out of the blue when she catches sight of him unexpectedly – at the turn of a corridor, in the commissary, leaning against the doorjamb of her lab.

It’s something warm and sunny to hold against a world growing ever darker.

***

The lights go out in her world in the middle of a firefight. One minute she’s performing CPR on a dying man, the next there’s a monster burrowing into her throat and she’s a prisoner in her own body. When the colonel looks at her then, he only sees the enemy and it shocks her how much it hurts.

After, when Jolinar is dead and Sam’s world has turned gray, he sits with her in the infirmary. Her mind is flooded with memories, dreams, and griefs not her own. She hardly knows how to untangle what is her from what was Jolinar. She feels like she’s holding on by a thread.

No one but the colonel knows what to do – he brings Cassie.

She realizes, later, that he understands trauma and loss and grief. That’s why he visits late at night, when everyone but her is sleeping, working his way past the duty nurse with his usual combination of bravado and charm.

“Carter,” he says, taking a seat uninvited. There’s a box of chocolates on her nightstand that Daniel brought. She hasn’t opened it, but the colonel eyes the box with a hopeful look in his eye. “Do you mind?”

“No sir, go ahead.” Her voice sounds flat; she wishes she could smile. But how can she smile when Jolinar died to save her, and Lantash will mourn her forever?

The colonel opens the chocolate box, puts it on the bed next to her, and takes one. “Strawberry,” he says. “That counts as fruit, right?”

“I don’t think so,” she says without smiling.

“Did you know, Carter,” he carries on, undaunted, “that the strawberry is the only fruit that has its seeds on the outside?”

She shakes her head. “No sir, actually I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that.”

“I’m telling you,” he says, helping himself to another chocolate, “if you stick with me, Carter, you’ll learn some stuff.”

She thinks she’s already learned some stuff from him, and none of it is about fruit. “Thanks,” she says then, because she realizes she hasn’t said it before.

He lifts an eyebrow. “For what?”

“Cassie,” she says, and she knows he understands.

“Great kid.” He lets a beat of silence drop before he adds, “After Iraq, it was Charlie.”

She doesn’t ask what it was after Charlie. She knows there was nothing and that’s why he ended up on a one-way mission to Abydos.

“You’ll be okay,” he tells her then, like it’s a fact, not a promise. “That much I do know, Captain. You will be okay.”

Sam nods, partly because she believes him but mostly because, when he looks right at her with those warm brown eyes, she feels…something. It’s faint, but it’s hers. Her bright, sparkling secret is still there. It survived, and so did she. A light floats up through the darkness and she finds herself smiling. It’s not a grin, but it’s something.

The colonel nods and his eyes are sunny when he offers her Daniel’s chocolates. “You want one? They’re pretty good.”

They do look pretty good. Caramel is her favorite, and she doesn’t want him to snag it, so she takes it for herself. “Thanks, sir,” she says.

“Anytime, Carter.”

They both know they’re not talking about candy.

When he leaves her to sleep she hesitates on the cusp, putting off the inevitable plunge into someone else’s dreams, and thinks that she should add gratitude to her growing list: like, respect, admiration, attraction. Gratitude.

***

Work is her salvation, unraveling the daily wonders of the galaxy she’s so privileged to explore. Gradually the color returns to her world, and she learns to adapt to memories that aren’t her own but haunt her dreams regardless. She learns to smile and not feel guilty that she survived.

Her stomach begins to flutter again, perhaps more frequently now, and those bolts of attraction become a daily hazard. In briefings, she finds herself watching his hands as he turns his pen end-over-end-over-end. Off-world, by firelight, she studies his face in profile, notices how the flames catch the warmth in his expressive eyes. It’s his eyes, she decides, that she likes the best.

She takes his hand once, those long fingers squeezing her own, when he’s pinned to the wall by an alien device they barely understand. What she’s about to do will probably kill him; in fact, it does.

Maybe it’s the brief but intense shock of his death that changes things. Or maybe it’s the overwhelming swell of relief when he lives again. Most likely it’s the rapid transition from one to the other, an emotional rollercoaster over in seconds, which triggers a new intensity in her feelings. Whatever the cause, her body develops a heightened awareness of him. A charge like static runs across her skin, along her spine, whenever they stand too close. Now she always knows where she is in relation to him. It’s as though he’s become her lodestone, her polestar.

And she thinks it’s time to give it a name, this feeling. She decides to call it ‘a crush’. She’s always been good at kidding herself.

 

3. Temper (v.): [metallurgy] - improve the strength of (steel or other metal) by heating and cooling

There’s no danger of reciprocation; that’s what makes it safe.

Sam has no illusions that the colonel sees her as anything more than a fellow officer. Her cropped hair and BDUs help that along nicely – there’s nothing feminine about Major Carter – and the science-geek persona completes the image. Even if he hadn’t been mourning the end of his marriage, Sam knows that she’s so not his type.

And she’s okay with that because it keeps them both in their boxes. It keeps things safe.

Maybe having a crush on her commanding officer isn’t the smartest thing she’s ever done, but it’s not the dumbest thing either. And it’s just a bit of fun – she can turn it on or turn it off at will. That’s what she tells herself, right up until the fun stops.

The fun stops when someone overturns their boxes, and by someone she means Dr. Samantha Carter.

It’s a weird sensation, being envious of yourself. But it slaps Sam in the face as soon as she walks into the briefing room and sees Dr. Carter sitting there. She’s feminine and tearful and gazes at the colonel with flagrant emotion. The way she wears her heart on her sleeve is almost obscene. Sam finds it mortifying.

That’s not me, she wants to tell the colonel. But of course, it is. Or it could have been.

Although Daniel had mentioned the scenario before, it’s not until it’s right before her eyes that Sam considers the implications of a reality in which Dr. Samantha Carter had married Colonel Jack O’Neill – a reality in which he had, apparently, loved her.

What that might mean for this reality is disturbing and shakes all her nicely-boxed assumptions. She wonders if it shakes his, too, because there are times over the next couple of days when she catches him shooting her sideways glances, as if he’s looking at her through a different lens. As if he’s seeing her for the first time. She doesn’t know whether to be thrilled or afraid.

“So, in this reality you and Jack have never… I mean, there’s really nothing between you?” Dr. Carter looks at her with an expression halfway between disbelief and pity.

It riles her. “He’s my commanding officer,” she explains, focusing on the generator and not her doppelganger.

“And?”

“And it would be against regulations.”

“Oh,” she says. After a moment she adds, “I’m sorry.” She sounds genuine, and that bugs Sam too. She doesn’t want pity from a version of herself who just lost the man she loves. Because what does that say about her, who’ll never have him at all?

Through the quantum mirror she sees the colonel kiss her. Actually, Sam’s not sure who starts the kiss – it’s dark and smoky through the mirror – but he certainly participates willingly. She can’t turn her eyes away, afraid her discomfort will reveal something of the churning emotion she’s feeling, but watching that tender kiss screws her feelings up tight inside her. It feels intrusive in a way she can’t explain, and makes her angry for no good reason.

When he steps back through the mirror and lifts his hand in farewell Sam only waits for the mirror to go dark before she turns and stalks away. She doesn’t know what she’s feeling, she just knows she has to get away and think.

Her lab is the best place for thinking and that’s where he finds her some time later. Much later, because the base is quiet as he stands in her doorway looking uncomfortable. That’s new. She’s never seen him anything less than totally self-assured.

“So,” he says, hands shoved into his pockets as if they might get into trouble if left to their own devices. “Interesting day.”

“Yes sir,” she says from behind her bench. She’s not really working on anything, but she fiddles with a couple of pieces of equipment to keep her hands busy.

The colonel ambles into her lab, glances around, and then says, “About earlier…”

Her face flushes. She can feel the heat and hopes her lab’s too dark for him to notice. “Sir, you don’t need to explain. I understand.”

“You do?” He’s looking at her with a skeptical expression.

“I guess she was looking for comfort,” she says, because isn’t that obvious?

“I know that.” He pauses. “Maybe I shouldn’t have— I don’t want it to make things weird between us, Sam.”

He rarely calls her by her first name and it always makes her spine tingle. Usually she likes it, but this time it feels dangerous. “It won’t.”

“You looked upset,” he persists. “Earlier. After I got back.”

“No.” And now she’s lying and she knows he’ll pick up on it, so she coats the lie with a dusting of truth. “Okay, it felt a little…intrusive, I guess. I mean, I’m not her. But I kind of am, and now you’ve—” She swallows. “It just felt odd for a moment, sir. I’m fine.”

He’s still looking at her with those eyes she decided she liked so much; her spine is still tingling. And she wants him to go because she’s terrified he’ll see the effect he’s having on her. “She wasn’t you,” he agrees eventually. “And I hope you know I would never—”

“I know,” she says, too fast, cutting him off before he finishes the sentence. But she knows what he was going to say – I would never compromise our working relationship, Major – and part of her doesn’t want to hear it. She tries not to think about why and, instead, forces a smile. “Really, sir. It’s not a problem.”

“So we’re good?”

“Yes, sir, we’re good.”

“Okay then.” He turns toward the door, but stops before he leaves and without turning around says, “For what it’s worth, Major? Not a fan of the long hair.”

And then he’s gone and she’s not sure what just happened but thinks something fundamental might have changed.

***

She knows for sure that it has the following week, when they’re back on rotation and out in the field. It’s morning, a slow sunrise over a vast desert. The night was cold, but the day will be brutally hot and she can feel the heat start to build as the first of the planet’s suns – binary stars – breaches the horizon. They’re heading back to the gate, though, and will be there before the hottest part of the the day. So she hopes, at least. Her nose is peeling already despite the zinc oxide she’s been wearing like war paint for days.

The colonel’s awake. He took the last watch, which she knows because she’s been awake for a while herself watching him inventory his gear. She’s not sure why he’s doing it, but figures he’s bored and wants something to pass the time. Now that the sun’s rising he’s packing it all away, as neat as before. His head turns toward her and she closes her eyes because she doesn’t want him to know she’s been watching. After a while, she hears him get up and she opens her eyes again and sits up, struggling out of her sleeping bag now that one of the suns is fully over the horizon.

The colonel’s in a t-shirt and DCU pants, having stripped off his jacket and shirt, making the most of the brief window of pleasant temperature before he has to hide his skin from the sun. He glances at her when she sits up. “Hey, Carter.”

“Hey,” she says. Daniel’s still sleeping and Teal’c’s nowhere in sight, but even Jaffa have to use the latrine sometimes.

“We’ll get an early start,” the colonel says. “Beat the heat.”

“Yes sir,” she says, and untangles her legs from her bedroll. She knocks her boots upside down a couple of times – just in case something nasty crawled in there in the middle of the night – and shoves her feet inside.

The colonel has the sterno going, and water boiling for coffee. Daniel’s a bear without it so, if they have time, the colonel will indulge him, although Sam suspects he doesn’t mind the caffeine shot himself. There’s a pile of breakfast MREs next to the sterno and she sits down next to them and yawns. It’s almost bright enough for sunglasses already, but she resists putting them on. She’s worn them non-stop since they got here and they’re wearing little sore patches behind her ears.

After a while the colonel sits down next to her – on the other side of the MREs – and hands her a coffee. “Not much to see on this planet,” he says, scratching a hand through his hair. He’s not wearing his sunglasses either; his Bugaboos are hanging from the cord around his neck. He looks rumpled and – well, she can’t deny it – sexy. She has to look away in case her poker face doesn’t pass muster.

Gazing out over the desert she sips her coffee and says, “Do you ever think, when we’re in places like this, that there could be a whole continent of highly-advanced people on the other side of the planet?”

He gives a soft laugh and she catches his eye for a moment before he looks out toward the sunrise. “You mean we could be in the equivalent of the Sahara?”

“Or the Mojave.” She gestures toward the horizon. “Maybe there’s a Vegas a couple hundred klicks that way?”

“And a chapel where Elvis is alive and well and conducting his own weddings.”

Sam laughs. “Theoretically, I guess, everything’s possible in some reality or other.”

“Yes,” he echoes, “theoretically.” And it’s the first time she hears something in his voice that she’ll learn to recognise as regret, but for now it just sounds melancholy.

They’re silent for a while, sipping their coffee, until Sam hears her stomach growl. “Hungry,” she says with an apologetic smile and reaches for the Apple Maple Oatmeal MRE. She reaches for it at the exact moment the colonel reaches for it and their fingers tangle together. And what tells her something’s changed between them isn’t the way her heart jumps at the accidental, unexpected contact, but the way he jerks his hand back just like she does, as if he’s been burned. As if the contact is electric.

“You have it,” he says, quickly snagging one of the other packs as he gets to his feet. “Better go wake Daniel or we’ll be here all day.”

“Yes, sir,” she says and watches him slip his glasses on, hiding his eyes as he walks away.

She looks back out over the desert and slowly eats her breakfast. They’ve encountered two alternate realities through the quantum mirror. In both of them, she and the colonel were romantically involved; in both of them, the world had been brought to a catastrophic end by a Goa’uld invasion. She knows correlation doesn’t imply causation, but she can’t help wondering...

But either way, she feels something fizz in the pit of her stomach, the same kind of fizz she feels when she’s riding her bike just a little too fast to be fully in control. She’s always been a thrill-seeker after all, and it’s not like this thing is ever going to be more than an amusing flirtation. But she can’t deny the genuine rush of having a man like Colonel O’Neill react to her touch like that.

The thought makes her smile as she slips her sunglasses on against the rise of the second sun. And as they gear up for the day, she finds herself humming.

***

It settles into something unstated but heady.

She runs into him rather more often than before – in the commissary, the gym, the locker room. He stops by her lab more frequently, watches her more carefully, spends a little more time in her company.

Maybe they’re seeking each other out, but if they are no one comments – least of all them.

It’s fun, this mutual attraction. Sam likes the way he smiles at her now – really at her, in response to her. She likes the way he sits next to her in briefings, how his elbow brushes hers and how the contact makes her tingle. She likes how he’s always there.

Until he’s not.

Until he’s gone and they don’t know if he’s alive or dead and there’s no way to go back for him because the Stargate is buried.

Then it stops being fun so fast she can’t catch her breath and she misses him so much it keeps her awake all night. Then people do notice, they do comment.

“You miss him,” Janet says when Sam’s pulling another all-nighter.

It’s not an accusation; it’s simply an observation. So she just says, “Yeah.”

There’s a pause and then, “Is this a problem?”

And there it is, the question she’s been avoiding asking herself for a long time now. Is this a problem? She can’t meet Janet’s eye when she answers, “No.” She says it too quickly to be believable – “No, of course not” – and they both know she’s lying.

She doesn’t dare name it, this aching emotion, she doesn’t dare think about it at all. Instead she pours everything into her work until her longing takes physical form and the machine that will bring him home is born in her lab.

If it can save him, she thinks, it will save me too. And it does save him, it brings him home. But it doesn’t save her, not at all.

***

It’s funny how your brain works, she thinks, the way it short-circuits without you noticing. It’s only when you step away from a situation and look back at the detritus left behind that you realize your perspective has been skewed. Like looking at a bug through a microscope and thinking it’s a monster, you get it entirely out of proportion.

Standing in the doorway to her lab, glancing around at three months’ worth of neglect, she feels as though she’s struggling to find the right perspective.

The need to get the colonel home had consumed her. She wasn’t aware of the extent until now, standing amid discarded coffee cups and half-eaten sandwiches. She put her life on hold to bring him home and now she can barely remember why it seemed so important.

“Stupid.”

She says the word aloud and it sounds cold in the empty lab.

Was it only this morning that she left, buoyant with success, eager to step through the gate and—and what? What had she expected? To be his hero? To have done the impossible, yet again, and saved him? Thanks, Carter, I knew you’d bring me home.

Something stirs queasily in her heart. It’s uncomfortable. She ignores it.

Of course, had she known that the colonel was okay everything would have been different. Better than okay, it turns out – happy is probably a more accurate description. He’d been happy on Edora and is unhappy to come home. That’s the bald truth of it. She heard it from his own lips. All those long days and sleepless nights had been for nothing.

The queasy stirring in her heart slips south, tightening a knot in her stomach.

Anger. She’s angry. Yes, that’s what this unsettling feeling is. She feels like she’s been a fool and it pisses her off.

She wanders further into the lab, closing the door behind her. It feels stale, deflated, and so does she. Dropping heavily onto a stool she lets her head sink on her arms for a moment. It’s over, it’s done. She’s tired and it’s time to go home. She just needs to find the energy to move.

A quiet knock on the door rouses her from her thoughts and she glances up to see Daniel poke his head inside. “Hey,” he says, “thought I might find you here.”

Sam gives a wan smile. “I’m about to head home.”

“Good.” He slips inside, letting the door swing shut behind him. Head cocked, he gives her a serious look. “So,” he says after a moment, “not exactly the homecoming we’d expected.”

“Not exactly,” she says, pleased that she isn’t the only one disappointed. “Who knew the colonel would take to farming so happily?”

A smile darts across Daniel’s face and then falls away. “I’m not sure it was the farming he took to.”

The knot in her stomach twists, and Sam gets to her feet. “No,” she says, half-heartedly pushing the papers on her desk into a semblance of order. “I got that impression too.”

Daniel is silent and Sam feels self-conscious beneath his scrutiny. Does he know? Can he see her feelings on her face?

“I was surprised,” she says, taking control of the conversation, “that he gave up on us so easily.”

“Gave up?” Daniel frowns. “I don’t know that he gave up, exactly.”

“Looked like it to me,” she says. “He wasn’t even in uniform.”

“Sam,” Daniel admonishes, “he’d been there for three months. How long can you wear one uniform?”

Ignoring the point, she says, “I would have been looking for the gate. Digging. Wouldn’t you? I mean, if it was you there? I’d have been trying to dig it out. Doing something. Not just…whatever he was doing with those people.”

Taking a breath, Daniel sits down. “You’re angry.”

“No, I’m—okay, yes. I’m angry. Aren’t you? I worked night and day to bring him home, Teal’c put his life on the line, and the colonel was just...”

“Making the best of a bad situation?”

She shakes her head. “Three months, Daniel. That’s not long.”

“He didn’t know it was only going to be three months. He thought it was forever. The gate was gone.”

“Come on, Daniel, even if the gate was gone he had to know we’d find another way to reach him. What happened to ‘no one gets left behind’? If it had been me, I wouldn’t have given up.”

Daniel acknowledges the point with an uncomfortable shrug. “I think,” he says after a moment, “that it’s hard to know how you’d react unless you’re in the situation yourself.”

“No, I do know. I’d never give up on getting home.”

Daniel is silent, thinking.

Unhappy with the conversation, and the feelings it’s agitating, Sam grabs her bag and slings it over her shoulder. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Daniel.”

He rouses from his thoughts and gets to his feet, but he isn’t finished. “Ah, so why do you think he did it, then?”

“Did what?”

“Give up,” Daniel says, opening the lab door and holding it for her.

“I don’t know. I can’t explain it.” Although it’s perfectly obvious, isn’t it? She just doesn’t want to think about it.

The door clicks shut and Daniel stands in the corridor, hands sunk deep into his pockets. “I stayed on Abydos because of Sha’re,” he says.

Her stomach tightens again. “Yeah.”

“Listen, I’m sure Jack’s grateful,” he says with forced brightness. “But think of it from his point of view – this morning he thought he was going to spend the rest of his life on Edora and now he’s back at work, back at war with the Goa’uld. That’s gotta be difficult.”

“It’s only difficult if he’d rather be—” She swallows. “I thought I knew him, Daniel. I thought this,” she encompasses the whole mountain with a wave of her hand, “meant something to him. But if he can turn his back on us after just a couple of months...if he’d be happier planting potatoes than being part of this, then maybe I don’t know him at all.”

Daniel frowns but doesn’t say anything and with an irritated grumble Sam turns and heads for the elevators. But his voice follows her along the corridor.

“Sam?”

Reluctantly, she turns. “I’m tired, Daniel. I want to go home.”

“He came back,” Daniel points out, walking toward her. “He could have stayed on Edora, but he came back.”

She shrugs half-heartedly, not convinced. “Duty? Obligation? Maybe he wishes we hadn’t given him the option.”

“Maybe you should quit second-guessing him and just accept that he chose to come back.”

She shakes her head, letting her anger settle into the pit of her stomach – far enough away that it doesn’t cloud her thoughts, but not going away. With a sigh, she says “I guess I thought he’d be happy to see us.”

“He was.” Daniel touches her arm. “He is. It’s just more complicated than we’d expected.” He studies her closely, brows knitting in a way that makes her uneasy. “You missed him,” he says, as if it’s a revelation, and she feels a beat of panic.

“We all did.” She pulls her arm from under his fingers, turns away before he can see too much. “I’m going home, Daniel.”

***

After that, things get worse. Within weeks of his rescue, Colonel O’Neill has retired from the Air Force and Sam’s standing at the foot of the ramp watching him return to Edora – for good.

She can’t decide if the hard knot of pain in her chest is loss or fury. She’s not even sure who she’s most angry with – the colonel for leaving them, or herself for getting so carried away with her stupid, schoolgirl crush.

She snaps a textbook salute and he doesn’t even look back to receive it.

Bastard.

SG-1 gets stuck with Makepeace and Daniel makes a fuss about it because he doesn’t understand the military, and doesn’t see why Sam shouldn’t have command of the unit. But she doesn’t really care. She’s having a hard time caring about anything.

She goes home most nights, watches TV, and tries to make sense of the curveball life’s thrown her. Usually she likes puzzles, but this one defeats her.

She doesn’t use the L-word out loud, but in the privacy of her own head she admits that during those long weeks he was missing her so-called crush had been exposed as something stronger, deeper and much more enduring. How ironic, then, that just as she came to know her own feelings for him, he was falling for another woman – a woman so diametrically opposite to Sam that she’s embarrassed she’d ever imagined he could see her as more than a subordinate officer.

It had all been in her head, she concludes, the touches, the smiles, the closeness. And from the way he treated her before he left she doubts he ever even liked her. Maybe he’d been laughing at her all along? After the way he left the service, anything seems possible.

By the time the truth comes out and the colonel is back – again – Sam’s so mixed up she doesn’t know what she feels about anything. She leaves Daniel to talk to the colonel and slips back to her lab, grabs her coat and heads home.

She’s fumbling for her car keys when she hears his voice from the other side of the parking lot.

“Carter!”

She wants to ignore him. She wants get in her car and drive. But she’s a good little airman and he’s her commanding officer, so she turns around and tries to fix a neutral expression on her face.

“Hey,” he says, jogging across the snowy lot toward her. He’s still in the uniform Maybourne’s team was wearing, although he’s thrown on a coat in deference to the Colorado winter. “I wanted to catch you before you left,” he says, slowing and stopping just out of arm’s reach. Maybe he thinks she’s going to punch him? Maybe she is. “Look,” he says, when she doesn’t respond, “I need to make sure we’re okay.”

“I don’t know,” she says, because the last four months have been brutal and she’s not even sure she knows him anymore.

He lowers his voice, takes a concerned step closer. “Sam, please.”

She shivers at the intimacy in his voice, at the use of her first name. He hasn’t called her Sam in a long time and maybe that’s why she says, “I just need to—” Her throat is tight, her voice husky. “Are you staying?”

He blinks. “Staying?”

“Here,” she clarifies. “On Earth.”

He gives a little bemused laugh. “Where else would I go?”

She feels her eyes go wide in disbelief, but he shakes his head and is none the wiser. She’s forced to say, “Back to Edora.”

His mouth opens, then closes, like she’s blindsided him. And then she sees understanding dawn in those warm eyes of his and a softer expression crosses his face. “Oh,” he says, brow contracting into a frown. “No. No, I’m not going back there.”

She feels more relief than is appropriate, so much it’s making her light-headed. She’s terrified he’ll see it so she scowls down at the ground to keep from grinning.

Into the silence he says, “You ever have a summer romance, Carter? On vacation somewhere?”

She shakes her head. “No, sir.”

“No? Well...” He shuffles his boots on the asphalt. “That’s what Laira was, you know? These things can be contextual.”

She risks another look at his face, catches his eye. “Contextual?”

He shrugs. “Right time, right place. It’s not like with—” He stops himself before he says more, but their gazes are locked and he doesn’t look away. It’s suddenly intense, she can feel blood rushing all through her body, and she’s tingling in places she really shouldn’t be tingling. “I’m glad to be back,” he says at last. “Thank you, for bringing me back.”

She has to swallow before she can find her voice, and then she can only muster, “Any time, sir.”

He smiles. “I’ll try not to make a habit of it.”

“You better not,” she agrees, with more heat than is wise.

But it’s a heat she sees reflected in his eyes and it feels like they’re going to stand there, staring at each other, forever. But then he moves, or maybe she does, and suddenly he’s hugging her tight and her cheek is pressed against the rough fabric of his coat. “Are we okay, Carter?” he says.

She nods, her arms wound loosely around him. She feels too much to risk holding him any tighter. “We’re okay, sir.”

It doesn’t last long, the hug – there are SFs at the gate and military personnel everywhere – but for a moment when he steps back she can see everything in his face.

Oh God, she thinks in fright, what are we doing? What are we doing?

That’s why she turns him down, the first time he invites her to his cabin, and it’s probably why he doesn’t push it, keeps it light-hearted and inconsequential.

Because looking back, she knows that this is when it stops being fun. This is when everything starts getting deep and complicated.

This is when it starts to burn.

 

4. Breaking Stress (n.): [physics] - the maximum stress a material can endure before it breaks

She doesn’t know when they fall in love, but they’re already in deep on the day he can’t bear to leave her behind and she can’t bear that he won’t.

It’s the situation she’s been dreading and even through the shimmer of the force-shield she can read the same shock in his face. This is why the fraternization regulations exist. This is why they have to be followed. Because now they’re compromised, they’re utterly compromised.

Later, she finds him shell-shocked in the locker room. She thought the guys would be long gone, but he’s not even undressed. He’s just sitting there with his head in his hands and it frightens her more than anything because Colonel O’Neill always knows what to do and now he just looks lost.

“Sir?” she says, awkwardly, from the doorway.

She can hear him suck in a deep breath as he straightens up. “Carter,” he says, glancing at his watch as if he’s lost track of time. “Can you give me ten?”

Ignoring his attempted distraction, she slips inside and closes the door. She figures they need to talk and this is as good a place as any. “Sir,” she says, “about what happened today…”

He fixes her with a guarded look. “Nothing happened today.”

“Sir—”

Nothing happened,” he says, standing up and putting his foot on the bench, working at the laces. “Unless you mean the Tok’ra screwing us over again?”

She figures maybe this is how it has to be. If they don’t admit it, even to themselves, then it’s not real and it’s not wrong. Except… “What if it happens again?”

What if he won’t leave her, or she won’t leave him? What if someone dies?

The colonel stills, his forearm braced on his knee, and for a moment he dips his head and she realizes that he’s ashamed of himself. “It won’t,” he promises.

It clutches at her, his sense of shame; she can’t bear it. “No one saw,” she reminds him gently. “No one ever needs to know.”

I know,” he says with an angry shake of his head.

She wants to tell him how fiercely she admires him, how he’s the finest man she knows, how much she loves him. “Colonel,” she says, hoping he’ll read it between the lines, “there’s no one I trust more than you to do the right thing, in the field or otherwise.”

He gives a little nod, acknowledging that she’s spoken rather than accepting her point, and she’s not sure he heard her subtext. He doesn’t look at her as he drops his foot back onto the floor, boot half-unlaced. “You can have the showers, Carter,” he says, snatching up his jacket. “I’ll check back in—”

“Sir, wait.”

He stops, keeps his distance, keeps his silence.

She doesn’t know what she wants to say, she just knows she wants to say something. “This…it’s not nothing, is it?”

He meets her eye at last, a fleeting contact. “No,” he says. “It’s not nothing.”

“I wish—”

“Yeah.” He gives a tight, sad smile. “Leave me some hot water, Carter.”

And then he’s gone and she’s alone and the only sound is the drip-drip-drip of the shower.

***

The first time he kisses her it’s late at night and illicit.

He touches her face, searching her eyes as his thumb caresses her cheek and his other hand rests on her hip. When his lips brush hers, tender and assured, she reaches up to thread her fingers through his hair.

It feels so right, she thinks, that it can’t be wrong.

“I remember this,” he says another night, hot against the skin of her neck with his fingers splayed against her bare back. “I remember wanting this.”

She remembers it too, the wanting.

“Why does it feel like we’re doing something wrong?” she murmurs, her lips close to his ear. “Why does it always feel forbidden?”

“There are rules,” he says, pressing her back against the wall with his lean, firm body. His words are mere breaths against her skin. “Aren’t there?”

She kisses him, hard. She wants this so badly. “I don’t know,” she whispers. “Are there?”

***

After the za’tarc fiasco he’d sought her out, just to make sure she was okay – that they were okay. But this time he stays away.

She understands, because she doesn’t know how she’ll see Colonel O’Neill past Jonah, she doesn’t know how she’ll fit herself back into their professional relationship when all she can think of is how good they were together. But she knows that they have to talk about it. The first time they meet again can’t be in the commissary, or in a briefing. They have to get past it together, somehow.

It takes a little searching, but in the end she finds him outside in the cool September night, standing on the patch of scrubby grass outside level one. The administrative offices are empty and dark, but light spills from the access point where SFs are guarding the entrance. Huge airflow fans whirr and crank, sucking air down deep into the mountain.

After weeks – an imaginary lifetime – below the surface, she’s not surprised he’s come up for air. He’s standing there gazing up at the stars, one hand shoved into his pocket and the other, she’s startled to see, holding a cigarette.

She stops a little way back, gives herself time to adjust to Colonel O’Neill and not Jonah. He’s back in uniform, he’s shaved, and his hair’s trimmed shorter. It helps that he looks more like the colonel. She tugs awkwardly at her own butchered hair, but there’s not much she can do about that for now. At least she’s in uniform: BDU pants and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. It’s about as different from Thera as she’s going to get.

He takes a drag on the cigarette and blows out smoke, a long controlled breath. “Carter,” he says, without turning to look at her.

It doesn’t surprise her that he knows she’s there; they were entirely attuned to each other even before the memory stamp. “Those things will kill you, sir,” she says.

“Something else will probably do it first,” he says, flicking ash from the end of his cigarette. “I just needed to… to take the edge off. And there’s some kind of rule about getting blind drunk on duty. Apparently.”

She almost smiles. “I heard that.”

He takes another drag, like he’s bracing himself, and then turns warily to face her. That’s when it hits her like a punch, because it’s not about the hair or the uniform; it’s all about the eyes. Jonah and Jack, they’re both in those eyes that she loves so much.

She has to bite her lip to keep herself together but he can read her too easily now and she knows he must see everything she’s feeling.

“Just when you thought things couldn’t get more screwed-up, huh?” He takes another pull on the cigarette, then drops the rest on the ground and grinds it under his boot. “I don’t even know where to start with this one.”

“Nothing’s really changed,” she suggests. “I mean—they weren’t us. They messed with our heads or we’d have never…”

He looks up, his dark eyes brittle with frustration. “That was us, Carter,” he says in a heated voice. “It’s always us. Don’t pretend it’s not.”

“Okay.” She swallows. “Okay, but we can’t—”

“I know!”

His bark cuts her off, leaves her feeling helpless. She doesn’t know what else to say.

“Sorry.” He squeezes his eyes shut, rakes both hands through his hair. “I know what we can’t do, Carter. Don’t worry.”

“I wasn’t,” she says. “I wasn’t worried.”

He turns away. “I’m gonna take a couple of personal days. Get some perspective.”

She nods, even though he’s not looking at her. “Sounds like a good idea, sir.”

“When I get back,” he says, “everything will be normal. This? Locked in the room with everything else.”

Sam smiles, but it almost feels like crying. “Getting crowded in there now.”

“Getting pretty fucking untenable,” he says.

***

It’s not until weeks later that she accepts that he’s right. That it is untenable, the whole situation.

Realization steals over her late at night in the infirmary. She’s recovering from the entity that stole her body and dumped her mind in the mainframe, and he’s sitting by her bedside. Aside from the duty nurse, the place is empty and he thinks she’s sleeping, that he’s unobserved, which is why his guard is down and she glimpses something dark and fractured behind the tears in his eyes.

This year, she thinks, has been too much; the pressure is crushing. The line they’ve been trying to walk is impossible to hold and they’ll have to make a choice – they either cross it, or step back.

Trying to do neither will break them both.

 

5. Entropy (n.): [physics] - the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity

There’s a theory that the universe is cooling, that it will eventually reach a state of heat death and that all energy – all matter – will cease to exist.

Sam doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the theory, but recently it’s started to make a whole lot of sense. After all, she’s been feeling the heat ebb from her small corner of the universe for months, and now that Daniel is gone she doesn’t think it will ever be warm again.

His loss is enormous. It breaks her heart and dwarfs every calamity of the past five years. He was their anchor, their focal point, the glue that bound them. Without Daniel she can’t imagine how SG-1 can hold together. She and the colonel certainly aren’t doing a very good job of it; they’ve been drifting apart for months.

Not that most people would notice, because they’re as in-sync as always. She knows what the colonel’s thinking before he thinks it and he returns the favor – professionally, that is, in the field. But in every other way he’s closed to her. It’s like the shutters have come down and she’s been left outside. She can’t see inside anymore.

An astute observer, she thinks, might notice the way they pass each other in the commissary these days – one leaving as the other enters – or how they take opposite sides of the table in briefings and rarely find themselves alone, and never on purpose. She thinks, with a lump in her throat, that Daniel must have noticed how the colonel slept as far from her as possible off-world, and how he never scheduled them back-to-back watches anymore. No danger, that way, of any intimate late-night conversations, shoulders brushing as they talk in low voices so as not to wake the others.

He’s been scrupulous in eliminating all those barely-acknowledged moments of closeness they used to share. Although ‘ruthless’ might be a more accurate description. Sometimes Sam struggles not to resent the ease with which he’s shut everything down.

But he’s doing the right thing and she can’t fault him for that. In fact, she admires him. There are other men, and she knows plenty, who’d have taken what they wanted without much thought for the subordinate officer they were compromising. But the colonel would never do that; his moral code is too strong. She respects him for that as much as for everything else he does. She just wishes it hurt less.

It hurts less when she’s working, and she’s working as much as she can. That’s why she doesn’t go home much anymore. That’s why she finds herself sitting alone in the commissary late at night, nursing a vile cup of coffee that came out of a vending machine and contemplating another night in her base quarters. That’s where he finds her.

When he walks into the commissary she knows it’s accidental, that he didn’t know she was there, because he stops dead as soon as he sees her. But by then their eyes have met and it’s already too late to retreat. He’s not trying to be cruel, after all, just careful.

She looks down at her coffee without issuing any kind of nonverbal invitation, giving him an easy escape. She hears his boots scuff on the concrete floor as he walks over to the vending machine, hears him feed the quarters into the slot. She figures he’ll grab a candy bar – his favorite late-night pick-me-up – and go.

The candy bar drops with a thunk, as expected. But she looks up, startled, when she hears the chair next to hers scrape back.

He winces at her surprise, as if it wounds him somehow. “Hey,” he says as he sits down.

“Sir.” She keeps it formal because it’s starting to feel awkward, like a dark reflection of those first heady days when her attraction to him had been bright and fun. Now it feels like she’s doing something wrong.

He sighs, a deliberate exhalation, and they sit there in silence as she sips her coffee and he tries to balance the candy bar on end. It takes him five attempts to make it stand up and he gives a faint huff of triumph when he succeeds.

Sam has no idea what they’re doing sitting together in the deserted commissary, not talking. After a year of pulling back, what is he doing?

Only a week after Daniel’s death she’s still wearing her emotions on the outside of her skin and she can’t handle the way the colonel’s presence is making her ache. So she swallows the rest of her coffee fast, scoots her chair back, and stands up. But before she can leave he touches her arm, just barely.

“Sam, wait.”

She freezes, taken aback by the unexpected intimacy.

He’s looking up at her from where he’s still sitting at the table, his expression an odd mixture of concern and caution. “You okay?”

She gives a bitter laugh, feeling strange and wired and not quite herself. “About what?” she demands, without a hint of a ‘sir’. God, she needs to get out of there fast.

He holds her gaze, doesn’t flinch from the anger in her voice as he stands up. “About Daniel.” After a hesitation, he adds, “About everything, I guess.”

They’re standing close together and she knows that a year ago he’d have pulled her into his arms and offered what comfort he could. But now they just stare at each other across the divide.

“I miss him,” she says, pressing her lips together in an attempt to control her slippery emotions. “Nothing’s the same now.”

“Some things are,” he says stubbornly. “Some things are the same, Carter.”

There’s a heat in his voice that makes her heart flutter, but when she meets his eyes they’re as guarded as ever and she’s afraid she’s misreading him.

“I should go,” she decides, before she does something stupid, like putting her arms around him and holding on until everything stops hurting.

For a moment she thinks he’s going to stop her. His hand twitches toward her, making her heart stutter, but in the end his fingertips only brush her sleeve before he lets his hand fall heavily to his side. “You go,” he sighs. “Get some sleep.”

In silence she turns away, heads for the door, and he doesn’t call her back. But her resolve is weak and at the last moment she stops and looks over her shoulder. He’s not watching her go. He’s sitting down again, head in hands, with his fingers jammed into his hair, making it stick up in all directions.

She realizes then that she didn’t ask him if he was okay, but it feels too late and too dangerous now and so she turns and walks away and doesn’t stop until she’s left the base.

Outside, it’s dark and cold. The heat’s bleeding out of her universe.

 

6. Gravitational Collapse (n.): [astronomy] - the final stage of stellar evolution in which a star collapses to a final state, as a white dwarf, neutron star, or black hole.

It’s only after they’ve lost Daniel that the fear takes hold, tapping into a reservoir of foreboding she’s carried with her since the day her mom left and never came home.

For a while, she realizes, she kidded herself that SG-1 was immortal, that they would always triumph, always defeat the odds and always, always come home. But now that Daniel’s gone it’s like the spell’s been broken and she knows they’re all vulnerable. One day, maybe she won’t come home; one day, maybe he won’t.

The first time the fear kicks her, like a boot to the chest, is when the colonel’s dying of some ancient – and Ancient – plague. Terror overrides reason and she doesn’t care that he’d rather die than become Tok’ra, she doesn’t care about the consequences. All she cares about is not losing him. And in the end, when she’s begging him to take the symbiote, she doesn’t even care that her feelings are out there for anyone to see.

She certainly doesn’t feel any guilt. No, the guilt comes later, after he’s disappeared. It swells like a mushroom cloud every day that he’s missing.

By the time he returns and his unspeakable ordeal is revealed in terse, monosyllabic answers to Janet’s subtle questioning, Sam’s guilt overshadows everything. She’s horrified that her fear of losing him triggered the whole terrible chain of events that culminated in days of torture at the hands of a psychopath. When she looks at him lying still and silent in the infirmary all she can think is, I did this.

“Sam?” Janet’s hand is on her arm. “I thought you’d gone home.”

It’s late – long past midnight – and she knows what it looks like that she’s standing there in the dimly-lit infirmary, watching the colonel sleep. But she doesn’t care, and anyway Janet already suspects enough that it’s not worth hiding the truth.

“It’s dark,” is all she says, indicating the lights that are out all around the colonel.

Janet makes a face that’s half-rueful and half-distressed. “We had an incident,” she explains. “Colonel O’Neill doesn’t...react well to bright light overhead when he wakes up.”

Sam looks at her, not sure she understands.

“The sarcophagus, apparently.”

She has to squeeze her eyes shut against that image and only nods.

“Why don’t you stay for a while?” Janet offers, touching her back and moving her closer to the bed. “Have a seat.”

“I shouldn’t,” she says, resisting.

“Why not?”

“He might—” She shakes her head, glances at Janet. “What if he blames me?”

It’s Janet’s turn to be confused. “For what?”

“He didn’t want to take the symbiote,” she says.

“If he hadn’t, he’d be dead by now.”

Sam nods. She’s thought of that, of course. “But maybe he would’ve rather died?”

She’s expecting Janet to dismiss the idea, to assure her she’s wrong, so when she doesn’t reply Sam feels a sickening jolt of fear. She thinks I’m right. But then she notices that Janet’s attention has shifted, that she’s looking at the colonel and that he’s looking at her.

Janet’s hand presses firmly on her back, propelling her with gentle insistence toward the plastic chair next to the colonel’s bed. “I’ll be in my office,” she says, “if you need anything.”

For a moment after Janet leaves, Sam’s still standing awkwardly next to the bed and the colonel’s still watching her with hooded eyes that gleam in the low light.

“Hey,” Sam manages at last. “How are you feeling, sir?” She winces, shakes her head. “Sorry, stupid question.” She shuffles her feet. “I should go. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t,” he says, and his voice is stronger than she’s expecting – subdued, yes, but not raspy or weak. He sounds more or less like himself and it surprises her. His hand moves toward the chair, but it’s a feeble gesture as if he can barely muster the strength. “Sit down, Carter.”

Mutely she obeys, perching on the edge of the seat, almost sitting on her hands to keep from taking his or throwing her arms around him or doing something equally inappropriate. He doesn’t say anything else, his gaze drifting off into the shadows of the infirmary.

“Sir,” she says after a while, because one of them has to speak and she thinks it should be her. “I wanted to apologize.”

“I heard,” he says, and his eyes regain their focus on her. “Not your fault.”

“But if I hadn’t—”

“Carter?” He sounds exhausted, weary at a soul-deep level. “Can we not do this?”

She swallows, chastened. This isn’t about her, after all. What does her guilt matter compared with everything he’s suffered? “Sorry, sir.”

“No, I mean...” He fixes his eyes on her, dark and bruised. “Can we quit pretending, just for now?”

She stares. She’s not sure what he’s asking, but whatever it is she wants to do it, so she just says, “Okay.”

His mouth moves, his lips are dry, and she reaches for the glass of water by his bedside and holds it so he can sip through the straw for a moment. He sinks back against the pillow with a sigh, eyes closed.

It’s easier, when he’s not looking at her, to take in the newly-hardened edges of his jaw and cheek, thinner than he was before he left. His hair is a little more silver too, or maybe the color is just accentuated by the pallor of his skin.

“I didn’t do it because you asked,” he says after a silence, his eyes still closed and his voice a careful whisper. “I did it because I couldn’t leave you.”

Her chest constricts, a fist of emotion pulling tight. “Oh,” she says, and her hand presses hard over her mouth as if she can hold in the emotion welling in her throat. This, she realizes, is what he means by not pretending. Once again, after six long years, he’s surprised her.

But she can match his honesty beat for beat; she’s no coward, after all, and tonight she’s in no mood to hold back. He’s lying very still, which tells her more than anything how tired and damaged he really is, and for once she allows herself to act on impulse and reaches out to take his hand. He feels warm, which is reassuring, and he curls his fingers around hers with a deep sigh.

“I was afraid,” she says, in a voice as low as his. “I was afraid I was going to lose you and I couldn’t stand—” She breaks off, squeezing his hand. “I can’t lose you.”

“Never gonna happen.” He turns his head, opening heavy-lidded eyes to look at her. “Not a chance.”

She shakes her head. “You can’t make that promise.”

“Then I promise to come back and haunt you.”

She gives a tearful laugh, swipes at her eyes, and a trace of a smile touches his lips in response. It makes him look so much more like himself, so much better, that she feels an exhilarating rush of hope. “You’re going to be okay,” she tells him, with sudden conviction. “You’re going to be okay, Jack.”

“I know,” he says drowsily. “Because this time, it’s you.”

Her heart flips over as she grasps the full meaning of his words. After Iraq, it was Charlie.

She squeezes his hand and watches his eyes drift shut. After a while she thinks she should probably leave and let him sleep, maybe grab a little rest herself now that he’s swept away her guilt with his quiet, heart-stopping confession. But she doesn’t want to go, doesn’t want this precious window of honesty to close, so she delays a little longer. “Can I get you anything?” she says quietly. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

His fingers tighten around her hand and in a sleepy voice he says, “Stay?”

She smiles because it’s exactly what she wants to do. “Yes,” she says. “Always.”

***

In less than a year she’s lost Daniel and almost lost the colonel twice – once to disease, once to Ba’al. Each time she breaks a little, papers over the cracks, and carries on.

But the third time she loses him, it’s too much; she can’t hold it together anymore. Like a planet in declining orbit, she’s circling the black hole that Daniel’s death left behind and once she passes the event horizon she knows there’ll be no hope of escape. So she snaps and barks at everyone, feels herself winding tighter and tighter until she thinks she’s going to break apart, and in the end she finds herself in tears in Teal’c’s arms.

It’s a month before she figures out the colonel is stranded on the moon and not the planet, and a couple of days after that before the Tok’ra locate him and he steps, at last, through the Stargate.

She’s waiting with Teal’c, Jonas, and a crowd of SFs at the foot of the ramp to greet him. Adrenaline pulses in a quick burst of white heat, her relief at the sight of him intense but fleeting, and she’s distressed to realize that the tension of the past month isn’t abating at all. In fact, it’s ratcheting up a notch because she knows that one day she is going to lose him. One day he’s going to die, or disappear, and never come home. It’s just a question of probability, and the odds are getting shorter and shorter.

“Carter,” he says with a nod and a look that’s guarded because everyone – quite literally – is watching.

“Sir. Glad to see you back in one piece.”

“Told you I would be,” he says, in that way he has of speaking under the radar.

But the problem is that she doesn’t believe him anymore, not after she’s spent yet another month sick with fear, doing everything in her power to find him and bring him home. She’s genuinely not sure she can go through it again.

“Colonel,” General Hammond says from the control room, “get yourself down to the infirmary. Dr Fraiser’s waiting for you. We’ll debrief at 0900 tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” he says.

“And Jack? It’s good to have you back.”

“Good to be back, sir.”

His eyes run over hers as he turns toward the blast doors, and it’s half an invitation to come with him down to the infirmary. But she can’t. She’s feeling too much, none of it stable, and she needs to be alone.

“I will accompany you, O’Neill,” says Teal’c, perhaps noticing their silent exchange. “I am sure you have many tales to tell.”

“Oh, many,” the colonel echoes, casting a curious glance over his shoulder at Sam.

She doesn’t move. “I, um, left some tests running in my lab…”

A flicker of concern crosses his face, but he chases it away with a camouflaging smile and slaps Teal’c on the arm. “You ever tried arugula, T?”

“I have not,” Teal’c says and the conversation continues as they head out of the gate room, Jonas trailing behind.

Sam’s left alone, conscious of Hammond looking down from the control room, aware that her behavior must seem odd. The colonel’s been missing for a month and suddenly all she’s concerned about are tests – fake tests – she’s left running in her lab? But then, given the way she’s been acting the past few weeks, she’s pretty certain the entire base is aware that her feelings for the colonel go way beyond the loyalty of a dutiful second-in-command.

She feels suddenly exposed, vulnerable to all the consequences they’ve spent the best part of six years avoiding, and turns sharply on her heel and strides out the other set of doors.

Inside her lab she feels safer but no less unsettled, pacing aimlessly up and down, afraid that if she stops – if she lets herself think – she might lose it entirely. A month’s worth of fear – no, scratch that, six years’ – twenty years’ worth of fear is welling up inside her and she’s got nowhere for it to go.

It’s not if I lose him, she thinks, it’s when.

The thought makes her panic so much she feels breathless and trapped, but she can’t leave her lab because outside everyone is watching and she can’t hide her feelings anymore. They’ve been seeping out for weeks and now he’s back and—

“Carter?”

She jumps, spinning around to face the door.

“Whoa,” the colonel says, holding up his hands as if she were pointing a gun. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” she says, backing up behind the bench. “You shouldn’t be here.”

He frowns. “Why not?”

“I—” She shakes her head, pressing her hands down on the bench, trying to keep herself together. “Sorry,” she says. “I can’t.”

Deliberately he shuts the door behind him, walks a little closer. “I spoke to Teal’c,” he says cautiously. “I heard you were…a little concerned.”

She squeezes her eyes shut because she knows she’s not in control and she doesn’t want to melt down in front of him. “I think you should go, sir.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

There are tears behind her eyelids – relief, fear, anger – and they’re starting to leak past her lashes. “Please…”

He walks closer, around the bench, but she doesn’t move, she feels rooted to the spot with her eyes screwed shut and her body rigid with the tension that’s coiled tighter every day that he’s been missing. “Sir.”

His hand touches her shoulder, tugging her toward him. “C’mere.”

She resists. “I can’t.”

“Sam…”

It’s not fair, she thinks, that her name on his lips is enough to get past all her defenses. But when has any of this been fair?

A stifled sob escapes as she turns into his arms, burying her face against his shoulder as her tears fall. He smells like soap and his hair is still damp from the shower. Her arms go around him – solid, real, alive – and he holds her tight, one hand cradling the back of her head, stroking her hair, as she starts to fall apart for real.

“It’s okay,” he murmurs. “It’s okay.”

But it’s not okay, and everything she’s held in so tightly since he disappeared comes flooding out. “I can’t do this,” she rasps. “I can’t keep losing you.”

“I know,” he says, but she can hear a beat of fear in his voice, as if her disintegration is scaring him. “I’ll deal with it.”

His tone, decisive but troubled, penetrates her chaotic emotions. She sniffs, swipes her sleeve over her nose and eyes, and looks up. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I’ll deal with it.” His expression is serious, self-critical. “I should have dealt with it years ago.”

Suddenly her tears dry up; her mouth feels like sandpaper. “How? By taking it to Hammond?”

He shrugs helplessly. “What else can I do?”

“Not that.” She’s shaking her head, pulling herself together and out of his arms. “We can’t do that.”

He gestures to her face, which she assumes is a mess. “We can’t do this, either.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” She wipes at her face, sucks in a shuddering breath. “It won’t happen again.”

“Sam…”

Sir.”

He sighs. “Carter…we tried not doing this before, remember? After I shot you.” His lips press together for a moment. “After I killed you.”

She nods. “And we were doing okay. This…it’s just because of losing Daniel, sir.”

“Is it?” He sounds doubtful.

“I’ll handle it,” she promises, straightening her shoulders. “I’ll find a way of handling it better, sir.”

He starts drumming his fingers on the bench, brows drawn into a frown as he thinks. After a moment he says, “Is that what you want?”

In all honestly she’s not sure what she wants, but she knows what she doesn’t want. “I don’t want either of us reassigned from SG-1,” she says. “I don’t want a black mark on either of our careers.”

“Okay,” he says, clearly making a decision he doesn’t particularly relish. “Right.” His gaze lifts to hers as he takes a deep breath. “So I guess I’ll try not to get lost again.”

She attempts a smile, but it’s shaky. “You said that a couple of years ago, sir.”

“I’ll try harder.”

“I’d appreciate that, Colonel.”

He rubs his hand over his face and, for a moment, she thinks he looks defeated and her heart lurches in confusion. But then the expression is gone and he offers her a familiar smile. “I’ve been eating nothing but hallucinogenic weeds for a month,” he says. “We’re all going for a steak. Wanna tag along?”

But she can’t do bonhomie and beers feeling like this, her emotions wrung out and scattered to the four winds, so she gestures feebly at the bench. “I should probably…”

“Right,” he sighs, looking around her quiet lab, “‘tests.’”

And this is how she’s going to have to handle it, she thinks. This is how she’s going to handle her fear of losing him. It occurs to her with a sinking feeling that this is exactly what he did after he’d had to shoot her: pull back and shut down so that his fear of losing her didn’t paralyze him. From the unhappy look on his face as he turns toward the door she figures he’s thinking the same thing, and she feels tears filling her eyes again.

He stops before he opens the door, glances at her briefly. “You know, one day things will be different. We won’t always be here, like this.” And then he’s gone and the door swings slowly shut behind him.

She’s not sure whether his words are a promise or a warning, because there are a million terrible ways things could be different. And the question is, when one of them happens – and it’s when, not if – how will she handle it? Next time he’s lost or dying, how will she not fall apart in the women’s locker room, not snap at every junior officer on base, and a couple of superior officers besides? How will she ever get past this fear of losing him?

Unlike the colonel, she can’t just shut down. But, she thinks, if she can’t switch her feelings off, then maybe she can switch them to someone else?

It seems an impossible task, standing there with her whole body aching and yearning for him, but Sam Carter is nothing if not a master of the impossible. Besides, people do this all the time, don’t they? Move on. It’s normal, and maybe now is the time for a little normalcy to enter her crazy, messed-up life.

She thinks it’s the only thing that might save her.

 

7. Fission (n.): [physics] - a process in which the nucleus of a heavy atom is split apart

Her dad once told her that she had a tendency to jump in with both feet when it might be more prudent to dip a toe in the water first. But Sam’s never seen the point of half-measures. When she commits to something, she commits, wholeheartedly and with an absolute determination to succeed.

That’s how it is with her new life. Make-up, dates, and shopping – she embraces them all unreservedly, even though just a few months ago she couldn’t imagine having time for any of them, or wanting any of them either, if she’s honest. But looking back she thinks she was stupid to let her unresolvable feelings for the colonel overshadow everything and she tells herself that she’s so much happier now that she’s with Pete and there’s some good, honest normalcy in her life.

She reminds herself of that a lot when they’re together, that she’s lucky to have found someone who understands enough of her crazy lifestyle to make a relationship work. And if part of her still yearns for the man she can’t have, it’s a small price to pay for deadening the fear of losing him.

At first she thinks the colonel might protest, might pull her aside one night when the base is quiet and whisper, Carter, what the hell? But he doesn’t, he barely acknowledges Pete at all, which surprises her. It’s not like she wants him to feel hurt or betrayed in any way, but she did think he’d feel something. But if he does, he keeps it to himself. She supposes it’s because he understands what she’s doing and why she has to do it, and she tells herself that’s good, that she expects him to be happy for her because the colonel always wants what’s best for his team. It’s one of his many admirable qualities.

Sam thinks she’s happy, that her life is good. She’s convinced of it right up until the moment the colonel jams his head into the Ancient device and trades his life for a chance to save the planet.

In that moment she knows, without a doubt, that being with Pete doesn’t make losing the colonel one iota less painful. In fact, it makes it worse because it’s only when she tries to tell him, while she still can, how much he means to her that she realizes she’s lost the right. She’s not the only one who’s been pulling back, building barricades.

Time runs fast through the glass and the words stumble on her lips and in the end he won’t even let her speak them. I know, he says, shutting her down. But he doesn’t know, not really, and now he never will.

As she lifts a hand to the frozen face of this most exceptional of men, Sam can’t help wondering why she ever found ‘normal’ so charming.

***

Frantic days pass, each one colliding with the next, and when she gets home at last the refrigerator is permeated by the familiar stench of sour milk and soggy vegetables. She wrinkles her nose in disgust as she reaches inside in search of a beer. Not for herself – she can’t face anything so celebratory – but for Pete.

Closing the door, she turns and gazes out the window at the impeccably-trimmed yard. She makes a mental note to thank Bob Granger, the old man who lives next door and takes care of her incessantly-growing grass. She suspects that he does it in order to spend more time on his mower and less with his wife. Such is married life, right?

Your mother showed me a world beyond just ambition and career…it was my honor to love her for the short time she was with me.

Her father’s words – or were they her own? – have been floating through her mind for days, unsettling and disconcerting. They resonate deep, but she refuses to examine the feelings they’re disturbing. Not now, when there’s so much else at stake.

Shaking the thought from her head, she turns back to the living room where Pete is leaning over the coffee table, trying to eat pizza without getting sauce on his shirt. He looks strangely out of place in his suit and tie, but it shows he’s made an effort, as always, which makes her feel even guiltier about her own scruffy appearance. She’d really intended to make time to get home, shower, and change into appropriate clothes. But then Daniel had raced into her lab all excited about a possible new location for the Lost City and hours had just evaporated. Next thing she’d known, he’d been virtually pushing her into the elevator and telling her that a few hours off wouldn’t hurt – advice she doubts he’ll follow himself.

And neither would she, if she hadn’t felt so guilty about forgetting to call Pete early enough to keep him from heading down from Denver for the weekend. If only she’d remembered to call yesterday evening…but that had been right when Doctor Weir had come up with her new plan to contact the Asgard. Again, time had vanished and before she’d known it, lunchtime had come around without breakfast having shown its face.

And still the colonel was lost, frozen and lifeless, staring at her with hopeless, trusting eyes. Staring at her.

Can he still see, she wonders? Is he raging inside his frozen prison as she’d been raging inside the numb darkness of the computer that day when he’d pulled the trigger and killed her – and saved her, saved them all.

“Sam?” Pete’s voice is close and she starts. He’s right there in the kitchen, as if transported instantly from the sofa. Time’s running away again.

“Sorry,” she mumbles, turning and digging in the drawer for the bottle opener. She pops the cap off and turns, handing him the bottle. “It’s the last one.”

“You want to split it?”

She shakes her head. “I can’t. I need to be back on base soon.” Now.

“In the morning,” Pete tells her. “You need to rest, Sam. You look exhausted. Whatever it is, it can wait.”

No he can’t. The thought erupts like anger, but she holds it in unspoken.

Pete touches her arm. “Come on,” he says, leading her towards the sofa. “You need to eat and tell me what’s going on.”

Reluctantly she sits, although she knows he’s right – she does need to eat. She skipped lunch and is probably hungry. On a mission she’d be forcing down an energy bar or an MRE, hungry or not, and this is no different. But there’s a knot in her stomach that’s been steadily growing since the moment he’d put his head in the Ancient device and now it’s so big it barely leaves room for anything else.

She sits and picks up a slice of pizza. It looks greasy and unappetizing and she’s about to put it down again when she hears his voice.

Carter, you’re already too damn skinny. Eat something before your pants start falling down.

It’s so real she almost smiles, although the emotion is swiftly followed by a choking sense of loss. She remembers the occasion, years ago, before everything got complicated. They’d had a hellish day struggling through knee-deep mud and torrential rain and she’d been too exhausted to face the MREs and had been tempted to just curl up and go to sleep. The colonel, of course, had noticed and called her on it – keeping his team together, body and soul.

Forcing back the rush of loss she takes a determined bite of pizza and swallows without tasting the food. Methodically she eats until only the cardboard-like crust remains. She throws it into the box and sinks back into the comfort of her sofa. Pete’s right, she is exhausted. She hasn’t stopped since they reported for duty on Saturday and today is…oh. Friday, of course – her weekend with Pete. Well, evening with Pete as it turns out. Not that he knows that yet.

“So,” he says, his voice drifting into her distracted thoughts. “What’s going on? Tough assignment?”

Turning her head, she looks over at him. Tie gone, collar unbuttoned, and a slice of pizza in one hand, he looks so…oblivious. Earth escaped destruction and enslavement by minutes – seconds, even – and he doesn’t even know. None of them know. Not the chirpy pizza delivery guy. Not even Bob Granger, who’d probably been mowing her yard while Anubis plotted overhead. None of them know how close they came to hell.

And none of them know that they’ve been saved by a single man who bought their lives with his own. A man she refuses to abandon.

“Sam?” Pete again, this time irritation edging his voice. “Come on, what’s going on? I came all this way down here and you’ve hardly said a word all evening.”

She grimaces and pushes her hands through her hair. “I’m sorry. I just— I really don’t want to talk about it.” Where the hell would she start anyway? “It’s just been a really tough week.”

“Saving the world again, huh?” There’s humor in his voice, but when she turns and looks at him, his smile fades and his eyes widen. “Really?”

Slowly she nods. “Really.”

He blows out a long breath. “Wow.” Not exactly the word she’d use. “Close call, huh?”

“Yeah,” she says, closing her heavy eyelids – and there he is, staring at her through the wall of ice that stands so unyieldingly between them. There’s always something between them.

“So what was it?” Pete presses, sounding interested, excited even. She turns to see him stuff another bite of pizza into his mouth. He looks like he’s watching a movie. “The goolds?”

“Goa’uld,” she corrects, and nods slightly. “Yeah, it was one of them. Anubis. He’s gone now.”

“Gone?”

“Dead.” A small smile of pride touches her lips. They’ve won. He’s won. But her pride turns cold, as frozen as his face. He’d looked so alone when he’d whispered his goodbye, so totally alone.

“Well, that’s good right?” Pete asks. “You kicked his butt. Man, puts my week into perspective.” When she doesn’t reply he adds, “I’m guessing there’s a reason you’re not celebrating?”

Slowly she nods. Perhaps if she tells him, opens up to him, it won’t feel so overwhelming? He’s the one who’s supposed to be there for her, right? He’s the one who cares, and this is what the whole relationship thing is all about, after all. She takes a steadying breath. “We lost someone,” she says. “Colonel O’Neill.”

He frowns. “Your boss?”

“My CO.”

“I’m sorry, Sam.” Moving, he comes to sit next to her on the sofa. “I’m really sorry. He was a friend too, right?”

Was? No, not was. The very thought bunches in her throat and she shakes her head fiercely. “He’s not dead.” It comes out almost as a shout and she struggles to pull back from it. “I’m sorry. I mean – he’s— I can’t explain. He’s lost. We need to get him back. I need to—”

It’s only when she feels Pete’s hand on her wrist that she realizes she’s on her feet. “Not tonight, Sam,” he says firmly. “You need a night off.”

A night off? He’s frozen and alone, his brain scrambled in order to save the planet… “This isn’t like filing case reports,” she snaps. “A man’s life is at stake.”

His eyes narrow, but his voice remains even. “And are you going to save him tonight?”

Not tonight. Not tomorrow. But soon. It has to be soon.

Pete reads the answer in her eyes. “Come on,” he says, tugging on her wrist. “Sit down. We’ll watch some TV and make it an early night.”

And what choice does she have? He’s right, she’s exhausted. She’ll think better after a good night’s sleep. Yet even tired as she is, every nerve rebels at the thought of sitting like a vegetable in front of the TV while the colonel’s still trapped, maybe dying. Maybe dead. But she has to block it out, has to let it go just for a few hours, if she’s going to rest.

Numbly, she lets Pete pull her down onto the sofa. His arm is heavy around her shoulders as he turns on the TV. The Simpsons is on.

She wants to weep.

 

8. Fusion (n.): [physics] - a process in which the nuclei of atoms are joined

Everything changes when he gets back, and not just because he leaves SG-1 to take command of the base. Although there is that, and it’s huge.

But there’s a sense of things ending, of change on the wind. Daniel is restless, Teal’c increasingly focused on the freedom of his people, and her future is shifting onto new paths of family, responsibility. Domestic bliss.

Everything is changing; everything is in a state of flux.

Even General O’Neill seems different, more serious now that he’s carrying a heavier weight of command. In some ways he feels more distant than ever before, as if he’s stepped into a different world from her, and she supposes that he has. Her own promotion notwithstanding, she’s still a field officer, whereas his eyes are focused on Washington as often as they are on the Stargate. And yet, in other ways, she feels more at ease with him than she has in a long time.

Maybe it’s because the dice have been rolled for the last time, and after that final, extreme act of heroism he’s miraculously walked away from over twenty years of frontline service with his life and sanity intact. Maybe it’s because she can breathe easier now that she’s not in daily danger of losing him. Or maybe it’s because of Pete that she can relax in his company again, because how can he suspect that she’s still harboring feelings for him when she’s engaged to another man?

Whatever the reason, they get a little closer than they have been in a while, lower their guard a little more.

She starts enjoying being around him without guilt, without struggling to hide how much she’s enjoying being around him. No one can suspect her motives anymore – least of all her.

And somehow, without meaning to, they start to meet in the commissary again. He finds reasons to stop by her lab and she finds reasons to drop into his office. Their impromptu end-of-day chats range further and wider each time until one night it gets late and he asks if she wants to grab a bite. They end up eating Chinese in a little hole-in-the-wall he knows and she’s had a beer or three, and they’re reminiscing about the early days and laughing and—

And suddenly there it is, this thing between them that never went away. He sobers, so does she, and the small table between them feels eight years wide and she thinks she’s never, ever going to get past this. Past him.

“Come on,” he says, with a sad smile. “I’ll take you home.”

“I can drive.”

He gives her a stern lift of his eyebrows. “No you can’t.”

He’s right, of course. She’s definitely tipsy. But it’s not the slightly giddy feeling when she stands that tips her off; it’s the sudden, intense desire to really, really kiss him. She hasn’t let herself feel like that for years.

As they leave, his hand is on her back. He so rarely touches her like that anymore that she wonders whether he’s safe to drive himself. But he’s only had the one beer. She’s been watching him nurse it all evening while she knocked back three. He’s been looking out for her, like he always does, and her heart burns a little hotter.

Her Volvo’s parked next to his truck and he opens his passenger door pointedly, not that she was planning to drive. She’s not ready for the evening to end yet. She’s still warm and fuzzy from the beer and still wants to be with him.

Nothing wrong with that, she tells herself. She’s engaged to Pete, after all, so it’s not like anything’s going to happen. Nothing’s ever happened.

He starts the engine and turns, bracing his arm over the back of the passenger seat as he looks over his shoulder and backs out. His fingers are close to her arm, not touching, but even beneath the jacket her skin tingles at his proximity, and it distracts her enough as she fastens her seatbelt that she misses the slot a couple of times. Jack smiles but doesn’t comment. He probably thinks it’s the beer.

They drive in silence at first. She likes watching him drive. She decides he drives how he flies: cool, competent, adept. He doesn’t drive too fast, like Pete does, but she figures that when you’ve saved the world a half-dozen times you don’t have anything to prove by edging the needle over seventy.

“Do you miss it?” she asks suddenly, the beer making her bold.

He slides a quick, sideways glance in her direction. “Miss what?”

“Flying,” she says. “You used to fly, right?”

“Oh,” he says, surprised. “Years ago, yeah.”

She turns a little so she can see him better, leans her back against the door. “What did you think I meant?”

He’s silent for a moment. They’re coming up to a stoplight and he shifts down a gear and uses the clutch to slow the truck instead of the brakes. “SG-1, I guess.”

“Oh,” she says, because it’s obvious.

The light turns red and he downshifts again, keeping his eyes on the road when he says, “Why? What did you think I thought you meant?”

They used to do this all the time, the silly word games, and it makes her laugh. “Oh, you know,” she says, sinking her head back against the headrest and closing her eyes. But if he does know he doesn’t comment, and she’s not really expecting him to.

Maybe she dozes then, because the next thing she knows he’s gently shaking her shoulder. “Carter? We’re here.”

She blinks at him until her memories fall into place: Chinese, beers, his truck. Home. Her head’s foggy and she drags a hand through her hair, stifling a yawn. “Thanks, sir.”

“Anytime,” he says, glancing at her dark house – Pete’s not there. After a moment’s thought he opens his door and climbs out, and she does the same just as he comes around to her side of the cab.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asks, looking amused.

“It was three beers,” she says drily. “I think I can handle it, sir.”

“You can handle anything, Carter.” And there’s such genuine affection in his voice that her stomach flips over and she knows she should say goodnight, fast. But she’s not moving and neither is he. They’re just standing there, staring at each other in the glow of the streetlights. She licks her lips and his eyes dip to her mouth. Her heart starts thundering, her mind spinning.

What does this mean? What does this mean?

Then he closes his eyes for a long moment and when he opens them he’s looking into her eyes again. “I should go.”

It’s almost like there’s a question mark at the end of that sentence, but she can’t read him well enough to be sure. So she just nods and he turns back to the truck, but at the last moment she reaches up to brush a thank-you kiss across his cheek, except that he’s moving and she’s still tipsy so her trajectory is off and somehow her lips catch the edge of his mouth and they both stop.

His hand clutches her arm and they’re so close that when he closes his eyes his lashes brush against her hair. “Carter...” he says roughly, “this is a bad idea.”

Of course it is. He’s the base commander; she’s the leader of his flagship team. It’s such a bad idea that she’s wearing Pete’s ring like a talisman against it. This has never been a worse idea.

Yet she’s still standing there, so close she can feel his breath against her skin, and his name is forming on her lips. Jack...

But before it can fall, his fingers squeeze her arm and he takes a determined step backward. “Beer,” he says, with a wry smile that’s almost convincing. “It always makes you regret the morning after.”

She forces a smile of her own, but she thinks that the only thing she’ll regret in the morning is not kissing him the night before. She thinks this was probably her last chance.

Turns out, she’s wrong.

***

The day they first kiss she thinks I remember this.

They’ve taken their time – after eight years, why rush? – because the transition from General and Colonel to Jack and Sam would be tricky enough at the best of times. And right now he thinks she’s vulnerable, in the aftermath of her father’s death and her break-up with Pete.

She knows he’s wrong, that she's ready and doing exactly what she wants, but she accepts that she’s more emotionally open than ever before and she gets why that makes him cautious. Besides, it’s not a bad idea to pause, to take stock before jumping into something this life-changing. She won’t deny, either, that there’s a certain anxiety floating between them, making them hesitate. She sees it sometimes in his face, a sudden uneasy frown, and feels it fluttering in her chest. What if, after all this waiting and wanting, it doesn’t work out?

So they move slowly, testing out the idea of them. It’s not exactly dating, it’s not like they need to get to know each other. They’ve lived and died together for years and few people could know each other better. But it takes time to discover who they are when they’re not Colonel Carter and General O’Neill. It takes time to adapt to this new relationship of equals and to recognize the subtle ways in which he instinctively assumes authority and in which she instinctively yields it. The legacy of eight years under his command isn’t going to disappear in a couple of weeks, after all. It’s going to take some negotiation.

And so it’s a month after her father’s funeral, on a warm summer night, that she finds herself sitting on Jack’s deck. Ostensibly they’re watching the stars, but they’ve been watching each other all evening and with rather more hunger than either of them had for dinner. So when he comes to sit next to her he doesn’t pretend that the way his arm brushes hers is accidental and she doesn’t pretend not to notice. Instead she leans closer so he has to slip his arm around her and she has no choice but to rest her head against his shoulder.

“So,” he says, close enough that his words ruffle her hair, “here we are.”

She looks up and their eyes meet and the kiss that's about to happen just hangs there between them, deliciously inevitable. She thinks it’s been inevitable since the first day they met but when he leans in and his lips touch hers at last all she can think is, I remember this.

The way he cups her face, the slow insistent heat of his lips against hers, stirs long-repressed memories of stolen moments and whispered conversations in the dark. She feels an ache of past loss, and, troubled, pulls away fast. “Sorry,” she murmurs, awkward and not sure how to explain herself. “God, I’m so sorry.”

He doesn’t speak right away, just touches her hair, toying with it thoughtfully. “I guess,” he says after a while, “I’m not the only one with a sudden urge to shovel coal and check a pressure gauge?”

That makes her smile, in relief as much as anything else, but when she looks into his eyes they’re serious and intent. She touches his cheek and it’s almost a surprise that her fingers trail over clean-shaven skin. “Did you think of Thera?”

“Yes,” he says after a hesitation.

“I thought of Jonah,” she admits.

He lifts an eyebrow. “He was a better kisser, right?”

She laughs again. It’s almost a giggle – something on the border between hilarity and desperation. “Oh, God,” she sighs. “We are so screwed up.”

“Nah,” he says, with breezy indifference. “The last four years were screwed up, Carter. We’re just untangling the mess.”

“Some mess.”

He concedes the point with a shrug. “We’ve handled worse.”

One of his hands is resting on her leg and she draws a finger over its back, tracing a slow line over his knuckles to the tip of his index finger and back again. It’s easier than looking at him when she says, “I don’t want...when we – you know – I don’t want to be thinking about Jonah.”

He turns his hand over, weaves his fingers through hers and holds tight. It makes her look up, meet his gaze. She’s expecting another joke, a deflection, but she’s met only with honesty. “Jonah is me,” he says. “Thera is you.”

She shakes her head. “We didn’t know who we were when—”

“But we knew how we felt.” He touches her face again, stroking his thumb over her cheek. “Sam, think about it. Jonah and Thera were just us without all the baggage – it’s the most honest we’ve ever been with each other. Until now.”

She stares because she can’t believe how right he is and how stupid she’s been not to see it all along. Not for the first time, she’s reminded that Jack O’Neill gets people – her included – on an instinctive level that she’ll never quite master. It’s one of the qualities that make him such a good leader. She feels a surge of that old admiration but doesn’t know how to express the emotion that’s rising like floodwater inside, so she just kisses him instead and lets the feeling flow through her.

He catches her mood, draws her close. “Sam,” he breathes against her lips, like he’s engraving her name into the moment. “Samantha...”

She knows what he’s doing. They’ve been so many things to each other over the long years that it’s hard to bring all those disparate realities together into something as simple as a single name. The colonel, the flyboy, the grieving father, the ex-husband, Jonah, the general, her CO, her friend – and now her lover: could they all ever simply be ‘Jack’?

They kiss for a long time. Pete was never much of a kisser – he was all about the main event – but Jack has always been tactile. He takes his time as he kisses her mouth, her throat, that point between her neck and shoulder that makes her shiver. He moves, unhurried, to run his fingers through her hair, skimming under her shirt, along her bare leg and under the hem of her skirt. He kisses her until she’s molten.

She’s always assumed the expression ‘weak with desire’ was hyperbole, but when he takes her hand and leads her inside she’s genuinely glad it’s a short distance from the deck to the bedroom because she feels like every cell in her body is vibrating with need.

It’s moon-bright inside and they don’t switch on the lights, just stand there in silver shadows, hands touching, on the cusp of this moment they’ve been circling for years.

I love you, she thinks, forming the words with her lips but not her voice, and his eyes reflect them back, tenfold, as he reaches for her again.

“Always,” he breathes against her skin.

He’s not hesitant, but she can tell that he’s being careful not to take control. They’re both mindful of the power structure that has defined the whole of their relationship. He undresses her confidently, without awkwardness, and she’s reminded of the flyboy colonel she saw that first day and all the women he must have bedded in the years before Sara. It adds another flush to her skin, a heat she thinks isn’t quite worthy of her, but that she feels nonetheless. Women want him, she thinks, and he wants me.

When he pulls his own t-shirt over his head she has to close her eyes and kiss him because he looks too much like the colonel and it feels too illicit and dangerous, like they’re doing something terribly wrong. She imagines for a heated instant that they are, that they’re off-world, risking everything for this one moment of bliss…

The thought elicits a low sound in the back of her throat and he growls, “Carter,” in response. Then he’s flinging the blankets off the bed and they’re falling, tangled and ardent, onto the sheets.

Long sensual fingers explore her body with an effortless skill that’s intoxicating, like the way he strips down a gun, or drives, or flies. She’s always found his competence thrilling. And when, after an eternity of almost, he finally tips her over the edge, and her mind flares blank, she hears herself gasping, “Oh, God, sir.”

It unleashes something powerful in him. For the first time all night his control starts to slip and it’s not long until he’s falling hard and fast and her arms go around him, holding him as his breathing beats raggedly against her shoulder until it slows and starts hitching on his unexpected laughter. “Carter,” he gasps when he can talk again, “I didn’t expect that.”

Torn between embarrassment and laughter she goes with laughter, although she presses her hands over her face. Sir, she’d called him sir.

Still chuckling he kisses her fingers before settling at her side, skin-to-skin all the way. “Sam,” he says, teasing. “You know I’ve been working on ‘Sam’ for weeks, right?”

Letting her hands fall away from her face she looks at him. He’s smiling, the kind of open smile he sometimes gives Daniel but rarely gives her – until now. “Sorry,” she says.

He cocks an eyebrow, his smile turning wicked. “Are you kidding? Because that, right there, was just about every fantasy of the last eight years come true.”

She tries to look shocked, but her grin betrays her. “Really? You imagined…the ‘sir’ thing?”

“You didn’t?” He drops his voice and murmurs a sultry, “Major?”

Choosing to avoid the question – and the spike of heat he’s provoked – she says, “Eight years?”

“From the day we met, I swear.”

“I don’t believe you.”

He rolls onto his back, pulling her with him until she’s snuggled up against him and his fingers are drawing lazy patterns on the curve of her hip. It feels possessive; she likes it.

“I think,” he says, and there’s still laughter in his voice, “it was when you started talking about your reproductive organs being on the inside that you really grabbed my attention.”

“What?” She levers herself up on one elbow. “I did not say that.”

He laughs. “Oh, yes you did.”

“No, there’s no way. I—” She cringes at the memory. “Okay, I do remember offering to arm wrestle, I think, but I definitely didn’t say anything about reproductive organs. That’s just...why would I say that?”

“Go ask Ferretti,” he says, looking smug. “He’ll back me up.”

She grimaces, partly at the thought of asking Ferretti and partly because there’s a chance he might be right. She had come on pretty strong back then, after all. “Well, I was young,” she says, in her own defense. “And you, incidentally, were a total ass.”

He gives her a wounded look. “Me?”

“Yes, Colonel I-don’t-want-any-women-on-my-team.”

“Hey, I never said that!”

She settles back down next to him. “True,” she agrees, smiling as she slides a hand across his stomach and watches him suck in a soft, anticipatory breath. “You said you didn’t want any scientists on your team.”

“Maybe,” he says, tipping her chin up so he can fix her with a look, “I could see where this was going from the start?”

“You couldn’t have.” But there’s something in his eyes that almost convinces her. “Really? You saw this from the start?”

He gives her a heated look that confirms or denies nothing. “The day we first met,” he says, kissing her again, “I thought, I know your type.”

“And did you? Were you right?”

“Now that,” he says, smiling against her lips, “would be telling…”