The twinkle of white lights along the roofline adds to the glow of the porch lamp, brightening Sam's way up the walk to her house. From down the street, the windows had appeared dark, as though no one were home. Now that Sam's closer, though, she can see the telltale dim glow. The rooms at the front might not be lit, but there's life in there somewhere. She climbs the step and tries the door. She's not surprised to find it unlocked and waiting.
As Sam steps across the threshold, an icy gust accompanies her, swirling through the darkened foyer and onward into the rest of the house, tugging at the loose ends of her hair and stinging her eyes as it whips by. She raises one cold, ungloved hand to brush the windswept strands out of her face as she turns back to wave at the car now pulling away from the curb and away into the icy night.
After weeks spent in the climate-controlled chambers and corridors of the Hammond, the Colorado winter had come as a bit of a shock. Sam stands in the opening, letting the chilly air push at her, as if the wind alone could prod to the surface memories of the life she once lived here. That she still lives, when she can manage to be here.
Then she turns away, shutting the door behind her with a gentle nudge.
The soft snick as the latch slides home gets lost in the rushing of the wind outside and the hum of conversation issuing from beyond the entrance to the living room. Slowly, Sam sets her duffel down beside the coat rack and unwinds the scarf from around her neck, hanging it carefully on the last empty hook before pulling off her coat and draping it on top. Tilting her head, she regards the mismatched collection of hats and gloves and jackets, rubbing a little at the bridge of her nose before she reaches out a hand to straighten a sleeve and bends down to pluck a stray muffler from the floor.
Cassie's, she notes absently as she hangs it with the right coat; that hat over there is Cam's, and Sam would’ve staked her life on those fuzzy pink mittens being Vala's, even though they're new and strange to Sam. Truth be told, it all seems a little strange; the tempo of her comings and goings has changed so much that it appears she's arrived late for a party she didn't even know she was having.
Hyperspace has its own relativistic effects, even if they don't always show up in equations.
The cars in the street had clued her in, of course; from Daniel to Vala, they're all here. Sam thinks that's the sort of thing someone might have mentioned to her in any of the sixteen or so emails they'd sent her in the last twenty-four hours. Hey, Sam, we’re taking over your house Christmas Eve. Hope that’s okay. Love and kisses, SG-1.
It's hard to complain, though, when most of their letters told her how much they missed her; some by the words they wrote, but most with what was said in the spaces between the words.
Taking a few small steps farther into the house, Sam pulls her hair free from the elastic holding it and runs her fingers through the strands, binding it up again at the base of her neck as she scans the entrance hall. It's a way to buy time as much as anything; time to consider the light pouring into the hall from the room beyond, time to listen to the sounds drifting out and to wonder at her own sense of being slightly out-of-phase.
Even here, standing uncertain in the shadows, she notices the new paint on the molding at the ceiling, spots the place where a cracked floor tile has been replaced. The warmth that spreads through her, knowing whose hands painted that wood and laid that tile, wars with guilt and an unexpected ambivalence about the things that were happening in her absence. About missing what's happening in her absence.
But the people on the other side of that doorway deserve better than her ambivalence, now that she's here; so she runs her hands over her hair one last time, checking for stray ends, and with the last lock tucked securely into place, moves forward, doubt and hesitation put to bed in that secret place where Sam's always kept the things she wasn't supposed to feel. Three short steps to stretch out a hand and lay it lightly on the doorjamb. One more to lean her shoulder against the wood, heart in her throat as she takes in the scene before her.
It's a little like walking into a greeting card, bright-lit and warmed by the sound of low voices, of honest laughter and Christmas songs playing on the stereo in the corner. Cassie's lying half-sprawled on the floor, her long hair shining in the bright light. On the couch, Vala bumps her hand against Teal’c’s shoulder as she chats animatedly away. And Sam doesn't have to look around the corner to identify the feet just barely protruding into her field of view, propped so casually on the coffee table.
Somewhere out of her line of sight, Daniel speaks, building in a too-familiar rhythm, constructing arguments word by word to win a point in a debate she's no longer privy to. In a way, she no longer feels privy to any of it. The scene before her appears warm and complete without her, as though they've drawn the circle in tighter in her absence.
A little part of her still feels like fading away, quietly, off into the night, but that's not meant to be. Directly across the room, Cam's perched on the desk Sam's sure she’d told him not to sit on no less than a dozen times. And Cam is looking right at her, grinning like an idiot.
Daniel’s voice cuts off suddenly, mid-sentence. “Cam,” he says after a brief pause, “what are you smiling about?” His words are colored with suspicion.
Cam leans back and takes a long, unhurried swig of his beer before answering the question. "Take a look at what Santa dropped on our doorstep,” he says finally, tipping his head in Sam’s direction.
It's almost comical, the way Cassie turns in perfect unison with Teal’c and Vala. And it is comical when Daniel’s head pops into view, followed more slowly by Jack’s when he leans in as well.
Comical, but also a little unnerving, somehow.
“Technically,” Sam says, because she can't quite stand to say nothing and wait for them to speak, “it’s my doorstep. And Bill Lee dropped me at it.”
Vala cracks a smile.
“Sam!” Daniel turns to Jack, then back to look at Sam again. “Aren’t you supposed to be ….” He wiggles his fingers upward, gesturing vaguely at the ceiling.
She shrugs. “Got back early.”
“Huh,” Jack says. “Fancy that. Must’ve missed that memo.”
She meets his eyes at last, biting her lip against the involuntary smile and arching an eyebrow in question. Jack hadn't missed that memo, of course, or any other; but General O'Neill's never quite broken the habit of securing the tactical high ground. He always knows more than he lets on.
It's a rare moment, though, that he gets to use it to make people happy.
He opens his hands, palms up, miming his innocence, and Sam quits fighting the smile, shaking her head as she breathes out a little laugh. Her odd, misplaced tension seems to breathe out right along with it.
Cassie swings her arm and points at Jack. "You knew!" she accuses, breaking the silence that had fallen over the rest of the group. She levers herself off the floor in a fluid motion and flings herself across the room, digging her fingers into Jack's sides and making Sam wince in sympathy. "You had to."
“Hey!” He grabs Cassie's hands and pins her fingers. “No tickling.”
"Yes, tickling," she retorts, pulling against his grip.
"Nope," he says, impassive, and she laughs.
Sam feels a tiny ache watching them, a regret for the child Cassie used to be. For the people who aren't here today. For Sam's own long-lost and little-cherished youth.
With a squirm and a twist, Cassie pulls free and launches herself up to hug Sam, just like a little girl.
"You have to come see my new place tomorrow," Cassie says. She's curled up against Sam's side, firmly wedging Sam in the middle of the couch with Cassie on one end and Vala on the other. "It's a loft downtown, and it's beautiful. I just moved in the week before last, and –" She breaks off. "And you already know all this because I told you. And sent you pictures."
Sam smiles softly. She doesn't mind, and she's sure Cassie knows that. "So. Am I coming to see the new apartment, or the new boyfriend? James, right?"
Cassie's cheeks color with the slightest hint of pink. "How come she can remember his name, and you can't?" she tosses across the room at Jack.
"I'm an old man, Cass. I need a whole staff to remember things for me now."
Cassie rolls her eyes and sticks out her tongue at him. "James," she says, emphasizing the name, "is in Nebraska visiting his family."
"Maybe I don't remember his name because he's from Nebraska."
Sam's barely gotten a word into the conversation since she came into the room, between Cassie, Vala, and Daniel telling stories across each other, supplemented by Cam's occasional wry corrections, Jack's eyeroll-inducing commentary, and Teal'c's brief but heavily-loaded insertions. She's pretty sure she'd only managed the question about the boyfriend because Daniel had just hopped off the arm of the couch and headed over to the kitchen with Teal'c, abandoning his share of the ever-circling conversation.
"Maybe you don't remember his name because you've never met him," Vala says thoughtfully. "Actually," she continues, leaning closer to Sam and lowering her voice as though confiding a secret, "I'm not sure James really exists. Daniel's the only one who's met him, after all. They could be in cahoots."
Cassies leans forward and shoots a glare across Sam in Vala's direction. "Daniel's the only one who's met him because Daniel's the only one of you that's remotely sane," she says.
Vala raises an eyebrow. "Teal'c," she calls over her shoulder in the direction of the kitchen, "I think Cassie's forgotten whose side she's supposed to be on."
Teal'c hmmms something noncommittal as the oven door bangs shut.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Cassie says haughtily. "I'm from Toronto." She manages to hold on to her offended expression for about three seconds before collapsing into a fit of giggles.
"All right," Daniel says from behind the couch, "dinner's ready. If Vala's finished planting the seeds of discord and betrayal, that is."
Vala hops up off the couch. "Food first," she says, grinning. "Rebellion later."
"I'm glad we've all still got our priorities in order," Sam says. She gives Cassie a nudge with her shoulder. "Come on, let's eat."
When Sam returns to the couch, plate in hand, the seating arrangement's been shuffled about. Vala's taken Cam's spot on the desk, Cassie's in the chair next to Jack, and Cam's sitting on the floor next to the coffee table. Sam points at her food as she sits back down on the couch, her spot now between Daniel and Teal'c.
"I hope this was catered by someplace other than the mess at the SGC," she says. "Because I've had more military-issue holiday meals than any one person should have to endure in a single lifetime."
"Sam." Daniel puts a hand to his chest. "Do you think we'd do that to you?"
"Yes," she says, sticking her elbow into his side.
"Yeah, we'd do it to you," Cam says, shrugging. "But we wouldn't do it to Cassie, so you're safe."
"So?" Sam asks, pointing at her plate again.
"Blame them." Cam gestures with his fork from Teal'c to Daniel and back again. "T's been taking cooking classes," he adds with a final stab of this fork in Teal'c direction.
"Really?" Sam asks, her eyebrows climbing as she turns to look at Teal'c.
Teal'c inclines his head. "At the YMCA."
Sam can't help laughing. "You never mentioned that."
"I am mentioning it now."
Her laughter relaxes into an affectionate smile, and she leans in closer to Teal'c. "Well, you I'll trust, then. The rest of them, not so much."
"That's just because you weren't here when he went through his Cajun period," Cam interjects.
"It was Creole," Daniel says.
Teal'c shifts slightly in his seat. "The spices are … challenging."
Sam grins and sticks a bite of sweet potato into her mouth. "I don't know about Creole," she says. "But this is pretty good."
Teal'c nods. "Thank you."
"I'm not watching any version of A Christmas Carol unless it has Muppets," insists Cassie, tugging a DVD case out of Daniel's hands and setting it out of sight behind her. "Especially not some depressing black and white thing from before any of you were born."
"Well, I'm not watching the Muppets," Daniel says.
"So that's settled, then." Cassie grabs several other cases from the array spread out in front of them on the floor and adds them to her discard pile. She picks up another movie and holds it up for Daniel to see.
"White Christmas?" Daniel asks. "How many times have you watched that in the last month?"
Cassie wrinkles her nose at him.
Daniel nods his head towards Sam. "Sam doesn't want to watch White Christmas."
"Hey, leave me out of this," Sam says.
"It was mom's favorite." Cassie shakes the case a little. "Come on, Daniel."
Daniel purses his lips and doesn't reply right away. "Okay," he says eventually, "let's think about that one for a minute."
With a shrug, Cassie sets the case back down. "Fine. What else?"
Janet, of course, is the reason Cassie's insisting on watching some flavor of Christmas movie in the first place. That was Janet's tradition, and they all know it. Christmas movies, and peppermint bark, and gifts opened on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day because she didn't like having to wait to make people happy. To make Cassie happy, especially.
For a second, Sam feels like if she tips her head just right, she might see her old friend standing there watching them all. She closes her eyes for a moment and then pushes up from the couch, leaving Teal'c to supervise Daniel and Cassie's movie selection while Sam heads into the kitchen.
Cam and Vala are handling the dishes, standing over the sink and bickering companionably over the sound of running water. Jack had fled the living room when Cassie pulled out her bag of movies, claiming that he shouldn't be required to make any decisions while he was on vacation. He'd taken up residence on one of the bar stools, occasionally harassing Vala and ordering Cam around while at the same time mangling a paper napkin that had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Can't do grunt work while you're on vacation, either?" Sam teases as she leans against the counter next to him.
"I'm hosting. Doesn't that mean other people do the work?" he says.
Sam arches an eyebrow at him. "It's my house."
"There's some old saying about possession and fractions of the law that applies here, isn't there?"
She shakes her head. "Tell me that again when I make you sleep out in the cold tonight."
Jack doesn't answer, but he reaches out to slide an arm around her and tug her closer until she's leaning against his side instead of the counter.
"Okay, maybe I won't do that. But it's only through self-interest. Not because I forgive you for co-opting my house."
Vala glances over her shoulder at the two of them. Her brow furrows. "Oh! I nearly forgot." She dries her hands on the towel by the sink and abandons Cam and the rest of the dishes, ignoring his exclamation as she crosses the room to the desk.
When she returns, she presses a brightly-wrapped package into Sam's hands. "I was going to leave this here for the next time you were home," she says. "But since you're conveniently here now …."
"I thought we weren't doing that present thing," Jack says, reaching out in an attempt to pluck the box away from Sam.
"Well, not for cranky old generals," Vala retorts, smacking the back of his hand.
"Do we pay her?" Jack asks Cam. "And do you think we could stop doing that? Or at least add a 'no sassing the guy in charge' clause to her contract?"
"Believe me, I've tried," Cam says. "It doesn't seem to take."
"Never did with Daniel, either."
Sam tugs the wrapping off the gift and opens the box inside. She pulls out a little plastic globe with a suction cup on it, the sort of thing one could stick on a desk or the dashboard of a car.
"Hey, we've been there," Cam says with a grin. "Once or twice, anyway."
"It does look a little familiar," Sam answers.
"It's for your ship," Vala says, turning serious. "Because it's important to remember where you're coming from."
Only Vala could take a ninety-nine cent trinket from the local gas station and turn it into something that stabs so directly at truth. Sam nods her head. "Thanks."
Vala holds her gaze for several seconds before she nods back, satisfied by whatever she'd seen. She turns away to look at Cam. "Daniel helped me find it. They're quite cheap, actually, and I was thinking if we bought several cases and took them to that market on Arcata, we could make quite the profit. With a decent percentage for the Air Force, of course."
"Of course," Cam says. "Yes. Let's sell teeny tiny maps of the Earth to all the aliens. That's an absolutely brilliant idea."
Jack shrugs. "Better than a bake sale. Maybe I'll take it to the Joint Chiefs."
"Home Alone," Teal'c says firmly from the living room. Sam glances over in time to see him opening the DVD case and heading for the TV to the tune of Cassie and Daniel's groans.
"Excellent," says Jack.
About half an hour into the movie, Sam slips out of the living room and through the back door onto the porch. The sky is clear, but the night's still cold, the wind rushing even more fiercely than when she'd arrived. In the rear window of the house behind her own, Sam spies a still-lit Christmas tree, white lights twinkling like the stars overhead, and through the gap between that home and the next, she can see bright colored bulbs lining the rooflines across the street.
She leans against the porch railing and lets the cold gusts tug at her hair and push down the back of her neck.
It's not that she doesn't want to be exactly where she is tonight, here in this house with the people she loves best in the world. But they forget, sometimes, that she needs time to adjust to having so little room to breathe.
The environment on the Hammond – or any other ship in the fleet, for that matter – would probably drive anyone outside the Stargate Program crazy in short order. Heirarchy and protocol are often found taking a back seat to expedience and practicality, and Sam herself never wants anyone under her command to be so cowed by authority that they fail to speak up when it's required. But even so, holding the responsibility for so many people in her hands for so long has taught Sam to keep herself separate, just enough apart to allow her to make decisions where lives and security are both on the line. A fractional breath or perhaps an entire universe away from the everyday trials and celebrations of the people fighting at her side.
She misses being able to let go so easily. Saturday afternoons in the science labs at the SGC. Late nights with too much coffee in Daniel's office. Christmas with Janet and Cassie and the rare evening out with SG-1, just the four of them, way back when.
In a lull between one stiff breeze and the next, Sam hears the door behind her open and close quietly, followed by the gentle thump of footsteps crossing the porch. She doesn't bother turning to look, because who else would follow her out here right now?
"You miss freezing to death while you're up there?" Jack asks from somewhere behind her left shoulder.
"I miss the wind," she says with a shrug. Especially like this. Sam's always loved the winter wind and the way it has of pulling everything but the essentials away.
"Well then." His hand touches her back, then his arms slide around her waist as he steps closer to hold her from behind. "Glad we could provide for you this evening."
She leans back into his embrace. "Me too."
He rests his chin on her shoulder. "I came out to say Merry Christmas, seeing that it's –" he lifts his arm up so they both can see the face of his watch "—six minutes past midnight here on this particular piece of Earth."
"Just this piece of Earth?"
"I don't care much about the other pieces right now."
They stand silent for a few minutes, letting the wind ebb and flow around them.
"I like the lights," Sam says eventually. "They look nice."
"What, that giant display of crap Carl Jansen puts up every year? You only like 'em because you don't have to deal with the gawkers driving around for three weeks straight."
Sam grins. "I'm pretty sure he does it for the kids."
"You realize his youngest left for college this fall, right?"
"I really didn't need to know that." She's not sure whether she means the reminder of exactly how long it's been since she moved into this house, or the fact that Jack knows her neighborhood now in a way Sam never really had. Either, really. Both. "And anyway, I meant the ones you put up here."
"Ah," he says, as if he didn't already know that. "Well. Teal'c insisted."
"I'm sure he did."
"And you know I can't tell Teal'c no anymore."
"Just so we're clear."
They are clear, of course, clear that the lights don't have anything at all to do with Teal'c. Nor do they have to do with Cassie, or with Janet, or with Carl Jansen and his traffic-inducing display of Christmas cheer. The lights, the company, the little repairs here and there around the house, each one's just another of Jack's weird semi-circular ways of saying I love you. Of assuring her that as long as he's around, she'll always have a home.
"It was sweet, inviting them all here," she says, because she hasn't said it yet.
"They miss you." His voice is soft against the side of her head.
"And you?" Sam asks.
"They don't really miss me, no."
"Jack." She doesn't know why she's pressing him to admit it out loud.
He lets her go and scoots to the side, leaning against the porch rail next to her, looking over into her eyes. "I brought that back here," he says, pointing at his telescope in the corner behind her. "A while ago. Can't really see much with it in DC anyway."
She nods slowly; he's not sharing anything she didn't already know. "Okay."
"I've been using it more lately."
Sam looks away, directing her gaze back across the yard at the house behind hers, at the Christmas tree in the window. For a few heartbeats, she considers making some smart remark about spying on the neighbors or taking up a second career as a private investigator. Anything to diffuse the sudden tension of the moment, the guilt she feels for trying to force him to say the things they both already know.
Jack slips a finger under her chin and turns her face back to his. "Try not to be me right now, Carter," he says.
She huffs out a tiny laugh that's carried away by a particularly strong gust of wind. "All right. But you know you can't see where I'm at most of the time."
He runs his knuckles across her cheek. "So?"
She smiles up at him. "It was sweet," she repeats. "Inviting them all here."
"Don't let on."
She tips her head toward the telescope. "That's sweet, too."
He pulls her close and presses his face into the curve of her neck, holding her tight. "Yeah."
Sam's dozing by the end of the movie, her head resting on Jack's shoulder and her feet tucked underneath a throw. She scrunches her eyes closed tighter when the lights come back on and keeps them shut through the sound of the others rising from the seats and gathering their things. Sam manages to pretend she's still asleep, in fact, until Cassie sneaks a hand under the blanket and pokes her fingertip into the sole of Sam's foot.
Sam cracks one eye open to glare at her. "I thought we established earlier that there shouldn't be tickling."
"No, there should always be tickling."
"That's not what you thought when you were twelve."
Cassie shrugs. "I've seen the error of my ways."
"One of many areas in which we all went very, very wrong." Jack nudges Sam gently with his elbow, urging her up off his shoulder so he can rise from the couch. "C'mon," he says, holding out a hand to her. "Time to shoo the unwashed masses on home."
She takes his hand and lets him pull her up and lead her into the entry hall where everyone else is gathered, Cassie trailing along behind. Sam says her goodbyes, kisses and hugs and promises to see each other again over the next few days, and then they open the door to head back out to their cars and home again.
Cassie's the last to go. The wind's died back from gale to breeze, but Sam still pulls her back by the arm and tugs the scarf more securely around Cassie's neck. "Call me when you get there?" Sam asks, her hand resting on Cassie's shoulder.
"I thought we established that I'm no longer twelve," Cassie says with a raised eyebrow.
"You're doing it for me," Sam says. "Not for you."
Cassie nods. "Okay. And you'll come by tomorrow?"
"Wouldn't miss it." Sam leans in and pecks her on the forehead. "Night, Cass."
Sam watches Cassie and the others through the front door window for a few heartbeats before she turns away, facing back into the house. "So," she says to Jack, who's been waiting patiently behind her, "that was nice."
He grabs her hand and tugs her to him, into his arms. "I was starting to think they were planning to stay the night."
She laughs softly as the settles in against him. "Then we would have stolen Cassie's keys and run off to her place."
"See, you always were the brains of the outfit."
Sam's laugh fades into a smile, and she lets her eyes slip closed. She's content, warm and whole and happy, and she thinks maybe she won't bother moving at all for a few minutes.
But Jack pulls her hair free of its ponytail and buries his hand in the strands as he starts slowly kissing his way up her neck and along the line of her jaw. Sam's warm, she's whole, she's happy, and suddenly she's a lot less sleepy than she'd been a few minutes before.
"Thank you for fixing the tile. And painting the molding," she says, as though it's perfectly logical to be talking about home improvement when she's pressing herself closer to him and digging her fingers into his shoulder.
"Gotta do something to keep busy while you're gone."
"Joint chiefs not keeping you busy enough these days?"
"No, they're good. It's just Daniel's falling down on the job. Hasn't caused another galaxy-wide conflict in ages."
She laughs again, and he shifts, wrapping his arms even more tightly around her. "Thank you for coming home," he says softly into the skin just below her ear.
She pulls back to look into his eyes. "Always."