Sam steps through the wormhole and walks out into the sunny, mild landscape of P4T-937. In the distance there is the blue smudge of snow-topped mountains, and much closer, the slow thinning of foliage that appeared in aerial footage to be cultivated fields.
Daniel steps up next to her, looking happy and eager to be off world again and facing a new first contact situation. He loves the thrill of the introduction, the delicacy of walking a careful line with new peoples. His buoyant energy has always been pretty infectious.
She smiles to herself, patting Daniel on the back. “Good to have you back,” she murmurs, knowing he’d felt a little left out lately, being stuck on base with appendicitis while the rest of them were jetting around fighting replicators and being stranded off world.
He grins at her and heads toward the DHD.
Teal’c moves a few steps away from the gate, his eyes skimming for a path. Sam can’t see any sign that people may travel here regularly, not even so much as a game run. It’s strange, but not completely unheard of. Many cultures have learned to fear the gate as the tool of their oppressors.
Behind her, the Colonel inhales loudly, and she turns in time to see him stretch his arms wide to the side. “First things first, Carter,” he says, his neck bending each way as if he’s getting geared up for a ping-pong match. “What is the very important new rule?”
Sam catches Daniel sending Teal’c an amused glance, Teal’c’s own face creasing with long-suffering annoyance that she suspects is a front. It’s the one he mastered so very well during their week spent on P3X-234.
“Sir,” she protests, not quite eradicating all the laughter from her voice.
The Colonel is in a good mood, happy to have the team back together. No replicators, no Russian submarines, no one-way missions to save the Asgard, and Daniel back in the fold, minus one appendix. It’s a good day for SG-1.
He tugs at the bill of his cap, squinting into the distance. “I think I need to hear you say it.”
She pauses, one arm resting on the butt of her P-90, sighing with thinly veiled annoyance even though her cheeks are aching against a poorly suppressed smile. “If I come across a technologically advanced ‘doohickey’ named The O’Neill, I will not blow it up,” she dutifully rattles off.
He nods, satisfied. “Let’s try to stick to that this time, eh?”
“Yes, sir,” she says, losing the battle with her smile.
His gaze lingers just an extra moment, the heat from the sun warm on her face. She smiles, taking a few steps away from the gate, eyes snapping back to the alien horizon.
It’s the last thing she remembers.
* * *
Snipers call it mist, the telltale spray of vaporized blood when a bullet impacts a human target. It’s a bit like that, to Jack’s eye, the way everything happens.
One moment Carter is glancing back at him, brushing her hair out of her eyes, smiling at some asinine thing he’s said, and the next she’s gone in a plume of smoke and splash of red, a solid boom that echoes in his chest, knocking him to the ground.
When his head clears, he can hear the roar of Teal’c’s voice, calling her name. Taste metal in the air.
Jack’s mind is whirring a million miles a minute as he shoves back up to a crouch. Are they under attack? Where the hell had it come from? His mind runs through and discards various scenarios, eyes tracking to Daniel who is hunkered down against the DHD, a trickle of blood running into his eyes, but otherwise looking steady and unhurt.
Clambering over to Teal’c’s side, Jack gets his first glimpse of Carter, lying half in a hole in the ground that had not been there moments before. Teal’c is supporting her neck, holding her steady and already pressing a pressure bandage to one of the seeping wounds high on her chest, but he’s staring at something else, somewhere lower, his face paler than Jack has ever seen it.
He tracks down Carter’s body and now he sees it. Her legs, what’s left of them, are a bloody mess.
“Daniel!” Jack bellows, jumping to his feet and whipping his belt off. “Dial Earth now!”
He only pays attention to Daniel long enough to see that he’s complied before turning back to Carter, pulling his belt tight around her thigh.
There’s a moment of lucidity where she looks up at him as her blood rushes out over his fingers, a moment where her blue eyes stare clear and focused out of her singed, sooty face.
She says, “I’m sorry, sir,” like she’s done something wrong.
Then the screaming starts.
* * *
An innocuous sounding name for something so dramatic, so insidious. Long dead wars still putting in a good fight, because there’d been a reason the villagers on that planet never strayed too close to the gate. Not that SG-1 had known that at the time, the first explorers through the gate to those people in generations.
One small step, Sam thinks, fighting back a hysterical laugh she easily blames on the painkillers they have her jacked up on. They must have broken out the good stuff. Concussion, broken rib, shrapnel in her thigh and chest, and a foot no longer where it should be. Good enough reasons to be drugged to the hilt. To whisper around her like this is a deathbed she’s laid up in.
A little death. Not all of her, just a piece.
The first time she hears the word stump she thinks, ‘That can’t be right.’ She can still feel each and every toe.
She tries to logically think through the chemical tricks her brain is playing on her, the Latin names for complex medical terms, but everything always spirals back to that empty space under the sheets where the rest of her leg should be.
Only two weeks ago she was trudging around a benign alien world with Teal’c and the Colonel, waiting for the people back on Earth to get their act together and get the second gate rigged up so they could dial home.
A week ago, she was blowing up an Asgard super-ship. She was just stupid enough to save an entire planet.
Today she’s feeling toes she knows aren’t there.
“This can’t be right,” she whispers.
* * *
The screaming won’t stop.
It’s been hovering in the back of Jack’s brain since the moment Carter stepped on that mine. He thinks it may have been there before in some form or another, but only a soft hum, an easily ignored inflection like an unwelcome houseguest. Something he could shove aside with no guilt or ramifications. It had only started to screech as the world blew to hell around them. In the moment, he hadn’t noticed it over the thrum of things that had to be done now, the steps he needed to follow to get his team back through the damn gate, and after, the energy of sitting and pacing and waiting for word that Carter would pull through.
She will. She’s strong. The doctors say she was lucky. Lucky to be so near the gate, to get medical attention so quickly, that she apparently hadn’t been right on top of the thing when it blew, only near, but all Jack can think is this is lucky?
It isn’t until the dark first night as he sits waiting for the sedation to lift—knowing she is okay, is going to live, even if things will never be the same—that he finally notices it, understands the noise in his head for what it really is.
Oh, he thinks, sitting by the side of her bed and watching her pale face and steadily rising and falling chest. He takes this rhythm as living evidence. But even his relief can’t quiet the screaming now that he’s been foolish enough to acknowledge it.
He pauses, hand halfway reached out to take hers in an attempt to reassure himself that she is still here. Pauses and doesn’t touch, because he finally gets it, the truth slamming into him like an out of control semi.
O’Neill, you stupid son of a bitch. How could you have let this happen?
He sits back in his chair, hating the burning in his chest, but not as much as the part of his brain that wonders if she knew (she’s always been smarter than him). He has no idea what to do with that.
He’s actually relieved when Daniel arrives just as she begins to show signs of stirring, grateful to abandon her bedside to him. She will have a familiar, friendly face to wake to now, and not his reverberating terror and shock at revelations that have no place here.
Over the next two days he only visits when the other guys are there, muffling the scream as best he can, shoving it far back to where he had unknowingly hidden it before. On the third day, he trusts himself enough to go alone.
He’s surprised upon arrival though, to find Carter sitting on the edge of her bed, her hands weakly grasping onto a walker, her one solid leg wobbling dangerously under even a fraction of her weight. A nurse and someone Jack doesn’t know hover on either side, speaking encouragement to her.
He steps up next to Janet, who is watching from a short distance away.
“Already?” Jack asks. She’s only days out of surgery; stitches still black against her face. It seems almost…cruel.
The skin around Janet’s eyes tightens just enough to tell Jack that she’s a little uncomfortable with it as well, even if her crisp tone speaks to the professional necessity of it. “It’s essential that physical recovery start right away, letting her body find a new sense of balance, keeping her muscles limber, and trying to keep her skin from developing hypersensitivity at the amputation site.”
He tries not to wince at the word ‘amputation’, but doesn’t quite pull it off. He looks at Carter and thinks not for the first time that he would gladly change places with her, but that’s not all some sense of responsibility as her commander speaking, so he keeps it to himself.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, he takes a steadying breath and saunters into the room, playing the fool he is. It’s safe.
“Hey, Carter. What’s up?”
* * *
After a few days, they move Sam into a quarantine room to give her more privacy, and she’s grateful. SG teams have been regularly cycling through the infirmary for standard pre and post mission checkups and it’s not so much that they are loud or intrusive as much as they are a sick reminder that her life has been completed shattered, but everything is carrying on as if nothing happened.
It’s horrible to realize you are not as essential as you might have believed.
Her life post-accident has sunk into a series of mundane routines. Meals, rehab, wound check, blood work, visits of varying levels of awkwardness. People speaking about anything other than the giant elephant in the room.
Janet brings Cassie by one day, and Sam has to bite back the urge to yell for the girl to be taken away, not wanting her to see her like this. But then Cassie’s hand is touching her hair, a gesture that lacks all pretense of judgment or pity. Not caring of the aches and pains, she pulls Cassie into her chest and breathes in her little girl smell and tries really hard to believe her when Cassie whispers in her ear that she’s going to be okay.
Somehow it’s easier to believe when it’s Cassie saying it. It always has been.
The nights are the worst, because even if the SGC never really sleeps, the nurses still turn the lights down, and her routines, once so cloying, abandon her. She’s left to sleep in fits and bursts, letting the painkillers drag her down and spit her out. Sometimes she tries to pretend she’s in a prison cell off world somewhere, and sometimes that makes it easier to bear. Then she remembers there is no rescue coming, no escape from the reality. These are the times that make it hard to breathe.
A clink of light from the hallway invades her space, but she ignores it, assuming a nurse has come to check her vitals.
She looks over to see the Colonel in the doorway, hands shoved in his pockets and a smirk on his lips that automatically makes her wonder what he’s just gotten away with. Then she remembers that it’s the middle of the night and he shouldn’t be here at all.
She blinks against the light, and he takes a few steps into the room, letting the door shut behind him.
“What time is it?” she asks.
“Really late,” he says.
She supposes she should ask what he’s doing here so late himself, or how he’d known she would be awake, but those aren’t really the sort of questions she’s used to asking.
“Mostly I’m just hiding from Daniel,” he says, his voice full of long-suffering. “This seemed a good enough place as any.”
She knows this is a lie, or an exaggeration at the very least, and that this must be the midnight showing of the Jack O’Neill show, meant to keep her distracted. This has been his way of dealing with it, and she can’t blame him for that. Maybe she’s even grateful for it, because she thinks any genuineness on his part may be enough for her to lose it completely. If he’s still joking around, it can’t be all that bad, right?
“Did you booby trap his office again?” she asks, knowing her part.
He crosses over closer to her bed, hand pressing to his chest in mock umbrage. “I would never.”
She knows she’s supposed to laugh, knows it, but the best she can muster is a smile she suspects looks a lot more like a grimace.
The smile slips off his face, leaving behind a hard sort of seriousness like he’s finally letting himself strip away the happy go lucky exterior for a moment. “How are you handling…all of this?”
Sam feels her entire body stiffen, a throb building behind her forehead. The last thing she needs is the Colonel going perceptive on her. She can’t handle--.
“I’m fine,” she says.
“Carter,” the Colonel counters, leaning against the edge of her bed, hand heavy on the blankets, fingers brushing near her forearm.
She stares hard at that point of near contact, at once not wanting him to touch her and yet wanting something warm and human to hold on to so much that it nearly aches.
“Let’s not mess around this time, okay?” he says, voice incredibly soft. “You don’t have to pretend this is easy or no big deal.”
She closes her eyes, biting down hard on her tongue.
“I’d like you to talk to someone,” he says.
She wants to ask what he’s still doing here. She’s lost more than a foot. This she knows without anyone saying ‘medical discharge’.
She’s just waiting for them to leave her behind.
“Please,” he says.
It isn’t an order.
She wishes it were.
* * *
Hammond sends SG-1 off world. In some ways it seems way too soon, in others, like it’s been a million years since Jack last stepped through the gate.
It’s a simple revisit, a check in with old allies on a planet already thoroughly established as friendly. On the surface it may seem like a nice way to ease SG-1 back in, but Jack understands it as the punishment it is. Hammond clearly does not appreciate Jack’s stubborn insistence that he’s not replacing Carter. Well, not refuse so much as go strangely deaf every time Hammond tries to broach the subject.
The small, fair part of Jack has to admit that Hammond is being way more patient than he deserves.
Still, it should feel good to be off world again, to be doing something other than haunting the SGC and playing the endless mind games of ‘what if’ and ‘if I had to do it all over again’.
Only it doesn’t. Because being off world without Carter just feels wrong.
He knows Teal’c feels it too. He’s been strangely pensive, restless, since the accident, like he takes it as a personal insult. He’s mourning, and Jack tries not to let that piss him off. Carter is still alive, just not here.
He tries to remember that too.
Next to him, Daniel glances back over his shoulder, catching himself midway through the gesture. He gives Jack a sheepish grimace of a smile. “I keep expecting her to be there,” he admits.
“Yeah,” Jack says, turning back to the path in front of him, focusing his mind back on the mission at hand. “I know what you mean.”
It’s all wrong.
* * *
Someone knocks on the doorframe of Sam’s room. “Is this a good time?”
She looks up to see a vaguely familiar figure. “Captain Miller,” she says, placing him as the former member of SG-4.
He smiles, taking a few steps into the room. “Not for a while now,” he says, holding out his left hand for her to shake. “It’s Tim.”
She takes his left hand awkwardly in hers, her eyes automatically falling to the empty sleeve on his right side.
He holds her hand, polite, firm pressure on her fingers until her eyes manage to travel back to his face. “Mind if I call you Sam?” he asks.
She nods, dropping his hand. “Sure.”
She remembers him from the first year of the program. Like so many of them back then, he’d been bright and eager and so sure of his own indestructibility. Then he’d touched the wrong plant on the wrong world and nearly lost his life to a creeping sort of alien necrotizing fasciitis. In the end, an amputation of the infected arm above his elbow is what saved his life. But also ended his career.
It had reminded them all, for a while, just how vulnerable they are. Just how little they really know about the galaxy, and how much they risk each time they step through the gate.
She wonders if she will be a cautionary tale now, whispered about in the halls and locker rooms.
“Colonel O’Neill asked you to come talk to me,” she guesses, trying to feel anger about that, but frankly, she’s just too tired.
Tim grabs a chair, pulling it closer to her bed. “He thought it might help.”
“Because you lost your arm, and that makes us automatic buddies?” she snaps, wanting to flinch the moment the words are out. Maybe she does have enough energy for anger after all.
Tim doesn’t look offended. “Sure,” he says. “But probably mostly because this is my job.”
He hands her a card. “I’m a counselor with the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
“Ah,” she says, glancing down at the card, realizing he must have gone back to school after his medical discharge.
“It helps that I already know about the SGC.”
She can imagine. “Did they send you to break the news to me?”
He doesn’t play dumb, which she appreciates. “You don’t really need me to tell you, do you?”
“Honorable discharge,” she says, words bitter in her throat. It doesn’t feel honorable. It feels like she did something wrong. Like she failed.
Tim leans closer to her. “Maybe I’m just here to remind you that you were injured in the course of duty. In the defense of your country and your planet. That this is the very definition of honorable.”
“I took a wrong step,” she corrects. “A freak accident. It didn’t mean anything.”
“That’s not the way people will remember it.”
She drags her hands across her face. “The Air Force is my life.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I had to learn to be something else.”
She eyes his clothing, the way the casual civvies still don’t seem to sit quite right on him.
He gives her a wry smile. “I didn’t say it didn’t suck. At first.”
“And now? It’s all just Kumbayah?”
He shrugs. “Not better, not worse. Just different.”
“You’re trying to tell me you love your new job, your new life?”
“It’s my life, Sam,” he says with that annoying smile, the one that seems to says he has all the answers, imbued as he is with the calm certainty one gets from looking at a situation from the other side.
She kind of wants to punch him in the face.
He leans back in his chair, either unaware or uncaring of his precipitous situation. Or maybe he would think Sam lashing out is a positive sign of healing. She wonders what he would think if she gave in to the impulse to start screaming like a bloody lunatic.
She bites down on her tongue.
“Luckily for all of us,” he says, “you’ve still got that brain of yours.”
“Right,” she says.
Just stupid enough to save an entire planet, she thinks.
* * *
The Saturday before Carter gets released from the infirmary, Jack calls in reinforcements and sees to getting her house ready. In the end he actually has to turn away a few teams, the entirety of on world teams eager to do their part. Too many hands would not only defeat the purpose, but he also doesn’t want to invade Carter’s privacy any more than he has to.
Luckily it’s a small one story and doesn’t require too much modification, just a ramp at the front door, a few handles here and there throughout. SG-1 has sat through many a class to get a clear picture of just what she’ll need.
Teal’c is surprisingly handy with a hammer, even if he’s clearly uncomfortable with the entire concept of accessibility. Jack doesn’t ask if Teal’c somehow thinks Carter will be better off being looked after and coddled for all time. If he really thinks that what she needs.
She will get out of that wheelchair someday. Her progress has just been slowed by her other injuries. This isn’t forever.
He reminds himself of this again when the van service arrives and Carter gets her first glimpse of the modifications. She looks torn between yelling and crying, but of course does neither (just once, he sort of wishes she would).
Instead she swallows hard, giving them a brittle smile that threatens to crack her face into pieces. “Thanks, guys,” she says, and absolutely refuses any help.
She makes it up the ramp all on her own.
* * *
It starts as a careless glance in the gym on level 18. Sam looks up at the weird tingle between her shoulder blades like a sixth sense telling her she’s being talked about by someone somewhere. Two officers by the doorway quickly look away as her head lifts, but that’s normal these days.
Did you hear about Major Carter?
“Sam,” her therapist says, pulling her attention back.
She forces her mind back on the exercises, because missing limb or not, she’s never been about doing things halfway. She finishes the rest of her reps without incident, collecting her things with a promise to be back the next day.
By the time she’s done with showering and changing and is back in her wheelchair, her muscles are twinging, exhaustion tugging at her bones. It’s a good feeling most days, this ache of accomplishment, even if other days she just wants to throw something at the wall because what is there really to be proud of here when her biggest goal may be to actually walk again someday?
She blows out a breath and tells herself she’s being ridiculous again. Give yourself a break, Tim loves to tell her when he drops by to visit. She doesn’t find him quite as obnoxious these days, though she still imagines punching him from time to time. But the advice is sound all the same.
Once Sam’s out in the hall, the tingle of awareness returns as a whisper. By the time she hits the elevator banks, one of the members of SG-6 crosses her path, giving her a quick, guilty double take and not one of the sly ones she’s getting used to. It’s enough to tell her she isn’t just being paranoid.
Something is happening.
Rather than heading up for the waiting van service and a well-deserved cool down from her grueling therapy session that usually has her reaching for a carton of ice cream and a two-hour afternoon nap, she hits the button for level 28.
The doors open on people running up and down the hall. “SG-1,” she overhears someone say. “Fubar gate malfunction.”
Sam grabs her wheels and heads down towards the control room, people tripping and jumping out of her way as she gains momentum. She comes to an abrupt halt at the far end, because there are only stairs leading up the final distance, something that only seems like a glaring oversight now as she sits in a wheelchair at the base of the steps. She has crutches she has been getting better and better with, but they aren’t here with her.
She can just make out garbled voices over a radio feed as a confused looking tech ducks past her into the hallway. Her indecision evaporates.
“Airman,” she calls out.
A guard loitering near the entrance turns towards her, an almost comical pause passing as he stares at the empty air above her head before tracking down.
Sam doesn’t have time for a sense of mortification or ego. “Give me a hand.”
He glances from her wheelchair to the stairs. “Ma’am?”
She locks her wheels in place and hefts her weight up onto her foot, ignoring the trembling of exhausted muscles. She waves him closer impatiently, throwing one arm over his shoulders when he’s in range. “You’re getting me up those steps. Now.”
She doesn’t have rank anymore, can’t really boss him about like this, but he still doesn’t hesitate.
It isn’t pretty, but she gets there, pointing to an empty chair next to Walter. In for a penny, in for a pound, she thinks, not allowing herself the time or distraction of gauging people’s reactions to her sudden unauthorized appearance.
Sliding into the seat, she waves the Airman away with a distracted thanks, her eyes already tracking the information on display. Sam can feel Walter looking to Hammond, but she just keeps her head down, fingers moving over the keyboard. Better to ask forgiveness than permission.
“Fill me in,” she says when Walter finally looks at her.
She doesn’t see Hammond nod, but he must have because after a beat, Walter starts explaining the problem.
Sam lets out a breath.
* * *
Someone runs down and retrieves her arm crutches from the gym at some point so she doesn’t have to hop around or push her chair from monitor to monitor (which she clearly showed she was willing to do). She’s able to stand then, when SG-1 finally steps through the gate and are safely back on Earth.
She’s been talking to them over the radio for nearly two hours now, so they all know exactly where to look the moment they are through. They’re a little beat up and haggard, but safe, and all three of them trudge straight up to the control room to see her.
“Still saving our sorry asses from light years away, I see,” the Colonel announces, hopping up the last of the steps.
“Luckily for us,” Daniel says, looking around as if finally realizing she shouldn’t even really be here.
“She’s like a junky,” the Colonel jokes.
Sam smiles, her body wavering slightly, and the Colonel doesn’t miss it.
“Not that I’m not extremely grateful, but you need to go home, Carter. You’re still officially on leave.” His eyes dart to her fingers and she doesn’t bother to pretend they aren’t shaking. The adrenaline is fading, and on top of a rigorous physical therapy session… She just isn’t up to this.
“Sam,” Daniel says, congenially wrapping an arm around her waist and quietly managing to lend support at the same time. “You do remember that he can’t boss you around anymore, right?”
She expects the twinge of pain, the panic, but with them safe and sound around her, her mind still settling after what feels like a marathon, she only finds a strange sort of giddiness.
“Oh,” the Colonel counters. “I’ll always be the boss of Carter.”
She slides him a look, the exhaustion getting the better of her. “You wish.”
They grin at her, those sweaty, familiar, beloved faces. More than anything, she wants to hold on to them. But she’s beginning to realize there is way more on the line here than her ego. This whole episode might have been avoided had someone with more technical knowledge of the gate been on the team.
“Pretty sure we owe you dinner for this, Sam,” Daniel says with a smile.
She drops her head to his shoulder. “I’ll hold you to that,” she says.
As they trudge out for the locker room, Daniel thanks her again, Teal’c pausing to touch her arm, his head bowing.
She stops the Colonel as he passes. “You need to replace me, sir.”
He opens his mouth as if to protest, to feed her some line about being irreplaceable. As much as she’d like to believe that, it just isn’t true.
“Sir,” she insists. She isn’t coming back. It’s time they both faced that.
He sighs, dragging a hand through his hair. “Yeah. I know.”
“Okay,” she says, gathering her energy to make it to the surface and home. She can’t quite remember ever being quite so exhausted.
The Colonel walks with her to the elevator, turning back to glance at her one last time before the doors close.
“Help me whittle out the idiots?” he asks, voice almost tentative, and she doesn’t know if that’s because he’s not sure it’s fair to ask her to pick her own replacement or if it’s just the way he’s phrasing it, as an honest request.
Her choice. She’ll need to get used to that.
“Yeah,” she agrees. “Of course.”
She has to know they’ll be taken care of.
* * *
Daniel and the Colonel have fallen into the habit of helping her with her rehab, cycling in and out as their duties allow. She tried to tell them once that they didn’t have to do that, but Daniel had just looked at her like she was out of her mind and said, “Sam. We miss you.” That shut her up, because she misses them too.
Teal’c has occasionally come with one of them, but never on his own. He still makes time for her as often as he can, he just chooses different venues for the most part. She hasn’t put a lot of energy into wondering why, but she has her suspicions nonetheless.
So it’s a bit unusual that Teal’c is the one who shows up in the gym as she’s unpacking her newly arrived prosthesis, Daniel apparently having been detained elsewhere.
He looks intrigued and mystified as she explains what it is, and Sam knows that for all the wonders of Goa’uld technology, prosthesis engineering is probably something they never even turned their minds too. Why bother? If a body is permanently damaged, all a Goa’uld needed to do was trade in for a new model.
“If I were a Jaffa…”
“You are not,” Teal’c says, voice blunt and unwavering as if she is a young apprentice he is daring to disagree with him. His eyes are hard as he stares down at her, almost angry. “And for this I am grateful.”
Because if she had been a Jaffa, there would be no future. Would they have left her to bleed out on the battlefield, or maybe just wait for her symbiote to age and not supply her with a new one? Or would she be expected to commit ritual suicide to save her honor?
“And if it was you?” she asks.
His jaw tightens and he can’t hide it, his distaste for the very idea of living this way.
She looks away, feeling her stomach drop. “That’s a bit hypocritical, don’t you think?”
“No,” Teal’c says without hesitation, not seeming bothered by the contradiction. “Because I know your worth, Samantha Carter.”
She swallows. “My brain,” she says, surprised by the bitterness in her tone. That had always been enough, before.
He regards her steadily, all of the conflict and anger and confusion finally smoothing from his face.
“No,” he says. Stretching a hand out, he presses his palm flat against her sternum. “Your worth is your heart.”
Not a brain or a body, but a person.
She takes a careful breath. “You underestimate your own worth, Teal’c.”
“Perhaps,” he says. “And because you are still here with us, one day you may be able to convince me of it.”
She grabs his hand, working against the tightness in her throat. “Count on it, Teal’c.”
The corner of his mouth lifts, warmth filling his eyes. “Now,” he says. “Show me this device. I am curious to see how it works.”
She pulls out the prosthesis.
He becomes her most dedicated therapy partner.
* * *
“Have you seen Sam lately?” Daniel asks.
Jack looks up from his meatloaf. “Define ‘lately’.”
Between their off world schedule (He had finally caved and picked a fourth member that Carter swears isn’t a total idiot. The truth of this statement remains to be proven.) and Carter’s curtailing therapy sessions as she gets more and more proficient with her prosthesis, she hasn’t been on base much. And they never really did off base. So, no, he hasn’t seen much of her lately.
“You know she’s been offered a position at Area 51, right?” Daniel asks.
Jack feels something go cold in his chest. He reminds himself that he knew this was coming. No big surprise.
“I just assumed she would stay here,” Daniel says, looking no more happy about the job offer than Jack is. It doesn’t make him feel any better.
Jack takes a careful swallow of his drink. “There’s better advancement opportunities as a scientist at Area 51. You should know that, Daniel.” Good, yes. He managed to sound almost nonchalant.
Daniel eyes him like he isn’t fooled. “She hasn’t decided to take it yet.”
“She hasn’t?” He hates himself just a little bit for the flair of hope he feels. God, he’s such a bastard. She deserves this, deserves to be courted and fawned over by every branch of the program, every organization out there with half a brain. She deserves to have nothing but choices and opportunities.
Daniel shakes his head, driving his fork into his pasta. “She can’t decide. She’s driving herself nuts with it.”
Jack makes a non-committal sound because it seems safest.
“I thought maybe you could talk to her.”
“Me?” he asks. He’s probably the last person she’d want to talk to about this.
Daniel eyes him calmly, like trying to explain a basic, obvious concept to a three-year-old. “You were her commanding officer. She’s always looked up to you.”
Jack winces, shoving his plate away. He’s lost his appetite for mystery meat. “So?”
Daniel’s warmed up to his topic now though, and refuses to be derailed. “She needs a friend and some advice, preferably from someone who might actually have an inkling of what she’s dealing with, what she’s given up. For now, that’s you whether you like it or not.”
Jack sighs, knowing Daniel is never going to let go of this. “You’re a real pain in the ass, you know that?”
Daniel just smiles and digs back into his pasta.
* * *
Sam had always known this day would come. The day the last piece of paper is signed, the last bit of rehab completed. Time to decide her future without the Air Force, to decide where and what she wants the rest of her life to be about. Something completely different? Something as close to what she’d had as possible? Is one fleeing and the other holding on to things she can’t have?
In many ways the offer from Area 51 is the middle ground, the perfect compromise of sticking with the program and her strengths, but not holding on to the past.
She can’t explain then, why she hasn’t signed the offer, immediately accepted, instead spending an afternoon sitting in Hammond’s office carefully listening to the ways he would like to integrate her into the SGC as a civilian.
Back at her house, she’s even less certain now what she wants to do, just knows the decision has to be made. She considers, for one stupid moment, just flipping a coin, but beyond being completely ridiculous, it feels far too much like cowardice.
Simple quantification has always been enough before.
It’s almost seven when someone knocks on her door. She’s grateful for the distraction.
She honestly expects to find Daniel on her doorstep, but instead it’s the Colonel. She hasn’t seen him in a while, and she’s a bit thrown by the flush of warmth and calm she feels at seeing him there. He hasn’t been avoiding her, not by any stretch, more like…keeping his distance.
“Daniel tells me you have a bit of a conundrum,” he says by way of greeting.
Sam sighs, pulling open the door and waving him in. “Just trying to decide the rest of my life,” she says, and somehow it doesn’t sound quite so pathetically melodramatic with him nodding solemnly back at her, even with the irreverent glint of the devil in his eye.
“Do you have a pro-con list?” he asks as he follows her back into the kitchen.
She whips one out, but the way his eyebrow cocks just so tells her that he had, in all probability, been kidding. Her face flushes and she starts pulling it away, but he gets there first, recovering in that enviable way he has. Nothing stumps Jack O’Neill.
He skims the lists and she feels her embarrassment even more acutely.
His fingers crinkle the paper as he flattens it against the countertop, picking up a pen and tapping it down the list. “These are all pretty…”
“Pretty what?” she asks, unable to keep the defensive edge out of her voice.
He seems to be choosing his words very carefully. “Practical,” he eventually decides on.
She frowns, glancing at the list. Most of it does consist of things like promotion opportunities and research access and cost of living. But what’s wrong with practical?
He seems to realize she doesn’t understand his point. “Just…without thinking about it too much, tell me the top reasons you want to go to Nevada.”
“The research,” she automatically says. “I get unlimited time and bigger budgets and I know I might be able to find a lot of overlooked things that can help out immensely in the field, make Earth safer.” Make SG-1 safer.
Jack nods. “And why do you want to stay?”
She pauses this time. Just her brain switching gears, she tells herself, and nothing to do with the murkiness of her feelings. She licks her lips. “The Stargate. Getting the first look at the technology being brought back through. Being there to help if I can.”
He looks distinctly disappointed with her litany and for some reason that really hurts to see, so she looks out the window instead, her eyes following the soft motion of white against the pane.
“The snow,” she says.
Jack huffs, clearly caught off guard by the first of what even he would surely call a ‘non-practical’ reason. “The snow?” he asks, the smile in his voice so clear.
She shrugs, trying not to think too hard on the way the snow makes her think of the places her family lived before her mother’s accident. The way things had been. The way it now makes her think of the life she’s managed to put together here. The things she has come to love. But also the things she will never do again.
“It’s grown on me,” she says.
“I see,” he says, like maybe he can. More than she’d like.
She forces her eyes back to him, knowing now what really needs to be said. “I want to stay because of Cassie. Janet. My father. My house. The great parts shop I found down on Freemont. The burgers at Manny’s,” she pauses, catching her breath, feeling something building in her chest. “You guys.”
He looks back at her, his eyes drawing her in and holding her there like she couldn’t look away even if she wanted to. “Those sound like good reasons to me.”
She shakes her head. She needs to hold on to whatever facets of her career she has left no matter the cost. Doesn’t she?
He steps around the counter to stand next to her. “Stop trying to think of what you’re supposed to do, Carter, and decide what will make you happy. It’s been a long time since you had anything to prove.”
Sometimes it feels like she has even more to prove now.
“Stop it,” he says, like he can read her mind. “It isn’t a crime to want to be happy.”
She raises an eyebrow, surprised to hear that coming from him of all people.
He shifts his weight. “Just think about it,” he says, holding the list back out to her.
She takes it, her fingers brushing his. “Okay.”
He nods, smiling. “I’ll get out of your hair then. Let you get back to making big decisions.”
For a moment she feels the urge to ask him to stay, but he’s right. She does have a big decision to make, one she needs to stop avoiding once and for all.
She walks him out to the hall, handing him his parka. He shrugs it on and pulls the door open, the cold night air pushing into the house.
In the doorway, he pauses, looking back at her. “There’s just one thing we need you to understand, Carter.”
“Yeah?” she asks, hand tight around the handle, feeling the press of cold air against her skin.
His eyes travel over her face, with enough care and seriousness to make her chest feel tight. “You’ll always be part of SG-1. No matter what you decide or where you go. Always.” He smiles then, head cocking to one side and hands shoved in his pockets like a little boy, the uncharacteristically intense sincerity evaporating. “It’s sort of a permanent gig whether you like it or not.”
She bites the inside of her lip, tears pressing at the back of her eyes. “Okay,” she says.
He smiles, thumping his fist on the doorjamb. “I’ll see you later.”
It’s only after he’s gone that she realizes he’s added something to her ‘Stay in Colorado’ list.
* * *
Jack wanders down a familiar hall, following a path he has practically worn into the floor over the last three years. He already knows what he will find when he reaches his destination, having received a call from Carter late one night last week, her voice a bit breathless as she told him what she’d decided.
He still just needs to see for himself, feels the compulsive need to walk this path one more time before he heads for the locker room and off world.
In the doorway to the lab, he pauses, taking in the scene before him.
Carter is behind her desk, white lab coat in the place of BDUs, and blinking doohickeys surrounding her on all sides. He breathes out.
She looks up as he enters, giving him a smile.
“Dr. Carter, I presume,” he says.
She grimaces, wrinkling her nose like she’s not sure that’s a title she’ll ever get completely used to. “How about just Sam?”
He nods. “Sure. I think I can do that.”
She smiles. “You’re off on a mission?”
He rolls his eyes and crosses over to her desk, picking up something that looks like a fancy rubik’s cube. When she doesn’t automatically reach over to take it from him, he realizes it probably is a rubik’s cube.
“How’s Harper?” Carter—Sam—asks. (He’ll have to work on that one.)
Jack shrugs. The guy’s actually pretty good, but he’s sure as hell no Carter. “He’s okay.”
Carter arches an eyebrow at him, seeming to tell him to stop coddling her. She wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t really want to know.
Jack sighs, plopping the cube back on her desk. “I think he’s finally realizing that Teal’c is mostly messing with him. Oh, and he’s learned not to ask Daniel open-ended questions, so maybe there is some hope for him after all.”
“Good,” Sam says.
Jack glances at his watch. “Well, guess I should be shoving on.”
She nods. “Good luck.”
“We’ll bring you something back.”
She considers that. “Nothing says, ‘Wish you were here,’ quite like a fusion reactor.”
He grins. “I’ll see what we can do.”
She smiles back at him, and somehow, it almost feels like before.
“Yeah,” he says, looking around the lab, feeling the relief and calmness that comes with knowing she will be here. “This feels right.”
She looks pensive a moment, and he begins to feel like an ass for making the thoughtless statement. Right would be her back on SG-1, running around with a P-90 and the devil in her eyes.
“Sam,” he says, thinking to apologize.
She looks up. “It does.”
She smiles, and there’s still something a little sad hiding in there, but accepting. “Not better, not worse. Just different.”
He’s not sure what that means, but nods nonetheless. “I’m glad you decided to stay.”
“So am I.”
She lowers her head back to her work, and he turns to leave.
“But I’m pretty sure this means you owe me some Jell-o,” she says.
He turns back in surprise, but she doesn’t look up, already seemingly lost in her work again.
He smiles, jamming his hands in his pockets as he steps out into the hall. He feels the strange urge to whistle as he goes.
* * *
It takes a while, but Sam slowly gets used to staying behind while SG-1 goes off world. She never quite completely relaxes while they are gone, but she doesn’t know if maybe that’s just the way it’s going to be, something she’s going to have to learn to live with. It had definitely been one of the things on her unofficial pro-con list, the one she carried around in her head. But as hard as it is, she still can’t believe that being a few states away would make it any easier.
She develops the habit of lingering on base when they are late back through. She doesn’t always know where they are, or what they’re doing, but she knows their scheduled return times. Some nights it’s only when they are safely back on base that she can unfold herself from behind her desk and quietly take her leave. She doesn’t think they need to know that she worries. Then again, they probably already know.
A lot of times one of them will seek her out eventually, Daniel to share interesting details or Jack to complain good-naturedly. It’s Teal’c she’s learned to trust as the storyteller, usually rather gleefully including the details Jack or Daniel would probably prefer he didn’t. But today they arrive back late enough in the afternoon from an especially long mission that she doesn’t hang around, knowing they will probably all be gladly disappearing off base as quickly as possible. Extended missions have a way of doing that, scattering a team to the four winds.
So she’s a little surprised that evening when she gets a phone call. “Hello?” she answers, tucking the phone under her chin as she continues chopping carrots.
“Jack,” she says, putting down her knife. He’s been off world for nearly two weeks, but she’s a little surprised just how nice it is to hear his voice. “How are you?”
She expects a joke about how heartily tired he is of Daniel’s face, of Teal’c’s ‘meditational’ snoring, but all she gets is, “Good, fine,” which is clearly not only out of character, but also a blatant lie. He sounds exhausted, like he’d like nothing more than to sleep for a year, which is why she’s doubly surprised when he says, “I was wondering… Have you eaten yet?”
She glances at the half-assembled meal on her counter. Picking up the unopened package of chicken, she tosses it back in the fridge. “Nope. You?”
“I swung by that Thai place, but this is just way too much food for one person.”
“Bahn’s?” she asks.
“I love that place,” she says.
There’s a pause on his end for a moment, and it occurs to her just how out of the way that restaurant is.
Jack clears his throat. “I thought maybe I could stop by and share it?”
This is not something they have ever done before, but there’s something off enough in his voice that she doesn’t bother questioning it. “Sure,” she says. “That sounds good.”
She’s pretty sure she hears him breathe out on the other end. “Okay. I’ll be by in fifteen?”
“I’ll be here.”
It’s actually closer to twenty by the time he shows up (she suspects traffic, which will no doubt do wonders for his mood), but it gives her time to hide the remains of her dinner-in-progress and pick up a few things around the house. When he finally shows up, he has that look on his face like he’s beginning to question the validity of even bothering to save humanity in the first place. And that’s without taking into account the obvious signs that’s he’s been in a firefight.
She greets him with a smile and takes his coat. He shuffles around a bit in the entryway, like he’s beginning to rethink. “I really shouldn’t have barged in on you like this,” he says.
“Jack,” she says, touching his arm. “It’s fine.” She looks him over. He still looks so uncharacteristically forlorn that she can’t help herself, knowing only one way to clear a Jack O’Neill black cloud. “In fact, I’m really glad you’re here.”
“You are?” he asks, looking half torn between pleased that she’s happy to see him, and the suspicion that he’s being set up.
“Yeah,” she says, nodding with faux seriousness. “You’re saving me from the horrors of sitcom TV.”
There’s a brief pause where he stares back at her like he can’t believe she said that, before he shakes his head, his lips twisting as he realizes she’s teasing him. “You sure know how to wound a guy, Carter.”
She shoots him an innocent smirk. “Come on, I’m starving.”
“Lead on,” he says, following her back into the kitchen.
She pulls a beer out of the fridge and hands it to him, her eyes lingering on his face. “Do you need some ice?”
“What?” he asks like he’s somehow forgotten about the rather impressive black eye he’s toting around.
She reaches for his face, thumb touching just below the bruising around his eye. “This looks painful.”
“Nah,” he says, but she can see the lines of pain and fatigue carved into his skin, know without being told that this last mission was tough.
She drops her hand and gives him a warm smile. “Teal’c finally lose his patience with your Jedi Jaffa jokes?”
Jack doesn’t miss a beat. “I’m telling you, the guy has no sense of humor.”
She laughs, watching the way his face smoothes out, something seeming to slip off his shoulders. She plucks the bag from his hand, pulling cartons out. “So what’d you bring me?”
They sit across from each other at her kitchen counter and work their way through what is actually more food than four people could probably eat.
It was a particularly annoying mission, but she doesn’t ask, and he doesn’t offer any details. They just chat casually about other things, and she’s a little surprised just how much there is left to talk about when they take the SGC out of it.
He sighs at one point, leaning back in his chair, looking nearly blissful with his hands on his stomach. “I guess I really needed that,” he says.
“Green curry?” she asks, glancing at the decimated carton.
He shakes his head. “No. A friendly face.”
She’s surprised, but strangely gratified to know that when he needed a friend, he came to her. “A friendly face that wasn’t Daniel or Teal’c?” she jokes.
“Yes,” he nods. “Exactly.”
She clears his plate, putting it in the dishwasher. “I hope you didn’t shove Daniel off a cliff.”
He raises a hand, flashing a strange display of fingers that she’s pretty sure is actually a surfer thing, or possibly a gang sign. “Scout’s honor.”
She laughs. “You were never a scout, were you?”
“Nah,” he admits. “I was too busy cracking skulls in hockey for all that campfire stuff.”
She smiles, shaking her head. “Coffee?”
“Sure,” he says.
He doesn’t linger long though, leaving at eight on the dot like it was a prearranged decision.
At the door on his way out, he pauses. “Thanks, Sam,” he says with the sort of gratitude he usually reserves for when she saves his life.
She nods. “Anytime.”
She holds his gaze to let him know she means it.
* * *
O’Malley’s is crammed full of SGC personnel. Most of SG-1 through 7 are here, minus 4 who are currently in quarantine on base after a break out of alien chicken pox. Sam glances around the chaotic scene from her spot crammed into a booth in the corner and wonders if they have managed to drive off all the other normal Saturday night crowds.
They aren’t celebrating anything in particular, no great victory. If anything, it’s just a spontaneous celebration of the fact that Earth is still ticking, still defying the odds. Maybe letting off a little steam that is much safer released here than in the field or the close quarters of the SGC. Members of the SGC don’t socialize all that much, but a few times a year something like this impulsively comes to life, word of mouth passing and building until they are all gathered here doing their best not to think of alien threats or close calls, rather tossing back drinks, playing pool, and getting lost in the crowd.
Sam isn’t sure how she got herself dragged into this other than the fact that it’s nice to see everyone relaxing for once. That and Jack had asked her to show up and ‘keep them all honest’, whatever that means. (“You know,” he’d said, elbow tapping her in the ribs like a conspirator, “mostly holding Daniel’s hair back as he pukes and keeping Teal’c from starting a brawl.” She suspects he was mostly kidding.)
So far, Daniel has been holding his drink fine, despite the ribbing (and enabling) of SG-3, and Teal’c has been mostly content to talk with Janet by the bar. If there’s going to be trouble tonight, Sam secretly suspects it’s going to come from the man squeezed in next to her in the small booth.
As if on cue, Jack nudges her in the ribs. “Carter,” he says, his voice taking on the sharpness of an order. “Go challenge Harper to a game of pool.”
Sam isn’t so slow not to realize this is probably part of some insane hazing ritual Jack has planned for the newest member of SG-1. “Why?” she asks.
He blinks back at her a moment like he can’t believe she’s questioning him. “I need to know he doesn’t underestimate his opponents.”
Her brow furrows. “Because I’m a woman?” She shifts, moving her leg, the other alternative even worse.
Jack’s eyes catch hers, something flinty flashing in their depths. Just enough to hint that he knows exactly what she’s thinking. “No,” he says patiently, his grin slipping into goofball territory. “Because you’re hot.”
Across the table, Daniel snorts into his beer, Reynolds’ eyes widening as if he’s unexpectedly lucked out with the best seats of the night—front row to an unprecedented and juicy event.
Sam rolls her eyes. “Don’t be an ass, Jack.”
Every head within earshot swivels in her direction. Or so it seems to Sam.
Daniel recovers first, his eyes sparkling with barely suppressed humor. “I thought that was my line.”
Sam is sitting very still, trying not to look like she is completely mortified to have said that out loud.
Reynolds clears his throat, gesturing at Daniel. “I think it’s time for the next round.”
Daniel hesitates, severely lacking the basic sense of decorum that Reynolds has, but eventually obediently slips out of the booth and over towards Teal’c. Once they are gone, Sam can’t really avoid it anymore, looking at Jack, because they are the only two left sitting.
She’s getting ready to apologize when Jack’s lips quirk. “You know,” he says, pausing to take a long draw on his beer. (She doesn’t watch his neck as he does this. It would be undignified.) “I think I like that you no longer feel the need to bite your tongue around me.”
“Yeah?” she asks, refusing to let her face flush.
His grin widens. “Yeah.”
She’s not sure if it’s just her, but it feels like it’s getting really warm in here.
“Move,” she says, shoving his arm.
“What?” he asks, beginning to look confused as he obediently gets up off the bench.
She slides out of the booth, getting to her feet. “I thought you needed me to kick Harper’s ass at pool?”
“Well,” he says with a smile, “no need to completely obliterate the guy. I still need him functional in the field. Just properly humbled.”
She hasn’t tried to play pool since the accident, but doesn’t slow down to think about it. It will either be different or the same, but either way, she’ll survive it. It may just take some adjustment time. Pool, after all, is mostly about a cool head and just enough swagger. And everybody knows swagger is all in the hips.
She doesn’t stop to check, but she’s pretty sure Jack watches her as she walks away.
* * *
By midnight, the place is beginning to slip into two camps, the maudlin and the rowdy. Jack doesn’t find either particularly appealing, and isn’t surprised when Sam tries to make a quiet exit. He catches her by the door, slipping her coat on.
“You okay to drive?” he asks, even though he knows how careful she is, how perfectly spaced out her meager two beers were.
He’s been slightly less careful himself, though he’s by no means drunk. At most slightly giddier than he would usually allow.
“I’m fine,” she says.
He nods, grabbing his own coat. “I’ll walk you out,” he says, hand near her elbow.
She gives him an indulgent smile rather than an indignant glare, which tells him his real motives may be a little transparent. “Trying to protect me from brigands?” she asks.
He pushes the door open and is glad to see that the rain has stopped. “I’m way more worried about the ninjas,” he says, his hand automatically lifting to rest against the small of her back.
“I hate ninjas,” she says, laughter warm in her voice, and Jack considers that the beer hasn’t had any affect on him at all, that this buzz is all from being in proximity of Sam relaxed and having a good time.
For all that spring has finally come, it’s a cold night, gusts of wind ripping through the parking lot, the moon playing hide and seek behind clearing cloud cover. He ducks his head lower into his collar and waits for Sam to point out her car.
“Over here,” she says, leading him off to the left. She still has that slick silver classic of a car, having stubbornly invested a nice chunk of her carefully hoarded savings to modify it with a paddle shifter on the steering wheel like some tripped out supercar.
Once at her car, she doesn’t automatically climb inside, instead leaning back against the door of her car, smiling up at him. Apparently she doesn’t mind the cold.
He’s not complaining.
“You did great back there,” he says, remembering how carefully she had lured Harper in, soundly beaten him, and yet managed to leave him with his honor intact in front of the others. It was masterfully done with good humor and an alarming level of skill, but that is no less than what he expects of her.
She bites her lip. “I wasn’t sure…” She trails off, shrugging, and he gets it. He realizes how much it had taken for her to get up there in the glare of everyone’s attention.
“You should have told me to go to hell,” he says, leaning his hip next to her against the car.
She shakes her head. “No. It’s okay. I think I needed the excuse to try.”
He still feels like a dick. “You sure?” he asks.
She nods, reaching out for the flapping end of his scarf and carefully tucking it back under the edge of his jacket. “Believe me, if I wanted to tell you to go to hell, I would.”
Her fingers linger a moment longer than necessary, running along the edge of the cloth, and he doesn’t let himself analyze the urge, just wraps his fingers around hers. He rubs them gently, keeping them warm. “Of that, I have no doubt.”
She smiles, ducking her head, which only manages to bring her even closer to him.
It’s only natural to pull her in for a nice, friendly hug. It’s a chilly night, after all.
“Either way,” he says against her ear, “you were great.”
Her face presses closer into his neck, his arms tightening around her, when someone honks, shouting something garbled, but sounding a lot like good-natured ribbing as they tear out of the parking lot.
Jack’s head lifts with a jerk, but it’s too dark to make out the car. He’ll never be able to know for sure, but has some suspicions as to who has just earned his eternal ire. SG-5’s days are so numbered.
The moment (or whatever that was) now clumsily broken, Sam pulls away, but he thinks he feels her lips brush by his cheek as she goes. Then she’s pulling her door open and getting in her car.
“Goodnight, Jack,” she says before shutting the door.
“’Night, Sam,” he says.
As he watches her drive away, he can still feel the imprint of her lips against his skin.
* * *
Sam prods listlessly at the bizarre and so far impenetrable cube SG-7 brought back in trade from ‘853. She’s beginning to doubt their linguist’s ability, because as far as she can tell this ‘battery’ is nothing more than a disco ball in cubic form.
Then again, she’s not exactly in top form today. She can’t quite put a finger on what’s bothering her lately, just something about the lengthening days and rising temperatures that has her slightly on edge. She’s sure if she bothered to call, Tim would come up with some mumbo jumbo explanation. Though she could never be sure with Tim, sometimes he would just tell her she needs a drink or a chocolate donut. Those are the days the urge to punch him comes back.
She laughs under her breath, shaking her head at herself and focusing back down on the object in front of her. She’s allowed to have a day every now and again. Everyone is.
She’s almost ready to break for lunch when there’s a knock at her door. She looks up to see Jack standing there in civvies. (As usual, far too big for him and in dubious colors. And yet still managing to be more attractive than he deserves to be. One of the great mysteries of the universe she’s long given up on solving.)
“Hey. Heading out on vacation?” she asks, knowing SG-1 has finally been put on some well-deserved downtime.
“Yeah,” he says. “I figure it’s finally warm enough to make a go of it.” He makes a strange little gesture that she supposes is meant to mimic casting a line.
“Minnesota?” she asks, her mind flashing back to time they had a similar conversation about this, and realizes with a jolt that it’s been almost a year. A year. Meaning that it’s also almost been a year since…
“Land of sky blue waters,” Jack says, cutting into her racing thoughts. He’s crossed the room now, leaning up against her desk.
Sam focuses back in on him, forcing a smile on her face. “That sounds nice.”
He stills for a moment before carefully putting down the screwdriver in his hand. “You wouldn’t be interested in coming along, would you?”
They stare at each other, and she doesn’t think she’s imagining that he looks a little apprehensive beneath his forced nonchalance, as if already regretting the offer. Or maybe he’s simply remembering that she’d said no the last time.
“Fishing?” she asks, still scrambling to catch back up.
He smiles now, losing a little of the panic from his expression. “Yes, Carter. With me. You know, two friends enjoying each other’s company in a non-work setting.”
It’s a bit like a temporary time warp, the old reasons rising without even a second’s pause, only then she remembers. The old reasons don’t apply anymore.
Except. Vacation days and not having downtime like SG-1 and not being packed and oh god she can’t wear shorts and is this what she thinks it is or did it never exist and she can’t possibly--
“Yes,” she says.
He tries not to look surprised.
He doesn’t quite pull it off.
* * *
Jack watches Sam breathe in deeply, her face lifted to the deep blue summer sky, and knows without asking that she misses it, going off world.
They’d reached the cabin a few hours earlier after a night in Minneapolis (separate rooms) and most of a day spent in a car. They’d probably both been a little antsy with sitting around at that point, so when Sam had pointed to a small path around the pond, little more than an animal track, he’d been more than happy to show her where it went.
They are maybe halfway around now, offering a nice view back over the pond to the cabin from a small rise. Watching Sam, it occurs to him that this is probably the first time she’s been back out in the woods since that last mission. She’s getting around pretty well with that tripped out bionic leg she’d gotten from a friend at MIT, well enough that sometimes he manages to forget for a moment or two. He’s pretty sure that makes him an ass. She probably wishes she could forget sometimes.
She turns, catching him staring at her in the sunlight.
“You know,” he says, trying to cover with the first thing that comes to mind. “This kind of reminds me of that week on Planet Homer.” This was the name he gave to P3X-234, the planet they camped out on with Teal’c for a week.
He wants to wince though, the second the words are out of his mouth. Planet Homer was been the last time things had been normal. The next mission they would step off world together would take her leg with it. Almost a year to the day.
“Yes,” she says, showing no sign that she’s made the same connection or maybe is just better at hiding it. “But at least here there’s a shower.”
He tries to look affronted. “It was not that bad.”
There was a time she would have demurred, carefully looked away and held her tongue. Today she just holds his gaze and gives him a cheeky grin. “Sorry, but it really was.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“I wasn’t allowed to,” she points out.
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess not.”
Her brow furrows like something has just occurred to her. “There is running water here, right?”
He’s affronted for all of a millisecond before he recognizes the evil glint in her eye. “Respect the cabin, Carter,” he says, wagging a finger at her. “That’s rule number one out here.”
She strides past him, grinning back at him over her shoulder. “I’ll try to remember that.”
It’s early evening by the time they finish the circuit of the pond. Dusk is coming later and later, but payment for the evening hours of light is putting up with the odd mosquito and despite what Jack may argue to Teal’c, they do tend towards the size of small terriers in this region of the country. But in the end it’s really the loud complaint of Sam’s stomach that signals it’s time to head inside.
“Dinner it is,” he says with a grin, shooting her a look.
“Another improvement over P3X-234,” she says, following him up onto the porch. “No MREs.”
“You should have said something,” he says, holding the door open for her. “I would have brought a few a long.”
She pulls a face. “Definitely not one of the things I miss.”
They’d picked up supplies on their way through town, so they are well stocked even if the kitchen is a bit…rudimentary.
Sam lifts a dubious eyebrow as Jack hand lights the stove with a match. “I haven’t seen one of those in a while.”
“Don’t worry,” he jokes. “I spent all the upgrades on the hot water heater, not the kitchen.”
She laughs. “Wise decision.”
He sets her to chopping up vegetables while he handles the stove. It is not a large kitchen, and definitely not designed for two when one of them has no idea where anything is. They spend the next twenty minutes bumping and dancing around each other in the small space, Sam’s laughter filling the space more often than not.
“Hey,” he says. “I need the salt.”
Sam glances at the drawers and cupboards around her. “Where?” she asks, pulling random ones open.
She moves one more over, making a sound of dismay as she pulls it open. For a seasonal place, it’s pretty crammed with the detritus of generations, the cabin having been in his family for ages at this point.
“No, one more over.”
He gives up directing her to the correct cabinet and just reaches over her head to grab it. She tries to step out of his way, but ends up wedged into the corner up against the counter. To say he’s invading her personal space is probably an understatement.
He blames this proximity for the complete derailment of his thoughts. He’s not really sure how long he stands there before she speaks.
“Jack,” she says, her voice a little rough.
Her eyes seem to leave his face with a great deal of effort, flicking over his shoulder. “You’re boiling over.”
“What?” He blinks, his mind finally stuttering back into motion. Dinner. Right. “Crap,” he says, spinning back to reach for the overflowing pot of water.
He glances back at her, but she’s got her back to him now, even though she’s leaning in against the counter like maybe she’s trying to steady herself. Just for a moment though, and then she’s back to chopping vegetables.
He forces his attention back to the stove.
* * *
Sam drops back on the couch with a soft groan of contentment. For two people who spend most of their time with a To Go menu in hand, they managed to pull off a pretty delicious meal, even if it was just pasta. A nice glass of wine hadn’t hurt either. She’d been a little surprised to learn that he knew his way around a wine bottle. Not one of the things she would have pegged for him.
She smiles to herself, wincing just a little as she shifts her weight. It’s been a long day between the drive and the walk, and her leg is beginning to bother her a little bit. At home on her own, she wouldn’t have hesitated to pull off her prosthesis already, but she knows she’s hesitating to do that. Is she really so worried what Jack will think if he sees it? She’d hate to think it’s some sense of vanity keeping her in discomfort.
Screw it, she thinks, pulling up her jeans and unfastening her leg. She sighs, propping her legs up on a worn leather ottoman. Much better.
Of course Jack chooses that moment to join her, catching her rubbing at her thigh. She forces herself to relax and not automatically snatch her hand away.
“Cold?” he asks, throwing another log on the fire. For all the warmth of the day, the temperature still drops hard here at night. That certainly doesn’t help, but the cold has nothing to do with what has her fingers digging and kneading.
“It’s…,” she trails off, embarrassed. She wonders if it will always be this way, hesitating to admit any weakness to him.
He sits down next to her on the couch, draping an afghan over her lap.
“What?” he asks, his voice dropping, words soft and intimate. Feeling for all the world like it’s for her and her alone.
“My foot hurts,” she admits.
They both stare at the spot her foot should inhabit, if only she still had it.
She shakes her head. “It’s silly, I know.”
“No,” he says, his hand lightly covering hers on her thigh. “It’s not.”
She relaxes back against the couch, his shoulder warm against hers, surprised to find that this is easier to talk about with him than she would have thought.
“I still dream about it sometimes,” he says, voice hoarse like he’s seeing it all again.
She’s surprised by the admission, turning to see his face, the terror there. For the first time she considers that maybe she’s the lucky one in this one tiny way, not having any memory of it.
His eyes are far away, his hand tight on hers. “I’ve never been so scared. Not since…” He blinks, shaking his head a little. “I remember thinking, ‘Not Carter. I can’t…’”
“Jack,” she says, her hand twisting open under his, holding tight.
He turns his head towards her, his eyes focusing on her face. “I wasn’t…ready for that.” He stops, his jaw working. “I hadn’t realized.”
She’s not going to play dumb, to pretend not to know just what he’d realized in that moment, watching her disappear in a plume of smoke. The knowledge that the smiles and jokes and harmless touches that really weren’t—that they were beginning to add up to something that they couldn’t dismiss as a passing fancy.
“I had,” she admits, and for a minute she can tell he’s completely thrown by what she’s admitting, like he isn’t really sure which question to ask first.
She swallows, having a hard time believing they are actually doing this, admitting these things they so blissfully ignored. “Edora,” she admits. A two-minute conversation with Janet, a careful omission, and she’d known she was well and truly screwed.
“Shit,” he says.
She shakes her head. “You didn’t know.”
He frowns, not looking particularly appeased. “Were you… Did you ever plan on saying anything?”
Did she ever plan on telling her commanding officer that she had feelings for him? That it was nothing like a crush or passing hero worship? She shakes her head. “Did you?”
He grimaces. “Not short of a firing squad.”
She can’t help but smile at that, the horror in his voice. And yet, here he is, admitting it of his own free will. But then again, many things have changed. She shifts so her body is turned towards him, closing the gap between them. “You really thought that first time you invited me that it was completely innocent?”
“Yes,” he says, sounding certain. “But I was…disappointed that you said no. More than I had a right to be. I probably should have realized.”
He reaches out, his fingers sliding down a strand of her hair, fingers brushing her cheek. “Because I wanted you to myself.”
His face is impossibly close to hers, and it all just piles together, his proximity, the warmth of the fire, the meal, the wine, the laughter in the kitchen.
She licks her lips.
His eyes flicker downwards to follow the movement, seemingly mesmerized.
“For the record,” she whispers, “this is why I said no.”
He nods, his forehead brushing hers. “Probably a good idea in retrospect.”
She trails her fingers along his jaw. “Do you wish I’d said no this time too?”
He shakes his head. “Do you?”
She can only think of one way to answer that.
She kisses him.
* * *
“Earth to Sam.”
Sam looks up from her half-eaten sandwich to find Daniel waving his fork at her. She shakes her head, putting her sandwich back on her plate. “I’m sorry, Daniel. I let my mind wander.”
“Clearly,” he says, looking amused. “I was just asking about the fabled cabin? Was it all it was chalked up to be?”
She’s pretty sure that despite herself, she may accidentally let what one might call a dreamy smile cross her face. Daniel’s eyebrows pop up, and she clears her throat, forcing herself to think of serious things like Goa’ulds and people who don’t change the oil in their cars themselves.
“It was nice,” she says with a nonchalant shrug she has no hope of selling. “I can see why he likes it up there.”
Daniel, good friend that he is, doesn’t laugh at her. Much. “So, what about the mosquitoes the size of cars? Was Teal’c exaggerating?”
Sam is torn a moment between a strange sort of loyalty towards the cabin (and Jack), but in the end is swayed by her innate sense of honesty. “No,” she admits. “Teal’c was in no way exaggerating.”
Daniel chortles. “I knew it.”
“It still is really nice,” Sam says, feeling the need to defend it. “Very peaceful.”
Daniel gives her a look that is a little too perceptive for her taste. “Does that mean you’re going to go up there again?”
She drops her eyes to what’s left of her lunch, pushing the crumbs around her plate. “Yeah,” she admits. ‘I’m pretty sure I will.”
Daniel doesn’t push any further, and she’s grateful. “I’ve got some reports to finish,” she says.
“Okay. See you later.”
She smiles, picking up her tray. Pushing to her feet, she absently registers the extra second it takes for her to get out of her chair, to find proper balance in the shift from sitting to standing, knows that it will always be here, this tiny, permanent change, one among thousands.
“Sam?” Daniel asks when she’s been standing still for too long. “Everything okay?”
She refocuses on him. “Yeah,” she says, and she thinks she hears it in her voice, the surprise, because everything is okay. Okay in way she never thought it could be again. She isn’t quite sure what to do with that yet.
It’s not perfect, she knows, not something she ever would have chosen for herself, but it’s her life, and maybe what’s she finally realizing is that she’s done wasting time regretting that.
She has way too many things left to do.
* * *
“I’m going to try not to take this personal.”
Sam looks up from writing in her composition book to find Jack standing over the kitchen table. It takes her a moment to shift gears and understand what he’s talking about. Then she registers the sounds of the movie they were supposed to be watching filtering in from the living room.
“Sorry,” she says with a grimace, glancing at the bowl of popcorn she was supposed to be bringing in from the kitchen. “I got distracted.”
“I can see that,” he says, his voice suspiciously mild.
Before she can shut the book and get to her feet, he sits down at the table, pulling it over towards him.
“Whatcha working on?” he asks.
“It’s not a work thing,” she defends, as if that makes it any better. Getting caught scribbling half-baked ideas like a crazy person is probably not the best date etiquette. She peers up at him, but he doesn’t actually look all that annoyed, surprisingly enough.
“No?” He twists the book around, squinting down at the work upside down like he doesn’t know any better. “’Cause it sure doesn’t look like a motorcycle to me.”
She squirms in her chair, feeling an inexplicable beat of embarrassment. “It’s not. It’s a…”
He raises an eyebrow at her hesitance. “You’re being evasive, Sam. Should I fear for the safety of Earth?”
She rolls her eyes, as much for his twisted sense of humor as for her own silly attempt to hide this from him. “It’s a detector.”
He’s silent for a moment. “A detector to detect what, may one ask?”
She blows out a breath, hands flattening on the table in front of her. “We need a better, more effective way to detect and disarm land mines.”
It’s something that’s been circling in her mind for months, something she’d ignored for a long time, too scared what it might look like. She knows most people would assume undertaking a project like this is nothing more than a twisted scramble to find closure, or maybe a futile attempt to rewrite the past. But what she finally realized was that whether anyone ever believed it or not, she’s only doing this for one reason: she simply doesn’t believe people should have to live afraid like that. Not on P4T-937, not on Earth, not anywhere else.
She glances up at Jack, but he doesn’t look horrified or like he feels the need the stage an intervention. He just gives her a crooked little half-smile that shoots warmth straight down to her toes, like he gets exactly what she’s doing and why. Like he’d never expect any less from her.
“It’s not a big deal,” she says, feeling self-conscious under the weight of that look.
“Yeah,” he says, pushing the composition book back in front of her. His hand closes over hers. “I’m pretty sure it is.”
She’s not really ready for the tangled rise of emotions in her chest at his easy acceptance, biting down on the inside of her lips.
His fingers squeeze hers. “I’ll leave you to it,” he says, getting up from the table. Passing behind her, he rubs her shoulders. “Take your time.”
She can tell that he actually means it. She has no idea how to put into words how much that means, so grabs his hand, pulling him down for a kiss. It’s still a little heady, the ease of touching him this way, how seamlessly everything shifted between them these last months.
“Thank you,” she says.
His finger slides along the line of her jaw, his lips curving into a smirk. “Hey, more popcorn for me,” he says like it’s no big deal.
She’s pretty sure it is.
“Now hurry up and write all those genius ideas down before they disappear,” he says, snatching up the popcorn bowl and disappearing back into the living room.
She looks back down at the first scribbled elements on the page before her, the pieces slipping and sliding into place in her mind. Nothing but glimmers, but it’s a start. She smiles to herself.
“Just stupid enough,” she murmurs.