Some habits were ingrained, so deeply stained in the psyche that it was impossible to change them.
Jack was still a little shell-shocked when the unscheduled wormhole activated downstairs.
They’d been sitting in the General’s reclaimed office for the last hour, he and Hammond, going through the reviews of the newest batch of Academy graduates with an eye for possible SGC personnel. Since his retirement from the military, the SGC had hired him back as a civilian contractor and put him in charge of training. Hammond’s call, of course.
If people considered it strange that the younger General had retired while the older one stayed in active duty, well, they didn’t know much about either man. And it wasn’t as though Jack had retired retired.
There was a lull as both men regarded the profiles in front of them.
“So, how’s things between you and the Colonel?”
Of all the people to ask Jack what he’d come to think of as The Question, Hammond was way down the list. Daniel, Teal’c, half the SG-team leaders (with the other half pushing their bolder colleagues ahead of them), a handful of techs (including Felger), and every female officer on the base, yes; Hammond, no.
Surprise made him hesitate, and wariness made him laconic. Old habits died hard. “We’re…good.”
“Detective Shanahan isn’t causing trouble?”
“We’re being careful not to get booked for speeding.” Jack said with dry understatement. He regarded his former commanding officer with a question in his eyes. “Is there a problem?”
“Oh, no problem. I’m just asking. In loco parentis,” Hammond replied, turning his attention back to the reports.
The nonchalance irked Jack. “Does that mean I’d have to ask permission to stay out past 2200 hours?” He didn’t have to rein in the sarcasm anymore, but old habit made him more polite than he’d have been to, say, Daniel.
“Not permission, perhaps, but it’s a good idea if she has a mission the next day.” The general didn’t look up from his reading material, and spoke as though the little interlude about Jack’s personal life had never happened. “You earmarked Lieutenant Mendez as a possibility, although the Lieutenant has a history of insubordinate behaviour.”
“So did Haley. So did Meridian. So did Dixon and Liu and I.” Jack leaned over to check that he had the right graduate in his mind. He did. “His marks are up in the genius level - give him something to run for and he might very well excel.”
“And if he doesn’t buckle down to discipline?”
“Then he’ll wash out - of here and anywhere else he goes.” Jack shrugged.
“Fair enough. We seem to do better with the wild cards anyway.” There was a faint twinkle in the blue eyes of the old general, and Jack mimed offence.
“If you’re suggesting that I--”
He stopped as the Stargate began dialling with a rumble that echoed up to the office. Hammond’s head turned, and Jack watched him. “No teams expected back?” SG-1 wasn’t due back for another few hours. Jack had checked that with the control room staff before coming up to see Hammond.
“Not for another few hours.” In moments, he was out of his chair and out the door, moving faster than a man his age had any right to move. Jack followed at a more leisurely pace; his knee still gave him trouble from time to time.
The SFs didn’t try to stop Jack from following the General down to the control room. As a civilian, he should not have been allowed into the control room. Technically. As a former General, one-time commander of the SGC, and a continuing ‘civilian consultant’ to the base, Jack had access to all areas. He was usually considerate enough not to make use of it, but if this was SG-1 getting out of a tight situation, he wanted to be on the scene.
Down in the gateroom, the iris was fixed tight over the Stargate as, with a whooshing sound, the wormhole connected.
The technician frowned as he checked his screens. Jack had never worked out what any of the screens meant, even during his tenure as the commander of the base. Carter had tried explaining it once, but other than ‘one for the gate status, one for the iris status, and one for the technical data between the two’, Jack had never quite managed to grasp what everything did.
God, he hoped she was okay. He hoped they were all okay!
“Nothing, sir. No iris code, no-- Wait, we’re getting something through--”
A moment later, one of the computer screens beeped and went red. “I’m guessing that’s not good,” Jack said, even as a small popup screen appeared with the words, ‘IRIS OVERRIDE.’
“Tell me that doesn’t mean what it says,” Hammond said grimly.
“Last time that happened, we had replicators all over the base,” Jack said. He took a deep breath, fighting down the instinctive revulsion he felt at the thought of the creatures. The weapon on Dakara had stopped them, but if they hadn’t managed to get that working again...
They’d destroyed the weapon.
Hammond gave him a single look and was over at the phone, calling for reinforcements.
“Sir--” The technician began typing in a set of commands - an override to the iris override? “I can’t--”
“It’ll need a manual shutdown,” someone said from behind the room.
“Keycard,” Jack held out his hand. A moment later was on his way down to the Gateroom with Hammond’s keycard in his hand.
As he entered the gateroom, Hammond’s voice blared over the speakers into the Gateroom. “Personnel full alert! Manual shutdown imminent.”
Even as he swiped the card and reached for what was effectively the off switch for the Stargate, Jack heard the ‘blop’ that signalled something had come through. He flipped the switch, and turned in time to see the last shreds of the event horizon vanish behind the man who stood on the gateramp, his hands spread wide.
“Stop right there!” Jack barked. In the back of his mind, he was aware that he’d just usurped Hammond’s prerogative, but Hammond was up in the control room behind a layer of glass, whereas Jack was standing right in front of the man. Presence could do a lot of things that authority couldn’t always manage.
The man was in his mid-thirties and vaguely familiar, in the way of someone who’d been seen maybe once and promptly forgotten. He was tall and dressed in green BDUs with an SGC patch on his shoulder, and he walked down the ramp with the gait of a military man.
“Stop right there and identify yourself,” Jack repeated his order. Across the room, there was the hiss-whine of a zat gun prepping itself to fire.
Blue eyes flickered over to the SF holding the zat, then swept through the Gateroom and Control Room with swift summary to finally fix on Jack.
“General O’Neill?” The man looked more intent than confused. “You don’t recognise me?”
No indication of what rank the man could be - but he recognised Jack as a general - former - and that was a start.
“Put down the item you’re carrying, ensign,” Jack said, indicating the device that the man still held in his right hand. He gave the man the lowest rank of the Air Force, hoping to prick this stranger out of his complacency. “Or the man over there will shoot.”
The man gave him a measured look that was oddly familiar. “Just as long as he doesn’t shoot twice.” He took another step forward, and showed no sign of putting down his gadget. Jack didn’t have the faintest idea what the thing was, but considering the man had just overridden their iris systems, he wasn’t in the mood to be considerate.
“One last chance.”
“General, swear to God, I’m not a dang--” He turned even as the slight movement of Jack’s hand signalled the shot.
The zat blast hit him in the shoulder and he collapsed at the edge of the ramp, curling up in instinctive unconsciousness.
Jack frowned down at the man, then up at the control room where Hammond was still watching. Technically, he’d acted outside his authority in the matter since he was no longer an officer of the base, but the SFs had obeyed his signals and so far Hammond wasn’t objecting.
Still, it would be polite to give Hammond the appropriate authority. “Sir?”
Hammond bent forward over the microphone. “Have him taken up to the cells.”
The SFs jumped into action and began hauling up the man like so much meat. Jack considered intervening, but the attitude of the guy had irked him enough that he didn’t protest at a little harsher handling, “Tie him up first,” he suggested. “And someone get that thing he had in his hand.”
One of the SFs retrieved it and handed it to Jack. “Looks like a basic radio transmitter, sir.”
Jack turned it over in his hands, noting the knobs and buttons. Hell, he even recognised a few of the parts that had been cobbled together - bits and pieces he’d seen lying around Carter’s lab. But he’d never seen this man before, and he was pretty sure he’d have recalled a man who was in and out of Carter’s lab. “Technically, I’m not a ‘sir’ anymore, sergeant.”
The middle-aged man shrugged and grinned, “Old habits. Sir.” The honourific was added on the end in spite of his best efforts. “I didn’t think it was possible to hack into the iris systems.”
“Neither did I,” Jack admitted. Carter might be able to do it, but nobody else. Right?
“Jack?” Hammond’s voice broke into his reverie.
“Coming up, sir.”
The sergeant was too well-trained to actually snicker. That didn’t stop him from a quirk of the lips to which Jack gave him a steady glare.
Old habits died really hard.
“So what’s Jack doing here?” Daniel inquired of Sam as they made their way back down for the debriefing. “Other than coming to see you.”
Refreshed from the showers, and feeling decidedly more human after a two hour slog through mud and rain, Sam stretched a little. “He probably had reports to give on the latest batch of Academy graduates, Daniel, and just stayed to see us back.”
She ignored the last half of the comment, in spite of the grin on the faces of Daniel and Mitchell, and the tiny smile hovering around Teal’c’s lips.
Yes, he was retired. Yes, they were seeing each other. That didn’t mean they were idiots about it.
Sometimes Sam figured everyone else was.
She’d had about enough teasing to last her a lifetime. Especially since he was the ex-General of the SGC and known to everyone on base.
But there was no teasing when they sat down at the briefing table. In fact, there was just about enough time for a brief smile before General Hammond came in and began the debriefing.
It was straightforwards enough. Astara was a planet they’d explored years before. No apparent civilisation near the Stargate, flagged for later geological survey and possible Alpha site use. The geological survey had discovered a civilisation some two to three hours’ walk from the Stargate - far enough to make regular ‘harvesting’ of people a chore for the Goa’uld.
“They wanted us to look over some old things they’d uncovered in a set of caves,” Sam explained. “Mostly Goa’uld artefacts, none still working. We brought back a few items, but left most of them behind. The follow-up team should probably take a FRED with them to carry the larger items - there were one or two things that we could take apart and see how they work.” She glanced at Daniel who was looking typically smug. “And Daniel got a book from them.”
Jack didn’t look all that impressed. “A book?”
Sam carefully stifled a grin at the non-committal tone.
“The Book of Astara,” Daniel said, proudly. “It’s a history of their culture as far back as their stories go.”
“Daniel Jackson can be ebullient about it,” Teal’c stated calmly. “He was not the one who had to carry it back to the Stargate.”
She was less successful with this grin. Teal’c had not complained, not exactly. He had, however, been somewhat more terse during the trip back - his way of being aggrieved.
“My pack was already filled with the in’tarik’ma’tel’aytar, Teal’c,” Daniel said. “And Cameron was carrying the hrak’ma’lantek, so there was no room in his pack…”
“I’m not even going to ask what those are,” Jack muttered.
“I don’t think that’s relevant at this point. Colonel, your recommendation?” Hammond looked to Sam.
“Send back another team to pick up the remainder of the tech.” That was simple enough. “Swap them the items they’re wanting - mostly tools - in exchange. Leave them more or less alone.”
General Hammond seemed satisfied with that. “Very well, recommendation taken.” He closed the file on the Astara and folded his hands on top. “While you were away, we had a little bit of a…situation come up.”
Sam exchanged a look with the rest of her team. “What kind of a situation, sir?”
Jack pushed something across the table to her. “Ever seen one of these before, Carter?”
The flat note in his voice caught at her, and she reached over to pick up the item. She recognised some of the components immediately. “It’s a modified GDO,” she said. “Basic radio transmitter, but adjusted to send analogue pulses as well as digital bursts…” She trailed off, with a sudden, cold feeling as she looked at the General.
She’d never seen one of these before, never made one, but she knew what it could be used for, and she wasn’t so sure she liked the implications of it. “Where did you get this, sir?”
The two Generals - current and retired - exchanged looks.
“I think you’d better come and see.”
The man sitting in Detention Cell 14-D was tall and blond and clearly military. He also looked vaguely familiar - something about the angle of his head or the line of his jaw. Handsome in a clean-cut way, in his mid-thirties, and blue eyed. Sam blinked. He had very blue eyes.
A glance at the rest of SG-1 showed them clearly confused, and it seemed both the General and Jack were waiting for her to say something.
The prisoner showed no such reluctance to speech. “And I’m guessing this is the erstwhile SG-1,” he said in a pleasant tenor.
“The actual SG-1,” Daniel corrected him, frowning. “And who are you?”
“Forgive the lack of welcome - the accomodations aren’t exactly first class.” He climbed to his feet, “And, see, that’s the tricky thing, Daniel,” the man said. Daniel’s gaze flickered from her to Jack and back to her again, asking a silent question to which she had no answer. “My name won’t mean anything to you since I don’t seem to exist around here. Remember the mirror on P3X-993?”
“You’re from an alternate universe?”
“An alternate alternate alternate universe,” Jack said dryly.
“And believe me, they’re all just as real as this one,” the man said. “Hey, Teal’c, good to see you again.”
Teal’c arched a brow. “I do not believe we have met.”
“Well, no, we haven’t, but I know your counterpart where I come from. He’s not particularly chatty either…”
Sam was getting a very odd feeling from this man - as though she’d met him somewhere before and couldn’t quite place him. “Name, rank and serial number, airman.”
He regarded her up and down, a long, measuring look of the kind she was accustomed to getting from the ‘old school’ of military officers - the ones whose first instinct was to dismiss her because she was a female officer. “And you are?”
“I’m the officer giving you an order to state your name, rank, and serial number.”
The grin was wide and brilliant - a real charmer of a smile. “Yes, ma’am.” He saluted, not without a touch of mockery. “Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Carter, SGC, reporting for duty, ma’am.”
Behind her, Mitchell choked, Daniel’s disbelief was emanating stronger than the gravity waves off a black hole, and Teal’c’s eyebrow had hit the roof.
Sam blinked. Twice. Her brain shut down, hit the reset button, and began rebooting up, slowly sorting through the information she’d been given. A lot of pieces began falling into place.
Oh. My. God.
He was her. In a manner of speaking since she was, well, a she and he was quite plainly not!
In her years at the SGC, she’d encountered everything from robotic versions of herself, to alternate others, to a replicator that looked exactly like her, down to the last hair on her head.
She’d never yet encountered a male version of herself.
“Samuel Carter?” Daniel managed. “Really, Samuel Carter?”
“I said it was, didn’t I?” Samuel frowned slightly. “You know, you don’t improve much from one universe to the next, Daniel.”
“Colonel?” General Hammond inquired.
“Sir,” she turned to him. “The probabilities of this happening are…astronomical. I mean, the genetics alone are unlikely. In combination with what seems to have been a similar career path and possibly the same doctorate…”
“Astrophysics,” he said. “The application of particle-wave light theories to faster-than-light travel…”
“…with specific references to p-string theories and the multiplicity of universes.” Sam finished for him. They’d even done the same doctorate!
God, this was scary.
She looked back at General Hammond. “Has Dr. Brightman taken a genetic sample, yet?”
Turning back to the bars, she found him watching her with narrow eyes. “How did you know what I did for my doctorate if you don’t know me?”
The truth - of a sort - was probably her best bet. “Because I did my doctorate on the same topic,” she replied.
Horrible suspicion was dawning on his face as he looked her up and down and noticed the similarities and differences between them. “Who are you?”
She glanced at Hammond, who shrugged. No point in keeping it from him, sooner or later he’d find out. Samuel Carter was watching her as she turned back to him.
“I’m Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter, SGC,” she said lightly. “In a word, you.”
Daniel would probably collar her about the grammar of that sentence later.
At this moment, it was worth it just to see the shock on his face.
“I was working on the Stargate with Catherine Langford when General West took over the project,” Samuel said, moving his chair slightly from side to side.
They’d hauled him out of his cell after his DNA tests had come back: an exact match with Sam’s but for the Y-chromosome - he was, in all respects, who he said he was. After a shower and a shave and a new set of fatigues, they’d sat him down in the briefing room so SG-1 could hear his story.
Sam was seated opposite Samuel. It had probably been deliberate. Certainly there was no shortage of people looking from him to her and back to him again. It was like being the main attraction at a circus or a magic show. Nobody could quite believe what they were seeing, including Sam herself.
His story carried some eerie similarities to her own - and quite a few differences.
“I wangled myself a place on the initial insertion team. The Colonel really wasn’t happy about that, at least, no happier than he was at Daniel’s inclusion. When we came back and they shut the project down, I was transferred back out to the Pentagon and reassigned to other projects.”
“Our Carter didn’t get on the original team to Abydos at all.”
Jack meant well, but Sam wasn’t quite in the mood to have old shortcomings - or old wounds - brought up. Especially not before this counterpart of hers who was also Sam Carter - just male.
Samuel glanced over at her with something like sympathy. “I imagine she didn’t. General West might have been good for what he did out in Desert Storm, but his prejudices against women were fairly well known. I can’t remember how many times Catherine complained of him during the two weeks we worked on getting the Stargate open.” He shrugged. “When they reopened the project, I transferred back from the Pentagon, and joined SG-1.”
“No arm-wrestling?” Jack arched a brow at Samuel, then looked at Sam. “Just asking.”
He would remember that, of course. There were moments in her career that Sam felt embarrassed to remember, and the gauntlet she’d flung down before him, Kawalsky, and Ferretti was one of those she least liked to recall.
The chip on her shoulder had been care of not only General West but a whole plethora of military personnel whose prejudices were bone-deep. In truth, she’d been on the defensive even before the Colonel’s skeptical query echoed through the briefing room that first day.
Not exactly her proudest moment in the SGC.
The ‘short version’ of his SG-1 was similar to hers in a lot of respects. Second-in-command to Colonel O’Neill of SG-1, Jolinar, meeting the Tok’ra, saving the galaxy, Asgard, replicators, the Prometheus, the Daedelus, and a predilection for blowing things up. There were small differences; a planet here, a person there.
And one very large difference. “Near as we can tell, a Goa’uld took the Alpha Site a couple of weeks ago. Grabbed everyone, stuck snakes in their heads, put them back in place. We never even noticed until…” He winced and looked down at his hands. “Captain Brenton dialled Cimmeria, but didn’t make it through.” The blue eyes rose from his hands to look directly at Sam. “I don’t know where the Tok’ra are and the Asgard haven’t answered my calls from Cimmeria. So I lived with the Cimmerians for a week until it got too much. I wasn’t going to wait around for them to hunt me down - making for the mirror was the best option I could see.”
He snorted, amused in spite of himself. “I was looking for a world where they didn’t have a Samuel Carter. Never thought I’d find a place where they had a Samantha Carter!” He grinned at Sam. “No offence intended.”
“None taken,” she replied, although she was feeling just a little overwhelmed by his ebullience. “We’ve never met a Samuel Carter, if it comes to that.”
And that was obviously a surprise to him.
“So how did you know that our world wasn’t taken over by the Goa’uld?” Daniel asked, curiously.
“The iris code,” he replied with a grimace. “Goa’uld are so arrogant, they don’t use an iris for a Stargate.”
“And if they did?”
“I’m a naquadah sensitive,” Samuel pointed out. “I’d know if they were Goa’uld.”
He seemed very assured of it - so much so that Sam was briefly taken aback. She wondered if she came across with the same natural assuredness that this man did - or if it was simply a function of his being male.
“So what do you want from us?” That was the General, of course, looking at it from a professional perspective.
Samuel looked up and down the table. “Somewhere to stay. A place from which to fight the Goa’uld. “There’ve got to be a few differences between our worlds - tech I’ve developed that your Colonel Carter hasn’t, things that I can do around here.”
“Oh, we could always do with another Carter around the place,” Jack said off-handedly. He glanced at Sam with a faint smile. She summoned up a return smile for him, even if she was somewhat uncomfortably aware of Samuel watching them when General Hammond spoke again.
“Any decision to offer you sanctuary here will depend on the decision of the Joint Chiefs.”
“I understand that, sir,” Samuel said, leaning back in his chair with his elbow on the armrest. “At least the entropic cascade failure won’t be a problem this time around,” he murmured. Then he caught Daniel’s slightly astonished expression. “What?”
Daniel explained it later, after they’d seen Samuel to the guest rooms he was occupying until they heard back from the Joint Chiefs. Her counterpart would be allowed his run of most of the main base areas for the moment, although he wasn’t allowed entry into the scientific or laboratory levels until they had proper clearance for him.
“It was the exact mirror image of the way you were sitting. He didn’t think twice about it, either. It was just…unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Uncanny.”
‘Uncanny’ was one way of looking at it. ‘Uncomfortable’ was the term Sam was thinking of.
They were taking the elevator back up to the lab levels where Sam was planning to collect her stuff and go home. Although not much had happened on the mission, Sam still felt tired - a combination of the long walk to and from the Stargate and the somewhat shocking revelation of her alternate counterpart.
“Well, he is me.” Sam thought that statement over and winced. The gender pronouns were going to be hell on her mind. “In a manner of speaking.”
“Except for that Y-chromosome…” Daniel grinned. “There, but for the grace of genetics, goes you.”
“You’ve seen another version of me before, Daniel.”
“Well, yes,” he said, unabashed. “But that was different. Dr. Carter was the same genetically, but her history was the big difference between the two of you. I mean, I’d just been thinking about doing a study of the differences between you and her when she went into cascade failure and we had to send her and Major Kawalsky back…”
Daniel rambled happily on, delighted at the prospect of an anthropological paper. Granted, his specialisation was archaeology, which was things rather than people, but within the SGC, specialisations tended to bleed into other areas due to the vast scope of possibilities in the program - and the requirement that personnel be able to take on tasks at the drop of a hat and perform them to the best of their ability.
“But this is a fantastic anthropological opportunity: two versions of the same person - the male and the female…”
And that was the crux of Sam’s discomfort with Samuel.
Her counterpart was not just her, but a male version of her.
It was confusing, disconcerting, and not a little weird. It went even further than her discomfort with the fact that Dr. Carter’s husband had been counterpart to Sam’s commanding officer. After all, at the time, Sam had already admitted that Colonel O’Neill was an attractive man.
This wasn’t a matter of attraction - she wasn’t going to touch that one with a ten-foot pole! This was a matter of things that were so deeply ingrained in her that they made up an essential part of who and what she was.
Who and what she was.
Working in the armed forces, Sam had occasionally wished she was male. It went deeper than mere ‘penis envy’ or gender-based discrimination. Masculinity in the military was so ingrained that there was no way to separate the command from the gender behaviour. And a woman felt it. Try as she might, do what she would, whatever her background, Sam could not escape the fact that the cards were stacked against her from day one - and would always be stacked against her.
She knew the imbalance was not necessarily out of spite, insecurity, or a need to create a glass ceiling by the male-dominated upper eschelons. It was simply that the military had been conceived by men, developed by men, and was run by men - and that bias ran from the most recently-enrolled cadet to the President himself.
Here, at the SGC, Sam was better off than a lot of women. She’d had commanders who trusted her judgement and colleagues who respected her skills. Part of that was the nature of the SGC; the urgency of the matter meant that the gender of the person doing the work was irrelevant as long as they could get the job done.
Of course, that then begged the question of what happened when there were two people trying to fill the one position. Equally matched and skilled, both with the requisite experience and the necessary knowledge, one male and one female.
You have the experience and the background, she reminded herself as they reached the lab levels. You’re the one familiar with this command - and the people are familiar with you. It was what she’d said to herself when she faced the prospect of Dr. Carter’s presence in the SGC.
Somehow, this was different.
Dr. Carter had only challenged Sam’s role in the SGC and her preconceived ideas about her personal life.
Samuel Carter challenged a lot more than that.
“Earth to Carter.”
She looked up into the dark eyes of her former commanding officer. “Sir?”
It was a surprise to discover that they’d not only reached the lab levels, but that she’d made appropriate noises to Daniel as he went off down the corridor, and nearly walked into Jack as he came towards her - probably from her lab.
“Jack,” he reminded her.
“Habit,” she reminded him.
She still had trouble getting his name off her lips. She was up to thinking of him as ‘Jack’ rather than ‘the Colonel’ or ‘the General’, but actually persuading her tongue to give up the habit was like trying to persuade a Goa’uld to give up its ribbon device. Still, after a number of appearances in public where she’d forgotten herself and called him ‘sir’ and gained odd looks from people around them, Sam had managed to get to a stage where she was at least leaving off the form of address.
However, this wasn’t public; this was the SGC. And in the SGC, she reverted to instinct.
“Get out of it,” he said, smiling.
Her mouth quirked. She never could resist his smile. “Yes, sir.” And that time, the appellation was deliberate. “You called me ‘Carter’,” she pointed out, inexorably.
“I was going to invite you over for dinner,” he said, rocking back on his heels and sticking his hands in his pockets. It amazed her, sometimes, just how much like a little boy he could behave - for all that he was nearly fifty. “But you’re looking a bit tired after Astara and this…other thing, so I thought maybe I could come around, bring some dinner, hang out…?”
There was no match for the look he could give her; a little hesitant, a little shy, but with a slightly boyish charm about him. “I’m heading home now,” she said after a moment. “Takeaway dinner sounds good. Just not pizza.”
Jack’s expression was faintly abashed. The last four times they’d met up, they’d ended up having pizza, whether going out to do something or staying in.
It wasn’t that Sam didn’t like pizza – on the contrary, it was one of her most familiar foods. It was just that she wanted something without tomato and cheese on it.
“Not really,” she confessed, before she felt a bubble of amusement rise up in her. “Surprise me,” she suggested, letting her eyelid droop over one eye in something approximating a wink.
He blinked a moment, then grinned as he turned on his heel. “I have just the thing.”
She watched him walk down the corridor, half-disappointed that he hadn’t kissed her before walking away, half-intrigued by the satisfaction in his voice, and quite definitely watching his ass.
Maybe asking him to surprise her had been a bad idea.
Sam shook her head as she headed off to pick up her things from her lab.
It wasn’t anything fancy. But it wasn’t anything she’d have expected from him either.
And she had suggested he surprise her.
Jack knew how much she liked the ‘yum duck salad’ that the nearby Thai place produced, so he got her a carton of that, and some basic chicken satay for himself. Thai was a little fancy for his tastes, but Carter claimed she liked the complexity of flavours and he was willing to be persuaded by her.
Nothing new there.
She was in the bath when he arrived at her house, and he hailed her from outside the bathroom and resisted the temptation to turn the handle and push the door open. She hadn’t yet invited him, and he wasn’t game to just stroll in without an invite.
It was just a little scary to finally get something he’d been wanting for a while.
And maybe just a little scarier to realise how easily he might not have had this chance at all.
Shanahan still blamed Jack for his breakup with Sam. Which, Jack had to admit, was probably partly the truth - although not in the way the detective was making it out to be. It had been Sam’s own personal insight that fuelled the end of her engagement to Shanahan - that, and her sense of fairness; nothing Jack had said or done.
Still, when a witch-hunt was on, people rarely looked for proof.
He went back to the kitchen and got out bowls and forks, and he was shortly presented with Sam Carter in jeans and a t-shirt, her hair damp and fluffy after a rough towelling. She smelled of something fruity as she stepped into the space of the kitchen, the scent of it briefly overriding the herb-and-spice of the takeout.
He received a kiss on the cheek as she passed by him in the kitchen. Her usual greeting, but Jack usually pulled her over for something a little more affectionate.
This time he didn’t. There was something about the tilt of her head as she came in that reminded him of her counterpart. And that was just freaky.
“It’s good to see you, too,” he settled for saying, and watched her smile deepen briefly before she pulled open the fridge and picked out a beer.
He waved a hand at the beer that sat on the table, opened and barely touched. “Got one, thanks.” He handed her the bowls and gathered up the serving utensils. “Get it while it’s hot.”
They sat down at the table, the takeaway containers between them, and started serving themselves. Judging by the amount Carter was heaping on her plate, Jack guessed her last meal was little more than a fond memory at this stage.
She grinned over at him. “Just a little. We skipped lunch because of the walk back to the Gate and when we got in there was the whole business with...” Carter’s hand hesitated over the duck salad, before plunging ahead in conversation and action, “...Samuel.”
Jack kept a grimace from his face.
“Yeah.” It sounded like she was as weirded out by the appearance of ‘Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Carter’ as he was. Which was good, because Jack didn’t want to be the only person having issues with discovering that, but for a chance freak of genetics, Carter might have been a guy.
It was wrong on so many levels, not the least of which was that he’d always been attracted to her, even from day one. He could acknowledge that now as he hadn’t been allowed to acknowledge it through eight years of working together. The prospect of her ever having been male - even in a universe which he’d never heard of until now - was leaving him with a distinctly weirded-out feeling.
To hell with Shanahan, the realisation that he might never have loved Carter at all was freaky on levels Jack had never even considered.
He hid it with a nonchalant question. “So, is there any chance he might develop the cascade tremors?”
“In time,” she said, handing him the serving spoon, “yes, he’ll get cascade tremors. He’s not in resonance with this universe.”
Jack served himself the curry and added a dash of the spicy duck salad. “I’d ask you what that means,” he said with a hint of mischief, “but I wouldn’t understand the answer, and you’ve got your mouth full, anyway.”
Her glare was steady and well-known - a familiar expression in a familiar face. Unlike earlier today, when he’d faced Samuel Carter through the grill of the cell bars and seen a familiar glare in an unfamiliar face. It had thrown him for a loop - and more, once the Lieutenant Colonel explained who he was.
Of course, once she’d chewed and swallowed, he prepared himself to be technobabbled - and was surprised when she regarded him. “Did you want me to explain it?”
He couldn’t help the smile, “Only if you want to.”
“I only want to explain it if you want to know.”
Jack’s mouth twitched slightly. “I want to know. Really.”
She still didn’t look like she believed him, but she took another forkful of Thai food and finished that before she began her explanation. “Everything in this universe vibrates in a particular way.”
Uh-oh. One sentence in and he was already confused. “Vibrates?” Then a discussion from a long ago off-world discussion popped into his head. “You mean the atoms, right?”
Sam nodded. “Yes. It’s related to the Big Bang and the original resonance of the universe.” Her look got speculative, “Maybe I’ll save that for another time,” she said, only half-teasing. “At any rate, our universe has a certain...rhythm to it. It was theorised that another universe - a parallel universe - would have a different rhythm to it, and that part of the difficulty in ever locating one of these parallel universes was finding or developing something that could...smooth out the two different vibrations long enough for someone or something to pass through.”
“Like the mirror.”
“Like the mirror,” she confirmed. “Other than the frame of naquadah - which we already know has a number of unusual properties - all our study hasn’t been able to determine just how they managed to create a portal capable of synchronising the resonant energies of the various universes...”
Jack was completely lost, and he had the feeling she was only just getting started. “Get back to the vibrations,” he suggested wryly. “You’re losing me.”
Her smile was magic. “I guess, if we’re talking vibrations, he vibrates at a different speed to us - and it can only go on for so long.”
“So why was it so bad for Dr. Carter?”
He was pretty sure she’d explained this years ago. But something like this was good to explain again.
“It had to do with the similarity of our cells. Because we were exactly identical in person, there were two sets of atoms producing precisely the same entropic wavelengths - that’s the vibrations I mentioned. It’s like hearing something that’s just a little bit off - after a while, you’ll do anything to make it stop. And so the universe cascades the vibrations in question - forcing them to vibrate faster or slower. That creates an instability in the cellular structure and the second person is literally torn apart.”
She must have seen his slightly blank look, because she paused, grinned, grimaced, and tried a different tack. “When you’re juggling, if someone throws something else into the middle of it, you lose your concentration and everything falls down, right?”
“Yes,” Jack said, not entirely sure of where this was going.
“So, if you saw someone about to throw something new into the middle of your juggling, it would really be easier to just ignore it and let it fall on the floor.”
“Right.” A moment later, it dawned on him. “So the universe is letting these people fall to the floor?”
Her grin was slight and a little bit wry. “In a manner of speaking.”
He shook his head, smiling. “I think I’m still confused,” he said. “But I’m not going to ask for further explanations - at least, not until after you’ve finished dinner.” He pointed a fork at her plate. “Eat.”
Sam mock-saluted him with her fork. “Yes, sir.”
He minded the title, but she’d meant it in teasing so he let it pass.
Conversation moved onto habits, hobbies, interests, and, somewhat surprisingly, gossip. Since leaving the SGC, Jack had decided that Daniel knew everything there was to know about the people on the base.
They discussed a lot of things over dinner and while washing up. Since many of their interests differed - in some cases, quite wildly - it made conversations between them quite animated. Carter had a determined opinion when she wasn’t playing the good little 2IC. And since they weren’t commander and 2IC anymore...
Well, any commander caught washing up his 2IC’s dishes after dinner and splashing water at her when she got flick-happy with the wet teatowel was asking for a court-martial. Granted, Jack hadn’t been the most placid of officers, but he knew where to draw the line.
Still, towel-flicking aside, she was quieter than was usual for her, only technobabbling when he asked for it. And when the washing up was done, he looked over and caught her with a pensive expression on her face. Not just Carter thinking up some new way to blow up a planet, but Carter agonising over something.
Jack let the last of the dishwater drain from the sink, wiped up the remnant suds and took the teatowel from her unresisting fingers to toss over the empty dishrack. “Okay, Carter,” he said, leaning back against the counter, “what’s up?”
The wide, pretty mouth twisted a little and she opened her mouth to speak.
He quickly laid a finger across her lips. “No stock answers.”
Her expression could have melted glass, but there was a faint air of guilt about her. She had been going to give him a stock answer. ‘I’m fine’ or ‘Nothing, sir.’ He knew Carter.
Finally she sighed and looked away. “I was just thinking about...Samuel.” She stumbled over the name, probably trying to get her brain around the concept. Not that Jack could blame her. “About him being on his version of SG-1.”
He didn’t let her go, but something in him withdrew anyway, and he knew she felt it as she looked up at him. “I guess we couldn’t just avoid this topic for a while and let it go away?”
Sam frowned, “He’s not going to go away, Jack.” He didn’t have time to enjoy her use of his name, she swiftly launched into her main argument. “He’s here to stay - there’s nowhere else for him to go, and from the sound of it, he knows a lot of the things I do.”
“So, he’s your redundancy plan?” He couldn’t help the snap in his voice.
“You were the one who said we could do with someone else who has my knowledge.”
Jack huffed, guessing he wasn’t going to get out of this lightly. “Look, when I said that, it was a compliment.”
“I know that. But it’s just...” She bit her lip. “He’s male.”
“I noticed.” He’d focused on the technology and knowledge aspect of Carter’s counterpart, rather than the most obvious difference between the two.
“When I walked into the briefing room that first day? Would you still have challenged my authority if I’d been male?”
Old wounds, running deep. Jack could feel the ache of them in her mind and knew that he would be touching on tender flesh with this topic and walked carefully - but honestly. “Yes,” he said. After so long, it was hard to recall that first meeting, although a few things stood out. He remembered the challenge in the young officer’s expression, her deliberate pushing of his limits - a brashness that he’d both admired and deplored.
She didn’t look as though she believed him. Jack tried to explain.
“Look, you waltzed right in, thinking you knew everything there was to know about the Stargate - you’d never even been through it, for crying out loud!” He was fairly sure his irritation had been with her attitude -not her gender. “I didn’t have a problem with women in the field. You were the one who made it about gender.” He remembered that much of their exchange.
Considering the flush that lay across her cheeks, he guessed that she remembered it, too. And she’d been young enough to still want to prove herself, stung from General West’s dismissal of her as a woman, and therefore useless to his project. “I was used to discrimination in the armed forces,” she said, shifting in her stance as she leaned against the bench. “In some parts, it’s so ingrained that most people don’t think twice about it.”
“But not at the SGC.”
“Not as much at the SGC,” she corrected him. Then she paused. “I was lucky. I’ve had you and General Hammond as commanders, and you were willing to take me on what I could do.”
“Because there’s nobody who does what you do.”
“And now there is.”
Jack grimaced. “You’ll never be redundant, Carter.”
She returned his gaze with grim intensity. “You just asked if he was my redundancy plan.” Her voice had a bite to it and he couldn’t deny his words.
“Look, I meant...” The truth was, he didn’t quite know what he’d meant. He’d said something without thinking and it had come to bite him on the ass. Nothing new there, he’d practically gotten it down to an art form by now.
It was just that this was important to him, not like insulting some senior asshole who’d gotten to where he was by being smarmy and political. This was about him and Carter.
Which Carter? The impish thought moved through his brain before the internal censors could catch it.
“I mean that now that we have someone else who has your knowledge, it might free you up to do the things that you couldn’t when you were the primary technical expert for the Stargate.”
“Like marry, have kids, and be a good little housewife?”
Okay, didn’t expect the acrimony.
“I didn’t say that,” he pointed out.
“But you were thinking it.”
They both paused at her words. “I’ve never expected you to be usual, Carter,” he growled, stung by the accusation.
This was venturing into territory they hadn’t yet sorted out: exactly where they were going in this relationship. Two kids a dog and a white picket fence were not in their future - any idiot could see that, and neither he nor Carter were idiots. Occasionally fools perhaps, but not idiots.
“Didn’t you ever wish you didn’t have a woman on your team, sir?”
Lots of times. Although not for the reasons that would immediately spring to mind.
Honesty the best policy? Or better to placate her with a lie? Jack went for honesty.
“In the first days, yeah,” he said. “That time with the blue dress and the warlord guy? No, it wouldn’t have happened if you’d been male.”
“Later,” he said evenly, “if I ever wished you weren’t on my team, it had little to do with your being female and everything to do with...” He paused.
“Everything to do with what?”
Somehow, it didn’t get any easier to say, even if he now had the freedom to be with her. “Everything to do with my...caring about you.”
It mollified her a little. The tension drained from her face, leaving her looking surprisingly vulnerable.
“Look,” he said at last, aiming for conciliation, “He’s only just arrived, and we don’t even know if we’ll get to keep him.”
“You make him sound like a dog.”
Jack grinned and ran his finger along her jaw. “Well, you’re no bitch, Carter.”
She arched an eyebrow at him, “Are you sure about that, sir?”
“Reasonably,” he returned, slipping an arm around her waist. “Look, he’s only new here - and we don’t even know what he knows. I’m jumping the gun. But if this gives you a little more leeway to move in your personal life, that’s good, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” She didn’t sound entirely sure of it, but it was a positive answer. And that was better than before. At least, Jack hoped it was.
He put on his most ‘innocent’ face. “I’m all for leeway in your personal life, you know.”
The ‘ingenuous’ approach usually worked well on Carter and this time was no exception. She huffed, half-smiling.
“I’m...” She paused. Jack glanced at her and guessed that she’d been about to say she was sorry - an automatic apology. She deliberately changed her words. “I’m going to have to deal with this myself.”
“Well, you can talk to me sometimes, you know,” he said, a little put out by her retreat. “I mean, it’s not every day you get another version of yourself coming through the mirror.” Especially another version who happens to be of the opposite gender to yourself.
Jack hoped his discomfort with Samuel didn’t show. His relationship with Sam was new and delicate enough that they were still feeling their way around each other.
An image of him and Sam literally ‘feeling their way around each other’ popped into his head and he grinned to himself. Later, Jack.
She’d seen his grin and was instantly suspicious. Smart woman.
“Nothing.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and began steering her out to the living room and the couch. No, they weren’t going to make out like a couple of teens, but they were going to sit and watch the latest hockey game.
“Sir.” The long, drawn-out tone was a warning, but he just grinned and manoeuvred them around the table.
“It’s nothing, Sam.”
But the measuring look she turned upon him was reminiscent of another measuring look he’d received earlier that day from a man who had her eyes and her smile, and who was her and wasn’t her.
And as she pilfered the remote control out from under his hand, Jack let his mouth stretch in a brief grimace.
Maybe Sam wasn’t the only one who’d have to do some dealing with this.
There was never any question that they’d accept Samuel into the SGC.
Another expert on the Stargate systems, that they didn’t have to train, who knew all the ropes, was familiar with the command, the code of conduct, and the structure of the SGC? As far as the big brass were concerned Samuel Carter was a godsend. Assuming they believed in God, of course.
The paperwork was fairly awful, though. Creating a new identity for him, bank accounts and drivers’ licences, service number and a whole heap of other things took an unspeakable amount of paperwork. She’d forgotten just how much fuss and bother there was to relocate an alien to Earth. Jonas had been nearly three years ago, after all, and Teal’c another five years before that.
Of course, Sam didn’t have to be there, but General Hammond had offered her the opportunity to participate, and in the end, she’d accepted. She suspected his request had been partly because he wanted to make sure that Samuel’s existence would tread on her toes, and partly because he’d seen her concerns over Samuel’s presence in the SGC.
There were times when she thought that General Hammond saw a lot further than Jack did.
This was the first weekend they hadn’t spent together when they’d both been on Earth and didn’t have other commitments to look after. Not that it was a habit or anything, just that Sam had gotten used to his presence around her during those times, whether they were doing something together, or just generally hanging out at his house or hers.
Jack looked at Samuel, saw someone who could do all the things Sam could, and thought nothing of suggesting that her counterpart take over her role at the SGC so they could spend time together.
Sam looked at Samuel, saw someone who could do all the things she could, and was male into the bargain, and wondered whether she’d have a job when they came back.
And there was something about Samuel that make Jack uncomfortable. Or maybe that was just Sam projecting her discomfort with Samuel onto Jack - she wasn’t sure.
In the cool dark of her lab, she turned on the lamp and booted up her laptop, then stared down at the equations she’d been working on the day before. One of the things Samuel had instantly offered was the device with which he’d overridden the iris controls.
And that had opened a whole new can of worms for Sam.
The first, immediate question had been, “Were you aware that the iris systems had a back-door override?” To which the answer had been ‘yes’. She’d written the program after all. The next question had been, “Why did you write the back-door into the program in the first place?” Her answer for that had been even less satisfactory than her answer to the first.
Programmers tended to write back-doors into systems, sometimes for malice, sometimes for fun, sometimes just out of habit. Sam had only ever written back-doors as a fail-safe. If something went wrong with the system, or if her systems were overriden by another programmer, she could use the back-doors to regain control of the system.
Yes, it was technically a weakness of the system, but no more than any access point into a system. And in the SGC where they were nearly constantly concerned about the possibility of an invasion into their systems from off-world sources, Sam had reasoned that programming in a back-door was a necessary evil.
Besides, she would never have thought a counterpart of hers would use it to gain access to the SGC.
So, now that the back-door was known, she had to close that one up and create another. Complete with security protocols and everything.
So, on top of everything else on her workload, to say nothing of the state of her not-quite-sure-what-to-call it with her former commanding officer, she was working long hours at the SGC and dealing with Samuel on top of it all.
There was a knock at the door of her lab. “Hey.”
Sam looked up from her laptop to see Samuel standing the doorway, one hand half-raised ready to knock. “Hi,” she answered.
Samuel was naturally assigned to Sam for the first few days of his ‘orientation’ at the SGC. Or, more specifically, his orientation at her SGC.
He sauntered into the lab and pulled up a stool on the other side of the lab table by the simple expedient of hooking his foot around it and yanking. “You look beat. Everything okay?”
“Fine,” she said instantly.
He gave her a look that indicated quite plainly he didn’t believe her, and opened his mouth to say something, then shut it. She’d seen him do that several times lately and figured it was him thinking about pursuing the matter, and then deciding against it.
She wondered if she did the same thing and couldn’t remember. Maybe she’d ask Daniel.
“So, what’s this morning’s exercise?” Samuel asked, planting himself on the stood and leaning down on the bench, arms folded before him. “Now that we’ve done the paperwork, does that mean we can get onto the interesting stuff?”
The pose was disconcerting. It was a pose that she was more typically used to seeing in Jack as he’d leaned down against her desk. To see it in her counterpart - and given the way of things between her and Jack - was just one more thing that screamed at her.
If she’d wanted proof that Samuel looked up to his former commanding officer in the same way that Sam did, she had it in spades. Language, behaviour, even a couple of quirks belonged to the former General of the SGC, but they were intermingled with her own movements and habits that Daniel had pointed out.
“Interesting, such as...?”
“Well, exchanging a bit more history, for starters,” he said. “Then getting a look at the tech around here, checking that all the laws of the universe still hold, and that the speed of light hasn’t changed. Whether Dad got the role out at Pagetsville and we spent a year in that absolute hellhole running around with Tommy Coffrey...”
Sam grimaced. “He was the biggest pest I ever met,” she said with frank distaste.
Samuel fixed her with a frankly disbelieving look. “Really? We were best buddies, got into trouble together and everything.”
She snorted. “I was buddies with Darren Blythe. We usually got into trouble running around the creek area - so much so that Dad threatened to throw me into the water sometime and show me what it would be like if I fell in.”
His eyes gleamed, “Oh, yeah, I remember that! Although I’m guessing you didn’t get grounded for riding Brett Sanford’s motorbike around San Diego?”
Amusement bubbled up inside her - tinged with a little irritation. “He got me into motorbikes in the first place!”
He stared for a moment, then grinned, “You really were a tomboy, weren’t you?”
The words were meant teasingly. Sam knew that. But they still elicited a touch of the old defensiveness that she felt about being ‘just a woman’ in the armed forces. “Nothing wrong with being a tomboy,” she pointed out with just a touch of a chill in her voice.
“Never said there was,” he returned instantly. “You’ve done really well here. As good as I did.”
There was an odd note to his voice, and Sam glanced up at him. He was looking around her lab with something like envy, but when he realised she was watching him, he just arched a brow. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said lightly.
She wasn’t insensible to the praise. From the sound of it, they’d risen through the ranks at about the same pace. Captain before she reached the SGC, Major after three years in it, and Lieutenant Colonel at the same time as the Colonel got his promotion to General.
Which seemed to mean that she was doing pretty well.
Even if she was a girl.
“How are you with the control room statistics?” She asked, directing the conversation back to the original topic of what they were going to do today. Control room statistics were a fairly boring, base-level job, but it would be somewhere to start him while she tried to sort out where and how she could set up the new backdoor into the system.
He made a face, which more or less summed up her opinion of them as well. “There isn’t anything else to do?”
She grinned at his distaste and handed him the sheaf of stats sitting in her in-tray. “It’s a nasty job--”
“--but someone’s gotta do it,” he grumbled, finishing off one of their Dad’s sayings.
As he settled down on the other side of the table, Sam tried not to think of what her dad would have said if he’d ever come face to face with Samuel. That would have been a true Kodak moment.
She wondered what her father would have had to say about Samuel.
She wondered what her dad would have said about Jack. Then again, she could probably guess that. He’d done enough hinting around it during his last days, never actually saying anything outright, but leaving enough signposts to make his meaning perfectly clear.
I just want you to be happy.
Sam was happy.
Well, sort of, anyway. No, things weren’t perfect, but at least she didn’t have all the second thoughts that had plagued her during the last months of her engagement to Pete. At any rate, she was closer to ‘happy’ than she’d ever been before.
At least, she had been until Samuel turned up.
They didn’t have a lab for Samuel yet, so he was sharing Sam’s. General Hammond had assured her that Samuel would have his own lab, so Sam bore the intrusion with good grace.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like him. He was her, after all, and you couldn’t really dislike yourself, could you? At least, Sam had never disliked herself. She’d sometimes wished she was someone else, but who didn’t?
But this really was her as someone else.
And the prospect was not a little uncomfortable.
For a while, the lab was quiet with the sound of paper being thumbed through, and the scribbles of notes being made. She flipped through one of her old notebooks, looking for the diagram she’d drawn the last time she designed the iris systems so she had something with which to compare her current set-up.
There were several other weaknesses that she’d been planning to overhaul for some time. One of the control room techs had gotten as far as designing patches for them, but if she was going to have to rewrite the whole system, then she might as well incorporate the patches now...
She’d just realised where a new set of encryptions could be incorporated when Samuel sat up and stretched. “I’d forgotten just how boring the stats are,” he murmured. “I handed them off to the techs as often as I could.”
“So do I, most of the time,” she said by way of explanation. “But they’re in the middle of a reconfiguration of the control room right now, so there’s nobody to do it, and none of my projects are urgently required...” Sam shrugged. “Sergeant Gaskill asked if I could do this lot and I agreed.”
He frowned. “Surely you’ve got more important things to do.”
“More interesting things to do, perhaps,” she said, surprised at his censure. “But the control room stats are important.”
Samuel shook his head at her and flipped over another page. “They can be done by anyone, you know. We’re better spent doing other things.”
“Probably,” Sam admitted. Personally, she hated doing the statistics too. “But sometimes it’s polite to help them out.”
He didn’t look convinced, but he went back to work - for a few minutes at least.
She emerged from a reverie where she’d been contemplating some ‘trapdoor’ techniques to find him watching her with a speculative look in his eyes.
One corner of his mouth pulled out in a lopsided grin that put her in mind of her brother Mark. “I was just wondering...are you seeing anyone?”
Sam went pink, her skin choosing the colour without consulting her brain. At one level, the question was innocuous. On another level, it wasn’t a question that a man usually asked a woman unless he was interested in asking her out. Or so her mind reasoned.
And on yet another level, she wasn’t willing to tell him that she was seeing her former commanding officer.
She answered tersely. “That’s a personal question.”
He snorted, amused. “Look, Sam, I’m you. You’re me. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.”
“We’re not each other,” she said, knowing that she was being a little more pedantic about this, but wanting to have it out between them now. “We’re each others’ counterparts from different universes.”
“Sophistry,” he dismissed. His eyes - her eyes - fixed steadily upon her. “Look, I’m just curious. You’re an attractive woman but you’re not married. You’ve gone the career path before marriage and kids, and I haven’t worked out who to see about the base gossip yet - although Daniel is probably a good bet. But he’s been pretty close-lipped for all that he’s been asking me questions about every possible aspect of my SGC.”
It wasn’t as though she could hide the truth forever. He’d find out sooner or later - at the very least, someone would gossip about her and Jack within Samuel’s hearing and the cat would be out of the bag.
“Yes, I’m seeing someone,” she said calmly. She had an instant of déjà vu. Agent Barrett had asked her more or less the same question in the early days of her relationship with Pete. And her reply had been more or less the same answer she’d just given.
He eyed her. “Who?”
She looked down at her notes. “It’s not really any of your--”
“Oh, don’t give me that, Sam,” he said. “I’m just asking. Besides, if you don’t tell me, I’ll just go and ask someone else. Probably Daniel again.”
Fine. He’d asked for it. Sam looked him square in the eyes with her most reasonable expression. “Jack O’Neill.”
There was a full few seconds where he didn’t get what she’d said. Then realisation hit with all the force of a Goa’uld ribbon device. “You’re seeing Colonel O’Neill?”
His disbelief wasn’t encouraging, although she was more than a little relieved at his use of Jack’s old title. So she wasn’t the only one who still occasionally had trouble thinking of him as ‘Jack’.
“Yes,” she said. The monosyllable was shorter than she’d intended it to be.
“Holy--” He raked a hand through his hair, still staring at her as though he was having trouble processing the thought. “What about the regs?”
Sam kept her voice even and her tone cool. “What about them?”
“Well, I mean, you served under him for--” He raked his hand through his hair again. “God... O’Neill? Really?” Samuel simply couldn’t seem to get his brain around the idea. “You’re not just pulling my leg?”
She sighed, feeling irritation blossom in her like a small slow-burning flame. “No, I am not just pulling your leg. Ask Daniel if you like.” Since you seem to trust his intelligence-gathering abilities so highly.
“Look, I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t believe you, it’s just...” Samuel’s mouth hung open a moment. “The idea is just...”
“I’m not you, you’re not me,” Sam said, hoping that she didn’t sound like too much of a bitch at that moment - no matter how satisfying the little dig was. “Q.E.D.”
He gave her a very steady, intent look - the kind she’d given Daniel or the Colonel when either one was playing funnyman and she was perfectly serious. “How long, then?”
She shrugged. “Only a couple of months. Since he retired.”
“And before that?”
“Nothing before that.”
Her ire rose at the look he gave her, slightly disbelieving. “You’re not serious! There is no way there was ‘nothing before that’ and then you suddenly start dating after working together for eight years... Jesus, what kind of frat regs do you have in this place?” Then he caught her look and put his hands up in the air. “Christ, I wasn’t meaning to imply-- It’s just that--” He paused, then burst out. “I served with O’Neill for eight years, and we were never--” Samuel’s expression turned rueful and he raked a hand through his hair. “This is so going to screw me up.”
Sam could almost sympathise.
Except for the fact that she was fairly certain that one of the reasons Jack wasn’t presently talking with her was because he was weirded out by the presence of Samuel - and the fact that the woman he was dating had, in another world, been a man.
In short, the kind of reaction Samuel was having right now.
“So you were never attracted to your commanding officer, then?” She asked coolly, and took a moment’s pleasure in watching him squirm slightly before he regarded her with a look she knew she’d given assorted junior officers, cadets, and Daniel more than once.
“No,” Samuel replied, with plain emphasis. “I mean, we were friends, but I never thought, ‘Hey, if I was a woman, I’d be attracted to O’Neill.’” He grimaced. “Not that I ever thought of being a woman at all.”
Most men didn’t, or so Sam figured. Not that she’d really thought about being a man, except when she’d come across the various forms of sexism during her time in the armed forces. It didn’t really count.
“But you were friends, weren’t you?”
“Well, yeah. About as much as you can be when you’re in the same chain of command. It’s not always the easiest thing to be best mates with the guy who chews you out at the end of the day.”
“Daniel manages it,” Sam observed. So it was a little spiteful, but she was stressed.
“Daniel manages a lot of things,” Samuel retorted. “And he’s not military, so it doesn’t make a difference. Hell, didn’t you ever resent being told off when you knew you were right?”
She had. But there’d been times when the Colonel had chided her and hindsight had proven him right; just as there were times when he’d reprimanded her and come back with a later apology when she was found to be correct. If there was one thing she’d never been able to accuse him of, it was stubbornly believing he was right simply to be right.
And any reprimands she’d received in the line of duty weren’t half the sticking point in her friendship with Jack - at least, not the way Samuel made it sound.
Sam said as much to Samuel, and he stared at her as though she’d lost her mind. “You never minded?”
“It wasn’t a case of minding,” she pointed out. “Yes, I mind being reprimanded, but sometimes he was right.”
“Sometimes he wasn’t,” said Samuel.
“He was still the senior officer.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” he exclaimed. “I mean, I never figured myself for a ‘yes, man’ kind of guy...”
Sam had stiffened at the start of his sentence, knowing where he was leading and not much liking the implications. At least her counterpart showed enough sensitivity to see her getting angry and recognise that he was about to put one foot over a line that he really didn’t want to cross.
“If I thought he was wrong, I let him know,” Sam said with the crisp precision of enunciation that would have Daniel immediately backing off anything but his most favoured ideas. “I never accepted his decision as right simply because he was the senior, but at the end of the day, the choice and orders were his and I was duty-bound to follow them.”
Of course, sometimes she’d stretched his orders to near-breaking point. That was something Daniel had taught her: if you couldn’t openly rebel sometimes you could stretch things far enough to make a difference. And the Colonel had eyed her with the slightly suspicious expression of a man who knew that she’d stretched her limits and his, but was satisfied with the result.
“Okay,” Samuel said, sounding as though he was halfway willing to accept that idea.
Sam started back on her work, scratching ideas viciously into the paper. A moment later, Samuel spoke. “I’m sorry.”
She glanced up at him, still cool. “Considering we’re at the same rank, I think we can say that the way you respond to situations is probably the way that I respond to them.”
“Either that, or you’re more diplomatic than I am,” Samuel said with a slight smile.
It was hard not to smile back in response, even if she was vaguely aware that she was being charmed. The grin made her complicit in his amusement, a partner in his pleasure, and it was a handsome smile.
Sam still couldn’t help wondering if she’d ever used charm to get her way like this.
A glance down at the diagrams showed them as intractable as ever, and she glared at them a moment, before she glanced up at Samuel again. “So,” she said, slightly more conversationally. “How did you deal with your Colonel O’Neill?”
She made it an olive branch of sorts. After all, he’d apologised. And she reasoned that he’d never had to deal with the innuendoes and difficulties of being a woman in the armed forces. So he hadn’t known how hurtful his accusation of ‘yes, girl’ was.
He shrugged, smiling a little. “With patience,” he said, apparently willing to accept her olive branch. “Quite a lot of it, actually. I mean, he was a great commander, but when he got the bit in his mouth, there was no hauling back on the reins. It could irk.”
That had annoyed her too, although evidently not as much as it had annoyed him. “He could get enthusiastic about some things.”
“Maybe just a little,” Samuel said with a wry grin. “Seen that cabin of his?”
“Yes.” She said, remembering the two week SG-1 had spent up at his cabin, sitting, talking, fishing. Nothing big, nothing dramatic, just taking some down time, relaxing in the company of the people they knew and loved best, knowing that the galaxy had just been saved and that they didn’t have to ride out to be galactic superheroes once again.
He was eyeing her narrowly. “I’m guessing you didn’t find it boring as all hell, then?”
Sam eyed him back, wondering why there was the odd note in his voice. “No.”
“The mosquitos didn’t bother you? The insects? The crickets at night and the birds in the morning? The waking up at down to sit on the pier and do nothing?” Samuel grimaced. “Not my idea of fun.”
It hadn’t entirely been Sam’s idea of ‘fun’ either. But the company of all her team-mates had more than made up for any perceived lack in the hospitality. She had a roof over her head, lotion to keep the insects away, a cold beer in her hand, and no world to save. Okay, so she had retreated back to her computer occasionally, but the Colonel had sat on the other end of the couch and ribbed her about it while he read comic strip collections. At least, he had until Daniel had made a pithy comment about them getting a room and stalked out to read his notes on the porch.
“You know, it’s not that I don’t think you and he...” Samuel rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, like he was regretting bringing it up. “I mean, I’m sure you’re a great couple. I haven’t really seen much of him except for that first day when he ordered me shot with a zat. It’s just that...” He shook his head. “This’ll take getting used to.”
You and me both, Sam thought to herself.
As they began discussing the methods and means by which they’d coped with their commanding officers’ quirks and idiosyncrasies through the years, Sam carefully didn’t think that her counterpart wasn’t the only one who’d have to get used to ‘this’.
Although whether ‘this’ was Samuel Carter and the issues he raised for her, or Jack O’Neill and the issues Samuel had raised for him was something that even Samantha Carter didn’t know.
“So,” Daniel asked. “How are things with Sam?”
He kept his voice low out of deference to Sam’s position in the SGC, even though it was fairly common knowledge that Jack and Sam were seeing each other. Still, Daniel figured there were probably people who didn’t have the whole story and would run with whatever tendrils they found. Human nature was the same the world over, whether military or civilian, classified or unclassified.
Jack shrugged. “Fine.”
There were times when Daniel wondered why he’d ever thought that retirement would change Jack. After all, such habits were developed over twenty years, and the habit of staying close-lipped about any feelings or possible ‘state of relationship’ between him and Sam had been developed over eight long years.
Hope springs eternal, I guess.
“Really?” he replied.
He got a narrow-eyed gaze for his questioning. “Really.”
“Oh, good,” he said, not believing a word of it. “I’m just asking because Sam’s been staying on base a lot and working until all hours of the night.”
It wasn’t just the long hours and staying on-base, after all, Sam had been known to go for weeks without leaving the SGC when she was working on a particularly urgent project. But there were no urgent projects in the works, there was no crisis that required her attention, and there were no deadlines to be met.
Ordinarily, Jack wouldn’t have let her work herself to the bone like this. He would have been chivvying her to go home, go out, do something, be somewhere other than work.
Somehow, Daniel doubted this was an ordinary situation.
And nothing said that more than the glass of blue jello that sat opposite Jack. The other man wasn’t usually this oblique. Usually, he’d collar Sam in her lab, taking a snack along to her, rather than waiting for her to turn up in the commissary.
That he was sitting here waiting was a good indication of his state of mind at this moment.
Of course, there was the whole thing with Jack being very reticent about his relationship with Sam. All Daniel got regarding his statement and oblique question was another shrug. “Carter works the hours she wants to work, Daniel.”
Daniel had never been fishing. Jack’s cabin didn’t count since there weren’t actually fish in that pond. Otherwise, there weren’t a lot of fish to catch at archaeological digs, academic institutes, and beneath Cheyenne mountain. However, he was well aware of the theory of it; put out the bait, throw the line, wait for the bite, and play the fish until you had it by the gills.
“Well,” he conceded, “I suppose she does have quite a bit on her plate right now. Apparently she and Samuel are thick as thieves.”
It was nothing more than a twitch, but Daniel knew his friend very well.
“They’ve got a lot to talk about.” Jack’s answer was non-committal, carefully neutral, and quite uninviting.
Then again, Daniel had never needed an invite to start in on a conversation, nor continue it, even when the person didn’t want it continued. And he hadn’t yet reeled in his fish. “It’s quite amazing that Samuel’s life matches Sam’s so closely, even though he’s male.”
It was a shot in the dark, nothing more than a guess. But Jack’s flinch was all the answer Daniel needed to know why Sam was spending so much time on the base, why his friends’ relationship wasn’t going anywhere, and exactly what Jack’s problem was.
“Amazing,” Jack said, more than a little flatly.
Clumsy, Jack. He nearly sighed and shook his head. “You know, the women on-base think Samuel’s rather good-looking.”
It wasn’t quite a squirm, but it came close. A proto-squirm, perhaps? “That’s nice, Daniel,” Jack said in the conversational tones of someone about to lose their temper. “Now what the hell do you think you’re going on about?”
“Me?” Innocent had never been Daniel’s thing. Sam could do guileless well, and Daniel had already seen Samuel bring out the ‘who me’ look against Doc Brightman. He leaned back in his chair, and regarded Jack diagonally, across the table. “I don’t remember the last time you held a piece of pie for me, Jack.”
“I haven’t ever held a piece of pie for you, Daniel.”
“No, you haven’t,” Daniel agreed.
Jack frowned, and opened his mouth to make a comeback retort.
Then the chair opposite Jack was pulled back and Samuel sat down, echoing Sam’s fluid grace as he settled himself at the table. “God, I’m starving. Breakfast feels like it was hours ago.”
“That would be because it was hours ago,” Daniel murmured. “It’s nearly eleven.”
“That would do it,” Samuel muttered, and leaned forward on his arms, in the pose that Daniel had long ago mentally labelled ‘restless Sam’.
When Daniel had mentioned his little anthropology project to Sam a week ago, he hadn’t realised just how much fodder there would be for such research. The similarities and differences between Sam and Samuel were many and varied, in some things they were practically twins, in others, they were hyperdrive years apart.
For instance, Sam would have paused by the table, checking that her presence would be acceptable, even after eight years of familiarity and friendship with her team-mates. On the flip side of the coin, it never crossed Samuel’s mind that his presence might be unwelcome to the two men sitting there. As far as he was concerned, the chair was free, and the fact that the glass of jello sat there was incidental.
It might be personality, Daniel mused as Samuel raked one hand through short blond hair and huffed as he leaned back, or it might just be the confidence of a man who had never seen himself as anything but acceptable company to other men.
Jack looked beyond the tall blonde man for the woman he’d been waiting for. There was no sign of the slim figure walking easily through the room, catching the eye wherever she went. “Where’s Carter?”
“Oh, Sam decided not to come out,” Samuel said. “She’s working on the chip array for the Lansinarian generator. It needs some specific radiation shielding because of that mid-range star of theirs, and I left her and Dr. Benaud arguing over whether or not the configuration would need shielding against gamma radiation.”
Daniel followed the conversation without too much trouble. He knew of the Lansinarian generator project and was used to trying to keep up with Sam when she got involved in these things.
However, Jack was looking at Samuel with the kind of expression he usually gave Sam when she technobabbled him - except that he looked less inclined to ask for a recap in plain English, and more likely to give the man a chewing out for confusing him.
Samuel, on the other hand, had a broad grin on his face. “Should I translate, sir?”
“No, thanks,” Jack said. Oddly enough, he didn’t correct Samuel’s use of the honourific, where he would have done so with Sam. “So, she’s still working?”
Sam’s counterpart shook his head. “And I thought Dad was a workaholic. She leaves him for dead.” He sat up slightly and indicated the glass of jello. “I guess this was for her? Do you mind if I...?”
Jack waved for the Colonel to take the glass, although he was probably less than happy about Samuel’s appropriation of Sam’s food - and his interruption of what was almost a tradition between Daniel’s friends. “Jacob didn’t seem that bad.”
“Not after he blended with Selmak, no,” Samuel said, splitting jello cubes with the spoon. “Before that, though, the old man was all work, work, work. At least the snake knew how to make him relax - even if it did have to take over his brain to get him to take a breather.”
There were shades of strangeness in hearing Jacob spoken of with such casual disrespect. Sam’s relationship with her Dad, while a lot easier these last five years, had never seen him described in such cavalier terms. Daniel chose not to comment, although he noted Jack was a little surprised at the phrasing as well.
“Uh, I’m guessing from the past tense that your Jacob died recently, too,” Daniel said.
“Yeah. Kicked the bucket when Selmak went. Just after the thing with Anubis.” Samuel shook his head. “He went out quiet - not the way I’d ever thought he would...” He rested his jaw in his hand. “Probably not the way he ever thought he would, either. Still, he got an extra five years of life - that’s gotta be something.”
“Yeah,” Daniel echoed, trying to imagine Sam saying her father ‘kicked the bucket.’ The careless use of the phrase indicated a very different attitude to life. Judging by the fleeting expression on Jack’s face, Daniel wasn’t the only one to note that.
“So you got Jolinar, too, then?”
Samuel gave him an odd look before understanding lightened his expression. “Oh, you wouldn’t have seen the report yet. Yeah, Jolinar, the ashrak, the Tok’ra... We’ve got quite a lot of events in common. Quite a few different, but same overall outcome.”
And one huge difference in that Jack O’Neill would never have looked twice at Samuel Carter, simply because his team-mate was a male. Not that Jack was going to mention that little truth short of a za’tarc device.
“Must take some getting used to,” Daniel suggested. “I mean, everyone here’s used to Sam.”
Samuel grimaced. “Takes some mental gymnastics,” he said. “Especially since they’re what I’m expecting but I’m not what they’re expecting. It’s all pretty confusing, but we’re working it out. Sam’s helping me out with that,” he said, beginning to take to his topic amidst bites of jello. “I think she feels a bit threatened by the whole ‘man in the military’ thing.”
Daniel could see how that might be the case.
“She doesn’t have to feel threatened,” Jack said with just a hint of belligerence to his voice.
Samuel caught it and backed off immediately. “I wasn’t saying she should, just that she does. I mean, we both know that the military’s made for men - and she’s definitely a woman.” Now there was a distinctly admiring note in Samuel’s voice. It made both Daniel and Jack stare at him. “What?”
“Well, I don’t know what Jack’s thinking, but I’m wondering if this classifies as narcissicism.” Daniel made a joke of it, although a part of him was distinctly disturbed by the thought of Samuel admiring Sam. It was practically incest.
Samuel’s laugh rang through the cafeteria, making heads turn and eyebrows rise. “Not likely! As she told me early on, she’s not me and I’m not her. We’re both very glad of that.” The blue eyes gleamed with a hint of mischief. “Right, Jack?”
The smile Jack gave was terse and not entirely comfortable. “Yeah, right.” He huffed out a breath and laid his palms down on the table. “Nice as this conversation’s been, I’ve got some more people to see before I head back out from the mountain. Daniel, is next Monday still on?”
“If we’re not off-world,” Daniel conceded. Every second Monday night was chess night for the two of them - Jack’s way of keeping up with him. He knew that Jack and Teal’c were working on the cadet and graduate training program together, so Jack kept in touch with Teal’c that way.
And, until Samuel came along, Jack and Sam had been seeing each other at least a couple of times a week.
That was the key to it, Daniel supposed as Jack walked out of the commissary. Until Samuel came along.
Samuel Carter who was a lot like Samantha Carter - enough to give you a false sense of familiarity before he said or did something that was so very not Sam.
Like the look on his face as he turned his head to regard Daniel in the chair beside him. “So, what’s the thing with them?”
Samuel rolled his eyes. “Don’t play the innocent with me, Daniel. You know what I mean! Them. Her and O’Neill.”
This was not the question Daniel particularly wanted to be asked. Jack and Sam’s relationship had so many nuances and so many years behind it, it was impossible to properly explain in a matter of minutes - or hours, for that matter.
“I guess it depends exactly what you’re angling to know,” he said at last. “I mean, they’re seeing each other - although perhaps not as much right now as they were a while ago - but you already know that.”
Samuel’s lips tugged to the side with a look that was very much like Sam’s expression when Daniel said or did something that she knew she shouldn’t professionally condone, but which personally amused her. “What about the rumours? I mean, this didn’t come out of nowhere, surely!”
Daniel shrugged, “The rumours were there from day one. Well, maybe by week four or five when she...” He paused. “Are you sure you want to hear this?”
“I think I’m strong enough to take it.”
“You got the neanderthal infection in your command, too, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Samuel paused in scraping up the last drabs of jello from the glass, turning to stare at Daniel. “Tell me she didn’t do what I’m thinking she did.”
“The primary urge of the neanderthal female is to find the strongest male to mate with,” Daniel said simply.
Glass and spoon were dropped back to the table with a clatter as the other man wrinkled his nose. “All he did was cuff me around a bit.”
“Alpha male behaviour towards the younger males of his tribe. Like a reprimand.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said then, too.” Samuel winced and ran his hands through his hair. “God, what else?”
“Your Daniel went through the mirror on P3X-233?”
“Well, I encountered a reality where Sam had never joined the military, Jack was the General of the SGC, and they were engaged. And another Dr. Samantha Carter came through the mirror a few years later - after her husband died in the Goa’uld assault on the SGC.” Daniel shrugged, “Small things, all adding up. I mean, you’re asking the wrong person - I can only give you the third-hand evidence. If you want the first-hand stuff you should ask Sam.”
Samuel grimaced. “She’s not very talkative right now. The whole ‘threatened’ thing, I think.” He shrugged, slim, broad shoulders jerking in nonchalant dismissal. “So...hasn’t there been gossip about this?”
Daniel couldn’t help his snort, impolite as it was. “Well, the gossip’s always been there, but they never crossed any lines that I ever heard about.” Not that he was the most informed person on the base, but he felt himself to be fairly current on what was being said around the facility. “People respect them. They never acted unprofessionally - and if they did, then either nobody ever knew about it or it didn’t affect their work.”
Even after eight years, Daniel wasn’t sure whether his friends had ever crossed a line they shouldn’t have. But then, he’d never considered it his business, and he didn’t know all the details of what kind of behaviour was unacceptable in the military.
The other man was shaking his head. “My brain feels like it’s been packed full of all the stuff I had to learn and develop for my Ph.D in the space of a week. I hope it gets easier.” He sighed. “Well, good luck to them,” he said at last. “I guess if it really is...” there was a pause where they both mentally inserted the word Samuel wasn’t comfortable using to refer to his counterpart and the counterpart of his commanding officer, “...you know, they’ll get things sorted out between them sooner or later.”
Thinking it over later as he meandered up to his lab, Daniel wasn’t so sure.
He’d always been a little bit disdainful of the taboo against homosexuality among the military. Even with the laws relaxed, it seemed insulting to suggest that a homosexual man was incapable of controlling himself around other men. It was like suggesting that at heterosexual man was incapable of controlling himself around women.
Then again, given the behaviour of some men around women, perhaps the implications weren’t all that far off.
Daniel grimaced as he ambled out of the elevator and down the corridor, weaving in and out of the airmen, enlisteds, and officers along the way and greeting those he knew.
For him, gender didn’t make so much of a difference. But he’d been brought up with a very different mentality to Jack. For Jack - as for Sam - gender made a lot of difference.
As Daniel swiped his card to enter his lab, he hoped that it didn’t make too much difference for Jack and Sam.
By the time Sam got to the control room, the activity had the hurried purposefulness of a crisis just averted.
“You’re lucky you dialled when you did, Colonel,” General Hammond was saying to the leader of an SG-team who was looking distinctly puffed. “Ten minutes earlier the Stargate was out of commission.”
“Narrow margins, sir,” the Major said, shaking his head. “Very narrow margins.”
Sam glanced around the control room as she raked one hand through sweaty hair. She’d been in the middle of sparring against Peta Meridian when the call came for her presence in the control room. The general had seen her, but didn’t point out something she had to see to, and while several of the people around the room gave her a quick glance and smile, they didn’t look as though they needed her help either.
In fact, everything looked in order, although several of the techs were still working on one of the databanks in the far corner of the control room - the ones that monitored the power. She turned back to General Hammond as she heard the SG-team leader head off to the infirmary for his post-gate. “What happened, sir?”
“Nothing to worry about, Colonel,” said a voice from beneath one of the consoles, startling her. A moment later, Samuel crawled out from a series of databanks. “A temporary problem, all fixed now.”
The easy dismissal irked a little. Sam looked from her counterpart to General Hammond to the gate technician seated at the main terminal.
“It was a power spike in the main feed,” the technician explained. “It shorted out one of the dampeners, and...Colonel Carter,” his eyes flickered towards Samuel, “did some rewiring.”
“Creative rewiring,” Samuel added, crossing the room to put away the pliers he’d been wielding. “I was just neatening it up when you came in.”
Sam glanced at the corner where he’d been working. “You know that the dampeners can’t be connected to the same transformer group as the cable for the dialling computers? The dampener feedback interferes with the dialling signals.”
He regarded her with a tolerant gaze. “Only when you run it in serial.”
“But it can’t be run in parallel,” she objected, suddenly annoyed by his nonchalance. “That’s too much power at the connection point - it overheats and blows.”
“Look, if you feel it’s necessary, you can check my work,” Samuel said, waving a hand at the desk beneath which he’d been fiddling. “But I tell you, it can be done - if you know how to set it up. Besides,” he added, “they made it back through the ‘gate without shorting the system. I think that speaks for itself.”
And Sam had no defence against that argument.
And no defence against the realisation that most of the control room, the incoming team, and General Hammond had been witness to the exchange between them - a clash of Samuel’s authority when compared to hers.
As she glanced around the room, Sam glimpsed some looks, quickly turned aside, and felt a rush of momentary embarrassment, before it was taken over by a calm heat. Pale skin was a curse - as were the sleeveless singlet tops that she wore to spar against Peta.
She knew the control room, every inch of it. Over eight years, she’d spend almost as many hours in here as she had off-world, and it was her baby as much as her projects in the labs. The dampeners couldn’t be run in parallel with the dialling computers, she’d tried it in the earliest days of the SGC project and come very close to shorting out the Stargate.
Except that Samuel had been the primary technical expert on his Stargate, and it seemed the last SG-team had made it back through the Stargate without the system shorting out...
Ordinarily, there would have been some amusement in noting that both she and her counterpart turned to answer the General.
“In my experience, sir, running it in parallel is a more efficient use of power at first, but long-term, it tends to heat the connections.”
“Only if you don’t know how to make the connections so the excess heat is adequately dealt with.”
She wasn’t going to argue that there was only one way to make the connections. And she certainly wasn’t going to crawl in under there right now, straight after returning from an off-world mission that had involved swamplands and little flying insects that got everywhere.
Suddenly, she became aware of the stiffness of her shoulders where Peta had gotten a blow in. And she was very aware of both General Hammond and Samuel watching her - along with the rest of the control room personnel.
It was the General who took the initiative. “I’d appreciate you looking over...Colonel Carter’s work later, Colonel,” he said, meeting Sam’s eyes with an expression that understood more than he indicated in words. “Not to doubt your knowledge of the technical workings,” he told Samuel, whose eyes had narrowed slightly at what amounted to an order for Sam to inspect his work. “But our Colonel Carter has a familiarity with this control room and the way it works, which may not necessarily translate from your world to ours.”
His gaze returned to Sam, now taking in her sweat-stained appearance. “Continue with your activities, Colonel, and report to the Gateroom to check things out once you’ve cleaned up afterwards.”
Sam nodded. It was a rescue of sorts, and she took it gratefully. “Yes, sir.”
The General turned away, leaving her and Samuel eyeing each other.
His mouth pulled to the side, annoyed yet accepting. “Check it all you like. I’m right.” And he turned away to tidy up the other tools he’d been working with - a dismissal of Sam that left her with her eyes narrowed.
Sam thought about the confidence of that statement as she stripped down and showered after the remainder of her bout with Peta.
This was the first major conflict she’d had with her counterpart.
Oh, they’d disagreed on a variety of topics and means and methods - especially before he was assigned his own lab to work in, instead of constantly being around her - but Sam had the upper hand in that it was her SGC, her work, her turf, and she knew the command.
Not that she thought she was being territorial.
It was just difficult to adjust from being the only Sam Carter in the world to having another ‘Sam Carter’ around. Especially someone who was a lot like her in so many ways, yet very different in so many others, and who represented a lot of things that she could never have.
She hadn’t felt quite this way with Dr. Carter - perhaps because the other woman hadn’t been around long enough for Sam to develop the feeling of being threatened. And the fact that she was feeling threatened at all was making her very uncomfortable - both with Samuel and with what it said about herself.
Sam had always considered working at the SGC had been one of the most rewarding career paths she’d ever taken. She’d gained a line of work that she truly enjoyed working on, made friends of people she would never otherwise have met, and seen and done things that she’d never even dreamed of doing as a child.
In addition to that, during her years at the SGC, she’d been promoted twice, gained numerous commendations, earned the unalloyed respect of men, women, and aliens, and met a man worth following in command and life.
And yet, for all that, there were moments when Sam felt the fragility of everything she’d done at the SGC. The mantra that she was only as good as the last thing she’d done echoed in her ears. Her father had taught that to her, set her on a path that decried mediocrity that pointed her to the stars.
Her father who had wanted another boy.
It was an old jest - something said in thoughtlessness and which remained like a thorn beneath her skin.
Well, in another world, he’d gotten the second son he wanted.
Sam wondered if that difference had given her counterpart the confidence she felt lacking within her. She’d known for several years that she had a strong need to gain the respect of those around her - the appreciation of her worth from those whom she respected.
If there was one thing that Samuel Carter could not be said to lack, it was self-confidence. The man had certainty of his value, of his likeability, of his appeal - but not in the odiously smug way that she’d loathed in McKay. This was a man who knew his worth and wasn’t going to settle for being considered less.
In some ways, he reminded her of Jack.
Of course, Colonel O’Neill had settled for being considered less than he was, but most of the time it had been a blind. He’d let people underestimate him, and then took pleasure in catching them out.
Sam slid her face under the shower spray and let the water sluice between her teeth as she grimaced.
As if this whole ‘alternate brother’ thing wasn’t giving her enough grief at work, things with her and Jack hadn’t been totally rosy either. He’d definitely withdrawn.
Oh, they still spent time together, but she’d catch him with this odd look on his face as he watched her, and knew that he was thinking of Samuel. And there wasn’t anything she could do or say about it either.
“Do you want to talk about it?” She’d asked him that one night after she gave him a beer and a kiss, and saw the shadow cross his face as she settled beside him on the sofa.
“Why?” Jack had asked bluntly. “It’s my problem, not yours.”
Sam had been uncomfortably reminded of the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ brush-off. And she hadn’t quite worked out how to pursue a personal matter beyond the point where he wanted the topic ended. On one hand, it wasn’t in her nature to let it slide by if she thought it merited attention; on the other, she wasn’t used to going directly against him.
It was a definite negative of their time as commander and subordinate.
It was difficult dealing with Samuel and everything he was challenging at work, and then dealing with Jack and everything he was challenging in her personal life.
Yesterday, she’d even found herself wishing she’d stuck with Pete.
Don’t go there, Sam. She ran the loofah along her shoulders and arms, working the gel into a lather across her body.
She’d split with Pete for a reason. It had taken her six months to realise that she could love and marry Pete Shanahan, but she’d be lying to him every day in a marriage where he came second best to another man.
Her best always went to the SGC and to Jack. And that was the plain truth of it.
Pete didn’t deserve that. No man did.
In a way, it freed her to be who she wanted to be; not who she thought she had to be in order to please her boyfriend. And while she had a better idea of who she was in the manner that she related to Jack, she was still struggling to work out the interpersonal side of their relationship.
Sam sighed and finished up her shower.
The locker room seemed very empty and echoey. After years of being the only woman on SG-1, she was used to it. Unless another team arrived at the same time, or a female consultant had come along with them, she’d always cleaned up alone.
There’d been times when that had been a definite bonus. As fond as she was of them, the Colonel and Daniel had always been strong personalities that grated against each other - and occasionally against Sam as well. Teal’c was easier to be around, in spite of his size and history, he’d always generated a sense of peace about him.
Now, she just thought it felt...lonely.
She imagined Samuel going through the post-gate with his team, exchanging quips with the Colonel, teasing Daniel about whatever fascinating thing he’d discovered on the latest planet. No woman in the team to have to split up the camraderie, no woman for whom they had to moderate their jokes and cuffs, just all guys. A real team, as one of the younger SG-team commanders had said when the sole woman in his team transferred back into the labs and was replaced by another guy.
As the towelled herself dry, quite viciously, she refused to let herself think on this any longer. It was poisoning her brain, and she had enough to deal with tonight already. There were still the connections to check. And then later, she might call Jack and see what he was doing.
Two hours, a debriefing, a torch, and a fair bit of dust later, Sam sat back on her haunches in the control room and was forced to admit that Samuel was right. The connections could be made in parallel without endangering either function. Although he’d done some funky wiring in the process.
As she climbed to her feet and dusted herself off, Sam felt slightly annoyed that her counterpart had been right. After all, she’d tried that connection God knew how many times and each time, the laws of nature had overruled the convenience of the setup. She’d even done the equations. It wasn’t possible to run that much voltage through those connections and not have the excess power convert to heat.
But Samuel had done it.
Sam had heard herself described as the SGC’s wunderkind. Naquadah generators, particle accelerators, synaptic disruptors, and more - she was used to bending the laws of the universe to get what she wanted done.
This was beyond even her skill. And she didn’t much like the feeling of being outclassed. Even by herself.
She carefully stifled that resentment as she packed up the tools, and slipped the roll back into its customary place. She ignored the glances of the technicians still in the room as she bid them goodnight.
And she went looking for her counterpart.
He hadn’t yet been authorised to go off-base. They were still putting together his documentation and setting him up as a real person in the world, and would be doing so for a few days yet. In the meantime, he was staying in one of the guest quarters, and could be found on the base all-hours.
As for when he finally was allowed off-base...
There was no way he’d be sharing Sam’s house. It was her house.
Sam felt a little ashamed at the selfishness, but she swiftly quashed it. It was her house and the fact that it had been his house in his own world was irrelevant. They weren’t in his world. They were in hers and so it was her house.
And if that thought was childish, then Sam supposed she was being childish.
Several false trails later, she located him in one of the rec rooms, watching the basketball playoffs. About half a dozen officers from various SG-teams were gathered about the couch and armchairs with a litter of Coke bottles and corn chip packets strewn about them.
Sam glanced quickly over the room, and figured that if these guys weren’t beered up, they were certainly sugar-high and fully caffeinated.
And making a noise that she’d heard from all the way down the corridor as she stepped out of the elevator.
Colonels March and Becker, Majors Stims, Mergon, and Barton, and Samuel Carter were in the middle of cheering one team - it looked like UCLA - the lines of their faces eager and avid by the light of the large television screen.
Maybe this wasn’t the best of times to try to see Samuel.
The team the guys were rooting for scored - a three-pointer, or so the announcer exclaimed over the sound system. There was a loud cheer from the guys, and the space above the couch was abruptly perforated by fists punching into the air.
They looked like they were having a good time, all the guys together, having a bit of fun.
And Samuel was sitting on the end of the couch, no discomfort in his expression or his posture, slapping Ian Becker on the shoulder in good-natured glee as he leaned over to grab the bottle of Coke sitting on the table corner.
Sam had never ‘mingled’ with the other officers of her rank. At least, not the male ones. Some of the other female officers had done it a few times, but such gatherings were more usually of the men than the women. Oh, the women of the base caught up and exchanged gossip and ran the news through their own lines, but a lot of those relationships were casual rather than close.
And every female officer knew how difficult it was to be ‘one of the guys’ when you didn’t have testosterone poisoning.
Samuel had no reservations about hanging out with the guys - that was plain enough. And, judging by the jokes and taunts being exchanged between the men, he was pretty well-accepted by them too.
She was considering turning away, when Samuel half-turned in glee to the guy next to him and spotted her hesitating in the doorway.
“Hey Sam!” He exclaimed, a grin on his face. “You a UCLA supporter?”
The awareness of her presence was an immediate dampener on the men in the room. Several hands smoothed down hair, more than one inquiring glance was shot in her direction, and they calmed down considerably, although Major Mergon was still cheering for the player dribbling the ball across the screen towards his goal.
Still, she summed up a faint, dry smile. “Do I get lynched if I’m not?”
“Tonight?” Major Ben Stims asked. “Yeah. What’s up, Colonel?”
In short, Nice to see you here, Colonel, now do your business and leave the guys to enjoy their game in peace.
“Actually, I was wondering if I could have a word with Colonel Carter.”
She saw the looks the other guys gave Samuel as he got up and crossed the room.
“If you’re heading out, get some more Coke from the vending machine, Carter,” Lieutenant Colonel Vincent March said. “Your turn.”
“March, they haven’t even sorted out my pay yet,” Samuel snorted. “I have no money.” But he jerked his head in the direction of the vending machines as he emerged from the room. “Go for a walk?”
“Hey, don’t be too long, Carter,” yelled one of the guys. “Or you’ll miss the best bit.”
Samuel just laughed, shook his head and began walking.
They were out of earshot when he finally said, “I’m guessing you want to know how it’s done.”
“We tried dozens of configurations. That’s the one that we’ve held for the last six years,” Sam said, keeping the irritation out of her voice. What was worse was that she didn’t know if it was irritation with herself for never seeing the answer or irritation with him for doing so. “It’s never played up since.”
He shrugged, “Look, as the General pointed out, I don’t know how everything works around here. But the connection was playing up and that was the config I was accustomed to - and we had loads of trouble trying to get it working, too - but when we did--”
“What exactly did you do to it?”
Samuel grimaced. “Look, this isn’t really the time for a tech lesson. And it’s not something I can explain easily to you - you’re better off seeing it yourself.” He glanced across at her, just as tall as she, with the same wide mouth, the same blond hair, the same blue eyes - although she’d never had the square planes of brow and cheekbone and jaw that he sported. Even their strides matched, although Daniel had said that Sam had the slightest swing of the hips. “It’s a Saturday night, Sam! Don’t you have somewhere to be? I know you’ve got someone to be with,” he said. “So what the hell are you still doing on the base?”
“Until twenty minutes ago, I was following orders and checking over your work,” Sam said evenly, resenting the suggestion that she had no life. Never mind that, over the last eight years, she’d rarely ‘had a life’ as most people defined it. But for all that, she’d enjoyed the life she’d had - more than some people seemed to enjoy their ‘life’. “And I thought it might be a good time to get you now.”
“Well, it’s not,” he said bluntly and stopped in the middle of the corridor. This level was empty at this time of night, and quiet - although she could still hear the distant yells and cheers of the guys from the rec room. “Look, I know this isn’t easy for you - it’s not easy for me either. But you’ve got issues with me being a guy and having all the things you never had - I can’t help that, any more than you could help being a girl. Just don’t take it out on me because you’re worried I’m going to take your place.”
She huffed, a little annoyed by his assumption. “This isn’t about you,” she said. “This is about someone explaining to me what they did to get a particular result - it has nothing to do with you, or the fact that you’re a guy.”
He gave her a look - what she was coming to think of as the rampantly disbelieving expression. “You’re sure of that?” Samuel asked. “Because from where I’m standing this all seems like an inferiority complex gone overboard.”
Sam knew her eyes were narrowing. “I said this has nothing to do with you,” she said with quiet, angry precision. “I just wanted to know how you did it.”
“And I’ll tell you - just not now, okay?” And now his words were short. “Look, have yourself a good night. I’m going to get the drinks and head back to the rec room. If you want to join us, you’re welcome, but if I wasn’t confined to base, I’d be out of here in less time than it would take to swipe a security card.”
With that, Samuel turned on his heel and walked off down the corridor, leaving her there.
It was an effort to rein in her temper as she watched him turn the corner, but she managed it. She had trinium self-control and lots of reason to use it.
Okay, so maybe Saturday night wasn’t the best of times to be asking someone to help with a work problem. But she’d thought that he, of all people, would be interested in explaining how he’d done what he’d done. And time, date, and place had rarely mattered to her when there was a problem to be solved.
Of course, he wasn’t her.
Then again, she supposed as she stalked off towards the elevators, maybe he didn’t want to explain how he’d done it. After all, it was something he could do that she couldn’t.
She paused outside the elevators, the card in her hand hovering just over the reader, paused in the act of swiping.
When did this become a competition? ‘Anything you can do, I can do better?’ She didn’t know.
She didn’t know and it was beginning to worry her.
Was it really a competition? Her against Samuel, with only one winner out of it?
It shouldn’t be. She knew it shouldn’t. But some instinct in her insisted that Samuel was a threat, and that it was a competition - and the winner would get Sam’s position.
It was a slightly terrifying thought.
They’d always said she was invaluable to the SGC - that it would take a handful of people to fill all the roles she managed to fill in her duties. In truth, it wouldn’t take a handful of people - just one Lieutenant Colonel who’d been her counterpart in another world.
God, she needed a break from all this.
Except that a break - a long break - would give Samuel time to consolidate his position...
God, she really needed a break from all this...
Sam swiped the card and wondered if Jack was home. She’d only seen him briefly when he poked his head in on Thursday, she’d been off-world since. Then again, he might not want to see her. He usually called when he knew she was due back and she’d checked her voicemail just before heading off to the debriefing and there weren’t any messages.
Maybe she’d just have a quiet night, then. It wasn’t a terrible thing: she’d had quiet nights many times before.
But as Sam stepped into the elevator, she heard the renewed strains of the guys cheering from far down the halls and felt very much as though a ‘quiet’ night was going to translate into a ‘lonely’ one.
Teal’c looked up from his copy of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art Of War’ and regarded Samantha Carter. “Yes, Samantha?”
“Would you initially have preferred another male team-mate when we first started on SG-1?”
He was not entirely surprised at the question, although he had not expected her to address the matter in such a direct way.
The last two weeks had not been easy for Samantha. Teal’c had watched her deal with her discomfort about her ‘twin brother’ and Samuel’s identity and familiarity with her life. He had seen her deal with it, only to find herself facing personal concerns about her role in the SGC.
He understood the root of her concern, even if he did not share it. Samantha had always questioned her personal worth through the lens of her professional work. He remembered early moments of uncertainty, which she had covered over with military composure. The habit had remained, although It was to the credit of General Hammond and O’Neill that she had learned to trust in her own judgement and grow in confidence.
It was a difficult question to answer. There were many levels at which she was requesting an answer from him, and he was uncertain of his ability to answer them all. That did not mean he should not make the attempt.
“I would have been more comfortable with a male team-mate in the beginning,” he admitted. “Jaffa females are not traditionally warriors. However,” he added with gentle humour, “I have had, since then, many occasions to be glad of your femininity.”
“The incident with Hathor?” She asked with a touch of bitter humour.
“An early occasion,” he said. “And not all such memories are related to our work here.”
Her eyes fixed upon him, her fingers pausing over the delicate connections of her current project. Teal’c returned her gaze, letting her consider the nuances of what he had said. He did not speak again, waiting for her to understand his meaning plainly.
Samantha’s worth to him was as herself, not in any role she held in the SGC, or any rank that the United States Air Force gave her. Yes, her functional capability towards this base was substantial, but were she to lose all that, still his loyalty would be to her for who she was. She was valuable to Teal’c because she was Samantha. After eight years, that was enough for him.
Her greatest fear, however, was that it would not be enough for others.
Perhaps she even counted herself among those others.
At length, she looked back down at her work and her fingers once again moved over the wires and screws she was adjusting. “Sometimes I forget that I ever had a life outside of work.”
“It is easy to forget such things when little time is spent outside of work.”
She looked up at him, wary of the gentle reprimand of his words, then looked quickly back down at the device. “I guess I haven’t been spending much time away from the base lately.”
“You are more than your work, Samantha.” He tilted his head. “You have personal relationships with myself and many others in this base and out of it.”
This time, she did not look up from her work. Her efforts had a certain busyness to them, a concerted attempt to avoid his regard. “It’s difficult to get used to him.”
“It is not a situation with which we have experience.”
“The replicator was not you.”
“Well, Dr. Carter came through the mirror.”
“Dr. Carter was also a woman, even if she had not chosen to pursue a military career,” Teal’c reminded her.
“And he isn’t and he did,” she muttered, quietly. Therein lay the crux of Samantha’s discontent with herself and her fear of Samuel - a discontent that Samuel was doing little to alleviate.
Teal’c was more than willing to concede that some of the fault lay with Samantha’s perception of herself and her role within the SGC. His team-mate had ever been focused on her work, sometimes to the detriment of her health and sanity, although she had eased back in recent years. Samuel’s presence had caused her to doubt not only herself, but also those who gave her work responsibilities, and those for whom her value went far past what she did in her work.
Her worth could not be measured merely in what she did on the base; it was also the many things which made up the personal facets of the woman who was ‘Samantha Carter’ - the many things which ‘Samuel Carter’ lacked.
But Teal’c could not say that. Neither so bluntly nor so broadly - not to Samantha.
So he regarded her and laid one first over his heart in solemn Jaffa salute. “Samantha Carter, one hundred alternate versions of you would not have one-tenth of the esteem in which I hold you, in whatever form they came.”
It was a hyperbole as the Tau’ri understood it, but there was truth in his statement. And she heard it and flushed deeply.
“Teal’c...” She bit her lip.
Her smile was small and brief, but the glossy sheen in her eyes spoke her emotions more eloquently than any words she could have said. “Thank you.”
Teal’c inclined his head to her. “You are welcome.”
But the memory of the force of her emotion stayed with him through that night and into the next morning.
The next morning, he entered the locker rooms to shower, and overheard a conversation between several officers who were already there.
“...might give him his own command. After all, she has command of SG-1. It’d only be fair.”
“He hasn’t proven himself, yet, Kev.”
“He survived eight years of his SGC and got to Lieutenant Colonel under Jack O’Neill,” ‘Kev’ said mildly. “How much more proof do you need? Besides, it makes more sense if the flagship team is led by a guy. Most of the cultures we encounter are patriarchal in the first place...”
“And how often does SG-1 goes out exploring anymore?” The other speaker’s voice was mild. “They’re more often called into the middle of some kind of intergalactic politics...”
“And we all know what Colonel Carter’s solution is to that,” Kev retorted.
“Blow something up for them?” A bark of laughter echoed around the walls of the locker room. “You have to admit it works.”
“Whether it works or not doesn’t matter,” Kev said. “It would still be best for SG-1 to be led by a guy.”
“Does it really matter? I mean, she’s a great officer. Hammond never had a bad word to say about her and O’Neill thinks she hung the moon and the stars.
“If Colonel Carter was doing for me what she’s doing for O’Neill, I’d think she hung to the moon and stars, too,” came the sly retort.
Teal’c frowned as he listened to the innuendo. He had heard various opinions of his friends’ relationship, but never had it been spoken in such a blatantly suggestive manner.
The second of the two men picked up on the innuendo and protested, “Dr. Jackson says they weren’t doing anything before O’Neill retired.”
“And how many people believe that? Besides, what does Jackson know? Samuel says that if he was O’Neill, he’d have jumped her bones years ago.”
“And you don’t think there’s something wrong about a man thinking about jumping his own bones?”
“Hey, if my female counterpart from another world was as gorgeous as Sam Carter, I’d probably jump her, too!”
“Given your charming looks, if you had a female counterpart from another world, Kevin, she’d be butt-ugly.”
“We can’t all be as much of a man for the ladies as Carter, you know.”
The conversation henceforth degenerated into an exchange regarding the women on base and their various attractions and detractions. Teal’c left as quietly as he had come, although somewhat more disturbed than before.
It was not the first time in the last two weeks that he had witnessed Samuel’s influence exerted over the men of the base. It was the first time it had given him pause.
Daniel Jackson had postulated how Samuel’s gender had changed the way his personality traits developed in him as compared to how they had developed in Samantha. Teal’c did not yet think his friend had considered how Samuel’s gender might have changed the dynamics of his SGC as compared to the SGC with which they were familiar.
Samantha held the respect and trust of both General Hammond and O’Neill. Through the years, their regard had seeped down through the rest of the command - and, through their regard for her, the general regard towards the female officers and enlisteds among the military was positive. Her presence in the highest eschelons of the SGC had inhibited the conduct of more than a few men, conforming it towards what the Tau’ri considered more ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour.
Samuel, it seemed, had no such inhibitions, nor any wish to curb them.
And that concerned Teal’c.
Both O’Neill and Daniel Jackson had made Teal’c aware of ‘locker room talk’ about the women of the base over the years. While neither man had been the kind to indulge in such speculations, they regarded it as an inevitable by-product of their culture’s masculinity bias and considered it harmless.
Teal’c was not so sure.
It seemed that the overheard exchange of that morning was merely a portent of what was yet to come for Teal’c’s day. Perhaps it was because he was now aware that the base held opinions and did not hesitate to voice them; perhaps it was merely a day for eavesdropping on others’ conversations.
In the commissary, his ears picked out Samantha’s title as he collected his lunch. “...think it’s sweet of him to offer. It’s about time Colonel Carter had a chance to live her own life. And now that General O’Neill retired...”
“Now they can screw on their own time instead of base time,” scoffed the other voice, male and more cynical. He’d kept his voice low to avoid being heard beyond their table, but Teal’c’s hearing was still sharper than most humans realised, and an odd quirk of harmonics meant that what was said at that table could be heard from Teal’c’s position halfway across the room.
Exactly what had been ‘offered’ was later made clear when Teal’c dropped by Samantha’s laboratory and found her typing up the final report on an item of technology which she’d been studying on and off for the last couple of months.
“You have completed your study of this?”
“No,” she said shortly. “But Samuel’s taking over from this point. General’s orders. I’m to concentrate on leading SG-1, Stargate consulting, and technology that I’ve specifically worked with before, such as Asgard and replicator materials.”
It explained a little of the exchange in the cafeteria.
“This transfer does not reflect on your abilities with the project.”
“No,” she said. “But I feel as though it does. Teal’c, I’ve handled the alien technologies from day one of this project. It’s my area and I want to keep it.”
He considered the situation and decided that it might be helpful to point out something she was gaining rather than emphasise what she was losing. “Does this not allow you to spend more time with O’Neill?”
Her mouth twisted and she stared fixedly at the screen. “Well, we’re not spending all that much time together right now, anyway.”
Ah. That would give Samantha ample reason to find other projects into which to pour her time. It would also feed her fears that she was becoming redundant, both personally and professionally.
Teal’c was pondering his next words when she spoke again.
“Yes, Samantha Carter?”
“Have you ever seen me...use charm to try to get my own way?”
It was a valid question, no doubt prompted by Samuel’s considerable charisma. “You have pleaded your case with General Hammond and O’Neill numerous times, Samantha,” Teal’c said after due thought. “I do not believe you have ever misused such an ability.”
“Do you think I could?”
He regarded her. “Under circumstances where the outcome was dire,” he conceded, “It is possible that you might resort to attempting to cozen someone to your thinking.” The silence stretched out. “Do you believe Samuel has been doing such?”
“Everyone tries to get their own way, Teal’c,” she said.
“And yet I have been trying to get my own way for eight years and you have never indicated discontent with my behaviours.”
That elicited a laugh from her before she sobered quickly. “I think I’m getting too sensitive about this.”
“That is possible.”
She glanced at him, her eyes studying his expression. “You didn’t tell me I should take it easy.”
“To suggest such a thing would help neither your state of mind, nor assauge your concerns,” Teal’c said.
Her mouth twisted and she looked back down at her desk again. It seemed that someone else had most unwisely suggested such a thing to Samantha Carter. Such a course of action would only have given her the impression of wishing her gone all the sooner.
“Remember the Replicator who looked like me?”
He was not likely to forget it.
Samantha looked up at him, fixed her gaze steadily upon him as he watched her. “While she was in the Alpha site, she told me that she was what she was because of me. I denied it, of course.”
“But a part of you wonders if you have that potential within you.”
Now she looked away. “Seeing Samuel - who’s human and a lot like me in so many ways...” After a moment staring at the computer banks, she shook her head. “Never mind, Teal’c,” she said, forcing herself to a reasonable calm. “I’m just being silly.”
Teal’c forebore to say that there were some things Samantha Carter would never be. ‘Silly’ was one of them.
He brought up the matter of the men speaking in the locker room to Daniel Jackson later, and was a little surprised when his friend frowned. “It was just talk,” he said, his face tilted forward so he was looking at Teal’c over the rim of his glasses. “Wasn’t it?”
“It is the manner of it that concerns me.”
Daniel gave him an odd look. “You do know that they’ve been talking about Jack and Sam for years, don’t you?”
“Yet, I had not encountered such a disrespectful tone.”
His team-mate grimaced. “Well, you can’t lay it all at Samuel’s feet. Since they actually got together, the base grapevine has been humming.”
From the earliest days, Daniel Jackson had been one of the most reliable sources of gossip around the base. During their first few years together as SG-1, some small part of it had been because of his friend’s propensity to end up in the infirmary where he overheard the nurses gossiping. In later years, as his tendency to injury decreased, Daniel had continued to associate with the nurses who relegated news to him.
“Samantha finds her counterpart’s presence difficult.”
Daniel considered that. “Well, I can see why she might. I mean, her job has always been very important to her.”
“I do not believe that this is wholly related to her job,” Teal’c said.
The other man blinked, with the slightly disconcerted half-frown that appeared on his face when he wasn’t quite sure what was expected of him. “What else would it be related to? It’s not like Samuel’s going to waltz in and take his life back. And,” he added with a slightly narrowed look, “her relationship with Jack is her business and his - they have to work that out between them. I’m an archaeologist, not Cupid.”
And in that manner, Daniel Jackson appeared to wash his hands of the matter.
Teal’c was not quite so decided on the subject of his neutrality. Although Daniel Jackson might be one of the most reliable sources of information regarding what was happening on the base, his background biased him. He was accustomed to taking second-hand reports from others and fitting the situation together to form a whole. It was his specialisation.
On the other hand, Teal’c was the one who was interacting with the personnel of the base, hearing the words exchanged, and witnessing the various interactions between Samuel and the men and women of the base.
For the most part, it seemed that the male officers of the base were easy with Samuel. He made himself agreeable to them and was familiar with their ways. Some were a little more wary. Those were usually the commanders more likely to encounter Samantha in one role or another.
The female officers were divided on the matter of Samuel Carter. It was generally agreed that he was remarkably good-looking. ‘Eye candy’ was the term Teal’c first heard by a junior lieutenant. However, some of the older officers, who had been friends with Sam for some time were a little more wary.
“It’s not that he’s not courteous,” Captain Helena Vaillant was saying as she sculpted her mash potatoes into small cliffs on her plate. “I just keep getting the feeling that he’s checking me out every time he so much as smiles at me.”
The commissary was empty but for this group of officers and Teal’c. Upon seeing the women, Teal’c had been prepared to take his food and leave. He was conscious that the women of the base sometimes preferred to discuss things that they did not wish their male colleagues to hear, and was respectful of that.
However, one of them had waved him over, and they had continued their conversation without any apparent break in continuity.
Captain Gina Reilly snorted inelegantly. “I get that, too.” She shrugged. “He seems a great officer. The team leaders are jostling to get him on their team when he’s finally released for off-world duty.”
“They wouldn’t give him command like Sam?”
“Probably not off the bat,” Major Meridian said. “They’d want to check that he was command material first. Sam proved herself over seven years. This guy’s hasn’t even been here seven weeks, and the only recommendation he has is his own word. The General’s smart enough to wait and see - even if he’s eager enough to have a second Carter around the place.”
“Well, given everything that Sam’s done for the SGC, what commander wouldn’t be glad of a second Sam Carter around the place? Even if he is a man.”
Sergeant Westerholme grinned. “You make it sound like a bad thing.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, Trace, there are more than enough men around here.” Captain Reilly said wryly.
“And things aren’t that bad around here,” Sergeant Westerholme countered with a scoop of shepherd’s pie.
The young officer grimaced. “But no small part of that is because Sam paved the way with Hammond and O’Neill.”
“So what if she’d been Samuel instead?” Captain Reilly asked. “I mean, he seems nice enough, but I’m with Helena. He’s eyes the women - and not in the ‘sum you up and then see how competent you are’ way that the officers like General Hammond and the older commanders do. At least they’re willing to let us show them what we can do on an individual basis.”
“And Samuel doesn’t look at it the same way?”
Captain Vaillant was the one to answer that question. “Whatever the world he came from was like, I can tell you this. There were a lot less women in his SGC, and they weren’t half as prominent as we are.”
“God only knows what he makes of Sam.”
“Does he check her out, too?”
“Of course he does,” Major Meridian snorted. “Every man on base checks Sam out. Even those who aren’t actually interested.” She glanced over at Teal’c sitting at the table beside them. “Right, Teal’c?”
Amused that his opinion was being asked - and about such a topic, Teal’c regarded Major Meridian with a raised eyebrow. “I will not answer that question on the basis that it may incriminate me,” he deadpanned.
That made the women laugh.
It was Major Meridian who brought back the matter a little while later. “It’s more than Samuel checking us out, though,” she said at last. “It’s professional as well as personal. He’s not used to us, so he doesn’t trust us.”
“And you’ve already seen how the other officers respond to him. The younger ones, I mean, for whom the ‘officer’s club’ is about having a dick, whether or not you have anything to back it up.”
There was a hint of bitterness in Major Meridian’s tone. Teal’c observed her carefully. Like Samantha Carter, Peta Meridian was one of the higher-ranked women in the base. She was not as prominent, but she was practical, capable, and just a little bit of a ‘wildcard’ personality. He had little doubt that such spirit would have worked against her before - as, perhaps, the spirited personalities of Jaffa women such as Ishtar had initially worked against them among the ranks of even the free Jaffa.
“So he’s got influence with the others. Things aren’t that bad around here, as Tracey said, but they’re not perfect either.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, Pete, we don’t live in a perfect world,” Sergeant Westerholme remarked.
Peta Meridian shrugged. “No. But something about him drags fingernails down my internal blackboard. And I wouldn’t want to work in his SGC.”
The conversation drifted through other topics, and Teal’c commented where he was appealed to for opinion. However, he was content to sit and consider what the women had said in the silence of his own mind.
“You don’t do this with Sam, then?” Samuel inquired, dancing back and forth on his feet.
“I do not.”
“I guess boxing isn’t exactly a girl thing.”
Teal’c blocked another punch and considered how Samantha would feel about being dismissed from an activity because it was not considered ‘a girl thing.’ He did not imagine she would be pleased.
“So how did you deal with the whole ‘woman warrior’ thing, anyway?” Samuel feinted one way and struck out on the other side. He moved swiftly on his feet, graceful as any Jaffa warrior in a fight, and Teal’c noted his movements and the actions that portended another attack.
He was not sure he could answer this question since he did not know how he had ‘dealt’ with it. They had gone out on missions as team-mates, and Teal’c had seen her strength and courage in action. Her gender had become irrelevant: her soul was that of a warrior and he respected and admired that.
“Samantha was a comrade,” Teal’c said at last. “I learned to trust her, O’Neill, and Daniel Jackson at the same time.”
Behind the headguard, Samuel looked a little disconcerted by the answer. “You didn’t have any issue with her as a woman?”
“She has no control over her gender,” Teal’c said.
“Well, no, but you were used to working with men.”
“I was accustomed to working with warriors.” That the warriors had been male was irrelevant. Through his friendship with Samantha Carter, Dr. Fraiser and the other women of the SGC, and through his affair with Ishtar and his observation of the women of her camp, Teal’c had learned that the warrior soul made no distinction between gender.
Neither would Teal’c.
“I suppose,” Samuel murmured. He feinted again, landing a solid punch in Teal’c’s shoulder. “But there’s gotta be things that the girls can’t do, T. Sometimes you need a guy to do the heavy lifting.”
“There are times when physical strength and stamina are valuable assets in a fight,” Teal’c replied. “But they are not the only contributors to success in battle.”
“Yeah, brains, intelligence, and tactics,” Samuel said in a manner that was not quite dismissive. “Are most of the cultures we meet patriarchal?”
“And isn’t it easier for the all-male teams to make contact with those planets?”
“So why make things more difficult for ourselves?”
Teal’c blocked a blow from Samuel and retaliated with one of his own.
These were persuasive arguments, indeed. His understanding of such things was not as instant as Daniel Jackson’s, nor as comprehensive as Samantha’s, however he had become accustomed to the thinking of the Tau’ri in the last few years.
“The Jaffa made things more difficult for themselves in throwing off their false gods,” he reminded Samuel. “And yet the results are worthy of who the Jaffa aspire to be.” He would never think of the Jaffa rebellion without some small amount of pride in what he and Bra’tac had wrought.
Even beneath the protective jaw mask, he saw Samuel’s mouth tug to the side. “I see your point.”
They circled each other a little longer, lashing out when opportunities were presented.
Teal’c later consoled himself that the other man’s success was to be expected. Samuel had an understanding of him that he did not possess of Samuel; a matter of weaknesses and blind spots, familiarity and knowledge. It occurred to Teal’c that Samuel would possess this knowledge of all who worked on the base with whom he had been acquainted in his own world.
Of course, the one person whom Samuel was most curious about was the one person that it was impossible for him to have previously possessed knowledge of.
“So, how does she cope with being ‘the girl’ on the team?” Samuel asked as they sat on the bench afterwards.
Teal’c eyed him. “Samantha Carter is the commanding officer of SG-1. She has always been a valuable member of SG-1.”
“Well, yes.” Samuel hesitated. “But before that. I mean, there had to be times when she just felt out of it. I know the girls sometimes complained of ‘testosterone poisoning’ on the base back home.”
Yes, there had been moments when it was plain Samantha had felt very much out of the more masculine workings of the SGC. However, her situation had always been mitigated by Daniel Jackson’s presence. If Samantha had experienced differentiation for her gender, then Daniel Jackson had been differentiated through his academic background, unleavened by any military experience.
He wondered what the Daniel Jackson of Samuel Carter’s world was like after his experiences within the SGC.
“These questions are better asked of Samantha Carter,” he said, adopting a chiding tone.
Samuel put up his hands. “Okay, okay. You don’t want to tell me. Fine. I was just curious.”
It seemed that curiosity was also Samuel’s besetting sin.
O’Neill was in his usual crabby form when he met at the special training offered to the Academy graduates who were under consideration for assignment to the SGC.
The cadets were neither particularly skilled, nor particularly inept, however it was O’Neill’s habit to be as ‘hardass’ as he could possibly be during this training. His reasoning was that they would encounter far worse out in the field, and he would rather see them learning from training than the real thing.
It was a good reason. Teal’c had heard the same reasoning from Bra’tac as he observed the old warrior’s training of young Jaffa. He had even suffered under such rigours as Bra’tac’s protégé, many years earlier.
Teal’c also suspected that O’Neill took a certain amount of pleasure in playing the crabby old man.
However, today was a little different.
As the newly-commissioned officers lined up at the end of the exercise, huffing, puffing, and panting, O’Neill looked them up and down with the jaundiced eye of a commander who had seen soldiers come and go and was unconvinced of the worthiness of this group. “If that had been a real situation, you’d all be dead. Anyone care to tell me why?”
One of the young men glanced brieftly at Jack, then briefly at Teal’c, then looked straight ahead. “We didn’t make it back in time, sir.”
“Nice try, but wrong,” O’Neill said shortly. “In case none of you happened to notice, you tripped two alarms on your way through the complex. The first one triggered the deadfall that you found blocking your way back. That was why the scenario changed on you. The second one triggered a silent alarm system which alerted the owners of the complex to your presence and they dispatched a dozen guards to deal with you.”
That was something of a surprise to the young officers, and not within the usual parameters of these training sessions. Teal’c didn’t allow a frown to betray his surprise at O’Neill’s departure from procedure, but he watched the graduates shift slightly.
“We might have dealt with them, sir,” a young woman ventured.
“SG-7 didn’t,” O’Neill said. The young officers blinked as his words changed the scenarios from the theoretical to the historical. “The guards took them by surprise. Captain Brunswick took a shot in the head; he was dead before they got off-planet. Dr. Hutton was shot in the leg. It missed the main artery, but that tore while they were trying to escape. He bled his life out on the gateroom ramp.” One of the young women winced and looked down. “Lieutenant Balwyn was more fortunate - if you can call a shot in the side fortunate. She took a medical discharge and is currently doing risk-analysis for the Pentagon, where she’s not at risk of being shot at every time they give her an assignment. And their commander...” O’Neill paused and something in his jaw set steel-hard. “Their commander couldn’t live with the guilt of losing his team and ate a bullet six months later.”
The students all winced.
It was a grim story - one that the older officers of the SGC were not always willing to share. However, it had proven efficacious in providing the young officers with a glimpse of what the SGC might cost them - of the possibilities of life at the SGC.
The experiences were not always so grim. SG-1 in particular had a gift of being able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But that was not always the case. Men and women had died, sometimes meaningfully, sometimes senselessly. And Teal’c knew very well that the Tau’ri preferred to be prepared for the worst, while the Jaffa training rarely allowed for anything less than the best.
“Might haves and assumptions are a very bad thing on which to rely, Lieutenant. Especially when your life, and the lives of your people depend on them.” O’Neill looked along the row of trainees. “You might like to consider that during your next training session. Dismissed.”
They filed out in silence, with none of the usual commiserations after a bad exercise. Evidently O’Neill’s recounting of the fall of SG-7 had struck a chord within them.
“Do you not believe you were a little harsh on them, O’Neill?”
O’Neill didn’t look up from his clipboard. “They have to know what’s coming, Teal’c.”
Perhaps they did. But Teal’c had never heard O’Neill relate that story before, let alone to the trainees. It betrayed a somewhat grim frame of mind.
He suspected O’Neill had found himself relying on ‘might haves and assumptions’ of late, but said nothing. Instead, he allowed himself to be engaged in a dissection of the morning’s exercises and a summation of each graduate’s possible value to the SGC.
It was not until their meeting was over that O’Neill broached any topic regarding the internal matters of the SGC.
“So how’s Carter dealing with Samuel?”
They were ambling back out to the parking lot where their vehicles sat, and while the question was apparently easy enough, Teal’c was aware of his friend’s tension.
“I believe she continues to find it difficult to deal with the presence, much as he finds it difficult dealing with hers.”
He caught the grimace of his friend. “Yeah, well, another version of yourself takes a bit of getting used to.”
“Samantha Carter harbours fears that Samuel’s presence will make her redundant within the SGC.”
“Yeah,” O’Neill muttered. “I got that, too.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and scuffed at the bitumen beneath his feet. “She’s worrying about nothing, T,” he said at last. “I mean, it’s not like the SGC is going to kick her out just because she’s a woman. Yes, it’s mostly male, but it’s not that neanderthal.”
Teal’c considered his next words very carefully. While he admired and respected his team-mates and the many personnel of the SGC whom he had come to know over a period of years, it had not escaped him that there were blind spots in every organisation.
And while he was male, as Samantha had so helpfully pointed out to him during the Hathor situation, he was also a Jaffa - an alien in an organisation that valued a degree of homogenity.
“The majority of commanders, when faced with the choice between Samantha and Samuel,, would choose Samuel.”
“I wouldn’t.” O’Neill sounded very definite on that point.
“You are one man,” Teal’c said calmly. “And you are not necessarily representative of your organisation or your country.”
“Hammond wouldn’t either.”
“Perhaps it is not the individuals that Samantha is concerned about,” Teal’c said. “And her fears are not without foundation in her mind.”
O’Neill gave him a hard look as he paused by the vehicle Teal’c had commandeered from the SGC fleet. “Are you saying Carter thinks the Air Force would resign her in favour of Samuel?”
“Samantha Carter has experienced much sexism in her career as an officer of the United States Air Force. Although neither you nor General Hammond may have perpetrated such beliefs within her, she has experienced such things in her past and knows that they can happen. That she has not experienced discrimination during her time at the SGC does not mean she will never experience it.”
“It troubles her that badly?”
Teal’c didn’t say that O’Neill should talk to Samantha and find out such information for himself, but O’Neill was smart enough to understand what was suggested.
“Look, the Air Force isn’t perfect. It’s a long way from ideal, but most of the time it’s just guys doing their best to protect what they’ve got. You know that, Teal’c. Hell, you’ve seen it in action. And nobody with any kind of sense would exchange Carter for someone else. Even a male version of her. Look, the guy not only made a backdoor into the SGC, but had the equipment set up to exploit it. Any commander with his brains screwed in straight is going to think twice about that kind of officer.”
“Indeed. However, Daniel Jackson has more than once said that common sense is not as common as it should be.”
“And he’s one to talk,” Jack grumbled. “Look, Carter’s starting at shadows. She’s got to know that she’s invaluable to the SGC. No matter what kind of reproductive organs she has.” The last phrase was muttered so softly that Teal’c barely heard it.
Teal’c was not convinced that Samantha’s state of mind was the only contributor to this issue. As an alien, he had some experience of human mentality: although he was accepted within the SGC, he would never belong to Earth. In the same way, Samantha might be accepted within the Air Force as a high-ranking female officer, but she would never belong to the social groups that formed among the senior officers in the same way that O’Neill had.
There were some things that were too deeply ingrained to remove.
And even his friend was not capable of recognising that although his organisation had a claim to fairness with regards to gender, the imbalance was still significant between male and female - and possibly would never be rectified.
Dr. Fraiser, while she lived, had explained to Teal’c the concept of innoculation: the introduction of a small amount of sickness into a patient would make the person immune to the greater sickness. Although she had explained it in medical terms, Teal’c had observed that the concept of ‘innoculation’ could extend to other things. In this case, to the idea that the society of the country was still not one of total equality of opportunity.
O’Neill and Daniel Jackson were not immune to the idea that, because their society was more fair than others, things were fine as they were. A little sickness might be better than a lot, but Teal’c had never yet been convinced that a little sickness was not better than perfect health - not even by Dr. Fraiser.
However, he would not waste breath attempting to convince O’Neill of that.
“I believe Samantha Carter knows her worth full well,” Teal’c told his friend. “That does not mean she does not welcome a reinforcement of what she knows.” He remembered the momentary emotion he had glimpsed in her eyes three days ago, and knew that she had regarded his avowal as a gift and a kindness.
O’Neill’s mouth twisted slightly, and he fished in his pocket for his keys. “Yeah. Well, I’ll see you around, Teal’c. Remind Daniel about Monday night, will you? Oh, and I’m thinking about having a barbecue one afternoon next week. If you guys aren’t offworld again. Carter should be finished the new iris program now, so there’s no real reason to be keeping you guys still on base. But if you are...”
The chatter indicated that the conversation had gone as far as it was going to go at this moment.
Teal’c did not press for more. “I shall inform Daniel Jackson.” He did not offer to inform Samantha. His friend recognised the significance of the omission.
“Yeah, well...” He waved a hand. “See you next week sometime.”
Teal’c watched his friend depart the parking lot of the training grounds and drove back up to the mountain. He had planted seeds for O’Neill to consider. They might grow, they might not.
But there was always hope.
Nobody would have ever said that the control room of the SGC was the place to be on a Friday night. And yet, it was Friday night and, once again, Sam was in the control room, working on the computers.
This time, she didn’t even have the excuse that General Hammond had requested her to check over Samuel’s work.
She did have the excuse that the man she was seeing was ‘catching up with a friend’ and was busy tonight.
Sam hadn’t dared to ask what kind of a friend he was seeing. Kerry Johnson had been in town this week, and while she trusted Jack, she couldn’t quite forget that he’d been seeing the other woman for at least a month before Sam ever found out.
The memory of that meeting still made her shiver slightly. That realisation, cold as winter sleet and just as biting: she’d had her chance and blown it on Pete, and even her halting, lame explanations to the General were trumped by the woman who’d stepped neatly across the decking to stand beside him and the charred remains of his barbecue lunch.
And yet, in spite of her fears as she hung up the phone this afternoon, Sam hadn’t been able to bring herself to ask him the question she’d desperately wanted to ask.
Her fingers flashed over the keyboard, but even she was aware that she was hitting the keys a little harder than was strictly necessary.
However, she was the technical expert on the Stargate, and if she was receiving odd sideways glances from the other technicians in the room, she could ignore them. Mostly.
She waited for the system to recompile the new, improved iris program. The backdoor had been patched in the meantime, as tight as Sam could make it. When she’d finished, she’d been certain that not even Samuel would be able to get into the system that way.
And once this compile was finished, not even the replicator version of her would be able to get into the system.
Okay, so maybe her replicator self might be able to do it, but it wouldn’t be easy.
The compile completed, and she began to initiate a diagnostics check and sat back in the chair, scraping her hand through her hair in relief.
“Iris program all done?”
His voice startled her, and she turned sharply.
Samuel was leaning against one of the walls, watching her with an easy smile.
“Yes,” she said, taking a deep breath and glancing back at the screen to determine the status of the diagnostics. “Just finished. Well, nearly. I’m just running a system diagnostic to make sure everything’s okay in there.”
His mouth quirked. “So once that’s done, did you have any plans for tonight? Or were you planning to spend this weekend on base as well?”
The tone he used was a teasing one, but she flushed, remembering his comment last weekend. It’s a Saturday night, Sam! Don’t you have somewhere to be?
So she gave him her most polite smile. “Actually, I was going to head home once this was done.”
“Home?” Samuel must have learned that brow arch from Teal’c.
“Home.” She regarded him challengingly. “Unless you have a better offer?”
He grinned, open and charming. “O’Malley’s. Dinner.”
Sam hadn’t actually expected him to meet her challenge, and she had a momentary double-take. “You’re allowed off base?”
“Notice came in, last thing this afternoon,” he said. “I’m free to be let loose on the world.”
The diagnostic program gave the short beep to indicate it had finished, and Sam set the system back to idle and handed the terminal over to the gate technician. “Thank you, sergeant.”
Samuel followed her out of the control room down the corridor towards the lifts, keeping an easy pace beside her. “So?”
He gave her a scornful look. “So, are we going to do O’Malley’s?”
Sam swiped her card at the elevators. On one hand, O’Malley’s sounded like a great idea. On the other hand, this almost sounded like a date. And that, as Jack would have said, was just plain weird.
“It’s not a date if that’s what you’re wondering,” Samuel said, divining her thoughts. “It’s the first time I’ve been allowed out of the SGC since I got here. That’s three weeks underground - not counting the little fenced-off area where personnel take their smoking breaks. I haven’t had a beer in all that time, and my memories of the taste of steak are growing dim.”
The elevator arrived and she stepped in. His charm was very effective when he brought the full force of it to bear with large blue eyes, open expression, and the tiniest glimmer of mischief in the quirk of his smile. Sam couldn’t help smiling back at him, but she still wondered if she’d ever been this brazen around men.
“I don’t know,” she began as the doors closed behind him.
“It’s obvious you don’t have anything to do tonight,” Samuel said, glancing at her with exasperation. “And I could do with some company just as much as you.”
Sam wasn’t about to admit it, but it was the best offer she’d received for the weekend - and probably the only offer she was going to get. Not that there wasn’t a certain attraction in the thought of going home and just veging out. Still, some small part of her wanted to go out and do something, instead of sitting at home simply because the man she was seeing was otherwise occupied.
And she refused to let her mind speculate on what he was otherwise occupied with. Jack wasn’t like that.
“Dinner,” he said. “Meet you at the top in ten?”
Sam always kept at least one set of civvies on base, although she usually had more than one set. Tonight, she was lucky enough to have one leather jacket among the clothes neatly hung in her locker, along with a pair of blue jeans, and a red scoop-necked t-shirt. It wasn’t fancy, but Sam wasn’t dressing fancy. This was just dinner with someone who was really like a brother.
Still, it was a little worrying to reach the top and discover that he was wearing pretty much the same thing.
He shook his head as he glanced her over from head to toe. “I think we’ve passed out of the SGC and gone into the twilight zone,” he muttered
“Ya think?” Sam shook herself a little. “Where’d you find the clothing? Internet?”
Samuel gave her a brief glare. “Actually, mostly Daniel,” he said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket. “Are you driving?”
“They haven’t assigned you a vehicle yet?”
“Oh, they have. But since we’re going to the same place, it seems silly to go in two cars.”
“Well, I’m not driving you back.” It was her form of a warning, and he grinned and spread his hands wide as they stepped out into the general parking lot.
“Okay, then,” he said. “You leave your car here for the night, and I’ll be the designated driver.”
“But you’re drinking,” Sam objected.
He threw up his hands. “Jesus, I’m just suggesting solutions. I don’t want to go in two cars, and you don’t want to drive me back up here, so I figured that if you left your car up here, I can drive you down and come back and pick you up in the morning.”
This was the first she’d heard of anything happening in the morning. Sam paused and eyed him. “Why the morning?”
“Because I need to find a place to live, a car, and case this town, and I don’t want to do it by myself.”
Sam was irked by the assumption that she’d want to help him with all this. “And what if I didn’t want to help you find somewhere to live?”
Samuel shrugged, broad shoulders lifting and falling in a sign of insouciance that was oddly familiar, “Then I’ll do it myself,” he said. “But it’s more fun with company. And were you doing anything tomorrow?”
She didn’t answer that question, because she wasn’t doing anything tomorrow. Instead, she led the way to her car, and climbed into the driver’s seat, making no comment when Samuel slipped into the passenger seat and adjusted the chair so he could stretch out his legs.
“What happened to the Volvo?”
“Sold it,” she shrugged. “It needed too much care and I wasn’t on planet often enough.”
“Or driving it,” he murmured. “Did you sell it to that goth guy up in Denver as well?”
Sam looked away from the road, startled. “Yes.”
“Tell me I wasn’t the only one who thought he smelled.”
“Oh, yes.” Sam remembered the young man - about twenty or twenty one, wearing board shorts with lace-up boots. “He needed a wash.”
“I’ll bet he painted it black within a week,” Samuel muttered. “I liked the purple.”
Sam grinned. She’d thought exactly the same thing as she walked away from the sale. “Well, at least the Apache is in good hands.”
“The collector out in Manitou Springs?” Samuel looked thoughtful. “I wonder if he still has it.”
“You’d buy it back?”
“Hey, I don’t have any other form of transport,” he said as they wound their way down the last curve of the mountain and out into the main road towards the Springs.
The conversation turned into an argument over which used car lot was better, and whether he wanted a truck or a sedan. Sam nearly put her foot in it when she opened her mouth to ask if he was overcompensating for other deficiencies, and she was pretty sure he came close to putting his foot in it when she said that the sedan was a perfectly good car and got her around to all the places she wanted to go.
Although he didn’t actually say as much, she got the impression he thought the truck was macho. And if the next words out of his mouth had been, “Well, I guess it’s okay for a woman...” he would have found himself walking the rest of the way to O’Malleys.
The conversation about vehicles gave way to his queries about the various parts of Colorado Springs through which they passed. Daniel would have found their comparison of memories fascinating if he’d been listening. Sam was a bit relieved that he hadn’t yet found the time or the courage to corner them both and persuade them to answer his questions. Samuel had been here three weeks, and while she was dealing with his presence, she still could do with a little more time to get accustomed to the idea that she had a ‘twin brother’ wandering around the place.
Still, as she got out of the car in the parking lot of O’Malleys, Sam had to admit that she’d actually enjoyed the drive down. When it came to more generic topics she had no problem talking to Samuel. They shared anecdotes and comments on the things they remembered, and had a lot of opinions in common as far as the state of the world went.
It wasn’t all that much of a surprise, she supposed. They’d had similar backgrounds, similar childhoods, and if it wasn’t for her own personal insecurities, then she suspected she’d like him a lot more.
Conversely, for all that she knew that some of her reluctance to like him was her own problem, it only made her want to dig in her heels.
A chilly wind blew through the parking lot as they walked briskly to the door. She gave him a hard look when he held it open for her, but he had a look of perfect innocence on his face. ‘Who me?’ Sam called it when she saw it on Jack or Daniel’s faces.
Inside the restaurant, it was warm and noisy, with most people congregating in the section where the bar was. There didn’t seem to be a queue for the dining area, so they made their way through there directly, with Sam tugging on Samuel’s sleeve when he got a longing look in his eye for a beer. “You can have one when the food comes,” she told him.
“God, you sound like Mom when we went out to restaurants,” he grumbled. “‘You can have a drink when the food comes!’”
The comparison was momentarily surprising. Neither her Dad, nor Mark made much allusion to her mother. It was one topic that they’d never grown comfortable with discussing. She stared at him in surprise at being reminded of their mother. “I’d forgotten that.”
He winced. “Actually, I’d forgotten it, too,” he admitted. “But just then you sounded so much like her...”
Sam couldn’t help the smile that twisted her mouth. “I am her daughter.”
Samuel stared at her as though he never seen her before. “So I see.”
A girl who looked entirely too young to work here came up at that moment, ready to lead them to their table. They were seated and handed menus. Samuel promptly ordered a beer, and Sam did likewise.
They even liked the same kind of beer.
He flipped through the menus, apparently unconcerned by the smiliarity of their choices. Sam couldn’t be so sanguine about it. And other discomforts were making themselves known to her.
She was uncomfortably aware that most other groups of two in this restaurant were couples. Men and women who were romantically involved. She imagined how this would look if anyone she knew saw her sitting here, opposite Samuel, and tried not to grimace.
It’s just like dinner with a friend, who happens to be male, she told herself. There’s a reasonable explanation for it.
“Do you always think about the appearance of things?”
Sam met his gaze very directly and frankly. If it was possible, she’d suspect him of reading her mind. As it was, the replicator version of her had been the one to say that she knew exactly how Sam thought. And while Samuel was separate from Sam by thirty-seven years and another universe, still there were some aspects of him in which she glimpsed parts of herself.
Perhaps she could almost understand Jack’s disquiet.
“I have to,” she said, and was proud that there was no bitterness in her voice.
He leaned back in his chair, closing the menu. “Reputation, reputation, reputation, oh Iago, I have lost my reputation!”
She arched a brow back at him in return. “Othello?”
“I think it’s the only line I know from the play,” he admitted. “Daniel could probably quote you the whole thing.”
“Actually, the General probably could quote quite a bit of it,” Sam said before she could help herself. She hadn’t been meaning to speak of Jack but now he was mentioned...
It was his turn to arch a brow. “How do you do that?”
He rolled his eyes at her playing dumb. “Date a former commanding officer. Aren’t there all kinds of problems involved in having an intimate relationship with someone you’re used to having chew you out in the field?”
Sam knew her shoulders stiffened, and that he saw it. “I don’t want to talk about this now.”
“Would you ever want to talk about it?”
“Not to you.”
His expression was a cross between exasperation and amusement. “Okay,” he said, and hooked an arm over the back of the chair, looking around the room. “So, what other relationships have you had before...him? Boyfriends? Ex-husbands?”
There was no way on Earth or Netu that she was going to answer that question and she said as much to him.
But as it turned out, she didn’t have to.
They were finished with dinner and he was trying to tempt her with the chocolate dessert. “If I can have it, you can have it. And don’t give me any of that crap about needing to keep your figure, either.”
Sam had opened her mouth to retort that she never allowed concern for her figure to dictate her eating habits, when someone paused by her table.
She looked up at a man she hadn’t seen in three months and blinked with surprise. “Pete.” Pause. “Hi.” Another pause. “What are you doing here?”
It was more blunt than she’d intended, and she saw the frown that fluttered across his face.
It was something of a shock to see him here. He’d usually come down from Denver to see her, but she hadn’t known that he had any friends in the area. And even more surprising was that he’d actually seen her and decided to come over and talk to her. While they hadn’t ended with animosity - not exactly - Sam was well aware that she’d hurt him by first agreeing to marry him, then breaking it off when she realised she couldn’t do it.
“Oh, just a guy retiring from the force,” he said, jerking his head across the room to where a bunch of guys. “I partnered him up in Denver for a couple of years before he moved down here.”
He lapsed into silence, looking from Sam to Samuel. It didn’t take much for Sam to guess what Pete was thinking. It took even less to guess what Samuel was thinking. He was looking at Pete with a decidedly speculative gaze that turned into a slightly wicked grin.
It was, of course, Samuel who broke the silence. “Pete Shanahan?”
“Yes. And you are...?” He looked at Sam.
Samuel grinned and held out his hand. “Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Carter.”
The quality of the silence was shocked. “I’m sorry, you said...”
“Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Carter. United States Air Force.”
Pete reached for the most obvious explanation for the surname. “A cousin?”
“Uh...” He glanced at Sam. “Actually, no. It’s long and complicated, and I suspect you don’t have the classification anymore. But if it’s any comfort, I nearly married you in another universe.”
It was definitely not a comfort of any kind. Not if Pete’s expression was any indicator. He went a little green and stared at Samuel as though the blond had grown antennae. “You nearly...?”
“Well, she was a Petra, actually,” Samuel said, maliciously warming to his theme. “Good in the sack, but a little unhinged. Cop up in Denver, a bit paranoid. Possessive - had a tendency towards snuggling. Which could be nice sometimes, you know? But also embarrassing when I wasn’t in the mood.”
Sam wasn’t sure whether she should laugh or cry. Either option was a possibility at this stage. Although she wouldn’t have used quite the same words to describe her relationship with Pete, she had to admit that there were certain similaties.
In comparison, Pete mostly looked like Samuel had escaped from some kind of lunatic asylum. He turned to her. “Sam?”
Explaining this whole situation to him would be impossible. “It’s an SGC thing,” she said. “Think of him as my twin brother.”
Samuel grinned. “Do I get to call you ‘Sammie’?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” she said in the same soft and deadly tones she’d used as a child to let Mark know she wasn’t kidding about kicking him where it would really hurt. Then she looked back at Pete who was looking decidedly revolted. “It was good to see you again, Pete,” she said. The phrase was a sop to his pride, nothing more, but it mollified him enough in the polite lie that he nodded.
“Good to see you, too, Sam.” Something flickered across his face, a kind of regret and envy, then he turned and walked away again.
At least Samuel waited until Pete was out of earshot before commenting, “You’re well rid of that schmuck.”
“He’s not a schmuck,” Sam defended.
“Sure he isn’t,” he scoffed. “You know, Petra was fun as long as I told her everything that went on in my life and was ready to jump at her tiniest whim. When I wasn’t, she got sulky. Cute sulky, but still sulky - and I couldn’t stand it.”
“So how’d you end up engaged to her?” Sam asked. At least she had the excuse that Pete had been the one to do the asking.
Her counterpart shrugged. “One of the mysteries of the modern world, I guess,” he said. “You think it’s what people expect of you, so you do what’s expected. And then you discover it’s not what you expect of yourself.”
Yeah, Sam remembered those feelings only too well.
Except now she was wondering about the expectations she’d put on her relationship with Jack. And she was feeling no better about the way this relationship was currently going than she had about where her relationship with Pete ended up.
Which was a little more than worrying.
At least she wasn’t flinching when he kissed her. Of course, he hadn’t kissed her in...well, over a week, come to think of it. She hadn’t seen him in a week.
She just wished they were actually talking. Or hanging out. Or something.
Even something would be better than sitting in limbo, waiting for him to work things out.
Sam sighed and ran a hand through her hair, then realised Samuel was watching her with a wry expression on his face.
“Need a shoulder to cry on? Or just a drink?”
“Just a drink, I think,” she said. Stiff upper lip, Sam. “And I’ll be back in a minute.”
She deliberately took her purse and cellphone with her. And in the women’s restrooms she stared at the phone for a good minute before she hit the fastdial to Jack’s cellphone.
“Carter.” He sounded a little short-tempered, although she could attribute that to the noise in the background. It sounded like a bar of some kind. “This is a really bad time, you know.”
The terse comment, with no ‘how are you’ or even so much as a ‘look, I’m sorry about tonight’ stiffened her spine. “That’s okay, sir,” she replied with professional cool, although she was holding onto her temper by the most slender of threads. “I’ll talk to you another time, then.”
Sam hung up and held the phone in her hand for a long, quiet moment, before she turned it off completely. If he called, she wasn’t going to answer it. Then she shut her eyes and rested her forehead against her hands, and her elbows on her knees for another long moment, fighting the urge to cry.
It wasn’t that she’d imagined everything would be rosy in her relationship with him. But things had been going so well before this, and now she just felt as though he’d closed the blast doors down on her, leaving her staring at an empty gateroom without any kind of welcome.
She wasn’t sure how long she sat there, only that it wasn’t until the restroom door opened to permit a gaggle of young women to enter the room that she remembered there was a man waiting for her back out in the restaurant.
Sam pushed past the chattering girls, and walked out the door with a stride that would have had any of her team-mates, past and present, running for the exits while the building still stood.
To hell with being Sam Carter. Tonight, she was going to be someone else for a change.
“Balinsky misses you, you know.”
Daniel grinned at the deadly look Jack shot him from over by the window.
“I trust you’re not going to tell him how much I don’t return the sentiment?”
Rooting through Jack’s kitchen drawer for scissors, Daniel came up with a breadknife. “He says you didn’t cut him off quite as much as Hammond does,” he said as he used the knife to saw through the end of the vacuum-sealed bag of coffee beans. “He thinks it’s my gentling influence on you.”
The only response he received was a derisive snort. “Really?”
“Well, that, and he knows that you understood most of what he was talking about, you just didn’t want to understand it.”
“And the problem with that would be...?”
Daniel picked up the bag, looked at the coffee machine, and realised he should have set up the machine before he tried to put the beans in. Damn.
“Uh... Well, Balinsky doesn’t understand how you could be capable of knowing something but not actually want to know it.”
“And you do?”
Daniel grinned. “Touché.” He hauled out the old coffee grounds and dumped them in the bin. Jack’s housekeeping was generally good - other than the predilection for beer with everything. However, his attitude towards the coffee machine seemed to be along the lines of the organisational standard of Air Force coffee: if it smells like the stuff, it probably is.
Fortunately, his guests were a little more discerning.
Well, maybe just this guest.
He made a face as he began cleaning the machine. Jack had refused coffee, but told Daniel to ‘knock himself out’ if he wanted to use the coffee machine.
Well, he mused as he pulled apart the machine, They say ignorance is bliss. Although I don’t think my taste buds could be convinced that week-old coffee grounds are bliss.
“So, how’s Samuel settling into the SGC, then?”
Daniel looked up sharply from where he was setting up the coffee maker in Jack’s kitchen. “He got approval to go off-base on Friday,” he said, not a little surprised that Jack had willingly asked any question about Samuel. From what he understood, things weren’t going all that great between Jack and Sam - partly due to Sam’s busyness in settling Samuel into the base without feeling obsolete, and partly because Jack was still having issues with ‘Sam was a guy in another world’.
At least, that was Daniel’s take on it. He might be wrong, but he didn’t think he was.
“Oh?” The response was non-committal, and Daniel frowned at Jack who was staring out the window with a carefully expressionless face. Why did you ask if you didn’t want to know, Jack?
“Yeah. I think he dragged Sam along with him when he went house-hunting yesterday. When I called, she wasn’t in a very good mood. That was just before I called you to reschedule today.”
“Ah-ah-ah!” Jack corrected him. “I rescheduled to today. You just called to tell me that you couldn’t make tomorrow night.”
Daniel conceded the point as he poured coffee beans into the hopper and switched the filter. He had called Jack only to let his friend know that SG-1’s scheduled mission for Tuesday had been moved back to Monday. Of course, Jack had been the one to suggest rescheduling - which Daniel found a little odd once he’d hung up the phone and thought over the timing.
If there was anyone that Daniel would have expected Jack to ‘reschedule’ with, it would be Sam. But it seemed Jack had less idea of Sam’s whereabouts and activities this weekend than Daniel did.
“Well, Samuel seems to be settling in fine,” he said. “He’s nice enough, I guess. Eager to prove himself.” A bit like Sam in the early days - only hiding it better. And getting on better with the other officers than Sam had when she first arrived at the SGC. He considered it all for a moment. “Teal’c seems to be witholding judgement.”
“But that’s Teal’c.” Jack paused and glanced over at Daniel. “What about you?”
Daniel took his time about answering, mostly because he was ambivalent about Samuel. It wasn’t anything he could put his finger on, and a part of him suspected that it was just because the man wasn’t Sam. He was used to Sam. He liked Sam. And he wasn’t going to qualify that statement just because people might get the wrong idea about them.
Sam was one of his friends, and Daniel knew her, trusted her, and was familiar with her.
Samuel was a stranger who had known his world’s version of Daniel Jackson - not Daniel. Daniel certainly didn’t know Samuel.
The man was friendly, charming, affable, willing to listen and willing to share information. He knew a lot of the stuff that Sam did as well as a few she didn’t, and he’d made nice with most of the senior officers on the base and a lot of the juniors, too.
From what Daniel had seen and heard, Samuel was just the kind of officer the SGC needed. Another Sam Carter - dedicated, intelligent, on the ball, and competent to boot.
Except that Daniel knew that Samuel wasn’t Sam. Not by a long shot.
It went more than just gender and history, a human being was too complex to boil down merely to two factors and say that was it. Sam had been changed through her being female, had developed her mind in some paths and not in others while Samuel had taken an alternative route. The two of them were genetically identical - but for that single chromosome that dictated gender - but it was plain enough to Daniel that they were miles apart in personality, in mindset - even in character.
Sam might have developed the backdoor into the iris program as a failsafe option, but Daniel couldn’t remember a single instance of her using it.
Samuel might have developed the iris backdoor as a failsafe, but he’d also had the equipment on hand to use it. That said a lot about a difference of mindset between the ‘Carter twins’ as they were coming to be called.
He supposed Samuel was nice enough. Daniel would be able to work with him, anyway. Friends, on the other hand, was quite a different matter.
So he just shrugged at the question and said, “He seems okay.”
“I haven’t worked with him all that much. You’d be better off asking Sam how she likes him.” He caught a movement in the corner of his eye - Jack had momentarily flinched. “I mean, he is her...” Daniel paused, then carefully said, “...alternate counterpart.”
It was too much to hope that Jack would ignore the break in conversation. “Alternate counterpart?”
For some reason, Daniel’s brain had been suggesting the words ‘significant other’, which struck him as very wrong. As in very very wrong. “Couldn’t think of the right term for it,” he explained. “Look. If you think you’re having trouble with Samuel, just think of what Sam’s going through.”
Jack’s expression set in remote lines for a second, then eased back. “Is this the ‘men in the military’ thing, again?”
“Actually, I was more thinking the ‘my boyfriend won’t talk to me because he’s freaked out by my twin brother’ thing, again, Jack.”
The only response he got from Jack was a grunt. Not that he’d expected much else.
“Very non-committal,” he mocked, quoting Jack’s previous words back to him.
On one level, Daniel knew he was taking his life into his hands. If there was one thing Jack O’Neill didn’t do, it was the heart-to-heart. Not that Daniel was asking for a heart-to-heart or anything like that. He was just angling for a boot-to-butt. Jack could do with a good kick in the pants right now.
Still, he waited until the coffee was percolated before he addressed the matter again. He wouldn’t be up to this kind of argument - a non-archaeological argument - until he had some caffeine in him. Good caffeine. Jack might be indifferent to the quality of his coffee, but Daniel had taste buds and discrimination. He might have to endure military sludge on the base, but off-base, he refused to settle for a half-assed brew.
They sat back down to the game out in Jack’s living room, and Daniel contemplated his friend as Jack contemplated the board.
As Jack reached out to move one of his pieces, Daniel wondered if what he was about to say could be construed as cheating under the heading of ‘distracting at an opportune time’.
“Daniel?” One finger hovered over the white bishop.
“Do you like me?” He made the question blunt and straightforwards.
Jack stared at him like he’d grown another head. “You’re my friend,” he said flatly. Then the dark eyes narrowed. “Why?”
Daniel met the other man’s gaze squarely. “Could you ever love me?”
This time, the look he received was akin to Jack discovering Daniel was really a Goa’uld. Believe it or not, Jack, I’m no more comfortable with this idea than you. But I’m making a point and I’d like you to get it. “What?!”
“I’m just asking because it makes a difference.”
“A difference to what?” Jack eyed him for a moment. “Are you...?”
“Gay?” Daniel shook his head, smiling. “No. And neither are you. Which is my point.”
The white bishop stayed on the board, unmoving. “Daniel?”
“We’re friends, right?” He didn’t bother to wait for the agreement or negation. “But you’d never think of looking at me the way you looked at Sam. Because she’s a woman and you’re attracted to women. You’d never think of a man as a possible partner because that’s the way you’re wired.”
“This,” Jack said with quiet deliberation, “had better have a point.”
“The point is that we’re friends. We’re not about to take this any further than friendship,” Daniel explained. “I’ll bet your counterpart in Samuel’s world never looked at Samuel as anything but a subordinate, a fellow-officer, and one of the guys. You looked at Sam and saw an attractive woman. You like her because she’s a woman and because she’s Sam. That’s just the way you’re wired.”
Jack was silent. “And what has this got to do with the chessgame?”
“Nothing,” Daniel said. “But you love her. Sorry, Jack,” he said as the other man looked down and away. “I’m not you or Sam. I don’t have hang-ups about calling a spade a spade. You’ve loved her for a lot longer than the last two months since you retired, and probably a long time before you even realised it.”
Now Jack looked up, both angry and embarrassed - not so much at his feelings for Sam, but because Daniel was stating things so plainly.
Maybe it was just that Daniel had reached the limits of his endurance. After all, he’d spent the better part of eight years watching the two of them do everything except get together. Watching them continue to dance around each other was becoming decidedly irksome.
“And if you’re going to continue to be an ass about it, maybe Sam’s better off with someone else.”
He saw the immediate rejection of that idea, and pressed his point home without mercy.
“She’s not Samuel. She never was.” And the only hang ups in this matter are yours and Sam’s in finally getting what you’ve been wanting all these years.
Of course, he didn’t say that. Daniel had his limits of delicacy, even if he didn’t always choose to observe them. He’d said as much as he needed to, and that was enough for the moment.
Jack finally moved his piece.
Daniel contemplated the board and moved his next piece. The game continued in silence for several minutes longer until Daniel decided he would ask the question he doubted anyone had yet asked Jack.
“What do you think of Samuel?”
His friend barely glanced up from the board. “I don’t know him that well.”
“You know Sam.”
“He’s not Carter.” Jack moved his queen and sat back. “I know that.”
It was Daniel’s turn to frown. Something wasn’t quite right here. “So why are you sitting here playing chess with me, when I’m sure you’d rather be doing something with Sam?”
When he glanced up, Jack had a peculiar expression on his face. “The street runs both ways, Daniel.”
Which didn’t make sense. Daniel was pretty sure that Sam would have liked to be spending more time with Jack. The impression he’d received from her was that it was Jack’s reluctance contributing to any distance in their relationships.
Not that Daniel was the relationship police between his friends; his job was to kick Jack in the ass when the other man wouldn’t see something that was plain as the nose on his face. Most of the time, he thought he did it quite well.
He’d said his piece as far as Sam and Samuel went. To go any further would be prying into something that was personal between Jack and Sam.
Even Daniel Jackson had his limits.
Daniel judged it a good time to shut up and not say a word.
They kept playing.
Jack wasn’t sure when he got over the ‘Sam was a guy in another world’ thing.
Maybe sometime during Friday night when he’d left the beered-up group of forty-something military officers in the Denver strip club and driven back down to the Springs. The girls were pretty, sure. But he would have swapped any one of them for Carter in full BDUs with a cap on her head, technobabbling him.
Okay so he would have swapped any one of them for Carter dressed in a push-up bra, thongs, garter stockings and high heels, technobabbling him...
But the BDUs would do in a pinch.
Of course, that was before Saturday morning arrived and some cold home truths were made plain to him.
Jack felt his gorge rise and directed his thoughts away from the memory of Saturday morning.
At the uppermost entrance of the SGC, he signed in under the easy gaze of the SF on duty. While most visitors to the SGC had to jump through rigourous hoops to gain entry, the privilege of having formerly commanded the SGC was that most of the SFs knew him by sight, and those that didn’t were soon set straight by their colleagues.
Today he had no trouble going down into the base. The duty soldiers were all familiar with him; a couple even greeted him by his title. He greeted the ones he knew and gave a nod to the ones he didn’t.
The phrase ‘anywhere but here’ sprung to mind.
He stared fixedly at the elevator doors and cursed that Hammond had called him in this morning. Well, not exactly ‘called him in’ per se, but the old man had requested the graduate program reports from Jack a few days earlier than Jack anticipated.
As a result, the work had to be done, and Jack had to come in to do it.
SG-1 had gone off-world just that morning. More than just SG-1 actually - a whole platoon of technology and archaeology buffs on a two day mission - which was why Jack had rescheduled the chess night to Sunday afternoon. When he called Daniel on Saturday evening, the last thing he’d wanted was to spend the whole weekend stewing in his own metaphorical juices.
Still, in spite of SG-1’s absence, Jack was feeling a marked reluctance to come into the base today.
But he still got out at sub-level 27 to see General Hammond. Technically, it wasn’t necessary for him to visit Hammond, but it was a courtesy to the other man that they both appreciated. And Jack was willing to admit he had a soft spot for the old man. Over the years, George had taught Jack a lot of things about commanding a lot of men and women, and knowing when to stand firm and when to yield.
However, when he went up the back stairs to the commander’s office, the office was empty and open.
The control room then.
He nodded at the SFs standing guard in the corridor and ventured out into the briefing room - also empty. However, there was definitely noise in the control room. Jack stumped down the stairs, his footsteps echoing against the stair treads, heralding his appearance below.
Down in the control room, Hammond was listening to Samuel Carter explain something in technobabble, with Walter Davis nodding over in the corner. Even if the high-ups didn’t understand, the technicians seemed to be getting what Samuel was saying.
And, just as with Carter, Jack wasn’t understanding a word of it.
Judging by the look on Hammond’s face, the General wasn’t getting much of it either.
“Jack,” Hammond greeted him as he reached the control room floor.
“George,” Jack said. “Colonel Carter.” He was proud that he managed the syllables without a stammer or pause. “Sergeant Davis.”
If Samuel had stiffened slightly at Jack’s appearance, he marginally relaxed at Jack’s greeting. “Sir.” The blond turned to Hammond. “Do I have your permission to proceed, sir?”
Hammond looked from the control room computers to Sergeant Davis who nodded once in agreement. “Do it.”
“Trouble with the gateroom computers?” Jack inquired quietly.
“Colonel Samuel Carter had an idea that might remove one of the glitches we’ve been having lately. He asked permission to implement it. Sergeant Davis seems to think it’ll work.”
“Cool,” Jack said. He left it at that, unwilling to show any particular reaction to the man who kept glancing over towards him, even from the control room console. “Well, I’ll be upstairs quietly working away if you need me, General.”
“Dr. Jackson’s office?”
“I believe that’s the usual place,” Jack said, then lowered his voice. “And it’s always fun moving Daniel’s things around a little. Drives him nuts.”
Hammond had a look on his face that showed a long experience with both Daniel’s vagaries as well as Jack’s quirks. “If you’re still here at lunch, come by my office,” he said. “And bring the reports with you.”
“Will do, George.” Jack took the stairs down the passageway and out towards the elevators.
He was only halfway down the corridor when he heard the sound of running footsteps after him and grimaced.
The last person he wanted to see this morning.
“Sir.” Samuel Carter caught at his arm, requiring him to turn and acknowledge the younger man. “I’d like a word with you, sir.”
Jack turned, keeping a carefully neutral expresssion on his features. “I’m retired.” Then, just for good measure, he added, “Don’t you have some computery stuff to do?”
“I also have some explaining to do,” Samuel said simply. “What you saw on Saturday morning...”
“Is your business and hers.”
The blond man regarded him with a look he’d never seen on Carter’s face - an expression that was part-disbelief, part-irritation. “You’re seeing her, aren’t you? I mean, I know that I’d want to know what went on if I found another guy having breakfast at my girlfriend’s place.”
Jack’s stomach twisted in automatic recollection.
He’d strolled into Carter’s house, stupidly confident of the warmth of his welcome, and found Samuel, naked to the waist, munching toast in her kitchen. Even as he paused, staring at the other man, who took one look and winced, closing his eyes as though he could deny the dark gaze, Carter had stumbled out of the bathroom, looking absolutely delicious with her hair damp and her skin fresh from the shower.
She’d stared at him blankly, then turned to Samuel and stared at him, and looked like she was, for the first time since Jack had met her, struggling to think.
The explanations were lame and halting, and the nervous glances Carter kept shooting Samuel were offputting. On the other hand, the guy had seemed, if not exactly smug, certainly a little rebellious, with the attitude that he’d done nothing wrong.
Jack had made a swift exit, and Carter hadn’t come after him.
All that day and all Sunday, he’d tried telling himself that this was Carter. She didn’t do one-night stands or drunk come-ons. Mostly because they were stupid and Carter didn’t do stupid. Well, not usually.
For some reason, his brain kept pushing Pete Shanahan forward as an example of what she could do when she got stupid. Yeah, maybe it was the green-eyed monster, but Shanahan hadn’t understood Carter, and she had nearly married the man.
“We’re not...” The words slipped out, almost automatic in this place. Certainly automatic before a man who was more or less a stranger.
“Look, we went out on Friday,” Samuel said, holding his gaze with a look that was very much like Carter’s. But the jaw was square, the skin wasn’t as fine, and the attitude was distinctly belligerent. The small things made a lot of difference. “She was all for going home until she went into the ladies and came out like she had something to prove. We went through a half-dozen bars, drank a lot - more than was healthy for either of us - and caught a taxi home.”
“It was my house in my world,” Samuel said. And now there was a hint of resentment. “Look, she was out like a light. Nothing happened.”
There was a ‘but’ in there. Sam wouldn’t have been so cagey on Saturday morning if there wasn’t a ‘but’ in there. “Nothing?”
Samuel looked like a man caught in a spotlight he really didn’t want to be under. “I put her to bed, okay? And then I figured that it was my bed, too, so I had a right to be there as much as she did.” He looked a bit embarrassed.
Jack felt a flare of purest jealousy tear through him. He kept his voice down, well aware that there were people moving up and down the corridor, and that not a few of them would be vastly interested in this conversation. In fact, the whole discussion had been conducted sotto voce, and while they’d gained a couple of odd looks from the personnel moving up and down the corridors, it didn’t look like anyone had heard anything more than a couple of words at a time. “You slept in her bed?”
“It made more sense at a quarter to three,” Samuel muttered, staring down at his feet. He looked like a kid in search of a piece of dirt to scuff. “I didn’t touch her, okay? I mean, she’s a gorgeous woman and holy Hannah she’s got a smile to stop a hatak dead in space but, Christ, it would be like sleeping with my sister!” He gave Jack a glance that was pure Carter, pushing his/her/their luck as far as it would go but trusting familiarity to hold back the flood of a superior officer’s wrath.
It was a reasonable explanation, but Jack had spent half the weekend just a little angry and more than a little jealous of the younger man. He wasn’t about to give it up that easily.
“Besides,” he added. “I’m not the guy she wants. And somehow I don’t see Sam as the type to settle.”
Jack really didn’t mention Shanahan this time. Some things were better left unsaid. And he was so not going to discuss anything about his relationship with Carter, past or present, with Samuel Carter.
“Alright, then,” he said in the mildest tones he could manage. “Explanation given and accepted.” And he walked off down the corridor.
“Retired, Colonel,” Jack said without looking around.
This time Samuel slipped around the side and planted himself in Jack’s way. “Look, Jack,” he said pointedly. “I know you’re uncomfortable with me because of your relationship with Sam. I’m sorry. I can’t do anything about the way I was born - any more than Sam could do anything about how she was born. And I’m going to be staying here, so you’ll have to deal with me at some level - even if it’s only as a friend of Sam’s.”
He sounded pretty sure of that. It seemed like he and Carter had done some bonding while getting drunk. “So what do you want, then?”
Samuel grimaced. “I want to know that I’m in the clear,” he said frankly. “That we’re okay.”
Jack narrowed his eyes and frowned slightly. “Why?”
“Because you may not be the man I served under, but you sure as hell look like him. And we were never exactly chummy, but he was a better commander than any other man I previously worked with.” Samuel made a slight face. “I respected him, and I like to think he respected me, too.”
“I’m not him, and you’re not her.”
“No,” Samuel said. “But I’d still like to know that we’re at ground zero. From now on, we deal with each other with as little history as possible. I’m not her, you’re not him, so we start from the beginning.” The younger man looked pretty determined about this - a curious dichotomy. The facial expression held elements of Carter’s determination, but the words were entirely his own, delivered in a crisp, clear tenor. “Deal?”
It was fair enough. And the man was right. Jack was unlikely to escape Samuel any more than Samuel was likely to escape Sam. “Deal. You’re in the clear.”
“Good.” Samuel nodded, a slight quirk tilting his mouth to one side. “Thank you, sir.”
“Retired,” Jack reminded him, and walked away.
This time, Samuel let him go without another confrontation, for which Jack was incredibly glad. He’d had enough of this more-than-slightly-weird conversation.
And maybe, once he was done, he’d leave something behind for Sam. Nothing big, just a letter inviting her around to dinner when she got back.
As he waited for the elevator up, Daniel’s words of yesterday came to mind. If you’re going to continue to be an ass about it, maybe Sam’s better off with someone else.
Jack had two words in response to that statement. Screw that.
He’d spent eight months watching her with ‘someone else’ and wasn’t about to try it again. The first four were bad enough, knowing she was seeing Shanahan. The second four, after she’d gotten engaged, had been something close to hell until he started the relationship with Kerry.
Sad as it was, Kerry had kept him sane when he thought he might not make it through the knowledge that every day brought him closer to Carter’s wedding to another man. She’d been a release point of sorts, and he’d cared about her as much as he was able. It just wasn’t enough for her - and once she saw Sam around at his place and realised who it was Jack really wanted...
Kerry got out before she got more involved.
Unfortunately for Jack, he was way, way too involved to get out of this.
Which was why he was going to make the last three weeks up to Carter.
He only realised he was humming quietly to himself when the elevator stopped at sub-level 24 and a couple of infirmary staff got in and looked oddly at him.
Jack stopped. He also fought back the urge to whistle. Tunelessly.
He stepped out of the elevator at sub-level 20 and strolled down towards Daniel’s lab. Along the way he passed various personnel who greeted him or acknowledged in some way or another.
And Jack kept walking, quietly planning the seduction of Samantha Carter.
After two days out of the SGC, Sam was feeling decidedly more at peace with herself, the SGC, and Samuel Carter.
It helped that the expedition was a success and more. Not one of the twelve personnel under her command had been injured, they hadn’t had to come back early because something chased them off the planet, and neither had they been delayed in returning by something untoward.
Sam had even been the one to discover the mechanism hiding a secret chamber in the ruins they’d been sent to explore. It appeared to have once been a library, before the ruins - a mediaeval castle-like structure - had been abandoned.
So, all in all, a successful mission with a probable follow-up at some point in the future.
It also helped that General Hamond had sent her out with her team. Her team, her command, and her people. It was an affirmation she’d needed after the last couple of weeks of whispers and rumours, the the iris program and the control room connection fiascoes, to say nothing of the mislaid technology and being ordered to hand over her research and development project to Samuel.
She was still Colonel Sam Carter, trusted member of the SGC. And although there was now someone else on the base with her knowledge, she was still more than capable of commanding her own team. They wouldn’t be taking that from her any time soon.
It was a relief to have that reassurance.
“It all went well, Colonel?” General Hammond asked her as the last of the FREDs trundled down the ramp from the Stargate and the expedition members began leaving the gateroom.
“It did, sir. Very well.” Sam felt she could say that without reservation and not a little satisfaction.
“Good.” The general didn’t question her opinion, but fell into step beside her. “Take yourself and your people through post-gate, and I’ll see you at the debriefing in ninety minutes. I don’t feel it’s necessary to have any more than the command personnel at this debriefing, unless you disagree?” He regarded her quizzically.
Sam shook her head. “There’s no reason to include them, sir. The leaders have the broad overview.”
“Which is all I want at this stage,” Hammond agreed. “Very well. I’ll see you in the debriefing, Colonel.”
The post-gate procedures were standard by now. It was a basic round of medical check-ups, blood tests, and an MRI. The MRI took the longest, but it had been considered necessary since the second year of the Stargate’s operation and Sam’s possession by Jolinar.
Sam’s post-gate check-up usually took a little longer than the rest because of Jolinar. She also had to be handled by the medical officer on duty who’d been stationed there the longest because of the complications that could - and had - arisen during the tests. It hadn’t been such a problem when the SGC was smaller in size during their early years, but more recently, and specifically after Janet’s death, there’d been some difficulty with personnel not realising that Sam needed a different set of tests.
As a result, although she was one of the first into the infirmary, she was one of the last out of it.
One of the definite advantages to being a woman at the SGC was that the women’s showers, unlike the men’s, were rarely full. Today was no different.
She stripped down and kicked her clothing into the cleaning hamper to the sound of the chatter of the other women of the expedition.
“You know,” one woman was saying from the cubicle beside Sam’s, “how women used to survive without hot showers, I really can’t imagine.”
“Don’t much care to, either,” said another woman on the other side of Sam. “This is heaven.”
“Oh no,” another woman laughed, her voice echoing back to them from even further along the line of shower stalls. “Heaven will be when I get home and get at my partner. This is just a nice hot shower!”
“Unfortunately, we don’t all have nice warm men to go home to at the end of the day.”
“Yeah,” someone else commented dryly, “Some of us have partners who are incapable of fending for themselves. Burger King doesn’t count.”
“You should make him eat his own cooking, Kat!”
“I should,” Kat agreed. “The only thing is that I’d have to eat it, too!”
There were snorts and chuckles along the other women, and in her own cubicle, Sam scrubbed herself down with shower gel, and smiled.
“So, Sam,” someone said along the cubicles, “how’s O’Neill’s cooking?”
In the privacy of her cubicle, Sam grimaced. She was careful to make her answer light when she answered, though. “Beery,” she said.
There were various chuckles around her.
“You know, at least he understands when you come home exhausted. I mean, he’s been there before, right?”
Sam felt obliged to say, “Well, we’re not exactly living together.”
“Yeah, but it works with seeing each other as well. I mean, when I have to tell my boyfriend that I’m too tired to see him, I can’t tell him that it’s because I’ve spent the last four days trekking halfway across a moon with aliens hot on my tail.”
The conversation devolved into a discussion of exactly what they told their partners and families about what they did in the mountain, and Sam listened with half an ear and wished that nobody had brought up Jack.
She still had to work things out with him.
Especially after Saturday morning.
One of the chiefest problems in her relationship with Pete was that she hadn’t loved him and she had expected too much of the relationship at the start, only to find that he expected too much of the relationship in the end.
Sam knew she loved Jack. But she wondered if she hadn’t taken her expectations with her, extra baggage in her relationship with him. Well, she knew they both had baggage, but she had thought she’d left her unrealistic expectations of a relationship behind.
Not that anything in her relationship with Jack was perfect. Not by a long shot.
But she wanted to work things out with him. As in, he was important enough to her that she was willing to work on the more difficult parts of their interactions.
And Saturday morning had been difficult.
She hadn’t been expecting his visit. If she had... Well, if she had, then she didn’t know what she’d have done with Samuel. But it was fairly obvious that Jack hadn’t been expecting to find Samuel eating breakfast in her kitchen.
Not that she’d been all that sanguine upon rolling over in her bed and discovering that there was a half-naked man where no half-naked man should be.
At that point in time, midmorning or so, Samuel had been a cross between apologetic and amused - at least, he was once he remembered enough of the previous night to assure her that he’d only put her to bed. The main problem was that by the time Jack turned up at the house, Samuel was just stubborn enough to see nothing wrong with waking up in Sam’s bed. According to his argument, it was his bed, too, and it wasn’t as though anything had happened between them.
So Samuel, damn him, hadn’t been a bit of help in explaining what actually happened. And Sam had not been prepared to explain to Jack that she’d slept in the same bed as Samuel after a night out on the drinks.
He’d backed out fairly fast. Politely, of course, but in more than merely physical retreat. She’d started to follow Jack out of the house, planning to explain everything to him. Samuel had stopped her from embarrassing herself even further. “For crying out loud, Sam, you’re wearing a towel! Explain it to him later, get dressed now.”
She’d gotten dressed. She’d called his cellphone and listened to it ring out. She’d gone house-hunting with Samuel while her mind was trying to work out how she was going to explain this to Jack when he finally did talk to her. She’d wavered between determination that she was going to explain herself and the irrational fear that he didn’t really want to listen to her side of the story anyway. And then she’d taken the call about the rescheduled mission, and the rest of the weekend was spent getting her residual paperwork sorted out, along with the supplies that they were taking off-world.
So, all in all, the last time she’d heard from Jack had been Saturday morning, and that had been about as comfortable as being brain fried with a ribbon-device.
Sam really needed to see him.
She just hoped he wanted to see her.
The debriefing was simple enough, they’d run into no complications, there’d been no sign of either local or extraterrestrial activity, and Sam recommended that a short-term follow-up be sent to more thoroughly investigate the castle ruins. The personnel at the debriefing - both the military and the scientific - were in concordance with her, and the meeting was over fairly swiftly.
“So,” Daniel said, all innocence as they walked down towards their labs. “Are you going to call Jack?”
She arched a brow at him. “Why should I?”
“Because you’ve been away half the week,” Daniel said. “I thought it was the kind of thing you do after being away a few days.” He held up his hands in defence. “It was just a thought.”
Sam rolled her eyes and didn’t bother answering, leaving him at the entrance to his office and heading on towards her lab.
It was a bit of a surprise to walk into her lab and find Samuel studying a piece of tech that was sitting in the middle of her desk. Sam felt a momentary stab of jealousy, then squelched it firmly. General Hammond would have said if he’d allowed Samuel to take over her lab.
He looked up in surprise. “Hey, Sam. Didn’t know you guys were back yet.”
“Three hours ago,” she returned, coming to stand beside him. “What’s this?” It was made of some kind of metal alloy, small enough to be gripped in the hand, and roughly ovoid with one elongated, tapering end to it, and another end that looked as though it had been made to be held in a hand.
“Something SG-4 picked up on their last mission,” he said. “The natives had them.”
“Yeah. Natives. They had loincloths and spears,” Samuel said. “Carey said it was like the founding fathers facing Indians with ray guns.”
Sam ignored the familiar reference to the CO of SG-4. “Disproportionate technology,” she murmured, leaning her elbows down on the desk.
He regarded her, amused. “Ya think?”
“I do,” she replied. “So no idea where it came from if not from them?”
“Not a clue,” Samuel said. “Apparently the natives were extremely hostile towards them. Ran at them several times with these things pointed at them.”
“What does it do?”
“Nothing. They just pointed them at SG-4 and yelled stuff to try to make them go away.” Samuel shrugged as he sat back. “I’ve been staring at it for most of the day. Haven’t discovered a thing.” He sighed. “Sorry about hijacking your lab, but I went into mine this morning and found Dr. Lee had hijacked it for the latest tests on the zat blast dissipators. Since I didn’t feel like getting an electrical shock every time I touched the thingummy, I moved here.”
Sam half-smiled. “It’s okay,” she said. “I just came to check if anything important had turned up in the in-tray before I went home.”
“There isn’t much,” he said, indicating the tray that stood on one of the side benches with her paperwork and notes in it. “Although I think there’s a personal letter there for you.”
A personal letter? Sam went and retrieved her mail. She had an assortment of professional journals delivered to the SGC, and they were usually to be found in her in-tray. But on top of the latest set was a sheet of paper, folded and sticky-taped together.
She retrieved the letter and a pair of scissors with which to cut the tape, and met Samuel’s slightly amused gaze as she opened it, feeling oddly secretive about the letter.
It was short and to the point. Definitely not a man of many words when it came to writing letters.
Call me when you get back.
Her mouth curved in a smile as she re-read the short lines. A moment later, she remembered she wasn’t alone as Samuel shifted on his chair. Sam folded up the letter briskly.
“O’Neill?” He had the start of a smirk on his face, and she flushed pink, heat roaring into her cheeks.
“Who else would it be?”
Samuel moved about in his chair again, and Sam looked up and caught his slightly abashed gaze. “I explained Friday night to him.”
That alarmed her. “What did you say?”
“I told him that we went out but nothing happened.”
Somehow, that wasn’t any comfort. “Did you tell him...?”
He lowered his voice. “About sharing the bed? Yes,” he said levelly. “Look, I’m sorry about that, but it was my bed, too. And I can promise you it won’t happen again.”
“It won’t,” she said, picking out the rest of her mail. In the back of her mind, a question bubbled up, demanding to be asked. “How...?”
“...did he take it?” Samuel asked. “We talked. Only short, but I think he’s sort of okay. He seemed okay about what happened - or, rather, didn’t happen - on Friday night.”
Well, that sounded a bit better. And the letter seemed to indicate that he was willing to talk.
It was more than she’d expected, even an hour ago.
“So, you going to call him?”
Sam glared at him. “Did you read the letter?” It was more than possible. Jack hadn’t exactly sealed it up.
“Oh, please,” he said, and she was instantly sorry she’d suggested it. “What else was it going to say? ‘Dear Sam, I’m yours forever to do with as you want, love and kisses, Jack O’Neill’? The man is a long way from emotional Central Station. As in, way out in the boonies. The most it would say is ‘call me’ - if that.”
She couldn’t deny that. Especially since it was entirely true. And she wasn’t going to continue this conversation. Not with him. Not now. Probably not ever.
So Sam collected up her mail and ignored the growing air of amusement in the lab. “I’m going.”
There was the smirk again. “Have fun.”
As she walked away from her lab towards the elevators and the outside world, Sam found it relieving to realise just how far she’d come in two days. Although she’d had a momentary pang seeing him in her lab, it wasn’t the full-blown panic she’d felt clutch at her two weeks ago.
She was who she was and she couldn’t change that.
She’d done what she’d done - and not even Samuel Carter would be able to take that away from her. Whatever he’d done was hearsay to everyone - the only proof they would ever have of his actions would be that Sam had done the same thing here.
They’d have to get used to each other.
It had taken three weeks, but Sam was ready to start.
And, while she was at it, she was ready to start on a few other things, too.
Jack had felt a certain amount of nervousness when Carter’s number came up on his cellphone that afternoon. After all, he had no idea what state of mind she was in, how well or badly the mission had gone, or if she’d decided she didn’t want him after all.
In the two hours between when she called him up and when she arrived at his place, he pulled out every nervous habit he’d ever had - and a few besides. All he’d done was invite her around for dinner, and she’d accepted, but noted that she was tired and might fall asleep on him.
Frankly, Jack didn’t much care what she did, as long as he wasn’t going to be put in the doghouse for sheer stupidity.
As he waited, he figured he probably wouldn’t have been half so nervous if he didn’t care about Carter qutie so much.
But he did, and so he was.
When she arrived, there was a moment of awkwardness. She entered the house with the movies he’d asked her to bring along. Jack bent to kiss her on the cheek, and she’d turned her head so his mouth landed on her lips.
The awkwardness was quite gone after that.
She helped him make dinner - she chopped, he cooked. He asked about the expedition, she complained about the trials and tribulations of commanding people who would quite comfortably ignore orders if they felt the payoff was worth it. Then she poked him lightly in the elbow when he grinned at her.
“Daniel didn’t. And he led you astray more than once, as I recall.”
Her mouth twitched slightly as she scraped the carrot parings into the bin. “He’s a bad influence.”
“Oh, ya think?”
They talked about the SGC, about the academy, about The Simpsons and her sci-fi shows. He mentioned several opera performances up in Denver, she hummed and hawwed and said she’d see what her workschedule was like. They ate and argued over the Iraqi democracy, the Michael Jackson case, and whether or not Jay Leno should have plastic surgery. Then they sat down and watched Back To The Future III.
Of course, the one thing they didn’t talk about was them. It was on Jack’s mind, and he knew that it was on hers, but they didn’t speak of it. To talk about them simply wasn’t them. It wasn’t the sort of thing they did.
Which, perhaps, had gotten them into their stand-off state in the first place.
So, three hours later, as Michael J Fox unfolded the fax sheet that no longer contained his future - and the whole time-travel thing was definitely enough to twist Jack’s brain into unpickable knots - Sam Carter was fast asleep.
She was stretched out along his couch, her feet resting on the armrest, her head lying on Jack’s lap, turned towards the TV, but quite definitely asleep.
Once he realised she was asleep, he’d turned the sound down, a little at a time, so he could still hear it, but so she wasn’t going to wake up if something suddenly exploded onscreen.
Mostly, he watched Carter. Even watching Mary Steenburgen didn’t compare to watching Carter. Because when he played the tape over again, Mary would be exactly the same. But Carter was different every moment.
Right now, she was drooling slightly.
Jack decided it was a sign of how deep in he was that he still thought she was beautiful when drooling.
He traced a finger across her cheek and watched her eyes flutter open.
He was pretty sure he had an indulgent smile on his face, because after a moment, her lips curved to match his. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he said. “You know, you missed the best bit of the movie.”
Sam shifted a little, but didn’t get up. Which suited Jack fine. One hand swiped at the corner of her mouth, wincing as her fingers encountered the saliva. “I’ve seen it before, and I’ll get to see it again.”
“You’re sure about that?” He asked lazily, letting his fingers slip over hers as she tried to withdraw them.
“Yes,” she said, still trying to pull away. “My hand’s wet.”
He tugged back on her hand and after a moment’s hesitation, she stopped resisting. Then he lifted her hand to his mouth, and licked each fingertip, gently. “I know.”
Her expression betrayed her surprise. She was used to being the one in control of their relationship; the one sidling up to him. Even when they were both on SG-1, and then in the SGC, he’d always let her define the physical side of their relationship, only stepping across the line when crisis circumstances demanded it.
There was no crisis now. Unless it was the crisis brewing inside him, making him very aware that he’d lingered long enough.
He was sure. And the only way to know she was sure was to push the lines he’d never been comfortable in pushing. Not with her.
Ironic that it took him and Kerry two weeks to start sleeping with each other, but he’d been dancing around Samantha Carter for eight years. And of the two, the woman he wanted in his life - the woman he couldn’t imagine living without - was the one he’d never made love to. Not yet.
She was watching him with that solemn, still gaze, like the moment in the dawn before the birds sang or the sun rose. The sense that something was coming.
Jack didn’t wait for the ‘something’ to rear its head. He bent down as she sat up, and their mouths met somewhere in the middle in a kiss that seared his nerve endings with the sparkle of desire.
He didn’t know what made kissing Sam so different from kissing other women. Maybe it was the familiarity of her, the scent, the feel, the sight, the sound of her as she somehow wriggled up into a position that was not quite sitting in his lap but came damned close.
From his position, the advantage was that he was solidly seated, and so had both hands free. It meant that while his right hand cradled her head as his mouth left hers and began moving over her jaw, his left hand was free to slide down the column of her throat.
He rested his fingers in the hollow at the base of her throat, and felt the warm beat of her pulse rapping out an unsteady tattoo against his skin as he nibbled his way up her jaw to her ear.
By now, Carter was actually sitting in his lap, having eased herself up to be more comfortable, and she wasn’t sitting back and letting him have all his way. Her fingers were sliding across his stomach in ways that were very unsettling. And if she continued shifting on his lap like that, she was going to find him extremely unsettled.
Her mouth was back on his again, teasing him with licks of her tongue, the sensuous, intimate taste of her intoxicating.
He later said that his hand acted of its own accord. Of course, he could say that then, when she was unsuccessfully hiding a smile.
But when his hand gently brushed down the line of her breastbone, popping the top few buttons holding together the edges of her shirt, his pulse was beating nearly as wildly as hers was when his hand came to rest over her heart.
Beneath his lips, Sam gasped slightly but leaned into him. Jack managed to decide the woman should be on the FDA list of proscribed substances, before she shifted on his lap and the last shreds of coherent thought tore from his grasp.
At some stage, they went from sitting up to lying down, and her shirt front went from buttoned shut to fully open. Jack didn’t remember that bit all that well. What he did remember was the taste of her skin and her hands on his waist, the rush of his blood through his veins and certain other parts of his body, and the tinny sound of a cellphone’s ring...
It had rung several times before either of them registered the noise, and he lifted his head from hers and stared into eyes that had the slightly unfocused look of an aroused woman.
“I think that’s mine,” she said.
He turned his head towards the noise, and saw the red-and-silver phone on the coffee table. “You could ignore it,” he said, and was surprised to discover that his voice was all raspy.
Sam winced and reached out towards the coffee table, dragging herself up a bit, while Jack sighed and scraped one hand through his hair while the other tried to keep his full weight from sagging onto her. She grabbed the phone just as it stopped and sighed in exasperation.
She flipped open the phone to look at the number and stared as it started ringing again. “It’s not a number I recognise...”
He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Guess they really want to talk to you.”
As she lifted the phone to her ear, Jack deliberately began fingering her nipple and watched her eyes kindle, even as she batted at his hand. He just grinned at her as she coughed and spoke into the mouthpiece, “Carter.”
A few seconds later, she jerked up, nearly bashing heads with him. Her eyes were wide and stunned as she stared at Jack. “What?”
He couldn’t hear the person on the other end of the phone, but he could hear the tones: a dry amusement that communicated itself in the overtones of voice. The cadences of the voice said it wasn’t an emergency, but her attitude was tense.
“Okay,” she bit out. “But this had better be worth it.”
“What is it?” Jack asked as she shut the phone and tossed it to the floor.
She took a deep breath, and her mouth pulled to one side. “Agent Barrett wants to speak to us.”
Her smile was tight as she tugged at her bra and buttoned up her shirt. “He asked that you not reach for the gun you keep in the drawer.” Her eyes flickered over to the side table with the phone set on it - and the drawer in which most people kept phonebooks.
Jack didn’t ask how an NID agent knew where he kept his guns.
But when there was a briskly discreet knock on the dining room door, Jack did want to know how the man had gotten into his house. He was so going to have to improve his security around here. Lately, too many people had been getting into his house without him knowing.
Sam gave him a brief, terse smile as he got up to open the door. As he glanced back at her, she was finger-combing her hair, looking distinctly self-conscious about it.
Agent Malcolm Barrett stood just inside Jack’s dining room, with a slightly enigmatic smile on his lips as he looked through the doorway towards Carter, then up at Jack. “May I come in?”
“You seem to have let yourself in already.” But Jack stepped back to let the other man in.
One corner of the pale mouth tugged upwards as he walked past Jack. “There is that.” Barrett took the chair in the corner, settling himself neatly and looking surprisingly at ease for a man who was dressed in a suit.
Maybourne had possessed the same skill of looking quite at home in his surroundings, or so Jack recalled. He wondered how the other man was doing on his little planetoid. Quite surprisingly, the SGC had heard neither hide nor hair of him since.
Knowing Maybourne, that just meant Harry’d found himself some kind of illegal activity to engage in. Probably smuggling or something like that. Jack made a mental note to get someone to check up on the rat. For old time’s sake, if nothing else.
He sat back down beside Carter and lifted an eyebrow at the other man. Barrett was here for a reason. He could state what he had to say and then get the hell out of Jack’s house.
“I’m sorry to...interrupt you at this time,” Barrett said smoothly, looking from one to the other. His expression was bland, but Jack knew the other man had known exactly what was happening when he arrived. He’d probably timed his interruption precisely for when things were heating up. After eight years of mostly-bad experiences, Jack would believe anything of the NID.
Jack felt somewhat less than charitable towards Malcolm Barrett, NID, at this moment. It didn’t help that Sam was sitting inches away, ramrod straight. She looked like nothing quite so much as the Air Force officer Jack had spent years keeping at arm’s length in his mind as well as in body.
“What’s this about, Agent Barrett?”
Barrett’s mouth twisted. “It’s actually about a whom, not a what.”
Sam’s voice was easy, but Jack could hear the sudden tension in it. “What’s happened?”
A cricket chirruped somewhere outside, and the noise fell loudly into the second’s pause between the question and the answer.
“As Colonel Carter would know, the NID keeps tabs on all data traffic coming in and out of the SGC, particularly anything that goes through the Air Force network systems. There’s classified data in the SGC networks, and even though procedure tries to keep those networks separate to the general Air Force ones, there are ways and means to circumvent it.”
“And it’s not always SGC personnel doing the circumventing,” Sam said with a slightly acid note to her voice.
“No, it’s not,” Barrett agreed. “However, in this set of circumstances, it is a member of the SGC initiating the intrusion into security systems.” He looked at Sam. “Someone has been accessing a variety of data through the backdoors into NID systems using your userID, Colonel. Given that there are two Colonel Carters in the SGC at present, we’re willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
“Thus your presence here?” Jack inquired, a little nettled by the way the other man was staring at Carter.
Barrett didn’t break gazes. “Thus my presence here.” He looked Jack, and shifted in his chair. “Actually, this visit is off the record.” His mouth quirked a little as if in a private joke.
Sam seemed surprisingly calm, although Jack could feel the tension pouring off her. “What’s he been accessing?”
“The NID have files on prominent personnel, as might be expected.”
Jack narrowed his eyes. “Are we talking the kind of files that Hoover kept on the leading ‘communists’ of his day?”
Barrett didn’t answer, but directed his next comment to Sam. “Your userID has been logged accessing your own files at NID. All the known backdoors at NID are watched.”
“And you thought I should know?”
“I thought you should know.”
“Out of the kindness of your heart?” Sam asked, and the acid undertones were now more distinctly audible.
The cricket got in a full verse of chirps this time.
Jack felt very superfluous in the staring competition between her and the NID agent. He wasn’t sure he liked the feeling that there was more going on here than he’d ever known about. Although it shouldn’t surprise him after eight years working with her. Carter gained admirers wherever she went and whatever she did.
“You should know better than that, Sam,” Barrett said, and there was a quiet dignity in his voice that reddened her cheeks. He continued, as briskly as if the interlude hadn’t happened. “Why the data was accessed, we don’t know. It’s possible he just wants to know more about your background. Or,” he said with careful deliberation, “it’s possible he’s looking for weaknesses.”
Sam was quiet for a long moment, and both men watched her, gauging her reaction.
Jack didn’t know her thoughts on Samuel. She hadn’t yet said anything on the subject of her ‘twin brother’ tonight. He hadn’t asked, since right now he was just happy that she was Samantha, and didn’t really want to bring up the man who could have been her. Gratefulness could cover over a multitude of things Jack O’Neill didn’t want to think about.
Still, he’d spent eight years watching her, observing her, picking up her attitudes and opinions from the tidbits of her conversation. And tonight, he’d gleaned that she’d dealt with her professional insecurities about Samuel.
She was staring at a point in the middle of the coffee table, apparently lost in thought. Finally, she looked up, sideways, at Jack. One hand reached out and slipped into his, and he closed his fingers about hers as she looked to Barrett who was watching them with careful neutrality.
“Are you saying he might try to get rid of me?”
Barrett returned her gaze with quiet deliberation. “I’m saying you should be careful.”
Jack was reluctant to let Barrett ‘leave the way he’d come in’, so the agent walked out the front door and vanished into the darkness.
They had to teach that at NID academy or something. ‘Spooks 101 - How To Make A Dramatic Entrance And Exit.’ The guy was wearing a suit for crying out loud! You couldn’t get much more obvious than that!
Carter was filling the dishwasher when he shut the door behind him. He could hear the clink and clatter of plates and cutlery. Rather than join her immediately, Jack went around the house checking the doors and windows were all closed.
“I should get a locksmith in, I swear,” he said as he returned to the kitchen. “Way too many people getting in here.”
She glanced up from the sink, a funny little smile on her lips. “It wouldn’t make much difference, you know.”
The smile grew wry. “I taught him how to pick locks.”
“You taught...?” Jack was astounded. “Why?”
“Because he asked,” she said, as though the answer was obvious. Then she relented a little. “Jonas was learning it about the same time - when you were accused of shooting Kinsey. I was already teaching Jonas, and while we were working together to clear your name, he saw me pull my lockpicks to get into a house. He wanted to learn how to do it, so I gave him lessons.”
Jack was tempted to ask if she’d given Barrett anything else at the same time - a free ride, maybe - but he bit his tongue. Not his business then, barely his business now. He might not have been the first man in her life, but he intended to be the last.
Still, he had at least one other thing on his mind - and so did she, if her pensive expression was any indication. “What do you think of this news about Samuel accessing your records?”
The smile faded a little. “I don’t know what to think.” Carter rested her hands on the bench behind her as she leaned back. “Part of me wants to believe that he’d never do that - that I’d never do that. But I’ve accessed NID systems when things were tight at the SGC - gone in and used the backdoors to get the information I needed when I needed it - so who am I to say that he doesn’t have reasonable motives?” Her mouth twisted. “He might just want to know what the official ‘history of Sam Carter according to the NID’ says. I know I’d be curious if I was in another world where there was a very different counterpart to me.”
Jack could understand that.
Her gaze lifted to meet his. “What do you think?”
It could go either way in Jack’s estimation. On one hand, he couldn’t believe that Carter would do any such thing. On the other, Samuel wasn’t Carter. A Carter, but not Carter.
And he didn’t know Samuel Carter well enough to be able to tell her one thing or another. Besides, it wasn’t as though she needed him to tell her what to do, what to think. She never had.
So he crossed the room and took her in his arms, cornering her against the bench.
“I think,” he said, with distinct deliberation, “that it’s time for bed.”
A smile flashed across her features, momentarily blinding him as she wound her arms around his neck. “You do?”
“I do.” Never mind that his heart was somewhere in his stomach, which was churning away like crazy.
Relax, it’s just Carter.
Then again, the problem was that it was Sam Carter.
Take it easy. Go slow. You’ve done this before, Jack, it’s not like it’s your first time.
Another voice - a more pragmatic one - suggested, Start simple.
So he started simple. His head drifted in gently, his nose brushing her cheek before she turned her head a little and mouth closed over mouth with exquisite sensation, sliding them both into liquid desire.
It was, perhaps, a few minutes later that she tilted her head away to catch her breath. “Did you say it was time for bed?”
“Then I think you’d better take me there, sir.”
Jack did. And then some.
As she rode the elevator down to her lab and stifled the urge to hum in the silence of the empty space, Sam decided she wasn’t going to mention the breach to Samuel at all.
Last night, Malcolm indicated that General Hammond would be informed of the breach since it was one of his officers that had instigated it. The NID was willing to leave the discipline of the offending subordinate to the General - at least, this time they were. What happened afterwards would be in Samuel’s hands - how he comported himself in future.
Privately, Sam was hoping there was a reasonable explanation for Samuel’s actions. She was willing to concede that he might have reasons for wanting to check her entry in the NID database. There were moments when she wouldn’t have minded taking a peek at their estimation of her - seeing herself through someone else’s eyes for a change.
However, any urge to do so had always been stifled in the knowledge that the NID had traces on all entry points into the system. Sam had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar before. It was only the fact that she’d had equally incriminating evidence against Colonel Simmons that had stopped her from getting anything more than a quiet warning against further hacking attempts.
In the last couple of years, there’d been no need to break into the NID. She had her source in Agent Barrett, as he had a source in her, and while neither of them were willing to go directly against the organisations which held their loyalty, there’d been several situations in which their interaction had been mutually profitable.
She wondered if Samuel had collaborated with Agent Barrett to clear Jack’s name from the attempted murder of Kinsey. And she wondered what Malcolm thought of Samuel. He hadn’t given her any indications one way or the other, keeping carefully neutral as he spoke with her and Jack last night.
Of course, he hadn’t given any indication that he’d interrupted them as they made out on Jack’s couch, either, but for that one apology at the start.
Sam smiled, just a little, and hoped that she didn’t look like some moonstruck adolescent the morning after her first sexual experience.
Although, technicallly, it was her first sexual experience - at least, with this man.
It’s still no reason for you to get all silly about it, she reminded herself, trying to be stern.
But, God, it was difficult!
The walk to her lab was short and punctuated by greetings from several people already up and about. At this hour of the morning, most of them were also military personnel. The civilian personnel tended to arrive later and stay back later, although in the last couple of weeks, Sam had worked as late as any of the civilians, trying to ignore the issues in her life that she didn’t care to face just yet.
At least one of the issues had been comforably - and literally - put to bed. She smiled to herself as she strolled down the corridor. After a leisurely ‘wake up call’ this morning, Jack had seen her off with a kiss that turned into a whole series of them, and she’d come very close to calling in sick and spending the day with him.
But duty called. Her smile dimmed a little.
It vanished completely as she turned the corner and nearly tripped over the prone body of the SF usually on duty in this section of the corridor. Only a quick sidestep stopped her from treading on him.
She knelt down beside him, looking for any signs of attack or injury. At a single glance, there were none, and she found his pulse and saw his chest rise. So he was alive, if not conscious.
Sam stood, intending to reach for the wall phone by the entrance to her lab, and stopped.
Samuel was watching her from just inside the lab, the handsome features carefully neutral. In one hand, he held the ovoid pointer that SG-4 had retrieved off the loincloth-wearing locals only a couple of days ago.
“Drag him into the lab,” he said quietly. “And close the door behind you.”
A chill calmness descended upon her as she turned and did what he told her. Then she stood and faced him, holding out her hands to indicate her defencelessness.
It seemed surprisingly dark in the lab, although she didn’t know if that was the lack of lighting or just the gentle air of menace he’d acquired in the last sixteen hours. And Sam knew better than to discount the possibility of ruthlessness in him; under desperate circumstances, her own behaviour had never been all that commendable.
Of course, her definition of desperate circumstances was vastly different to his.
“Were you ever intending to stay around here?” It had to be asked. Had they really been so thoroughly fooled by him, or had other factors contributed to this turning?
He smiled at her, oddly bittersweet. “As a matter of fact, I was. Right up until two nights ago when the NID caught one of my programs making its way into their system.”
“And that’s a reason to run?”
The smile faded, leaving only the barest trace of its presence on his face. “It is for me.”
Sam shook her head, “You had to know they wouldn’t respond well to it.”
“I thought I was sharper than they were.” He shrugged. “Stupid of me, I guess. Considering they came up against the Amazing Samantha Carter more than once, I should have expected they’d keep traces on the system.”
It was a compliment, if a backhanded one.
It seemed Sam wasn’t the only one who’d been dealing with professional issues.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she said quietly.
The wide mouth pulled sideways, presenting a deep sardonicism that aged his face by years. “Unfortunately, I think it does, Sam. And don’t bother trying to talk me down. Credit me with enough intelligence to have explored all the options available.”
Sam took his point. Still, that didn’t stop her from asking, “What will you do?”
His mouth quirked slightly. “Nothing that I’m going to tell you,” came the evenly-voiced reply. “I don’t feel any particular need to gloat, Sam, I just want out.”
Out of the SGC, out of this world, out of this galaxy and universe where he wasn’t him.
Sam saw where this was going and wasn’t sure she liked it.
“And I’m your ticket to the Stargate?”
His finger moved slightly along the handle of the ovoid. “Yes, Sam,” he said. A stream of glowing white poured from the point of the weapon as he answered her question was gentle reluctance. “I’m afraid you are.”
The world didn’t so much go away as gently fade into insignificance around her.
Sam was conscious and aware, but unable to struggle, to fight. She could keep herself upright, but little more than that; it was as though everything around her was veiled, blurred, like the haze of a gentle drizzle in a foggy night.
There was nothing gentle about the way Samuel took out everyone who came out before them as they walked through the corridor. If they moved, he took them out with the weapon, the white beam lancing out and diffusing just ahead of the target, like the fog that surrounded Sam.
She was conscious of his arm, fastened diagonally across her body, holding her as a shield against the people who tried to fight back. They had guns, but he had her - Colonel Sam Carter - and that was enough to make the SFs hold their fire.
“It’s not that I want to hurt anyone,” Samuel said quietly in her ear as they stepped into the elevator and he pressed the button for sub-level 27 and the Gateroom. “I just don’t care to be on the run for the rest of my life. And I will be, sooner or later. Old habits.” He said. She saw his profile edge into the periphery of her vision, over her shoulder, as they turned and faced the doors.
She wanted to say that he didn’t have to be on the run. That he didn’t have to do this - although, given the trail of unconscious personnel they’d left behind them, it was probably a bit late to give reassurance on that point.
Besides, a part of her wanted to kick his ass for what he was doing.
And while Sam recognised that he should be stopped before he made it through the Stargate, another part of her coolly catalogued that he was, in and of himself, no threat to the SGC. His goal was not to destroy Earth, the SGC, or even her; he simply wanted out.
As the LED numbers on the panel increased, showing them descending into the bowels of the mountain, she felt Samuel transfer the weapon to his left hand, and fumbled in his trousers pocket with his right.
She’d regained just enough control of her limbs to lash out at him. Her shoulder knocked his arm, briefly unsettling him. In return, he slapped her, hard enough that the world around her blazed fiercely in a momentary negative as she stumbled against the wall of the elevator.
A moment later, pain lanced through her shoulder, agony as though someone had stabbed a knife through skin and muscle and bone. The blues, greens and greys of the elevator box around her exploded into star-spangled whites and yellows, excruciating torment. She might had yelped or screamed, she didn’t know. The veil between her and the world did not protect her from pain.
When she could look up again, Samuel towered over her, a swipe card in his right hand as he pointed the weapon at her with his left.
In her lab, the ovoid had gleamed with understated elegance; now it shone with the sleek menace of gunmetal. Doubtless it had looked ludicrous in the hands of primitive cultures; in Samuel’s hands it looked deadly.
He’d have to be disarmed before she could properly take him out. Except that she didn’t presently possess enough co-ordination to be any threat to him. And pain was an effective deterrent.
She could just focus on the eyes that gleamed beyond the ‘barrel’ of the weapon; eyes the same shape and colour as her own, but whose lashes were slightly darker and shorter, and whose expression was cool and stony as they regarded her.
“Shouldn’t have done that, Sam.” He sounded more irritated than angry, like Daniel when he was bothered by someone in the middle of a translation.
She was hauled up without gentleness. This time, she felt the barrel of the weapon caress her throat as he pressed the card into her hand. “When the doors open, swipe it in the reader. And although we’re known for being clever, I wouldn’t try anything smart, because if you’ve thought about it, I’ve already done so and made contingency plans. At the least, I have a weapon capable of doing a lot more than merely stunning people - as you’ve felt.”
Sam felt the cool plastic surface of the card resting against her lax palm. She couldn’t quite curl her fingers around it, her muscular control wasn’t that good.
Which was quite a problem considering that now she really did want to kick his ass.
She felt him switch the weapon between his hands, and as the doors opened. She caught a glimpse of startled faces as his left arm clasped her firmly before him, and the right arm pointed the weapon in a wide sweep, encompassing the whole area before them. A random thread of recollection pulled at her memory: she’d learned that move from her Dad when she was fifteen.
It seemed he’d changed the settings on the weapon. This time, instead of shooting at people, it simply began emitting a slight buzzing noise that grated on her nerves. The noise made Sam itchy, inside and out, but had a slightly different effect on the men and women outside the elevator. They folded up like so many cardboard cutouts, collapsing on the floor like marionettes with their strings cut.
“Swipe the card, Sam.” The voice in her ear was gentle, but inflexible. Her mother’s tones when Sam had whined, far different from the inflexible notes of her father’s authoritarian demeanour. It seemed she wasn’t the only one who could sound like their mothers.
She swiped the card through the reader.
And frowned as her fingers curled around the edges of the card, the thin edge biting gently into her flesh.
Her reflexes were coming back to her. Not enough that she could match him - not yet.
But give her a bit of time...
Sam mentally grimaced to herself as she realised she didn’t have time. Samuel was pushing her ahead of him, down the corridor to the Gateroom. She hadn’t heard any alarms, or any warnings - there was no sign that anyone had any idea of what was happening in the base.
At least, not until she swiped the card through the reader again, noting that her co-ordination was improving. She took pains to make sure he didn’t notice it, though - she was careful to hold the card loosely in her hand and stumble a little as he half-hauled her through the blast door.
The alarms sounded even as the blast door opened.
It was possible that someone up on the labs level had found the fallen men and women there and alerted the General.
Of course, once he dealt with the SFs on duty in the Gateroom, it would have been fairly obvious to the control room technicians that they had a problem on their hands.
Sam struggled to sweep away the cobwebs of her mind, even as SFs crumpled like so many candy wrappers. She did her best impression of ‘stunned mullet’ and concentrated on regaining conscious control of her body, even as her mind flittered through the possibilities.
If she found herself in a place she didn’t know, full of people she didn’t know, how would she behave? How would she respond? What would she expect and how would she deal with the matter of getting out?
Samuel wasn’t her. But he was a lot like her. That likeness was enough to give her an edge in predicting him; all she had to do was match the mindset with which he’d arrived at the SGC and work from there.
The veil was lifting about her by degrees, every moment giving her greater clarity and consciousness. It was like standing in the cold predawn air as the sun rose and the darkness gave way to the brightening day.
Up in the control room, she could see the startled expression of the technicians, the General’s narrow-eyed gaze as he watched the situation unfold below him.
The reverberations of the PA throbbed in her veins, and she could just make out the words they represented, “Colonel Samuel Carter, you are hereby ordered to stand down.”
“With all due respect, General, I think I’ll decline,” Samuel said lightly. “However I would appreciate it if you would get Sergeant Doyostov to start dialling the gate. P7T-102 would be a nice change of scenery about now.”
She could hear his words flowing past her ear a lot more easily than the diffuse sounds of the General’s voice over the PA as he came back with the answer.
“You know that’s not going to happen.”
“Oh, I think it is,” Samuel said lightly.
Sam saw the weapon reverse in his hand. There was a moment when she felt panic, before it turned to pain.
Like wildfire spreading through her veins, it wracked through her like electrocution, seared her nerve endings until she was nothing but agony. She’d never before been so conscious of how fragile her flesh was, how delicately it held together.
Now she was.
She knew her face twisted in reflection of the agony through which he was putting her body; knew that they saw it in the Gateroom, the General, the technicians, possibly even her team-mates, although she couldn’t see them there.
Samuel still held her against him, the weapon’s tip now cool where moments before it had burned. His voice was equally cool as he said, “You can watch this or you can open the gate, General. Your choice.”
Sam knew the pain was coming and braced herself.
It didn’t help. This time, the pain was total and complete, incandescing through her nerves, flaying skin and burning flesh to the bone. She wasn’t Sam Carter, but a mere burned skeleton, like Luke’s aunt and uncle on Tattooine.
Impossible not to let a little mewling whimper escape her lips: the torture was too strong for her; everyone had their breaking point, and this was hers. She only realised she was crying when her body stopped screaming at her long enough for her to actually feel the tears dripping down her cheeks. Air wheezed through her lungs, desperately trying to assimilate enough oxygen to heal what her mind thought was wrong with her body.
But her hands were whole. Her sight confirmed it, even if touch was numb in the face of prolonged pain.
Her hands were whole and clutching the access card he’d given her. Even as she hung, limp, over his arm, she begn clenching her fingers and could have screamed when the movement sent a crackle of pain up her arm.
She tried again.
Pain can be made your servant in times of need. Like a goad to the hindquarters of a beast, it can drive you as fiercely as ambition or desperation.
The fragment of memory was offered up from the depths of her subconscious. The voice of the man giving the admonition was as clear in her mind as was Samuel’s voice in her ear. “Incidentally, this weapon is a bit like a zat. You can keep applying it, but sooner or later, the human body reaches the threshold of how much pain it can take and simply shuts down.”
His voice rang through the empty gateroom, but didn’t stir the SFs on the floor. They lay as though dead, although Sam focused hard on one of the closer bodies and saw him move.
Then she yelped as the weapon pressed into her side, unexpectedly; but the interlude was brief, done to make a point. “So, General?” Samuel said with every evidence of geniality. “Are we going to do this the hard way? Or the very hard way?”
She didn’t need to look at the General to know he felt the tension between professional policy and personal affection for the people he commanded.
And Sam didn’t need to be told which way he would go. They had little idea what Samuel had done to their systems in the three weeks he’d been about the base. They couldn’t afford to let him go and later discover he’d left a ticking time bomb in their systems.
“I can’t do that, Colonel.”
Samuel took a deep breath, almost like a sigh. His chest rose and fell against Sam’s back as he said, “Then I’d like the record to show that I did this entirely under duress.” He lifted his head a little, and spoke to the empty air, “Voice-activated systems. Initiate protocol 210-782-3018-override. Initiate protocol 210-777-1494-activate.”
She couldn’t hear the cries of surprise as the control room computers began a dialling sequence, but she could hear the Stargate grinding behind her, could see the astonishment on the face of General Hammond when she lifted her head.
“As I told Sam here, I only want off this planet,” he said calmly. “Once I’m gone from here, I’m out of your hair.”
Sam heard the moment when the General realised that her torture had been unnecessary. “Why didn’t you do that from the start then?”
“I wanted to see how far you’d go with the equality thing,” he said. This time, his voice was coolly distant, like a scientist dispassionately observing a chemical reaction. “Or whether you’d fold at the sight of such a fair, fragile colleage in pain.” Sam’s only view was of the Gateramp’s grille, but his mockery needed no seeing. It was there in his voice as he added, “So far, you’re doing pretty well.” He jiggled her in his arms. “So’s she.”
He had no idea.
Sam’s fingers clenched around the card. The pain was still there, a nagging ache, but it had done more than weaken her: it had broken through the last of the hazy fog that surrounded her.
It was partly the dialling Stargate that motivated her. He was getting closer to his goal of getting off-world, and while she might have been willing to help him if he’d asked when she first walked into her lab this morning, that was long gone.
The access card slipped to the ground as Sam grabbed his wrist in both hands and jerked the point of the weapon towards them both. As she did so, she stepped around the tip of the weapon, and twisted her hands in opposing directions.
It was a move she’d learned in second grade, fighting in the schoolyards with the tomboy girls. Sam had never been one for girl politics, she preferred the direct route. The move wasn’t difficult for someone physically weak - as her wrists had learned when she was eight.
And it shocked him enough that she managed to slam the weapon from his hand, and send it skittering across the floor to land somewhere behind the Stargate.
Her instincts told her that General Hammond would be sending reinforcements down to the Gateroom, even now.
They wouldn’t reach her in time.
Although she didn’t know it, she guessed that at least one of the codes Samuel had given would relate to locking down the Gateroom, and deactivating all input to the dialling computer. There was no point in starting a dial-out program if it was only going to be stopped halfway through.
The other one would have been the code to dial a present planet; any planet, it didn’t matter. Once he was off earth, he could hop through one Stargate or a dozen, and the galaxy was a big place if you were one man looking for somewhere to go.
So the Gateroom was locked down, the SFs on the floor were out of it, and likely to be so for a while longer; it was just Sam against Samuel.
Carter vs. Carter.
He’d lashed out with his fist, and his punch caught her squarely in the ribcage, without any gentleness. She stumbled back, letting go of his arm, but retained her feet instead of falling to the ground.
He had the advantage of weight and reach. She couldn’t allow him too close, or he’d pin her too easily. Neither could she let him get too far, or he’d just grab for one of the SF’s weapons, and they’d be back at square one again.
And Sam didn’t kid herself that he wouldn’t shoot her if he needed time to get away. She wasn’t him. It was his own hide he wanted to preserve.
The main advantage she possessed was that she’d had practise fighting against stronger opponents. So she was used to this.
Somehow, she doubted Samuel was used to fighting a woman. That was an advantage, too.
On the down side, her body was still coping with the pain of whatever that weapon had done to her. His wasn’t.
She wasn’t him.
But if I was...
Five chevrons were lit up on the Stargate, and the inner ring clicked to the sixth.
He leapt for her, assured in his strength and her weakness, and she let him take her down, as assured in his weakness and her ability to use it.
Samuel had one weak spot that Sam never had and never would.
She turned slightly as he grabbed her, and tried to twist her arm behind her back. She managed to move her arm enough that he couldn’t get the grip he’d hoped for, and swept his legs out from beneath him.
He dragged them both down.
But Sam wasn’t finished.
As they fell to the floor, she rolled them so gravity was on her side. Her fist slammed into his groin, knuckles grinding deep into his crotch.
He doubled up in agony, making one choked noise of pain and protest, and she could almost hear the hisses of the men watching from the control room.
That was one punch she hadn’t pulled. No rest for the wicked, no mercy for the sinners.
Sam wasn’t done. Not quite. He’d curled up around his injury, his fingers clutching at her wrists with a punshing grip. She let herself be shoved away, then slammed both hands into his, swinging them like a club. She was quite intent on making sure he wouldn’t be thinking of anything for at least the next few minutes.
Sam had little doubt that the guys of the base would be giving her a wide berth for a couple of weeks after this. Right now, she couldn’t care less.
Right now, her body ached all over, like she’d run all day and all night, fighting off Jaffa as she carried Teal’c over her shoulder.
God, she hurt!
But she wasn’t finished. She couldn’t be finished.
As the Stargate opened behind her with a whoosh of light and energy, Sam staggered to the nearest SF and yanked his gun from his leg holster, cocked it, and pointed it coolly at the still curled-up Samuel.
Then she reached for some nice, solid wall to prop her up.
“Colonel Carter?” General Hammond’s voice echoed through the PA system, and while it still jarred her bones, it wasn’t as bad as it had been before.
Then again, she was feeling kind of dizzy. “Clear, sir.” She kept her eyes fixed on the man who lay on the floor, several yards away.
“We have the techs and the SFs working to get through to you, Colonel. Just hold on.”
Sam held on and wished for a bed.
She got her bed - in the infirmary, where Doc Warner arched a brow at her bruises, grimaced at Teal’c’s description of the fight, and ran an assortment of reflex tests and body scans.
Everything seemed okay.
“I’d like to study this weapon if possible,” he said as Sam got off the examination gurney wincing a little as her muscles protested. “You don’t seem to have sustained any physical damage, but I’d like you to stay under surveillance tonight - just to be sure.” He regarded her with the wry expression of a practitioner who knew perfectly well that his patients were just as liable to disregard any requests he made of them in the course of their duties. “Will that be a problem?”
“It will not,” Teal’c said as Sam opened her mouth. Warner didn’t even try to hide his smile.
“Thank’s Teal’c,” she said dryly, shrugging on the long-sleeve jacket over her t-shirt. “Anything else you’d like to organise for me at this moment?”
“I believe that a statesroom has been commissioned for your rest,” the big Jaffa said serenely. “General Hammond is more than willing to give you the remainder of the day off due to your experience this morning.”
Sam was distinctly put out at the cool takeover of her life. Not that she felt capable of much else other than lying down at this moment.
“I’ll let the duty staff know to expect you in the evening, then, Colonel,” Doc Warner said with a slight smile as he turned away. “Get some rest.”
Sam didn’t roll her eyes at him, for which she was quite proud. However, she did glare at Teal’c, who was unperturbed by her irritation as he trailed out of the infirmary after her.
“Samuel Carter is held in custody,” Teal’c said, foreseeing her next question. “Sergeant Davis is examining the systems to which Samuel Carter had access during his time at the SGC. Sergeant Siler is scheduling a diagnostic of the control room and Gateroom’s electrical systems to determine how Samuel Carter effected his voice-activated program. There are things that must be done later, but they do not require your presence, and you will be better served resting.”
“I’m glad someone has it all organised then,” Sam commented as she made her way down the corridor towards the elevator lobby.
Teal’c made no comment as he followed her, but she could sense his smile behind her back.
They’d just reached the elevators when the doors opened to Daniel, who nearly ran into her, and just sidestepped in time to avoid a collision. “Oh, there you are, guys! General Hammond sent me to find you. Some people from Samuel’s world dialled in a few minutes ago.”
“Dialled in?” Sam frowned. “The iris override shouldn’t have worked this time...” She’d done all the reprogramming of the system, and was sure of her work. Nobody should have been able to get through.
Daniel met that concern with reassurance. “They didn’t use the iris override, just connected the wormhole and radioed through. Said they were looking for a Samuel Carter of the SGC.”
“A Samuel Carter?” Teal’c asked, questioning Daniel’s phrasing.
“That’s what they said. We sent a MALP to the co-ordinates they specified, and General Hammond has authorised them to come through for a face-to-face.”
Sam frowned. “It’s a bit coincidental that they should come through now, just when we’ve dealt with Samuel.”
“Well, it gets better,” Daniel said. “Turns out that Samuel’s a fugitive on his own world - for technology theft.” She winced as he grinned. “And you’ll never guess who the commander of the SG-team is!”
That was all the warning Sam got when she followed Daniel up the stairs, along the corridor past General Hammond’s office, and into the briefing room, and found Robert Makepeace sitting at the briefing room table.
To say Sam was stunned was putting it lightly.
Her shocked expression took in not only the one-time Colonel, but also the two members of his team - both men Sam recognised. General Hammond had turned in her chair, and the brief moment of sympathy in his glance indicated he understood her response.
“Colonel Makepeace.” It had been over...four years since Sam had last seen him. After he’d been implicated as part of the Stargate smuggling ring, he’d faced trial along with the rest of the rogues. The last Sam had heard, the remainder of the rogues had been quietly executed two years ago.
“Ma’am,” he inclined his head to her in the stiff respect she recalled from four years ago. “I’m afraid I don’t recognise you.”
She could see enough of Daniel’s expression as he moved around the table to know that they hadn’t explained that Samuel’s counterpart here was very different to Samuel. “Lieutenant Colonel Sam Carter,” she said lightly. “SG-1.”
“Holy sh--” One of the men - Major Terry Vadim - swallowed his exclamation with a quick look at the General. “Carter?”
“That’s Colonel Carter to you, Vadim,” said a new voice, wafting up to them as Jack climbed the stairs from the control room.
Now the men stood. “General O’Neill.”
“Retired, actually,” Jack said, waving them down. He glanced at Sam and jerked his head with the slightest of smiles, indicating that she, Daniel, and Teal’c should all take a seat.
Sam was glad to take a seat. This was the longest period she’d had standing unassisted since Samuel had shot her with the weapon earlier that day. Her head was beginning to twinge a little, signalling that it might be a good time to sit down soon.
As she moved around to an empty place at the table, she was pleased to discover that, whatever the consequences of last night and this morning, she was still able to keep her head around him. It was reassuring to know that her sense of professionalism was firmly in place. No flushing, no blushing, and just a brief smile - his usual affection towards any of his team in professional settings.
She didn’t expect more - not in the SGC.
“Long time no see, Makepeace. You never write.”
Makepeace grinned. “Can’t say the same, sir. You’ll have to excuse the formality - don’t particularly care to start addressing our General too casually on duty.”
“Excused,” Jack said, then looked over at Hammond. “Sir?”
“We were just about to discuss Colonel Samuel Carter,” the General said as Sam took her seat next to Daniel and opposite Jack. “His story about the Alpha site being overrun was incorrect.”
“General Hammond has given us the basic details of what he told you,” Makepeace was saying calmly. “Needless to say, it seems he’d been telling you more than a few lies.”
“So it seems,” Jack said.
“He also injured thirty-seven people as he was trying to make his way out of the base through the Stargate this morning,” General Hammond said, and there was a note of grimness in his voice. “And tortured one of my officers on the process.” His glance at Sam was noted by the alternate SG-3 and, as one, they turned their heads towards her.
Sam kept an easy expression on her face. Sitting down had helped a bit - slowed down the twinges - but they’d be back eventually. She just hoped this meeting would be over before she really felt the need to lie down again.
“You don’t look tortured,” Vadim observed.
“Looks can be deceiving, Major,” she returned with just a little bite. It was also the slightest of warnings that he shouldn’t underestimate her.
“Colonel Carter has already disposed of one gentleman who became an irritation this morning,” Teal’c said with deadly calm. “It would be inadvisable to again try her patience today.”
By which Teal’c meant that the alternate officers shouldn’t try his patience when it came to mistrusting her. She saw the quick peek Vadim took, first at Hammond, then at Jack and SG-1. Evidently, he decided not to try his luck.
Makepeace nodded at her. “So I’ve been given to understand. We’re here to take Samuel Carter off your hands, Colonel. And although it’s somewhat pointless to apologise for his actions, we regret losing track of him long eough that he was able to cause trouble for you.”
“Yeah,” Daniel said, lifting his chin a little. “You might like to explain how that happened again.”
“The discoveries of technology theft were recent,” Makepeace explained. “He’d hidden his tracks well. And, with no offence to you, ma’am, I have advised the General as to what we’ve found on his account so far. He’ll be doing checks on your systems.”
“Keeping in mind that Samuel Carter had nearly unlimited access to our systems for seven days,” Daniel added.
“Unlimited access?” Makepeace turned to look at General Hammond, but Sam was the one who could answer his question.
“He knows all my passwords and userids,” Sam said. “And I have complete access to the system.”
Makepeace nodded, accepting that, but Vadim gave her a look that was considerably more frank in regard. She returned his gaze with cool assurance. Her relationship with Terry Vadim - their Vadim - had always been slightly adversarial: one part aggression, one part stubbornness, and one part personality bite. It seemed that thigns were more or less the same in Samuel’s world.
More or less. Except for Samuel stealing technology.
Her head twinged again, and Sam hid a wince. They were getting worse.
“So we basically have no idea what stuff he’s left in our systems?” Jack inquired of Hammond.
“We’ve had the technical staff looking at the accesses,” the General replied. “However they’ve been unable to find anything yet.”
Daniel looked about. “Well, he did have three weeks to sneak his stuff in.”
“And Carter will have months to try to get it all out.”
“If it’s any help, Colonel,” the third man spoke then. “I know a little about what Carter - sorry, our Colonel Carter - did to our systems. If you wish, I can list them down for yours.”
Sam did wish. It would make things a lot easier. Assuming that these men were trustworthy.
Okay, Sam. That way lies madness. Trust had to start somewhere.
“That would be extremely helpful, Captain Gretton,” Hammond said as Sam handed over notepaper and a pen. She resisted the urge to crane her neck and watch as he began writing things down in a quick, scrawling hand.
For one, her neck wouldn’t take it. For two, the headache was getting bad. Still, she was just a little bit curious.
“Daniel said that he was caught in technology theft.”
“A small operation, run these last couple of years,” Makepeace said, meeting her gaze without a trace of irony. “He was the contact within the SGC - in place to pick things up and move them through. One of the first personnel assigned to the SGC, the Stargate expert - nobody suspected him.”
“Until someone did, I presume,” Daniel said dryly.
“More a case of items going missing, excuses not adding up, that sort of thing. In the end, he vanished.”
And General Hammond brought up the point that was nagging Sam. “So how did you find him, Colonel? He claimed he came through the mirror...”
“He did, sir.” Gretton looked up from his paper, and then reached down to what was probably his pack on the floor to produce the controller. A moment later, he laid a device next to it on the briefing room table. It was small and cylindrical and had notch markings around it. “If you know about the mirror, then you know about the controller. But in one of our explorations, we found this device here, attached to a mirror. It’s like a ‘history’ of the last universes reached from this mirror.”
Sam blinked, suddenly interested in this. They’d never had a controller that they got to keep. “Does it use the resonances of the most recent universes to locate the matching universe?”
“Carter,” Jack warned her, and she glanced down at him and smile ruefully.
He turned back to them. “So, you’re going to take your guy off our hands? You owe us the cost of feeding and keep, you know.”
The snort from Makepeace was purest amusement. “Kennelling and stabling? Well, Gretton’s telling you where to find all the traps he has set up through the system, so that’s a kind of payment, isn’t it?”
Jack made a ‘huh’ sound as Gretton pushed the notepad over towards Sam. “That’s the list of ones we found in our systems. There were a round dozen of them.”
Sam glanced over the list and nodded, then blinked a little as the world around her flashed white for the briefest of seconds. She concentrated on the paper, ignoring the throbbing which was now reaching migrane status. The notations were somewhat cryptic to someone with no knowledge of the Stargate systems, but it seemed that Captain Gretton had paid attention in Control Room 101 classes - which was more than could be said for a lot of people around the base.
“I’ve ordered Colonel Samuel Carter brought up here for you to return to your world,” the General said. “I’ll also be sending an SG-team to escort you through to the mirror before we bring it back here.”
There was the sound of footsteps behind them, and Samuel Carter was led in, handsome face neutral as he faced the four men from his own reality. “I see I got the three stooges for company on the way home,” he said dryly. “Lovely.”
“Save the sarcasm for your trial, Carter,” Vadim retorted.
“Gee, you might have saved yourself the trouble,” Samuel muttered.
“Well, we could always put a gun in Carter’s hand and let her shoot you,” Jack said, narrow-eyed. “Saves not only the trial, but cost of upkeep and imprisonment, etcetera.”
Samuel’s gaze fixed on Sam, and she returned his gaze with something like pity, even through the headache. “She wouldn’t.”
“Do you know that?” Jack countered with a smirk.
Sam was more than a little relieved that, if a number of the men through the base were giving her sidewise looks - possibly wondering if they’d find her fist in their balls if they offended her anytime soon - Jack seemed to be amused by it all.
She supposed he could afford to be after last night.
An airman had come up the stairs from the control room and was murmuring something in Hammond’s ear. The general turned and stood and the officers rose with him. “Colonel Makepeace, SG-11 is downstairs, ready to escort you to P5C-906.”
“Thank you, General Hammond.” Makepeace inclined his head at the rest of SG-1, and took the handcuffed Samuel by the shoulders. “Let’s move it, Carter.”
General Hammond and Daniel followed them, and Jack glanced at her, then went over to the window looking out over the gateroom to watch them leave.
Sam stayed at the table, holding herself up by her fingertips. She ignored Teal’c’s gaze and listened to the Stargate dial, watched the men go through.
The last Sam saw of Samuel Carter was him being manhandled through the Stargate. He glanced up at the briefing room windows, caught her gaze for a moment, quirked a grin, and winked at her.
She didn’t smile back.
As the event horizon of the Stargate vanished, so did the world around her.
Her mind tended to wake up before her body did. It was a habit, the awareness of her surroundings, of where she was and whom she was with.
As her consciousness rose out of the darkness to which it had retreated, Sam became very much aware that there was a man lying in the bed beside her. Although, more correctly, it could be said that there was a man lying on the bed beside her, resting on top of the quilt where she lay under it.
Not that this was necessarily a bad thing. Mostly, it depended on who the man lying on the bed beside her was.
Of course, there was a very small pool of candidates for that option, and as she raised her eyelids, she was pleased to find that it was the only man she really wanted in the bed beside her.
“Hey,” she murmured, shifting a little as her body gradually roused itself to wakefulness.
“Hey,” Jack said. He was lying on his side, with his head propped up on one hand, and the other resting on the quilted coverlet. He looked comfortable and easy where he lay, just as he had earlier today - today? Before she could ask about the time, he reached out his resting hand to caress her cheek. “How’re you feeling?”
“Like I could spend a week in bed,” she confessed, leaning in to the warm touch.
“Mm,” he murmured, the dark eyes taking on a softer, sensuous gleam, “I like the sound of that.”
She laughed. She couldn’t help it. “Even if I slept the whole way through?”
“You wouldn’t sleep for a whole week, Carter,” he said, smiling, and his thumb traced across her lip. “I’d make sure of it.” The smile continued a moment more, then eased back. “You gave us a bit of a shock after the briefing.”
“Not my intention,” she admitted, and gained enough energy to shuffle over in the bed so she was closer to him. “Besides, I had a busy morning.” Sam paused and looked up at him with a smile. “And a late night.”
“Yeah,” he murmured. “I think I remember that part.”
Sam leaned back, miming offence. “You only think you remember it?”
His mouth curved and his eyes gleamed with good humour. “I’m getting old. The memory’s the first to go. You’ll need to remind me how it all goes, pretty soon.”
Oh, she could just imagine he’d love that! “And very often?”
A little tendril of pique unfurled within her soul as she said, “Well, we’ll see.”
By now, Jack was quite completely into the lazy, shit-eating grin that Sam loved seeing on him - and could now watch without having to veil her appreciation.
Still, that didn’t mean she could just watch him all day - much as she would like to. There were things she had to attend to, things she had to fix in the wake of Samuel’s betrayal and departure.
“Have the techs found--”
“Sam.” The use of her name stopped that line of inquiry almost immediately, so gentle and chiding on his lips.
“He was my twin.” The SGC had trusted Samuel because of her - that meant she had a certain responsibility to make right what he’d messed up.
“Your evil twin,” Jack pointed out. “Horribly cliché as it may be.”
He’s not me; I’m not him. The mantra with which she’d spent the last few weeks reassuring herself echoed in her head, now imbued with an even more significant meaning.
“You can’t take all his wrongs and make them right, Sam.”
Her mouth quirked at his practicality. “I can try.”
“Don’t strain yourself trying.” His hand was now tracing back through her hair and she managed to roll over on her side so she was facing him.
He bent in and touched his lips to hers. “Retired, Sam.”
Her skin tingled where his mouth brushed, and Sam opened her mouth to him, pleased when he deepened the kiss. In spite of the day’s stresses and aches, right now, she wanted nothing more than to pull him under the covers, strip off his clothes and make love to him until he set his teeth in her shoulder as he came.
A pang at her shoulder made her break from the kiss and she rolled onto her back, gasping as the shoulder ‘wound’ Samuel had inflicted reasserted itself. It was nothing more than a shadow of remembered pain, but it was enough to take her attention and drain what little energy she had.
She turned her head enough to see and reassure him. “Fine.” Jack opened his mouth to protest, and she headed him off with his name and a question. “Any idea when I can get out of here?”
“Teal’c mentioned that you were under surveillance tonight,” he reminded her. “Maybe tomorrow? Ask the Doc.”
Sam sighed as she stared up at the ceiling. She’d almost forgotten about that.
“I’m sure they’ll let you out for the weekend, though,” he said with a sly note in his voice.
It was hard not to laugh at his angling, even if she was hoping for precisely the same thing: a weekend uninterrupted by crises. “We can hope,” Sam said. Then yawned as her body began making demands on her consciousness. “Sorry,” she murmured as she shut her eyes and began settling back into the mattress. Much as she wanted to stay awake and talk to him, her body had other ideas. “Getting tired again.”
“So sleep,” he murmured, and she felt the weight of him briefly press against her as he leaned over and rubbed his cheek against hers. She could feel the not-quite-bristles of his five o’clock shadow against her skin and smiled lazily at the tactile sensation.
Sam loved this man. She’d like nothing better than to wake up with him again. But that would have to wait for a few days. At the least, it would have to wait until she got off the base. She opened one eye, fighting the sudden bout of exhaustion that washed over her. “Be here when I wake?”
He lifted his head and didn’t quite smile, but his expression was full of all the tenderness he’d never been able to show her in the years they’d worked together. “You need to ask?”
And as she slipped into sleep again, she felt him kiss her temple, felt the vibration of his voice against her skull, in her heart, in her soul.