In English class, two days after her one-year anniversary of becoming an Asgard clone, Sam Carter is called to the principal's office.
As she passes his one-piece student desk, two rows behind her, Jack tugs on her sleeve. He mouths you? with a shocked look, even though this isn't the first time it's happened. She rolls her eyes and doesn't ask him to take notes for her.
The yellow plastic chairs outside the school's administrative offices are uncomfortable and squeaky, and the principal makes her wait there for almost ten minutes before bringing her in. He calls her Samantha.
"How can I help you, sir?"
Mr. Harding shoots her a reproachful look, like she's being rude. "We're having this conversation again." Her student file is on the top of the messy stack of papers closest to him, flagged with post-its.
She sighs and tries to ignore the twinge of guilt. Her first high school record was spotless, but that was a long time ago. "I've only missed two days this month."
"You've missed your first three classes every day this week."
She thinks that's being a bit dramatic, given that it's only Wednesday. "Car trouble. Are you going to give me detention?"
He's already writing out a white slip. "You're a junior now," he tells her, like it's news. It's already mid-October, and Mr. Harding has given her the same speech three times since Labor Day. "It's time to start thinking about your future. Everyone here agrees that you have a lot of potential, Samantha, but you've got to start taking things seriously."
She doesn't know what she says to get out of there, some variation of yes or I'm sorry or I'll do that, sir, but her future is one thing she doesn't want to talk about.
She goes back to class, ignoring the looks she gets from curious high school students -- one in particular -- and folds her detention slip into a neat little triangle before dropping it into her backpack. She has good days and bad days. This one isn't looking up.
Luke Boyd behind her pokes her in the shoulder and hands her a passed note. You okay? in familiar handwriting. She's surprised how similar their penmanship stayed, even with new, younger fingers.
She turns around long enough to give Jack a nod and a mouthed fine. Then she takes notes on the symbolism of Moby Dick until she stops thinking.
Fifth period is her study hall. Sam usually spends it in the library because Alyssa does, and Sam will be no more bored there than in a classroom. For some reason, Alyssa likes her. The pretty young brunette -- teased for chubbiness at this age, but Sam can already tell that Alyssa's twenties will be good to her -- was the first to reach out to her last year, on her first day of school, and she has been doggedly kind to her ever since. That whole first month or two is still a blur of a new life and a new body and night after night of waking up sobbing, but she does remember Jack encouraging her to make friends because, as he said, this is it, Carter.
Back then, everything he said still sounded like an order, even coming via a fifteen-year-old voice that cracked sometimes.
Alyssa ignores Sam's mood -- she does that a lot -- and spends her time drawing on poster-board, which isn't unusual. Alyssa's role in their chemistry partnership, and biology partnership last year, is doing the illustrations for their reports and projects. Sam doesn't know what class this one could be for, though. The poster seems to be filled with a row of teeth.
When she can't stand Ishmael's endless treatise on whale biology any longer, Sam asks, "I give. Why the giant teeth?"
Alyssa looks at her like it's obvious. "It's for my dad's booth at career day." She raises her eyebrows. "Friday...?"
"Oh," Sam says. She probably missed that memo by always missing first period. Sam's father -- if he can even still be considered her father -- is most certainly not coming to career day to discuss the merits of being a Tok'ra host.
"It's just so weird." Alyssa applies glitter-glue to the teeth to represent, Sam assumes, a healthy shine and the general joy of dentistry. "We have to pick careers soon. I mean, high school takes like forever, and then we just have to pick something else boring to do until we die."
"It's not so bad," Sam assures her, aware that she sounds a little maternal. "A career is a great thing. It gives you... you know, a purpose. You can make a difference in the world."
Alyssa shrugs. "It's easy for you. You're so smart. You can do whatever you want."
Something turns sickly in Sam's stomach. She wants to encourage her young friend, but can only wince.
"So what are you going to be?" Alyssa prompts.
The answer's there -- it's the same one that's been the only answer for twenty-five years now -- but instead, Sam says aloud: "Anything's better than high school, right?"
The car trouble she mentioned is real, and it comes in the form of not having one. She's walked a mile in much worse weather than a freezing October day in Colorado, of course, but usually then she was on a mission, not just trudging home after detention.
When she gets there, Jack is in the driveway, hitting a neon street hockey ball against the foundation blocks of the four-plex. She drops her backpack and watches him for a while, unsure what she's waiting for.
"Need something?" he asks after a few more shots. He's moving quickly, reflexes honed by experience and helped by joints that have never been damaged in combat.
"No," she assures him. She moves her feet a little to hear the frosty grass crunch.
Jack, apparently content with being observed, continues his workout. Hockey pre-season is starting soon, she knows, which is why Jack always leaves for school early to hit the gym while she finds any possible reason to avoid sitting through first-period chemistry. The teacher's an idiot, convinced that Sam's out to make trouble ever since she corrected the textbook's explanation for why super-heavy elements can never be stabilized. She can't stand pretending not to know things that early in the morning.
Jack says, it won't last forever, but she knows, in many ways, it will. They'll always be copies, always have decades of extra memories, and never be able to tell anyone. No one outside the mountain, anyway.
"Hey," she says.
He turns toward her, bouncing the ball on the taped end of the hockey stick. "Yeah?"
"What are we going to do... after this? After high school?"
Jack doesn't stop bouncing the ball, but makes a face like it's a strange question. "Dunno. Military, I assume."
She assumes the same, so she isn't sure why it doesn't feel right to hear him say it out loud, or why he looks like he's eating something bitter.
He lowers the stick when she doesn't answer, and the ball rolls into the frost-tipped grass. "Why, were you thinking something else?"
"No," she answers honestly. "Not really."
He gives her an intense look for just a moment, like he's going to ask her something, before shrugging it off.
It's moments like that when he reminds her most of who he used to be.
They're too lazy to cook, so she puts in a frozen pizza. He's bored, so he starts kissing her neck, and even though he's sweaty from working out, she wants physical affection now to distract her from her thoughts and her day. She forgets about the pizza almost immediately, and his fingers are inside her on the couch when the buzzer goes off.
"We have to get that," she gasps out.
He's nodding, a wicked glint in his eye that makes her stomach do flip-flops even when he isn't touching her like that. "Big fire," he says. "Very bad. Dinner totally ruined."
"Jack," she complains, and then groans in disappointment when he actually listens to her and removes his hand.
He flicks the oven off. "Well?" he asks, and nods his head toward the bedroom, because he was never subtle, not even before, when she worked so hard to convince herself that she couldn't figure him out.
She beats him to the bed, and laughs at the look on his face when she whips her shirt off in one motion. The first few times she closed her eyes while they had sex, but that couldn't last. He's not attractive, says her 38-year-old mind, not an acceptable object of sexual desire. He's underage, skinny, a child, but her own skinny teenage body goes crazy around him and she wants to experience him with every sense she has.
When she's making him come she feels whole -- as whole as she gets. When they're that close, when he's inside her and she's seeing stars and he says the name he rarely used in a voice that's barely his, she doesn't care who he is or who she is, only that they're here and together. In those minutes, she's not thinking.
He kisses her forehead, her cheeks, her nose, and leaves her sprawled on the bed to take a shower and reheat the pizza and for just a moment, her heart is full of hope and joy.
She tries to hold on to that through the rest of the night, while she doesn't do her pre-calc homework. Out of curiosity, she double-checks the current entrance requirements to the Academy, and imagines them taking orders from lieutenants and upperclassmen young enough to be their children. Jack's aura of cool irreverence served him well as a colonel (and as a high school student, actually), but won't make it easy to go back to the bottom of the military food chain. That's another thing no one should ever have to go through twice.
Married students aren't allowed at the Academy either, she notes. Not that it should matter.
They started having sex because it was the worst possible idea -- two people who couldn't sort out their feelings for each other for seven damned years, now trapped in foreign bodies and living under the same roof, isolated from everyone else on Earth, desperate for anything to feel real. And it did -- felt good, even, so good that she forgot what she was for the first time and felt human. He rubs her feet while they watch a movie, teases her for burning the toast, kisses her in the hall at school in front of everyone, and she feels loved, like it's that simple.
They used to care about more important things.
"You okay, Carter? You look..." Jack waves a finger around, his charades version of her brain spinning.
She gets up and walks out, before she even fully realizes she doesn't want to talk to him. "Fine. I'm going to bed."
As she takes her birth control pill before brushing her teeth, she notices the irregular pattern of ones she forgot to take, here and there, and closes the pill case with frustration. She's irresponsible because she's sixteen, she thinks, and her inner voice has a sharp bite to it. She's just acting her age.
At two in the morning, she gets up and does her pre-calc homework. She might put up a token protest, but in the end, she always does what she's supposed to.
Career Day means skipping the last two class periods, so everyone seems to enjoy it. Sam watches her classmates travel around from booth to booth, collecting stacks of pamphlets and planning their futures.
She doesn't recognize the captain at the USAF table. She hasn't even seen Jack since coming in here.
Alyssa's dad waves her over. "Considering a dental career?" he asks, and she can tell he's mostly joking, so she smiles back.
"Not really, Dr. Howell."
"Yeah, Alyssa says you'll probably end up going to Harvard and becoming President."
Sam laughs. "I doubt that."
"So if not Harvard, what are your plans?"
It's Career Day, so it's not strange for someone to ask her that. Alyssa's father is Sam's age -- her real age -- but without knowing that, he's taken a bit of a paternal interest in her.
"Joining the Air Force," she says, and tries to conjure up the proud smile that career always used to bring to her face. Sixteen the first time, she dreamed of silver stars and flying and her father, beaming with pride.
Dr. Howell gives her a worried look. "That doesn't seem like you, Sam."
She shrugs. "It's what I've always wanted to do."
"Is it Jack's plan, or yours?" Sam bristles at the coming pep talk. Because he thinks she's a bad influence on Alyssa or just because it disagrees with his worldview, Dr. Howell often warns her that she's too close to her boyfriend and should be spending all her attention on school. His wife asks her at least once a month if she uses birth control. "I'm sure you hear it a lot, but Alyssa is always telling me how smart you are. Your future has so much potential, Sam."
The Howells are pacifists, and Sam never seems to have the energy to argue the merits of the military with adults who consider her an opinionated teenager who lacks real-world experience. Unable to think of a polite response, she just says, "I've got to go look at other tables."
She browses a bit, not really looking at the information and trying not to feel depressed. Dr. Howell sees her as a lovestruck child, wanting to follow her boyfriend because she's unable to grasp the wonder of her future, while Sam knows there's nothing any of these career fair opportunities can hold that can possibly match the future she already had.
Halloween is genuinely fun. The Junior class fundraiser for the fall is a haunted house. Alyssa, with all her poster-making skills, is on the decorating committee, and drafts Sam to peel grapes and pour red dye on Goodwill sheets. She doesn't usually spend time with her classmates after school -- there are only so many hours in a day she feels like she can convincingly be sixteen -- but she has such an unexpectedly good time decorating that she drags Jack along for the main event.
When he's cast as the bloody ghost of a soldier and handed an outfit of thrift store camouflage, Sam expects to be disturbed -- or haunted in a completely different way. Instead, she pours fake blood on him and then runs away across the haunted front lawn when he tries to get it in her hair.
"Did you just shriek, Carter?"
She did, and she doesn't even mind, because part of her really isn't a mature adult anymore. She sticks out her tongue and wields a plastic femur in front of her. "Stay back!" And then, because he's in sort of in uniform, she adds, "Colonel!"
She ends up with blood all over her anyway, of course, because Brandi Peters's mother made gallons of it. She spends the evening hiding in an armoir wailing herself hoarse and getting far too much enjoyment out of hearing ten-year-olds scream. Back at their apartment at the end of the night, Jack beats her to the shower. She has to pick the lock to get in the bathroom and -- by the damned grin on his face when he tosses her a red-stained washcloth -- he knew she would.
The next day, she still has red dye in her hair, and when she's called to the office, it isn't for detention.
The guidance counselor for Mountain Springs High School is probably fifty, which seems a lot older from Sam's current vantage point. She first met Dr. Carelli soon after she arrived, to take aptitude tests and talk about her class schedule and how she was adjusting to a new high school. She saw his eyes widen while he graded her tests and remembered that look from her first time through public education. Being special is a lot less interesting to her this time around.
"I have a class this period," she reminds him, hoping he'll be brief.
Dr. Carelli nods, and then proceeds to tell her all about her potential again, and how she's scoring in the top percentile among Colorado students, and how she should be in the National Honor Society. She needs extra-curriculars in addition to her grades if she's going to get into a top-caliber school. She owes it to herself to invest in her future.
She's already told him she's not going to the Ivy League, or MIT, or anywhere else, but he doesn't give up.
"The Air Force Academy is very selective as well," he reminds her. "And they look for sports and those who take leadership roles in clubs and activities."
"I have activities," she says. It doesn't take much effort to sound convincingly teenage and disaffected. "Tutoring, sometimes." She's not sure doing Alyssa's science homework and formatting Jack's English papers while he yells Carter, enough! Leave it alone! is the same thing as tutoring, but it's not like it really matters.
He frowns at her over his glasses. "Sam."
"Are we done?" She's a 38-year-old woman on the fast track to teen pregnancy and a truancy record, and if just one more person tells her that she's ruining her talented, brilliant future, she's going to start taking hostages.
"That's up to you."
Something stops her from walking out. This is just someone doing his job, and on some level, he wants what's best for her. Maybe he even knows something -- it's not like she's really had her head on straight the past year. "I'll start trying," she promises, and doesn't expect the words until they're already out of her mouth.
He makes a note in her file. "That's all anyone can ask."
It's a warm day, for two weeks before Thanksgiving, and Jack goads her into a bit of one-on-one street hockey in the cul-de-sac two blocks down by threatening to go easy on her. The physical exertion feels good -- she ran almost every day during the summer, until she grew an inch and started falling all over herself again. Jack's growth spurts are more dramatic than hers. He jokes about not letting her wear heels until he's done growing.
"I'm thinking of a new career plan," he tells her, after he scores on her again. "I'm going pro. Hall of fame. I'm gonna endorse sports drinks."
She laughs. If they were really sixteen, she'd probably get starry-eyed thinking about her boyfriend, the future sports hero millionaire. Jack works hard at his game with a discipline the other high-schoolers don't share, but it's probably still a pipe dream. They both know what they're good at.
"What about you?" he asks. "Hey, hey! Watch the high-sticking!"
She steals the ball away from him with her no-doubt illegal move and as she plays she tries to think of an equally flamboyant career. Amusingly or depressingly, the first thought in her head is astronaut. She already had the best job there is. "What, I don't just get to follow your team around like a groupie? Hang on your arm while you give sound bites?"
"You? I can't see it."
"Astrophysics on the side, of course."
"Of course." He smirks, an expression she knows Jack O'Neill had before, but with a suggestive warmth that is uniquely his now. "Mickey's doing some assistant coaching for the peewee leagues on the weekends. Asked if I wanted a job."
"A job or volunteer?"
"A few bucks, but I'd mostly do it for fun. Charlie used to play -- it's the silliest thing. These tiny kids on skates just trying not to fall over."
Sam watches his face for signs of distress and is surprised not to find any. He never used to talk about Charlie, never to her, and never without pain. But then, in their old lives, they spoke to each other constantly and rarely talked. Sharing a bed -- not to mention a life sentence -- has changed that.
"You should do it. You were always a good teacher."
He snorts. "There's a difference between scaring the pants off new recruits and trying to keep a pack of five-year-olds from peeing in their snowsuits."
She grins. "It can be your backup plan if going pro doesn't work out."
He deftly steals the ball from her and she nearly trips on her stick. "At least we can be sure your future isn't in road hockey."
After a split-second of planning, she launches herself at him. Even in these bodies, they're both experienced enough to hit the ground without damage, but he still yelps, "Ref! Ref!"
The thrill of competition -- even when she's losing -- and the feel of him against her is distracting. He rolls her onto her back in the middle of the deserted road, pinning her shoulders with his forearm. "You don't play fair," he informs her, and licks his lips.
She makes no attempt to get up. "Do you really want to be a hockey player?"
"What... really really?"
She notices she's biting her lip.
"Not really," he says, and smirks. "Probably not unless the NHL is really hard up."
She wasn't going to ask this, not now when they're having fun. "You are going to go back to the Air Force, right?"
His playful expression falls away. "Is this really the place to talk about our future?" He frowns and corrects: "The future?"
"I guess not," she sulks. He lifts his arm and she sits up. "Stupid question."
He rolls his eyes. "Carter-"
"I was just wondering."
"I don't know," he tells her. "I guess we don't have to."
They do have to, and not just because neither of them can think of a viable alternative. They've been there. They're spending three years cooling their heels in high school when the world could be destroyed at any minute. God knows how many close calls have happened that they didn't even know about. "Yes, we do. You know what's at stake."
He stands up, and even though he's still a kid, he's grown a lot in the last year and it feels like he's towering over her. "I do? What? The galaxy?" She stares up at him, suddenly intimidated, the way she was when they just met, when he was a colonel and a legend and she was desperate to make a good impression. "Carter, has it ever occurred to you that they don't want us back?"
Icy fear closes around her chest. "Not for SG-1, but surely..." she trails off, because he's right, or they wouldn't be here, but when they're adults...? "The Air Force-"
"Oh, I'm sure we can join the Air Force," he snaps, picking up the empty tin cans they were using as goal markers. "Do another few tours in Baghdad, Lieutenant."
She's shaking her head. "They wouldn't give up these resources. They could've sent us anywhere, they kept us in Colorado Springs, they-"
"Sam." He stops to look at her. "They already have what they need. I know him. He won't let us." He's furious, she realizes, and even with a year of this under her belt, Sam has no idea how to handle their nonexistent relationships with their original selves. A year ago, they were those people who have since completely written them off.
She swallows hard. "But would you want to?"
"That's not really the point, is it?"
She wants to scream at him. "I think you're wrong," she says instead. Her hands are shaking at the thought of Jack O'Neill -- General Jack O'Neill, or so she's heard -- shutting her out, telling her we don't need you, because you're not Sam Carter. She thinks about going through the Stargate again, about the exhilarating frantic tumble of light and sound and molecular motion, and feels sick.
"What do you want, Sam?"
"Forget it," she says, abandons her hockey stick, and storms off.
He doesn't mention her outburst when she gets home, and the hockey sticks are propped up in the corner where they always are.
She can tell he's mad at her, though, because when he heats up a frozen dinner, he doesn't make one for her.
He still crawls into bed with her at night, and doesn't resist when she spoons herself behind him. "I'm sorry," she says.
Jack sighs. "You said once..." he pauses, and she can tell he means before. "You told me this was an opportunity. You'd give anything to do your life over again."
She sniffs, still feeling a little shaky. She always hated it when he was mad at her, but it feels worse now, when he's truly the only thing she has. "It sure looks different from this angle, doesn't it?"
"I'm sorry," he says. She can feel the tension in his body. "For him. I'm sorry."
"You're not him, though."
"And that's the whole problem, isn't it?"
She hugs him closer, pressing her face into the back of his neck, and wishes she understood what she was feeling enough to explain it.
"I asked you what you want," he reminds her.
You, she thinks, with powerful force. For an instant it's clear: she wants him, and a baby, and the life she didn't have before, the life where she never falls asleep alone, where she has nothing to prove and she knows with utter certainty that he loves her.
"I don't know," she admits, and because she's sixteen with turbulent adolescent hormones she can't control, she starts to cry.
On Sunday, she bails on seeing a movie with Alyssa and Kayla, because she has to know.
It takes three busses to get there, and even then, she has to walk a few miles uphill to get to his house. She rarely came out here in her other life, but she remembers the route as clearly as she remembers everything. By the time she gets there, it's starting to snow.
It's the middle of the day, but his truck is gone and the house is empty. She sits on the porch for a few minutes, watching the large snowflakes dust the ground, before she abandons propriety and breaks into his house. Jack bought her the lock-pick set online, not for any particular occasion, and made her close her eyes and guess before he gave it to her. It's cheap, because everything they own now is bought on a stipend, but he said I'm sure you'll make it work like he did on every alien planet.
She calls "Hello?" just in case, but the place is deserted. She takes her boots off and leaves them on the mat.
Sam never would have snuck into his house like this, before, and not just because he kept a spare key on base. She barely came here at all, even when invited, when they were going to watch Star Wars for the hundredth time or because steaks and barbecue sauce were on sale. His home was off-limits. Back then, she drove herself crazy inventing rules for herself, like the ones the Air Force already had weren't enough.
Being nothing to him, instead of his trusted military right hand, makes walking through his living room in her stocking feet much more acceptable.
Surprisingly little has changed. There's a few days of take-out cartons in the dining room, empty beer bottles on the living room side tables, the same photos up on the wall. Everything is almost exactly the way it was the last time she was here, with Teal'c and Daniel and Jack O'Neill's clone, before they had a clue what was going on.
There's no sign of her here, and that seems strange after a year of living with Jack's clothes mixing with hers on the floor and two steel thermoses fighting for space next to the cheap coffee maker. It shouldn't surprise her, because she was Samantha Carter, United States Air Force, for so much of her life, and as much as she might have hoped it at weak and lonely moments, things were probably never going to change.
She even braves his bedroom, though she hovers by the doorway. His medals are hanging up, and there are a few on display that she doesn't recognize. Major Carter has probably collected one or two as well in the interim, saving the world.
Sam sits in his living room for hours, turning on a light when it gets dark. She doesn't turn his furnace up or light a fire, mostly as an excuse to keep her coat on. She pulls out The Sound and the Fury and turns the pages methodically, but she's not reading, ears tuned towards the driveway for any sound. She pulls a blanket over her legs to keep warm and wonders what the hell she's really doing here.
An hour or so after she considers that he might be off-world, or in Washington, or even in Minnesota, she still hasn't left. If she walks to the bus stop and goes back to her part of town, she'll never work up the nerve to come here again. She has finished The Sound and the Fury without retaining anything about it, and is just sitting in his living room when she hears his truck drive up.
She's struck by the sudden urge to flee out the back door, even without her boots on, but is thankfully too paralyzed to act on it.
Even though she can't see the entryway, she can picture him when he opens the door. Her footprints might have been covered by the still falling snow, but he'll know someone's there even before he sees her boots in the hall. He would've seen the light on; maybe he'll even have his sidearm out, ready for anything. She still doubts he's ready for this.
She hears him ask, "Who's there?"
Her mouth speaks for her. "In here," she says, climbing to her feet to stand at attention.
He walks around the corner, into the light, and she freezes, wanting to run again. He's old, she thinks, and swallows the lump that jumped into her throat. Her fists clench, like he's the impostor.
"Colonel," she gasps, her mind and stomach reeling. The gun she predicted he would be holding is in his hand, ready at his side. "I'm not armed."
His face softens the way it always does around children -- always did, when she knew him -- and he holsters his gun. He's studying her face intently, but there's no sign of overt recognition. He only saw her once or twice, after all, and she looks different than she did when she was first cloned, and very different than she looked in her late twenties on his second mission to Abydos.
"It's General, actually," he informs her. "Jack O'Neill. Who are you?" He squints at her, and she hopes he can piece it together, because she's opening her mouth but isn't sure that words will come out.
"It's Carter, sir," she says, not really intending to call him sir, but that was a habit she rarely had to think about.
At his alarmed look, she corrects, "Not that Carter. I'm..." she waves a hand helplessly. "Don't worry. I'm sure you never expected to see me again."
"Oh. Oh." He takes a step forward, then stops again, and makes a face like he's profoundly uncomfortable. It pisses her off. "What's going-?"
"Everything's fine," she says shortly, again staring at the wrinkles on his face, the gray in his hair. Had he been this old last year? "There's no emergency."
He looks around, maybe to check if the other teenage clone is close by, maybe because her presence is so odd he assumes it has to be a trap. Finally he says, "Sit down... Sam."
She does, jamming her hands under her thighs when she feels them shaking. She wishes she'd brought backup, although Jack would never have agreed to come. General O'Neill sits across from her, in the chair farthest away.
"So," he starts, with forced casualness, "how's s..."
He trails off, but she knows how he was going to finish that sentence. She's not going to make small talk about high school, so she just stares.
"Not that you're unwelcome-" she winces at the lie, "-but you've never shown up at my house before, so..."
She used to love this man, she thinks, and when tears jump to her eyes from rejection or anger or bitterness, she brutally shoves them away.
"Lieutenant Rush tells me you're in command of the SGC now," Sam says, hoping to back her way into the question she still isn't sure how to phrase. Don't you need me? Don't you want us back? How could you have let us leave? isn't the way to do it, probably.
"Jack and I still go to the Academy hospital every few months for blood tests."
"Oh." He still looks bewildered. "Yeah. Hammond's in D.C. now."
"Congratulations," she offers pedantically.
"Yeah. You're... uh, she's commanding SG-1 now."
"I heard." Rush mentioned that, too, and that she'd been promoted. Jack grinned with pride next to her. Sam felt... odd. Not quite jealous. She remembers thinking, at the imaginary grown-up Samantha Carter in her head, I guess you got what you always wanted, but it didn't feel like a sentiment of congratulations.
He twists around awkwardly in his chair. "You want a-" He looks at her dumbly. "A beer. I guess-"
"Thank you, sir," she says automatically. When he looks like he's about to argue that she's underage, she says, "I'm still her."
She isn't, but he gets her a beer anyway, and she won't drink the whole thing because she really is too young to hold her liquor very well.
"Well," the General says, looking more comfortable with something in his hand, even if it isn't a weapon. "This is awkward."
"I'm sorry, sir."
He shakes his head. "Don't call me that."
He surely doesn't intend it to be a slap in the face, but her spine jolts. She's a civilian. Of course she doesn't have to call him that.
"That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about."
Her Jack makes the same confused expression, but without the artificial distance the General includes. She always hated that distance, except when it was the only thing that kept her from reaching for him. She swallows a swig of dark beer and isn't sure she can get the words out when she's imagining Jack, her Jack, standing next to her in an SGC lab and never touching her.
"Sam." The older Jack O'Neill is leaning towards her, and there's sympathy in his voice, and she remembers that, too. "What's going on?"
"You wouldn't let us come back to the SGC, would you," she accuses, her voice angrier than she feels.
"What, you mean, before?" He looks too confused to be on the defensive.
"If we wanted to come back."
She's not ready to show her hand. "Would you make us go through the Academy again? If we requested postings at the SGC, would you..."
General O'Neill holds his beer to the side of his head, and she feels a little guilty for ambushing him like this. In his face, she can barely see her Jack, the one on a bus right now on his way back from a hockey tournament in Boulder. She didn't tell him she was coming here. Her stomach clenches when she thinks of how she'd feel if he talked to the real Samantha Carter. It's the sort of bizarre infidelity only they can have.
"Carter." She starts at her name in that voice. "If you want to come back, we'll find a place for you."
That's not at all what she expected to hear.
"Sir," she stammers, forgetting he told her not to, "Are you sure?" I know him. He won't let us, Jack says in her head.
"You were the ones who chose to go back to... high school."
Well, she thinks, he was. She was just limp from the shock of rebirth and not about to be separated from him. She still isn't sure why he did it. "You didn't exactly beg us to stay."
"Was I supposed to?"
She was, Sam thinks, unfairly. In Major Carter's place, she would have wanted their clones gone, too. After all, back then, they were pretty much the same person.
"We wouldn't come back until we're 18," she rationalizes. "That would make it less weird."
"Enjoying high school that much?" He looks surprised.
"I hate it," she says, even though she only hates it most of the time.
He squirms in his chair, and she recognizes the gesture from the moment before he always used to leave her lab. When she confused him past a certain point, he always seemed to suddenly need dessert. She rescues him by reaching for her backpack, fumbling blindly around her feet where a few things fell out. School supplies. "I should go."
"The bus isn't far," she insists, even though it is.
"For crying out loud. It's dark. I'll drive you home."
Instead of arguing, she blurts out, "I'm surprised you want us back." Jack sounded so sure...
General O'Neill looks at her like he's trying to read something in another language. "Honestly, I never expected he would come back."
She blinks. "Not me?"
"You're... you know, Carter." She knows the subtext, from the rare times in her other life that she'd gotten close to hinting that maybe, maybe, if she weren't an Air Force Major... You're a genius. This is your life. You love this.
In the passenger seat of his truck, she glues herself to the door and watches the snow fall, still light, but persistent.
"She's getting married," the General says at a stoplight. "I guess you should know that."
Sam feels her whole body tense up, and can barely get out, "Who?" She feels violated, like someone else is living her life -- which is, of course, exactly what's happening.
"Don't think you know him. A cop."
She can't imagine it. Not when he's here, not when she remembers how desperately she wanted him, late at night, randomly over jello, when he'd stop by to watch her work for no reason at all and smile at her like someday she would get everything she wanted... Her brain stalls on the thought: I would never have done that.
Except apparently she would have, and she's too far from being Sam Carter to even imagine how. She feels more fake, more nothing-but-an-undeveloped-Asgard-copy, than she has in a long time.
"Oh," is all she can say aloud. "Is she..." she trails off. It's unfair to ask him if she's happy. It would be even more unfair to ask him if he's okay with it, or if he gave her another alternative. In a rare discussion of their past lives, Jack told her once, I tried for years to get over you, meaning he never did.
Sam gives him directions to her apartment, feeling embarrassed. She hopes he doesn't ask to come in. Even if Jack isn't home, she doesn't want him to see the plastic table and secondhand couch, the unstable bookcases they built themselves in Mickey's dad's garage, their report cards stuck on the fridge.
"Are you doing okay?" O'Neill finally asks her. "You... guys? If you need something, you know-"
Before he lets her out of the truck, she thinks about asking him whether he'd go back, if he were them. If he were him.
She's getting married. I guess you should know that. Maybe he's the wrong person to ask.
Jack comes back from the hockey tournament late at night, after a stop at the Boulder ER, with a laceration along his jaw and six stitches. Instead of telling him where she's been, she berates him for not calling her.
"You couldn't do anything," he points out. He's in a sour mood and refusing to take painkillers. "You'd have just worried."
"Thanks so much for protecting me. You might have forgotten, but I used to watch your six for a living."
"What's gotten into you?"
"You could have texted."
It's another hour and a round of vomiting before he admits to being concussed as well, "a little," but at least his retching doesn't seem to have hurt his stitches. He lets her look at them for about twenty seconds before shoving her hands away.
"You're blocking the TV."
At least he doesn't ask her about the movie she was supposed to have seen.
His face swells up and bruises purple and green. He jokes that he'll tell the school she's beating him. She winces when she thinks of how hard the impact must have been and how lucky he is that he didn't break his jaw.
Sam goes along when Mickey, the team captain and Jack's buddy, drives Jack to a walk-in clinic to get his stitches looked at. She's sitting in the non-seat space in the truck cab, behind Mickey and Jack, when Mickey starts harassing him.
"Next time some winger tries to take you out, you could at least fight back like you mean it."
At the clinic, Mickey goes off to flirt with the young receptionist, and Sam watches Jack page through a hunting & fishing magazine.
"You're never going to tell me how that happened, are you?"
He shrugs. "Stick in the face, I hit the ice. It happens."
"Mickey seems to think it wasn't necessary."
"Mickey's a jackass," he says. Then, "I don't know. Maybe."
She raises an eyebrow.
"I knew the kid who did this."
"Not someone from Mountain Springs," she assumes, because someone would have mentioned if it had been friendly fire.
"Wha- Oh." Cassie's high school. Colonel O'Neill was always volunteering to help at Cassie's schools. Sam would never have known about any of it, except that one of Cassie's playmates asked her if she 'worked with Colonel Jack,' and Janet had to explain. "Cassandra wasn't there, was she?"
"I dunno. Probably not. They played good," he says, with a bit of pride. "I used to help coach some of them, junior high level." He scrubs his hands over his face, careful to avoid his stitches. "They're still just kids."
He means, so are we.
She confesses here, where he can't make a scene. "I saw General O'Neill." She's not ready to say that she went to his house.
"What!?" Half the room turns to look at them.
"You were busy," she indicates his face.
"And it slipped your mind?"
"Actually, I wasn't going to tell you at all."
That shuts him up, but his neck is getting redder, and his fingers clench around the waiting room armrests.
"Mr. O'Neill?" a nurse's aide calls him in, and Sam breathes a sigh of relief.
On the way home in the truck, Mickey brags about getting the receptionist's number, and Sam and Jack say almost nothing.
They move through their apartment silently, her heart pounding in her chest, until he finally asks her: "What did he say?"
That they've been suffering for nothing. "He said if we want to go back... he'll find a place for us."
Jack's head snaps up to look at her. He doesn't look like she just gave him good news. "He was just saying that," he accuses, and it sounds like a threat.
Sam shakes her head.
Jack lets out a breath. "Oh."
It feels important to tell him, "I told him we'd wait until we were 18. But if you want-"
Jack goes into their -- his -- bedroom and shuts the door.
Jack didn't want to join her at Alyssa's for Thanksgiving, so she turned down the invitation for both of them, but eating ramen on their couch for Thanksgiving lunch is more depressing than she expected.
She knew they weren't going to cook a turkey -- she doesn't know how, for one thing, and there's only two of them -- but she still hoped they'd cobble together some kind of tradition. In the old days, Janet always invited them to her house for Thanksgiving. The Colonel's job was carving, Sam's was cranberry sauce, and Daniel brought wine. Teal'c and Cassandra always split the wishbone, except the last year, when Teal'c had offered up his spot in the Earth tradition to Jonas Quinn with the sort of gravitas only Teal'c could pull off.
They have wine, at least, that Jack got from somewhere, even if they are drinking it out of mugs.
"Should we toast?" he asks her as he tops her off.
She's too busy trying not to slurp as she eats her ramen. "This isn't even turkey-flavored," she complains.
"Sure it is. Sort of. Would you notice if it was?"
She shrugs, and sips her wine without toasting. The wine's actually better than the cheap stuff they got at the two high school parties they went to -- it comes in a bottle, at least -- but it doesn't really go with chicken-like-flavoring and msg.
He flops onto the couch next to her. The TV's on mute, showing the end of the Macy's parade in New York. "You remember that cranberry-stuffed turkey they used to make in the mess?"
She grins. "I remember the pumpkin pie."
"And that triple-chocolate cake."
He's smirking at her. "That's not a Thanksgiving food."
She shrugs. "I still liked it."
"I know." Once, she'd been stuck in quarantine with an alien device on triple-chocolate cake day, and he'd somehow coerced or ordered a nurse to smuggle a slice in for her. "Sam... if you want to go back..." Her heart speeds up, and she has a hard time swallowing the noodles in her mouth. "I wouldn't make you do it alone."
"You don't want to?"
"I'll do it." He sighs. "I was ready to retire."
"You're not exactly ready for the AARP."
He twirls his wine mug around on the coffee table. "It's probably selfish, huh?"
She's been thinking the same thing, when she washes dishes by hand because they have no dishwasher or sits through her hated chemistry class and thinks this isn't so bad.
"Just think what two Carters could accomplish," he says. "You'll finally be able to consult with someone as smart as you."
She puts down her bowl. "Come here." They make love on the couch to the smell of cheap wine and cheaper food, and she holds out as long as she can while he strokes her and bites her shoulder, and when she finally comes he's gasping her name and she feels like she's breaking, a little.
"We can still do this," he whispers in her ear as her body cools. She's lying on top of him, her arms curled tight against her sides, and she can't figure out what to say. "You're crazy if you think I'm giving this up."
She starts showing up for school on time, to try it.
Alyssa tells her, "I'm so glad you're here. I never understand this stuff without you."
She still hates her chemistry teacher, but she looks forward to second period, because she never actually learned Spanish, and because Jack sits behind her and plays with her hair.
She passes the peer help board outside the office a few times before signing up to tutor math and science twice a week in the learning lab. Maybe, she thinks, she'll make a difference.
It's dark when she finally tells him, and she thinks he might be asleep.
"I don't want to go back, either."
A long moment passes. She knows he's awake because he stopped breathing. An arm snakes out and pulls her towards him, cuddling her close while she wrestles with the conflicted urge to yank the words back into her mouth.
She's still Sam Carter.
She has no idea how long it will take before she can reconcile that, can stop acting on confused instinct, can figure out what the right thing is to do.
"We have other options," he finally says, mouth pressed to the skin of her shoulder.
Too many options, if she thinks about it that way. She still can't think of a career she'd love more. She's not sure how to be Sam Carter without that. "It's selfish, you said."
"Maybe," he concedes. "Though we are the only two people who can be in two places at once."
She knocks her head against his gently, because she knows what he means, but it's not technically accurate. "What did you want to be when you were sixteen?"
"Old enough to drink," he replies.
"Honestly? A fighter pilot."
She nods, staring up through the black toward the ceiling. "And now?"
"I've done that," he says.
For a minute, there's just breathing.
There's so much she hasn't done. She just means to exhale, but she says: "I want to be a mom someday."
He tenses beside her, and her eyes slide closed in sympathy.
"I might need a few years."
She turns and kisses his forehead. He adjusts his arms around her, and she's aware that this is important, that he's here and still holding her and neither of them have walked out.
"I liked working construction last summer." Jack spent their school break doing under-18-permitted work (no powered nail guns, no driving the forklift, no roofing) on a job site run by Mickey's uncle. Sam spent a few afternoons at the park next to the site, playing mah-jong with Alyssa or Kayla and watching him work. He smelled like sun and sweat and muscle all summer and she had more sex than she'd ever had before, in either life.
"I remember." She worked part-time filing archived documents at the library over the summer and had served sandwiches at a local deli, neither of which inspires her long-term. "I think... I think I'll always need a challenge to be happy." She always did in the past, anyway.
Jack scratches the back of her head and she sighs. "Maybe that's your challenge, then."
"That's unusually zen for you."
"I can be deep." He tugs on her ear. "You need to do incredible things, Sam. I know that. You don't have to want this life, just for me."
She whispers, "I don't know what I want," which is the same thing she's been saying all along, except this time it doesn't hurt. "But you're crazy if you think I'm giving you up, either."
"Thought that was my line."
He snorts a laugh. "Sleep, Carter."
"Is that an order, sir?"
He pinches her side. "Whatever it takes."
She lies awake, head on his chest, until he falls asleep. For the first time in her new life, she thinks that she might be very lucky.