Cassandra Fraiser opened the door to the hallway outside her dorm suite, ready to tell Jason that no, he couldn't come in, because he was way too early and she hadn't even had a shower yet.
"Hey, Cassie." That was Sam Carter standing on her doorstep, beaming. "Happy Birthday!"
And that was Jack O'Neill standing behind her, looking vaguely guilty, with both hands hidden behind his back. "Heya, kid." At least they were both in civvies; the sudden appearance of military personnel in the dorm would have been gossip fodder for months.
"Jack. Sam." Cassie tried to gather her thoughts. "Wow, I--uh--what are you guys doing here?"
Jack pushed past Sam under cover of peering through the doorway into the apartment, and rested a casual hand on Cassie's shoulder. "You okay? This a bad time?"
"No, um, not yet." Cassie stepped back, casting a quick glance around in hopes that her more rowdy suite-mates hadn't left anything too inappropriate lying around. Nothing stood out, so she opened the door wide. "Come on in. It's messy--I think regular college is the exact opposite of military academies--but just clear off a chair or something. I've got a date, but Jason's not supposed to be here till eight." She tugged on the sweat pants and tank top she'd been wearing to study.
Sam caught the gesture and offered Cassie a tiny conspiratorial smile. "I figured as much." Her hug was short and welcoming, but it caught Cassie as off-guard as their arrival, and she didn't return it as strongly as she could have.
Then they were past her, into her space, where she had seriously never imagined them being. Cassie closed the door and leaned against it.
"Nice place." Jack, careful to keep one hand out of sight at all times, dumped a stack of magazines on the floor next to the old couch and settled himself there, legs stretched indolently before him. Dammit, he sounded amused. Cassie followed his glance. Josie, I'm going to kill you. Her suite-mate's neon blue thong was dangling from a lampshade.
"Thanks," was all she said. Jack winked at her, and she felt herself blushing.
Sam took a chair opposite the couch, sitting on the edge with a military-straight spine, hands cupping her purse and a tiny wrapped package. "So who's this 'Jason'?"
Cassie felt the corners of her mouth twitch upwards in spite of herself. "Shouldn't that be Jack's line?"
Jack put both hands behind his head and raised one gray eyebrow. "Who needs words when you've got a gun?"
"Oh, God, please tell me you're not carrying."
Jack raised both eyebrows.
"Don't pay any attention to him, Cassie." Sam had relaxed a little, one hand hiding what was undoubtedly a grin. "He doesn't need any encouragement."
"I noticed." Cassie peeled herself away from the door and came over to take the other end of the couch. In passing, she snagged the thong, dropped it, and nudged it under the couch with the toe of her sandal. "Um, you guys know it's not actually my birthday today, right?"
"Yeah." Sam sounded faintly embarrassed, as well she should, Cassie thought; bursting in with no warning that they were coming to visit. "It's just--I wanted to bring your gift by in person this year, and I'm working on some new applications for naquadria. After this week, I'll probably be pretty unavailable except by phone."
Cassie shrugged. "I wish you'd called. Jason's taking me out for dinner, and then we're meeting some friends to go dancing."
Sam opened her mouth, to apologize or explain, but Jack beat her to it. "We'll clear out. But since you're in such a hurry to get rid of us--" Cassie started to protest, but Jack held up a warning finger. "Ah, ah, ah. You'd better open your presents fast."
He slid a hand from behind his back and nudged a flat, rectangular package across the seat of the couch. Cassie picked it up; too light for a book, but the wrong thickness for a single DVD. "Should I be scared?" she asked Sam.
"He wouldn't even let me see what he bought," Sam told her.
"That's a yes." Cassie wriggled a finger under the wrapping and tore. The gaudy cover of, yes, not a single DVD but a slim boxed set, bore an image of a standing circle surrounded by four figures in outlandish uniforms. "Oh no, I didn't know this was out on DVD." Cassie tried to suppress her giggles, without much success.
"'The complete series'," Jack said, making gleeful air quotes.
"Sir." Sam sounded reproachful. "You're supporting that . . . thing?"
"Oh, come on, Carter, I consulted for them!" Jack looked wounded. "I don't think it's out of line for me to buy a copy. Or several copies," he added
"It might look suspicious, sir?" Sam offered, though she seemed on the verge of giggles herself.
"No, it wouldn't." Cassie finished unwrapping the DVDs and stood the box on top of her open microbiology textbook for all to admire. "Disinformation, right, Jack?"
"You betcha." Jack moved his feet up onto the last clear spot on the coffee table, and smirked with the satisfaction of a surprise well sprung.
Cassie propped her chin on her hands and eyed the figures on the cover. "Remember when I called and asked you why the Stargate was on TV?" She could remember exactly which moments in the opening credits those images were from. "And then the week after that you all came over to watch it at our house? My mom said. . . ." The warmth of memory collided with the icy emptiness of that part of reality, and words fell away. Get a grip, Cassandra! This hadn't happened in weeks. She swallowed hard and made her mouth finish the thought. "Mom said, it was more fun watching Daniel's face than the show itself."
Sam's startled snort made Cassie jump. "Well, yeah, it was."
"Yeah, yeah, pick on the guy who's not here," Jack said.
"To be fair, sir, it was pretty fun watching your face, too." Sam blinked innocently at him.
"Do we have time to watch an episode?" Jack asked quickly. Cassie blessed him for the easy shift in subject.
She twisted around to get a view of the clock on the wall above the kitchen unit. "Oh, not tonight." She turned back and gestured at the DVDs, then turned what she hoped was an expectant gaze to Sam. "Can you top that?"
"I suppose that depends on your scale of measurement." Sam leaned over to hand her a box only a few inches square, wrapped in yellow tissue paper. Cassie weighed it in her hand; it sat more heavily than she'd expected. The tiny card on top was shaped like a butterfly, and inside Sam had written: For all you've given me–-more than you probably know. Happy 20th Birthday, Cassie.
Cassie peeled back the pale layers of wrapping. It was a hinged wooden box, carved all over with leaves and vines. Every dark edge ran smooth and shiny under her fingers, as if echoing all the hands that had caressed them before hers. "This looks old."
"It is." Sam didn't say anything else.
Cassie eased back the lid. It was lined with faded red velvet, and in one corner nestled a gleam of gold. She snagged the fine chain in her fingers and held it up to catch the light. The pendant that dangled from the chain was also gold. Cassie set the box on the table and caught the pendant in her free hand. Oval, delicately engraved with roses; petals, stems, and thorns alike. It was burnished, clean, but no newer than the box, and she'd certainly never seen any of her peers wear something like it.
"It's beautiful." Cassie hoped the look she gave Sam was more grateful and less befuddled than her thoughts. "I don't think I have anything it would go with, though." She wanted to bite her tongue the moment the words escaped.
But Sam just laughed. "Don't worry. Me either. I think I've only actually worn it twice."
The links of the chain coiled neatly in Cassie's palm. Still heavy. Real gold, like Grandma Fraiser's wedding ring. "Where'd you get it?"
"It was my mom's. And her mom's before that, I think." Sam was looking at the pendant, not Cassie, as Cassie had been looking at the DVDs. She wasn't completely in the room. "She used to let me wear it for fun when I was a kid, and then she gave it to me for good when I turned twelve." Sam reached out a finger, but pulled her hand back before she touched the pendant. "So now I want to give to you."
Cassie dropped her hand and tipped the necklace back into the box. "I can't take this." She scooped up the box and thrust it at Sam. "This is special. You should save it for when you have a kid."
"Cassie." Sam's face was set, the way it had been when she told Cassie to listen to her mother. She kept her hands in her lap, not reaching out to take the box. "I want you to have it. Come on, it's your twentieth birthday. You're supposed to get special things."
The box grew heavier; Cassie kept holding it out. "What about your dad? Isn't this like a family heirloom? Wouldn't he want you to keep it for his granddaughter?"
Sam sat back in the chair without speaking, and Cassie felt as if a wall had slammed down between them. For a moment the whole room seemed to be holding its breath.
"Carter?" Jack's question was firm but quiet.
"I'm fine, sir," Sam said, in a carefully controlled voice.
Cassie kept holding out the box, not wanting to back down until she was sure Sam had heard her.
Sam took a deep breath. "Look, Cassie, my dad would want me to give this to someone I thought deserved it." Sam blinked hard, but met Cassie's gaze with clear eyes. "That's you."
The box had grown almost too heavy to hold. Cassie tried to take a deep breath of her own, but her throat was too tight. "Sam, I don't want it. Okay?" Damn it, she was not going to cry, but the words came out warped. Sam was staring at her, as if she hadn't understood her, and she wouldn't, couldn't. . . . "I. Don't. Want. It." Cassie dropped the box onto the table between them, pushed herself to her feet, and headed for the door.
Behind her, Sam shouted. "Cassie!" And then Jack was saying something, Cassie was too far away to hear what, and then she was in the hallway, running for the stairs, dodging other students. Not thinking about gold pendants. Shoving open the door to the stairwell and thudding down the steps at top speed. Not thinking about the hurt look on Sam's face. Making for the outer door, crashing through it into cold dusky air. Not thinking about old inside jokes.
Running, sandals slapping the paved walk, putting yards and seconds behind her.
Not thinking, dammit.
About a third of the way across the campus, she flopped down on a wooden bench beneath a streetlight that had yet to come on. The sun had set, but the western half of the gray sky was still stained with pink and orange. Cassie sat, and watched the light, and caught her breath, and hugged her bare arms around her torso.
Usually, she avoided wandering around the campus alone, after dark, but at the moment she didn't really care. Besides. . . .
Footsteps jogged up to her bench. She didn't even have to look over to know she'd guessed right. He sat down next to her, leaving plenty of personal space. Cassie kept watching the sunset fade, and he seemed content to join her for the moment.
After a few minutes, Cassie managed that deep breath she'd tried for earlier. "Look, I'm sorry." What for, she wasn't sure yet, so she left it at that.
Jack's fist tapped her shoulder. "Don't worry too much. Sam's been through a lot lately."
Cassie turned her head, chilled more by the memory of her own unwitting words than by the wind. "Is it, did something happen to her dad? Do you know?"
Jack looked up at the tree branches, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jacket. "Cass, you know I can't--"
"Yeah." She swallowed the words, and returned her own gaze to the darkening sky. "Yeah. Sorry."
"On the other hand," Jack added quietly, "I'm not answerable for anything Carter might choose to tell you. Right?"
Ask her if you want to know. Cassie closed her eyes for a moment; when she opened them again, the light above their heads was flickering into amber existence. "Right."
"Rats." Jack sounded crestfallen.
He gestured at the light. "I thought maybe we could watch the stars come out, but not with that thing on." He sat up. "How about we go for a walk? You're shivering."
"And you want to see the stars," Cassie needled him, but she stood, and accepted the welcome offer of his jacket. It was warm with his body heat, and she tucked it around her as they started walking.
Jack seemed convinced that "walk" meant "walk-and-talk." He cleared his throat. "So, how's school?"
Cassie shrugged. "Fine. Microbiology is tough, but that just means everything else I've got this term seems really easy in comparison." She waited for the next question, but Jack kept quiet. "What else do you want to know?"
"Whether you're going to ask me anything," he said promptly. "This isn't an interrogation."
"I thought Daniel did those," she shot back at him.
"Only for the prisoners who don't speak English," Jack informed her loftily.
Cassie thought for a moment. "Okay." She stretched her stride to keep up with Jack; he noticed and slowed his pace. "How come Daniel didn't come with you guys?"
"He's . . .uh . . . busy." Jack flipped a hand towards the sky, which was rapidly deepening to black. A single point of light glinted; one of Sol's planets, or maybe a satellite, Cassie thought. "Translating some writing on rocks, if you can believe it."
"Of course he is." Cassie glanced around and dropped her voice. "What about Teal'c?"
Jack snorted. "He's got himself a nice, thankless job, trying to help his people figure out what to do with their new-found freedom."
That single sentence held more than she'd thought would happen in a lifetime. Questions swarmed through her mind, all backed by memories of a proud Jaffa warrior-turned-babysitter, telling her stories about how his people would one day be free of their false gods. How? Was there a revolution? Who died? Who lived? Are the Goa'uld all dead?
She couldn't ask, because he couldn't answer. Not most of those questions, anyway. "That's cool," was all she could trust herself to say. The squeeze of his hand on her shoulder told her that Jack understood the rest. "So are you and Sam here on leave?"
Jack's hands were back in his pockets. "Sorta."
"Define 'sorta,' Mister Brigadier General O'Neill." Cassie stopped, which forced Jack to stop, and gave him her best mock-drill-sergeant glare.
His eyebrows went up again. "I 'sorta' got promoted," he admitted. "So, technically, I am on leave. For a week before I start my new duties. Whoopee."
Jack stood at attention. "Major General Jack O'Neill at your service, ma'am!"
"What happened?" Cassie cocked her head. "You save the world again? And what new duties? You can't go much higher than SGC base commander, can you?"
He coughed out a short, sardonic laugh. "Yeah, we did kinda save the world. And you're right--I'm not with the SGC any more. Someone's got to run the whole circus, now that we've gone international and all." Jack glanced around, even turning to look behind them, and added in a whisper, "You didn't hear that last bit from me, though."
Cassie tried to imagine Stargate Command without Jack somewhere inside. She couldn't. It would be like taking all the mountains out of Colorado. "So, do you miss them yet?"
"Right, Jack O'Neill doesn't miss people. I forgot." Cassie poked him in the ribs with her elbow. "I bet you miss Sam, though."
Jack looked sideways at her, index finger pressed across his lips. "Shush."
"Seriously." Cassie stopped and looked up, again. There were glimmers now, faint possible points of light scattering across the darkness. "Isn't Sam leading the team? So she's gallivanting off with them into the unknown, while you're stuck, what, approving paperwork in some Washington office?"
"Actually, Carter's strictly planetside now," Jack said. "She finally decided to become a permanent geek. Moved her pet projects down to Area 51."
Cassie blinked. Imagining the SGC without Jack was tough; imaging Sam ever voluntarily quitting active duty there scared her. Cassie blurted out the first thing that came into her head: "Is she okay?"
"Mentally? I don't think I'm qualified to say." Jack gave her a small grin, but dropped it as soon as he saw her face. "As far as I know, she's fine."
Cassie found she'd been holding her breath, and let it out slowly. "Good. 'Cause this whole thing would have been a really sucky way to say 'hey, I'm dying.'"
Jack seemed to ignore this. "Hey, there are some bouncy balls in my jacket pocket. Could you--" She pulled them out, all three, and tossed them to him. "Thanks." He started juggling in the dark, a simple pattern, and then tossed a ball to Cassie.
She fumbled it. "I don't remember how to do this."
He caught the third ball and added it back into his pattern. "Why don't you want the necklace?" he asked after a minute. "I don't get that."
"You're a guy. Maybe you just won't." Don't make me say it, okay?
"What if I want to try?" He almost dropped a ball and snatched it out of midair without breaking his rhythm.
Cassie closed her eyes, and tried to make it all into words: the smooth finish of the wood, the weight of the gold, the legacy that should be by right of blood, not earned. It was simple when she finally found the right phrase. "I am not Sam's daughter."
Jack kept juggling. "You know, Carter's pretty smart. She's probably figured that one out."
Cassie swallowed her frustration. "So she shouldn't pretend to treat me like one."
"Why not?" The sound of the balls slapping into his palms was getting annoying.
"Because I'm not a kid anymore. I don't need a mom. I'm a student, I have homework and friends and a boyfriend. A life!" Cassie caught her ragged breathing and dragged it into line. "I don't need her emails full of advice or her chess games or this. . . ."
The slap of the juggling stopped. Cassie opened her eyes to see why, and Jack had turned away from her. He was looking at the ground, not the stars. "You're right, I do miss my team." He shrugged. "Teal'c's trying to be a diplomat, and I'm not there to watch his back if the deal goes south. Not there to pull Daniel away from the shiny, dangerous artifacts. Carter's not even going offworld anymore, but I keep thinking that it's only a matter of time till one of those overzealous nerds pushes the wrong button and blows the lower half of Nevada into a crater."
He tossed a ball, single-handed, then caught it again. "My son, Charlie, though? He died, and it was just an accident." Jack's voice had dropped, low and controlled; he was saying only exactly what he thought he had to, and Cassie couldn't have walked away if she wanted. "Carter's mom was in a car crash. I know Daniel told you about his parents, after. . . ."
Jack shoved both hands into his pockets and looked over his shoulder at her. "Sometimes that happens. No rhyme or reason to it. There's never a way to make sure everyone's safe."
"I know that, Jack." Cassie almost choked on the words she wanted to scream at the top of her voice; they came out barely audible. "How could I not know that?"
But she hadn't wanted to think of these things. Hadn't wanted to imagine Jason's lean, freckled face bloodied from impact with his windshield. Or Josie inert and blue on their floor after taking one too many downers.
Those thoughts were more vivid than the old images she drew from. More wrong. Dead bodies sprawled on a dirt floor in the first home she knew, as a child. Sam knocking on the door of the Colorado Springs apartment, red-eyed and hoarse. And all the times she'd heard that Jack or Sam or Daniel were in the infirmary. Those were all dealt with, expected, old hat.
This place, with its trees and stars and the neat arrangement of buildings, with the classes and schedule and her own room. . . . It had felt so safe. Untouched and untouchable. She was in control of what she did and how she did it–-but even that control was nothing but an illusion. When you thought about it, that whole feeling, the way she'd been clinging to it for the last year, was really stupid.
Jack was juggling again, and she watched him for a minute. How do you do it? She thought about asking him straight out, but it felt weird.
Because she'd asked that once already.
And in that memory, it wasn't Jack she was asking; it was Mom. "How do you keep going back there? Doesn't it hurt?"
Mom had taken a few minutes to find an answer; the tears she'd been fighting were still thick in her voice. "Because. We don't choose what happens around us. We don't even choose who we love, usually." She reached out to pull Cassie close. "So what matters is what we do with it. If I didn't go back. . . ." She blinked, and a tear escaped down one cheek. "Well, death would win. Loss and loneliness and pain would win. And if I do go back?" She hugged Cassie again, then held her face just far enough away to look right into her eyes. "I get to win. Just by going back, I beat every single one of those bastards."
"Cassie?" Jack was using the same cautious, firm tone he'd used with Carter earlier.
Cassie blinked. She wouldn't cry; she could do that later. "I'm fine. I'm just thinking." She glanced around, checking their location in relation to her dorm, and headed left. Jack tagged along after her. "Let's go back. Jason will be a little freaked if he gets there and finds Sam instead of me."
"Cool." Jack pulled out his juggling again and played around all the way back. When they passed a group of students near the cafeteria, he turned around to walk backwards while keeping the balls perfectly in the air. He nearly dropped them when a female student let out a long wolf-whistle.
"Jack," Cassie informed him. "You're a dork."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said, grinning, and kept right on going.
When they reached her dorm, Cassie returned the jacket, and Jack tucked the balls back into its pockets. Neither spoke as the climbed the stairs. At the door to the suite, Cassie paused, a flutter of panic in her belly. Now what?
Jack put his hand on the back of her neck and gave her a very gentle shake. "Go on." He gestured for her to precede him.
Cassie nodded to him, straightened her shoulders, and went in. Jack shut the door behind her.
Sam was still sitting in the chair, forehead bent into one hand. Her head snapped up as Cassie entered, and she visibly relaxed. "There you are. I was getting a little...."
"Worried?" Cassie smiled at her. "Jack didn't read me the riot act or anything. I probably would have deserved it, though."
"I don't know about that," Sam said, her gaze sliding to one side. "Maybe it was a bad idea. I just. . . . I didn't think of it as being presumptuous."
Cassie crouched next to Sam's chair and picked up the little wooden box. "No. I know." She opened it for a moment to admire the gold, then leaned over to wrap an arm around Sam's neck in a hug. "Thank you. It's beautiful."
Startled, it took Sam a startled moment to return the hug. She still looked doubtful when Cassie stepped back. "You're sure."
Cassie nodded. "Yeah. As long as we understand that I'm allowed to give it back when and if–-well, when-–you have kids."
"I think I can live with that." Sam grinned. "Doesn't matter who owns it at the time, you can still borrow it to wear at your wedding."
Cassie thought this over for a moment. "If it's mine, it can only be 'something old'. If you've got it, it's 'something old' and 'something borrowed'." She shook her head. "You're making me have second thoughts."
"Hey!" Jack called through the still-closed door. "Is it safe to come in there yet?"
They exchanged guilty smiles. "Yes, sir," Sam said.
Jack sauntered through the door, eyed them both, and nodded in satisfaction. Then he turned to Cassie and inquired, "Is your boyfriend a redhead? 'Cause he just pulled into the lot downstairs."
Cassie shot a glance at the clock. 8:05. "Crap. Stall him if he gets up here, okay?" She ran for the door to her bedroom. While opening it, something occurred to her. "Hey. You guys want to come to dinner?"
Sam stared at her. Jack wrinkled his face in exaggerated confusion.
"I mean, you came all this way and we barely got to hang out." Cassie hopped up and down, and threw a glance at the door. "Yes or no?"
"The boyfriend will not like this," Jack reminded her. "I know these things."
Cassie shrugged. "The boyfriend has to meet the family sometime, right? Might as well be now." She started to close the door, then paused to add one more thing. "Jack? No guns."
Through the door she could hear Jack making a big deal out of objecting to that. Sam must be smacking him down–-she was laughing. Cassie ditched her comfy clothes as quickly as she could, slipping into a flared brown skirt and cream sleeveless top. She kicked off her sandals and wasted several seconds looking for her dancing heels in the pile at the bottom of the closet. Then over to the dresser and mirror, to run a brush through her hair, touch up her makeup, and slip in pearl earrings.
It would do. As she moved to put her jewelry box back in its place, her hand brushed the framed picture of her and a certain handsome redhead. After a moment's thought, she moved it to the opposite side of the dresser, and pulled forward another image that had almost been hidden by it. Her younger self, caught in a hug by her mom, both laughing. Sam had taken that.
In the empty space next to that picture, Cassie set the smooth old wooden box.
It looked perfect there.
She was reaching for her brush one last time when she heard a knock at the door outside.
"Cassie," Jack sang out. "You have a visitor."
"Coming!" Cassie grabbed her handbag and ran. Hand on the doorknob, she glanced at Sam and at Jack, and then opened the door.