“Life can only be understood backwards; but must be lived forwards.”
It really was the perfect house for them, and that was as true in June as it had been back in January. It had taken a few months, but they were finally settled in, their own warped little version of the American family of four. There was even a picket fence, though Jack firmly refused to let Teal’c paint it white.
The Air Force had taken their sweet time being convinced
that this was the best plan for their four unwanted genetic misfits, but the
house had finally been bought and the papers signed. Jack suspected that
There were history books and scientific magazines everywhere, a disturbing number of candles for T’s mediation stuff, and a chess board that had taken up permanent residence on the coffee table, all echoes of the lives that they remembered from before. But there was also a growing collection of modern plays taking space on their bookshelves, an ever-expanding recipe book in the kitchen, and hockey gear stashed in the front hall now that Jack’s knees weren’t crap anymore. They were new, parts of themselves that hadn’t existed previously.
Sam’s new little hobby decorated the walls, too—photography. It was nothing fancy or artistic or even that good, but somewhere along the line she had developed a penchant for capturing every ridiculous moment of their strange lives that she could on film, posting the snapshots on the walls for all to look at. Jack tried to get her to explain the new obsession once, but she just kind of shrugged and said that pictures had a lot to do with making a house a home. It took him a few months to really get it—she was trying to fill one more void that had been created by their decision to get themselves shrunk for him. She didn’t technically have a father or a brother or nieces and nephews anymore. But she had the three of them.
Their walls were her new family album.
As usual, Daniel and T had caught on quicker than Jack had. So all three of them put up with her photo preoccupation, because when it came right down to it, Sam ruled them all with nothing more than a smile. Jack actually thought that it was actually kind of nice to have the pictures around, though he’d never admit to something so sappy. It was just another aspect of their new lives that they learned to adjust to, like not being able to drive after 2 a.m. or, to Jack’s chagrin, still being too short to reach the top cabinet.
Gradually, life was becoming less and less strange as they all settled into the way things were now and let their old lives slip further and further away from them. It didn’t happen overnight or even very quickly, but it happened all the same. At some point, Jack woke up in the morning and stopped expecting to see the fifty-something-year-old staring back at him through the bathroom mirror.
“Look what we bought, Sam!”
She stared at the three of them with a sort of fascinated horror. “What is that?”
“I would think you’d recognize a car when you saw one.”
“I do. That is not a car.”
“Sure it is. It has all four wheels and everything.”
“Uh-huh. Well, if it’s a car, explain to me why the three of you are pushing it into our driveway?”
“…Yeah, well…that’s where you come in, right?”
Jack was actually grinning. Damn him.
Summer break was a welcome reprieve to the tedium of public high school, and summer weekends were better than most everything else. They rarely had to work, so it was generally just two days of hanging out around the house together. The front yard was usually the lounging spot of choice, where Teal’c and Jack could toss a ball around if they weren’t busy trying to fix the ever-creaking front porch, where Daniel could laze around in the hammock, and where they all could watch Sam try to fix the car that was now permanently marooned in the driveway. They took turns picking the music of the day that they’d blare through the stereo they dragged onto the front steps, and almost always tried to barbeque on the pathetic little charcoal grill they had bought and stuck on the slab of concrete behind the house that the realtor had the nerve to call a patio.
Theirs was the only house in the entire neighborhood where you were as likely to hear opera being blasted into the air as you were classic rock.
Despite Jack’s moments of sentimentality, their life together wasn’t idyllic. They got on each other’s nerves. Daniel and Jack bickered on a daily basis. Teal’c had taken to locking his bedroom door when they were all being too much for him. Sam threw a temper tantrum or two a month, which Jack found predictably adorable because with every little slip of the perfect façade, she was less Carter and more his Sam. They lived on a shoestring budget that was constantly stretched to its limit between trying to cater to Teal’c cooking practices, Daniel’s splurging habits, and Jack’s ever-expanding feet. No matter how much Jack and Teal’c banged on the porch, it still creaked, and parts of the roof leaked when it rained too hard. He knew all this; he saw it all and recognized the pain in the ass it could be.
But when all was said and done, it could be a lot of fun, too. And at some point over the last year, Jack O’Neill had taken to focusing on the good stuff, which in itself was a minor miracle.
He didn’t mind bickering with Daniel because he had always done that and getting along with him would seem strange now. If T wanted to lock himself in his room, then that was okay with him because Teal’c had always kept to himself. Sure, Carter knew how to pick a fight if she was so inclined. But he got to share a room, a bed, and slowly, parts of who he was with her now, and that was worth a hell of a lot of teenaged mood swings.
Budgets could be stretched, porches could creak if they were so inclined, and pots caught the water that the roof could not. Second chances, as it turned out, were worth the trouble.
“How’s it going, Sam?”
“Oh, it’s…not. Hand me the wrench over there, would you Daniel?”
He grabbed something that lay in the general vicinity of where her hand had gestured and handed it over. She took it, cursing under her breath. Not an uncommon occurrence nowadays.
“Daniel, I need you to do me a favor.”
“The next time Jack gets the brilliant idea to buy the three hundred dollar junker to save money because ‘Carter can fix it’, have Teal’c hit him for me.”
So of course it was right when they were getting comfortable that the inevitable happened. Jack realized right away that it wasn’t really anyone’s fault—if he had been a Brigadier General (and thank whatever God there was that he wasn’t) signing off regularly on monthly checks of at least a moderate size to unidentified parties, he would have gotten curious too.
Still, it was quite a shock to the system to open the door expecting pizza for movie night and find the man he used to be standing there instead.
There really wasn’t a good excuse for Jack’s dumbfounded reaction other than a genuine level of astonishment that he used to be able to hide. He had gotten out of the habit of keeping his emotions in check in recent months though, because here it didn’t matter if he laughed out loud a lot or gazed at Sam with what he sheepishly admitted was adoration from time to time. So when “Uhh…” was all he could come up with to say, his older counterpart was suitably amused.
“Well, that just says it all, doesn’t it?” O’Neill said a little scathingly.
Jack blinked. Wow, that whole sarcasm thing was a bit annoying from the other side. “…Pretty much, I suppose. What the hell are you doing here?”
Yes, there was still a certain level of passive aggressiveness going on there. The man had stranded him all alone at a public high school, for cryin’ out loud. It wasn’t the first time he had been pissed at himself and it likely wouldn’t be the last.
“Something about curiosity and a cat,” was his older version’s reply. “So you convinced them to buy you a house, huh?”
“Uh…” was again all Jack managed to choke out before footsteps fell behind him and Sam appeared behind him.
“Jack? Is that the pizza? Because we’re starving in there. I think Teal’c might start chewing on the couch if…” she started before reaching him and seeing who it was framed in the doorway. If anything, her reaction was even more comical than Jack’s had been, because it was so wonderfully visible. The girl paled three shades and looked between them once, twice, then three times. “Oh. Oh. Wow. That’s…uh…weird.”
He loved that after a year in high school, the five syllable words had started to disappear and when faced with something like this, weird was the first thing that tripped off her tongue. And because he was barely sixteen and allowed to be a bit childish and because it made him feel a little better, Jack let himself slip an arm around her and pull her closer for a minute. He even let himself gloat a little bit when she came without hesitation. “Yeah, just a bit,” he acknowledged. “Go tell the guys to quit bitching—the pizza will get here when it gets here.”
She nodded a little. “Sure.” She started to leave, but turned back almost right away. “You’re okay?”
They were allowed to ask stuff like that now, and they had actually started to, which was nice. “Yeah,” he assured her. “Fine.”
“I’m sure as hell not!” said the older O’Neill’s distraught voice from the door. Luckily, Sam had managed to slip out before then, so Jack could deal with himself…himself.
Now it was Jack’s turn to be ridiculously pleased at O’Neill’s obvious discomfort. “You…that…she…I mean…all three of them?”
Jack grinned easily. “Yup.”
“About a month after me. Us. Whatever.”
Jack shrugged. He knew they had done it for him, because of him, but even after all of these months and several nearly paralyzing periods of self-doubt, he didn’t really understand the why of it all, not really. He had just stopped caring so much. “Something about not leaving people behind, I think.”
Maybe it really was that simple. Maybe it always had been.
And suddenly, he felt sorry for the man before him, because he better than anyone understood the confusion he was facing now. Sam really was rubbing off on him. He was fairly certain he hadn’t used to be this…nice. “Look, you kinda seem a bit shaken up…do you want to…come in or something? There’s gonna be pizza, and Daniel rented movies. God knows what they’ll be—some obscure history documentary, more than likely, but…”
He stayed. Why, Jack was never really sure. But he did. He came in, he looked around, and it was awkward as hell. But he paid for the pizza, so it wasn’t all bad.
“So…they bought you a house.”
“Yeah. Sam’s idea. She picked it out, too. I’m pretty sure there were charts involved.”
“Sounds like Carter. It’s nice. A bit small for the four of you.”
“…That’s not really a problem.”
“No, I…what? You and Sam…?”
Jack couldn’t stop the smirk, though he knew he should have at least tried. “Yeah.”
“Oh. She’s getting married, you know.”
“Carter? Really? Wow. Hey Sam!”
“She’s getting married!”
It was too cliché not to happen. Sam looked at O’Neill, blue eyes wide. “Wow. Congratu…”
“No, to some other guy,” Jack clarified.
She stopped. “…Really?”
Jack’s ego was doing a little dance. “Yup.”
He was going to rub it in. He just had to.
“Yup. You sound surprised. You don’t want to get married?”
“Oh, sure, I just…never…”
And suddenly, it was less funny. Because something really important occurred to him.
“Sam…would you marry me?”
She smiled a little and frowned a little at the same time. “What, now? Or in some vague and undetermined future?”
“Either. Both. Whatever.”
She bit her bottom lip thoughtfully. “Can we wait until we turn eighteen? It cuts down on the paperwork.”
She really was perfect.
The older O’Neill combed the house from top to bottom. He mocked Daniel and his inherent geekdom, was suitably awed by how much Teal’c…hadn’t changed over the years, and lingered over the photos that adorned the walls with an unreadable expression hanging in his eyes.
Watching him, Jack had the uncanny realization that he really wasn’t that man anymore. In less than a year, he had somehow started an entirely different life. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised him as much as it did, because when he thought about it, Jack realized that he had gone through several lifetimes over the years—childhood and the Air Force, Sara and Charlie, after Charlie, after Abydos, and then after Abydos the second time. His entire life could be broken to into these separate segments where he changed because it was all he could to do to survive. Somehow, this was no different.
Standing at the door, he looked up at his counterpart, a little confused by it all, but a little relieved, too. It was nice, not feeling like he had to be this man anymore. He could be simply whatever he was. He didn’t really know what that implied with regards to the bigger picture, he just knew it made him feel…better. Because now, he could do what he wanted. He could go into the Air Force if he wanted, but he could also play hockey this time around, or become an astronomer if he decided to. He could (and would) marry Sam and have half a dozen children. He could embrace the cliché about the future being filled with possibilities because for the first time in a long time for Jack O’Neill, it was.
He didn’t say any of that though. It would have seemed petty, or like he was rubbing it in, and Jack sensed that it was sort of the last thing this guy needed. “I’m glad you came,” was all he said, but it was honest.
“I…” the man shook his head with a heavy sigh. “Part of me is still really pissed about this.”
Jack flashed him a grin. “Yeah. It passes pretty quick, though.”
“Lucky for them.”
“Lucky for me,” Jack corrected him.
O’Neill smiled. “That too. They really did this…for you.”
“And you. Us. Or something. I try not to think about it too much.”
“I can see why.”
Jack was pretty sure that the guy had a photo of him and Sam in his pocket that used to be wedged in the bathroom mirror. He didn’t say anything, though. And there was no overdone lecture about how Sam was the best thing about his life, even though she was. When it came down to it, it wasn’t his place to say anything.
That wasn’t his life anymore.
As he watched Brigadier General Jack O’Neill walk away, he realized that he was glad.
“He seemed sad.”
Jack pulled her body closer to him on the bed, enjoying the warmth and comfort she offered. “I think he was.”
“Because of her?”
“All of it, I think. It wasn’t supposed to work like this, you know. I was supposed to be the miserable one.”
“But you’re not.”
He smiled, brushing a kiss onto her neck because he could.
“No. Definitely not.”