Spoilers: Lost City Parts I and II
“There is not any memory with less satisfaction than the memory of some temptation we resisted.”
~James Branch Cabell
This place was too accustomed to the unusual.
No, make that the downright weird.
He had been trapped inside of a big block of ice for what, three months? He had been thawed only to find he had no memory of who the hell he was, and when his memory did return in full without much preamble, no one even blinked.
Well, except for Jack himself, but only because the doctor kept shining that damn light in his eyes. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear that Doc Fraiser still haunted this place and whispered instructions into the new CMO’s ear for fun--just to watch him squirm. Jack had always suspected that underneath all the Air Force professional doctor attitude was one seriously warped, maybe even a tad sadistic, sense of humor.
But the new doc was talking to him. Probably best to pay attention now.
“…so they just…came back? No warning or anything?” he asked the Colonel, obviously doing that scientist thing where he tried to rationalize the irrational.
Without being able to stop them, Jack’s eyes slid up to Carter where she stood grouped with Daniel and Teal’c and General Hammond, waiting for Doctor Marshall’s verdict patiently. She didn’t look away for once, seeming not to care that between them, a look could be a much more fatal thing than one would think. So he just looked at her, and as he looked, he remembered.
The shift of the bed as she crawled onto it.
The feel of her hand resting on his back.
The sound of her tuneless humming ringing in his ears, calming his raging mind.
The warmth of her as she wrapped him in her arms.
Reality snapped back and so did Jack, his eyes returning to the impatient doctor in front of him. “Uh…yeah, more or less,” he managed, reeling a little as the abnormally vivid memory faded. Had that been her hand resting on his back again? He could have sworn…but no…she was still there across the room, blue eyes sharp as she caught his hesitation.
It was over.
The Colonel had been subjected to one last batch of tests, but pending their results, he was cleared for duty. And so she was back in her lab, because habit forced her into thinking that if she needed to escape from the last three months of her life, the only way to do it was to go back to work.
Ignore the problem and it’ll go away…right?
She could almost hear Jack’s snort of disbelief ringing in her ears. It made her smile in spite of herself. But then, most things about him did.
God, he was right. She could be such a geek sometimes.
Just work, she ordered herself, forcing one arm to function and then the other and before she knew it she was lost in the familiar rhythm of science, the delicacy of a test, the puzzle of a mathematical query. That is, she was until….
Her still raw nerves jumped, tensing in her stomach and instantly returning her to the harried state of the last few days…months…years. She hadn’t had time to digest everything yet, so seeing him standing there, hands in his pockets and that slight smile on his face, was still a little unreal. She blinked once, curbing the impulse to cross the room and touch him, to assure herself that he was really there, half-smiling at her. Instead, she settled for a neutral and familiar, “Sir?”
He came into the room and leaned against a table. “How is it going with the…” he waved his hand at the contraption she had been working on, “…alien pod piece thing?”
She looked down at it, then back at him. “Fine, sir. I think I’ve isolated the power source and with some effort, I might be able to contrive a way of manually turning it on and off, but it’ll all depend on the circuitry system, which in this case seems to be parallel instead of series based—“
Jack raised a hand and she halted her flow of words, grinning at him. His eyes narrowed as he gazed at her. “You did that on purpose.”
She barely contained her giggle, but managed. “It’s possible,” she conceded.
He made a rather miffed sound in the back of his throat. “Evil, Carter,” he admonished, but he was smiling.
The easy tone was more relaxing than her work had been. It was so simple to fall into old jokes and patterns and feel at home again when he was around, which she supposed was part of their problem. And yet, she couldn’t help but be glad for this moment, for a second of stability in a world too often shaken. So for a second, she let the rules bend just enough for her to grin back and ask, “How are you settling back in?” The problem wasn’t in the question itself, but in the amount of tenderness she couldn’t quite keep from her voice as she asked it.
He shrugged, sending her an almost wistful look before replying with a standard Jack O’Neill quip. “Did you know that when you come back from being frozen, there’s paperwork?”
“There’s paperwork for everything, sir,” Sam assured him.
“See, I’m starting to realize that. Seven years into the game,” he said ruefully. “If someone had told me that when this whole thing started…”
“It’s probably best they didn’t then, sir,” she said with a laugh, “otherwise we’d all be worse off.” I’d be worse off. Though her admission went unspoken, Sam could almost swear that he had heard it, and so her words felt heavy. Silence fell over them. That quickly and they were already toeing the invisible line of too close and too much. She bit her bottom lip and looked down at her hands, because looking at him would be too much, and she was still only teetering on the edge of control.
“Probably…” he agreed softly, and the tone in his voice was one she knew all too well--resignation. She bit back a sigh of dejection--here they were again.
Jack broke the moment, shifting and then he straightened up, wincing a little. “You all right, sir?” she asked automatically.
His hand waved in dismissal. “Yeah, just the knees. Been aching a little since…”
Sam nodded, not wanting to
He rubbed the left one absently, and had turned to leave when her ears, like her other senses, always tuned into the nuances that made up Jack O’Neill, caught his gasp of pain. Her head snapped up and she was across the room in a flash, catching him as he tilted sharply. “Jack!” she exclaimed in spite of herself as she took in his suddenly sheet white face grimacing in pain. Her frazzled mind refused to be quiet, rearing up in panic. Nonono, I just got him back, nonono…“I’m calling a Med Team.”
When he didn’t object, the stabbing fear in her chest spread, a cold wave washing along her fingers and down her legs. Something was really wrong.
This was getting a little ridiculous.
He had only been back two days, and the majority of them had been spent being poked and prodded and scanned and questioned until the urge to throttle Doctor Marshall was so strong that he actually had to dig his fingers into his cot to assure that he wouldn’t.
“So explain to me again exactly what happened?” the little man asked, and frustration clawed at Jack’s throat.
“For cryin’ out loud…” he muttered. “Like I told you, I was talking to Major Carter. I stood up and my knees hurt a little, so I rubbed them, turned to leave and then…pain. Lots of pain.”
Sam, who was sitting on a stool next to his cot, fidgeted a little, and he knew she was picturing the way he must have looked as he began to fall. He had to rein in his instincts, which were screaming to slide his fingers down the cot to where hers were resting and squeeze them, to reassure her that he was here, he was okay. It would be too risky--ever since he had woken up yesterday to her blue eyes, it seemed like the littlest things were the ones that propelled them perilously close to forbidden territory. So he kept his fingers where they were and felt a twinge of regret that he had to.
“Yes, sir, but what exactly were you thinking about at the time of your collapse?” the doctor asked, and for once, Jack welcomed the interruption, even if it was for a peculiar question.
“Uh…” he searched his
mind. “I was just…rubbing my knee and remembering…” When it had first been
Sam jumped and put her hand on his shoulder, trying to help however she could. Her action was useless, but appreciated all the same. The doctor, however, just nodded. “That’s what I thought.”
Hissing a breath in through clenched teeth, Jack nearly did throttle him this time. “What was that?” he growled as the pain began to ebb back, returning to its normal ache instead of the blinding flash.
“Your hippocampus,” the doctor replied a little too cheerfully, pointing at a brain scan he had hanging up. “See, these just came back. While most of you is perfectly fine, the activity in your hippocampus is nearly three times what it should be. Why this is, I haven’t figured out yet. Again, it could just be a side effect of the thawing or maybe from having your memories all return so quickly. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that it’s only temporary, whatever it is. However, until the activity has slowed back to normal levels, you might want to be careful what you think about…”
Lost. Completely and utterly lost. Now, he knew that sometimes he played dumb. It had helped him on a number of occasions. But really, all he had managed to get out of that was something about a hippopotamus, and he was pretty sure that wasn’t right. “So…there’s something wrong with my brain? Besides the usual, I mean.” Good guess, considering the Technicolor scans in front of them.
Sam frowned, squeezing his shoulder a little with her hand that still rested there. The feeling sent little tingles down his arm and he barely managed not to roll his eyes at his own absurdity. “The hippocampus is responsible for long term memory,” she explained. “I think the doctor is suggesting that…” she trailed off, frowning again, deeper this time. “Actually, I have no idea what the doctor is suggesting.”
Jack blinked, holding his breath as his eyes darted around the room of their own accord. No, the world didn’t seem to have ended. Huh. A smile spread across her face as she looked at him, and he knew that she had guessed his thoughts. He liked that she could.
“I’m saying that I think that his long term memories are so vivid that he’s actually feeling them,” Jack heard the doctor say, and he blinked again, disturbed by the idea.
“What, like reliving my memories?” he asked, trying to keep a tinge of panic out of his voice. There were too many dark things there, things he had carefully tucked away in favor of the life he now led. Places he didn’t want to see again, let alone feel.
“Basically, yes,” the doctor confirmed. Jack tried to swallow, but found the action nearly impossible around the lump that had formed.
“But it’ll go away, right?
I just have to…wait it out?” he grasped at the hope. If it was temporary, he
could just not think about it all…
His lungs seemed to stop working all on their own, and the choking sensation was one he was all too familiar with. It was worse this time because they were all there in his head at once and he felt it, the pain of torture, the despair of captivity, the overwhelming grief and guilt of loss….
The world blurred and his ears rang and he bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood, because at least that kept him from screaming, though he couldn’t keep back the low moan, a sound ripe with the pain of a tormented past.
Just as the edges of his vision started to tinge black, he felt hands on his knees, and heard a voice. Sam’s voice. Calling to him. He struggled to focus on it, because part of him recognized it was his link back to the life of the mostly sane. “…Colonel…Colonel…” she said gently, and it wasn’t as good as her cry of his name had been when he had nearly collapsed the first time, but it was still her, and slowly the black receded and the world came into focus again.
She was kneeling in front of him, brilliant eyes searching his own, heavy with worry and sympathy and a dozen other emotions he dared not put a name to. But she held his gaze steadily, unwilling to let him slip away. “Just…look at me,” she said softly, raising her hands to rest on top of his own and squeezing them, offering him the comfort he had so wished to give her earlier.
It was sweet and moreover, it was enough to pull him out of his own thoughts, just the distraction required. So he gazed at her and slowly remembered how to breathe. In…out…in…out….
She smiled a tiny little smile, trying to be encouraging without being patronizing in a way that only she could manage, and when he was sure he could cope, he smiled a little back. “Thanks,” he said simply, and she slid her hands away, nodding a little.
There was a silence that descended over the room, only broken when Doctor Marshall cleared his throat. “Yes, well…obviously, I can’t clear you for duty in this state. You’ll need to be put back on stand-down for a few days. When it seems to ease a bit, come back and we’ll do a follow-up scan, see how things are progressing.”
Stand down. Two words that boggled the mind. It meant days alone, dealing with this, trying not to think about…everything. “I…uh…”
“Rest is probably the key!” the doctor said with an almost chipper tone and a pat on the shoulder that really made Jack’s stomach churn. “Just get some rest.”
The man was obviously controlled by a particularly sadistic snake in the head. It was the only answer. He really had to remember to get that checked out.
Normally, this was exactly the kind of situation that would cause her to freeze up, to hesitate, to walk away. It had in the past and probably would again in the future. But for some reason, this particular time, she couldn’t just walk away and let him handle it on his own.
Maybe for the first time, she was really afraid he couldn’t. Maybe it was because she was still staggering with the joy of getting him back and didn’t want to give that up yet. Maybe the very concept of what he was going through was enough to make her go cold. Most likely, it was just that she was sick of pretending that she didn’t see him, didn’t feel some part of his pain. It was a precarious recklessness that filled her now, one that for the first time in years had her acting with her heart instead of her head.
It was this recklessness that had her chasing after him into the locker room as he went to change and go home, because other than being trapped in the infirmary, it was the only option open to him. “Uh…sir?” she asked tentatively as she walked in. Sam watched as he grabbed his jacket out of his locker and threw it on, studiously trying to avoid looking at the box resting in the bottom of the metal cabinet, teeth clenched so hard that she could see the muscles around his jaw tense from where she stood across the room.
“What can I do for ya, Carter?” he asked, trying too hard to be casual. But she’d take it if that was all he was offering, stepping into the room more fully.
“Uh…I…” she shifted her weight, uncertainty hitting her with the force of a staff blast. Maybe this was out of line. Maybe he was fully capable of dealing with this on his own. Maybe he didn’t need her…not that he ever had….
“Spit it out, Carter,” he ordered, but it was said softly, almost pleadingly, and it was enough to spur her into action.
Taking a deep breath that she tried not to let him see, she looked down at the floor, the wall, her sleeve…anywhere but directly at him. “I was thinking that…that if you thought it would help…not that you need it, I mean…but if you wanted to…I mean, if you wanted…” Come on, just get it out and over with already, Sam. “…that you could go to my house.” She looked up at him then, meeting his surprised brown eyes with her own earnest blue ones. “It’s…just…less familiar?”
He was too raw to hide his emotions for once, but even when he showed them, it was so quick that they didn’t do more than flicker across his face--surprise, befuddlement, gratitude. “I…that’s…” He shouldn’t. He couldn’t. She knew that, of course. She shouldn’t have asked. And yet…she caught his quick glance down at the box in the locker, the tightening of the muscles again, and when he turned back to her, her heart broke a little for him. “That would be…good,” he admitted, and she felt a strange mixture of shock and relief at his words.
Somehow, she managed to smile a little. Don’t seem surprised, don’t scare him away, don’t push too hard… “All right.” She fished her keys out of her pocket, slipping the house key off and throwing it to him. “Feel free to help yourself to…whatever. Though it’s probably pretty empty,” she couldn’t help warning prosaically, because it filled the empty space. “I’ll pick some stuff up on my way home later.”
Jack just shrugged a little, rubbing the key in between his fingers, flipping it to one side, then the other absently. As she began to turn away, she caught his movement out of the corner of her eye, a step towards her as if in protest of her departure. She halted automatically, turning back to look at him curiously. “Uh…when would that be exactly?” he asked, and though he tried to make it sound like a normal question, his eyes, which seemed more open to her these past few days than they had in most of the years she had known him, spoke of hurt, of need, of desperation. And suddenly she saw that the idea of sending him to her home was only half the solution, because he would still be alone.
Like so many times before, the world seemed to stop for a moment, currents passing between them that she couldn’t quite give a name to. “I…can you give me ten minutes?” she asked finally.
His nod was short and succinct, and for once he wasn’t bothering to try and deny that that’s what he had wanted…no, needed all along. She turned to leave again, only to be stopped one last time, this time by his voice.
The sound of her name coming from his lips made her stomach do a strange little flip-flop, and it both annoyed and pleased her simultaneously. “Hmm?” She should have said ‘Sir’ or ‘Colonel’, but it would have sounded cold.
He hesitated a little before requesting quietly, “Don’t tell Daniel or Teal’c?”
No, he wouldn’t want them to know. He’d be torn up over everything he was putting her through, and having them know meant more people supposedly wasting their time worrying about him. Was it wrong that she was a little glad that she’d be able to do this for him herself? She wasn’t sure. But her reply was immediate and certain anyway. “Yes, sir.”
Sam was a woman of her word, out of the base and free of all her gizmos and gadgets in under ten minutes, walking silently with him to her car because it was mutually understood that it was probably best if she drove. He had to admit he was relieved. Being in the fresh air with her at his side made it harder to dwell on his own long list of personal torments--she had that effect on him.
“We’ll have to get some groceries,” she reiterated as they climbed in the car, and he didn’t stop the offhanded thought her remark incited from tumbling out of his mouth.
“Your house is really that empty?”
She glanced at him as she started the car and pulled out. “Empty or inedible,” she confirmed with a tiny smile.
Daniel’s voice rang in his ears without warning, and it was a disconcerting feeling. She hasn’t left the base in nearly two months, Jack. “You really didn’t go home?” he couldn’t help but wonder out loud.
It was a personal question, more than he normally would have asked. But it seemed that since he had returned from his icy state, all rules were off. So when she just shrugged without seeming shocked or embarrassed by the question, he really wasn’t that surprised. “I did the first month or so,” she assured him. “To…I don’t know…keep up appearances, I suppose.”
The confession was more than he had ever expected from her, and it stole his breath a little. He couldn’t help it; he had to push a little more because for the first time in a long time, it seemed like it was okay to. “And then?”
She glanced at him, just a perfunctory look that had more to do with familiarity than anything else. He wasn’t sure if she’d answer, but they were further from the mountain now, and the further away they drove, the easier these things were to say. Not necessarily a good thing for them, but an all too welcome one. With the wind blowing through her hair and the sun hitting her face at just the right angle, he could almost believe that it wouldn’t hurt anything.
“And then…” she repeated slowly, not really hesitating so much as carefully considering her words to make sure they were right, “…time passed. And I got tired of caring about appearances.”
His eyebrows nearly skyrocketed off of his forehead because he had no other response readily available. “…I…” He couldn’t think of words. They had spent the better part of the last four or five years keeping up appearances, so the idea that suddenly, she just….
She glanced at him again, that little smile returning, though it was a tad wistful. “It’s not so dangerous when you’re not around,” she offered by way of explanation.
Words had never been his strong suit, and this entire conversation was quickly veering into uncharted territory. “Oh,” was the best reply he could come up with, though he winced while saying it because it was so insufficient.
“Yeah,” she answered softly. “Oh.”
They continued the drive in silence, Jack turning to stare out the window because looking at her was starting to have the peculiar effect of replaying every glance exchanged and every word spoken between the two of them. There was a lot of bitter there and he didn’t want it to taint the sweet of right now yet.
She wasn’t exactly sure when the situation began to spiral out of control. At the grocery store, with each of them picking and choosing food and throwing it all into one cart. When they got home, and he had forgotten to give her back her key, so he just unlocked the door himself and held the door open for her while she carried the other two bags of groceries in from the car. When he made himself at home on her couch and flipped on the TV as though he did it everyday. More than likely, the entire thing had been out of control from the start.
As she sat curled up on one side of the couch, the schematics of a new artifact on her lap and him next to her, flipping through channels while she worked, she realized that she didn’t give a damn if it was.
He shifted slightly and she automatically compensated for the weight, keeping her and her work balanced as though they did this everyday. He, however, didn’t seem to be so at ease, and after a few more shifts, flipped off the TV and stood up, walking around aimlessly, looking at things.
“Everything okay, sir?” she asked, managing to keep the concern out of her voice-mostly.
He shrugged, wandering around. “Yeah. I just…” he didn’t seem to know what to say, so she just nodded.
“I suppose it’s sort of like someone coming straight up to you and demanding that you not laugh,” she stated.
The analogy made him grin because it was about right, and very like her to understand why he was having problems. “Something like that,” he admitted.
Watching him, she couldn’t help the wave of sympathy, the urge to just hold him like she could the night before. “Anything I can do?”
He smiled sadly. “No, Carter. Just…be here. Company helps.” Your company helps was what he was saying and yet not. Still, she couldn’t stop the full blown grin that spread across her face before turning it down quickly, burying the expression in the work she was sure she’d never get back into.
He peered at her desk, stacked with more work in a neat, organized pile. His hand traced over the items she had displayed there: a paperweight that her father had given her, some kind of astrophysics mumbo-jumbo award, a picture of the team…he paused on that one, picking it up and studying the photo carefully. It wasn’t the one he had, but rather one from three or four years ago at a Christmas party. He remembered….
The smell of smoke, the sound of laughter, the taste of the punch. Carter surrounded by science geeks, sending a look his way. A plea for help.
“Excuse me, I need to borrow Major Carter for a minute,” he interrupted, pulling her away gently by the arm. She pretended to be disappointed, but when they were clear of the crowd, her hand tightened on his own briefly.
“Thank you, sir,” she said with relief, and he handed her a glass of punch which she promptly drank half of.
“Easy, Carter,” he said, laughing a little. “They’re normally your kind of thing.”
“It’s Christmas, sir,” she replied, and he supposed that was all the explanation he was going to get as they sidled up next to Daniel and Teal’c.
“So you see the origin of the Christmas tradition actually has its roots in…” Daniel was saying to a slightly bored-looking Teal’c, although it was possible that Jack was just projecting that.
“For cryin’ out loud, Daniel, you’re just as bad as those eggheads,” he said, gesturing to the group they had just left.
“On the contrary, O’Neill, I asked Daniel Jackson to explain ‘Christmas’ to me once again,” Teal’c broke in.
Oh. Projection then. Jack shrugged. “Well, don’t. This is not the time for boring.”
“What is it the time for, Jack?” Daniel asked, vaguely annoyed.
Jack thought a moment. “Presents! Anyone get me something good?”
“How good were you hoping for, sir?” was Carter’s straight-faced reply.
How good…his eyes snapped up to her and he saw the smirk hiding in her eyes and grinned. “Go ahead and try me, Carter,” he drawled.
Her grin escaped then, and they all laughed at their own antics. There was a click somewhere, but they were too wrapped up in each other to care.
The memory faded, voices echoing for a moment as he glanced at the picture again, the way the four of them were all turned in together, their own world in the midst of a huge gathering, sharing a laugh over something stupid and insignificant.
It never felt insignificant anymore. Part of him missed the ease of it.
He put the picture down, turning away from it because sometimes the easy memories pained him as much as the hard ones. He could feel her eyes on him, watching. “Do you miss it?” he couldn’t help but ask, not sure what he wanted her answer to be.
“What?” she queried.
He shrugged. “The simplicity.”
It would have confused someone else, but it almost seemed to be the answer she was expecting, so she just tilted her head, thinking. “Sometimes,” she admitted. “It made things easier.”
He didn’t know whether to be happy or sad, but then he had been stuck between the two gears for a long time now. Still, sometimes wasn’t all the time or even most of the time. It was just…sometimes. If he had to think about it, he probably would have said the same.
The next question escaped him before he even knew he was thinking it, and that was when he realized they were both in trouble. “What about Pete?” Pete, he assumed, had been simple. He had been easy. Who could blame her? There was no history there, no darkness to deal with, no rules holding them back.
Sam sighed, pushing away her work and looking at him with an expression he couldn’t quite pinpoint. “Are we really going to do this?”
Do what? There wasn’t anything to do--futility was part of their problem. “I need to know,” he said, and he realized as he said it that it was the truth.
She accepted it without question, because he wouldn’t have asked otherwise. “Pete’s gone,” she said finally.
Though he had suspected as much, he couldn’t help the relief that flowed through him. “Why?” It was surprising how much your existence could hinge on one word.
When Sam looked him straight in the eye for once, Jack saw how tired she was still, the kind of tired that seeped through all your defenses and drained your soul. But she was less broken than before, as though with every passing hour she was gluing the pieces that made Major Carter back into place one by one. “He was a mistake,” she admitted finally. “I thought I could let go, that it would be easier…” She shrugged, sighing. “It wasn’t easier, it was just…wrong.”
She had left him speechless again, and he wondered absently if it could be blamed on the abnormal brain activity, though he was pretty sure it was just this strange wire they seemed to be walking, further than either of them had dared to go before. “Wrong,” he heard himself repeating. “Why wrong?”
Her eyes flashed in annoyance, and he wasn’t sure if it was at the question itself, or at the way they were still talking around everything, or if it was just at him. The last thing he expected her to do was stand and take his hand, leading him through the house and into a bedroom--her bedroom. Wow, he was in Carter’s bedroom. A bit taken aback and not really sure where this was going, he stuffed his hands in his pockets when she released them and watched her as she crossed the room and opened a drawer, pulling out…a photograph.
She dropped it on the bed, almost as though it said everything by itself. “We all have ways of coping, Jack,” she finally said, voice a little harsher than he would have liked. “Pete was a moment of weakness because I thought if he was around, then I wouldn’t have to deal with this.”
Sam brushed past him and out of the room, an air of frustration now added to the exhaustion. He understood her aggravation now; it wasn’t because they were talking about this, it was because he wasn’t quite understanding it all somehow. But if he was right and that picture was what he thought it was, then maybe he could begin to wrap his head around whatever it was that was happening here.
He reached down and picked it up and looked, knowing what it was already because didn’t he do the same thing?
It was of him.
Damned stupid infuriating slow jackass of a man.
Sam let her mind rant as she took vegetables out of the fridge, throwing them on the counter. Why couldn’t he just understand? He often comprehended her in ways that no one else could. Why was this so different all of the sudden? Why did he have to question everything? She never questioned him. She had never asked him a thousand questions that she had wished she could have, because it would have been over the line, shown too much. Did he still think about Laira? Was he still in love with Sara? Had they ever tried to work things out? Would things be different if she weren’t in the Air Force? How much, if anything, was he willing to give up?
But she couldn’t ask and she accepted that and understood that the answers didn’t matter because they didn’t change anything.
He was standing in the entrance to the kitchen now, silently watching her chop vegetables. She mentally dared him to say something, anything.
“I thought you had moved on,” was what he finally came up with.
Keep chopping. Do not throw anything at his head. Do not cry. Just chop. “I thought so too, for a second there. But I couldn’t.” Attack the carrot—it’s better than attacking him.
“But…why?” he asked, and she turned to glare at him, hurt by the honest puzzlement echoing in his question.
“Could you?” she demanded. “Just like that?”
The answer was reflected immediately in his eyes by the near horror at the very idea of walking away from her, from them, even such as they were. No. God no. It pacified and fed her anger simultaneously. “Then why the hell do you think I would be able to?” she demanded. “Why would my feelings be less than yours, easier to turn away from, to let die?”
There was the real reason for her anger, the fuel driving this whole thing, laid out in the open for him to see. The hurt of his faithlessness caught in her throat, made her eyes burn with livid tears, and so she turned away not because of the need to follow some regulation, but because of the need for self-preservation.
Chop, tear, cut, do anything but look at him and have him see how exposed you are, her thoughts ordered. She did it blindly, desperately, because he wouldn’t leave and he wouldn’t speak. The silence was hot this time, flashing with the unspoken emotions of seven years packed into one small space. It wasn’t until his rough hands slid over hers, stopping their erratic movements forcibly, that she hesitated.
“Sam…” he said softly, and it made her shiver because she had wished to hear that tone from him so often that the reality of it nearly blindsided her. “I know why I…feel the way I do. It’s nearly impossible not to. But you?”
Her eyes rose up to take him in of their own accord, and she was stunned to see the shine of tears there, a mirror of her own pain. “I don’t understand why you…” he paused, broke off because that veered towards a word they didn’t say. “I’m old, Sam. And broken. And weak.”
To her, the idea of him being any of those things was practically laughable, but she could see, could hear, could feel that it was what he believed, and so her anger melted as though it had never been and she let her tears fall. Not for her own pain this time, but for his.
She pulled her hand out from under his and traced the contours of his face--the lines, the hurts, the worries. “No,” she breathed, “You’re not.”
A shudder ran through him, and his head turned towards her palm, nuzzling it as though he couldn’t stop himself. “How do you know?” he whispered, lips brushing her palm.
“Because…” Because old is a matter of opinion. Because broken men have no hope and yours is just a little fractured. Because I’ve never known a man stronger than you. “Because I know you, too,” she finally answered, and it was the right response.
He did kiss her palm then, a lingering, definite press of his lips that made her pulse race and her heart break. She could tell he was remembering and she wished she could remember the way he could in that moment, could be there with him and point to everything and prove that what she said was true. But when he opened his eyes and looked at her, she realized she didn’t have to. “Yeah,” he said softly, with another small shudder and another brief kiss brushing across the pad of her thumb. “Yeah, okay.”
She drew in a breath of relief then, dropping her hand because it had been both an acknowledgement of what she said and a dismissal, a call to return to familiar territory. They stood facing each other for a moment, uncertain of how to proceed, when finally the corner of his mouth quirked up the tiniest little bit. “What were you making, anyway?”
She looked at her mess of chopped vegetables and then back at him. “I…have no idea,” she admitted helplessly, a small laugh escaping at her own behavior.
He smiled with her, because it was all he could do, and it got them back to firmer ground. “Salad,” he said firmly, turning towards the food and away from her. “We’ll make salad and baked potatoes and steak.”
Her stomach rumbled a little at the thought, and she smiled, putting it all back away and concentrating on normal. “That sounds good,” she agreed, and they began to cook, side by side.
The cooking, the meal, the after-dinner cleanup all proceeded without incident, which considering the way their afternoon had gone, was nothing short of a miracle. But it was what it was, and Jack let himself be lulled into the strange ease that had fallen over them, with her knowing what he liked on his baked potato and him cooking her steak just right. Sitting across the kitchen table from her, he listened to her fill him in on what he had missed over the last three months--Hammond’s return to the SGC, the antics of the scientists over some artifact SG-4 had brought back, Daniel’s attempt at placating Thor. He let their words from earlier fall away and didn’t notice when they slipped back into a game that could prove to be more precarious than their heart-rending honesty--pretending.
It was so easy, so natural to be here with her that he let himself forget that it wasn’t supposed to be. He liked the normalcy of preparing and sharing dinner with her, and because they did know each other so well, as long as they didn’t think too hard or long, everything fell into an easy sort of rhythm. As he placed the last dish in the washer, she wiped down the table; when he teased her about her anal nature, she made a face and threw the damp cloth at him lightly. He laughed at her, and he rarely laughed at all, but he didn’t deem the action strange because nothing could be strange when things were this simple, could it?
They ended up in the living room again, drinks in hands and smiles on their faces. Sam turned on music when they got there--blues, low and crooning, which surprised him. He watched her sway back and forth to the melody for a moment, eyes closed and arms gripping herself as she let herself get lost for a second. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her--seeing her that open, that free, took his breath away. When she came back to reality and her eyes opened, they locked with his and for a second there was nothing but tenderness before the inevitable awkwardness fell between them.
“You like the blues?” he asked incredulously, easing the tension.
She shrugged, taking a sip of her beer. “Sometimes. Not my normal fare, I suppose, but they remind me…” she hesitated, aware that memory was a dangerous thing in her present company, but then continued anyway, “…of my mother. She liked to listen to them sometimes, after dinner like this.”
It was a nice thing to share, and so he smiled, glad that she had. “Yeah?”
She nodded. “She’d play them and sometimes dad would come home, because he was always getting home late, and if it was a good day, he’d dance with her in the living room. They’d be in their own little world and I’d sit in a corner and watch and dream…” her voice died out and her eyes were far away, and he knew she was imagining it all again. He almost wished it was a picture he could relive like all the other ones he had been dragged through that day--it sounded like a nice thing to see.
He wished that he was a different kind of man, the kind of man that could offer to sway back and forth with her to the low melody. His hands almost itched with the need to do just that, because it was so tempting and so homey and hadn’t they been playing house?
He wanted to live in the illusion.
But it meant too much to her, and would to him, and they had pushed the envelope enough for one night. So he resisted, and felt regret for it.
But she understood and let it drop with a smile, because the moment wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough. And instead of dancing, they curled up on the couch near each other, bickered about what Movie of the Week to watch, and when she drifted to sleep, her head was on his shoulder.
He should have moved, gotten her to bed.
Sam slept deeper than she had in months, and even when she awoke with a crick in her neck and a slight chill from sleeping uncovered, she wasn’t sorry that her head was still on his shoulder. She turned her head in for a moment, breathed him in because he smelled like leather and woods and just…Jack. She liked it there, curled up beside him. She wanted to stay.
But he had left her alone in his bed the night before, out of respect and out of need, and this time, it was her turn.
So Sam sat up gently, picked up the remnants of their drinks from last night, and walking to the kitchen, wondered why this felt like the morning after. They had pushed each other, more than they probably should have, and when it had all been done they had slipped into a strange state of intimacy that was almost worse than all the confessions and tears, because it had showed them how it could be.
It could be so wonderful, so easy, so…real.
Was it possible to mourn for something that was never yours?
After a moment, Jack entered the kitchen, stretching with foggy eyes and mussed hair. The picture he made was adorable--it took effort not to smile at it. “Morning.”
He mumbled something unintelligible and she just shook her head. “Eggs?”
Jack made a face. “Yesterday. Pancakes?”
Sam made the batter, but let him flip because she knew it would appeal to the juvenile side of him and make him grin. There was coffee and the morning paper and it was real for a minute there, because they let it be even though they knew it would hurt worse when it stopped. She had the feeling that her kitchen would be a lonely place for a long time after this was all over. Speaking of which… “How’s the memory, sir?”
His eyes snapped up, and she regretted the word, or maybe the question. Or both, if it made any difference. But it was done and said and the illusion shattered around them, crystalline pieces that she’d never be able to put back together.
She wanted it back.
He put down his mug, thought for a moment, and there was no jumping, no wincing, no tensing. Whatever it had been, it, like the memory vacuum that had preceded it, was gone.
It was a relief, to just remember and not have the words echo in his mind or the feeling flow through him. Maybe because he had never gotten used to it--for the first time in a long time, he had been too busy caught up in the present to bother reliving the past.
Jack knew that he had her to thank for that--she had spared him God only knows how much personal torment at a very high cost to her own sense of security, and he regretted now that this would end up causing her pain. Now more than ever before, he knew that pain came from just as many unlikely places as it did from the obvious ones.
Still, he couldn’t bring himself to regret the actions themselves--they were too fresh in his mind, and with all the bitter was the achingly sweet. He had learned last night that they were worth sorting through. Not all memories could be tagged and filed away as bad or good, some just were….
Like the shine of tears in her eyes.
The feel of her hand trailing up and down his face.
The texture of her skin against his lips.
Those he all still remembered in startling clarity. He didn’t have to wonder if it would last--they were burned into his mind in perfect, unerring detail. He knew that he would be able to relive that moment and the moments of sweetness afterward, that he could recall the feeling of relief that had flooded him when he realized that for whatever reason, she saw him as a worthy man. Jack knew that this particular memory wouldn’t be perfect because of some mind mumbo-jumbo, but solely because it was her, and that idea?
It made him smile.
“Good, Carter,” he admitted. “The memory is good.”