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I’ve learned a thing or two about patience…

The pounding footsteps, or, hell, hoofsteps, are gaining on them.  Jack is pretty damn sure they are stuck too, the branch of the caves they’ve been following dumping out into a cavern with no exits.  Well, no exits unless you consider the completely bizarre presence of one of those freaky reality-shifting mirror things.  Which, for the record, he doesn’t.  No way, no how.  He’s happily pretending it’s not there.  Which leaves them with no exit.

“Shit,” Jack swears.

Carter glances back past him, her eyebrows drawing together in alarm.  “I don’t think we have any other choice, sir.”

Jack glares at her.  “You know I hate hearing that, right?”

Carter doesn’t say anything, just glances past his shoulder again and presses her lips together in unspoken disapproval of his stubbornness.  Then she gives him a look he interprets as, ‘And I hate being eaten alive by alien cloven beasts, sir, so we’re both shit out of luck.’  Or something similar.  She’s nearly as eloquent with her looks as Teal’c these days.

He knows he should just give in, but he really, really, really hates the whole alternative reality thing.  “What if we get stuck?”

“We can leave it open,” she says calmly, like she’s explaining something to a four-year-old.  “We only need to stay until the…things get tired of hunting us.”

“Fine,” he says with a long-suffering sigh.  He moves to stand next to Carter in front of the mirror.  “Just for the record though, this is a terrible, terrible--.”

Carter doesn’t let him finish, apparently having caught sight of a useful reality, like one not underwater or under imminent Goa’uld attack—and damn they had better not find any Goa’uld.  He’s drawing the line at Goa’uld.  He’s in the middle of changing his mind about this entire plan when she grabs his hand and slaps it against the surface.

It’s a highly unpleasant sensation, getting squeezed through one of these mirror things.  It ends up feeling like the roadrunner has flattened you with an Acme steamroller, leaving you flat and useless and wishing you’d just been dropped off a cliff instead.

“Ugh,” Jack says once he’s on the other side.

Carter grabs the sleeve of his jacket.  “Do not move, sir.”

She’s clipped each word short and pointed and there are just some tones of her voice that he knows to follow instinctually, so he automatically freezes, no matter how much he just wants to say, ‘I told you so,’ because something must be going wrong or she wouldn’t sound like that.

“I know this room,” she says once she seems convinced that he’s actually listening to her.  “I’m pretty sure there are security systems.”

“Gotcha,” he says.  It’s a good idea not to let anyone know they are here if possible, because just thinking about explaining all of this to some wacky version of himself is already giving him a headache.  “Any chance you can turn them off?”

“I think so,” she says, slowly squatting down until her face is nearly touching the floor.  “I just need to avoid the lasers and pray that it’s dim enough in here that the motion detectors won’t trigger.”

What follows is an almost obscenely amusing five-minute period were Carter slinks across the room like a cat burglar.  “You know, Carter,” Jack observes, “if you ever get tired of the SGC, I think you’ve got the makings of a second career here.”

She’s almost reached the alarm pad by the door and doesn’t bother to risk looking back over her shoulder to glare at him.  Instead she says, “With all due respect, sir, why don’t you…”  The rest of the sentence is lost as she lowers her voice to an incomprehensible mumble and enters a code into the pad.  To Jack’s utter surprise, the pad accepts the code, the red lights flashing green, and the room flooding with bright white light.

“I can’t believe that worked,” Carter says, sounding equally surprised.  “Remind me to replace our motion sensors as soon as we get back.”

“Sure,” Jack says, finally allowing himself to feel slightly optimistic about this plan.

Right on cue, the sound of one of those beasts bellowing filters in through the placid surface of the mirror.  Jack looks over at Carter and she stares back at him in alarm.  The last thing they need is to be stuck in this small storage room with one of those things.

“Should we turn it off?” he asks.

“No!” Carter says, darting back over to his side.  “We might never find the right reality again.”

“Then what?”

Carter is pacing around the room now.  “We just need something to cover it, to block out the light.”

“Will that stop one of them coming through if they accidentally touch it?”

“No, not really.”

Hell, what they really need is a damn iris.  Wait a minute… “What if we turn it around?  You know, so it’s up against the wall?”

She stares at him and he gets the feeling she’s just about to point out why that is the stupidest idea ever when he realizes she’s actually looking disgruntled because she didn’t think of it first.  Heh.  Score one for Jack.

Between the two of them they manage to shove and lug the thing around.  Of course once that is done, Jack’s left to stare around the room that seems to be getting smaller by the minute. 

“So, Carter, how long to you think we’ll have to hang out here?” he asks as he grabs a chair and settles in for the long haul.

As if in answer to the question, there’s the sound of hooves scrabbling over rocks filtering through as if from a distance.  Carter gives the mirror a dubious glance.  “Hopefully not longer than it takes for someone to actually come down here.”

“Where are we exactly?”

She paces the length of the room, poking around the sets of shelves at various objects.  “Storage room 15-F, if this is anything like our reality.”

They fall into silence then as it seems a pretty good idea not to give the things any reason to find the mirror.  Of course this only works long enough for Jack to get really bored.  Storage room 15-F is even more boring than it sounds.

“What do you think it’s like?” he asks, keeping his voice low.

“What?” Carter asks, pulling her head back out of the shelves.

“This reality.”

Giving up her explorations, she hops up on the counter next to him.  “Well, it can’t be too different, sir, or my pass code wouldn’t have worked.”

Good point.  “So maybe this is a reality just like ours…only there is no such thing as cheese.”

Carter’s lips twist.  “A horrifying possibility, sir.”

“Or maybe Kinsey was never born,” he says hopefully.

She arches an eyebrow at him.  “Or maybe Kinsey actually got elected as President.”

Jack shudders.  “God. What a horrible thought.”

“But possible,” Carter points out.  “The few realities we’ve seen have all been much worse off than our own, after all.”

Jack frowns, glancing over at her.

Carter shifts like she’s trying to find a more comfortable position.  “I meant that they were all losing their battles with the Goa’uld.”

“Of course,” Jack says, pushing back to his feet and shaking his legs as if fighting off pins and needles.

He thinks he hears Carter sigh softly to herself, but he ignores it.  The uncomfortable silence now stretching between them is only yet another reason he hates all this alternative reality crap.

Carter hops off the counter herself then, shuffling aimlessly through a file of folders hanging by the door.  “Do you think Daniel and Teal’c are all right?”

“Sure,” Jack says, gratefully latching onto the change in topic.  “They’re probably already on their way back with backup and the big guns.”  Daniel is probably already mentally preparing a lecture on labyrinths and minotaurs as they speak.  Yet another horrifying possibility.

Carter nods absently in agreement, flipping open a file on the counter.  Her back stiffens as she looks down at it, a soft sound escaping her. 

Curious, Jack leans back far enough to see over her shoulder, his eye caught by a signature in very familiar handwriting at the very bottom of the form.

Dr. Samantha O’Neill.

He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t make the slightest indication that he’s seen it.  Only they both know better.  They are so damn good at ignoring the impossible-to-ignore that, if they were superheroes, that would be their super power.  The ability to repress.

What a sucky super power.

“I haven’t heard anything in a while.  We should check if the coast is clear,” Jack says and Carter looks grateful for the distraction as she quickly shoves the file back in place.  Together they heave the mirror back around, both wincing at the sound of the stone grinding against the floor.

Carter picks up her P-90, clicking the light on and Jack’s surprised to see the light pass through the mirror and into the other reality like it’s nothing more than a window.   She sweeps the light into the dark corners, listening intently.  “I think it’s quiet enough now, sir.”

Jack nods his agreement.  “Let’s give it a try.”  He has no idea what makes him do it, what can possibly be going through his mind to explain it, but before Carter touches her palm to the mirror, he catches her arm.  “Carter?” he asks.

She looks pretty surprised by the contact herself, turning back to look at him, only now they are only a few inches apart from each other and this has to be one of the stupidest things he’s ever done, but he’s blaming the damn mirror.  Stupid, stupid alternative realities, always putting dangerous thoughts in his head.

“Yeah?” Carter asks.

Now that he’s got her here he feels the need to say something, say anything that might somehow acknowledge a name scrawled at the bottom of a form like some great cosmic joke. 

“Our own reality,” he says, keeping his face neutral as he looks back at her.  “I know it isn’t perfect, but…I still have a lot of faith in it.”

For a moment he thinks she isn’t going to respond, that she will just step through the mirror without acknowledging the words, but then she surprises him yet again.  “Yeah,” she says, her fingers hesitantly touching the back of his hand.  “I think I know what you mean.”

He smiles.  “Let’s go home, Carter.”

All that makes us human continues…

Sam stumbles as they step through the mirror and Jack reaches out to steady her.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she reassures him, even as one of her hands stretches out for the nearest wall.  “I was just dizzy for a second.”

Jack isn’t reassured.  Glancing around, he grasps her elbow, maneuvering her towards a chair.  “Stay here while I check this place out,” he says in a low voice as he pulls his weapon, his eyes already sweeping their new location for any sign of company.  There’s only one entrance to this room, and that’s a good start.  It seems quiet, but so had other worlds.  Usually right before someone jumped out at them.

“I’m not an invalid,” Sam complains as she reaches for the zat she’s got stashed in her oversized jacket pocket.

Jack touches her shoulder, holding her in place.  “Humor me.”

Other than rolling her eyes, she doesn’t protest any further, and that just worries him more.  Sam never gives up that easily.  But he is also acutely aware that each trip through the mirror has been harder than the one before, like they are leaving tiny bits of themselves behind each time. 

He doesn’t like how pale she is.

“If something goes wrong--,” he says.

“I know, I know,” she interrupts, not bothering to hide her bitterness.  “Run for the mirror like a good little girl and don’t look back.”

“Sam,” he says, his hand sliding down her arm.

She leans back in the chair with a soft sigh, her eyes darting down to her stomach as her hands protectively cover the gentle swell there.  “I know,” she echoes, this time quiet and resolute.

He squeezes her arm.  “I’ll be right back,” he says before slipping out of the room.

Her quiet voice follows him out into the hall.  “You’d better.”

*     *     *

He’s back in less than fifteen minutes and Sam hasn’t moved from her chair, yet another sign that she is not doing quite as well as she’s pretending.

“Deserted,” he tells her.  “Apophis has already been here.”

“Dammit,” Sam swears, dropping her head back against the wall behind her.

“Maybe next time,” he says as he has dozens of times before.

Sam shakes her head, pushing to her feet.  “I should at least look around just in case.”

Jack forestalls her.  “Whoa there.  First food and rest.”  They have to take advantage of the quiet places whenever they can.  He knows they have at least twelve hours before entropic cascade failure begins.  It used to be five times that, but it’s catching up with them, creeping closer each time.

He doesn’t have to ask to know what that means.

“Fine,” Sam says, shrugging off her jacket and reaching for the pack.  She pulls out rations and water for both of them, and Jack makes a mental note to look for a source of water the next time they jump.  Something tells him this world is too dead to bother.  Apophis never messes around when it comes to this particular planet, no matter the reality.  And that’s why they’re here, looking for any sign of the weapon created by these now-extinct people that Apophis spends so much time and energy erasing from existence, reality after reality.

For each of these decimated realities, there has to be at least one where Apophis messes up, one where he doesn’t get here first.  As Sam has explained to him time and time again, any and every possibility exists, it’s just a matter of finding it.  Finding it before the cascade finds them.

When Sam’s done nibbling her meal bar, slipping the uneaten half back into a pocket, she stretches out on the floor, the too large pants folded a bunch of times at her ankle, but still covering her feet like a child.  Jack wads up his jacket with hers, giving it to her for a pillow.

She’d been wearing high heels and a dress skirt under her lab coat the day they first stepped through the mirror.  Not exactly practical for being on the run, but neither of them could have predicted where the day would end.  Astrophysicists rarely had reason to expect to go off world without a moment’s notice.  He’s not sure if that was a failing of the scientists or his own for not insisting on preparing them.

They’d all started to believe the SGC was impregnable near the end. 

One of their first few jumps had been to an empty SGC.  They managed to cobble together most of their supplies there, including some old BDUs and boots for Sam.  It wasn’t clear what might have happened at that SGC to render it so silent, but they didn’t linger to figure it out.  Their reality is the only one of significance.  It’s what they’ve been telling themselves over and over again.

So many realities have slipped by now that he’s lost count.

Sam shuffles restlessly on the hard floor and Jack tosses the last bit of his meal into his mouth.  Climbing down next to her, he pulls her back against his chest.  The floor is pretty unforgiving, but it’s clean and quiet and that’s more than they usually have. 

“Get some sleep,” he says.

She draws his arm across her body, pulling it low against her belly.

The child is the only indicator of time they have any more, the gradual expansion of Sam’s body as they jump from reality to reality.  He worries about what this is doing to the kid, what it might mean to endlessly jump.  But as Sam pointed out that fateful first day so long ago, their choice was to risk this unknown, or accept a much more certain death on an occupied world. 

Implicit in there is the question of how a few lives--his wife, their child--how they stack against the fate of their entire planet.  If it actually ever comes down to it, Jack isn’t sure he can trust himself to make the right decision.  He feels like he’s getting pushed towards it more and more with each jump though.  Inescapable. 

They could have stopped a long time ago, they could have accepted fate and found some place to call home and raise their child in peace.  But neither of them could live with that.  Until they came upon a peaceful, fairly advanced society and for once, the cascade never found them.  They rested for a full week on that planet, taking stock, rebuilding their reserves. 

He’d been the one to say what they were both thinking, but didn’t want to admit: “It’s nice here.”

“Yeah,” Sam had replied, one hand on her stomach, her eyes drawn towards the sun setting over the neighboring park.  She stayed like that for a long time before pushing to her feet, turning her back on the view with a painful sort of finality.  “We can still save them, Jack.”

And so they’d moved on, through so many more places that he’s lost count.  And he’s left to wonder what price they will have to pay for that stubbornness.  Wonders if it will be a price they can live with.

Sam’s breathing has slowed, evening out into the steady cadence of sleep.  She looks even more fragile in slumber.

He pulls her closer.

*     *     *

Despite his best intentions, Jack must have fallen asleep because the next thing he knows, he’s jerking awake, finding himself alone on their makeshift pallet.  His panic doesn’t have long to mount, as Sam is only a few feet away, sitting at a table.

Jack steps up behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders and kneading gently.  Sam drops her head back against his chest, closing her eyes.

“It’s not here,” she says, her voice hollow.

“Yeah,” he says.  It’s not a surprise, just a disappointment. 

Jack looks down at the notebooks Sam has open on the table, the collection of everything they have learned, a twisted treasure map based more on hearsay and hope than fact.  It’s kept them going this long.

On top of one of the notebooks is the familiar shape of the mirror remote control.  There are two bookmarked realities on their remote, two realities isolated out from all the others.  The first will take them home, back to the beginning, miracle salvation in hand or not.  The other will take them to Ellari, that pleasant cascade-less reality with a place for them.  It’s always been a possibility, a back-up plan waiting for them if they ever have need of it.

“Sam,” he says. “We have to consider…”

“I know,” she says, her posture stiffening.  “We’re running out of time.”

It’s the question of time that might just be the final nail in the coffin of their quest.  They’d expected to sweep back to their reality with a magic fix after only a few days, a week at the most.  Only it’s already been over three months.  For all they know, there’s no one left to save.  There very well may be nothing left to go back to.

“Maybe we could go back to Ellari,” he suggests, “just to rest up for a little while.  Then we can start again.”

She shakes her head.  “I can’t do this much longer.  The next time we stop, it will be for good.  We both know that.”

We can still save them, Jack.

He slips his arms around her, lowering his face to her hair.  “God knows I want to do the right thing, Sam,” he says.  “But I just can’t--.”  He can’t even squeeze out the words, the horror of losing either of them, or, God, both.

“One more,” she says as if making a pact.  “One more reality and then we stop.  We accept it.”

It’s not much to ask, one last try, but he knows her better than that.  “Would one more really be enough?” he asks.  He feels her stiffen in his arms, but she needs to hear this.  “Would six, seven, an even dozen more make it easier to accept?”

She pushes out of her chair, walking away from him.  “I don’t know.”

He lets her have the time, watching her pace the length of the lab.  This is something she will have to come to terms with on her own, and he hasn’t exactly been impartial since this whole damn thing began.

“Apophis wasn’t here all that long ago,” she says, pausing in front of one of the machines lining the room. 

There is more than enough evidence here to support that.  It’s probably only been a matter of days.  Jack just doesn’t know what this has to do with the decision they’re trying to make.

“It probably won’t be long until he makes his move against Earth,” she says.

“Sam,” Jack says, crossing the room to stand by her.  “That’s not our Earth.”  This is exactly why they have been careful not to think about these other realities, to learn anything about them, because borrowing all these what-ifs just can’t do any good.  It’s a burden she doesn’t deserve to have to carry.

She turns to look up at him and she’s got that determined gleam in her eye, the one that used to be so reassuring, but now only terrifies him.  “I know we’ve been saying ours is the only reality that matters,” she says, “and maybe we just needed to believe that to keep ourselves sane, but if we really can’t save our Earth…what about this one?”

“I don’t understand,” Jack says.  “We couldn’t defeat Apophis in our own reality, what makes you think we can help them with theirs?”

“I’m not saying we take up their fight.  We just…give them a chance.”

“Sam, it’s not your job to save everyone.”

“I have to think there’s been some purpose to all of this, some reason we’ve been wearing ourselves to the bone for so damn long, wandering from reality to reality.  And maybe us being here saves them.”

It sounds like a dream to him, a wonderful thought, but a pipe dream nonetheless.  If it’s what she needs to believe though… “What do you want to do?”

She looks at the consol again.  “Send them a message.”

“A message?” he asks, feeling the tension easing in his shoulders.  “Saying what?”

“We just let them know he’s coming.  We keep them from being blindsided the way we were,” she says.  “The rest is up to them.”

It’s all they can do.

“Okay,” he says.

He helps her write the message, watches her as she coaxes the reluctant machine back to life, punches in the code that will spit out their message, fling it towards an unsuspecting Earth.  And maybe somewhere out there, a version of them is waiting to listen.  Maybe their kid will be born on Earth.  A free Earth.

After it’s done, Jack gathers their things together.  Standing in front of the mirror, Sam adjusts the remote, clicking into their waiting bookmark, the green rolling hills of Ellari shimmering into life.

“Ready?” he asks, shouldering their pack and stepping up next to her.

She looks once more around the room before taking his hand, squeezing it hard.  “Yeah,” she says.  “Let’s go home.”

The stale taste of recycled air…

Sam is walking down a corridor on level 23.  The various colored lines on the floor are the same, the hard concrete under her feet and even the recycled, slightly stale air.  It’s all the same.  Yet this isn’t her SGC. 

It took five jumps to find an SGC that was completely empty, nothing but a hollow frame.  It was a mutual, unstated agreement between them that the less people, the less questions.  But now she thinks it was really because neither of them could have handled seeing alternative versions of all the people they have so recently lost.

Ostensibly they are waiting for any sign of entropic cascade failure, but they’ve been here over two weeks already.  Even taking into account the possibility of distance as a factor, if there had been a Sam Carter or Jack O’Neill in this universe, they would know by now.  So she can’t say they are just being extra careful. 

She thinks this must be about an inability to accept what’s happened.

They failed.  She hadn’t been able to save Earth.  Almost everyone they ever knew is now nothing more than stellar dust.  There isn’t even anything left to fix.

She doesn’t even know for sure what made them step through the mirror in the first place.  She’d had it in her lab, searching for some way to follow through with Hammond’s oft repeated order to destroy it.  Like with most other projects, it fell to the wayside when word came that Anubis was on his way with complete annihilation on his mind rather than conquest.  He would not make the same mistake of his predecessors.  The Tau’ri would be obliterated, as they should have been millennia before.

The day Anubis finally came, digging through their meager defenses like they weren’t even there, Teal’c had been off world in some last ditch effort to get Jaffa ships and support.  She still doesn’t know where Jonas was, tries not to think too hard about it, just knows that the Colonel had run down to her lab to drag her out, to get her safely through the gate with the rest of the personnel. 

But then Anubis finally discovered the location of their secret installation.  There hadn’t been any time.  It was the Colonel who steered her towards the mirror with a gruff “Does this thing still work?”

They came through the other side just in time to feel the blunt edge of the concussive wave following after them, a flash of painful light before the surface calmly clicked forward to another reality and just like that theirs was gone.  Just like that they were stranded.  No hope of ever returning to a world that no longer exists.

She wonders if the Colonel really had any idea what he was choosing for them when he made that snap decision.  They haven’t spoken much since they settled on this reality.  Haven’t made any plans, discussed strategy, maybe because any idea of a future means accepting the past.

She wants to rage and weep and mourn, to give this loss the emotion it deserves, the things she never got the chance to do with Daniel’s death, but she’s stuck feeling like she’s holding her breath in this airless place, like she’s just waiting for something to happen.

Coming to a stop, she realizes her feet have brought her to one of the places she’s been consciously walking around since they got here.  It’s probably weird to be scared of a locker room, of what she may find in there, but she’s pretty sure the answers to the questions they haven’t been asking are in here.

Walking inside, she sees four familiar names ranged side by side on the far bank of lockers.  O’Neill, Carter, Teal’c…and at the very end, Jackson.

So she didn’t lose Daniel in this reality.  Not until the very end.  Somehow that matters.

Stepping across the room, Sam opens Daniel’s locker and there’s a scent there, something familiar emanating from the abandoned set of street clothes hanging on the hooks inside.    On a shelf rest a black toiletries bag, a spare pair of glasses, and a partially filled leather journal.  Sam lifts each one, holding them, feeling their weight before returning them back to their original position.

Teal’c’s locker is next.  He always keeps most of his things in his quarters on base, she knows.  But there are still touches here and there, postcards of various part of Earth pasted on the inside of the door.  She knows her Teal’c is still safe somewhere, just unreachable.  And these places…vistas that no longer exist.  Not for them.

Her own locker is painfully impersonal, nothing more than her choice of shampoo to speak to what kind of person she is.  No personal touches, no pictures, no knickknacks.  She imagines this small space as the last surviving evidence of everything she was, wonders what conclusions someone might draw about her.  She doesn’t like the picture it paints.  She wants to be more than a collection of uniforms.

She hesitates in front of the Colonel’s locker.  The man this locker belongs to is dead, but that doesn’t make it feel like any less of an intrusion.  In the end, curiosity wins out though, and she wrenches the door open before she can change her mind.

The cigar box she first saw back when the crystal entity had replaced the Colonel, it sits in the exact same spot.  She’s not sure what she wants to find in there.  Evidence that maybe the Colonel’s life in this reality took a much different path?  Photos of a smiling, grown up son?  A wife?  A family?  Would it be better or worse, to know that whatever happened here also destroyed a path the Colonel would probably do anything to get back?

She flips open the lid.  There’s a small folded piece of butcher paper with bright flowers haphazardly splashed across it.  A photo of the Colonel with Kawalsky and a few other men she doesn’t recognize.  A worn photograph of a young boy and his mother, but nothing more recent.

She feels awful and relieved, and shamed for her relief because what does it matter how this now dead Colonel may have lived?  What does it matter how similar he is to her own?  She shuffles the items back into the box, berating herself for being the worst kind of voyeur, for insinuating herself into his personal belongings simply because her own version of this man won’t talk to her.

Before she can snap the lid shut however, her own face catches her eye.  It’s a photograph of SG-1, all four of them together.  And looking at it, she remembers the day, the exact event it captures and she knows these people here can’t have been all that different after all.

The shot is candid and Sam guesses it must have been snapped during Cassie’s photographer phase.  It’s of the four of them leaning back against Janet’s counter, deep in discussion.  Daniel has his hands out, articulating his words while Teal’c looks on.

Sam is smiling, maybe at something Daniel has said, or maybe at something else entirely, because the Colonel is in the process of handing her something, their fingers touching.  It’s completely innocuous, nothing strange about the moment, but it still makes her face feel warm.  She feels strangely stripped naked looking at this photo because it seems so terribly obvious that even she can’t ignore it.

Putting the photo back in the box, she flips the lid shut, but something keeps her from replacing it in the locker.  Without any conscious decision, she grabs an empty pack from the bottom of the locker and starts shoving things inside.  Daniel’s journal, Teal’c’s postcards, even her shampoo.  They are all artifacts now, evidence that these people once breathed and lived and felt, and she can’t stand to think of them moldering away down here in this forgotten tomb.

Very last, she picks up the cigar box held together with rubber bands, tucks it up against her chest, and sets out to find the Colonel.  It doesn’t take long to find him in the gym two levels up.  He’s currently beating the crap out of a bag in bare feet, old faded BDU pants, and a black T-shirt.  He hasn’t shaved in a few days, the dark shadow along his jaw giving him a slightly disreputable air.

He’s well aware of her presence, even with his back turned to her.  She can tell by the way his shoulders tensed momentarily before slipping back into the rhythm of his routine.  She takes a seat by the door and waits for him to finish, the cigar box sitting on her lap.

After another ten minutes, he tugs off his gloves and downs half a bottle of water before walking over to where she’s sitting.

“Hey,” she says, trying to think of the last time they actually had a conversation.

His eyes latch onto the box on her lap.  “Where did you get that?”

“His locker,” she says.  “I know it’s not much, it’s not even technically yours, but I thought you might…want to keep it.”  She holds it out to him.

He takes it from her and she wonders if she’s imaging the way he’s careful not to touch her fingers.  Then he flips the box open and she knows which photo is still sitting on top.  She tries to read his reaction, to get something out of his expression, but she has no idea what’s real anymore and what’s conjecture.

“It turns out they weren’t all that different from us,” she observes, waiting for him to deny it, to claim he’s never seen the photo before and snap the lid back shut over the collection of memories.

“I guess so,” he says instead, pulling out the picture so they can both see it and she feels something building up in her chest.

She looks at Daniel and Teal’c, so happy and in the moment.  “I miss them.”

The Colonel surprises her yet again, lowering himself onto the chair next to her.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Me too.”

Sam closes her eyes and tries not to think what she would have been willing to do to hear him admit that even once after they lost Daniel.

“You know Teal’c is safe,” he says, maybe misinterpreting her reaction.  “And Daniel too, in his own way.”

“Yeah,” Sam says.  It makes this all easier to deal with, knowing that, even if the end result is the same: she won’t ever see either of them again.  And she knows there is one last question she has to ask.  “Do you know…did you see--.”

“Jonas got out with the second group.”

She lets out a long breath.  “Okay.”

The Colonel smiles slightly.  “I mean, he bitched and resisted and basically made a nuisance of himself, but he did make it off-world.  I made sure.”

She can picture it so easily that it brings a smile to her lips too.  She just hopes he doesn’t beat himself up over them for too long.  Teal’c won’t let him. 

“Carter,” the Colonel says, his hand coming to rest tentatively on her arm.

She stares down at the point of contact.  It’s all still burning inside of her: guilt, sadness, anger that she failed, but above it all the constant press of something else she’s been trying to ignore.  And she’s tired of carrying it, of suppressing it.

“Sometimes,” she confesses, “all I can feel is…relief.”

He shifts next to her, putting the box carefully on the floor.  “That you survived?”

Sam shakes her head.  “No.”  She’s not scared of death, has been prepared for that inevitability since she first started this job.  There are other, more insidious fears that linger to haunt her. 

Gathering her courage, she forces herself to look at him.  “I’m relieved that you’re here with me, Jack,” she says and she feels his fingers tighten on her arm.  “I don’t think I could have…”  She breaks off, looking down at her hands in her lap.

He shifts towards her, his knee bumping hers.  “Carter,” he says, taking both of her hands in his like it isn’t something new, something they’ve never let themselves do before.  “Why exactly do you think I refused to leave your lab that last day?”

She stares up at him and suddenly these long weeks of rattling around the insides of a dead SGC make sense.  This isn’t the Colonel refusing to accept and move on, this isn’t Daniel all over again.  This is Jack waiting for her.  Waiting for her to deal with this, to process, before they decide where to go from here. 

She’s tired of everything being about death.  They aren’t dead.  It’s time they started acting like it.

“We should move on,” she says.

“Through the gate?” he asks.

Yes, through the gate to get away from this dead place and find somewhere else to call home, some other life to live.  Maybe even find some meaning or purpose, but also…

Sam looks up at him, one of her hands lifting hesitantly to touch his face.  Leaning across the space between them, she kisses him.  He remains still under her tentative advance, his lips warm and exploratory in perfect match to hers, pleasant, but restrained, and she thinks he must still be giving her time to decide, to work this all out. 

“Jack,” she says against his lips, pulling back just far enough to see his face.  Tracing a finger along his jaw, she lets everything she’s been fighting against rise to the surface, her raw relief that she hadn’t lost him, how much she needs him.  She doesn’t need time, not any more.  Her decision is already made.  “I don’t want to be a ghost.”

And maybe that’s what he’s been waiting to hear, because he breathes her name as pulls her closer, nothing of restraint left in the way he kisses her this time.  It’s dizzying and endlessly beyond pleasant and doing this, being here with him like this is nothing like she ever imagined, no longer some distant, far off what-if.  His scruff is rough against her face, his skin still slick from exercise, but she couldn’t care less because it’s all just evidence that’s he’s alive and here, solid and warm flesh in comparison to the ghosts she’s been living with. 

It should feel wrong to finally get this only at the price of everything else.  But maybe that’s the way it was always going to be.

And here, at the end of all things, they still have each other.

It’s a beginning.

Ain’t no use, darlin’, fighting against the tide…

Sam is cooking.

Sure, there’s that persistent rumor that she couldn’t cook her way out of a microwave, but it’s never really been a lack of ability so much as a lack of time or occasion.  But this weekend has afforded both, so here she is, up to her elbows in the makings of a fairly extravagant dinner party.  Take that, rumor mill.

“I’m not gonna lie,” Jack says as he watches her chop vegetables from the doorway, “there is something really hot about this.”  Then he gives her a look like he’s imagining her cooking in nothing but a frilly apron.

“Don’t get any funny ideas,” Sam says, throwing a carrot at him.  “This is a special occasion.  I’m not about to turn into some Betty Crocker.”

Jack smirks, crossing the kitchen to stand behind her.  “Yeah, well, seeing as how I doubt Betty Crocker can strip down a naquadah reactor or kill a man at twenty paces with a carrot, I’m very happy to hear it.”

Sam snickers.  “How very fortunate for you that you met me then.”

“You have no idea,” he says, leaning down to kiss her neck and very effectively distracting her from the extremely tight timeline she’s trying to keep to.

“You know I have a knife, right?” she asks, but she thinks the threat probably loses something in the embarrassingly breathy quality of her voice.

“Oh, of that I am well aware,” he says, his hands sliding around her waist. 

Sam is saved by the doorbell, or at least the meal is, because despite herself she’s a little disappointed by the untimely arrival of their guests.

“Quick,” Jack whispers against her neck, “tell me again about there being dozens of Carters at the SGC all at once, only slower this time.  And don’t leave out any details.”

Sam tries to ignore the gooseflesh he’s managed to raise on her skin, giving him a playful elbow to the ribs.

“Oof,” he says in mock-protest, reaching around her to steal another vegetable.
“Go make yourself useful and answer the door,” she says as the bell rings again.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, disappearing out into the hall.

A few moments later the sound of boisterous greetings filters back into the kitchen.  Teal’c reaches the kitchen first, appearing by her elbow and putting a bottle of wine on the counter.  Sam flashes him a smile.  She knows better than to trust the wine to any of the other guys.

“Thanks, Teal’c,” she says.

“Are you sure we can’t help, Sam?” Daniel asks, poking his head into the kitchen and looking at little in awe of the collection of things roasting and boiling.  Sam considers saying yes just to see the resultant panic on his face.

Jack walks in with Cam right on his heels.  “Don’t bother.  I tried to offer earlier and almost got my hand chopped off for my trouble.  Let me get you guys some drinks.”

“Don’t worry,” Sam says, waving an oven mitt covered hand at the lot of them.  “I have every intention of letting you guys do all the dishes.”

Cam dubiously eyes the rather impressive pile of things in the sink.  “Uh, lucky us?”

Drinks in hand, the four men retreat out into the adjoining dining room while Sam slides the last dish into the oven.

“So, Carter’s been filling me in on the excitement this week,” Jack says.  “Thirty-one different SG-1 teams, huh?”

“Yeah,” Daniel says.  “And of course it was the SG-1 dressed in black that turned out to be evil.”

“Such a cliché,” Jack says with disapproval.

“I wouldn’t exactly call them evil,” Sam interjects.  It certainly hadn’t been comfortable to see such incarnations of themselves, but she isn’t self-deluded enough to judge them.  Not with everything she’s seen.  And done.  “More like desperate.”

“You’re being a lot more forgiving than most would be, Sam,” Cam observes.

She shrugs.  “Well, let’s just say this isn’t my first barbeque,” she remarks and Jack shoots her a smile.  He understands more than most, she imagines.

“So,” Jack says, stepping in to redirect the conversation, “with all these SG-1s, there had to be at least a few versions of me around, right?”

“Actually, not really, sir,” Cam says, looking apologetic.  “There were only three.”

Jack looks a little offended and Sam knows he’s probably trying to decide if that means he was dead in those realities or just too old for gate travel.  She’s pretty sure neither was true, but to be honest, she hadn’t asked.  This is the only reality that matters, the others are just trouble she doesn’t need to borrow.

“So no original SG-1s still rattling around the universe?” Jack asks.  “That’s just depressing.”

“Only one team had all four of us,” Daniel says.  “And something tells me you, I mean he, wasn’t actually part of the team.”

Jack frowns.  “Why not?”

“Well, first of all, he was a general.”

“And second?”

“He was married to Colonel Carter,” Teal’c supplies.

Daniel tries not to look like he’s smirking into his glass.  “What is that now?” he asks.  “Three for three?”

“It does seem to be a statistically prominent arrangement,” Teal’c observes.  Sam just manages to catch the wry twitch of his lips that tells her he is immensely enjoying mocking them. 

“Tell me about it,” Cam says only to flinch a moment later as Daniel apparently treads heavily on his foot.  “What?” Cam demands of Daniel, only to follow his line of sight across the table to find Jack watching both of them closely.

“Am I missing something?” Jack asks.

“Nothing important, sir,” Cam says, trying to backtrack.  Daniel seems to sense it’s a lost cause because he shifts his chair away from Cam as if to distance himself from any blame.  Nice try, Daniel.   Now Jack is staring suspiciously at both of them, leveling them with the look that has quelled many a lesser soul. 

As much as Sam is enjoying watching the standoff, she decides to clue Jack in.  “They have a pool going,” she says.  “Cam was in charge of data collection.”

Jack swivels in his chair to look at Sam, probably surprised that she hadn’t mentioned this before.  “Dare I ask what they are betting on?”

“Oh, the usual,” Sam says with a wave of a spatula. “Our love lives.”

Both Daniel and Cam look surprised, well, more like horrified, but Teal’c just smirks.  “Did you really believe Colonel Carter was unaware of your activities?”

“But she didn’t say anything,” Cam protests.

Daniel takes a deep swig from his glass, looking resigned to his fate.  “That probably just means she’s already planning our downfall.”

Sam walks over to stand by Jack, leaning her hip against the back of his chair and crossing her arms over her chest.  “He’s smarter than he looks, isn’t he?”

Jack snorts.  “Still dumb enough to put money down on it in the first place though.”


Jack gives her a long look and she can tell he’s trying to figure out if she’s really as blasé about all of this as she seems.  As nice as it is to know that’s he’s ready to bang some heads together on her behalf, she’s already got it well in hand.  He must see the evil glint in her eye because he smirks then, turning back to Cam and Daniel.

“So,” he says.  “What’s the final tally?”

“Jack,” Sam protests.  She may be amused, but there is no need to encourage them, for God’s sake.

“What?” Jack says, his eyes wide with feigned innocence.  “A guy can’t be curious?”

Cam still looks uncertain, but Daniel just gestures for him to get it over with.  “This is the part where you humor him or end up with laxatives in your coffee supply.”

Cam winces, reaching at once for a small notebook in his back pocket.  “Uh, sixteen of twenty-six Sams admitted to being involved with the general, but only eleven of them were married, or engaged.”

“Not bad,” Jack says, looking insufferably smug.

“What I’d like to know is who won the pool,” Sam says.  She’s been keeping a particularly special punishment in reserve for the winner.

Cam looks like he’s considering protecting the identity of the winner for a moment, but Sam narrows her eyes at him and he wisely reconsiders.  “Well, with the final count at eleven the pot goes to…Harriman.”

Why isn’t Sam surprised?

“How much is in the pot?” Jack asks, his tone a bit too casual, and Sam knows a plan is already growing in that scary mind of his.

Cam glances at Daniel again and he nods wearily.


Jack’s mouth falls open.  “As in dollars?”


Jack and Sam look at each other.  He quirks an eyebrow at her in question and she shrugs one shoulder in response.  Why not?  Jack gives her a slow grin.  “Did anyone pick twelve?”

“What?” Cam asks, still looking thrown by the abrupt turn this has all taken.  He glances at the page again.  “No.  No one took twelve.”

“Well then.”  Jack pulls out his wallet and slaps a twenty-dollar bill on the table.  “Count me in for twelve.”

Cam just looks confused, but Daniel’s face is an amusing display of dawning realization.  “Are you serious?” he asks, looking back and forth between them.

Jack smiles at Sam.  “Who are we to fight fate?”

Daniel actually looks pained.  “Please tell me you did not just propose to Sam in order to win eight-hundred dollars.”

The funny part is that none of them would put it past him.

Sam takes mercy on Daniel though, lifting her hand to give him a clear view of the engagement ring on her finger, finally revealing the point of tonight’s little celebration.  “He’s not quite that hopeless, Daniel.”

There’s another long moment of silence before everyone is on their feet and Sam is enveloped in hugs. 

“Wow, congratulations, Sam!” Cam says.

Next to her, Teal’c solidly thumps Jack on the back while Jack tries to pretend it doesn’t hurt.  “I wish you both much marital felicity,” Teal’c says, leaning over to hug Sam and she’s just thankful to miss out on the physical violence part of the celebration.

Jack and Cam are now shaking hands.  “Got the cash on you, Mitchell?  Because I think that’s the foundation of a kick ass bachelor’s party.  If only some of those Carters could have been convinced to stay for a little while,” he adds wistfully.

Sam snorts.  “Keep dreaming, flyboy.”

He shoots her his most pathetic expression.  “Not even for a wedding gift?”

Sam shakes her head.  “I take it back, Daniel.  He is that hopeless.”

Daniel loops his arm across her shoulders.  “My question is, did anyone tell Jack about the Sam on Janet’s team?”

Sam smiles up at him.  “Yeah, about that….”