The skin around her leg is still red and angry, knitted together with the best stitches and medical attention the US military can buy. A butterfly bandage keeps the gash above her eyebrow together and the smattering of scratches, bruises, and scrapes along her legs, hands, and forearms are in the last stages of healing.
Evidence that just a week and some days ago she was closing her eyes, exhausted and defeated, ready to welcome death at the hands of an unbeatable super soldier were fading away, healing.
But there was still that itch beneath her skin, the one telling her to run, that she wasn’t safe. So she worked herself to exhaustion, laying up in her lab and ignoring the constant stream of noise emanating from her phone. Each chirp and trill a reminder that Peter was looking for her.
Pete didn’t make her feel safe, though. The thought twisted her stomach, compounded her guilt and conflicted feelings. It made it too easy to slip the ring from her finger and tuck it in the back of a drawer, out of sight and out of mind.
It was one less weight to carry around.
But someone on base blabbed about her extended hours and the cot with the makeshift blanket that she had rolled into the corner of the lab.
(Sam had a pretty good idea of who it was. The same person whose eyes had tracked her the entire time she’d been in the infirmary, unwilling to let her out of his sight. The same person who passed by her doorway every hour to check on her. The same person who made her feel safe, who made her feel like she could breathe.)
Hammond issued the order banning her from the mountain, insisting she not return for at least seventy-two hours.
“Think you can manage that, Major?”
She’d ducked her head, chagrined. “Yes, sir.”
Before she slipped by him, Hammond stopped her with a gentle, fatherly hand on her shoulder. “And Sam?”
That caught her attention. The General rarely used first names.
He hesitated, as if unsure if his words would be welcome. “If you need someone to talk to about what happened—“
“I’m fine, sir.” Even to her ears, the words were stiff and wooden. She winced and looked down to collect herself before meeting her mentor’s gaze. “Okay, I’m not fine exactly. But I will be.”
Hammond nodded. “I know you will, Sam.” He jerks his head towards the door and gives her an indulgent smile. “Now get out of my sight, Major. I don’t want to see you til Monday morning.”
Sam manages to limp her way out of the mountain and absolutely does not glance at the corner by the security gate at the base entrance where she knows he’s watching, making sure she follows orders and drives away safely.
Instead, she juts her chin a little higher and breathes through the pain as she walks more evenly, determined to show him that she’s fine.
She thinks she hears a low, warm laugh from the shadows where he stands.
Once in the car, though, away from his scrutiny, she lets out a whimper, grits her teeth against the pain. She thought she was long over this—this need to prove herself to him, to get his approval.
Her phone chirps, alerting her that she has a new message. It sets her teeth on edge and she’s ready to tell Pete she’s fine and she just needs space before flinging the damn thing out the window when she sees that it’s not a message from Pete at all.
It’s from the Colonel.
Hands trembling, she cradles the phone in her hand and opens the message.
You’re too damn stubborn for your own good, Carter. Call me if you need me.
There had only been a handful of texts exchanged between them since she announced her engagement to Pete. She knows if she scrolls up, she’ll see the back-and-forth teasing of only a few months ago, rapid-fire messages full of tease and flirtation. There were messages where he’d grumbled at her use of emojis (Jesus, Carter, the hell are those things?) and her teasing response (Get with the times, old man).
(She still remembered the way she’d laughed when he’d given up texting her and simply called her, greeting her with a faux-outraged drawl of, “Who you callin’ old man?)
But those days of easy banter were gone, strained beneath too many missed opportunities and the ring on her finger.
A ring that was starting to feel as suffocating and threatening as the super soldier she’d just barely outrun.
Brushing her thumb over the message illuminated on her phone screen, she typed out a quick response of Yes, sir before throwing her car into reverse and heading home, ignoring the sinking, panicky feeling taking root as she drove away from the one place she’d felt safe.
The decision to pop another dose of painkillers and chase it down with her first beer of the evening is an ill-thought out decision. But everything goes pleasantly fuzzy and warm and for the first time since her return, she feels good.
Pete calls—again—and she can’t ignore him any longer.
“Sam, babe, I just want to be there for you. You don’t sound like yourself. Colonel O’Neill only told me you’d been through a rough time and—“
“What were you doing calling the Colonel?,” she snaps, irritation creeping beneath her skin. Pete was always pushing further than she was willing to allow him, making demands of her.
“Well you weren’t picking up, Sam! I was worried!”
“You should have trusted me to call you when I was ready to talk to you,” she reprimands him, disliking the way he made it sound like it was Sam’s fault for him violating her privacy. The combination of painkillers and alcohol had her head buzzing and she let her mouth run away with her. “Pete, I-I need some time to think about everything. I’ll call you next week, but I think we need to talk.”
“What are you saying?”
She sighed, thumb rubbing over the bare skin of her ring finger. His engagement ring was still tucked into the back of her desk at the SGC. “I’m saying I need to think,” she said softly, already knowing there was no point in taking any more time to think.
All she did was think. Thinking hadn’t done her and the Colonel any good and it wasn’t thinking that saved her back on that planet. It was action and her gut that had given her the most hope.
Pete had gone quiet on the other end of the phone, finally sighing heavily. “Okay, Sam. Take time to think. But I’ll be here. Just call me if you need me.”
Sam had hung up then, his words making her think of the Colonel’s message. And one thing is absolutely crystal clear: she knows for a fact that if she decides she needs someone tonight, it will not be Pete that she calls.
She’s four beers deep when she gets that heart-pounding, adrenaline rush of fear, that sensation that she needs to move, to run; that if she stays still one more moment, it’ll be the end.
For a moment, she considers sneaking back on base. The guards know her well enough, like her well enough, to look the other way when she stays long past when the Colonel tells her to go home. But she’d been sent home by way of the General—the SFs may be less willing to look the other way.
If she’s being honest with herself—and maybe it’s been too long since she’d done that—it’s not the base she wants, it’s not the base that makes her feel settled and safe.
When she thinks about who she wants around her, right now, it’s him.
Jack, with his easy smile and those damn expressive eyes and the way he doesn’t handle her—just lets her be, lets her come to him when she’s ready, is just there in his steady way.
The message he’d sent her earlier flashes across her mind and before she knows what she’s doing, before she can second guess herself or talk herself out of why she shouldn’t, her phone is in her hand, thumb bypassing Pete’s name in favor of Jack’s, the sound of the phone dial in her ear.
There’s only the barest brush of a thought resembling panic about overstepping their boundaries before his voice is in her ear, gruff and only a little surprised.
For a second, she contemplates lying to him: she hadn’t meant to call him, she’s fine, see you Monday, sir. But she’s so goddamn tired.
And she wants.
There’s a sharp inhale followed by a low, slow exhale on his end. She bites her lip, uses the corner of her thumbnail to pluck at the edge of the peeling label wrapped around her beer bottle, wonders if this is where he tells her to sleep it off, to call her fiancé.
And then there’s a soft, “Yeah, Carter. Be right there.”
For the first time in a long time, she breathes.
When he shows up, she’s feeling loose and dangerous. There are only a few words of greeting exchanged when he steps inside and hangs his jacket next to hers. The air feels thick and she struggles to catch her breath, heart pounding for entirely new reasons.
(She swallows hard at the sight of his clothes next to hers, his shoes slipped off and stacked neatly beside hers. It looks right—feels right.)
He quirks an eyebrow at her flushed cheeks and wide pupils and follows her into the kitchen, accepting her offer of a beer. “Better catch up, I guess.”
And then she’s momentarily mesmerized as she watches his throat move as he chugs his beer in deep swallows. Her stomach clenches in want as she envisions walking him back and pressing him against her refrigerator door and latching her mouth against his neck and dipping her tongue into the hollow of his throat and rolling her hips against his and grasping his hands and putting them exactly where she wants him, thinks about the sweet, salty sharp metallic tang of the cheap beer on his tongue, imagines his teeth grazing over her jaw and—
“Carter? Earth to Carter.”
She snaps out of it and reaches forward and takes his almost empty beer from him and polishes it off, letting her tongue slip out and lick at the rim of the bottle that was just in his mouth.
Yeah, tonight feels dangerous.
His eyes don’t stray from hers and instead go dark and she likes that, likes it a lot.
“That kind of night, huh?”
She pulls the bottle from her mouth and nods.
“Yeah. That kind of night.”
The Colonel—no, not the Colonel, not tonight. Jack settles against the counter, hands buried in his jeans pockets, watching her, waiting for her.
Except now that she has him here, she’s not quite sure what to do. In a thousand different fantasies she’d had that started out just like this, he’d crushed his mouth to hers, murmured something along the lines of screw regulations, and carried her off to the nearest horizontal surface.
But she’s got a leg she can barely stand on, a system full of narcotics and alcohol, and a fiancé standing between them.
So she limps her way to the fridge, pulls another bottle from the bottom drawer, and leans against the opposite counter from him.
He opens his mouth, shutting it quickly, and Sam just knows he was going to tell her to take a seat, that shouldn’t be standing. But he didn’t. He let her make that decision on her own.
“You sent me away,” she accuses. The words hang in the kitchen for a moment and she sees him swallow down a response, shoulders pulling back as he stands at attention.
She realizes how her words could be construed—sending her away from the base, sending her away from the possibility of them.
Jack nods. “I did.”
He shrugs and she finds the gesture more infuriating than endearing. “You weren’t leaving on your own.”
“And you didn’t think I could make the right decision for myself on where I needed to be?” She bites down the sir that her brain wants to habitually add to the end of her statement and it feels good to drop the pretense of ranks between them.
He snorted. “I know you’re more than capable of making your own decisions, Sam,” he rebukes, voice uncharacteristically sharp and eyes darkening. It sounded like he was speaking in double-speak and she was so tired of reading between the lines, of deciphering what he was actually trying to say.
“Can we just—just for tonight say what we mean?” He looked surprised, shoulders hunching in. She was crossing every boundary they’d ever established between them. But then, so was he, by showing up here tonight.
She added in a soft voice, “Please, Jack.”
His head snapped up at the sound of his name on her lips and heat flared low in her stomach. “Okay,” he concedes. He tilts his head, considers her. “Why did you call me tonight?”
“You told me I should.”
“I did.” Jack steps forward, takes the beer from her hands and places it on the counter behind her, his fingers brushing over hers. He’s close—closer than he’d been to her in years. “You’re not wearing your ring.”
She looked down where his thumb was hovering over her bare finger.
“And you called me tonight.”
“Yes,” she whispered, swaying forward toward him, wondering if she could get away with pressing her palms to his chest, suddenly overcome with the need to touch him and feel his heart pounding beneath her hands.
“What is it that you want, Sam?”
She forced herself to lift her head and meet his gaze, startled to find his head tilted down towards hers, his hand heavy and secure on her hip. There was something to be said for repression and pining because just the feel of his hand against her hip was enough to have her heart racing and her mouth dry.
“All I wanted on the Alpha Site was to stop running,” she said softly, leaning against him. The throbbing pain in her leg gave way to relief as she rested some of her weight against him, let him hold her up. As he had always done. She felt his lips brush the top of her head and wondered if he needed this as badly as she did, if he was tired of running, too.
“I’m back home,” she continued, “But I still feel like I need to run.”
“That’s normal, Carter, you know that. You went through a lot back there and—“
She pulled back from their faux-embrace, shaking her head. “It’s not that, Jack.” His hand tightened on her hip at the sound of his name and she just barely managed to bite back a pleased grin. Letting the last remnants of painkillers and alcohol fuel her, drawing on her reserves of Air Force bravery, she managed to finally tell him the black and white truth.
“I think the reason I feel like I’m still running, even here, is because I have been running. From—from you. From this.”
She slid her hands up over his chest, almost sighing in relief when she felt his heart pounding beneath her palms. Jack groaned at the sensation, the hand on her hip tugging and pulling her closer to him, taking almost all her weight against his chest, holding her up.
He was solid and real and warm beneath her hands, his head falling to the juncture of her neck and shoulder, just breathing her in desperately. She didn’t know how she ever could have convinced herself she could settle for Pete when this man was beside her every day, loving her.
She pulled away, a trembling hand reaching to cup his face gently, her thumb stroking the scruff of his cheek. “I don’t want to run anymore, Jack.”
He sighed, turning his face into her hand, lips barely brushing a kiss to her palm. “Sam, the reasons we locked this up before are still very real. Our ranks, our—“
But Sam was done with reasons to deny herself. Maybe it had taken facing death to shake her awake from the stupor of the settled life she’d found herself in, but she was done.
“If you don’t feel the same way about me as you used to—“
Jack tilted her chin up with his thumb, stopping that line of thought. “That hasn’t changed. Not ever.”
She stopped breathing, exhaling a soft, “Oh.” And then, almost inaudibly. “Me neither. Not ever. Not even when I should.”
He looked pained at that and she didn’t want to see that expression on his face, not when she knew now that he still loved her, not when she could do something about it.
Slipping her hands around his shoulders, fingers threading into the soft graying hair at the nape of his neck, she tugged his mouth down to hers, breathing through the surge of pain she felt as she pushed herself up the last few inches to close the gap between them.
His mouth on hers was warm and searching, like he was holding himself back, like he couldn’t believe this was happening. And then she tightened her hold on his hair, licked gently at the seam of his mouth, and he came alive, pulling her against his chest roughly, arms going around her waist and holding her steady even as her knees buckled.
Against her, he was hot and needy and demanding, tongue brushing over hers like he’d imagined doing it a thousand and one times, thick fingers pushing at the hem of her shirt to settle against the bare skin of her back.
She clung to him, whimpering as his teeth grazed a cut along her bottom lip. The sound of her pain brought him back to himself and he eased back, lips softening into something tender and careful.
His lips brushed along the butterfly bandage of her eyebrow, as if he could literally kiss everything better.
“I thought I’d lost you,” he murmured against her hairline, nose nuzzling into the softness of her hair. She didn’t know if he meant her encounter with the Super Soldier, the years between them and her engagement to Pete, or both.
She pressed herself against him harder, winding her arms around him and holding them close. “No,” she whispered, lips pressing against the thin material of his shirt right above his heart. “You didn’t lose me.”
Suddenly, she felt bone weary and exhausted, not unlike those final moments on the Alpha Site. Once more, she relied upon Jack O’Neill to carry her to safety.
Jack looked uncertain, fingers brushing over the curve of her jaw and pushing her hair back from her face. “Sam…”
She hurried to continue. “I’m not up for anything more physical than this.” Her cheeks burned and she was delighted to see the tips of his ears turn pink, too. “But I want you to stay.”
It took more energy than she had to explain about the nightmares, to explain that being near him and thinking of him made her feel safe. But she didn’t need to explain.
He already knew.
Jack nodded, leaning down to kiss her softly once more, reassuring them both that the last ten minutes were, in fact, real. “Can you make it up to bed okay or we crashing on the couch?”
Her entire body warmed with such a simple statement: his casual use of we and his unfussy approach to caring for her, trusting her to tell him what she could and couldn’t handle.
She let her hands trail over his chest, enjoying the way he shuddered beneath her touch. “I can make it upstairs.”
He nodded, pressed a kiss to her forehead, and stepped back. “Go on and get a head start, soldier,” he grinned softly. “I’ll lock up down here.”
Sam watched him begin clearing the empty glass beer bottles and cans from the countertop, flipping the lights off, checking the back door lock. He looked settled, he looked right, in her home, moving about like he belonged.
A few minutes later, as she felt the mattress behind her dip as Jack settled himself alongside her, a tentative arm snaking around her waist and holding her, Sam realized for the first time since the Alpha Site, she could breathe.
For the first time, the itch beneath her skin dwindled into a pleasant, satisfied hum.
She was done running.