by nanda (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I am eighteen when my mother dies. It's two months short of my high school graduation. I have taken my SATs, applied to MIT and CalTech and a bunch of backups, and argued over and over with her about what I'm going to do with my life. And suddenly, one day, she's gone.
It's ironic. Not English-teacher ironic. Alanis Morissette ironic. She hasn't been offworld very often, and they -- they do it practically every day and keep coming back. Even Daniel: gone for a year, now back as if nothing had happened. (I never did ask what had happened. My mom and I weren't on the best of terms at the time.)
They just keep coming back. But my mother, my second mother -- on the day the SGC's offworld base happened to be found and destroyed by the Goa'uld, she was there. And they weren't.
But this is no big deal, right?
I mean, I lost a whole planet once.
I move in with Sam to finish high school, and she tries -- but fails, pretty spectacularly -- to spend more time at home while I'm there. I don't blame her, for the trying or the failing. Sam loves me, I know that. And she's worried about me. And I owe her . something, I'm not sure what. But I also know that for her, the work has to come first. It always has.
So I finish school, get acceptance letters from five of the six colleges I'd applied to, spend time with the boyfriend of the moment, get a summer job, drive there with my mother's car every day. Do all the things I'm supposed to do, just like I always have.
Until the one day I just . don't.
Sam gets home late, as always. She's tired and I know this is not the best time for this conversation. But I also know that one of the things I owe her is honesty. It has something to do with that day in the missile silo, years and years ago. So long ago that sometimes I'm not sure it really happened.
"Hey," she says, genuinely happy to see me. "You're home early."
"I didn't go out with Kyle." Actually I kind of broke up with Kyle, but that's not the point.
"You feeling okay?"
She gives me one of her big smiles as she sits at the island in the kitchen, to read the mail.
"Do you want me to make you some coffee?" I ask her.
"God, no. I've had too much already. Thank you, though."
I lean against the counter, standing across from her while she sorts the envelopes and circulars into neat little piles.
"I'm not going to start at MIT."
She looks up at me, confused. "Did you decide on one of the other schools after all? I'm not sure what the rules are, but I'm sure we can --"
"No," I say. "I'm not going to college. Not now. I'll go later. Right now I want to . see things. See this planet."
"Cassie, are you sure that's --"
"I'm not asking your permission, Sam." I try to say it kindly.
She puts down the mail, nods, and reaches across the counter to squeeze my hand. And I almost think she understands, almost think that some small part of her would really, really like to chuck it all and just run, too. Though Sam wouldn't run, exactly. Sam doesn't need to go anywhere to chase her demons; she chases them here every day, in her almost empty house. Don't ask me how I know that. I just do.
But I also know that all of the college applications, all of the discussions about whether I'd choose to be a doctor or an astrophysicist, none of that was for me, not really. Not that my mom and Sam didn't want what was best for me; they just expected me to do certain things. And without a tether, I don't feel too attached to their rules anymore.
This is also ironic, because since leaving Hanka I've been surrounded by people who think about the rules before they even get out of bed in the morning.
"I'll be okay," I say. "I can take care of myself."
"I know you can," she says, and I don't understand why it sounds so sad.
And so my graduation gift magically triples. I don't ask for an explanation, but I'm sure the others contributed. There's money from selling my mother's house, too -- I don't know much about that, it's Sam's thing, but she tells me, quietly, that I've got nothing to worry about, and college will be covered when I'm ready. So I've got a full bank account and a passport (I don't know where that came from, I don't even know how they got me a birth certificate), a big green Air Force castoff pack and orders (orders) to call as often as I can.
They take me out to dinner, on my last night in Colorado Springs. The four of them, in various states of disapproval and concern and cheer. But Sam's told them to be encouraging, I can tell. So Jack says pretty much nothing all night, Teal'c puts in a request for souvenirs ("I have found that the Tau'ri have a strange fascination with key chains"), and Daniel single-handedly keeps up the conversation by telling me about all the spectacular archaeological sites I have to see.
I don't let them say goodbye. Not any of them. But Jack finally gets in the last word, just before I leave the restaurant with Sam.
"Cassie," he says without looking at me, "you remember you have to be really careful what you say to people, right?"
Sam and Daniel share a smile at that, his clumsy way of telling me to take care of myself.
"I know, Jack," I say.
No big deal. I lost a whole planet once.
I've told Sam I'll defer my college admission: one year. No big deal. I start in Europe, because they tell me that'll be easier, and because I took French in school. I was good at French.
I live cheaply, travel cheaply. It's very easy to travel with little money when you don't mind staying in the worst hotels and eating street food. When the cash runs low, I work illegally for a few months. I get very good at waitressing.
There are men, here and there, for a while.
And one year turns into two, two years into four and then five. I work as an au pair in Normandy for almost a year; I wait tables in Prague and in Perth; I volunteer for a dig in Belize thanks to a recommendation from Daniel, and live in a dormitory with undergrad anthropology majors who ask each other why the hell I'm there. I go to Egypt and wonder where, exactly, they found the Stargate (Giza, it turns out, is pretty big) but I don't call home to ask.
Northern Europe, Japan, and Australia are too expensive to spend much time in. I don't want to have to ask Sam for the extra money, don't want to have to depend on anybody but me. So I don't. Instead I spend a lot of time in India and Southeast Asia, where my American bank account stretches the furthest. The last place I settle in is Phnom Penh. It's dirt cheap, I can live by teaching English without a certification or a degree, and, well, there's a guy, an Australian aid worker. For a while.
It's kind of funny (definitely not funny ha-ha) to see all the people on this planet -- well, some of the people on this planet -- who don't even know who the Goa'uld are. They don't know there's a threat, don't know about parasites with god complexes, or galactic warfare, or even that wormholes really exist, let alone that they can be created by a giant glowing ring. I feel very different from them, but I envy them, too. They don't know; they just *live*. So that's what I do, too.
I send Teal'c a lot of keychains and call Sam once a month, like clockwork. It's how she likes it.
On the day it all changes the voice on the other end of the line is strange, and male. I've been traveling in Laos (taking a break from the guy in Phnom Penh) and I wonder if the telephone system in Vientiane is perhaps not very accurate. I'm pretty sure I dialed right; I've done it a thousand times, god knows.
"Um. Hi. This is Cassandra Fraiser. I was looking for Sam Carter?"
"Cassandra?" The voice is sad but a little bit relieved. "It's Jacob Carter." Jacob, right. Sam's dad. Met him maybe three times, ages ago. "God, where are you?"
Something's wrong. What could be that wrong? "General Carter. Hi. Is . is Sam okay?"
There's a long silence. "I think you'd better come home."
Oh my God. "She's dead," I say. I just know.
Another silence. "I'm sorry to have to tell you on the phone. And Cassie ... Daniel's gone, too. It was almost three weeks ago. We tried to reach you. I'm sorry."
Oh my god.
I never, ever thought their luck would run out. I guess it just did.
And then . oh, no. "Jack?" I ask weakly.
"Probably still drunk off his ass." It's not disapproval, or despair. More like plain, simple sadness. And pity.
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
The porch light isn't on but I wave the cab away anyway, before I ring the bell. Colorado in October is awfully cold after where I've been, and I'm wearing just a sarong and a t-shirt because that's mostly what my wardrobe consists of these days. There's a fleece buried somewhere in my bag but I forgot to pull it out and there's no point now.
As I wrap my arms around myself I hear angry grumbling from inside, then heavy footfalls. Finally the door swings open into a weird half-light, and Jack -- unshaven, half awake, but still Jack -- stands in the middle of it.
He blinks, stares for about two seconds, and pulls me into a too-tight hug. He smells of bourbon and it's weeks since I've hugged anybody. Even before I left our apartment in Phnom Penh there was a long time (too long) of mostly pretending to ignore each other.
"Cassie, thank god," he says into my hair, which, by the way, is blond now. "We didn't know where you were. We tried the last number she had" -- he carefully avoids saying her name -- "but the guy that answered said he didn't know how to reach you."
Yeah. That was intentional.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Jack."
"I'm glad you're here," he says, and I think I have some idea how hard it is for him to admit that. "I'm so glad you came."
I want to cry. I won't. I don't cry.
He pulls back, holds my face between his hands and stares some more. "You're blond."
"Drinking," he says. "Not drunk. Come on inside." He picks up my backpack from where I'd dropped it on the steps -- it's the same old USAF-issue one I started out with, many times mended by now -- and closes the door behind me. He also grabs a sweatshirt from a hook behind the door and tosses it to me without a word of explanation. It's about as old as I am and many sizes too big.
"Where were you, anyway?" he asks while I try to find the armholes. "Last I heard it was Cambodia."
I manage to pull it over my head so I can look at him. "Yes. For a while. But then I was in Laos, when I finally talked to the general."
"Carter. He didn't tell you?"
Something flashes in his eyes. "No. We haven't exactly been ... but I guess you had to have talked to somebody or you wouldn't have known to come, huh? Didn't think about that."
He leads me down into his living room, which is just as spotless as I remember, and silently offers me a drink by lifting the bottle. It's only after I nod my head in agreement that I realise how strange it is that I'm legally old enough to drink with Jack, and that he knows it. Doesn't even question it, or joke about it. Strange.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here for the funeral." Or should that be "funerals"? I really don't know.
"What? Oh, we just had a memorial service in the gate room. We lost other SGC personnel on the same mission -- there was nothing to bury."
Oh, god. He holds out a full shot glass, pretending that what he just said is nothing. No bodies. God. I shiver. At least with my mom -- my second mom -- we had something to put in the ground.
"Teal'c and Jonas came," he says. "They asked about you."
I can't talk about that anymore. "Are you on leave?"
"Nope. I'm done. Finished. Finito. Ex-military. It was way past time."
"Retired. Full pension." He tries for pride and his usual sarcasm, but it doesn't come out right. There's something layered underneath it, something I can't quite identify though I think I might be able to guess.
We sit opposite each other, distant now to make up for the display of affection in the doorway, and he looks at me over his shot glass. "You gonna stick around for a while?"
"I don't know." The truth is that I don't have much of a choice -- the plane ticket has wiped out most of my savings, and I've trained myself not to think of whatever money Sam had put aside for me, especially now.
"You can stay as long as you want."
"I don't want to put you out. I can stay at Sam's."
He shakes his head and sips his drink. "No, you can't. Jake's been clearing it out. I doubt there's much left. He might have found some stuff you'll want, though."
"Oh. Yeah. Of course. Wait. What about Daniel's place?"
"I told you, I've got a spare room with your name on it right down the hall."
"No. I meant -- who's going through all of his things?"
He waves the hand that isn't holding his glass. "Oh, I took care of the personal stuff. Let the SFs deal with the rest. So. You'll stay?"
I smile at him and drink. It's really good bourbon; I learned how to tell in one of my waitressing jobs. But I'm thinking of Sam, of my last conversation with Sam. Something in her voice just said, "Come home, Cassie. Please come home." Only Sam would never have asked, no matter how much she wanted to, and I wouldn't have come unless she asked straight out.
I think that the military makes you really good at taking your chips, at not asking for the things you want or mourning the things you can't have. And that makes me sad.
"Of course I'll stay," I say.
I wonder how long it's been since anybody else was here -- since he even talked to anybody else. I know from Sam -- over the years -- that Teal'c left the SGC a couple years ago to lead the rebel Jaffa; that was not long after Bra'tac died. Jack's ex-wife is remarried now. Jonas (whom I never really knew and Jack always claimed not to like anyway) has risen up in political circles on Kelowna. Sam and Daniel and my mom are gone, and there's obviously something weird between Jack and Jacob Carter.
"Maybe I can kick your ass at chess a few times," he says.
Jack's got Daniel's car; he says he hasn't gotten around to canceling the registration yet, so it's just sitting in the driveway. I haven't driven in a very long time. But in the morning, when Jack's still asleep, I head off to the cemetery to bring flowers to my mother and try to ignore my guilt at not visiting for so long. She'd understand, I tell myself. She'd know why I did what I did.
Then I drive by our old house on the way to Sam's. There's a new fence and some toys scattered in the front yard -- two big wheels and a plastic play house. Some little kid's probably really happy there. Some little kid who doesn't have naquadah in her blood and has never heard of crazy-ass Goa'uld bombs or crazy-ass invisible snakehead experiments.
Whoa. I don't usually feel sorry for myself like that. Bad day I guess.
Sam's house looks physically the same, but there's just this emptiness about it, despite her car parked out front. I recognise it; Jacob must be using it now. I pull in behind it (haven't quite forgotten how to parallel park) and he must hear me, because he appears on the lawn.
"Cassandra," he says as I approach him. "Good to see you." His eyes are heavy but otherwise he looks just like he always has. I wonder how much of that is him having had nearly four weeks to get used to the idea, how much is an act for my benefit, and how much is Selmak keeping him under control.
"You too, general. I'm really sorry."
He hugs me. He could have been kind of like my grandfather if I'd stuck around. "Call me Jacob. That's Daniel's car? So you must've been to Jack's."
"Yes. I stayed last night."
"How is he?"
He nods, and I'm not quite sure what that means. "Yeah. You want some coffee?"
He's got donuts, too. No use keeping perishables in the house, he explains -- it's not like he's staying. I sit at the counter and bite into a chocolate frosted that's really not nearly as good as the eclairs we used to get at the neighborhood bakery in Phnom Penh.
God, this house. I don't like being in this house. Which is strange, because for a long time I kind of thought of it as home -- or the closest I had to one, anyway. I take another bite and try not to count all the boxes. "Where's it all going?"
He stands across from me, leaning a hip against the countertop. "The physics books have already gone to the SGC." I nod; Jack told me last night that most of Daniel's library was in the mountain now, too. "Some other things to my son and his family. You never met them, did you?"
I shake my head. "How are they?"
"Good, good. My grandson's taller than you or me now, you know." He looks at one of the stacks in the dining room and pauses. "The rest is staying; I'm not going to sell the place yet. It just made sense to pack some of her things up now."
"When are you going back to the Tok'ra?"
"Few more weeks. You staying with Jack for a while?"
"I think so."
"Good. He needs it."
I silently agree with that. "He said -- well, he implied -- that you and he don't have much to talk about lately."
"It's hard," is all he says.
I blow on my coffee and notice he hasn't drunk any from the mug he poured for himself. "He blames you," I say. "Why?"
He sighs. "He doesn't. Not really."
"What does that mean?"
"It's Jack, Cassie. He blames himself. He always blames himself. I'm just a convenient target."
I look at him. He looks back, his eyes narrowing a little, and finally lets me win.
"I wouldn't let him go back for them," he says.
"You, or Selmak?"
"Doesn't matter, does it?" He paces a little, so he doesn't have to meet my eyes, I think. "They were already dead. He'd have risked himself and who knows how many junior officers getting them back, and for nothing. I pulled rank."
God. To watch his own daughter die like that. "That must have been hard for you."
His expression is grateful. "You have no idea. But you know Jack."
I could ask him how they died, but I realise I don't really want to know. "They always did seem to find a way to come home, though, didn't they?"
There's a long pause. Finally he says, "I don't think I appreciate your implication. She was my kid, remember?"
"I'm sorry -- I didn't mean -- I just -- it never really occurred to me that they could die that way. I guess that sounds stupid."
He studies me intently for a minute. It reminds me a little of my mother.
"It's not stupid," he says. "We were all overconfident. And they had a really long lucky streak."
"Yeah." Not going to cry. Not.
He changes the subject, and I'm glad. "You know that Sam had some accounts in your name? She put most of it into mutual funds about a year ago." *When she admitted to herself that I wasn't coming back,* I think. "We'll have to work out what to do with it all while you're here. I'm sure George or I could keep track of them for you, if you want."
"Um. I'll have to think about that." Large sums of money make me nervous, the same way owning too much stuff makes me nervous. When I acquire too many belongings I usually leave it all behind.
"Well, just let me know. I'll take care of it."
"Thanks," I say. How interesting that he's talking to me like I'm a kid -- not that I mind that, it feels right -- when Jack, of all people, treated me like a grownup, an old friend. So many new things to figure out even though Colorado Springs is sort of my home. Or maybe it's not anymore; I really don't know.
"How're you doing, Cassie? You okay?"
"I'll be okay," I say. I'm always okay. "It's a little confusing right now."
"I meant what I said earlier, you know. Jack needs you."
"I know. I guess I just ... I'm not used to being needed. It's been a long time."
He doesn't say, *My daughter needed you,* even though I think she did, and I think I let her down. Maybe he didn't even know that. He just says, "You'll figure it out. I have faith in you." And then, after a beat, "You and Jack are more alike than you know."
"That should scare me," I say with a smile.
He agrees. "It should. It really should."
When I get back to his house -- with groceries in tow, the man has nothing edible in his refrigerator but that's not exactly new -- he's watching hockey on cable, reading a book on the D-Day invasions, and drinking cheap beer.
I put the groceries away and sit next to him on the couch, curling my feet up under me. I wonder if this was what he was like after Charlie but I can't bring myself to ask. It would be too cruel. "You gonna keep drinking like that?"
"I don't need a babysitter, Fraiser."
I shrug. "Maybe I do."
"Maybe. Where've you been?"
He doesn't respond, doesn't seem to react at all. I take a swig from his bottle, and he puts his arm around my shoulders without looking up.
The Avalanche are winning.
I'm really good at settling into new places. It's a talent. By the end of the week I've got a job at a sports bar downtown. It's just a few nights a week, and I haven't told them that I don't know how long I'll be staying. But my finances are making me nervous -- I always need to have my passport nearby, and enough cash on hand to buy a ticket to the next place. Not that I have any idea what the next place will be, but that's kind of the point, and those are my rules. And besides, there are only so many days in a row I can spend with Jack O'Neill.
And Jack ... well, he likes having me around, I know that. He hasn't said so after the first night, but I know it anyway. We play a little chess, watch some more hockey. I like hockey. When I was a kid he put me on rollerblades, put a stick in my hand, and taught me to shoot a mean goal. I have no idea what happened to any of that stuff -- the skates, the helmet, the pads. My mother must have given it all away when I grew out of it. And if I tried to skate now I'd probably break something.
"So," he says to me over the chessboard one night in the second week, "tell me about the guy. Who answered the phone. What's his name?"
I try to sidestep. "Were you the one who talked to him?"
"I think he was worried about you."
"No, he wasn't. The last thing he said was that he knew I could always take care of myself." And then he stormed out, so he wouldn't have to watch me leave.
Jack doesn't look up; his fingers tap the edge of the table. "What do you think he meant by that?"
"How should I know?" And when did you become my counselor?
"Just thought you might have an idea." He moves a pawn. Finally. "Your move. So, what does he do? He sounded English."
"Australian. He ... helps people. He works for the UN World Food Program." I automatically look at the wall clock to calculate the time difference. It's midmorning there.
"Sounds like a good guy."
"He is." My bishop approaches his queen and his eye follows my hand unwaveringly. Jack likes to pretend he's too dumb for chess, but it's a total lie. It's military strategy. It's what he's best at.
"You were living with him?"
I frown. "Can we talk about something else?"
"Do you love him?"
"Doesn't matter now, does it?"
Oh, for god's sake. I stare at him, challenging him to drop it. Maybe I'm just not used to being around people who can see through me so easily; I don't normally let anyone get that close. And yeah, I love Jack, but he can really be an ass.
"I just wonder," he says finally, as he moves his queen out of my reach, "where you learned to be so good at running away." He says it sadly, like maybe he thinks it's his fault. I'd rather blame Nirrti, myself. If I had to blame anybody.
"Sometimes leaving is the right thing to do," I say coldly. I try to chase down his king with one of my rooks. It's a stupid move but I don't care. "You left the Air Force."
"But you can't leave here, can you? Why not? Why not move up to that cabin you're always talking about?" Only I think I already know the answer to that question. *They're still here. She's still here.* He can't leave them yet. Why is it so easy for me and so hard for him?
He looks up, obviously pleased to have gotten a rise out of me, but doesn't take the bait. "Haven't gotten around to it yet," he says.
I sit back in my chair, pouting. God, how old am I?
There's a picture of them on the bookshelf across from me -- the three of them, towards the end, I think. Daniel's a little off to the side, as he always seemed to be after he came back, and Teal'c's not there. And Sam and Jack are standing just a little too close together to be proper, but still very carefully not touching. They did that a lot. They were big on proximity.
"That picture. When was it?"
He turns to look though I'm sure he doesn't need to. "Barbecue at George's house last summer. Four months ago, maybe?"
"You all look really tired." They do, but Sam's laughing and her bangs are in her eyes -- very pretty -- and Daniel's got that *why do I put up with these people?* look. Even Jack's smiling. I wonder what the joke was, whether he'd remember it now.
"Right after a long mission," he explains. All the missions always seemed to be long.
I watch him as he stares at the board, spins it around. My rook is so history. He's dragging it out but I know it's what he'll do.
"You know what was the worst thing? About losing my mom?"
He doesn't look up. "You weren't getting along at the time."
"We ... how did you know I was going to say that?"
I pick up one of the pawns I've captured and fiddle with it. His eyes dart to my fingers but he doesn't comment. "I always figured someday it'd be different. Someday we'd take the time to talk and work everything out, and it'd all be good. Only we never got the chance."
He's right, he is a good observer -- not that that's a surprise to me -- because he eyes me narrowly. "Exactly what are you trying to say?"
"Nothing. Just ... I know I'm not all that old, or all that smart, or anything. But I think that regret is harder to live with than loss. Missed chances, and all."
And now the narrow gaze turns into a caustic glare. I've seen that look on him before, but I've never seen it aimed at me. "You have no idea what you're talking about, Cassie."
I nibble on my lower lip. "If I'm wrong then why are you so angry?" I say quietly.
"No," he says, his voice tightly controlled. "What you think you know you don't know. Leave it alone."
"Jack -- "
He takes a deep breath. "Why didn't you work it out with your Australian friend?"
"It's not the same."
"Isn't it? It's a lot harder to stick it out than it is to disappear, you know."
"Why do you assume harder is always better?"
"Why do you assume you know about something that is none of your business?"
I have no idea what to say to that. It hurts. Sam was my business. He's my business.
I squeeze the pawn much harder than I should.
He opens his mouth, shuts it before saying whatever he was going to say. Then he starts to make a move but ends up slapping his hand on his thigh. "You know what? I've been cooped up in this house too long. I'm going for a drive. We can finish this later."
I look at the bottle on the end table. I don't think he's had any in the last few hours but I'm not sure, and at the same time I don't want him to leave like this. "Jack ..."
He stands. "No. I am not having this conversation with you."
I watch as he grabs his car keys off the table by the door and leaves without taking a jacket. Then I shove all the pieces off the board and curl up on the couch, my arms around my knees.
I spend the next few hours checking every light that passes the house. I try to wait up for him, but I fall asleep in my room, lying on top of the covers with a book on my chest.
I wake to find him silhouetted in the doorway. I'd left it open. "Jack? Are you okay? I'm so sorry I -- "
"We did," he says quietly. His arms are crossed as he leans against the frame.
I blink. "Excuse me?"
"You were wrong. About Carter and me. We had ... a thing. Nobody knows."
"An affair, I guess. I hate that word. You remember the year Daniel was gone?"
I nod, confused, and pull myself up on the bed to sit against the pillows. I can't tell if he's been drinking, but I think he hasn't.
"It was a bad year."
This is ... wow. I honestly never imagined this. Sam never gave me any hints. "Oh. Uh. I had no idea."
"No. Nobody does. Don't think your mom even knew."
"Came to our senses." A hint of bitterness, now: "She was always very good at that. But it was ... amicable. We kept on working together like nothing had happened. Maybe we were even friends, I don't know."
He looks at me, expecting me to fill in the blanks, I suppose. I don't.
"We, um. We might have said some things about when it was all over and getting the chance to do it right and ... well."
"No more chances now."
All I can do is watch him as he stands in the doorway, trying too hard to look casual. I've been slowly realising something since I came back: none of them were ever exactly prime examples of good mental health. It sounds silly, but as a kid I just looked up to them and didn't question much. But they were all ... damaged, I guess. Maybe they had to be to do what they did every day; maybe the whole SGC is a little bit nuts.
I wonder what it says about me that my heroes were all a bunch of emotional trainwrecks. It probably explains a lot. But I know the man in my doorway is not whole, and it's not all to do with what happened to his son.
I take a long time to come up with words that will fit. I don't quite pull it off. "I miss them," I say.
"Jack. She loved you, you know. She never said it, but ... it wasn't hard to see. If you knew her."
"I know." He starts to walk away but then turns back. "We had a lot of years to make it better," he says. "We never did. You still have a chance."
After he goes, I pick up the cordless phone by the bed and stare at it for a long time.
I start dragging him outside in the mornings to play hockey in the driveway, the way we used to when I was little, only now it's without the skates. The first time I do this -- the day after our middle-of-the-night chat -- he complains that I can't possibly be warm enough in what I'm wearing, and I complain that he's complaining. And that's how I know we're okay, even though he's still avoiding my eyes.
"Sara used to wear those things on the beach, for god's sake," he rants happily. "It's fifty degrees out."
"What? I have a sweater and boots on."
"Your mother would kill me if she knew I was letting you outside in that this time of year." I roll my eyes at that and he raises an eyebrow. "How many of those things do you own, anyway?"
"They're called sarongs and I have a lot. They pack light and they cost practically nothing."
"You're going to freeze your ass off."
"Will you shut up and shoot?"
Finally, he grins at me and does as he's told. Yeah, we're okay.
My hands are clumsy with the stick at first and, surprisingly, so are his. I guess this slots in well with the fact that the goals were buried behind years' worth of junk in his garage. Really -- what the hell has he been doing with his time lately? But his aim is still way better than mine, even after more than a week of morning one-on-one.
While we play I coax stories out of him. There's a hilarious one about Daniel being induced to play some team sport on a planet whose name Jack can't recall; another about the three of them -- Jack, Daniel, and Teal'c -- getting stuck in a pit and having to be rescued by a bunch of six-year-olds. It takes me a while to figure out that the stories are never about Sam.
One day I get a little bored after forty-five minutes or so, so I sit on the dead grass and watch him. It is actually kind of cold on the ground. I tap the end of my stick on the pavement. "Jack? How long were you and Sam together?"
He looks at me out of the corner of his eye, flips up the puck so he can catch it, and comes over to sit next to me. "I'm not sure we were ever together," he says quietly. "But it was almost six months."
"Good six months?"
He swipes my water bottle and drinks most of it. "Complicated," is all he'll say.
I'm still trying to remember a time during that year when Sam seemed different, and I can't. It's bugging me.
"And all the time after?"
He doesn't say anything, but he doesn't get up and walk away, either.
Another day I ask him when he's going to talk to Jacob, and he responds by asking whether I've made any international calls lately. Neither of us asks those questions again.
It's getting well into November now. The rainy season is over back home; I check the weather online, just to be sure I'm remembering it right. I am.
Jacob finds me at the restaurant the week before Thanksgiving. He buys an iced tea at the bar and tells me he's got a couple boxes in the trunk of his car -- stuff that Jack or I might want. I ask one of the other girls to cover for me so I can talk to him. Her name is Kate and the furthest she's ever been from Colorado Springs is Vegas. I can never decide if I envy her or feel sorry for her.
"I wish you'd bring it by the house," I tell Jacob as we sit at a corner table. I rub my palms on the jeans they make me wear to work here. I hate them. Too confining.
"So you don't have to carry it?" he jokes.
"You know that's not why."
He twirls his drink so the ice clinks against the glass. "I can't, Cassie. I'm leaving tomorrow for San Diego. As soon as I get back, I'm off through the gate."
"So come by tonight. He'll be up. He hardly sleeps."
He looks away.
"I don't understand this," I say, frustrated. "You both loved her."
"That's the problem."
"You don't mean that you objected --"
"No." He sighs, and seems to make a decision. Maybe he's having a talk with Selmak, I don't know. "I mean that he's as devastated as I am, and it hurts to have to see that."
I don't like that answer. I understand it, but I don't like it. "It shouldn't hurt. You should be able to help each other, or something."
He squeezes my hand on the table, and I have to think hard to remember where I recognise the gesture from: Sam. It's something Sam used to do. "It just needs time, Cassie," he says. "Give us a year and we'll be toasting her together on her birthday. Okay?"
I squeeze back. "Yeah. Okay. It's just hard to watch."
"I know. And I'm sorry."
I don't open the boxes until I get back to the house, and then we go through them together. We don't say much. On the top are a Simpsons tie and an NHL jersey -- obviously his. I hand them to him and he lets them puddle in his lap, looking as if he's afraid to touch them.
There're some extra large USAF t-shirts that might have belonged to either of them, or to Daniel, for that matter. I don't know why Jacob included those. Some books and CDs with Jack's name inscribed in them. A few of her own books, all of her degrees and honors, and a whole lot of pictures. She had more pictures of Jack in her house than I ever saw, that's for sure; they're mostly team shots, but still. And there are plenty of me, plus a pretty wooden box full of the postcards and foreign money I used to send her. Some family pictures, too -- teenage Sam with Mark and her parents.
Jack is way more interested in the older ones of Sam than he is of the ones she kept of him. "Nice of Jake to give these away," he says. He's drinking Coke. Plain old Coke.
"Yeah. Her mother was beautiful, wasn't she? Sam looked like her."
I wish she'd managed to ask me to come home. I wish I knew what it was about that day that made her want to ask. Maybe she just wanted a hug. I'm good at those.
He looks up from a family vacation shot -- Sam must have been ten or so, and she and Mark and her mom were on the beach. "Cassie?" he asks. "Everywhere you've traveled ... what's your favorite place?"
I don't have to think about the answer. "Hanka."
His voice goes quiet and his hands go still. "So not what I expected you to say."
"What did you expect?"
"I don't know, Paris or Tahiti or ... " He frowns. "Hanka? Really?"
"I don't remember most of the bad stuff," I tell him. Because it's true, but mostly because it will make him feel less guilty. "Before you guys came. I don't really remember that."
I'm piling all the pictures of me next to him; I want him to keep them. He nods, understanding.
"What do you remember?"
"Oh. I remember a song my mother used to sing. Nonsense baby song -- something about the stars coming down to the forest to play. And these flowers we had behind our house, a whole big hedge of them. They were yellow and they smelled like nothing I've found since. They bloomed at midsummer."
He puts down the picture and watches me, smiling a little. No doubt thinking of a much shorter, less blond Cassie -- very easy with all the pictures around us.
"I sort of remember my mother and father getting sick. I didn't understand. After that, the first thing I remember is Sam." I find myself laughing at the memory. "I'd never seen blue eyes before."
We don't talk for a minute. He picks up another photo, this one in a frame. Her high school graduation, it looks like.
"You remember her going back for you?"
"Yes." I don't say that I also remember him ordering her not to. I know it wasn't personal.
I nudge his shoulder with my own. "What about you, Jack? All over the universe ... what's your favorite place?"
"The gate room," he says slowly. "About to head out on a mission. Any mission."
We look at each other, and dig back into the box.
"Jack," I say after a few minutes.
He makes a "hmm?" sound, distracted by looking at Sam's Ph.D. The actual, physical piece of paper, in a pretty, blue, leather cover.
"I think I need to go home."
"Well, that'd be nice. But I meant ... you know. The guy who answered the phone when you called." Assuming he wants me back, that is. He was pretty mad when I left. And it wasn't all my fault, either.
Jack keeps sifting through papers, pretending not to be overly interested. "Ah. You wanna tell me what happened there?"
"I don't know. I guess ... I ran away. I mean, before I physically left. He -- well -- he knew there was a lot I wasn't telling him, and he never liked it." Keeping secrets is something Jack knows a lot about.
"You think you can fix it?" he asks after a minute. And he might not be looking at me, but I know he's sizing me up -- making sure I'm running to something this time, instead of away.
"I don't know. It's not like it was perfect to begin with. But I think I owe it to us both to try."
He gives me an ironic smile. "You can't tell me you learned that from hanging around with me."
I laugh, but don't answer. "I'm worried about you, though," I say instead.
"No, listen to me. I think going back is the right thing to do. But I'm afraid to leave you alone. We're all we've got, you know?"
His jaw moves out and back. "I'm not going to do anything stupid."
"That's not what I'm afraid of."
He quirks his chin to tell me to keep talking.
"I'm ... I guess I'm afraid that if I come back in another five years, you'll still just be sitting on that damn couch. And I'm afraid ... I don't know. I don't want to lose you again."
He ignores the first part. "You didn't lose me before. And I expect a lot of phone calls. More than once a month, please." He makes it sound like an order. He's good at that.
I smile, a little. "You gonna stay here?"
"I'm not ready to go yet, Cassie. I will. Not yet."
"She's still here."
He can't quite admit to that, though. He says, "They're all still here."
"You gonna go back to work?"
"Nah. Been there, done that. Besides, if I get myself killed, who's going to harass you?"
"Nobody." I grin at him. "You gonna start shaving again?"
"Bite me, Fraiser," he says. But he's grinning, too. And the scruffy thing kind of suits him anyway.
"Jack. I think ... I think there's a lot of stuff I need to tell him. True stuff, not the stupid Canada lie."
He doesn't tell me not to, doesn't offer advice. He says, "Will he believe you?"
I'm actually pretty scared to find out the answer to that. But I say, "I guess I'll find out."
While I watch, he sifts through the pictures of me and pulls a few out. "Take him these," he says. "Bet you anything he'll want to see them. And Cassie -- I get to meet him. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir." I feel shy suddenly and flip the pictures over in my hand. I have a very strong sense that Jack wants to ruffle my hair, or something.
"Have you -- what the hell is his name, anyway?"
"Jamie," I say. "His name is Jamie."
"Jamie. Have you called Jamie yet?"
I shake my head.
"Jack ... "
"Do it now, Cassie. I don't care what time it is."
And dammit, now I am going to cry. No big deal, I tell myself. Only it is.
General Hammond meets us in the briefing room a few days later. I've only been here a couple of times and I can't help looking out at the Stargate far below. "Jack. Cassandra!" He shakes Jack's hand and gives me a hug. "So good to see you both. What can I do for you?"
"General. Sir. The very well traveled and very lovely Ms. Fraiser and I have a request. Sir." Jack motions me to ask. And I might not have seen him in five years, but I can definitely tell that General Hammond wants to break out into one huge-ass grin. I'm guessing their last meeting was less cordial than this.
"We'd like to go to Hanka, sir," I say, though it was Jack's idea -- he woke me in the middle of the night to tell me about it. "Just for a visit."
"Kid wants to see the old homestead, sir. Can't deny her that, can you?" He bounces on the balls of his feet. I know the excitement is mostly an act, but that's okay. He needs them all to think he's moved on; I understand that.
The general tries to look stern, but his voice just sounds ... indulgent. "I'm not running a travel agency here, Colonel."
"No sir. Absolutely not, sir." Jack's still standing at attention. "We won't require anything from you except the use of the gate, sir. Bring all our own gear. Oh, and a GDO would be nice. One-time use, you know."
"As a matter of fact, we've recently resurrected our astronomical observatory on Hanka. There's a team there now that'd be happy to share their facilities. And send you home, when you're ready.""
Jack looks at me for a decision. "I think we'll pass on the facilities, sir," I say. "But we'd be more than happy not to go splat on the way back."
He does that sort of half-chuckle thing. "I see. And when would you be looking to do this?"
"As soon as possible, sir," Jack says. "Great way to spend the holiday, don't you think? And besides ... " He pushes at my arm with his elbow. "Ms. Fraiser has someplace else she needs to be."