"Oh fucking Christ!"
The frying pan clanged to the floor. Sam, across the house in her front room, jumped.
"Are you okay?" she called out.
The voice that replied was morose. "I think I ruined the potatoes."
Sam crossed through the dining room, where she'd already set the table for a quiet Christmas breakfast. "There are more in the cupboard. I'll slice them for you."
Jack just grunted and tossed the pan into the sink. She winced; all the time he'd spent here lately pretty much guaranteed that she'd have to replace that sink when she eventually got around to selling. But she only hassled him about it when he was in a good mood.
He disappeared behind the kitchen island and she found him on his knees, a wad of paper towels in one hand, a sponge in the other. The scrambled eggs were still in the Pyrex bowl on the counter; the bacon was still frozen, lying next to the bowl; the kitchen tiles were splattered with potatoes, onions, and grease. She watched him pick up the mess, wanting to get down there and help but knowing it wouldn't be welcome. She ran some water into the pan instead.
"Did you get any on your feet?" she asked. He was wearing a t-shirt and flannel pajama pants, and for some reason she had yet to discern he didn't like to lounge around her house in socks. She'd stopped asking if the hardwood was cold.
"No," he said. "Good reflexes."
He reached under the sink, to the trash bin, then started with the sponge and a bottle of Windex. Sam wove her fingers into his gray hair, catching strands between.
Jack sat back on his heels. "Not the best Christmas for you, huh?"
"Jack, it's fine. We'll make more potatoes."
"I wasn't talking about breakfast."
"I know. It's fine. I'm glad we stayed, I promise."
He looked up at her. "You're lying. But thank you anyway."
"I'm not lying. Now come on. I'm hungry."
A smile ghosted his lips and he took one last swipe at the floor. "More potatoes it is, then," he said, standing.
Sam dropped her hand to her side. "Can I help this time?"
"Nope. Go back to -- well, as you were, anyway."
"I was only checking to see how bad the snow is."
"Well, go back to that, then. This'll take fifteen minutes, tops."
She gave in, with a quick rub between his shoulders.
"Go, go," he said.
She couldn't help but smile as she left the kitchen, saying, "I'm going, I'm going."
It took more like eighteen, but Sam wasn't counting. She sipped at her coffee, nibbled at the special rye toast he'd bought because he knew she liked it. She sat facing the back of the house, so she could watch the white lights flicker on the tree Daniel had helped her pick out and decorate.
Jack had found an NPR station playing something pretty. It was nothing she recognized as Christmasy -- he knew a lot more about classical music than she did, though he sometimes teased that it was all just physics and why wasn't she a genius at that, too? -- but it was nice.
Bare toes tapped hers, through her wool socks. "Eat," he said. "And Merry Christmas, by the way."
She broke away from the light show, and saw that his eyes were sparkling with humor, now. It'd been like this, the last few days, up and down and up and she just holding on, sometimes.
She tapped back at his toes. "Merry Christmas." She held out her toast for inspection. "And I am eating. See?"
He faked a scowl and shoveled a huge forkful of eggs into his mouth. Jack wasn't a great cook -- and neither was she -- but he did know his way around breakfast.
Sam put the toast down and started nibbling on her bacon. He watched her as she crunched.
"Carter, you okay?"
Crazy question for *him* to be asking *her*. "Yeah, of course," she said. "It's all wonderful, really."
He took the compliment with one of those facial shrugs of his, and moved on. "What time should we call your family, you think?"
"Later. Late afternoon," she said. "Two teenagers in the house -- Christmas is a day to sleep in."
"Oh, yeah," Jack said, his face soft with memory. "I remember that. My mother always wanted to start early, and she'd sent my dad banging into the room to wake me up."
"We could go, you know."
He drank some coffee, clearly not concerned that he had no idea what she was talking about. He'd probably say it was familiar territory. "What?"
"To the cemetery." But then, remembering that he'd never actually taken her with him -- the few times she'd gone she'd been alone, and she usually only found out he'd been if he left dirty clothes at her house and she found a receipt from the florist while doing laundry -- she amended, "I mean, you could go, if you want. I won't mind."
"Nah," he said casually, pushing his food around on the plate with a piece of toast. "I don't like it when there's snow."
"-- when there's snow," she finished with him. He gave her a rueful smile. "I know," she said.
"Anyway, Sara always goes on Christmas."
"Sara and Mitch went to Boulder," she reminded him. Jack himself had told her that: in Sara's last email, she'd written that Mitch's two young daughters had come down with the flu. They'd decided to drive up to his ex-wife's house instead of bringing the girls here.
"Huh," Jack said. "Hey, where'd you put the newspaper?"
Sam had known it would be a difficult holiday. It was their first together, and their first since leaving the SGC, but that was the easy part. It was also Jack's tenth Christmas without Charlie; his son had been dead, now, longer than he'd been alive. And, Jack had only confessed the night before, he'd missed Charlie's last Christmas. He'd been called to Washington, Sara had been furious, and Charlie hadn't wanted to talk to him on the phone.
So they'd decided to go easy this year. It would be quiet, it would be just the two of them, it would (at Jack's request) be at her house instead of his. They'd have Christmas Eve as the main event, with presents and a nice dinner (takeout; she just had to heat it up) and a good bottle of wine. And if there happened to be hot sex, Jack had said, well, that would be an extra special gift from Santa.
They'd had the sex, though it had been more warm than hot, a little solemn; they'd stayed up later than they should have in the afterglow, talking; and they'd gotten up after nine. But now breakfast was over, she'd cleaned the floor again while he'd showered, and she was starting to doubt their plan. It was just past noon. How were they supposed to spend the rest of the day? With the DVDs she'd rented?
Well, yes; they were watching the last *Lord of the Rings* movie right now. Jack was stretched out on the couch, feet propped on the coffee table, arm around her shoulders. She turned to touch her lips to his cheek, just a glancing kiss, and he patted her head. "What was that for?"
"Nothing," she said, and it was pretty much true.
By the time Aragorn was crowned king, Jack was snoring, head thrown back and mouth gaping. At some point his hand had migrated from her shoulder to his lap, and dragged one of hers with it. She uncurled her legs, freed her fingers, got him a blanket, and left a note on the fridge: *Need salt for the walk. Won't be long. Love, C.*
The snowflakes were fluffy ones, big and wet, and she couldn't shake them off; they'd just have to melt where they were. Jack had come out early -- well, relatively early -- to dig out both of their cars, and once later to clean them off again. The windshield wipers could deal with what had accumulated since. She took his car; it handled better in winter.
The only thing open would be the twenty-four-hour Albertson's, halfway across the city from her house. It would do. She drove slowly and bought two bouquets, both filled with holly, and a twenty-pound bag of rock salt.
The narrow driveway in the cemetery was clearer than the city streets. She saw two other cars parked within her sight, and, fuzzily, a few people near them. There were footprints -- not a lot, but some -- and fresh flowers by some of the graves, along with other small offerings. The gifts felt private; she didn't look at them long.
Charlie's headstone wore a tower of snow, and tiny drifts in the chiseled letters. They divulged only his name and the dates. She'd wondered before if the minimalism had been intentional, or if Jack and Sara had both been so angry (at themselves, at each other) that they couldn't agree on what to say. He'd died in April, not quite four months after the Christmas without his father. Jack had told her he couldn't remember much of May or June, and she believed him.
Sam stood the flowers on their ends in front of the stone, packing snow to hold them up. Snowflakes the size of marbles fell on the petals. They'd freeze before nightfall, but they'd be there.
The snow was silent, muffling the noise from the streets outside. She brushed flakes from her eyelashes with a mittened hand.
She spun towards the voice and saw a woman in a long, formal wool coat. Her hat and scarf covered most of her face; Sam only recognized her by the eyes. Sara.
"I'm sorry," Sam said, feeling like she'd been caught doing something she shouldn't. "I didn't hear you coming. I thought you were in Boulder?"
Sara stepped closer. "We were," she said.
The only response Sam could think of was, "Oh."
"We were going to drive down and head right back, but the snow's worse here. I think we'll have to stay the night." Her eyes dropped to the headstone, and to Sam's flowers. She'd brought a candy cane. It dangled from one leather-gloved finger. "Mitch is in the car," she explained. And yes, there was an SUV idling on the asphalt nearby, exhaust steaming in the cold and wipers hard at work.
"Jack is ... " She trailed off. "He doesn't like to come in the snow."
Sara's head tilted. "Really? I never knew that." She smiled fondly. "He's so strange sometimes."
Sam agreed: he was. But she couldn't tell Sara what else he'd said -- that the frozen ground made him picture the small, frozen body sleeping within it; that the last time he'd touched his son, at the funeral home, Charlie's skin had been cold, so cold, and he didn't want to remember that, either.
"It's really nice of you to come, though," Sara said. "Thank you."
Sam didn't know what else to say. She didn't know Sara very well. They'd been out to dinner a couple times, but always with Mitch and Jack. And Jack and Sara had only started building a tentative friendship a few years ago; Sam was still a little afraid she might say the wrong thing and damage the truce.
"I'll bet he liked snow," she said, finally. She'd never met a kid who didn't, but it seemed safe enough.
"Oh, he loved it." Sara laughed softly. "One year he and Jack built an igloo in the back yard, and he brought all of his friends to play in it every day. He cried when it melted." She dug her free hand into her coat pocket, in a gesture that reminded Sam of Jack. "They never did that again. Jack didn't want to make him cry."
Sam ducked her chin under her scarf and smiled. That did sound like Jack. "How are the girls?" she asked. That was safe, too.
"A little better. They opened their presents in bed and went right back to sleep. We figured they wouldn't even know we were gone."
The sky was snow-bright, more white than gray, just beginning to fade around the edges. Sara took another step closer to the headstone, and then turned back to Sam. "So you both stayed here this weekend? You didn't go -- " She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I don't remember where your family lives."
"San Diego. No. We talked about it, but no."
"Is he okay?" Sara asked quietly. "Today?"
"You know how moody he gets. But he's okay."
There was a pause. "Don't let him take it out on you," Sara said. "Neither of you deserves that."
"No." Sam thought that Sara and Jack hadn't deserved it, either, but she said, "I won't. He doesn't." Actually, she couldn't imagine Jack doing that. They had their problems; he could infuriate her just as much as she could infuriate him. There were certainly other things he was quite capable of taking out on her. But his grief for his son? No. She knew what had happened -- or some of what had happened -- with Sara, but no.
*Yeah, well,* Jack had said once, *I'm older and less stupid now.*
Sara was studying her. "You know why I had to come, Sam?"
"No." She shook her head. "You don't have to tell me if -- " But she stopped.
"Because I'm happy," Sara said. "Because I look around at my life sometimes, and I'm so grateful that I could find this, after." She took a deep breath, the candy cane shook in her hand, and Sam hoped nobody was going to cry. "But then I remember that I wouldn't have any of it if he hadn't ... "
Sam closed her eyes. God, this poor woman. Poor Jack. When she looked again, she instinctively reached for Sara's hand and held tight. "I don't think it's wrong to be thankful," she said.
"No," Sara said. "I know it isn't."
Hard not to feel guilty sometimes, though, Sam knew. "I think you can want him back and be happy with the family you have now at the same time."
Sara squeezed her hand, and Sam squeezed back. She wondered if Sara had said all of this to Mitch. Probably, she thought. She'd long suspected that one of the problems Jack and Sara had had -- maybe even before the accident -- was that their reactions to strong emotion fell at opposite ends of the scale. Sara talked; Jack got silent and sullen and, eventually, angry. Sam herself was somewhere in between, but probably more like Jack.
She watched Sara move away, to brush the snow off the stone, watched her look back towards the car. The storm had picked up a bit and made it hard to see. And suddenly Sam understood: this wasn't a confession; it wasn't that Sara needed someone to listen. It was that she thought Sam needed to know.
Sara swept out the letters with the tips of her gloves. She hadn't put the candy cane down yet.
"I should go," Sam said. "Give you some time alone."
"It's good that you came, Sam. Thank you."
"You're welcome." Sam hugged Sara a little awkwardly, and didn't look back as she trudged through the snow to Jack's car.
She waved at Mitch. He waved back.
Jack was perched on her desk chair, tying on his boots and not happy with her disappearance. "Took you that long just to get salt?" he asked, not looking up.
"No," she said. He stood, puzzled, and took the bag as she handed it to him. "The main roads aren't all that bad. I was glad I had the truck, though."
Sam tried to brush snow off her parka. Jack frowned at her and eyed the second bouquet, which was upside down in her hand, dripping on the floor. Then he met her eyes, thought for a second -- she knew him; she knew the instant he put the pieces together -- and nodded once, his face relaxing back into neutral.
He put the bag up on his shoulder, and reached to wipe melting snow off her cheeks. "We really that low?"
"Not really." She'd tell him about seeing Sara another day, an easier day. "Here, can you put these on the desk? I'll help you shovel."
He laid the flowers down, and leaned in close to kiss the one place on her forehead that wasn't covered by her hat.
"I get the good one, though," she teased, turning towards the door. "The fancy ergonomic one."
Jack followed her. "Oh, no. Nonono. I'm *old*, Carter. Old people are supposed to be careful with shoveling, remember?"
"I think you'll live. Come on." And she pulled him out into the silent, white world.