STORY NOTES: Any events referenced in this story bear no significant resemblance to any occurrence after the Season 7 episode 'Heroes' Parts I & II.

The Astonishing Persistence of Memory

"She's a good kid," he said of Cassie as they walked back through the park.

"She's not a kid anymore," she said, reproving him. The young woman would have been horrified to find Jack still thinking of her as a kid, even if she was, in relative terms.

The Colonel raised a brow at her. "With her taste in videos?" He was still evidently still grumpy over the cartoon.

Sam returned the arched brow, "What about your taste in toys? You used to drive Daniel crazy playing with your yo-yo on the deserted planets."

He looked up at her, blinking at her words. "You remember that?"

Unaccountably embarrassed, she nodded, but stared at her feet. "I remember a time we were on a planet with dog-sized squirrels, and Daniel tried to get you and Teal'c to catch one." A smile curved her mouth, unstoppable at the memory of grown men running through the grass, trying to catch one of the 'squirrels'. Daniel had been funniest, his hat flying behind him as he leaped up from a stalking position, only to land on thin air because the creature had moved away.

"It's coming back, then," he said, then winced as though he realised how obvious his statement was.

Sam smiled. She remembered the moments when he hadn't known what to say or how to say it. Small glances and sideways looks as though he had something on his mind, but didn't know how to give it voice. He looked a bit like that now, as though he wanted to say more. And again, he didn't.

This is the usual way of things between us, she realised with a pang somewhere in her chest. We don't say the things we want, and settle for the things we're allowed.

They drew back as some kids ran in front of them, oblivious to the two adults walking through the park. The kids - really kids, only about eight or nine years old - played and shouted and argued on, in happy ignorance of any wrongdoing. "I remember...parts of it," she admitted as they began walking again. "Not all of it."

They were only moments and, try though she might, they refused to stretch any further. The jigsaw of her true self sat in disarray, unfinished. Some pieces settled in amidst the bits of whom she'd been as Eva Riverborn, but other pieces refused to fit and dug uncomfortably into her consciousness.

She remembered the way she'd reacted to Colonel Dixon's hand on her shoulder that morning in Farlend - the way her body had moved, Sam's instincts taking control over Eva's body and laying him out in the dust. That was how she felt now; as though her body and subconscious remembered all that she'd been and learned as Sam Carter, even if her mind didn't.

It felt like walking into a room from which some pieces of furniture had been taken and others put into their place - the sense that something wasn't quite right, but no idea of what was wrong.

Another glance around the park suddenly brought something back to her; a momentary flash of a girl holding a dog in her arms, smiling up at the Colonel. "We were here before," she said stopping in her tracks. "Several times. With Cassie." She could feel the bite of the oncoming winter's cold in her memory, the hard ridge of the seat back against her bottom as she perched on it, the stitching of her cuffs digging into her elbows. "You gave her a dog here."

He smiled, and her breath caught in her throat at the warmth that spread through her, starting somewhere in her belly and diffusing through every nerve in her body. Had she always reacted to him this way? The consciousness of his presence, assured and uncertain, a comforting nearness that had never once crossed the line into intrusion?

"Yeah," he said, ignorant of her momentary awareness of him. "We came here to show her what a park looked like after she was given permission to stay on Earth." The wide mouth quirked softly, "She'd never seen swings before."

"We taught her to tell people she was from Toronto," Sam said, remembering more. "And I... I wouldn't leave her." For a moment, there were tears streaming down her face, and determination gripped her as she hit the button to descend back into the cold, cold bunker. She remembered. The weight of the girl had been heavy, and the blanket rough, but she'd taken both into her arms, feeling the trust that Cassie had placed in her and refusing to let it go.

That recollection jostled another. Her hand reached out to grab his arm, her action pulling him gently around. "You wouldn't leave me, either."

And he stilled. He stilled like a creature caught in headlights, and his eyes skittered away from her face. Beneath her fingers, the lean muscle tensed, and his body went rigid.

She looked at him, trying to divine what she'd said that had caused him such sudden distress. "Jack?"

"You remember that?"

There was a significant note in his voice, and Sam frowned. "You were supposed to get out of the bunker before...before the bomb inside her went off," she said. "But you didn't. You stayed because I didn't come up."

And he relaxed. "Oh. That."

Sam studied him, still frowning. He looked as though she'd granted him a reprieve, although from what, she couldn't imagine.

His eyes flickered up to her face and lingered there a moment. He met her eyes with a direct, intense look, and then glanced down. When she followed his gaze, she found him staring at her hand on his arm.

We don't touch each other. Why not?

Sam let him go, abruptly self-conscious of his stare. She curled her fingers into her palm, missing the feel of hot skin under the cotton of his shirt. He turned and began walking away.

The sudden distance between them startled her, and she felt the early pangs of hurt at his rejection. The afternoon had been so pleasantly easy, so why the flash of pain in his eyes now?

As she watched him go, she had the sinking feeling that he'd walked away from them before.

Them? Had there even been a 'them' to walk away from?

"Colonel?" She watched him turn as she spoke, a neat little swivel on the heel of his foot.

"Carter?" The use of her surname should have been distant, impersonal. In his mouth, it sounded far more intimate than she'd ever imagined. "What's up?" Everything seemed normal, and yet her uncertainty clung to her like an aura.

She pointed from him to her. "We were ever...?" Her cheeks betrayed her, she could feel the rush of blood that gave away her embarrassment even in the fading afternoon light. "Was there something between us?"

His expression paused, if that was any way to describe it. He looked indecisive for a moment, uncertain, pained. Then his mouth stretched flat and his eyes shadowed. "No," he said with a gentle conviction that sent cold chills down her spine. "We were friends. Never more."

And when she could find nothing to say, he smiled at her, tenderly and almost sadly, turned on his heel, and walked off in the direction of his house.

Sam stood beneath the spreading branches of the tree for a long time after he'd gone. If they'd only been friends, then why did she feel this yearning ache for something she'd never possessed in the first place?

----

Jack paced around his living room in the twilight; too restless to sit down, too wired to sleep. He'd take a drink, except that he didn't want one drink to turn into two, and two drinks to turn into three. The bottle had become an attractive proposition in the eight months since they'd raised him to General and put him in charge of the SGC.

Maybe that should have been listed as one of the hazards of the job description? Warning: this job may drive you to drink. Hammond had handled it without cracking, although how he'd done it, Jack didn't know. Hammond couldn't seem to convey it either, he just told Jack, "You do your best, and you'll be fine."

Right now, Jack was feeling as though his best wasn't half good enough for the people who needed him to do his job. And his personal equilibrium was not helped at all by Carter's innocent request about their 'history' together.

She'd given him the chance, laid it in his hands, the possibilities unknown.

He'd nearly told her, 'Yes.' After the afternoon they'd spent, with no discomfort, no self-consciousness, just Jack and Sam, he'd wanted to tell her how much had been between them – years of respect, trust, affection, love.

He didn't. He couldn't.

Even before she'd been captured, there'd been Shanahan, distrustful and jealous. Then there'd been the man who'd come through the Stargate with her from the other planet, protective and possessive.

Between those two men, one from before, one from after, Jack O'Neill didn't even merit a second glance, let alone a confession. Besides, she was still feeling the pressure of returning to the SGC, to the life and expectations she'd lived as Sam Carter. To add that personal burden to her wasn't fair, even if a part of him wanted to tell her the truth of everything about them.

The truth was that he'd never felt such a leap in his soul as when the screen showed one slightly bruised Colonel Dixon reporting back to say, "You're not going to believe this, sir, but we've found Major Carter."

His first instinct had been to rush through the Stargate, grab her, and hold her without the intention of ever letting go. He'd squashed it, as he'd trained himself to do through the years. The instinct had risen up again when faced with the woman who sat in her garden, regarding the work before her with a contemplative expression so achingly familiar, it was as though someone had dumped a tonne of rocks on his chest.

Even as Eva, she'd still retained some vestiges of Major Carter as the incident with the gun had shown. Yet the woman she'd been as Eva showed facets of a woman Jack had never known, facets that Carter had never shown him: the woman inside her who was just Sam.

Jack paused by the cabinet and made a decision. He really needed that drink.

He poured himself a glass, and set the bottle back in the cupboard before he took the whiskey out to the backyard patio. It burned like fire along his lips and down his throat, and he felt the warmth settle in his belly and spread out through his body.

It didn't count, he decided. Not when she was still trying to work out who she was. Not when she didn't remember everything between them.

Jack remembered.

Sometimes he wished he could forget.

He'd tried to forget. In her absence, he'd availed himself of certain services, attempted to develop relationships with various women Daniel had dug up from God only knew where. And yet, every time, there came a moment when he had to acknowledge that he wasn't ready for an emotional relationship. Not yet.

Somehow, law, business, politics, and military strategy didn't hold much interest after he'd discussed the Simpsons, philosophy, and off-world tactics with Carter. Flirting, joking, and kisses by the door didn't have the same zing compared with the feeling of utter accord when he caught Carter's eye in the middle of a battle, saw her nod her head, and proceed to do exactly what he'd been about to order her to do.

Out in the evening air, he swirled the amber liquid around in his glass.

You overreacted when she remembered about not being left behind.

Things had been so easy between them since she came back from Farlend. For the first time in their acquaintance, Jack was just a friend to her; not her commanding officer, not someone she wanted to impress, not someone she had to be careful around. Carter remembered him, but not the reasons why they weren't supposed to be friends. She remembered their conversations, but not the topics that used to be taboo. She remembered always using his title to address him, but not why she shouldn't use his name.

And she no longer took care to keep out of his personal space.

She was as much a part of his heart as she'd ever been, but he was still bound by his honour, personal and professional. The one was intertwined with the other. Time had gone by and she had gone missing, and he'd been promoted off a field-team and into command. Everything had changed between them – and yet nothing had changed. He was still who he was, and as her memory came back, she would again become who she had once been, and they could no more approach the other than they'd ever been able to do.

Carter would regain her memories again, piece by piece, and when the last few pieces fell into place, she would again be the woman he'd known and loved. She would be admired, respected, and quite untouchable.

He breathed out slowly and tossed down the last of his whiskey.

We were friends, nothing more.

It was getting cold out, so he went inside. The glass door slid solidly shut behind him, and he placed the dirty glass on the bench beside the sink. No more alcohol, he thought. Not tonight.

The doorbell rang and, expecting Daniel or Teal'c, he went to answer it.

Carter stood there, her hands in her jacket pockets, her expression tense. "I remembered the armband incident," she said quietly, and there was nothing more to be said.

----

Now, she understood why he'd reacted as he had this afternoon.

He sat across from her, saying nothing, not even looking at her. His discomfort was plain enough, and the reasons for that were plain enough, too.

"We were friends," she said, trying the words on for size, testing the limits and boundaries they'd placed around themselves and each other years ago and been very careful not to violate.

The Colonel glanced up, "Friends." In just such a voice, he'd questioned her use of his title once before.

In a way, Jonah and Thera had been as true to what the Colonel and she felt as any other time in all their history. No complications, no regulations, the people they were without the periphery of their lives and military backgrounds. How unfortunate that life was always more complicated. And their lives were more complicated than most.

"Never more," she murmured. He'd told the truth in a way, from a certain point of view. Just not the point of view she'd wanted to hear him acknowledge.

"No."

"But not because we didn't want to." There were layers and layers in their relationship; personal, professional, conscious, subconscious. Some could be peeled away without pain, but others had become so ingrained, so second-nature to them, that there was no way to remove them without stripping away the core of who they were.

"No." It was simple and simplistic. Attuned to the complexities of astrophysics, Sam Carter knew that nothing in life and its grand array was simple, least of all something like this.

Part of her wanted it to be simple.

Part of it was simple.

The rest of it was complex enough to give her migraines.

And all it boiled down to was a simple question: Do you still feel that way?

She didn't ask it.

Sam didn't ask it, because that wasn't what she did. That wasn't who she'd been, who she was. She was Major Sam Carter who followed Colonel Jack O'Neill into hell and high water because she trusted his leadership. She was Sam Carter who trusted Jack O'Neill because he followed her advice and expertise. Instead, she held the cup of coffee in her hands and wondered where they went from here, if anywhere at all.

"What do you want now?" The question was his, the answer was hers, and between them stretched a tension far sharper than anything she could remember between them before.

She wanted... She wanted...

-simplicity-ease-happiness-love-contentment-challenge-interest-respect-desire-achievement-affection-

She wanted too much. She always had.

So she stood, and saw the way his face froze a little, before he gazed at her with careful aloofness. "I...I need to think about this," she said. Something in her mocked the fear that made her run, but she was used to running from anything she felt about this man.

And that worked last time? You ran to another man, and didn't make a very good choice of it.

That had been last time.

She wasn't the woman she'd been then, running from the fear of being always alone, looking for a handsome prince and not bothering to check for toads along the way.

Things had happened to her since that time, so bad, she'd blocked them from her memory and erased all recollection of him along the way. She'd found a life on another planet and learned that there were things inside her that made her who she was that she couldn't give up. She'd learned that there were some rules that she could never follow, and some expectations she would never meet. And she'd learned that sometimes following the rules could be as damaging as breaking them.

Sam wasn't who she'd once been, back then, all that time ago.

She was more.

As she stood, he followed suit, expecting that she wanted to leave; expecting that this conversation would never be repeated again. But he asked no favours and didn't push.

She glanced up at him, wondering why he'd never pushed. Her memories wouldn't reveal that to her, perhaps even the woman she'd been hadn't truly known. Had he feared her rejection? Losing her? Was it safer to work with her at arm's length, and never ask for more?

Maybe.

He looked back at her with eyes that could hold so many moods: anger, trust, tenderness, pain, bitterness, fear, relief, inquiry...

And the expression she'd seen in his eyes the morning he, Daniel and Teal'c had come to Farlend, as they stood at the gate of her garden and watched her kneel amidst her plants. He hadn't known to conceal his gaze then, hadn't thought to be guarded and wary.

Eva Riverborn hadn't understood the recognition in the eyes of the stranger at her gate, although Lachlan had seen it and bristled with jealousy.

Lachlan had understood the look in Jack O'Neill's eyes from the first day, Sam realised. Maybe that was why he'd kissed her on the forehead and the mouth, touched her face one last time with a tenderness that stung her eyes, and walked through the Stargate to Farlend without looking back.

Staring into Jack's face now, Sam Carter finally understood what Eva had not wanted to see that morning, what had caused Lachlan of Farlend to leave for the planet he called home without the woman he loved.

The Colonel walked towards her, began to walk past her, leading her to the door.

She caught his hand.

"Wait," she told him, and he stilled and turned. The air around them grew quiet, and the silence waited in expectation. Her hands reached up to frame his face, spanning him from jaw to hairline, from lip to ear with something in her that spoke of tenderness and caring and wanting so hard that it physically hurt. His lashes fluttered down, soft as the first flakes of snow.

"Carter..." His voice was a benediction and a protest, husky with hesitation and desire, and she wondered that she'd ever forgotten it.

She supposed she hadn't, not really. Lachlan had been much like Jack, too. He'd been right about that. In the months between the time she'd escaped from Lir and when SG-13 came through the Stargate to Farlend, Sam had found someone like the Colonel. Not quite the same, but close enough to give her the feeling of safety and freedom both.

"Jack," she murmured, and the name whispered across both their lips, causing them to shudder.

His hands closed around her wrists, hot fingers and yet such tenderness. "Sam, you don't want to do this..."

She didn't argue the point. Words had never been their strong point, even now she could remember that. The regulations had required their silence, and so their feelings for each other had always been defined in action.

You wouldn't leave me.

So she used no words to persuade him. Instead, she slipped her hands from his grasp, taking his wrists in her own fingers, drawing his hands down over her body. And as desire flared, his gaze dropped from her face to her body, to the curves and hollows she was encouraging him to touch, to stroke. Excitement slid through her, teasing her with his nearness, with the heat of his palms burning her through her shirt. I give you permission, she said without words, moving his hands over her, slipping them under the edges of her clothing to touch her skin with long fingers.

Her boldness terrified her. She knew, instinctively, that the woman she'd once been had allowed herself to be bound by the rules, and her passions governed by them.

The Sam Carter who'd once been Eva Riverborn had learned to live without the rules.

Still, fear wove itself into her consciousness. It threaded a reedy song of rejection in the midst of growing desire. The choice wasn't just hers. He'd left the choice in her hands, yes; but the right of refusal had always been a possibility. Over a year had passed, so much had changed, she hadn't even asked about his personal life...

He swallowed, his chest heaving once in a gulp of air. "Carter," he said, and his eyes rose to her face. "If we do this... If you want this..."

"We'll deal with it," she said, looking at the lines around his eyes and his mouth with tenderness, thinking how much older he'd grown in her absence. Too many responsibilities on his shoulders, too much duty taking its toll on him, nothing to alleviate it and no one to share it with. You don't have to be alone, sir.

He pulled his hands from hers, and the refrain of rejection swelled to a cacophony of dread for one, brief moment. Then he took her face between his hands, using his thumbs to angle her gaze up towards him. Her apprehension faded into the darkness of unfounded fears. "Are you sure?"

She met his gaze, eye to eye, face to face. Nothing between them but what they made for themselves. "Yes."

And as he bent his face to hers and took her mouth with his own, touching her with a passion and a tenderness denied for far too long, Sam realised she'd never been so sure of anything in her life.

-fin-

AUTHOR'S NOTES: This story was originally to be one chapter in a much longer story. It happens around the middle of the story, with a lot happening before, and even more happening after. However, I was inspired to write this scene as a gift for several friends going through tough times, and ended up having to put just enough information in to explain what had happened before this section. One of my betas noted that it worked fine as an individual story, and I'm afraid the longer novel-length story has since been dropped.