AN: Here we are... all done. This was such a blast to write. I'm eager to see how everyone likes it. My computer has to go in for repairs, so I'm not sure when I'll be posting next... hopefully soon! Please review if you like it!
One of the few things my sister and I ever had in common was what mom had termed our early bird syndrome. No matter how late we went to bed nor how tired we were, both of us were usually up before the sun. In our youth, that often meant plenty of time to play pranks or break things. More than once, Sam had convinced me to help her reset all the clocks in the house to convince our parents that it wasn't too early to be up. But that morning, it just meant that when I wandered through the dark house blindly searching for coffee, I found Sam by herself with a half full mug in front of her and two clean ones sitting by the almost full coffee pot.
I grinned as I poured myself a cup, hoping that one of the cups was for me. I didn't mention the snoring I'd heard from the den where, evidently, the candles had burned themselves out safely, nor did I mention the dozing man on the couch. "Who's the other cup for?"
Sam smiled. "Daniel. He doesn't wake up till he's had at least three cups."
I sat down next to her, keeping my voice soft to allow the others to sleep. "Our flight's at ten, so we'll probably be leaving pretty early."
Sam nodded, her attention locked on the contents of her mug. "I'm glad you were here."
I snickered; a funeral wasn't the sort of thing a person could get out of. "Did you think I wouldn't come?"
She shrugged, her eyes darting up to meet mine. "There was a time when you wouldn't have."
"There are so many nights that I don't get home until the kids are already in bed, Sam. I feel like I'm missing half their lives." I shook my head, realizing at that moment how completely I'd grown to understand my father. "But I want them to go to good schools and I want them to have a nice house and plenty of toys to play with. I know why he did it."
"It wasn't just that, Mark. What he did, whatever it was, it was important. You have to know that." She took a deep breath. "Just because you don't know what it is doesn't mean it's wrong."
I knew she was talking about herself too. I kicked her under the table. "Oh, I'm sure Deep Space Radar Telemetry is keeping people up at night."
Sam giggled. "You have no idea."
We were silent for a moment as I watched Sam play with the toast she'd made. I knew she had no intention of eating it; she'd just been looking for something to do. Therefore, I felt no guilt reaching out and snagging a piece of it. "I noticed the boys didn't leave."
She didn't try to hide her smile. "It was so late and Jack made them promise to stay until he got back, so I told them to go to bed."
"Where on earth does one find all those candles?"
"I have this friend who sells them and I always have to buy them out of guilt and I never use them. I don't even really like them, so they kind of piled up."
I was familiar with the candle-sellers. Stephanie had donated more than enough money to the cause of friends who were trying to push their products on her. "The good news is I think they're all gone now. The bad news is you might wind up buying more."
Sam rolled her eyes and got up to pour herself some more coffee while I chomped on her breakfast.
I figured I'd done a good job of getting her to let her guard down, so I pounced. "If the boys are tying up the den and the kids are in your room and we were in the guest room, where did you sleep? I'd hate to think you sat up all night." I tried to keep my face neutral, but I knew I wasn't doing a good job.
Sam retook her seat and pushed her other slice of toast towards me. "Now, if I mention that years of field experience have made Jack and I very light sleepers, would you want to change your tactic or stick with the stupid act?" She narrowed her eyes at me and I decided I very much pitied anyone who would ever be her enemy.
"So things are good, then?"
Sam's smile lit up the room and I could have sworn she was purring. "Yeah." Then she gracefully held out her hand, which, I hadn't noticed until then, was weighted down by a huge, sparkling diamond, set conveniently in platinum.
To be completely honest, my first thought was something along the lines of 'wow, that guy is loaded.' But I couldn't help the smile anymore than Sam could. "Guess he wasn't really at work then."
Sam's eyes narrowed for a minute as she looked at her ring. "Actually, he was." She looked thoroughly confused. "I answered the phone - it was definitely the base. And it was after ten when he left the second time."
"Not a lot of jewelry stores are open at that hour." I wanted to laugh at the befuddled expression on Sam's face. She really couldn't wrap her brain around something that seemed so simple to me. I lifted her hand close to my face to inspect the ring, noticing that not only was the setting right, but the fit perfect. "It's exactly like you wanted, isn't it?"
She smiled harder; so much so that I thought it was painful, as she nodded.
"Funny, isn't it? Since he obviously bought it before you told him what to get."
Her mouth dropped open when her eyes met mine. "No, how- he- when-" Her words trailed off as she stared back at the ring. To my horror, her eyes filled with tears.
I scooted closer to her to put my arm around her shoulders. "What is it? What's wrong?"
She was fighting a losing battle with the tears when she whispered her answer. "He never would have bought this after I was engaged to Pete."
"Didn't he bet Daniel that you wouldn't marry Pete?" I nodded at the ring. "That right there might have been his ace in the hole."
She shook her head, anger flashing in her eyes for a moment. "No. He's not like that. He thought I was in love with Pete." Her eyes pleaded with me to understand and, somehow, I did. "He never would have put me in that position."
"Wow. Crap." That was twice in as many days as my sister's love life had evoked that same thought. Far too much for my taste. "So when did he get it?"
She looked at it again, her face filled with guilt and anguish and remorse. But when she looked back at me, I could only see love. "He must have had it for years, Mark."
I took a deep breath and let out a sigh. "I never thought I'd ever say this about any of your boyfriends, least of all about any sort of officer, coworker, or boss, but, Sam, even I have to admit he's good for you."
She smiled through her tears. "Thank you." She reached out to hug me and damn near pulled me off my chair. My sister was stronger than she looked.
When she let go, I looked up to find Jack standing in the doorway with a smug grin on his face. Then he stepped forward, kissed Sam on the top of her head and started pawing through her cabinets until he found the Fruit Loops again. "For a minute there, Carter, I thought he was Daniel and I was contemplating kicking his ass." Sam just giggled as Jack shoved a handful of dry cereal in his mouth and started pulling more things out of the cabinets. Not being much of a cook, I checked with Sam. She was never one to cook either, so she shrugged and we both turned to watch.
Ten minutes later, Daniel shuffled into the kitchen yawning and bumping into things until Sam handed him his coffee. Shortly after that, Teal'c entered the small room with Nicky riding piggyback and Matt clinging to one of his legs. Stephanie was only a few seconds behind them, warnings to not wake everyone up dying on her lips when she realized she was the last one up. Jack, it turned out, was making pancakes and was actually quite a good cook, once Sam, Daniel, and Stephanie convinced him that beer did not belong in pancakes that children would be eating.
In the midst of the chaos of six adults and two children eating in the tiny kitchen, I noticed Sam slip the ring off her finger and into her pocket. I smiled, knowing that she wasn't meaning to keep it a secret, so much as she was trying to protect her friends from the news that her engagement would reveal - that Jack was leaving.
I stayed back from the fray, taking in the sight of the four of them. Losing Jack would change things, even if Sam and Jack were together. There was a dynamic among them, a harmony that was going to change irrevocably, and Sam was trying to savor the last few days they'd have together as they'd obviously been for a very long time. It was sad, but at the same time, I knew they'd survive the change. Their bond was too strong for that.
As Stephanie and I headed out with the kids a little while later, I smiled at the group sprawled comfortably around the living room. Sam was sorry that we were leaving, but not as upset as she would have been if the other three were the ones leaving. As I looked around, I thought of the hours we'd spent together. I thought of my preposterous assumption that she was lonely or somehow lacking friends. I thought of my ignorance in believing it sad that only her coworkers were there for her at the memorial service or that she should have to spend that time at her boss's side rather than mine. The images flashed through my head - the four of them crammed together on the sofa meant for three, Jack sizing me up in the living room, Sam telling him to be nice to me, seeing that spark between Jack and Sam, regretting the brotherly way Daniel teased Sam, the way Daniel and Teal'c had caught Jack's slip of using Sam's name before I had, seeing the smile Daniel and Teal'c shared when Sam and Jack sat so close, the mug Sam had lined up for Daniel because she'd known he'd need coffee, the way they'd passed the syrup and butter around the room knowing exactly who would and wouldn't want each.
They knew each other so well - their habits and quirks and temperaments. They were able to tease and joke and tolerate each other. My eyes fell on the pictures on the table by the door. I hadn't noticed them the day before, but if I had, I might have known what to expect. They were all pictures of the four of them - sometimes two at a time, sometimes three, or all of them. But there were a lot. I saw the newest picture which had been framed and added during the night - the picture of Sam and Jack, dog-eared edges showing through the glass. I knew that was part of the charm, part of the reason why she loved that picture so much.
They were a family; the four of them, a very close knit, loving, supportive family. I took Stephanie's hand as we walked to the car. My wife and my children and I formed our own circle, our own family. We were welcomed in my sister's house, but we didn't quite belong.
We were the in-laws.