This was written for sga-flashfic's "Earthside Challenge" on Livejournal.

Rating/Genre: G; Gen
Spoilers: Set shortly after Critical Mass. Contains spoilers for that episode.
Summary: You can't go home again ... except sometimes you do.


Empire

She comes out of the house with a spring in her step, and my breath catches, seeing the little girl inside the woman's skin. The curls bouncing on her shoulders had been brown, once, shot through with gold; today they are auburn fire, catching the sun. I will never understand why a girl with such naturally beautiful hair would want to dye it, but then, there's a lot about women I don't understand. Just ask her mother.

"Karen," I say.

She turns and stops on the concrete garden path. Her eyes meet mine, and I see that the shutters have come down. Once upon a time, when her hair was brown, she would have come running at the sound of my voice to throw her arms around my knees. Her mother was the one with the shutters in her eyes, then.

"Daddy." Her voice is quiet, neither welcoming nor hostile. Automatically I find myself assessing her for signs of danger -- for suspicious bulges in her clothes, for the furtive, darting eye movements that might signal the presence of hidden attackers, for the tension in her shoulders that might denote an alien presence inside her body. I have to make myself stop. My daughter is not my enemy.

I step away from the car and approach the fence that separates us. My hands, I realize, are held away from my body in the universal gesture of surrender. "It's good to see you, Karen."

Something flickers at the corners of her wide, expressive mouth -- amusement, exasperation, maybe just a twitch of weariness. "I didn't expect you ..." she begins, and then trails off, looking lost. Young.

"I left messages on your machine."

"I know. I just ... I was going to answer, but you know how it is. It's been busy." She fidgets, looks away. "I didn't expect you," she says again.

Well, that makes two of us, because I didn't expect to be here either. I only have a few days of leave during this stopover on Earth, and I intended to spend them sleeping and drinking and trying not to dream. This lasted right up until I walked through the door of my Colorado apartment, threw my duffle on the couch and then made a beeline for the phone and called every single person on Earth that I give a damn about. Just to make sure they were all right. Because if you spend months with an alien worm rifling through your memories, you sure as hell want to make sure that they didn't get hold of anything they could use against you and yours.

Karen didn't return my calls. And that's why, after being back on Earth for less than thirty-six hours, I've just spent the last twelve of those hours driving across the country to visit a young woman I barely know. And here she is, in the flesh. Her hair is red ... for some reason I keep wanting to stare at it. In the picture she'd sent at Christmas, it had been blonde.

"I'd invite you in," she is saying, and I shake myself back to reality, "but I'm on my way out. You really should have said you were coming. I didn't expect you."

"Where are you going?" I don't mean it the way it comes out -- like she's thirteen, sneaking out on a Saturday night. But that's almost how it feels.

She sighs, crosses her arms. "To Jeff's. I'm running late and I need to pick up Bobby. It was Jeff's weekend with him."

That's right -- the divorce had gone through last year. She had told me in one of her emails, some time ago.

"I could come with you." I don't want to sound eager -- or, worse, suspicious of her. But I can't help studying her face, looking for signs of wrongness, for hints that her story doesn't add up. I've been doing it at the SGC for so long that it's just second nature now. "We can get caught up on the way," I add after a moment, as she watches me in return. Just a couple of suspicious strangers, suspecting each other's motives. If only she knew what I'd been doing for the last few months ... she'd already have slammed the door on me. "I don't have to come in. And I'd really like to see Bobby. He's -- six, now?"

"He just turned eight," she says flatly.

Eight. My grandson is eight. It doesn't seem so long since Karen and her brother were no older than that. "I'm sorry I didn't send him anything. I was deployed." And being controlled like a puppet by an alien, but, God willing, she will never know that.

She starts to say more, heaves a long sigh and drags her hand across her face. "You can buy him something before you leave," she says, sounding very tired, and I realizes that I've won the first skirmish. The battle, though, still lies ahead.

"We can take my car."

"I'd rather take mine," she says in her mother's voice. So we leave my black Jag parked at the curb and pull out of the driveway in her sensible gray Honda. She throws a stack of papers and clipboards into the back to make room for me. She sells real estate, I recall. It must be doing well for her; the neighborhood is nice, with well-kept lawns and white houses set back from the street.

I don't want to stare at her, but I can't help being fascinated with the strong lines of her jaw, in which I see both her mother and myself; with the way fine strands of red hair unwind on the collar of her shirt; with the firm grip of her freckled hands on the steering wheel. I have always been attentive to detail, I know that about myself, but I blame the Goa'uld for sharpening it to a compulsion. Humans unconsciously filter out ninety-nine percent of the sensory input around them, focusing only on the important things, but that parasite didn't have any idea what was important and what wasn't -- it looked at everything. I guess I got used to it, because I can't stop noticing things now. Even the small flicker of Karen's pulse, leaping at the hollow of her throat, is fascinating to me.

"I really wish you'd stop staring at me."

"It's been a long time, Karen. You're ..." I stumble into an awkward silence. You're older is painfully obvious, You're grown is nonsensical since she's been grown for a while now. You're beautiful sounds creepy and twisted, though it is true -- she is.

We turn at a yellow light and merge onto a freeway. I wish we'd taken the Jaguar. It's hard, being a passenger in someone else's car, especially when I haven't even had time to get used to roads and cars again. Watching the traffic around us, watching my daughter's slim hands on the steering wheel ... it's surreal. I feel like an alien on the world of my birth.

Karen breaks the stiff silence. "Have you heard from Steve?"

"Not lately." My son is the other person besides Karen that I've been unable to reach, but then, I'm used to that -- and it's not as if I could protect him from the Goa'uld anyhow. The Trust probably has a price on him already. Steven Jr. followed in the old man's footsteps and went into the military, but he's an intel man, and I haven't known his location in years. Truth be told, I don't even know if he's still alive. I get a letter from him every now and then, but for all I know, they could be faked. I don't know him well enough to be sure.

Just as I don't know the red-haired young woman who sits next to me, watching the traffic with half her attention and me with the other half. There could be a Goa'uld inside her right now, one of those abominations inside my daughter, and I wouldn't even know.

Except ... I think I would know. Ex-hosts can tell, I've heard. They have a feeling for it, especially right after the extraction. And I don't feel anything odd from her.

"So," she says, trying again to break the silence, trying to break the wall that has grown up between us. "How's work?"

I look away from her profile, away into the rushing traffic that somehow reminds me of the cold flow of the stars in hyperspace. And I wish I could tell her. I can almost taste it, suddenly, the need to talk about everything I've done and seen. I've never been this tempted to give away my country's secrets, not even under torture, not even with a worm twisting in my brain and prying out my deepest, darkest memories.

Oh Karen, the stories your old man could tell you.

Back when Karen and Steve were little kids, some buddies and I used to have a light plane -- a Piper PA-12, jointly owned between the group of us. Connie, my ex, always refused to fly, and she hated it when I took the kids with me; we had some massive fights over it. But the tears and recriminations were worth it for the light that shone from their eyes as the ground fell away and blue sky enfolded us on all sides.

I have something better than that rickety old airplane, I want to tell Karen, all these years later. I fly a spaceship now. And I want to see her eyes light up, like they used to, back in those days when her hair was brown. I want to watch her as she watches the Earth fall away beneath her and the blue sky give way to stars.

The stories I could tell you, Karen.

I could tell you what it feels like to hang suspended between galaxies, with only a fragile shell of steel and Asgard technology between you and the bitter cold vacuum of space. And then I'd need to tell you what the Asgard are, and about all the aliens I've met -- the ones I've worked with and the ones I've admired and the ones that have tried to kill me.

I could tell you about a city made of glass and some sort of light material that looks like wood, but isn't. It floats on an alien ocean, like something out of one of the stories I used to read to you when you were a child, and it is brimming with wonders and dangers.

I could tell you about a strong woman named Elizabeth, who angers me and challenges me, and reminds me even more of your mother than you do. I wish that you could meet her. I think the two of you would get along.

I could tell you about a pilot called Sheppard, who took a command meant for me. I could tell you a story of mutual dislike changing slowly to respect and something not quite friendship, forged in the light of alien suns.

I could tell you about a thousand other soldiers in two wars fought in two galaxies -- some of them military, some civilian, and all of them brave enough to make me proud to serve with them. I could tell you about courage and honor and betrayal and pain. I have seen things that would make you cry, Karen, and things that would make you laugh, and things that would turn the shadow of suspicion in your eyes into a light of pure wonder.

But I can't tell you any of that.

"Work's all right," I tell her. "Let's talk about you."