Title: To Touch the Edge of Peace
Rating: Suitable for everyone
Author's Note: This is one of those fics that straddles the line between gen and ship. Sam and Jack are here, and there's a hint of UST between them, but it isn't about their relationship except in a strictly peripheral sense.
Dedication: For GoddessAndraste who suggested this response to, of all things, a schmoopage prompt. Schmoopy it's not.
Summary: Jack returns from Washington and Sam helps him find an important piece of his past.
Jack bent down, wrapped his hand around the painted metal handle, and tugged. The door clattered up on its track to reveal a dim interior stacked floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes, furniture, and assorted odds and ends.
"Do you have any idea which box it's in?" Sam asked, peering into the shadows. When he'd called that morning to say he was in town and would she mind helping him with a little project, it hadn't occurred to her that she'd be spending her day buried in dusty boxes and cobwebs - any of which may or may not have been inhabited by cranky, eight-legged squatters.
Jack turned to her, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. "Do I look like I have any idea?"
She sighed. He'd left for Washington in a hurry; she knew that. There hadn't been time to pack neatly or even - she squinted at the boxes - to label. "Tell me again what we're looking for."
"Carved wooden box," he drew a shape with his hands. "About this big."
"The one you used to keep in your locker?"
But he shook his head. "Same size. Different box."
"Maybe. I don't really know."
He looked at her, took a breath. "Can we just find it?"
His tense shoulders and closed expression didn't tell her much about what he was thinking, but they did tell her not to push.
She nodded. "Sure."
They waded in like soldiers going to war, first pulling furniture out of the way, and then attacking the boxes. Long practice in the intricacies of teamwork meant little wasted effort, with only the occasional exchange of question and answer between them as they worked their way into the storage room. Jack had bought these rather than begging the local liquor stores for discards, and their regular shapes and thick cardboard sides made them easy to work with.
The lack of labels slowed their progress. Every box had to be opened, its contents inspected, and then resealed and labeled before it could be set aside. An hour into it, Sam got tired of standing. She stretched, looked around, and spied the couch. It had been one of the first things they'd pulled outside, and now it was buried under an assortment of boxes and lamps. Crossing to it, she started clearing it off.
Jack stopped what he was doing to watch her, one eyebrow raised in curiosity. "What are you doing?"
"Rearranging." She lifted another box, set it down, and reached for a lamp.
"May I ask why?"
She glanced over at him. "It looks like this is going to take a while," she said. "We might as well be comfortable." Two more lamps and an assortment of odds and ends later, the couch was clear. She grabbed one end of it. "Give me a hand?"
Together, they dragged it inside, positioning it so the back was to the open doorway. Satisfied, Sam nodded and headed for her car.
"Now what?" he called after her.
Ignoring him, she popped the trunk, reached into the ice chest she'd brought along, and grabbed two bottles of water. She carried them inside, handed one to him, and unscrewed the top of the other.
The cold water washed the dust out of her throat, and she drained half the bottle before recapping it and setting it aside. "Much better." She sat down, dragged over a box and looked up Jack. He was staring at her, an odd look on his face. "What?"
But instead of answering, he just shook his head and pulled over a box of his own. Sitting down at the other end of the couch, he slit the tape with his pocket knife and got to work. Beside him, Sam was already digging.
Two hours later, Sam sneezed and pulled something from the middle of a pile of mismatched towels. "Is this it?" She traced the top of the box with one finger. The carvings were intricate; Gaelic by the looks of them, and the box was heavy in her hands.
They were deep inside the storage building now, surrounded by stacked boxes, furniture, and assorted lawn equipment. The musty air sparkled with displaced dust and stray sunbeams.
"Yeah," Jack said, his face going tight. "That's it."
She gave it to him, and he set it in his lap, his touch gentle on the carved wood. There was something infinitely sad about his expression as he looked at it, and she touched his sleeve in concern.
He glanced over at her. "Yeah."
"What is it?"
Without answering, he ran his hands over the box again, but this time his fingers caught at the latch, sliding it aside. Slowly, he lifted the lid.
Dozens of them.
Sam's breath caught in her throat. "Oh, God."
Sam suddenly felt like an intruder, an interloper in an intensely private moment. "I should go," she said, getting to her feet.
Jack caught her arm without taking his eyes off the pictures. "Stay."
"Are you sure?" It was a part of his life to which she didn't belong, could never belong.
He looked up at her, and something in his eyes held her more surely than the touch of his hand at her elbow. "I'm sure."
She nodded and sat back down, her shoulder brushing against his.
When she was settled, he turned back to the box, and time itself seemed to hold its breath—the passing cars and the lawn mowers, and even the birds—sliding into respectful silence as he gathered up the pictures and lifted them out.
He shifted them in his hands. Lined up their edges. Nudged one. And then another. And another one after that, until the small pile was perfectly aligned, each photo tucked neatly into place.
His thumb brushed across the glossy surface of the top picture—a sleepy toddler in a bumble bee costume, his small face smeared with chocolate, bobbing antennae askew.
"He was two that year." Jack's voice was so low that Sam had to lean close to make out the words. "He charmed the neighborhood out of a year's supply of chocolate, and I'm pretty sure he would've eaten all of it that night if Sara hadn't put her foot down." His mouth twitched in amusement. "You should've heard him scream."
"He was adorable." Sam smiled at the child in the picture. He was a gorgeous baby, and even at two, she could see Jack's face repeated in his son's.
"He was trouble." But there was affection in Jack's voice. Affection and pride. Carefully, he put the picture back in the box.
The next photo was of Sara. Tired and happy, she smiled up from a hospital bed, a small, blanket-wrapped bundle held close in her arms. "Scariest thing I've ever lived through," Jack said. "Worse than Anubis and Ba'al and that damned Tok'ra symbiote combined. To this day I don't know how she did it."
Sam imagined what it would be like to carry Jack's child and knew exactly how Sara had done it. The pain of childbirth would be a small price to pay for love.
One by one, Jack worked his way through the rest of the photos, sometimes telling her stories, sometimes smiling over something Charlie had said or done, and sometimes just staring silently for long seconds before tucking a picture back in the box with the others.
There were pictures of holidays, and camping trips, and trips to the zoo. There was one of Charlie's first birthday and one of his first haircut; his face screwed up with rage and wet with tears. There were pictures of Charlie and Sara, of Charlie and Jack, and of the three of them together, laughing in the sunshine.
The last picture, taken, Sam guessed, shortly before Charlie died, showed him in a baseball uniform, cap at a jaunty angle, bat slung with studied nonchalance over one shoulder. A rickety set of bleachers crowded with proud parents served as backdrop.
"His ninth birthday," Jack said. "He had a game that day. His coach brought cupcakes for the team, and after the Pledge of Allegiance, we all sang Happy Birthday." He hesitated, took a breath. "That was a week before he died."
He'd had it all. The perfect wife. The perfect son. The perfect life. And in a single moment, Heaven had become Hell.
Words wouldn't fix this, couldn't fix this. And in the deep, musty silence of the storage building, Sam didn't even bother to try. Instead she rested her hand on his knee and leaned her shoulder into his, offering what comfort she could.
Shifting the picture to his other hand, he reached down to twine his fingers with hers. Then, without letting her go, he put the picture in the box with the others and closed the lid. The tiny latch slid silently into place.
"Thank you." His voice was low, his free hand still resting on the carved wood.
"For—" He took a breath, shrugged. "This."
She nodded. "Anytime."
Jack pulled over the box Sam had found the pictures in. Carefully, he tucked them back in among the towels. Then he reached for the packing tape. Sam watched in growing confusion while he taped down the flaps and uncapped the magic marker.
He stopped writing to look at her. "What?"
"I thought that—" She waved a hand at the taped up box, "was why we came."
"And yet you aren't taking it with you."
"Nope." The word came out with a grunt as he lifted the box in his arms.
"Because I don't need it."
He set the box against the wall and picked up another. When she didn't move to help, he blew out a sigh and turned away to set the box in his hands on top of the one that held the pictures. He kept his back turned, his next words finding their way to her ears over his cotton-clad shoulder. "Charlie would've been twenty-one last week."
Last week. Which meant... "Oh."
Jack spared her a sardonic glance as he bent to pick up a leather footstool. "Yeah, I'd say that pretty much sums it up."
Sam got to her feet and crossed to where he was balancing the stool on top of his stack of boxes.
He froze at her use of his given name.
The words hung between them, suspended in the heat-thickened air.
"For what?" It was the same voice he'd used with her when her father had died.
"I'm sorry that it happened to you—sorry Charlie died, sorry your marriage fell apart, sorry—" She lifted a hand, dropped it back to her side in frustration. "I'm sorry for all of it. But..." And here she hesitated, because what she was about to say could so easily be misinterpreted.
"Spit it out, Carter."
She shook her head, trying to find a way to make him see what he needed to see without hurting him even more. "Let me ask you a question."
He folded his arms across his chest and waited.
"If it hadn't happened... Would you have taken that first mission to Abydos?"
It was a long time before he answered, and when he did, it was with a slow shake of his head. "Probably not."
She nodded. "That's what I thought."
"What's your point?"
"It's just that none of..." She stopped, not sure just how blunt she should be. In the end, she pushed the words out in a rush. "None of what came after would've happened."
Images flashed through her mind, scenes that would've been different, even nonexistent, if it hadn't been for Jack. He'd been such a vital part of her life for so long that the thought of never having met him made her chest go tight.
He stared at her, and she saw understanding dawn in his eyes as he held her gaze, but he didn't comment, and as the seconds slipped by, the moment began to feel awkward.
Instinct demanded she break the stalemate. Instead she lifted her chin and stood her ground.
Finally, he took a step toward her. And then another. And another. Until he was so close that if she just...leaned... No. She wouldn't do it. Couldn't do it. This would never work unless he was the one to reach out to her.
And still he didn't say anything, just watched her, his thoughts hidden somewhere in the depths of his dark eyes.
Sam clenched and unclenched her hands at her sides, the only outward hint of her feelings that she would allow herself.
A hint of a smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "I guess," he murmured. "Some clouds do have silver linings."
It was too soon to relax, so she settled for a slight dip of the chin. "So I've heard."
His shoulders rose and fell in a deep sigh. "I guess maybe it's time to let it go."
She didn't answer, because only he could know if he was ready.
He shook his head. "You aren't making this easy, you know." Bringing his hand up to her face, he brushed his thumb along her jaw, and despite herself, despite the voice at the back of her mind that was screaming at her to be strong, to wait, to hold back, she tilted her head to rest her cheek against his palm.
There was pain in his eyes. Pain and guilt and loss. But lurking behind the sadness she saw faint stirrings of acceptance. She swallowed hard, her chest tight with air she'd forgotten to exhale.
And then, at last, he nodded, and something in his face relaxed.
"C'mere," he said, pulling her close, his fingers tangling in her hair as he tucked her into his shoulder. Sam relaxed against him, letting go of her worry on a long drawn out sigh while she flattened her palms against the back of his shirt. It was only when she noticed the ache in her shoulders that she realized how tense she had been.
They stood that way for a long time, and Sam made no move to pull away. She didn't want him to let her go, didn't want the moment to end, or reality to intrude, or common sense to remind her that this wasn't a good idea. Instead, she reveled in his strength and in the knowledge that somehow she'd helped him begin to make peace with Charlie's memory.
When he did finally pull back, it was as though the shield he always kept between himself and the rest of the world had cracked; allowing her a glimpse of the warm and affectionate man he'd been before Charlie's death. Before today, he never would've shared that with her, and the fact that he was doing so now was both flattering and humbling.
She rested a hand just below the curve of his shoulder, noting how comfortably her palm fit in the hollow between joint and collar bone. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Shoot," he said, his hands still resting on her shoulders.
"Why now?" And why, she wondered, her? Why not Daniel? Or Teal'c? But that piece of the puzzle would have to wait. This wasn't the time or the place for that conversation.
"Not a clue."
He was telling the truth, she could see that in his eyes. He really didn't know what had prompted him to call her that morning, or why he'd kept her from leaving after she'd found the box. Jack, after all, had never been one for self-analysis.
She smiled at him, and his answering grin was freer than any she could remember seeing. Then, dropping his arms from her shoulders, he looked around at the mess they'd created.
"Make you a deal," he said.
"If my end of it has anything to do with cleaning this up," she glanced at the teetering piles of boxes and furniture. "Then your end had better have something to do with food."
He nodded. "My place." Tilting his head to one side, he gave her the bright smile he usually reserved for convincing her that she really did want to go fishing. "I'll even cook."
A dubious honor at best, but she didn't have the heart to tell him so. Instead she smiled and reached for the closest box.
"In that case, I guess we'd better get busy."