Title: Status Quo
Summary: Things are going well. Really well. Which means they probably should have seen this coming. (Season 9 'Beachhead' through 'Babylon')
Categorization: Drama, Angst, Sam/Jack
A/N: Number seven in the DC Series. Follows 'Worth It'.
Sam's pen dries up mid-signature, and isn't that just adding insult to injury? It's bad enough that she's got a huge stack of requests to dig through without her pen reminding her just how much ink she goes through on any given day.
She misses pencils. White board pens. Scribbled equations and easy erasing and no need to stay in the lines.
This is not how she ever saw herself, sitting here approving vacation days and conference dates for the myriad of people under her supervision. Especially since Dr. Wilkins is requesting time to attend a conference in DC and that's just mean. Then again, maybe Sam could come up with a valid reason to accompany him, or something.
She taps her fingers on her desk a moment before shaking her head and telling herself to get a grip. Reaching for another pen, she manages to knock the cup over, spilling pens everywhere. She swears under her breath, but as she slaps a hand down on the pens trying to escape onto the floor, she notices a small folded piece of paper wedged underneath the cup.
Her bad mood doesn't stand a chance as she smiles down at the little note.
Abandoning her attempt to corral the pens, she picks up the piece of paper. She's been finding them in random spots in her house all week, but she can't imagine how Jack found the time to hit her office as well. Not that she's particularly surprised; the man has almost supernatural powers when it comes to pulling off his little pranks.
The note hiding thing actually began a long time ago, and completely innocuously. In the old days, Jack liked to amuse himself with drawing stick figures in the margins of his memos during briefings. As was her duty as his second in command, she would eye the drawings and shake her head in prim disapproval.
Maybe that was what made him start hiding the silly stick figures all over her office and lab: it was his way of getting her to lighten up. She'd come upon them at the most random times, little strips of paper depicting Daniel tripping into open pits or Teal'c kelnoreeming with a giant thought bubble of a donut floating above his head. Sometimes it was a doodle of Jack as 'Super-Colonel' with giant muscles and a flapping cape. One time it was even a picture of Sam shooting bad guys (carefully demarcated by black hats) Rambo-style with a gun in each hand. Inevitably she found one of the drawings while she was neck deep in some crisis of the moment and it gave her an excuse to stop for a minute and laugh.
Like with most habits that felt completely innocent at the time, Jack's note hiding stopped right around the time the whole armband thing happened. She'd refused to admit that she'd missed it at the time. She's trying not to think too hard about what it means that he's picked it up again, because maybe it hadn't really been all that innocent, even in the beginning. Maybe a lot of things hadn't been.
But now he's allowed to make her smile and distract her from work every once and while without having to care what it looks like. It's nice.
Not that Jack will ever admit to it, no matter how damning the evidence. She's pretty familiar with his handwriting after all, but also just as familiar with his dead-on impersonation of the densest piece of rock in the universe. She suspects he's trying to protect his reputation by refusing to admit to doing anything so cute or sentimental.
Either way, in addition to the occasional stick figure, she's been finding twisted fortune cookie-like saying and silly jokes tucked in the pages of her books, or stuffed under sofa cushions. And now under her pen cup. She unfolds the newest little note.
What do you call cheese that isn't yours?
She blinks at the words for a moment before flipping it over, but there's no answer on the back, so she assumes he's hidden the other half of the joke somewhere else in her office. She wonders how long it's going to take to find because, dammit, that's going to bug her and he has to know that.
She supposes she should just be grateful that he's stuck to relatively G-rated riddles for her office. There were more than a few slips of paper at home that would have been very hard to explain to her assistant. And now she's grinning rather stupidly at the scrawled riddle.
Shaking her head, she lifts a few things on her desk in a half-hearted attempt to find the other half of the joke. No luck. She might have to instigate a more exhaustive search system, but not until after she finishes her work. Really. It's the responsible thing to do.
She's still tying to force her attention back on her forms when the phone rings.
"Carter," she says, tucking the phone against her ear as she gathers up the forms and considers dumping them back into her inbox to get to later. Much later.
"Hi," Jack says.
Sam straightens up a little, glancing at her watch. It's awfully early to be getting a call from him, it's not even noon yet. "Whoa," she says. "Eerie."
She picks up the little note. "I was just thinking about you."
"Yeah?" he says, sounding very smug. "Good things, I hope."
"That depends," she says. "What do you call cheese that isn't yours?"
There's a short pause and then Jack says, "Did you fall and hit your head, Carter?" like she's the crazy one in this conversation.
"You do know it's going to drive me insane until I find the other half, don't you?"
"I have no idea what you are talking about," he says in his most 'I am important' voice.
She's not fooled. She considers trying to goad him into playing hot or cold, or twenty questions. That should appeal to his juvenile sense of amusement. Or maybe she should just google the damn thing and be done with it, but that doesn't seem particularly sporting.
"Fine," she says, deciding to be the mature one in the conversation. "I'll let you have your little secrets."
"Thank you," he says, but there's something not quite right about his voice.
"Jack?" she asks.
She can hear the squeak of his chair on the other end, like he's sat up suddenly. "I just got off the phone with Landry," he says.
It's only then she registers that he never calls her at work. Stupid, stupid Sam.
"I'm sorry, Carter," Jack continues. "They need you back at the SGC."
Her hand clenches around the note, the sound of the crinkling paper abnormally loud in her empty office.
"You should be getting the paperwork sometime today," he says and it sounds so forebodingly final.
"I understand," she forces herself to say, but she thinks her voice sounds a little funny.
"Carter…," he says, his tone soft and intimate, and for some reason she can't stand hearing that from him right now.
"It's fine," she insists. "It's not like it's a surprise. I knew this was coming."
There's a long pause. "You know this means Mitchell will be in command."
"It's fine," she repeats and somehow it's easier to say each time the words pass her lips. "Thanks for the head's up. I know you didn't have to."
He sighs, short and irritated. "Sure, Carter. That's what I'm here for, after all," he says and she tries not to wince at the blunt edge of his tone.
"I've got to run," she blurts, and she's not even sure where the words come from. "Meeting."
"Of course," he says like he doesn't know perfectly well that she's lying to him.
She looks down at the mangled little note resting in the palm of her hand, hangs up the phone, and gets back to work.
Maybe they are both allowed to have their little secrets.
It takes four weeks for Jack to snap.
Four weeks during which Carter tried to blow up an Ori beachhead with a nuclear bomb, almost got blown up herself in a naquadah-laced building in downtown Seattle, and lost a teammate on a mysterious, mystical Jaffa planet. Four long weeks of listening to her say "It's fine" over and over again like some smiling porcelain doll with a broken string.
"You'll get Mitchell back, Carter," he'd said yet again during their latest phone call, fine with being her cheerleader, knowing she has the tendency to get in a little too deep, to get lost in things she insists on seeing as her personal responsibility.
"Sure," she'd replied. "Of course we will."
He thinks that's what finally did it, the last straw--the artificial quality of her voice, the feeling that once again she was feeding him the party line, like she's talking to the goddamned Head of Homeworld Security. But no, he can't just call her on it. He has to push her, nettle her, just to see how long it takes for her to snap too. Misery loves company, right?
Only it takes much, much longer for her to crack than he expects.
Somehow it's gotten to the point where he is barely listening to the crap pouring out of his mouth, so focused is he on pushing her, so intent on provoking a reaction. Whatever he's just said though, she's finally quiet for an extended period. He'd wonder if she were even still there if not for the slightly uneven breathing audible in the background.
When she does finally find words to string together, her voice faintly shakes, not with tears, he knows, but with anger. "God. You are such an…"
Asshole, Jack silently supplies when she seems unable to say it herself. The fact that she can't only pisses him off more.
The sound of the line dying as she hangs up is neither loud nor dramatic, but he still flinches. You wanted to provoke a reaction, he savagely reminds himself as he flips his phone shut, tossing it on his sofa in disgust. "Nice one, O'Neill."
He doesn't bother to call her back, knows there are only so many ways she'll deal with this and that none of them will include talking to him.
An insane run. A breakneck ride. A long, long stretch in her lab.
It's worse that he knows her so well, knows exactly what buttons to push and yet, on a personal level, he still barely knows her at all. She's guarded every word and look around him for so damn long, he has a hard time knowing what's real. It's the only excuse he can claim.
It hasn't been that long, after all, since he thought everything was finally going right.
Her voice, light and warm over the phone. "Are you surprised?"
"About what specifically?"
"This. Us. Actually working."
He laughs. "Maybe not surprised so much as grateful."
"Yeah. I know what you mean."
And then she got called back to the SGC and everything went to hell.
Jack wishes Murphy would take his damn law and shove it up someone else's ass for once.
"For the millionth time, I'm fine," Cam insists. "I was only fake-dead."
It's the wrong thing to say though, as Dr. Lam's eyes narrow dangerously, apparently not finding much comfort in the distinction. Sam shares a look with Teal'c before taking a large step back, Teal'c and Daniel right on her heels, all simultaneously considering the wisdom of retreating to minimum safe distance.
Cam shoots them a look of alarm.
"Doctor knows best," Daniel reminds him with a shrug.
"Cowards," Cam complains as they unabashedly abandon him.
Sam can live with that. Apparently Daniel and Teal'c can too, as they follow her out into the hall. Predictably though, Teal'c leaves them at the elevator, and Sam suspects he's on his way to his quarters to find something to keep Cam entertained while he's stuck in the infirmary. Daniel and Sam just look at each other and leave that task in Teal'c's capable hands.
But rather than returning to his own office, Daniel follows Sam back to her lab, pausing in the doorway. She's not blind; she knows Daniel's been building to something for weeks and she has a pretty good idea what, too. Not that it keeps her from settling into her work as if she doesn't know he's there.
She's really good at ignoring distractions.
"You're happy, aren't you?" Daniel observes after a while, propped up against the doorframe.
Oh, boy. Here they go. "Daniel," she complains.
"Sam," he insists.
Sighing, she puts down her tool and dutifully gives the question a solid moment or two of consideration. Is she happy?
It's true that she pretty much had no idea how wound up she'd been at Area 51 until she was back in these familiar halls, knowing she's making a direct contribution to the fight against the Ori. It's strange, maybe, but she just doesn't worry as much here, doesn't feel nearly as restless. At least here she'll see the next big thing coming, even if she does end up smashed on its windshield.
Not that everything is perfect, pretty far from it actually. Sure, it's great to be back with Daniel and Teal'c, and having Cam in command doesn't bother her nearly as much as she would have thought. She suspects it has something to do with the fact that they have a much more symbiotic relationship than she's ever experienced with a commander before. He's perfectly willing to defer to her greater experience, to let her make calls, but he also knows when to just step up and put an end to discussion and get things done. It's a lot easier to focus on more technical tasks off world with him watching her back. So, yeah, it works, even though it seems like it shouldn't. It's probably helped by the fact that Cam is about as easy-going as they come. Now if only he could get over the hero-worship thing. That's just embarrassing for all of them.
So the team is working out, more or less. It's not the same and she's still jumping around a bit, trying to find her footing, but she's fairly certain it will work out.
Then there's the strange disconnect she's got going with Daniel and Teal'c. Those few short months apart have impacted each of them to extreme degrees. Daniel is more impatient and brittle than she's ever seen before, and Teal'c, even if he will never admit it, is disheartened with the Jaffa and their clumsy attempts at nation building. Or maybe he's finally beginning to realize the full price he will have to pay for defecting to the Tau'ri those long years before: to never fully belong among his people again.
Then there's Sam herself, and the secrets she's so intent on keeping, even if she has no idea why. She's pretty sure that's what this little song and dance from Daniel is really about today. This isn't about her move back to the SGC. This is about Jack.
It's not that they've been keeping their relationship a secret necessarily. Discretion may just be second nature. Of course, they've also been so busy trying to find new and interesting ways to mess this thing up that there's been no time to think about how to come clean to their friends, how to make that transition into the larger public eye.
Jack had seemed pretty resigned to Daniel flipping out the one time they talked about it, but Sam can't quite picture it. It's not something she's ever discussed with Daniel, nothing more than vague references here and there over the years. She always assumed he understood that talking about it only made it harder to deal with.
Of course, the situation is completely different now—legal maybe, but a lot more confusing.
"It's not supposed to be a trick question," Daniel says when she's been quiet too long.
She looks up at him. Is she really happy?
She knows she should deny it.
She's not humming in elevators, not bursting with the need to tell someone. Even now, with Daniel finally tipping his cards in that oblique way of his, she feels protective of her relationship with Jack, hesitant to share. Hell, they aren't even speaking to each other at the moment. It's been five days since she hung up on him with no real intention of calling him back anytime soon.
But with Daniel patiently waiting for her answer, leveling her with a gaze that is far too familiar for comfort, all she can think of is that day in the bright Vegas sun with Daniel's departure eating at her and something she refused to name twisting in her stomach.
"Yeah," she admits, a bit surprised to hear it herself. "I'm happy."
And now she can feel it too, such calm surety where dread used to live.
"Good," Daniel says and she knows, somehow, that this is all they will ever say about it. Maybe their silence on this topic all these years hasn't been her choice alone.
Clapping his hands together, Daniel pushes off the doorjamb. "So. Pie?" he asks, canting his head out towards the hall.
"God, yes," Sam says, abandoning any pretext of working on her project and following him out into the hall.
Maybe some things aren't so different after all.
Sam drops her keys on the counter, her eyes automatically tracking to the answering machine. No new messages, just a static number one reminding her of the message she hasn't managed to erase yet.
Turning her back on it, she walks out of the room. She changes out of her work clothes and throws together a quick meal, eating in front of the television. She tries to forget the message is even there, but she can feel that small number like someone's staring a hole in her back. Like it's accusing her of something.
Okay, this is getting beyond ridiculous.
Putting her dishes in the sink, she reaches for the delete button, but her finger diverts its course at the last moment, pressing play instead. Jack's voice echoes through her quiet house.
"Carter. Just call me back. Please."
After their spectacular blow out of a fight, Jack gave her two solid days of space before he started calling, not leaving messages or bothering her at work, just getting his number logged on her phone a few times a day as if to remind her he's still there. Two more days of her ignoring even that and he finally left her this single message before stopping with the calls all together.
That last call was logged well past midnight, translating into some insanely late hour for him. It's a simple message, and he sounds nearly as exhausted as she feels. Listening to it again today, she realizes she isn't even sure what the fight was really about.
Maybe it's time to find out. She doesn't give herself time to think about it, just picks up the phone and dials his number.
"Hello?" he answers.
"Jack," she says, forcing the word out before she can change her mind.
He only hesitates a moment before saying, "Carter, hey." He sounds surprised, but also wary.
She hasn't gone into this conversation with a plan, doesn't know how to wade in, how to understand what those angry words and relentless prodding had really been about. Jack, damn him, isn't offering any help. She resists the urge to hang up again and tries to remember why she called in the first place.
"Daniel knows," she says.
"Ah," Jack says, but he doesn't really sound surprised and she has to wonder, not for the first time, exactly how much those two share and don't share. Daniel's timing is also beginning to feel a bit suspicious.
"He asked me if I'm happy," she says.
"And what did you say?" he eventually asks, almost as if scared to voice the question. It's only then that Sam realizes his frustrating reticence is not born of anger or perversity. She knows that he's been holding his breath too, wondering if this one petty fight is going to be enough to derail this.
And it was petty, she knows now, and she can't maintain any indignation. "I told him I am."
She can hear him blow out a breath. "Look, I'm sorry, Carter. I never should have-."
She cuts him off. "You wanted me to get angry, didn't you? You did it on purpose." She recognizes it now that the fury no longer blinds her.
Silence again and she fleetingly thinks this conversation should be in person, but there's no cheating here, no falling back on old habits, just words and learning to listen.
"I guess I needed to know you'd still hand me my ass on a platter if I really deserved it," he admits.
Sam rubs at her forehead, beginning to feel a tension headache coming on. "I have no idea what that is supposed to mean," she says, sitting down at her table.
She can just make out some background noise fading in and out on his end of the line. The television, maybe? She thinks he must be pacing, spends a moment imagining him there, walking door to window and back again.
"You stopped talking to me," he says.
That is not something she expects to hear. "What?"
"Ever since you went back, you've been so damn distant. Polite."
Sam leans back, trying to wrap her mind around this. "So, what, you decided to say all those horrible things to me, just to make me stop being polite?"
"Hey, I never said it wasn't a stupid plan," he says and she can imagine him dragging his hand across his face in frustration. "I just… You don't have to pretend everything is peachy all the time, Carter. I'm not your boss."
Sam straightens in her chair, feels her spine stiffen. "I know that."
"Do you?" he challenges.
Of course she does. But something keeps her from saying it, from voicing the words.
She looks down at her hand clenched in her lap, feels the painful grip she has on the phone, and knows he's right. Damn him. She's been biting her tongue, knows it took him far longer to prod her to anger than it should have.
"I can't go back to what we were before, Carter. I can't." He sounds so painfully weary.
She's quiet for a long stretch, everything piling and tumbling in her mind, and he lets her have the time. "Do you know why I stayed in Nevada so long?" she eventually asks, hating how hoarse her voice sounds.
"No," he says.
Of course he doesn't. Because no matter how many times he asked, she never answered. She thinks of all the energy she spent avoiding his questions about Nevada, about her move, her reluctance to transfer.
"I didn't want to screw this up," she confesses.
"Carter," he says, with that soft affection that slides right down her spine.
"Behold my success," she says with a hollow laugh.
"Believe me, I know the feeling," Jack says. "After all, I imagine simply asking you about this would have been the better strategy."
God, what a pair they make. "Probably," she agrees.
"You just… You can't shut me out."
She closes her eyes. She should have known this would always be the hardest part of this whole thing, but it's also an unexpected relief, this evidence that he wants nothing less than a complete relationship. If this had ever really only been about sex, it would have been over and done with years ago.
"It feels like I finally moved on, only to get dragged back in," she admits. "I just wish… God. I wanted more time."
"Why?" Jack asks. "Why does this have to change anything?"
She doesn't know how to put it into words, doesn't know how to explain that she's terrified of sliding backwards. In Nevada, everything was different and new and she was free to change anything and everything she wanted. Maybe be a whole new person.
Back here, it doesn't feel like she has that choice.
"It's different here. God knows I'm going to work too much, be around way less, and…" She pauses, swallowing against the rising tightness in her throat. "It's harder to think of you this way here. Like it still feels wrong." She winces at the way that sounds. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean…" Shit, she doesn't know what she means anymore.
"It's fine, Carter. I mean, that's not exactly at the top of my list of things I'm dying to hear, but at least it's honest."
Honest, maybe, but where the hell does that leave them? "I wish I could go back."
"No you don't," he says. "We both know you never should have been there in the first place."
It's too obvious now to ignore, the way she feels more settled at the SGC, like her skin actually fits her here. But maybe she just had to prove Area 51 wasn't right for her, prove that the SGC is a choice and not a default.
"It's possible I wanted to prove I could have a life outside the SGC," she says. "That it doesn't have to be the be all and end all of me. I want to be…more."
"If there is anyone in the universe who can pull it off, it's you, Carter. Of that I have no doubt."
She really, really wants that to be true, but for once his unfailing faith in her isn't the comfort it should be, because there is something else still bothering her. "How do you really feel about me being back in the field?" she asks.
Jack is silent for a moment. "Wow. Painted myself into a corner now, haven't I?"
Sam refuses take the bait, holding her tongue.
"Ok, sure," he admits, "I liked it when you were home all the time, and when you're on a mission, I feel a bit…tense. But it's familiar. This isn't the first time I've done this, if you remember."
"But that was…before," she says, finally verbalizing what's been eating at her.
"Carter," he hedges.
He blows out a breath. "Fine. Let's be honest, Carter. Do you really think you meant any less to me before?"
Oh, Jack, she thinks, feeling like something is squeezing her chest.
He's revealing a lot more than he's ever dared before, but she knows exactly what he means. This thing between them has been there for years, no matter how much they pretend otherwise. Just because they are finally able to act on their feelings, engage in this relationship, it doesn't fundamentally change anything. Maybe it's long past time to acknowledge that.
"No," she says once she finally trusts herself to speak. "No, you're right."
"So," he says, clearing his throat. "First fight."
"Yeah, I guess so," she says, feeling the tension finally leaving her shoulders. Another obstacle survived. "I'm actually kind of surprised it took this long."
"Ouch. I'm hurt, Carter," he says, but she can finally hear it now, the smile in his voice.
"Just to be clear though," she says. "If you ever do that to me again, I really will hand you your ass on a platter."
"So noted," he says, sounding surprisingly cheerful.
"You are a very strange man, Jack."
"I'll take that as a compliment," he says. "Now, about the small issue of make up sex…"
Sam can't help herself, she laughs.
The next morning she walks into her office to find a plain white envelope sitting on her keyboard. Inside is a small, folded piece of paper with a simple stick figure drawing scribbled on it. It's a woman with wispy yellow hair, giant biceps, and a cape flapping behind her. A wide sash across her chest says, "Super-Colonel."
And at the bottom, a tiny scrawled note.
P.S. Nacho cheese.