Title: Down to the Bone
Summary: She knows now, what's essential.
Category: Angst, drama, Sam/Jack, 'Threads' fix-it.
Rating/warnings: PG, none
A/N: I claim ficamnesty! And indulgence! Anything that might excuse the writing of this fic. I guess I got tired of explaining what it is I don't like about 'Threads'. ;) Special thanks to katcorvi and holdouttrout.
Down to the Bone
Sam stands in the shade of General O'Neill's front stoop, staring at the door in front of her. She takes a take deep, cleansing breath, but that hasn't worked the dozen times she already tried it because her stomach is still flipping over freely as her mind replays clips of Pete showing her that perfect house for a perfect life and a perfect dog and sick just isn't the feeling that vision should be giving her. But walking in those carpeted halls and touring Jack and Jill bedrooms and stainless steel kitchen appliances made for baking cookies—she just couldn't breathe.
That sense of claustrophobia has finally receded as she stands on the stoop of a very different house, one that scares her too, only in a slew of different ways. She doesn't feel like someone is sitting on her chest anymore though. No, now there's a charge buzzing across her skin, something unsettling and strange, only more so because she's not sure it's all that unpleasant.
Of course, it's possible she's just stalling, standing here analyzing her body like some piece of foreign technology, but foreign is the part she can't get past, because have her emotions really become something she's ignored for so long that they no longer speak the same language? Maybe that's the real crux of the issue, because as hard as she's tried, she just can't work this out, not without one essential piece of information.
She just has to be brave enough to ask for it.
Taking one last breath, she straightens her spine, mastering the adrenaline rush as she has so many times before, and she can't miss the fact that she's treating this like a mission, a foray into alien territory. She knocks three times, evenly spaced, not too loud, not too soft.
Through the door, she hears a shouted, "Come on in!" which is really not what she expects.
Grabbing the handle, she twists and pushes forward, cautiously easing her head inside. "General?" she asks, stepping inside.
He appears around the corner from his kitchen, beers hanging from one hand, and comes to an abrupt stop by the dining room table. "Carter," he says, and she doesn't miss that he looks surprised, but she really doesn't have any computing power left to deal with that, so she just soldiers on.
"Sir," she says, closing the door behind her. "I'm really sorry to bother you at home like this, but I was wondering if you had a minute to talk."
"Talk," he echoes, his eyes darting towards his watch and he really couldn't look more uncomfortable.
Sam feels her carefully honed resolve threaten to waver. "If this is a bad time, I can just-," she trails off, gesturing inarticulately behind her. Just what? Come back later? Unlikely.
Jack looks torn for a moment before he drops the beers to the table with a decisive clunk. "No, it's fine," he says. He points into the kitchen. "You want something to drink?" he asks over his shoulder as he disappears through the doorway and Sam's forced to follow him.
Sam glances back in confusion at the drinks on the table. "No, I'm fine. Thanks."
He nods, looking a little agitated before he leans back against the sink, folding his arms across his chest. "So what's up, Carter?"
Oh, God, and here it is. With a vague sense of detachment, she observes all the carefully composed words evaporate in her mind, leaving her with nothing but fragments and landmines and it's possible this was all just a terrible idea.
"Pete bought a house," she blurts. It's not at all what she wants to say, but it's the house that finally did this, finally wore down her ability to lie to herself. She wonders if there is irony or symbolism or some deeper meaning hidden in there, the house that she thought she wanted but only makes her want to run and never look back.
But Jack doesn't really get that, because he just smiles and says congratulations. She gauges the specific angle of his lips as they curve, looking for the compression of skin next to his eyes and wonders how long he's been using that particular smile and why she never noticed before just how practiced it looks.
She shakes her head, wishing now that she had a glass of water or something. Anything to hide behind. "It's perfect and beautiful and exactly what I thought I wanted," she admits. "And I couldn't get away from it fast enough."
The disturbing smile melts off his face, his posture shifting, and it's almost painful how uncomfortable he looks now.
"The thing is," she says, "the closer the wedding gets, the more wrong it all feels."
"It's called cold feet," Jack says, grasping at the obvious conclusion.
"No," she says, shaking her head. "I'm pretty sure that's not it."
"I don't know what you want me to say here, Carter."
She pushes off the fridge, pacing a few steps closer. "It's all been spinning endlessly in my head," she explains. "And I finally realized that I just—I have to know. Once and for all."
"Know what?" he asks almost hesitantly as if he has a feeling he's not going to like where this is going.
She forces herself to look him straight in the eye and just say it, spill it all out and damn the consequences. "I need to know how you feel about me."
There's a long beat of silence there in his kitchen as they regard each other. Jack is probably wondering if he could have possibly heard her right, or maybe he's just waiting for her to take it back, to stammer an apology and retreat.
She doesn't move.
"Carter," is his predictable response, the word flavored with warning and she's beginning to wonder if that one word makes up his entire vocabulary when it comes to dealing with her or if he's just having a hard time processing everything she's throwing at him.
"I know it's inappropriate to even ask, but I really need to know." He's looking at her in that way of his that makes her feel just a little light-headed and it's enough to get the next words out. "Because if you don't feel anything for me, if that was just something I imagined, or has faded over time…then I think maybe I could finally get over this, and maybe my marriage won't be a total disaster."
She's watching him closely, but he's schooled his features so damn well now that she doesn't have a clue what he might be thinking and she figures she's gotten this far and might as well go for broke.
"But if you do…feel something," she pauses, takes a deep breath, and finally shoves it all out, this nagging thought she's done ignoring, "then I'm pretty sure that marrying Pete would be the biggest mistake of my life."
She thinks she hears him suck in a breath, but he hasn't moved, completely immobile standing there framed by the kitchen window, staring at her like she's some alien he's trying to decide is hostile or not. Her heart is pounding hard in her chest, light-headed buzzing in her ears as she waits for some sort of response, but she's mostly surprised by the distinct lack of need to flee.
Jack is the one to glance at the doorway as if seriously considering it. "Look, Carter," he says, his voice kind, if not just a tad distant. "I just want you to be happy. I've never wanted to get in the way of that."
"I know," she says. They'd done this vague euphemism game before, that day when they stared at the black velvet box between them. It's way too late for that dance. "But that's not really an answer."
He doesn't say anything right away, but she knows he's scrambling, probably trying to decide what would be best for her to hear, how to get out of this conversation without ever admitting anything. It's what they do.
She moves a few steps closer to him until she's definitely invading his personal space. "Please."
"Sam," he says, low and gruff, his hand lifting and for a moment she thinks he might touch her, only then there is a brisk knock on the front door that makes both of them jump.
Jack curses harshly under his breath and Sam takes a step back because suddenly he's looking like he'd rather be anywhere else in the universe at the moment. He glances again at his watch and Sam finally gets it. She looks at the two beers making rings on the table, the thawing meat on the counter perfectly cut for two.
Nodding her head, she chokes back the hysteria rising in her chest. "Who?" she forces herself to ask.
Jack looks like he'd like to swear again, but instead he sighs, short and resigned. "Kerry Johnson."
Yes, of course. The beautiful CIA agent Sam had only recently chastised herself for feeling an inappropriate beat of—what? Jealousy?—when she'd seen them in his office together. The irony is almost sharp enough to cut.
Too late, Sam. Way too late.
"God," Sam says, backing away from him. How could she have been so arrogant? Did she honestly assume he'd just be waiting for her? Waiting while she prepared to marry another man? Stupid, stupid Sam. "I am so sorry. I should never have-."
Jack cuts her off, his hand touching her wrist. "Carter," he says, and the worst part is the concern on his face as if he's worried about her feelings. "I--."
"Sir, don't," she says, pulling her arm away. She's the one who is out of line here, not him. "You don't owe me any explanations."
There's another rap at the door and he gives her long look before abandoning the kitchen with a sound of frustration.
By the time he returns with Kerry, Sam has managed to school her features, wrestle her emotions back into that indestructible trinium box she's tempered so well over the years.
She manages a smile and a calm handshake for her introduction to Kerry, standing there in his kitchen watching them stand next to each other like a unit. She waves off an invitation to stay for the meal, ruthlessly ignoring the painful domesticity of it all.
"Really, no," Sam says, smile still in place. "I was just leaving." She turns to Jack. "I'm really sorry to have bothered you at home, General."
"Anytime, Carter," he says, and she doesn't really know what that means, but doesn't bother looking too closely because either way, she thinks she has her answer.
Maybe she's had it all along.
Sam was still sitting in her car, staring at the steering wheel trying to build up the resolve to drive away when the call came—the final sucker punch. There's an urban legend about bad things coming in threes, she remembers, but it's always been a little too illogical for her until today. Until she's looking at a teetering engagement, a missed chance, and the relentless crawl of mortality on her father's face. Now she understands the need to find pattern in chaos, because pattern might just mean purpose and then things could be the way they are for a reason. Reason has always been comforting before.
But reason won't fix her father, won't stop him from dying.
He's facing it all with such resolve and acceptance that she's trying not to revert to angry, abandoned child wanting to know why. Why this, why now, why ever? It's too ungrateful, especially when she knows how different they are today, how far they've traveled from the last time he lay dying. He's not hiding from her anymore, and she knows him now, knows him in ways she never would have as a daughter with secrets and ambitions he wasn't allowed to understand.
But maybe it's not completely all that different because once again he's trying to fix her future for her before he goes. Only instead of called in favors and postings to NASA, this time he's using veiled references and oblique comments about rules and having everything she wants and he can't possibly be insinuating what it sounds like he's insinuating. Not today of all days.
Behold, the power of three.
"I just want you to be happy, Sam," he says.
She can't help the hollow laugh that rises in her chest. "God," she says. "I'm really tired of hearing people say that."
Her father raises an eyebrow at her and she knows this is not the reaction he prepared for. "What's wrong with wanting you to be happy?"
Sam pushes to her feet, pacing away from the bed, but the small room doesn't let her go far. "Because you all make it sound like that's so easy, like I can wave a wand and make myself happy. Like all I have to do is simply choose to be happy." Her voice is rising in volume and even she can hear the edge of hysteria fighting to be free.
"Sam," her father says, and she can sense it in his voice just how weak he is, how close she is to losing him.
She sits back down by the bed, taking his hand in both of hers. "I'm sorry, Dad," she breathes. "This has all just been a lot, you know?"
"I know," he says.
They sit there for a while in the semi-dark, Sam trying not to count the beeps of his monitor, to let the feeling of leeching time overwhelm her, but she knows that the time for questions is running out.
"Dad?" she asks.
"With Mom," she says, stumbling slightly because for all they've grown closer the last few years, they still don't speak easily about her. "How did you know?"
Her father's hand tightens around hers and she knows he gets it. "I loved her beyond anything, Sam," he says, his voice going a bit hoarse. "She was…" He hesitates, as if struggling to find the right word, or trying to catch on to some illusive memory. "Essential."
Sam fights back the treacherous tears that have been threatening all day. She's never heard him talk this way, but it fits so clearly with those hazy childhood memories she'd begun to think she imagined.
Yes, she thinks, that's exactly the way it's supposed to be.
"And even knowing what you know now?" she asks.
"You mean would I go through it all again?"
"Yeah," she says. "Would you risk it, just for that chance to be with her?"
There is something sharp and assessing in his eyes now as he regards her. "In a heartbeat."
She nods, feeling the tears finally winning. "Okay," she says. Lowering her head to the edge of the bed, she holds on tight to her father's familiar, careworn hand. She can feel his fingers, sure and comforting in her hair, and remembers that childhood certainty that her father could fix anything. Her staunchest ally.
"I love you, Dad," she says.
"I love you too, kid."
Things are supposed to happen in threes, Sam remembers as she stands in the control room of the SGC and waits to die.
Anubis obliterating all life in the Galaxy will make four and that just can't be because then maybe none of it really meant anything. Not holding her father's hand as he died. Not watching her ex-fiancé walk out of her life. Not leaving Jack standing in his kitchen with his perfect meal for two that was never going to be hers to share.
It seems too cruel of a fate from a universe she's spent her life admiring as elegant. Detached maybe, but beautiful. Things shouldn't end this way.
The self-destruct is counting down, racing against Anubis to see which will get that final blow in first and she's not sure which one she's hoping for.
There's a half dozen of them crowded in around the display, united together at the end by flashing red lights and the inevitability of time running out. She can feel Teal'c's shoulder steady next to hers, Harriman in front of her, his hands spread wide across the controls as if his will alone might hold them all together.
When the counter hits ten seconds Sam begins to worry that her knees are going to fail her at this last critical moment, but then she feels Jack shift behind her, taking one half-step closer to her, his hand touching her back—just enough to remind her that he's here. He's keeping the promise he made to her by her father's deathbed.
"Thank you, sir. For being here for me."
Maybe there is some small sliver of elegance left after all, she thinks.
She considers shuffling back, reaching for him with her own hand, but then everything stops, the universe hiccuping just long enough to save them, a miracle where she least thought to find one.
"Shut it off," Jack orders.
They step apart, reaching for the controls. She finishes punching in her code, still hunched over the keyboard as the countdown shuts off, the disengaged wormhole leaving them all in breathless silence as they try to reconcile this last second pardon.
Looking up, Sam meets Jack's eyes across the room where he leans over the second keyboard.
And she's back to three, pattern reestablished, the universe marching on. Elegant.
She breathes out.
Important things happen in threes. Sam can't prove it with equations or measurements or facts, just knows it to be true.
Anubis is gone.
Daniel came back, whole and safe and solid.
And Jack O'Neill is standing on her porch.
It's early, the cool morning air clinging stubbornly to shadows, her first cup of coffee still fighting off the last vestiges of sleep. She hasn't been back on base in days, too busy wandering the rooms of her home and trying to gather all the pieces of her life back up into some semblance of order. To find a way to live with the holes she's been left with.
Her team has been in and out all week, keeping her company, bringing her food, distracting her, and it's hard to feel like an orphan with them surrounding her.
This morning though, it's only Jack on her doorstep.
"Hey," he says and she's looking for concern or discomfort or any clue why he's here by himself this morning, but all she sees is ease. Acceptance.
"Hey," she echoes.
"Everything ready for tomorrow?" he asks.
She peers up at him, drawing her sweater across her chest. "Is that why you're here?" she asks. Flowers and food and family coming in from out of town, the details all delegated and easily dealt with over the phone.
"No, not really," he admits.
"Oh," Sam says. She rocks on her feet there on the threshold for a moment, knowing she should probably ask him in, but she just can't face that right now. She pulls the door shut, gesturing towards the bench resting under her front window.
Jack moves deeper into the porch, but doesn't sit, instead glancing out over her front yard. "I wanted to wait until after," he explains, "until things calmed down."
"For what?" she asks, taking a seat herself because if this is going where she suspects, she doesn't really want to have to put her knees to the test again.
"Well," Jack says, leaning back against the railing. "I never really answered your question, did I?"
"It's okay," she says, tugging at the sleeve of her sweater. "I figured out what to do anyway."
She nods. "I called off the wedding four days ago."
"I see," he says, leaning forward slightly. "Can I ask why?"
Sam knows she should speak obliquely, that they usually tiptoe around but never quite on the exact spot when it comes to this, but tomorrow she's burying her father and she's got nothing left but a steady stomach and the bald truth. And he asked.
"Because Pete deserves more than someone who's just settling."
That's the realization she came to as she sat there watching her father fade away—that in the end it didn't really matter if Jack still felt anything for her or not. It was telling enough that she was willing to throw away a sure thing, a certain future, just for the outside chance of a 'maybe someday'. A risk, but one she was willing to take.
Jack is still watching her closely and she doesn't miss how much calmer he looks today than the last time she tried to have this conversation. "I'm sorry," he says and she can tell he means it.
I just want you to be happy.
Sam shakes her head, giving him a tight smile. "Don't be. It was the right thing to do." She knows that, because it felt a lot like breaking out into fresh air after long months of slow suffocation.
Jack moves then, crossing the few short steps to the bench until he's lowering himself next to her. Sam stares down at her fingers pressed together in her lap because the bench isn't all that large and she might be imagining it, but he's sitting just a bit closer than he normally would. He's quiet for a while, leaning back against the bench and staring out at her garden.
"I tried it," he eventually says. He turns to look at her. "Settling."
She can't stop the squeeze of pressure across her chest, because as much as breaking it off with Pete was the right thing to do, 'right' has never been the same as 'easy'. Part of this choice she made is accepting that Jack has his own right thing to decide, that his may be very different than her own.
It's the risk she was willing to take.
"How did that work out?" she asks.
He shrugs, but she knows he's anything but nonchalant. "It didn't stick."
"It didn't?" she asks, wondering if this sudden tumult in her stomach is relief or guilt.
She takes a breath. "Why not?"
He shifts on the bench until he's facing her, taking a long moment to look at her. "Because some things just don't fade, Carter."
Sam lowers her head, squeezing her eyes shut, because there it finally is, her answer, and she's just not prepared for the rush of raw relief, the way it snaps the last careful threads she's got holding everything together, including the aching gap left behind by her father. This last week has been a marathon of more downs than ups, of ending after ending and it's finally just too much.
Jack's arm slides across her back, pulling her close and she gratefully leans into the embrace, marvels at the way this simple contact can anchor her because that heavy weight just isn't there anymore, taking with it the claustrophobic press of all the justifications and half-truths she's been living with.
His face presses into her hair. "I'm thinking a change of scenery might do us all some good," he says, his hand still moving soothingly across her back. "Just a few days away from all of this."
"Yeah?" she asks, and her voice is way steadier than it deserves to be.
She feels him nod. "You know, you, me, the guys, my cabin, and absolutely no impending doom of any kind."
She laughs, the sound a little thick as it leaves her throat. "That would be nice."
His hand stills on her back. "So, you'll come?"
She pulls back, looking up at him. "Yeah," she says. "I think it's about time I finally saw it."
The slow smile that overtakes his face brings back that flutter in her stomach and she knows now that it has nothing to do with relief or guilt, but something much more fundamental.
"Good," he says, his arm squeezing her shoulders as they settle back against the bench.
Tomorrow she will bury her father and Jack will be there by her side and maybe some day soon there just won't be any more need to wait. Things are already shifting, change building in the air like a charge, because she knows now, knows what's essential.
She thinks her father would approve.