Kawalsky knew he was screwed the moment the wormhole snapped shut behind him.

For one thing, he wasn't usually greeted by the business end of the gate room's .50 calibers pointed at his chest. And for another, she was there, sitting behind a monitor in the control room and looking for all the world like this was exactly where she belonged.

He didn't even bother to raise his weapon.

What was the point? If Sam Carter was at the SGC, then there was no way this was home.

This wasn't Kawalsky's first kick at the cat when it came to parallel universes. Third, maybe fourth, actually, if you counted the time when Jackson and his alternate self came through the mirror with the warning about the Ori.

It was the first time he'd ever crossed paths with an alternate version of her, though.

Charlie handed over his weapon without argument and followed the SFs to the infirmary, where he was run through the whole post-mission song and dance, before being escorted to a holding cell to sit and wait.

And wait.

*

"Carter," he calls as he pushes his way through the throng of refugees crowding the gate room.

She stops, comes to attention (since he outranks her), and tries to hold back the smile that's already creasing the corner of her eyes.

"Sir," she answers smartly. She's filthy and scraped up and at some point managed to end up on the receiving end of what looks to be a good shiner, but it doesn't seem to dampen her obvious enthusiasm. She may be one of the brains who got the Stargate working, but she's still military through and through, and apparently a lot tougher than she looks. Charlie can't help but like that about her.

He can practically feel her vibrating from the adrenaline rush of their near miss with those…what were those aliens called? Jaffa?

He offers her his hand. "Listen, Captain," he says, "I think I owe you an apology."

She hesitates but then accepts the handshake with a shrug. It's firm, a little forceful even, like she's spent the time to figure out exactly how much pressure was enough to take her seriously without giving the impression that she's over-compensating for something. "No hard feelings." She brushes it off and Charlie figures she's trying to play it cool. Never let them see you sweat and all that.

"No, seriously," he says. "And thanks for pulling my ass through the gate at the last minute. That didn't look like the kind of place I'd want to be left behind."

She finally makes eye contact with him, and he can tell that under the bravado, she'd been just as shit-scared as the rest of them as they'd sprinted those last hundred meters.

They've made their way past the confused SFs trying to establish some order amongst the refugees that are spilling out into the corridors and are heading towards the showers. He watches her out of the corner of his eye as they dodge and weave through the mass confusion of medical staff and airmen heading in the other direction. He likes the way she walks, head held high and sure of herself, like she's trying to pretend that this mission wasn't the coolest thing she's done since joining the service.

"It's no big deal," she says, but Charlie's already forgotten what they were talking about.

Crap. If the rest of the guys knew how quickly he'd fallen for this blond with brains and a penchant for blowing stuff up, he'd never hear the end of it.

*

Kawalsky had already figured out that whatever was going on here, it was way bigger than a single stranger showing up unexpectedly through the gate.

It was hours before anyone came to question him, and while normally he might have been a little insulted at being ignored, he'd been watching through the narrow window in the door and had seen no fewer than five Carters pass by; some as part of a larger group, some alone, save for their security escorts.

The Carter who knocked on his door before entering was alone. That alone told him right away that she was the original. The one he saw in the control room. The one who, with that millisecond of eye contact when she'd looked up from her monitor, had sent his stomach diving through the floor.

"So," he leaned back in his chair, laced his hands behind his head, and tried to appear nonchalant. "Of all the Stargates in all the universe, you had to step through mine."

She stopped just inside the door, tilted her head at him like he'd been found speaking in tongues and somebody had forgotten to add it to the report, then the shadow of a smile curved the corner of her mouth.

"Technically, Kawalsky," she said. "You stepped through mine."

Charlie shrugged. "Yeah, I know." He stood, not quite sure what kind of protocol was expected here. "But you always loved it when I used that line."

*

The early days of the program are heady with excitement. They don't yet fully understand that the contents of the box they've spilled will never allow themselves to be put back. They get lucky and don't lose too many people. This makes them bold.

Charlie gets his own team, previous gate travel playing heavily in his favor, and he's relieved when she's assigned to SG-1 because it means that she doesn't report to him. She's young and smart, and he has no doubt that she'll outrank him before he knows it, but in the mean time, he likes that she's loosened up around him. Their sparring in the briefing room becomes a running joke between them.

His team just got back from P3-whatever-planet-it-was and he's covered in mud and stinks like he's been rolling around in a pig-pen. As he leaves the gate room he can hear her voice echoing down the hall ahead of her. The Joint Chiefs have Hammond scheduling missions like he's running LAX and not some secret mission to explore the galaxy. Charlie knew SG-1 was on the board to depart as soon as his team got back.

"...so you see, Sir," Sam is saying as SG-1 turns the last corner before the blast doors, "if you take into account the molecular weight of trinium, it can be used in almost the same fashion as aluminum, but without needing..."

Charlie catches her eye as he squeezes himself against the wall to let them pass. When he's sure she's looking, and the rest of her team isn't, he grins and gives her a wink. She blushes and stumbles over the next few words, but nobody else seems to notice her slip.

That night, he goes for drinks with Jack and Ferretti. He's zipping up his fly when Jack steps up to the urinal next to him. Charlie and Jack go way back, since long before the Gulf, and if anybody's going to give him a hard time about this thing with Carter, it'll be Jack.

"Kawalsky," he says without looking at him, "You do anything to mess up my team and I'll make sure everyone, and I mean everyone, knows about that time you woke up in Bangkok wearing that pretty blue dress."

Nothing else is said on the matter, but Charlie knows that's about as close to a blessing as he'll get from Jack.

*

She pulled up the only other chair in the room and sat. "So," she asked while she flipped through the folder in her hand. She sounded casual, and maybe a bit tired. "What's your story? Where's the rest of your team?"

"Hopefully, they made it home," Charlie said.

He noticed that she'd left the door open, and he knew there would be a guard posted within shouting distance should he decide to bolt. He took a seat instead.

Sam waited for him to elaborate. This wasn't the interrogation he'd expected; more of a fact-gathering mission, like he was being tagged and cataloged before they set him free and sent him on his way.

He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. He had no idea how long he'd been waiting, and he was tired. "Lorne and Rothman went through the gate. I was laying down cover fire and told Teal'c to go too. Something exploded to my left, and when I turned back, the gate was closed and I was alone."

"Did you dial up again right away?" she asked. She was watching him the same way she used to watch her experiments, observing and cataloging, filing the information away for later analysis. He'd always teased her that she gave away too much with a single look to ever beat him on poker night.

"No," he answered. He suspected her questions were more directed at finding out how he'd gotten here than whether or not he was telling the truth, otherwise they would have sent somebody more intimidating down to interrogate him. "I found cover and played dead until the shooting stopped. Maybe five? Ten minutes? When things looked quiet, I dialed and went through. The rest," he threw up his hands, "is history."

"No irregularities in the event horizon? No indication that anything was wrong?" She sounded like she'd asked the same questions a dozen times already today.

Charlie shook his head. "No. Nothing."

"Okay then." Sam stood and motioned to the open door. "You're free to go. Or at least wander the level. Follow the green line to the commissary if you want a bite to eat."

"Sam."

She looked up sharply, and Charlie reminded himself that it was possible that they'd never been together in this reality. He glanced at her uniform.

"Colonel," he amended. She'd done well for herself, as he'd always known she would've. "Can I buy you a coffee?"

She nodded and pointed towards the door again and he wondered how long it had been since she'd last slept. "Sure. I could use a cup or two."

*

"Does it ever worry you," she asks him one night in bed, "that one day, either of us could step through the gate and never come back?" She rolls onto her stomach to watch his reaction. "Just poof, and you're gone… your molecules scattered all over subspace?"

Charlie hasn't really thought about it that way. He's more expecting to be taken out by something like a staff blast when he bends down to tie a boot lace, to be honest.

He knows about the ex-fiancée and how sometimes she can still be fragile when he least expects it. Very rarely in public, and never in the field. But sometimes, like tonight, when they're lying together in bed, she'll ask him a question out of left field, and he knows that if he doesn't want her to turn away from him, he'll have to be serious and truthful in his answer.

He runs his index finger back and forth along her pale shoulder while he tries to compose his answer. She watches him by the dim hallway nightlight while she waits.

"No," he says finally, and he speaks the truth. "Because I know that you've been busting your ass with all those gate diagnostics to make sure it won't happen."

His answer seems to satisfy her. She leans forward and kisses him deeply. They make love again, slowly this time, as if they're making a pact. Promising each other that they'll always come home.

*

They got their coffee, and Charlie grabbed a sandwich as well. He couldn't remember the last time he'd actually eaten a meal.

They found a quiet corner away from the other Carters, and Teal'cs, and Jacksons, and all the other people Charlie doesn't recognize.

"What's the story here?" he asked after he swallowed the last bites of the sandwich. "With all the Xerox people."

Sam put down the coffee cup she'd been hiding behind and glanced around the room like it was the first time she'd noticed the two copies of herself picking through the dessert case. "Gate malfunction, as near as we can tell. We're still analyzing the diagnostics to know for sure, but I have a theory that there's some anomaly redirecting incoming wormholes to our gate instead of connecting with the gates in their proper alternate universes." She took a sip from her mug. "I just don't know what it is yet."

"You'll figure it out," he assured her. "You always did."

She studied him for a long moment, like she was trying to see if he was patronizing her. She must have decided that he wasn't, because she asked, "You and your Carter were close?"

"Yeah," he glanced back over his shoulder at the comings and goings of the commissary staff. At the moment, it was hard to look at her and not see all the years he'd missed written in the lines around her eyes. "We were close."

"What happened?"

Charlie turned back to her and looked her straight in the eye, as if she could finally give him the answer.

"I wish I knew."

*

The CMO pulls Carter from the mission at the last minute. In all the confusion that comes later, Charlie never finds out why. He's only thankful that she was pulled, because he never wanted to see her broken like that.

SG-1 goes out a man short and comes back one shorter. Almost two, if you count Jackson, because by the time the psychiatrists and the physiotherapists are finished with him, and the assessments have been made, there's no way Daniel's going to step through the gate and be a functional member of an SG team again.

The thing is, nobody saw it coming. Oh, they should have. They've been riding the wave of success for far too long. Something was bound to give.

Charlie isn't sure if it was because they went out short, or if it was just the wrong place at the wrong time, but when Teal'c's radio message for backup comes in, the whole base scrambles to mount the rescue.

They manage to bring Teal'c back in one piece, and Jackson is at least breathing. Jack, well… there's already plans in place to go back and retrieve the body.

Of course Sam finds out right away; it's her team, after all, but Charlie doesn't get a chance to check on her until hours later. Not that he thinks she'll need to be coddled and handled with care, but Charlie knows very well the kind of bond that holds a team together. She's going to blame herself for not being there, for letting them down. She's going to hate herself for not being able to save them.

Charlie tries to get through the day by following procedure and protocol. He leads the team assigned for the retrieval and tries not to remember how he stood behind Jack at his son's funeral and watched the man try not to cry. He tries not to think about Kuwait, or Thailand, or Russia, or any of the other number of missions they'd been on together that don't show up in either of their files. When he puts his hand through the drywall outside Hammond's office after he's told that under no circumstances will they be returning to hunt down the people who killed Jack, he doesn't feel the slightest bit guilty about the damage.

Sam's waiting for him on the front steps of his townhouse, which is strange because he gave her a key when they first started dating. It's late and the air is cold, so it should have come as a warning that she hadn't bothered to let herself inside. She's wrapped in a heavy sweater, and her eyes are red and puffy. She's been crying, and that's what he's going to remember the most clearly when he thinks back to this day.

Charlie wants to hug her. He wants to sweep her into his arms and hold her and share in her grief.

He doesn't get the chance.

She's on her feet by the time he makes it up the sidewalk. Her hands are tucked up under her arms and her body language is broadcasting defeat.

"I'm sorry, Charlie," she says. She holds out a key ring by the leather fob. His house key is the only one that's still attached. "I just can't do this anymore."

*

"She just left," Charlie said. "No forwarding address, no word to anybody." He pushed the mug of now-cold coffee away. "I guess Hammond knew where she went, because he'd have approved the transfer, but I was never able to find out. I thought I saw her at the memorial, but when I went to find her after the service, she was gone."

He leaned back. The hard plastic chair dug into his back, and his legs felt numb. He'd lost track of how long they'd been sitting there.

The Colonel was silent as she considered the bottom of her coffee mug. Charlie hadn't meant to unload everything like this. He hoped he hadn't embarrassed her. Alternate realities were not exactly in his comfort zone.

"So," he clapped his hands together and leaned forward. "Tell me about this reality's Charlie Kawalsky. What kind of crazy adventures have I had?"

Sam looked up at him and winced.

"That doesn't look good," he said. "I take it I don't exist here?"

"You do, or rather you did," Sam said slowly. She sighed. "I'm not sure how to break this to you."

Charlie spoke out of the corner of his mouth in his best Bogart voice. "Just rip the band-aid off, sweetheart. I'm dead, ain't I?"

Sam coughed down her mouthful of coffee.

He was about to kick himself - that wasn't the way you talked to another officer, female or otherwise, but she surprised him and laughed. Loud. And hard.

Charlie grinned until his cheeks hurt. God, he'd missed that about her.

Heads turned and looked their way, but the interruption obviously wasn't life threatening, so they went back to their mystery meat and mashed potatoes and chalked it up to just another day at the SGC.

"Sorry," she wiped her eyes. "It's just with all this," she waved a hand in explanation.

"It's been a long day," Charlie finished.

"It has." Sam took a breath and sobered. She put a hand on his, and though it was probably meant to be reassuring, it still warmed him in ways the hot coffee hadn't.

"You died in this reality a couple of days after we got back from that first mission to Chulak. You'd picked up a Goa'uld, and we didn't know it until later."

"I see," he said slowly, surprised at how long ago their lives had branched. "So I guess I'm nothing like the guy you remember."

Her hand tightened on his wrist, and she waited until he gave her his full attention.

"Kawalsky," she said, looking him straight in the eye. "None of us are the people we used to be."

*

Sam…Colonel Carter gets him home. He's never doubted that she would. That much about her is still the same.

It takes him a few months, but he eventually tracks her down. It's not that he's expecting her to welcome him with open arms, but he needs to know that she's been okay all these years. He needs to see it so that he can move on.

It's late afternoon on a weekday when he pulls up at the address he'd scrawled on the page from the hotel notepad. She's in the front yard, working a rake around the bottom of the hedges under the bungalow's front window. He's surprised that she's at home, but then reminds himself that, aside from her address, he doesn't know a thing about what she's been doing for the last eight years.

Charlie's come all this way and it seems foolish to just sit here and watch her, but he's having a hard time working up the courage to get out of the car.

The air is crisp, much like that last night in front of his townhouse. He doesn't say anything as he walks up the sidewalk, but she seems to know he's there. When she looks up from her raking, he sees that she isn't the same woman who said goodbye to him with tears in her eyes. She's not Colonel Carter, either. The years have softened her edges and written their own story around her eyes.

"Charlie." She smiles warmly at him.

He's buoyed by her greeting. She seems neither shocked nor surprised, like she's been expecting him. He's rehearsed what he was going to say, the questions he was going to ask, but before he can open his mouth, he's interrupted by the school bus stopping at the curb with a shrill of brakes and laughing children. A tow-headed boy disembarks, waving over his shoulder to a friend, and when he turns to head up the path, Sam holds up a hand in Charlie's direction.

"Hang on for a second?" she asks but doesn't wait for him to answer.

The boy glances at Charlie with mild curiosity as he walks past, but like any young boy just home from school, he's got other things on his mind.

"Hey Mom," he says as he digs into the front pocket of his jeans.

Sam props the rake against the front steps and says, "Hey kiddo. How was school?"

"Okay, I guess." He holds out his hand to show her his prize. "My other tooth fell out at recess."

She makes a show of examining the tooth and giving the event the importance it deserves, then sends him inside with "Get started on your homework, and I'll be there in a few minutes if you need help."

The questions that Charlie had wanted to ask her all fall away and are replaced with a dozen new ones, but Colonel Carter's comment is still fresh in his mind. This isn't his Sam anymore, and he's not sure he has the right to those answers.

Once the front door shuts, she turns back at him. "Sorry," she says. They stand in awkward silence for a beat before she breaks it. "Can we start over?"

Charlie nods. This is going better than he'd hoped. "Sure," he smiles." I think I was about to say something like 'Hey Sam, how've you been?'"

"I've been good, Charlie." She opens her arms to embrace him. "Real good."

Charlie pulls her close and holds her tight and it seems that some things about her really haven't changed at all. She's still hugs like 'his' Sam; firm and decisive, like she's making a full-body commitment and sharing a little piece of her soul.

"It's good to see you," she whispers in his ear. When she pulls back, she asks, "You want to come inside?"

It's more than he'd expected, maybe even more than he deserves for letting her just walk away all those years ago, but it's a hell of a good start.

"Yeah," he nods. "Yeah, I'd like that."


.fin