This is an episode enhancement to "Point of View". I don't usually like the Alternate Universe stuff much, but this was a challenge by Oma-1 on Gateworld. She made me an incredible signature block, and asked for a story in return—and then she had the audacity to ask for a story dealing with the fallout from one of the team's AU experiences. Of course, that morphed into angsty, shippy goodness. Normally, I don't split much with canon, but I managed to do it here just a bit. I hope you don't mind.
Cracks in the Glass
It was bizarre, to sit across from yourself at a table. But not really yourself—a copy of yourself. A copy for which the carbon had been offset just that much.
Long hair. Non-military. Soft. Those were the major obvious differences. Pure science—without the stringent focus on application. Or rather, without the focus on military application. Doctor Samantha Carter's efforts on behalf of the Stargate Agency had been largely in the best interests of science itself, and not in any attempt to protect Earth from what might have entered through that open 'Gate. Or rather, Doctor Samantha Carter O'Neill.
Can of fish hereby officially opened.
Sam looked down at the bolt she'd been playing with for the past fifteen minutes. She normally didn't fiddle with things much—unaccustomed as she was to having idle hands. Splaying her fingers, she looked down at the pads of her thumb and index finger, where the grooves of the bolt had made angry red indentations. When she rubbed the digits together, they rasped against each other like corrugated tin roofing. Pressing the bolt between her fingers again, she welcomed the sting as the heavy grooves dug into her skin.
She wondered if Samantha sometimes needed that kind of stimulation—something unpleasant, something wrong that sent fire flooding back into systems that had become all but inured to pain. Probably not. The good doctor had practically swooned at the thought of being the good Major instead. She didn't seem to be the sort to embrace discomfort—she most likely considered Spinning Class to be the height of physical challenges. So, no boot camp. No running through alien jungles trying to escape alien bad guys. No exhilarated thrill at taking first blood in knife fights with Genghis Khan wannabes. Sam was smart—she could extrapolate from the given evidence that Samantha Carter O'Neill wasn't into pain. So, no bolts. Besides, the ugly steel fastener would clash with those sparkly wedding rings she'd been wearing.
With a flick of her wrist, the Major cast the chunky piece of metal away. Catching the light from the hallway, it sailed over the far edge of the table, landing with a clunk on the cement floor before skittering under one of the cabinets on the opposite wall.
Her lab was dark. Gloomy, even. She'd turned off some of the winky blinky arrays, content to let the secondaries upstairs take over for a while. For whatever reason, her laboratory had seemed hot, and oppressive, and close. Too—much—with the constant on-and-off of the indicator lights. But perhaps it was just the current situation that was so unsettling. At least when Daniel had been sent to his alternate reality, his alter-ego had been dead. He'd never had to sit across a table from him, breathe the same air, or inhabit the same lab space. He'd never ended up face to face with himself and come away from the encounter with the sinking suspicion that he was lacking something.
Sighing, Sam threaded her fingers together, she resting her forehead on her knuckles, determined not to look at the machine on the tabletop in front of her. She should have figured it would come to this—Entropic Cascade Failure. Should have known the powers that be would decide to move the heavens and earths of two distinct realities in order to preserve the Doctor's life. And of course, the Major was tasked with figuring out how to accomplish that feat.
For the sparest of moments, she'd wondered how it would be to believe like Teal'c—that only their own reality mattered. She'd never envied the Jaffa before. Never yearned for a simpler, less complicated outlook on life. Not until now.
Daniel. Sam looked over her shoulder to where he stood, just outside her door. Forcing a smile, she made relaxed her posture. "Come on in."
He shoved his hands into his pockets as he moved forward. "Where's Doctor Carter?"
"She had another—incident." Sam watched as he got closer. "Janet called her back to the infirmary for some more tests."
"And Jack?" Stopping next to her table, he pursed his lips. "I thought he was in here, too."
"No." Sam shook her head. "He accompanied Doctor Carter to the infirmary."
Daniel's clear blue eyes seemed to be able to look right through her. Blowing out a steep breath, he turned his body and leaned sideways, his elbow resting on the table. "So?"
"Come on, Sam." He grinned, kindly, a dimple marking one cheek. "Don't be obtuse."
Her answering expression was sheepish. "I know. It's just that people keep asking me how I'm doing with all of this, and I have no idea what to say. I don't even know."
His gaze was steady. "Are you comfortable working with her?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" But she knew he would see through that convenient answer. She inhaled deeply. "Honestly? I don't know. You can't prepare for it. How could you? Who would have thought this was going to happen?"
"And who would have thought that she'd have married him?"
She hadn't expected that of Daniel, thinking that he would skirt the issue—flatly deny it even existed—rather than confront it with such suddenness. An image of the Colonel flashed through her mind—standing, hands in his pockets, his face uncharacteristically serious as he'd approached her in the hall. His gaze had been an appraisal, more than anything else. Assessment mixed with concern. He'd been sincere. She had to give him that.
"And how are you with this twin thing?" He'd asked. He'd seemed almost painfully serious.
"Do you have a couple of hours?" Her smile had felt false even to herself. Flippant, somehow, through her forced cheerfulness.
"Different universes. Different choices." Sam tried to smile, but lost impetus half way there and ended up with a vague twitch of her lips, instead.
"It's just interesting that in both alternate realities with which we've had contact, the alternate you and the alternate Jack were together."
"Yes, but in neither of those was the alternate me in the military."
"Doesn't that make you question a few things?" Daniel's voice dropped to almost a whisper.
"What do you mean, Daniel?"
He frowned. "Come on, Sam." Angling his gaze at her, he fixed the Major in his focus. "Let's not play this game. I know how it is between the two of you."
"There's nothing between us. There can't be." She grimaced. "You know that."
His expression told her he'd expected her to say that. "Sam. I've seen the way you two look at each other. How you gravitate towards each other. How you are together. As a student of humanity, I tend to observe these things."
"As a student of humanity, you know that there are issues there." She steeled her spine, sitting stiffly on the stool. "And choices that sometimes have to be made."
"Choices that clearly go against the natural progression of things?" Daniel folded his arms across his chest. "Sam, really. Engaged in one reality. Married in another. And I know that without these stupid regulations, you would be—"
"Daniel, please." Sam stood. "Please don't."
"But you both want—"
"Stop. Not even we know that."
"Have you talked about it?"
The corners of her mouth drew tight. "You know we can't."
"I know you won't." Daniel's eyes flew wide behind his lenses. "There's a difference."
"It's nothing, Daniel." She shook her head. "A friendship. We're—"
"Lying to yourselves?"
Sam faltered, heaving a breath as she ducked her chin towards her chest. His clear blue eyes were evaluating her, she knew, knowing that his words had hit home—as they had. She took her time answering, hoping, perhaps, that he would simply give up. But his intent gaze assured her that wasn't about to happen. Peeking up at him through her lashes, Sam gave a discreet nod. "Okay—if your theory holds true, then maybe it's a good thing we're—not. After all, in both of those alternate universes where our alternate entities were together, Earth was being taken over by the Goa'uld."
"I'm not sure that the two circumstances are mutually exclusive."
She didn't answer immediately. "It can't be entirely coincidental."
"No. It can't." He reached across the table to touch the device in the middle. "But I could just as easily place the entire cause of their fate upon my alternate selves. For whatever reason, they never listened to Catherine. Never figured out the symbols, or joined the Stargate program. Never went to Abydos."
Sam nodded. "Never found the cartouche."
"Never met Jack."
Sam caught his eyes. "Never met Sha're." Sam watched as her friend fell silent, followed his expression as he flicked his index finger against a yellow cord that draped off the side of the device. His thoughts were obvious—memories playing across his face as clearly as if he were hooked up to a Tok'ra memory device. Pain. Pain and loss. Grief. "And if events would turn out exactly the same way." Sam dropped her hands to her lap. "Would you do it again?"
Daniel looked sideways at her, straightening, planting his palms firmly on the black surface of the table. "I don't know. I'd like to think I would."
"Why? Why set yourself up for that kind of loss?"
For several beats, Daniel stood quiet, staring at the transformer on the table as if it held the answers he sought. Finally, his lips hinted upwards. "It's better to have loved and lost?"
"Wow. Cliche." Amazingly, Sam found herself smiling back. "I thought you were above that."
"I thought you were above playing the 'Goa'ulded wife' card."
"But true, nonetheless."
Eyes meeting, they both let go a quasi-laugh, and Sam found herself intensely grateful for the friendship that they shared—the relationship that allowed them to be confidants even while antagonizing the truth out of the other. She reached out and touched his hand. "Thanks, Daniel."
The smile he returned contained warmth, and concern, and a dram of sadness.
"Um. Hello again."
Strange how so familiar a voice could be so startling. Sam turned her head towards the laboratory door.
Highlighted from behind, her long blond hair falling in a neat line over her shoulders, Samantha waited just inside the lab, splaying her hands hesitantly at her sides before taking a step forward. Within the shadowed interior, she cleared her throat. "Major Carter?"
Sam flattened her own hands on her thighs, resisting the urge to rub them along the harsh fabric of her trousers. "Yes, Doctor. Please come in."
Samantha paused before gesturing towards the work table. "I thought we could get back to work—unless you're otherwise occupied with Doctor Jackson—"
"No." Daniel backed away from the table. "Come in, Doctor Carter."
"I'm not intruding on anything?"
"Not at all. We were just talking." Daniel raised a hand to straighten his glasses.
The Doctor gestured behind her, towards the door. "Because I could come back."
"Really. Time is kind of in short supply, I think. Wouldn't do to waste it. I'll see you later, Sam." Daniel made a few strides towards the door before turning. "And you, too, Doctor."
"Thank you." Samantha's smile was genuine, and warm.
Sam angled her face downward as the Doctor approached, trying not to stare. She wondered in a fit of childishness if her own body moved like that—with such unconscious grace. If her own face looked that lovely. She'd initially promised herself not to make such comparisons, but had found that impossible. And last night, as she'd lain sleeplessly in bed, she'd wondered what it would be like—to be this version of herself. Without the restrictions placed on her by her choices, her affiliations, her obligations. Able to say and do as she wished without first passing it through a filter of regulations and rules.
Samantha stopped on the opposite edge of the table. "Well, shall we get started again?"
"Was Janet able to get what she needed?"
"Yes." The Doctor's eyes flared. "I've never known a physician to take so many samples. I didn't expect to be gone for so long."
"Hey—when Janet gives an order—"
"—People jump to do it?"
"Something like that."
"That's what Jack said." After a quick perusal of Carter's expression, Samantha's shoulders rose in a nonchalant shrug. "He stuck around and kept me company."
Their eyes met, uncomfortably catching hold. Sam looked away first, breathing an uneasy sigh. "Well, then Doctor."
"Call me Sam."
"Call me Sam."
They'd spoken at precisely the same time, both turning towards the device in exactly the same moment. Sam was overcome by the disjointed sensation that she was peering into a mirror—looking outward at the real image, while she was merely the reflection.
Samantha's nod was gracious. "I think that could get awkward—if we both went by the same name."
"I get the feeling that you're not comfortable with being called 'Samantha'."
"Not really." Sam shook her head. "I've never truly been the 'Samantha' type."
"Okay, then. Sam." For a long time, they stood in silence, until the Doctor breathed out an awkward laugh. "Wow. This is weird."
Sam quelled the urge to snort. "You can say that again."
"Wow. This is weird." Again, quiet descended around them, as the Doctor edged forward, chewing on her bottom lip. "I'm sorry. I reverted there, a little."
"I beg your pardon?" Sam frowned. "I must have missed something."
"You said 'you can say that again' and I—well—" She motioned lamely, the diamond in her ring catching the light from the hallway. "I said it again. My husband used to do things like that. To be funny."
"Your husband." Sam's fingers ached for the bolt back. She turned and flicked on the switch for her desk lamp. "The Colonel."
The Doctor's expression softened . "Jack."
"Oh." Sam looked at the wall, her computer monitor, the device sitting impotent on the table in front of her. Anywhere but at the all-too familiar face angled in her direction. "Right."
"I'm sorry." Stepping forward, the Doctor stopped next to the table, bracing her hands on the top. "I know I must sound maudlin. It's just tough to acknowledge that he's gone. Especially here, where there are endless reminders of him."
"I can imagine."
"Your Jack is just so—" The Doctor faltered, blinking rapidly, looking upwards at the ugly, cement lab ceiling. "So much like mine."
"Yes." Whispered, the assent held unbelievable sorrow.
"I'm sorry." Sam perched herself on her stool, scooting it closer to the table. "It's hard to lose people you love."
"Especially so soon after Dad."
"Dad?" Absently, Sam's hand found a tiny screwdriver on the table. Sliding her fingertips along its cool length, she carefully schooled her expression. "So, I take it in your universe—"
"Cancer. Two years ago." Samantha's nod seemed accepting. "Mom was devastated—still is, really. Mark came back from Germany for the funeral."
Mom. Resisting the urge to duck her chin, Sam swallowed the twinge that rose in the back of her throat. "And Mark is—"
"Air Force. Just like Dad." Samantha lifted a shoulder. "He's stationed at Ramstein. Or was—before the Goa'uld arrived. I haven't heard from him."
"That must be hard—I'm sorry."
"So, in this reality, Mark isn't in the military?"
"No." Sam's finger found a divot in the table top and worried at it. "He's a marketing director for a clean energy company in San Diego."
"So, how did you come to enlist?"
"I went to the Academy." Sam shrugged. "And liked it. And was good at it."
The Doctor set her jaw with a certain level of something—arrogance?—pride?—before shaking it away. "I think that Dad kept hoping for me to follow him and Mark, but I never could stand the force."
"What's that supposed to mean? That you're an officer—and obviously successful—while I wouldn't have made the cut?" There was a defensive note in her question.
"No." Sam straightened. "It's ironic that you married an Air Force officer. When you obviously felt such disdain for the military."
"It was different with Jack."
"I'm sure it was."
"I appreciate the work that the military accomplishes." Samantha's tone was mild, even while her manner was explanatory. "But I wanted to be able to engage in pure science."
"I do engage in pure science."
"With military applications."
Sam forced a smile, infusing it with patience she didn't feel. "Is that what you think? That I'm at the beck and call of my leadership? That I'm not allowed to do anything that isn't inherently destructive?"
Samantha measured each word out carefully—with precision. "I just didn't necessarily want to be subject to the strict regulations and restrictions imposed by the Air Force."
"Being married to an officer means being bound by those same restrictions, though, doesn't it?"
"I saw what Mom went through—all those years—watching Dad leave for months at a time. I never wanted to be a part of that." Samantha's eyes were wide. "But when I was asked to join the Stargate program—and I met Jack—it was obvious within moments that he was the man I was supposed to spend my life with—officer or not. I loved him. I love him."
Sam busied her fingers with a screwdriver, trying to block out her own memories just as Samantha was embracing hers. But her traitorous mind narrowed in on that first meeting in the briefing room—before the first mission. Ferretti and Kawalski's semi-good natured joshing, the Colonel's appraising skepticism. And then the subsequent missions. Cold stone holding cells, staff blasts, Jaffa. Blue dresses and yerts. Alien viruses. Lying on the ice, wrapped in his arms, answering to his wife's name. Countless instants when the wind would shift and bring his scent to her, and she would be taken back to the floor of the locker room, with his hair between her fingers, his skin beneath her lips. She knew—knew—how it happened. How this man could become such a part of her that his absence made her empty.
Sam closed her eyelids against the panic that arose within her. She could well imagine what it would be like to lose him—even though she'd never truly had him. She'd thought she'd been successful in fighting the attraction, denying the compulsion that seemed to constantly draw her to him. But she'd been deluding herself—fooling herself. And for the first time, she grudgingly acknowledged that her feelings for him were far more complex than simple friendship—far more than meaningless flirtation, camaraderie or good team dynamics.
"I miss my husband, Sam." Samantha spoke softly, but clearly. "And it's both jarring and wonderful to be able to see him again. And I know that he's not my Jack—but I also know that he is."
Words felt like sandpaper in the Major's mouth. "That's a distinction without a difference."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing." Sam reached towards the middle of the table, snagging the device and pulling it carefully towards her. Grabbing a few tools, she held one out to her partner. "I think we should probably get started on figuring this thing out."
Samantha shoved her hair back over her shoulder again, tucking the heavy strands behind her ear. Her intelligent blue eyes seemed questioning, but she nodded before reaching for the pair of pliers in Sam's hand. "I think you're probably right."
So, she'd watched as they'd gone through the mirror, and then waited as it had flashed first into blackness and then back to life. Smiled as Daniel had come back through with Teal'c, and then she'd watched, supremely uncomfortable, as the Colonel had made his goodbyes to the Doctor. As he'd kissed her—or as she'd kissed him. Sam found that it didn't really matter other than that it had happened.
She'd broken a little, watching. And then she'd wiped her face clean of emotion and gotten back to work. The Colonel had asked her to return their gear to the armory. She'd been careful not to touch his fingers as she'd taken his weapon.
Janet had ordered the three men up to the infirmary, and Sam had taken the opportunity to flee the mountain. She'd arrived home and showered, throwing her BDUs into the hamper and scrubbing herself raw. Jeans and a sweater had made her feel more human. She'd grabbed a soda and headed out back, barefoot, to her miniscule porch that overlooked her tiny back yard. At one point, there had been chairs on the patio, but she'd put them in the garage one winter, and never gotten around to taking them back out. With a rueful nod to her own laziness, she sat down on the top step of the porch, angling herself towards the west, where the sun was making its way down behind the Rockies.
Fitting her finger under the ring on the can, she popped it open, then waited for some bubbles to subside before taking a sip. She leaned back against the railing of the shallow flight of stairs, setting the can on the step just below.
"Got another one of those?"
Sam didn't have to turn to see who it was. She allowed herself a beat before glancing over towards the side of her house to where O'Neill stood on the lawn, right next to her coiled garden hose.
"Probably, sir." She leaned forward and watched as he rounded the edge of a low planter box and stopped at the foot of the wooden steps. "Do you want one, or would you rather have a beer?"
"Mmm. Beer." He glanced up towards the back door. "But I'm driving, so—I think I'll stick with the soda. Do you mind?"
Sam stood. "No—I'll be right back."
It only took a moment to retreat into the house, round the tiled island and open the fridge. Grabbing a can, she retraced her steps and let herself back outside, to where the Colonel had perched himself on the top step, as well. She handed the soda over his shoulder before retaking her seat.
"Thanks." He stared at the can for a moment before setting it on the step in front of him. He folded his long fingers together, resting his elbows on his knees.
Sam watched him fiddle—shuffling a foot, picking up and resettling the soda, tightening and releasing his jaw. After what seemed an eternity, she blurted, "Was there something you wanted, sir?"
"What—me?" His voice cracked, somehow, and he cleared his throat. "No. I just came by to see how you were doing."
"I'm fine." The divot between her brows deepened. "Why wouldn't I be?"
He picked at a spot of peeling paint on the stair next to him. "I know. You just didn't hang around for the debrief."
In all honesty—she'd forgotten. She'd been able to think of nothing else but getting out of the SGC, off the base. Her cheeks burned as she ducked her head. "I wasn't actually on the mission. I guess I didn't think I'd be needed at the debriefing."
"Oh—Well, I guess that makes sense." The Colonel jabbed too hard at the paint and lifted a sliver of wood, too. With a sheepish grimace, he tried to press it back down. "Daniel was concerned, is all."
"Yeah. Daniel." He didn't look at her, but turned his attention instead, to the shadows in the yard. "You know how he gets."
"Mmm." Sam looked sideways at him without moving her head. He looked, if anything, more uncomfortable than she felt.
"Yeah. He didn't see you in the briefing room, and was all kinds of concerned." The Colonel fiddled with the still sealed can, then situated his feet again. "He got all mother-hen, and I told him I'd come by and check up on you, just to shut him up."
She let that sit for a minute before responding. "You could have called."
He scratched at his chin, then shifted slightly to look at her. "I could have."
"But you didn't." For the first time, she met his gaze fully. His dark eyes seemed turbulent—more troubled than they had earlier. Sam pressed her lips tightly and looked away.
The twilight loomed between them—the day had made that subtle shift into evening. From somewhere over her neighbor's fence, a cicada started its buzzing, obnoxious hum.
"So, I guess that everything worked out in the other reality."
"Eventually." O'Neill grimaced, shaking his head slightly at some internal thought. "At least we got rid of the bad guys, and Doctor Carter made contact with the Asgard."
Sam picked at the hem of her sweater. "So, that universe should be safe."
O'Neill's jaw flexed. "For now. They'll have to rebuild. It was pretty ugly on that side."
"Daniel said something about General Hammond being healed by the Asgard?"
"Yeah." The corner of the Colonel's mouth twitched. "But you and I both know that's not why I'm here."
Sam allowed herself to look at him, to take in his presence—how his large body seemed to make her porch seem even smaller. How his hair hinted at red in the light cast by the setting sun. How his broad hands moved as they continued their methodic peeling of her paint. She looked away again, uncomfortable. "I'm sorry, sir."
"Don't be." His fingers stilled. "I know that things got kind of—awkward—there at the end."
She felt a rush of something indefinable. Something dark. She tried to shrug off both the feelings and the memory. "A little."
"Carter, I didn't do it because I wanted to."
Busying herself with her soda, Sam swallowed twice before answering. "It's not my business what you do, sir. Or with whom."
"In this case, I think that's not so true." Reaching for his own can, he ran a long index finger around the rim. "She wasn't you—but—"
"No, she wasn't me." Sam straightened suddenly, standing. The boards of the porch steps felt cool beneath her bare feet. "So, there's nothing really to talk about."
But he continued as if she hadn't spoken. "She kept looking at me, like she actually knew me. And she'd make references to things that I didn't know anything about, and then seem disappointed that I didn't catch on."
"And she cried." His eyes flew wide. "A lot."
For some reason, Sam felt compelled to defend the Doctor. "Understandable, sir. Given the situation, I mean."
"I know." The Colonel rose, leaning back against the railing. "I know that. So I tried to be nice, but she'd just expect me to comfort her. She would look at me with those huge, blue weepy eyes and just—" He fell silent, making a random, helpless gesture with both hands.
Sam watched him struggle, knew he was searching for something—somehow—to explain the singular nature of the experience. Tempering the sigh that threatened, she closed her eyes for a moment before raising her focus towards him, shaking her head. "I don't know what you want me to say."
Tilting his head in her direction, the Colonel scowled before taking a deep breath, adjusting his body against the railing. "She kept wanting me to do something—to be something—that I wasn't. That I'm not."
"It doesn't matter, sir." Sam turned halfway back towards him, one hand on the cheap wooden railing. "You don't need to explain yourself."
"Well, I just thought you ought to know that." Again, as it had been in the SGC hall, his face was completely sincere. "And I want you to know that you can be honest with me about it, too."
"Okay." Nodding, she took a step back towards the steps, laying her hand on the rail directly below where he leaned. "I guess it surprised me to see you do—what you did."
His grimace was angled at the sky, rather than at her. "You mean the—uh—that thing."
She looked up to see him focused completely on her, his dark eyes impossible to interpret. She cleared her throat, drummed up the sass she'd once had. "You kissed her. I was surprised that you did that."
"Well, technically." His brows flew upward. "She kissed me."
"Okay." Sam looked down at her feet. "Whatever."
"She kept staring at me." Turning, the Colonel descended two steps, so that he was directly above her. "She thought I was him. Me. The other me."
Unable to look up at him, Sam studied his shoes instead—heavy, thick black leather, double tied laces. Sturdy shoes. No nonsense. She nodded. "I know, sir."
"She would have thought about it forever, you know." O'Neill took another step lower. He stood on a par with her, on the same stair. "I could have stopped her, but then she would have just stayed behind and wondered if it would have been the same between her and me as it had been between them."
Quiet, Sam merely waited, feeling his heat radiating next to her in the growing cool of evening. And that scent—she breathed deeply, gathering him in.
"And I couldn't just let her stay like that." He looked over her head, out into the growing shadows of the yard before turning back to face her. "Thinking she'd just lost him all over again."
"You don't have to explain."
"I know." He reached an arm out to rest on the rail, between her and the house. "But I want to."
"Why?" She tried to keep the waver out of her voice, but couldn't. "There's no point. It's over. It's done. I don't have any say in what you do. In the end, you're free to kiss who you want to—do what you want to. You don't owe me anything."
"It wasn't me you kissed."
"No it wasn't." But a thread of bitterness wound its way around his words.
She suddenly became aware of how close their bodies were. Close enough to share breath, to see the individual threads of his shirt. Near enough that she could see his throat quaver with the beat of his pulse. Smell his scent. See that he needed a shave—decide that he didn't, after all. It wasn't difficult to look up at him, to meet those private, dark eyes. Even in the growing dusk, she could practically count his individual lashes.
Sam ran the tip of her tongue along the inside crease of her lips. It wouldn't be a stretch to lean forward—just a bit—just that much—and find out if he tasted as good as she'd remembered. Her body ached to bridge that distance—just once—to discover again what she'd solely known through a haze of shifting, primitive need. Her breath faltered a little, and she turned away, only to find herself caged in by his body, his arm, his heat.
"I wish it had been." He stopped her with his body, overpowered her with his presence. "And I don't know why—because quite frankly the whole thing confuses the hell out of me. But if it had been you, then there wouldn't be certain—complications—in our lives."
"I'd have stayed, if it had been you." He lowered his face, looking down at where her toes curled around the lip of the stair. "And if you were the one—who had lost me—who had found that other guy in some sort of cosmic fluke, I would hope that he'd do the same thing for you."
She studied his crown—where the whorl of graying hair stuck up in hand-combed abandon. "But you didn't stay there. You came back."
"Because it wasn't you."
"Some would say that there's little difference." Her shrug drew his attention back upwards. "DNA is DNA, right?"
"Did you miss the part where I said she cried a lot?"
Sam smiled. "No. But—"
She didn't have time to finish. Because his hand had risen to cup her cheek, his other hand curving around her back to splay against her spine and pull her towards him. He stopped her words with his lips—strong, insistent—inhaling as he tasted her, as he learned her. And it was exactly as she'd remembered, the intensity, the heat, the perfection. Her hand remembered to rise to frame his throat, his jaw, her body recalled just how to lift itself to fit his taller frame. Her body hadn't forgotten how to counterbalance against his hand on the small of her back. Up on tip-toes, her bare feet balancing on the peeling wood of the porch steps, her body pressed flush against him, she breathed him in, even as he discovered again how to make her sigh, how to make her shatter from within.
The railing groaned as he pushed her back against it, and O'Neill stopped their progress with a hand on the skimpy wood. He lingered, gentling, brushing his mouth first one way, and then the other over hers, breathing heavily as he raised his head and tucked hers under his chin, as he encircled her body with his own as completely as he could. All while perched together on the same step, the sun setting over his shoulder.
It took a while to calm, for their hearts to quiet. It took longer for him to be able to stop weaving his fingers through the short strands of gold at her nape, to stop clutching at the soft cabling of her sweater. And then it turned out that she was the stronger one, after all, when she fit her forehead against his collarbone and was able to smile into his shirt, and then step backwards away from him.
"So I guess that DNA thing—"
"Yeah." His chuckle rumbled in his chest. "It's a load."
"And I'm thinking that when you kissed her—"
"It was nothing like that."
"Could you stop the talking?" The Colonel's tone nearly attained the status of a whine. "Because if I have to do it for you, we might find ourselves in real trouble."
Brows steepling, Sam canted her head to one side. "I guess I just want to know why you felt the need to do that."
A crease deepened in his cheek as he mulled that over. Finally, he narrowed his eyes at her. "Because if I'm going to kiss a Carter, it's going to be the right one."
She grinned outright at that. "Okay."
"And damned if you aren't the right one."
"I do my best." Sam's brows rose. "But I know for a fact that it really really—"
His jaw set itself before he finished her thought. "Can't happen again."
She shoved against his chest with both palms, already missing the closeness, his warmth. Missing the opportunities that might have been. "So, we're okay then."
"If you call 'totally sucks' being okay."
"Sir." Somehow, the honorific had become something more. She lowered her hands to her sides as he stepped backwards to fit himself against the opposite rail. "At least now we know."
His nod lacked satisfaction. "That we do."
"And she does, too."
His lips thinned. "Yes."
Sam smiled at him, sadly. "I'm not sure what to say, now."
"Then just say you'll show up to work on time tomorrow, and we'll call it good."
Turning, O'Neill descending the few steps to the grass, where he paused. Reaching into his jeans pocket, he withdrew his keys, hooking his finger through the ring before turning back to look at her. "Carter."
"You know back on base. In the hall."
Her nod was barely visible in the failing light. "You asked me how I was doing with the whole situation."
"Yeah. And you asked me if I had a couple of hours."
Sam turned, leaning a hip against the rail. "I remember."
"I do, you know." O'Neill's hand dropped to his side, the keys jangling near his thigh. "I have whatever time you need."
"Really. Whenever. Wherever."
"I know that." She nodded. "Thank you."
"Okay, then." He raised his hand in a gesture of farewell. "See you tomorrow, Carter."
"You too, sir."
With a last, lingering, look at her, he crossed the cool grass towards her fence and disappeared into the evening.
Sam watched until she heard the gate latch closed behind him, then sat back down on the step, leaning over to retrieve her soda. Can dangling from her fingertips, she gazed off at the last pinkish evidence of the sunset before turning towards the east, where stars were already making their way through the darkening sky.