This angsty little nugget came from a random (SUPERBLY random) comment on Gateworld having to do with band names. I don't know how something so emotional could come from something that had me giggling for hours afterwards, but there it is.
I try to make it a point not to disobey the muse when she wallops me upside the head.
Frets and Strums
How much do you love me?
The text had come in the middle of a closed meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He'd noticed his phone vibrate on the table next to him and frowned when he'd seen the caller ID. Then he'd flipped the phone open and read the text, even though the Senator from North Dakota had glared at him from down her pudgy little nose.
Enough to fly out here for this?
He'd shoved the phone into his breast pocket, and then tried to ignore it when it vibrated again.
"This is my chance, Sam."
Colonel Carter glared down at the doohickey she'd been fiddling with for the past two hours. Damn the Asgard and their ridiculously tiny fingers, anyway. But now, with her on the phone, she couldn't even see the miniscule piece of technology, let alone decipher the code that allowed it to function.
"Are you sure, Cass?" Sam purposefully kept her tone low-key. There had been too much drama lately, and the counselor she'd seen had hyped the importance of calm and thoughtful discourse. "You've just been back in reality for a few months."
"I'm positive, Sam." The pause wasn't quiet—there was a rhythmic thudding in the background that reminded Sam vaguely of a Jaffa party she'd once attended. "This is what I want, right now. What I need."
The Colonel turned the transistor over and over between her fingers, her phone sandwiched between her cheek and shoulder. "I just worry about you."
"I know." Cassie's voice carried a smile. "And I love you for it."
"Yeah." Sam set down the Asgard gadget and raised a hand to thread through her hair. "Me too, Cass."
The club was packed. Or rather, the dive was packed. In a basement under a dance academy, the place looked as if it had been decorated by disenchanted teenagers with a grudge against Rainbow Brite. It was hot, and loud, with black velvet walls and red concrete floors, and Sam had decided almost immediately upon entry that she had finally matured beyond the need for mindless noise and frenzied bodies flailing themselves around her. She'd found a spot near the bar in which to stand, hoping that no one would think that she'd planted herself there angling for a free drink or two. Or worse—for a casual flirtation.
Because she really wasn't dressed for it. Dark blue jeans, ballet flats, black silk knitted tank. When she'd surveyed herself in the mirror, she'd sighed, wondering where the woman she'd once been had gone. She'd fiddled with her earrings, untucked her blouse. Dabbed on a bit more lip gloss, then wiped it off with a wad of toilet paper. Determined to be satisfied with what was. But as she'd passed the mirror in her entry way, she'd reached up and pulled the clips from her hair, tousling it with her fingertips until it had achieved what Daniel used to call "organized messy". It was an off-world look. A battle-ready look. Not that she'd been battling off-world lately.
And not that she really cared how she looked. She was just here to support Cassie. At least, that was the story Sam told herself during the drive down into the college district.
Sam leaned back against the wall she'd been propping up for the past half an hour, resisting the urge to fold her arms across her chest. The band on stage seemed to equate talent with volume, and Sam had been bidding a resigned adieu to her sense of hearing for a while, now. The audience didn't seem to mind, however, if the gyrations of the young collegians on the dance floor were any indication. They moved with the innate synchronization of schools of fish on a coral reef—navigating the ebb and flow of the constantly shifting tides with a grace that Sam had found to be both eerie and beautiful.
The dappled, ever-changing light schemes of the club added to the undersea effect. And it intensified Sam's feeling of utter displacement. She didn't belong here—in Cassie's world. But she also didn't really belong where she spent the rest of her waking hours for the past several months, either. It was like she was the eel in the reef analogy—omnipresent, necessary, appropriate, but never really welcome. A lurker in the jumble of society. And although her talents and abilities had surely been appreciated at Area 51, she'd started measuring her successes in R and D by how often she could one-up the other researchers, and for that she felt both petty and foolish.
Because, in the end, her knee-jerk request for the transfer to Groom Lake hadn't been necessary at all. It wasn't until after she'd requested and finalized the relocation that she'd learned that the General had been reassigned to the Pentagon. She could have remained at the SGC without awkwardness, without tension. But by then she'd already packed. By then, she'd already bid her farewells to Cassie, and Daniel, and Teal'c. By then her new life in Nevada had been waiting for her, and so she'd sucked it up and honored her commitment. Screwing everything else up in the process.
A subtle disturbance drew her attention towards the door, and she looked up to see a familiar tousled gray head making its way through the crowd. He stopped in the center of the tumult, scanning the area for something—someone—for her? Sam ducked her chin and tried to control the sudden frantic beat her heart had taken on.
She hadn't seen him since she'd left the cabin. Since they'd spent four days in flirtation and innuendo, finding excuses to touch, to be close, learning what it was like to be humans together, and not just soldiers. Daniel and Teal'c had been obviously encouraging—in turn teasing them and giving them opportunities. Sam still wasn't sure whose idea it was to have the SGC call with an urgent message from Bra'tac; she'd just remembered they'd already been packed when the call had come, and within minutes, all that had been left behind was the settling dust on the unpaved road behind Teal'c's SUV.
And they'd been left alone. The Colonel and the General. She'd tried to call him 'Jack', but it had sounded wrong. He'd had more success with calling her 'Sam', at least until they'd finished dinner that evening, and he'd taken her hand and pulled her close. That was when they both had discovered that all of their carefully constructed delusions were built on a foundation of fickle sand.
Sam bit her bottom lip, raising her head to discover that he'd found her. Of course. Trust Jack O'Neill to be able to pick one person out of a writhing sea of humanity. Trust him to be able to find her so immediately. To be so composed, his expression so inscrutible. His hair a little grayer, his body a little fuller. He'd acquired a few pounds, gained a few months. But lost nothing in presence—evidenced by the way the dancing masses glided smoothly out of his way as he aimed himself towards her.
Despite the closeness of the atmosphere, Sam shivered a little, watching his progress. She felt targeted, like an objective rather than a destination. Her heart made another tumble as he stopped a few feet away, hands at his sides, his stance easy.
"Carter." He had raised his voice to be heard above the din of the band on stage.
His mouth twitched sideways in an air so heartbreakingly familiar that Sam nearly smiled. Leaning towards her, he bent his head to speak directly in her ear. "We're really going to stick with 'sir'?"
Just like he'd stuck with 'Carter'. "What else is there, sir?"
His answer was a random movement in his shoulders. Sam watched as he turned to look at the stage, his eyes taking in the band—who finally seemed to be wrapping up their performance. Again, he leaned close. "They're terrible."
"They're all amateurs." Sam pushed away from the wall to come to stand directly at his side. "That's what this whole thing is for. To audition new acts."
"So Cassie's an act, now?"
"I guess you could say that." With a crash of cymbals, the band on stage ended their set, and the crowd stopped dancing long enough to applaud. Within a few minutes, the hubbub subsided enough so that Sam could actually hear herself think. She nodded up towards the stage, remembering not to shout. "All the bands are hoping to get their names out there—so that they can get gigs in other clubs. High school proms. Parties."
Sam couldn't quell her grin. "Something like that."
The General's eyes scanned the crowd again before returning to look at her. "And how is she doing otherwise?"
"I sent you the email, didn't I?"
His lids flickered. "Yes, I got your epistle. Two lines about how her grades are up."
Sam looked down at her shoes. "We were both proud about that. She's struggled—"
"But her grades aren't the real problem, right?"
"No. They're not." Slipping her foot out of the flimsy shoe, Sam ran a toe around the back rise, parsing her words. "She's doing better. She hasn't relapsed. It'll be slow, but she's recovering."
"Has she told you how long it had been bad?"
Here, Sam swallowed the bitter pang of guilt. She hadn't been alone in assuming that Cassie had handled Janet's death well. She just felt stupidest for not seeing what was really happening. That Cassie's grief was being masked by something far more insidious—and that Sam had missed the signs entirely. Failed to understand that her presence in Colorado Springs had been the only thing keeping Cassie from spiraling completely out of control.
So, when Sam had escaped the disaster at the cabin, and run from the SGC—blinded as she'd been by her own sorrow, her own mortification, and her own fear—she'd left Cassie in the little house they'd shared—left her to deal with the demons alone.
An emergency room had been Sam's wake-up caller—Cassie had been found unconscious, lying face-down on the floor of a bathroom in the campus library. The paramedics had resuscitated her on the way to the hospital. ER doctors had pumped her stomach and found the pills.
"Since Janet's funeral." Sam did fold her arms across her midsection, then, remembering. "When we moved her into my house. I'd been prescribed so many different medications over the years—and I didn't pay attention to where they were all going."
"And you weren't home a whole helluva lot."
It could have sounded like an indictment coming from him, but Sam knew he was just speaking the truth. He'd ordered her off-world, after all. Fighting the replicators, fighting the Goa'uld. Last-ditch battles with evils that were merely more visible than the one happening within the confines of Sam's own home. "I'd left her with people who were watching out for the big stuff. But she was almost eighteen. I didn't think to leave her with a babysitter. I should have done more."
"It's not your fault, Carter."
"That's not easy to believe." Despite herself, she looked up at him. Peered through the dim club atmosphere at his warm brown eyes, his achingly familiar face, and the honesty therein. Sam knew that he reserved specific parts of himself just for those people who knew him best, and this was one of those unguarded moments that she would have filed away at one time, to cherish again later, as if she'd had the right to save part of him for herself.
But looking deeper, she could see something new there—some level of need that he would never in a million lifetimes have admitted.
The brash chord of an electric guitar intruded, and she jumped a little, throwing a glance at the stage. The new band had nearly completed setting up—five girls. Two on guitar, one on bass. A drummer who had a pink mohawk, and a chunky little lead singer in a denim mini-skirt and platform shoes. The paint on the bass drum barely looked dry.
The General raised a brow, tilting his head in her direction. "The Sock Puppet Paragons?"
Sam's dimples emerged. "Cassie came up with that."
"And all these girls met in—"
"Group therapy." Watching as Cassie plugged her guitar into the amplifier at her feet, Sam finished the General's thought. "Cassie found an old guitar of my dad's and started dinking around with it. Gwen, the bassist, brought her instrument to a session and they started talking music."
"I didn't know your dad played a pink Fender."
"No, that's new. I got it for her for Christmas."
There was an unfortunate squawk, and then a blaring tone of feedback before the Paragons were ready to play. Platform Shoes announced their first song, and Pink Mohawk tapped out the count on her drumsticks before wailing down on the snare. "Chaos of the Mind" lived up to its moniker.
With a wry grin, Sam lifted a finger to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. And she'd thought her hair was organized messy.
The General's arm brushed her own, and Sam glanced to the side to see him shielding his ears with his hands. He looked so completely out of place in the club—with the graying evidence of his nearly six decades glowing purple in the black lights on the ceiling. He'd worn jeans, and a light sweater—vee-necked, with a hint of t-shirt above the collar. The sleeves of the sweater had been pushed up to his elbows, and Sam watched the play of muscles in his forearm, the tendons on the backs of his hands.
In a rush, she remembered what those hands had felt like on her skin—rough and warm. Gently insistent. Incongruously nimble as they'd undone the tiny buttons on her shirt. How he'd tried to coax a response out of her, and how she'd been ashamed at her own incapacity. And how they'd clenched into fists as he'd stood on the porch of the cabin, watching her drive away.
Sam forced herself to look up, only to find he was watching her. Appraising without judgment. He leaned in close to half-shout into her ear. "They're not bad!"
Sam shrugged. She'd been listening to the songs for weeks, now, as the band had taken to practicing in the living room of her house.
The General leaned close again. "Of course, they're not good, either."
"They're learning!" She stepped into his side, going up on tip-toe to speak directly into his ear. "They've come a long way!"
How was it possible for it to seem so natural for O'Neill to put his arm around her—to help her balance herself with a wide-splayed hand on the small of her back? She should have felt panicked—shouldn't she?—touching like this in public when she couldn't bring herself to be touched by him in the privacy of his cabin. And standing back on her heels, still in the curve of his arm—it shouldn't feel so right. Not when he should hate her for what she'd done.
Because she'd been the one to forfeit. He'd offered himself in every way he could—offered to retire, if necessary. And she'd thrown it back in his face, unable to commit. Frantic at the possibility that for all these years, she'd been fooling herself—that her botched relationships were indicative of a greater failure within herself than some lack on the part of her partners. As O'Neill had led her towards his bed, his mouth on hers, his skin under her palms, Sam Carter had hit the wall. The panic that had arisen within her in that moment had proven too insurmountable even for him to conquer. In the end, he'd merely watched wordlessly as she'd thrown her belongings in the back of her Volvo and driven away.
So standing with him now, like this, shouldn't be so comfortable. She shouldn't yearn to be closer. But she did.
When he leaned over again, she turned towards him, aware to the marrow of her bones of him, his unique scent, his natural heat, his strength. His cheek against hers felt smooth. He'd shaved recently—and somehow that knowledge struck her as an almost unbearable intimacy. She had to close her eyes to concentrate on his words.
"And how are you doing?"
She hesitated, screwing her eyes even more tightly shut. How was she? Lonely. Still grieving—although exactly for what she couldn't pinpoint. Intensely unhappy in her work. Overwhelmed. Underwhelmed. Chock full of regrets.
"Fine!" She lifted her chin and barked into his ear. "I'm fine."
The song burst into a crescendo, and Sam felt him shift beside her, his hand firmer on her back. His essence enveloped her again as he leaned in, his lips at her ear. "That's a load!"
Furrowing her brows, Sam looked up at him, meeting his gaze. "What?"
His index finger tapped against her spine. "I said, that's a load."
As she had no answer for that, she merely bit her lips closed.
"The guys at R and D say you're being a bit of a pill." He took advantage of a lull in the volume. "And Cassie says that you're morose."
"Her word, Carter, not mine."
Ducking her head again, she found herself turning into his body. Hiding? Or seeking comfort. She wasn't sure which was worse.
He angled his body so that they were practically facing each other. "And I'm not stupid, Carter—I can see it, too."
The Sock Puppet Paragons rattled to a conclusion, and the applause made any response impossible. But heaven help her, Sam couldn't bring herself to raise her chin, in any case. To catch his eye.
"At the cabin." His voice came again as the clapping petered out. "What the hell happened?"
How could she tell him what she really didn't even know for herself? She breathed deeply, buying time before offering a response. "This really isn't the time—"
"Then when is the time?"
"I don't know." She shook her head, her hair catching on the knit of his sweater. "Just not—"
A crowd jostled past, pressing them more closely together, fully body to body, his belt buckle hard against her abdomen. Her hands instinctively clasped his arms for balance, and the coarse hairs tickled her palms. But even as jarring as the sudden contact was, she was more stunned at his response. At how his fingers slid lower on her back to rest on the swell of her hip, how his body grew instantly more tense. How the pulse leapt in the side of his throat, his breath catching as she molded her body to his, as she slid her hand up his arm, her fingers relearning his strength.
As the Paragon's lead Sock Puppet introduced the band's next song, the General shoved himself away from Sam and reached out to grasp her hand, instead. With a few long strides he'd pushed through the crowd, aiming for a hallway beyond the bar that was half-concealed by a drape of beaded velvet. Passing beneath the draped entrance, he dragged Sam through as well, reaching behind him to unhook the rope holding the curtain open, allowing it to fall completely closed.
The heavy fabric muffled the music down to an endurable level. Dark, with only a few meager bulbs hanging overhead, the hallway seemed impossibly intimate. Sam took a step backward, until the wall at her back prevent further retreat.
But O'Neill didn't follow—he merely stood in the center of the passageway, his hands at his sides, his face a muddle of questions. "What the hell happened?"
"Is this why you came here?" The cheap paneling behind her thrummed to the beat of the music. "To ask me that?"
"No—I came here because Cassie asked me to."
"Is that all?"
His eyes flared. "What else should there be? You made it perfectly clear that you didn't want anything I was offering."
Sam's insides clenched. She turned her head away, her focus landing on a placard next to the door directly across from her. Was it a sign that they were having this conversation so near the bathrooms? "It wasn't what you were offering."
"Then what was it, Sam?"
"It was me." The first time she'd acknowledged this out loud. "I freaked out."
He did take a step closer, now. "Why?"
"I don't know—" But his frown told her that he knew she was lying. Sam girded herself and tried again. "It was so—there. It was the time. We'd been dancing around it for so long, and then all of a sudden, I was expecting it to be perfect. I thought that you were expecting it to be perfect, too. Me to be perfect."
Unbelievably, she coughed out a giggle at that. "In a manner of speaking. But it was more like complete petrification at the idea of it all actually happening."
"So, the thought of being with me—"
She'd whispered it, but somehow, he'd heard her. Sliding another step closer, O'Neill pressed his lips together tight, studying her face before striking a pose, his hands out at his sides. "I'm not that scary, Sam."
"No—you're not. But taking that step was." She took a deep breath. "Is. Taking that step is terrifying."
She nodded, her eyes wide. "I don't want to ruin everything."
"Maybe it was too soon." Jack quirked a brow at her. "You'd just buried your father, and broken things off with Pete, and Cassie wasn't making things any easier. You just needed some time."
"And maybe I was right—justified, even—in leaving. Maybe I'm not capable of more. I'm not good at relationships."
"Then don't think about it as a relationship." One more step and he was directly in front of her, his body fencing her effectively against the wall. "Think about what that was just now. Out there. Think about that and tell me it was wrong."
"I am." She ran the tip of her tongue along the crease of her lips. "And it wasn't."
"Because that's us." One arm rose to brace itself against the wall behind her. "There's nothing normal about us. Right? And both of us are so damned far from perfect that it's not funny."
Sam nodded, and then barely had time to breathe before he'd shaped his palm to her chin and lowered her mouth to hers. Thinking, then, was beyond her. Hot, open, searching, his touch blazed its way through her senses and into her psyche. It was as if he were discovering her again, tasting her, inhaling her into himself as he teased her with his lips, his teeth, and tongue.
She couldn't hold anything back—her insecurities, her inadequacies, her struggles—as much as she felt that she'd been successful in hiding them, the knowledge came, sure and certain, that she'd failed. He knew her intimately—this man, this deeply flawed, deeply wonderful man. And she'd been making it too hard—insisting on knowing the outcome before giving herself over to the possibility of joy. Sam leaned in towards him, opening herself further to him, threading her arms around his neck, her fingers tangling in the short, thick hair at his nape. Raising up on her toes, she gave him what he was seeking—truly and honestly—as flawed, and real, and terrifying as it was for her.
Jack pulled away only when a concert-goer shoved aside the curtain and strode into the hall, her high heels clomping on the painted cement floor. Sam caught a suggestive leer on the girl's face as she wrenched open the door to the ladies room and passed on through. Smiling quietly, breathing heavily, Sam allowed her forehead to rest against Jack's collarbone.
"You're not the only one that's a little freaked by all of this, you know."
Sam leaned into his fingers as they traced their way behind her ear, and down her throat. Her nod was superfluous. He already knew she'd agree. "There are so many things that could go so horribly wrong. Statistically, relationships between people like us don't usually work out."
"Statistics suck." His heart had slowed a little. And somehow, he'd gained control of his airways. "Besides. Since when do we fit the norm?"
Turning, Sam fitted her cheek to his shoulder. "I'm so sorry. For what happened at the cabin."
"It's done." His breath was warm on her temple. "Let's just go from here."
"I think she'll be okay. We'll work with her. Keep an eye on her. You and I aren't used to losing, you know."
The door behind them squeaked its way open again and High Heels emerged, clomping her way down the hall. As she lifted the curtain at the entrance, she looked backwards and smiled. "Fogie love—that's groovy." Then, raising a hand in farewell, she slid through, the drape swinging shut behind her.
"Fogie love?" Sam frowned. "What a little bi—"
"Is that what this is?"
"Yeah—but not fogie—"
"Not that part."
Sam's eyes widened. "The other part?"
"Yeah." His dark eyes were inscrutable in the dim light of the hall, his hands had stilled on her body. "So, is it?"
For the first time in what seemed like forever, Sam felt certain about something. "Yes. It is." Applause from the club signaled the end of the Sock Puppet Paragon set. With a quick glance towards the velvet doorway, Sam reached up and placed a hand on Jack's chest, where his heart beat steadily, surely. "We'd better get back out there. Cassie will be looking for us."
"And then I think I'll be ready to go." Sam lowered her hand, and insinuated her fingers between his. "In fact, I'm sure of it."
Stepping backwards, Jack tugged on their joined hands, pulling her along in his wake as he pushed back the curtain and stepped back out into the pandemonium that was the club. Their spot near the bar had been taken, so they simply stood near the beaded drape, hand in hand, waiting.
It didn't take Cassie long to find them. With a wide smile, she jumped down off the stage and started to wend her way skillfully through the crowd. She'd reached about halfway when Sam felt a squeeze on her fingers.
"About the fogie part."
She looked down at their joined hands. "What about it?"
"In my case, both of the parts are true." He used his other finger to tip her chin upwards. "I'm a fogie—and—" he faltered, his mouth relaxing into a self-deprecating smile. "And the rest, too."
Sam's teeth caught on her bottom lip, trying to suppress a smile. "Okay. I'll keep that in mind."
"Keep what in mind?" Cassie arrived—breathless, glowing. Exhilarated, her excitement practically oozed out of her. "What are we keeping in mind?"
"Just stuff." Jack shrugged. "We'll tell you when you're older."
Cass lifted her own shoulder at that. "Okay. Whatever. What did you think?"
"Loud." O'Neill pointed at his ear with his free hand. "It was loud. And good. But loud."
"It was great, hon." Casting a look at the man at her side before returning her attention to Cassie, Sam nodded. "I thought you guys did fine."
"Bonus!" Cassie made a little jump, her hair spazzing a little. "Are you going to stay for the second set?"
"Oh—wow. There's a question." Jack's brows flew high. "When will that be?"
"In a few hours. All the other bands are going to take a second set, too."
Sam twisted her mouth slightly. "I think we'd better get on home, Cass."
"Yes." The General's nod was exaggerated. "We're old, you know. We need our rest."
Cassie pretended to pout, but her buzz was too palpable to keep it up. Her smile emerged victorious, and real. "That's cool. No problem. I'll be home at around midnight."
"I'll wait up."
"Oh—geez, Sam—don't bother." The girl leaned forward and planted a kiss on Sam's cheek, then swayed over and repeated herself on Jack's. "You guys go on and get caught up. I know it's been a while."
"Yep." Jack straightened. "I'll see you tomorrow, kid."
"Okay." Cassie stepped aside and allowed them to pass. They'd made it almost to the other side of the club before the Sock Puppet shouted, "Hey!"
They stopped in unison, turning inwards, towards each other to peer at her. Almost in unison, they said, "What, Cassie?"
"What's with the hand holding?"
Jack's smirk emerged a little sinful, a little self-satisfied. Lifting their joined hands, he pressed a kiss to Sam's index finger, at exactly the point where her knuckle curved around his. He held Sam's gaze for a heartbeat before returning his focus to Cassie. "We'll tell you that when you're older, too."