Summary: Jack tries to help Carter deal with her time spent with Fifth and the Replicators. 'New Order/Gemini' AU.
Rating/Warnings: Older teens for language, violent imagery, adult themes (sex, suicide, torture).
Categorization: AU, angst, drama, Sam/Jack
Disclaimer: Stargate isn't mine; just playing for fun.
Author's Note: Special thanks to Trout and Aurora for the betas!
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. ~Albert Einstein
Jack steps into the quiet of his house with a sigh of relief.
Less than two months as a general and he already misses shooting things way more than he ever thought he would. Or maybe it's just the option he'd like, because there are plenty of people around him every day that he'd like to at least be able to threaten with a weapon. He just gets the sense that sort of thing is frowned upon. Stupid stars.
Tugging at his collar, Jack loosens his tie. He wonders if he could get away with at least zatting one of the blowhards flitting through his office these days if he claimed to have seen their eyes glow. That probably wouldn't get him fired.
He's halfway to his bedroom when the doorbell rings. He swears, resigning himself to another few minutes in his stuffy dress blues. At least they should make short work of getting rid of any door-to-door salesmen. One of the few perks of being The Man—the sheer intimidation factor.
Not a zat, sure. But good enough.
He pulls the door open. It isn't a salesman.
"Carter," he says.
She smiles, tugging slightly at the hem of the sweater she's wearing. There's a skirt down there somewhere too, but he isn't looking. "Hi, sir."
Jack braces an arm on the doorjamb, wondering what in the world she's doing here.
His surprise and general lack of welcome must show, because her smile falters a bit. "Do you have a minute?" she asks.
His first instinct is to tell her he's off the clock and send her on her way, because he's barely seen her outside a briefing room in weeks. He can't imagine what could be important enough to bring her here. Then again, this is Carter, and it's not like her to show up without a really good reason.
"Sure," he finally decides, stepping back to let her pass. "Come on in."
She walks in, not pausing on the foyer, but heading straight for the family room like she's done this a zillion times before.
Jack closes the door and follows after her. "I thought you were heading off on leave?" Leave she'd actually asked for, for once, miracle of all miracles. Just another part of the new leaf she seems to have turned over since the Anubis and Fifth debacles.
He tells himself yet again that this is a good thing.
"Yeah," Carter says, looking around the family room, her fingers running along the back of a chair. "I'm all set to go. There's just a couple of loose ends to tie up first."
Jack's eyebrows lift. Loose ends?
She walks up to his fireplace, studying the pictures there.
He waits for her to say something, to get to the point of this visit, but long moments pass in silence. "Uh, Carter?" he says in case she's somehow forgotten that she's the one who barged in on what should be his beer and relaxing time.
She doesn't turn, hands tightening on the edge of mantle, knuckles pressing white.
Now she's just freaking him the hell out. "Everything okay?" he asks.
"Fifth tortured me," she says, her voice flat like she's talking about the weather.
"What?" It's been three weeks since they finally rescued Carter from her time with Fifth, but this is the first he's heard of torture. Her reports only talk of captivity, of being trapped. Never anything about torture.
She rubs at the back of her neck. "I always knew he'd be hurt, angry with me, but this was…" Her voice trails off and she shakes her head as if clearing it of a memory. She clears her throat. "When he got tired of trying to break me with pain, he slipped into my mind, whispering lies. He tried to change me into what he wanted. An object for him to possess without a mind of her own."
Her voice is hoarse, lined with pain, but distorted with something else just underneath that sets Jack's teeth on edge. He thinks it must be the knowledge that she'd been undergoing all of that for weeks while they unsuccessfully tried to find her.
"Why didn't you ever say anything?" he asks, wondering if this is what has been keeping her in her lab, making her put off missions with SG-1. All the time she spent off base. And here he'd just thought she'd finally gotten herself a life.
She shrugs, a sad, hopeless little gesture.
He crosses over to stand behind her. "Carter?" he asks, touching her shoulder.
She turns abruptly, stepping up against him, her face covered by her hands.
Jack freezes a moment in surprise and then tentatively puts his arms around her, one hand rubbing her back. "You got away from him, Carter," he says. "You made it out." With very little help from them incidentally.
She nods against his neck, her hands sliding around his back, fingers digging in. "He underestimated me," she breathes.
Jack frowns, something just the tiniest bit off in her voice.
She pulls back, looking up at him, tears sparkling in her eyes. Hell. A crying Carter is something he really sucks at dealing with.
"Hey," he says, hand moving to cup the back of her neck. "You're okay."
She smiles, just the tiniest bit, and the next thing he knows, she's reaching for his face and moving her lips way too close to his.
"Whoa," he objects, pulling back. "What're you doing?"
She doesn't seem put off, her fingers curling in his lapels. "I would have thought that was obvious," she says, leaning in to kiss him again.
Jack grabs her shoulders, holding her away. "Look. Obviously you're upset right now, not thinking clearly…but this isn't-."
There's a flash of something in her eyes, there for only an instant, but almost…vicious?
"Maybe you're the one not thinking clearly, Jack," she says, hand trailing down his chest, and now he knows something is wrong.
"Okay," he says, feeling the hair rising on the back of his neck. "Why don't we just go back to the base and get you-."
She moves like quicksilver, twisting his hand up and around in one smooth motion, one way too quick and strong to be countered. Pain radiates down his arm, her violent grip forcing him to his knees. She doesn't even look winded, or like she's exerted herself at all, her fingers like steel bars around his wrist.
He looks up at her in surprise, and her lips quirk, her painfully familiar face devoid of any humanity. It's chilling as hell, and something he's only seen a handful of times before—when she was possessed by the entity, by Jolinar.
"What are you?" he asks.
She leans in, her face pressed up close to his. "Took you long enough," she taunts.
Her fingers dance across his forehead before pressing sharply down, agonizing pain dissolving into darkness.
With a loud groan, Jack wakes in a small silver cube of a room. He squeezes his eyes shut against the glittering light, the pain streaking through his brain. God. He'd really hoped never to experience this again. He can feel the rippled pattern of blocks under his back and swears under his breath. Fucking Replicators. Just when he thought he'd seen the last of those bastards.
Gingerly opening his eyes, he takes quick stock of his body, eyes darting around the room. Other than a headache the size of Chulak, he seems uninjured. The room, on the other hand, is not at all what he expects. Hard metal, yes, but not as nearly as impersonal. It's set up sort of like a weird museum, various mechanical objects carefully displayed on raised tables. A motorcycle. A naquadah reactor. A model rocket.
The Replicator weapon.
Jack shoves to his feet, not bothering to question what the hell the thing is doing here in the first place. All he knows is that if he's dealing with Replicators, he sure as hell wants that thing in his hands.
He's just reaching for it when she shows up.
She appears from the wall itself, melting into place molecule by molecule, and if he'd had any last lingering doubts as to just what she is, they're long gone now.
The Replicator's eyes dart to the weapon, her frozen face releasing into a disturbingly human smile. "Do you truly believe that can harm me?"
He doesn't hesitate, grabbing it and firing. The pulse passes through her as if nothing.
She calmly crosses the room, taking the weapon from him and gently placing it back on the pedestal like a priceless piece of art. "I've been at the SGC for three weeks, General, spending all my time studying your little machine. Do you really think I didn't find a way to make myself immune?"
Jack's mind is spinning with all of the implications—weapon won't work, she's been at the SGC, where the hell is Carter?
"I don't believe you," he says, stepping warily back from her. "We would have known. Medical tests alone-."
"Yes," she says, lips pressing together in prim disapproval. "I must admit I was a little disappointed just how easy it was. You rely too much on machines." She advances on him, her fingers skimming his cheek, digging in under his jaw when he tries to jerk back away. "And the rest?" She shakes her head. "Human brains are so…malleable. Especially when I'm showing them exactly what they want to see."
He moves out of her reach. "Where is Carter?"
The flash of viciousness is back in her steely gaze. "Oh, now you want to know where she is. Six weeks she's been on this ship, and now you're worried for her?" Her eyes are hard, reproachful. "She doesn't need your concern."
Jack tries to shake the inanity of this machine lecturing him on responsibility, ignoring the way the taunt lodges under his skin. "Where the hell is she?"
The Replicator paces away, reaching out to one of the little critters climbing across the wall. It hops up onto her hand like an eager pet.
"He couldn't break her," she says, clearly not interested in answering his actual question. "He couldn't make her bend to his will, so he made me." With a flick of her wrist, the creature climbing her arm is sucked slowly down into her skin, small waves rolling up her arm as it sinks below the surface. She holds her hand up, examining it closely as she bends it back and forth. "He gave me this body, thinking to make me weaker. Controllable." Her hand twists into a fist. "But he only made me stronger."
With horrific clarity, Jack can imagine how it must have all gone down. Fifth in his clumsy confusion creating something he could never hope to control. Sam Carter with no moral compass or inhibitions.
"He underestimated you," Jack surmises, remembering her words from his house.
"Yes," she says, her eyes bright, triumphant. "He did."
And there is that past tense again. Jack doesn't think it's a coincidence that he hasn't seen anything of Fifth up here. "What did you do to him?"
Her hand drops, her back straightening. "I set myself free," she says, eyes hard and mercenary, and he can't believe he ever could have mistaken this thing for Carter for even a moment. "And now I will do the same for her."
Jack really doesn't like the sound of that. "What do you mean?"
She crosses back over the space, her hand trailing along his shoulders as she passes behind him. "She is more brilliant than you could ever comprehend," she says, voice like an insidious whisper. "You hold her back."
Jack frowns. "I want to see her."
He expects a fight, more overblown posturing, but she simply nods. "Of course," she says, pointing to a small gap that has appeared in one of the glittering walls. "She's through there."
Jack takes one hesitant step towards the opening, not sure what her game is.
She smiles, something polite and plastic that goes nowhere near her eyes. "You can have some time to talk to her. I'm not without compassion, after all."
Jack seriously doubts her compassion, but can't pass up the chance to set eyes on Carter—the real Carter—even if it is a trap.
He ducks cautiously into the room, his eyes sweeping the cold, hard space—little more than a metal box—finally settling on a form seated against the back wall.
She glances up at him, but just as quickly away, her knees pulling up into her chest. Her hair is unkempt, the grown out length of it tucked haphazardly behind her ears, revealing skin so pale as to almost appear bruised against the faded blue of her BDUs.
He warily approaches her, not liking the way her eyes are darting around the room as if attempting to look anywhere but at him. She's started mumbling something under her breath.
He crouches down in front of her, gingerly touching her knee.
Her eyes snap up to his face. "What?" she demands, voice sharp with impatience.
This is pretty much the last reaction he expects. "Carter? You okay?"
"Sure. Of course." Her lips stretch into an empty smile. "Peachy, even." She wheezes slightly as if she's made a joke.
Jack just stares back at her with growing uncertainty.
Carter's sick amusement rapidly fades as he silently watches her, leaving her looking irritated with his confusion. "Can we just move this along?" she asks, hand flipping impatiently.
He's going to get whiplash at this rate. "Carter. I don't know-."
She pokes him in the chest. "You're supposed to say you're here to rescue me," she informs him.
He blinks. "I am?" He's fairly certain he's as trapped here as she is. She's the one with all the good ideas, not him.
She nods. "Yes. We must stick to script after all," she says, bitterness lining her words. She turns her head to the side, apparently back to pretending he isn't here.
"Carter," he says, beginning to lose his patience. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Of course you don't," she says, still not looking at him. "You aren't real."
Is that what this is all about? "I am real, Carter."
Her eyes squeeze shut, her jaw clenching. "You're never real," she says, a slight waver in her voice.
That brings him to a stop. What does she mean, never?
"Carter," he says, grabbing her shoulders, fingers digging in. "I'm really here. She…that whatever she is, she came to my house, stuck her hand in my head." He scrunches up his forehead. That is really one of the things he'd love to never experience again. "I woke up here."
She shakes her head, the belligerence replaced with bone deep exhaustion that hurts to see. Six weeks, he reminds himself. That's how long she's been here enduring this.
He takes her face carefully in both of his hands. "I swear to God, Carter. I'm really here."
She meets his eyes, letting out a shaky breath. "Just once, I'd like to be weak enough to believe that."
"Come on, Carter. I really need you to snap out of it. You're stronger than this."
"Just once," she whispers, her fingers curling in the lapels of his jacket. She pulls him down without warning, pressing her lips to his.
He jerks back, fighting to keep his balance. What the hell is up with Carters and kissing him today? "Carter—."
"God, really?" she bursts out. "Are you going to throw the regulations at me?" She laughs hoarsely, shaking her head. "My subconscious is really sick."
He has no idea what to say to that.
She drops back against the wall, regarding him soberly, some small thread of analytic Carter still in there. "Or do you think I'm just getting better at deluding myself? The hundredth time she tries to use you against me?"
She leans in, like she's confessing something. "When you kiss me back…that's when I know it's not really you."
Jack feels something break in him, the despair in her voice mingled so tightly with something like…longing. "Jesus, Carter, what the hell has she done to you?"
She shakes her head, squeezing her eyes shut. "Tiny little pieces," she says. "So she can build me back up. Change me. But I won't. I won't let her." Her fingers dig into her temples. "I won't. Because none of this is real."
Jack sighs, realizing convincing her of anything right now is a losing battle. "You're right, Carter," he says, patting her on the shoulder as she leans into him. "She isn't going to win. We won't let her."
Her face turns to his neck. "God," she mumbles, "you even smell like him."
"Dammit, Carter," he breathes, glancing around the room. He's going to have a hard enough time figuring a way out of here without a delusional Carter on his hands saying things he really shouldn't be hearing.
He feels the feather light touch of her fingers along the collar of his shirt, and when he pulls back to look at her, she's regarding him with a furrowed brow. "Sir?" she asks, her voice shaking.
Before he can answer, there's sound behind them, Sam's face paling at something she sees over his shoulder.
"No," she says, voice sharp as she shoves hard against Jack, knocking him sideways. She scrambles for the opposite corner of the room, wedging herself in as tight as she can.
"What the hell?" Jack mutters, regaining his balance and looking for whatever set Carter off.
Behind him, the Replicator stands in a newly appeared doorway, a few of her little friends swarming behind her. Jack pushes to his feet, stepping to stand between the Replicator and Carter. "What the hell have you done to her?"
The Replicator smiles. "I told you. I am improving her." She steps past Jack, easily moving him out of her way. He tries to stop her, but her little pets circle him, forcing him back against the opposite wall with sharp little snaps of electricity.
"No, no, no, no," Carter chants as the Replicator nears her, her hands firmly covering her ears.
The Replicator stands over her, hands on her hips. "Come now, Sam. Don't make a scene."
"Please don't make me do this," Carter pleads. "Please."
The Replicator kneels next to Carter, her fingers caressing her cheek. "Shhh. Everything is going to be okay. I promise."
Jack can feel it coming, opening his mouth to shout a warning, but the Replicator has already jammed her fingers into Carter's forehead. He winces.
After only a few moments, the Replicator pulls her hand back and Carter's eyes snap open, and here's that competent, unflappable woman he knows so well. She pushes to her feet, standing tall and almost at attention.
The Replicator hands her a gun that seems to have magically appeared in her hand. "Now just as we practiced," the Replicator whispers near Carter's ear. "Just this one last thing and you will be free."
Carter lifts the weapon, pointing it straight at Jack.
He's staring back at a machine. In that moment, he has no doubt that she has it in her to kill him, this woman who only moments before was kissing him and crying on his shoulder.
But then her eyes flicker downward slightly, like she's staring at his shoulders again and he finally gets it. His stars. He'd still been a colonel frozen in the ice when she was taken. Why would her subconscious change that detail?
She's finally realizing he's real.
"Please," she whispers, horror in her eyes.
Her other hand lifts to support the weapon, but Jack can see the way her arms are shaking, the white pressure of her knuckles as she fights the command. She stares back at him, every tiny thing she's feeling flashing across her expressive face.
"Sir," she says.
He lifts his hands out in front of him. "Carter," he replies, knowing with every fiber of his being that she's stronger than this.
She closes her eyes, and when they open again, there's nothing but complete calm. The corner of her mouth lifts in the tiniest smile, and he knows she's apologizing for something.
He smiles back because no matter what happens, this isn't her fault and he knows that.
She doesn't pull the trigger though, instead swinging the weapon wide, stepping across Jack and pointing it at the Replicator.
The Replicator just shakes her head with disappointment. "You can't hurt me with that."
"I know," Carter says. Pulling her arm back in, she tucks the gun tight up under her own chin. "But I can hurt me."
Jack takes a sharp step towards her. "Carter, no."
The Replicator appears unimpressed with the threat. "Your death will accomplish nothing. You know I will simply kill him myself after you are gone."
"Maybe," Carter says, confidence building in her voice. "But he understands that I'd rather die myself than play your sick games, than spend another day in this hell."
"If you wish to be free," the Replicator says, "you know what you must do. The only thing holding you back is yourself."
"Never going to happen," Carter bites out.
There's a flash of something like curiosity or surprise on the Replicator's face, a ghost of long dead expectations. Her head tilts to the side. "I see I may have miscalculated. Variables will have to be adjusted, scenarios evaluated."
There's a shuffle of sound behind Jack, but he doesn't dare take his eyes off Carter. He hears it first, the soft chimes leading the flash of white light and he lunges forward, wrapping himself around Carter.
He thinks he hears the retort of a gun, but they are already on the bridge of the Prometheus, whole and sound, Carter right there in front of him, solid in his arms. Thank God. Jack lets go of her and spins around to see Ronson in the command chair.
The ship shudders underneath them.
"Fire all weapons," the colonel commands.
"Now that is what I call perfect timing," Jack quips, moving to get out of the way as the ship engages the Replicator.
Ronson give him a distracted, fleeting grin. "My pleasure, Jack." He glances towards the front of the ship, his smile fading.
Carter is still standing where she materialized, gun still in her hand, unaware or uncaring of what is going on around her. She's staring at everyone around her as if she can't quite trust her eyes.
"Carter," Jack says, taking a step towards her as the ship continues to shudder underneath them.
Her eyes latch on to him, the gun lifting.
He lifts his hands. "Carter. It's okay. You're safe now."
Her shoulders lift with the heaviness of her breathing. "You've said that before," she counters, her voice wavering.
He glances at the gun in her hand, taking another few cautious steps towards her. "I don't know what she did to you, Carter. What she tried to make you believe. But this is real."
Her other hand lifts, supporting the gun, her back straightening. "Don't."
"You aren't going to shoot me, Carter," he says, waving away the guards moving towards them.
"No," she admits. The gun drops slightly, but he can see it in her eyes, see what alternative she's considering. "I've been saved before. Hundreds of times. And I always end up back there." She folds the gun back up against her chest, not so much aiming it as cradling it. "Maybe I just want it to all be over."
Jack feels his heart climbing up into his throat. They did not come all this way just for her to blow herself away the second they are back on friendly ground. "It is over, Carter. I promise."
"I can't believe you." Her fingers tighten.
She's enveloped in a flash of blue, the gun falling unused from her fingers as her body crumples to the floor.
Jack turns to see Teal'c holding a zat, his face deeply troubled, but determined. "She would have harmed herself," he says, more incomprehension than an attempt at explanation.
Jack kneels down by Carter, sliding the gun away from her limp hand. "Yeah, Teal'c," he says, brushing her hair back from her face. "I think she might have."
Ronson finally gets the last shot in on the Replicator ship, the burst of light flashing into the room. The fight was brutal, but the Prometheus had caught the Replicator by surprise. Too wrapped up in her little scenarios, Jack thinks, to even notice the approach of their rescue. And now she and her ship are in pieces.
Tiny little pieces.
Jack's hand tightens on Carter's arm.
They'd gotten her back. But would they ever be able to convince her of that?
Daniel stands at the foot of the infirmary bed, watching Carter. She's still unconscious, hands and feet bound as a precaution until they can get her back to the SGC. Like she hasn't already been through enough captivity, Jack ruthlessly thinks.
"How could we not have known?" Daniel asks.
Three weeks her Replicator double had been living with them, and none of them noticed. What does that say about them?
"You never suspected?" Jack forces himself to ask.
Daniel glances at Teal'c. "No. I mean, we've barely been on any missions yet, but that was just because Sam seemed so obsessed with studying the Replicator weapon. I figured she was just compensating for her time with Fifth."
Teal'c nods. "She was driven, focused. But it was not something new." His jaw flexes, and Jack thinks he's having just as hard of a time accepting this as the rest of them.
"There was…" Daniel says, trailing off hesitantly as if not sure he really wants to say it.
"What?" Jack prompts.
Daniel sighs. "Well, one time she sort of…snapped at me. But she apologized later, told me she'd been having a hard time at home and didn't mean to take it out on me. I didn't think anything of it."
Carter is generally a nice person, but even she has her days.
"There'd just…" Daniel shakes his head.
"What?" Jack presses.
"There was just something about her eyes, you know?"
Jack shudders remembering the day she came to his house. Took you long enough.
"We have all been adjusting to changes," Teal'c says.
Jack's promotion, Carter's new command of the team, the Antarctica outpost.
Looking at Daniel and Teal'c, Jack doesn't think either of them take anymore comfort in that than he does.
They've had Carter in the infirmary under close observation for four days now, running each and every test the doctors could even think of. As much for her health as their own peace of mind. There is no way they are letting another Replicator waltz in here under their nose.
She looks up at him, eyes clear, but mouth tight. "Colonel." She grimaces. "I mean, General."
He waves away the mistake. "Takes a while getting used to. Believe me."
She smiles, but it doesn't stick, practically melting away before it even makes an appearance.
He steps a bit closer to the bed. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," she says, her voice cautious.
"Yeah?" he asks, shoving his hands into his pockets and trying not to look like he doesn't believe her. "Everything…settling?"
She looks up at him, and try as he might, he just can't read anything in the look she's giving him. That is startling enough to put him on edge.
"Is it really necessary to keep me locked up in here?"
"We just need to make sure you aren't going to…"
"Hurt myself?" she asks.
"I was just…confused for a while," she admits.
"That's understandable," he says.
She shifts in the bed, rolling her shoulder like everything around her isn't quite a good fit. "I just need to see more than this room. Is there any chance I'll be getting out of here soon?"
He smiles, jabbing a finger over his shoulder. "I'll see what I can do."
"Thanks," she says.
Jack beats a retreat, stepping out into the hall where Janet is waiting for him.
"Well?" she asks.
Jack shakes his head. "Honestly? I have no idea."
Janet sighs. "I know what you mean. I can't decide if she's just telling us what we want to hear, or if she's really beginning to believe that she's back."
That's the problem with someone like Carter, she's smart enough to manipulate them. "So what next?"
"I'm not sure, sir. We can't keep her locked up here forever, but I don't think we can risk letting her be on her own just yet."
"Yeah," Jack says, thinking back over his conversations with Daniel and Teal'c. "What do you think about getting her out of here for a few days if we stay with her? Let her see that she's not trapped? That the world really is out there?"
Janet nods. "That might be a good idea, sir. Just keep a close eye on her. The tiniest thing could set off a psychological break."
Fresh air and open space and nothing to remind her of metal and mind games. They can watch her, the three of them, and maybe, just maybe she'll believe it eventually.
Jack breathes in the cool, fresh air coming off the water. There's the slightest taste of fall in the air, driving away the humidity and mosquitoes, making the day damn near perfect. Helped, of course, by the fact that Carter is finally here.
She's quiet in the chair next to him, ignoring the reel by her feet. She's reminded him of Alice these last few days, like she's just waiting to wake up from her twisted dream. She's building to something, has been for a while now, but he just contents himself with sitting in the sun next to her.
After a while, she shifts, her eyes sweeping across the deck. "You still…," she starts to say, her voice falling flat over the water. She shakes her head. "I didn't think…"
She reaches for his hand, her fingers griping tight around his. "You still want this."
Her foot brushes the reel on the dock. "You. Me. This place."
They are wading into dangerous waters here, but he's so happy to have her talking about anything at all that he doesn't care. He squeezes her fingers, his voice quiet. "Did you think I'd stopped?"
She shrugs, a broken gesture that makes his chest ache. "I don't know. I guess maybe I did."
He shakes his head. "That's just not ever gonna happen, Carter."
She closes her eyes, a tear squeezing out. She bats at it, turning her face away. "I'm sorry."
"Hey," he says, touching her face. "You don't have anything to apologize for."
She looks up at him. "More than you know," she says.
She's so close now, right there next to him and maybe seeing her here is doing strange things to him, but he just can't help it. He kisses her. If this is what it takes to convince her…
For a moment she's stiff against him, and he thinks he's going to have to apologize for being such a fucking idiot, but then the tension leave her like a rubber band snapping, and she's kissing him back.
He deliberately keeps the kiss soft and careful, letting them both settle into the sensation, the rightness of it.
"This is real, Sam," he says, his fingers brushing her cheek.
She smiles, something sad and aching in the gesture. "I wish it was too," she whispers, her forehead brushing his. "I really do."
He closes his eyes. Just when he thought maybe there'd been some small progress.
He tries to pull away, but she's grabbing his arm, her fingers digging in tight. "Where did Teal'c and Daniel go? You brought them too, didn't you?"
"Of course. They're just-." He gestures back at the cabin.
"Just what?" she asks. "Getting groceries? Driving in separately?"
Jesus, she's getting worse. Maybe they should get her back to the SGC. "Just calm down, Carter. It's going to be okay." He reaches for his phone. "I'm just gonna give Janet a call."
"Jack," she says, taking his face in her hands, her voice soft like he's the one losing his mind. "Janet's dead."
"You know that. You know she's dead."
He thinks about it, getting ready to open his mouth and deny it, only…he does know that. But, no. He'd just talked to her, she'd been there when they brought Carter back. She'd been there.
Only Janet is dead. He remembers the funeral. Carter's face as she read a list of names.
How can both be true?
"How did we get off her ship?" Carter asks.
Jack blinks, his brain trying to keep up. "What?"
"How did we get off the Replicator ship?"
"We got beamed off." He remembers the tingle of the light, the way he grabbed for her.
"Are you sure?"
Of course he's sure. Maybe there had also been a sharp retort, a tingle in his spine… The metallic taste of…gunpowder? No, that can't be right. Cold metal on his skin?
Carter is relentless, not giving him an inch. "How did they beam us off? How did they even find us?"
It's like grabbing on to smoke. The harder he digs for concrete details, the more it all slips away.
"Jack?" she presses. "How did we get off her ship?"
God, he has no idea.
"Why can't I remember?" he asks.
Her eyes close, her shoulders sagging with relief. "Because we're still on the ship, Jack. We're still here."
"We never left," he says, and just like that it's finally so clear—every tiny inconsistency he's been so studiously ignoring. But why? Why would he do that?
He glances around the pond, the chairs, the reels, Carter's fingers firm around his.
You still want this.
God. They're inside his fantasy.
Everything is falling away now, the water, the trees. Everything translucent and fading, failing by moment.
"Carter," he says as she slides through his fingers like the memory of things that never were.
Her fingers bite into his arm, her face close to his. "Don't trust her."
And then she's gone.
Jack jerks awake with a curse, his arm sweeping out in front of him as if reaching for something. His eyes skim across the room, taking in the familiar contours of his bedroom, his heart pounding away in his chest.
As usual, the dream begins to fade quickly, leaving only flashes, each one more insane than the last. He still obeys the inane urge to pinch himself, wincing at the pain. It was a nightmare. A really, really fucked up nightmare, but a nightmare nonetheless.
Everything is okay, he reminds himself. Carter is safe and probably in her lab and none of it ever happened.
It's ridiculous. They would know if Carter had been replaced by an evil twin. They would know. How the hell does his subconscious even come up with shit like this?
He sits up.
Scrambling, he manages to make it to the Mountain in under a half-hour, snatching the sign-in sheet from the entrance guards on his way in. He skims it as he ducks into the elevator, glancing at his watch. He slams into the locker room to find SG-3 just gearing up for a mission.
"Sir," Reynolds says, pushing to his feet with alarm.
"Change of plans," Jack says. "I need you to go to the armory and get the Replicator pulse weapon. Then take a security detail down to Carter's lab and take her into custody. If for any reason she resists, hit her with the pulse."
Reynolds eyes are wide. "Sir?"
"Do it now, Colonel."
Reynolds doesn't ask again, gesturing for his team to follow him out into the hall.
Jack hands him a radio. "I'm on two. Let me know what happens."
Reynolds nods, taking the radio and following after his team.
Jack heads for the stairs, taking them two at a time. In the halls on level 28, people flatten against the walls as he comes. Jogging into the control room, Walter nearly falls out of his seat when Jack demands, "Status, Sergeant?"
People don't work in the control room without having steady nerves and quick reflexes though, so Walter recovers almost instantaneously. "SG-6 and 11 are off-world, no scheduled contact for the next three hours."
"Anything from NORAD?"
Jack's radio crackles.
"General O'Neill?" Reynolds' voice asks.
"Sir, Colonel Carter… Hell, it wasn't Colonel Carter. I hit her with the pulse and she just…came apart."
Jack feels his gut clench. "Walter, we are code 9."
"Yes, sir," he says, hands flying across the controls.
All around them people push into motion, blast walls sliding into place, red lights flashing.
Daniel jogs up the steps and into the chaos. "Jack, what the hell is going on?"
Jack ignores him. "Walter, I need to know if there are any ships in orbit."
"No, sir. There haven't been any reports of-."
"Check again," Jack insists.
Walter nods. "Yes, sir."
"Jack?" Daniel tries again.
Jack darts a glance at him with a sigh. "Short version? We didn't bring back Carter. We brought back a Replicator."
Daniel pales alarmingly. "What?"
"Sir," Walter interrupts. "We have a contact in orbit."
Jack steps up behind him, glancing at the screen. "Lifesigns?"
"Signal the Prometheus. Charge their pulse, extract the one lifesign, and then blast the hell out of the ship."
Daniel looks confused as hell, and Jack doesn't really blame him. "How did you know?" he asks.
Jack shakes his head. There is no way to explain any of this. He'd dreamt it?
"Jack," Daniel says, grabbing his arm.
"Not now, Daniel," he snaps, staring so closely at the radar readout that he feels like his eyes are going to pop out of his head. Come on, come on.
There's a flash, and Walter presses one hand up to his ear. "The Prometheus has Colonel Carter, sir. The ship has been neutralized."
Jack breathes out.
"That was…easy," Daniel observes.
It was. Way too easy.
Jack feels a prickling sensation on the back of his neck, metal on his tongue. No. It can't be.
A tech in a chair spins around to face him, only it's not a tech. It's Carter. She's wearing jeans and boots and a worn flannel shirt, but it's her. "Sir."
"Carter," he says, stepping towards her.
"I don't know what she wants from you," she says, her eyes darting past him.
He turns, staring into the face of the Replicator.
Those cold, cold eyes.
"Jack, hurry up! The food's getting cold!"
Jack pulls a sweatshirt on over his head. "I'm coming, I'm coming!" he calls down the stairs, carefully picking his way across the landing and the obstacle course of discarded belongings currently marring the floor. Old camping equipment and sports gear mostly. They really need to deal with all this crap. Sell it, store it, whatever! He'll have to get-.
"Yeah!" he says, jogging down the stairs. In his haste, he nearly trips over the lazy dog spread out over the fourth step. Jack catches himself on the banister, his shoulder catching the row of photos on the wall as he steps down hard, an unpleasant twinge surging up his knee.
"Dammit, Maya!" he grouses.
The dog, lazy as she is, barely lifts her head to give Jack a baleful look.
He sighs. "You're right. Clearly I should have been looking where I was going."
Maya gives his shoe a half-hearted lick. Damn lazy dog.
Testing his knee with a cautious bend or two, Jack reaches down to pick up the picture he knocked off the wall in his less than graceful maneuver. He stops midway, sitting down on the step as his hand closes over the frame.
It's a photo of a happy, smiling family of three, bounding dog by their side.
Sara hates dogs, Jack thinks absently.
"I'm the one who would have to take care of it when you're gone, Jack."
Maya whines softly in her throat, nudging Jack with her nose. He absently scratches her behind the ears.
Pushing back to his feet, he hangs the photo in the empty spot, trying to shake the unsettling feeling that something isn't right.
"She thinks you'll believe it if you want it badly enough."
Jack freezes. He knows that voice, despite being distorted with horror and resignation. He knows that voice as well as he knows it doesn't belong here. Can't exist. The photos on the wall seem to waver in front of him.
He closes his eyes.
"Jack?" Sara's voice calls up the stairs. He can hear the gurgle of the coffee pot, the smell of pancakes.
If you want it badly enough…
God, he does. He wants this. He feels the pull of the fantasy, the life that could have been his. He can practically taste it.
His hand tightens on the banister, fighting the drag of downward momentum. He forces himself to turn away from it, and Carter is sitting on a step above him, her knees tucked up into her chest, one hand pressed down into Maya's fur. She has a long braid over one shoulder and smells like hay and sunshine and something else he can't quite place.
He swallows hard, trying to find his voice. "Is that—Is that why you're wearing that?" he asks. "Is that part of what you want?"
Her eyes lift to his face and she still looks like she's doing everything she can not to crumple inward. The hopelessness in her eyes is like a shot to his gut.
She shakes her head. "He gave me what I thought I wanted." Her fingers pluck at the flannel shirt. "But I didn't. Don't. I don't and she knows it."
"She," Jack repeats, glancing back down the stairs.
Carter's eyes widen. "She's…smarter."
Like he needs the reminder that he's being manipulated by evil with Carter's IQ.
"Dad?" another voice calls, the timber of the voice marking the speaker as a young man. A child all grown up. The pain flaring in Jack's gut nearly tears him in two.
He blindly turns, stumbling down a few steps.
Carter pushes to her feet, stepping in front of him, her arm blocking his way down the stairs.
"Carter, move," he says, his voice cracking. He has to go downstairs. He has to see.
"It isn't real," she says, eyes bright with tears. Tears for who? What the hell does she know?
There's a moment where he almost has it in him to shove her out of the way, push her down those damn stairs if it means getting to that voice.
She touches his arm. "God, I wish it was. I wish this could be yours, but it's not."
But it is his. Right there, just at the bottom of the stairs. All he has to do is walk down. Because would it really be so bad? To exist inside the fantasy? Maybe just for a little while?
Carter looks back at him with such painful understanding, like she knows exactly what he's struggling with. Because she does, he realizes. She's been living this for weeks. Weeks and weeks with no one coming. No one even looking.
He pushes forward again, and she drops her arm, stepping out of his way.
"I'm sorry," she says, the words so heavy with guilt as to be nearly unrecognizable. "I'm so sorry she's doing this."
He descends the stairs, one painful step at a time. In the hall below, he pauses.
It nearly kills him, nearly rips him clean in half, but somehow he turns away from the kitchen, pulls open the front door, and walks out.
Jack shakes his head. "No way, Daniel. That gate is staying buried."
Daniel sighs, tugging at the shoulder of his robe. "But the cartouche temple-."
Jack cuts across him. "Don't you think the Abydonians' safety is more important than your curiosity?"
Sha're touches Daniel's arm. "Perhaps O'Neill speaks wisdom, husband."
Daniel seems to deflate a little, his attention easily stolen away by his wife.
Jack knows that won't work forever, but for now, he'll take it. He settles back against the low bench, enjoying the heat of the fire pushing back at the cool night air filling the temple. He glances at the empty platform that had once held a Stargate, now covered in baskets and hyperactive kids.
He smiles to himself, glancing across the fire just in time to catch one of the women watching him. She has dark, glossy hair and a narrow chin, and just for a second as the fire catches her features, he has the insane thought that she looks just like Mary Steenburgen. She drops her eyes from his, the resemblance fading, but the obvious invitation thinly veiled with modesty is still there.
Jack's brow furrows.
"O'Neill should not always be alone," Skaara remarks, sitting down next to Jack.
"Mind your own damn business, kid," Jack mock complains. "Or I'll have to start quizzing you about that young lady I saw you carrying water for yesterday."
Skaara's face tinges slightly red, even as his chest puffs up with manly importance only a kid his age could ever pull off.
"She's pretty," Jack concedes.
"Clearly your eyes are failing you," Skaara says, his attention caught by movement in the crowd. "She is beautiful."
Oh, man. The kid's got it bad.
Skaara darts a glance at Jack, his cheeks staining an even deeper red. He shoves a flask at Jack.
"What's this?" Jack asks, prying open the lid and taking a sniff.
"It is Drathan's latest batch."
Jack takes a tiny sip, wincing as it burns down his throat. "Damn," he says, his eyes watering. "That'll make you go blind."
Skaara nods in agreement, taking a deep swig himself. "It is good, no?"
"No," Jack says, laughing. "It's terrible."
The woman from across the fire appears at Jack's side, handing him a bowl of water. Her fingers brush his, so casually as to be almost accidental. Almost. "Water?" she asks.
Next to him, Skaara lurches suddenly to one side, stumbling into the woman's arm, spilling the water to the floor.
"Whoa," Jack says, grabbing the boy's shoulder, holding him upright. "Someone's had enough."
Skaara mumbles something unintelligible.
Jack smiles apologetically at the woman. "Sorry."
She smiles shyly, ducking her face to the ground as she moves back away.
Skaara watches her leave, and when he looks up at Jack, there is nothing of inebriety on his face. "You must fight her, O'Neill."
"What?" Jack asks.
"She draws her web tighter and tighter around you."
Jack picks up the flask, shaking it to gauge how much liquid is left in it. "Are you sure that moonshine isn't rotting your brain?"
Skaara gives him a patient look, all previous ease and geniality gone. "O'Neill. Abydos is no more."
Jack's hand tightens around the flask.
"And me with it. This you know." He carefully removes the flask from Jack's fingers. "Do you not remember?"
"Yeah," Jack says, digging his fingers into his eyes as the memories flood back in, each and every heinous detail. Somehow it's like having to watch it happen for the first time all over again. He peers up at Skaara, shoving aside the burning in his chest. "But then how are you here?"
"She cannot understand me," he says, throwing a dark look at the woman still watching them closely from across the fire, her brow furrowed. "What I am now, she cannot comprehend or perceive."
"What you are now," Jack echoes.
Right. The wonders of being ascended. "Come to bust me out?" Jack asks.
"You know I cannot."
"So just came for a chat then," Jack says, sitting back down and eying the flask. Going blind drunk is sounding more palatable by the moment. "That's nice of you."
Skaara squats down next to him. "I came because you are my friend, and I do not wish to see you lost forever in this place."
Jack regards him, taking in the coiled hair, the calm eyes that had once been eager and innocent. "And how do I know you aren't part of this entire thing?" he asks, gesturing around at the room. "Another lie?"
Skaara smiles. "You already know what is real and what is not, O'Neill. You must simply learn to trust in that."
Because he's doing such a great job so far. "How can I trust anything in here?"
Skaara reaches out, his hand touching Jack's chest, palm pressing in. For a moment Jack thinks he can feel the weight of it, that touch, like something almost…concrete seeping into his flesh.
"You will find faith," Skaara says.
Jack's about to tell the kid that faith isn't exactly his strong point, when Skaara's eyes are caught by something over Jack's shoulder. There's a flash of surprise quickly transformed into the calm confidence that the damned Ancients no doubt spend all their time sitting around practicing.
Jack follows his eye line, tracking over to a robed figure across the room. It's a woman standing by a column, her face nearly obscured by a hood covering her hair, all but the barest glimmer of gold.
Jack stands, her eyes finding his.
"O'Neill?" Skaara asks, tugging Jack's sleeve.
Jack pulls his eyes away from Carter, looking back down at the kid. He's once again jovial, eyes wide with innocence and a bit too much alcohol. Untouched. Unknowing. Looking closely Jack can see the edges now, the flatness to him like he's just a projection, or a ghost raised from a distant memory.
Jack looks back up at Carter, reading the sympathy there in her eyes before she turns and slowly heads towards the temple exit.
"Is something wrong?" Skaara asks.
Jack turns back to him, forcing a smile on his face. He consciously does not look at the woman sitting across the fire. "Everything's fine," he lies. "I'm just going to hit the head before that moonshine of yours does me in."
Skaara laughs, the warm, artificial sound turning to acid in Jack's stomach.
He turns and walks outside.
Carter is waiting not too far away, staring out over the night-shrouded desert, the moons hanging heavy and bright in the sky. Her arms are wrapped tight around her as if she's trying to fight off a chill.
"So this is new," he says mildly, stepping up next to her.
Carter shakes her head. "Only the scenery, not the game," she says, voice thin with exhaustion.
"Is that what this is? A game?"
She huffs, her chin dropping towards her chest. "A Petri dish."
"I always did hate science," Jack quips.
She turns to look at him, her eyes searching his face. He isn't sure what she's looking for so he just stares back.
"Why am I here?" she asks.
"What do you mean?"
She holds out her hands in the moonlight, inspecting them closely, and her eyes are somehow more focused than they've been since he first saw her in that metal cell. "The house you shared with Sara, Abydos. I don't belong in these scenarios."
She does kinda ruin the illusion, now that she mentions it. Like the final bit of proof that things aren't right.
"So why am I here? Why would she want me here?" She gives him a critical look. "Assuming you are you."
He shrugs. "Last time I checked."
She turns all the way around then, looking at him straight on. "Are you bringing me here?"
"Can I do that?"
"I don't know," she admits. "But I am here somehow."
"So you're…experiencing all of this too," he says.
She has the grace to look a little embarrassed, but doesn't look away. "Yes. I don't know how. It's like…watching from afar. And then sometimes something happens and suddenly I'm in the middle of it."
He huffs, trying to make light of her getting a free pass to his subconscious desires. "Guess she got tired of digging through your brain."
"I guess," Carter says, still looking vaguely unnerved. "It's almost as if she's forgotten I'm-." She stops mid-word, looking up at him with eyes bright with realization.
"What?" he asks, knowing that look well. It usually shows up right before she pulls his ass out of the fire.
She stares at him a moment, like she's mastering some instinctual reaction, biting down on her lip. "I can't tell you," she says, apparently as nonplussed by that as he is.
She looks ready to deal with his argument, his order to tell him just what the hell is going on in that genius brain of hers, but for some reason he can't explain, he doesn't. Maybe because despite everything, she's the only thing he does trust in this whole twisted place. It's the stupidest thing he could possibly do.
"Okay," he says.
She stares back at him, surprised at his easy acquiescence, and without thinking he reaches out to touch her, his fingers settling against her cheek, gauging the details.
Her skin feels warm, solid. Right. Try as he can, he can't find any edges.
"Sir?" she asks, her voice betraying a slight tremor.
He smiles, suddenly self-conscious, and pulls his hand away. "Just checking," he says with a shrug.
Her hand catches his, fingers squeezing tight for a moment, staring down at the point of contact as if searching for whatever it is he'd been checking for. He wonders what she feels in that touch, whether she believes it.
"I have to go, sir," she says, pulling away. He thinks that might be suspicion in her eyes. It doesn't bother him. He thinks maybe if it hadn't been there he'd have something to worry about.
He nods. "You go do your thing, Carter." And he'll do his best to deal with her evil twin for as long as he can.
"Go," he says, because if he gives it too much thought he'll remember where he is and what he's dealing with and how much harder that all is when he's alone.
With a quick turn and flash of linen, she's gone.
He's left by himself in the cold night air, the spill of sound and light from the temple drifting out around him like a temptation. What if you had stayed behind with Daniel that first time?
He turns and walks out into the desert.
A sharp elbow digs into Jack's ribs. "Hey, no dozing!"
Jack opens his eyes, blinking against the bright lights all around him, the avalanche of noise caused by thousands of bodies crammed into an enclosed space.
"Kawalsky?" Jack asks, looking at the man seated next to him.
Kawalsky shakes his head. "Who else?" He gives Jack a critical look. "Only you would nearly kill yourself getting tickets to the Stanley Cup, and then three days before the game nearly actually get yourself killed in a car accident."
Jack lifts a hand to his head, the pounding ache there. "It was just a fender bender."
Kawalsky scoffs. "Yeah, right. What is this, concussion number fifty?"
Jack grimaces and pushes himself back up in his seat. "At least half of those were directly your fault, Kawalsky."
He laughs. "If you can remember that, you can't be too bad off. Now where the hell is our popcorn?"
"About to be dumped over your ungrateful head, Charlie," Sam says, appearing on Jack's other side loaded down with quality snacks.
"Wonderful," Kawalsky says, rubbing his hands together. "I was wasting away here."
Sam shakes her head in fond exasperation, passing the food off to Jack to pass down.
She drops into her seat, handing the last box to Jack. "And for you, Jack, the item with the least amount of nutritional value on the entire menu." She hands him a carton of chips smothered with glistening plastic cheese and jalapeños. "One time only deal. Back to real people food tomorrow."
"Yeah, yeah," he says, waving her off.
She touches his arm. "I mean it."
Jack eyes her, feeling another throb of pain in his head as he pops one of the jalapeños into his mouth with an indecent amount of relish.
She rolls her eyes, breathing, "Men," under her breath with exasperation.
Her hand leaves his arm, and Jack scratches absently at the place she'd touched him.
Down on the ice, someone scores, the crowd rushing to their feet. Sam's elbow careens into his shoulder as she goes with it, yelling at the top of her lungs. Jack nearly loses his hold on his nachos. He swears under his breath, the curse dying on his tongue as something in the crowd catches his attention.
Just a food vendor, he tells himself as he watches a woman moving against the grain of action. Furtive, like she doesn't want to be seen.
"Did you see that?" Kawalsky crows, his fist pumping in the air. "That was an amazing shot!"
Sam shouts something back, meeting Kawalsky's high-five over Jack's head.
"Jack?" Sam asks, sitting back down next to him. She touches his arm, the light glinting off a thin metal band on her finger. "What's wrong?"
He turns to her and smiles. "Nothing. Nothing at all."
"You sure?" she asks, her thumb tracing his eyebrow, a casual gesture like she does it all the time. Her eyes are warm with affection, but there's just the tiniest glimmer of something else hiding right underneath.
He leans into her, his hand cradling her cheek, concentrating on the feel of her skin under his fingers. "I'm fine."
"Geez, guys," Kawalsky complains. "Give it a break."
Sam pulls a face at Kawalsky over Jack's shoulder, and then leans in closer to kiss him. She's maybe an inch or two away from him when he stops her, his hand slipping around the back of her neck, fingers digging in.
"Nice try," he says.
"What?" she asks, eyes wide with confusion. Close, but not quite right.
"Well done over all," he says, his head canting towards the rink. "Only… Carter can't stand hockey."
For a moment, he thinks she's going to try to hold on to the innocent act, but then the gentle smile disappears, the sound of the crowd around them cutting out as if someone's hit the mute button.
"That can change," she says, her tongue darting out to wet her bottom lip. "If you want it to."
He can't believe how much he wants to tighten his hands around her neck in that moment, to eradicate this thing that has no right to wear Carter's face.
"Can it?" he asks, forcing his voice to stay calm, even. He needs to figure out what the hell her game is, not fly off the handle.
She leans in closer, her fingers slipping into his hair. "You can have anything you want."
"And what exactly do you think I want?" he asks, ignoring the feel of her pressing against him, the way her touch makes his skin crawl.
Her eyes light up with almost manic intensity. "We can make of this galaxy what we want, help make it better. There's nothing to stand in our way. Nothing."
The level of megalomania the Replicator is demonstrating is chilling, but he still doesn't get where he fits into all of this. "Are you saying you need my help to do that?"
Her lips press together in an arrogant, patient smile that Carter would never be capable of making. "Not need. Just want."
He glances around at the setup again, her hand tight around his arm. "What's the matter? Lonely up here in your ship all by yourself?"
Her eyes harden, but she continues on as if he hadn't spoken. "I know how much it bothers you—the lack of control. Knowing you don't have the final say in what happens on Earth. That a bunch of bureaucrats with no idea of what's out here get to make the decisions. I can change that. I can help you."
"You think you know me that well, do you?"
She smiles. "You forget. I'm Sam Carter." Her finger trails along the collar of his shirt. "Only better."
He seriously doubts that. "Carter would never play games like this," he says, jabbing a finger at Kawalsky next to him, still watching the ice like he isn't long dead and buried.
"Maybe you don't know her quite as well as you think. She's capable of more than you could ever comprehend."
"Like killing Fifth?" he lobs out, testing the waters.
Her expression falters, her eyes blinking mechanically like she's processing foreign data.
"Carter had compassion for him."
The Replicator sneers at him. "Either of you would have done the same in my place. You both had a hand in making him what he was."
He doesn't need the reminder. He thinks a lot of that must account for the woman sitting in front of him right now too—how someone who is fundamentally supposed to be Carter could come out so wrong, so distorted.
Jack shakes his head. "Don't try to pretend you did it to make the galaxy a better place. You did it out of revenge. Anger. And maybe now you're regretting it."
Her hand is trembling, just the tiniest bit. "I did it to escape."
"Are you sure?" he pushes. "Because I think Fifth changed you more than you think." He leans in closer. "Made you in his own image."
Jack watches the play of furious emotions over her face, waiting for it to explode over him, but instead she simply blinks once, the sounds of the game and crowd rising back around them. She sits back in her seat.
"Just watch the game, Jack," she says, voice soft and pleasant again, and still indefinably wrong. He wonders if whatever this may have started as, if now it is a challenge she simply can't back down on—Carter's work ethic twisted into something sick.
"No," he says, getting to his feet. "I'm not playing."
She stretches a hand out across the aisle, blocking his escape. "But you paid so much for the tickets. It would be a shame to waste them." She looks up at him, both challenge and persuasion in the glance. "Right, Charlie?"
"Yeah, Jack. What gives?" Kawalsky asks.
Jack doesn't turn back to look at his old friend—dead and gone and never coming back—feeling the rage beginning to get the best of him.
She shifts, her other arm lifting off her stomach to reveal an obvious swell there—a new detail. A new manipulation. "Sweetheart…," she says.
Jack sees red. He grabs her arm, yanking her to her feet. "Stop this," he hisses.
She looks up at him, eyes wide with faux sincerity. "Jack, you're hurting me."
He squeezes harder. "I didn't think machines actually felt."
Her eyes narrow, her expression faltering just before she plunges her fingers into his forehead.
They're in his bedroom. The blinds are drawn tight against the outside world, helping them keep their secrets.
No one ever has to know.
"Sir," she whispers, body pressed up against his, sleeve slipping off one shoulder to reveal smooth flesh. "Let me give you what you've always wanted."
Her mouth presses to his neck, hot breath and slick tongue on his skin, only it isn't tantalizing, not even a tiny bit seductive like it should be. It just makes his throat burn with bile.
He thinks she isn't even trying to pretend anymore.
"This isn't real," he says.
"No, it isn't," she says, hands lifting to his chest. Her fingers deftly unbotton his shirt, sliding underneath the fabric, fingernails dragging across his skin. "So why not just give in? It's your fantasy."
"You're right," he admits, hands lifting to her waist. "I've wanted this for a long time."
He pushes her back towards the door, pinning her there with his body.
"I know," she says.
He lowers his face to her neck, breathing her in. He wonders if he's just imagining the metallic smell, the taste of iron on his tongue. "There's just one problem," he says against her throat.
She seems to melt into him, heat radiating off her skin, pulling him in. "I'll fix it."
That can change.
He trails his hands down her bare arms, a swath of goose bumps following in the wake of his touch. Reaching her wrists, he pulls her arms up and over her head, pinning her hands to the door.
Her body shifts under his, not fighting, but submitting, one leg hooking around his thigh, pulling him closer.
He trails a finger down her cheek, watching the way she leans into the touch. "You can't fix it," he says.
She gives him a lazy smile like she knows exactly who is in charge here. Who's winning. Her tongue darts out, wetting her lower lip. "I think I already have."
He lowers his face, his lips hovering just above hers. "You aren't her. You'll never be her." He looks into those cold eyes and drives the stake home. "And I don't want you."
It's pouring rain.
Under Jack's feet the ground is thick with mud. It's cold and dark, lighting breaking over the barren landscape like a childish tantrum. There's a tall cliff rising steeply on one side of the valley, a cave clearly visible at the base, but he's pretty sure that's where he's supposed to go and he's not in a mood to play.
So instead he sits down in the mud, rain be damned. He feels the water seep into his clothes and doesn't shiver because it isn't real, and even fake pneumonia is still fake.
It isn't long until he hears the squelch of footsteps behind him.
"Sir?" she asks.
He glances over his shoulder. "Hey, Carter."
She looks around, body slouched low into her BDUs against the raging weather. "Where are we?"
He lifts his face to the rain, feels it trickle down into his collar. "I think I'm on a time out."
Carter's brow furrows in confusion, but she doesn't bother asking, instead looking over her shoulder. "She's here somewhere," she says.
He shrugs. "Probably." Or she's off licking her wounds. He doesn't particularly care at the moment. He's taking this round off.
Carter is looking shifty, like she's been dragged away from something important. "Sir-."
"I brought you here again, didn't I," he guesses. "Sorry about that."
She looks back over the horizon, and he wonders what she sees. "I have to go back."
He feels a lurch in his stomach that he doesn't want to admit is reluctance to be left alone with the Replicator again. Things just seem…clearer when Carter's here.
"Just give it a minute, will ya?" he says, gesturing at the spot of muddy ground next to him. She probably needs rest more than anyone, he rationalizes.
She looks torn, glancing back over her shoulder again.
"Not scared of a little mud, are you, Carter?"
She closes her eyes, her body sagging slightly. "Okay," she says, gingerly sitting down in the mud next to him.
He shifts, his shoulder touching hers, the barest of contact, but it's enough. He breathes out.
He watches her sit there, her neck scrunched down into the collar of her jacket and knees hugged to her chest as if clinging to any small bit of protection she can. She looks exhausted.
He knows how that feels.
"Shouldn't I be hungry?" he asks. It's hard to tell how long he's been in here, but it seems to him he should be hungry or thirsty or have to take a pee at the very least.
She shakes her head. "This isn't real."
"Yes, but I have a real body somewhere, don't I?"
She nods. "In an alcove. It sustains my body." She stares off into the darkness, her jaw tightening. "So she can keep me alive as long as she wants. Indefinitely."
He can hear the unspoken implication—this will never end. It must feel as if an eternity has passed already.
"Three weeks," he says.
"What?" she asks, face swiveling towards him.
He flicks a patch of mud off the toe of his boot. "That's how long we thought she was you."
Her hands tighten on her knees. "It feels like it's been…longer than that."
"I'm sorry," he says.
"Not your fault." The words are automatic. Practiced.
Bullshit. "We left you here."
She shakes her head. "How could you have known? She's me."
"No, she isn't," he says, something vehement building in his voice. "I should have noticed."
She turns away, but not before he sees it—her disappointment. She thinks he should have too.
Took you long enough, the Replicator's cruel voice echoes in his mind. But that's not completely fair. He thinks he would have, if he'd had the chance. Hopes to God it's true.
"We haven't seen much of each other lately," he explains. Not since the promotion. He'd been so proud, but he was pinning the wrong woman's shoulders.
He shrugs. "Busy, I suppose. We'd both just been promoted, after all." Only that's just a partial truth. Sure, she'd been living in her lab during the day, but the rest of the time… She'd seemed suddenly sucked into her social life, doing the one thing he's always bugged her to do, and he'd stepped as far away from her as possible. Being supportive, he had told himself.
"Pete," she says, easily cutting through all his bullshit. It's easier to do that in here.
"Yeah," he admits.
"He didn't notice either, did he?" The man she was dating, sleeping with, practically living with hadn't even noticed the change. "I guess that says something," she says, her lips twisting.
"Give the guy a break, Carter," he says, hating the self-censorship in her voice. "He isn't trained for wacky."
She shakes her head. "You don't get it. I'm not angry. I'm just…" Her eyes shift, focusing off into the distance. "Fifth tried to use him against me. Created this fantasy of retirement and living on a farm together."
Jack remembers her outfit, the long hair, the smell of sunshine. He gave me what I thought I wanted.
Her eyes reconnect with Jack. "I didn't buy it for a second. Wasn't even remotely tempted."
She stares back at him, and he thinks she won't answer, doesn't honestly really expect her to, only then she blows out a breath. "Because that's not what I want," she says, like this is some revelation she's recently had.
He wants to ask her what she does want, but he thinks she's still convinced this is all fantasy, and that isn't right, isn't right to take something like that from her when she's confused, adrift. It's what makes them different from the Replicator.
But he plans on asking her someday. When this is over.
"Then she came," Carter continues, a shudder working its way through her shoulder into his. "And it was so much harder." She looks up at him, eyes searching and wary. "Because I want to believe."
He touches her shin, squeezing the sopping fabric. "I'm not here to trick you, Carter."
She licks her lips, breathing in deep. "Then let me go," she says.
They stare at each other, a slew of unspoken things poised on Jack's tongue. I thought I had. But he gets that this isn't about them right now. This is about him dragging her into these scenarios, forcing her to be his anchor when the restless movement of her fingers tells him she really needs to be somewhere else. His trust in her is more important than his comfort. It always has been.
"Okay," he says, pulling his hand back.
Rest time's over.
Things change from then on. It's like the Replicator isn't trying to fool him anymore, to lure him in, rather is running through a dizzying list of partially constructed realities. It's almost as if she's looking for something, running scenarios. He's beginning to feel a lot like a specimen in that Petri dish Carter had mentioned.
There are long-forgotten childhood memories, missions that never happened, strange mutations of things that were, only changed in inexplicable ways.
The Replicator is there, always there. Watching mostly, sometimes staring back at him through eyes that aren't hers. He wants to ask her what she's looking for, what this is all about, but doesn't want to play into her hand. Instead he concentrates on letting everything roll by, not letting the horrific memories she prods him with ripple his surface.
He's not giving her a thing.
It's getting easier. He tries not to let that lull him into making the mistake of lowering his guard.
Even so, he does allow himself a nice breakfast of porridge with Laira just because it feels like it's been a while since he's sat down and eaten, and not because he feels any particular attachment. He thinks the Replicator is interpreting it differently. Her mistake. Because the truth is that his thoughts have never lingered in this place; he's never felt the urge to wish it back. He takes in all the details that are wrong, misplaced, rubbed shiny clean when those days had been dark and brutal and limned with regret, and he has to wonder where this construct was really pulled from.
He shakes his head. This place had always only been a distant second.
She's begun to believe she's finally found something on him though, letting herself think he's buying this reality. He lingers just long enough to make her lower her guard.
"This isn't going to work," he comments blandly into his cup of not-coffee, feeling Laira's eyes on him.
The urn in her hand hits the wall with a crash.
Jack smiles and drains his cup.
She spends the next five constructs rubbing his failures in his face.
He still thinks it was worth it.
The planet is distinct for its silence. Jack supposes he should just be thankful there's no Maybourne.
"Really?" he calls out, looking around the landscape. "Think you're scraping the bottom of the barrel this time!"
There's no answer.
Sitting down in the grass in the lonely, empty landscape, he feels an impulse tickling at the back of his mind, but leaves her be, watching the sway of flowers in the soft breeze.
There are worse things to be than alone.
Leaning back in the grass, Jack stretches out and takes a nap.
The church is the perfect mix of quaint and cozy, nothing ostentatious or overwrought, just the simple comfort of a sanctuary. Exactly what he imagines she would want. No attendants, no roses, just two people standing in front of an officiate. Skimming the crowd, Jack recognizes familiar faces—friends, family, comrades—the groom's side suspiciously empty and out of focus.
She's beautiful, a clutch of soft lavender tulips against the creamy white of her dress in some simple cut he'd never be able to name. He just knows she looks amazing in it. She's a spot of light against the dark suit of the man next to her.
The guy's face isn't quite in focus, warping slightly like this world isn't complete. Just enough details to make it clear who it isn't. It's every man but Jack.
He wonders if the Replicator thinks this is more punishment, sitting here watching this. Clearly she doesn't know him as well as she thinks.
This isn't his nightmare. It's an inevitability. One he's always been prepared for. He's spent their entire acquaintance getting ready to let go of her, never really having a hold in the first place.
This scenario isn't what he fears.
The bride turns abruptly, her blue eyes focusing in on him, something like triumph on her face.
He opens his eyes and looks into Carter's face.
Where has she been?
They are back on the ship now, pretext finally falling away under the harsh light reflecting off living, breathing metal walls.
She doesn't look scared anymore, or even resigned. She just looks confident and capable and just how he wants her to be.
Only more illusion, because it's her, only something isn't quite right.
"Sir," she says, her eyes traveling across his face. "It's okay."
"I don't believe you," he says.
She smiles. "Good. You shouldn't believe anything."
"This isn't real."
"No," she says. "It's not."
Only when she steps back does he notice the gun. It's heavy in his hand, pressed tight up against her chest, the trigger sharp under his finger.
Why the hell is he…?
But he knows. Knows that if he just does this one thing, it will be over. It will all stop. It's like this fact is being whispered in his ear or maybe it's always been there all along.
Just do it.
He has to kill her or this will never end.
It's the only way.
Carter looks from the gun to Jack, something like understanding in her eye. "It's okay," she says, her hand closing over his on the gun, not to push away, but to hold in place. "I'm almost there."
The gun fires.
Carter is lying on the floor, her eyes staring. Empty.
"You killed her," the Replicator says, and the memory is suddenly there in Jack's mind—reaching out and grabbing for Carter from behind, bumping the gun. The sharp retort and acrid taste on his tongue.
"No," he denies.
"You killed her," she says into his ear from behind, her body brushing close to his. "You know it to be true."
He can smell her blood, feel the gun in his hand. So real.
He squeezes his eyes shut. "No. You wouldn't let her die."
"She was of no more use to me. I collected all the data I needed."
Is that really what all of this has been? A set of fucking experiments? "I don't believe you."
She steps away, her arm sweeping wide as if presenting a prize. "You don't have to. She's right there. What you did is right in front of you."
He can't move, can't step closer to confirm one way or another. He tries to call her, to drag her into this place like he's done before, kill the illusion, but he just can't feel her anymore. Like there's this giant gap.
"No," he says, but even he can hear the defeat building in his voice. What has he done?
"She is not completely gone." She changes, morphs in front of his eyes, suddenly soft and rumpled in blue BDUs.
She crosses behind him, fingers trailing across his shoulders. "I can give you everything."
For a full second he's weak enough to consider it, to take the lie in the face of the unacceptable truth lying at his feet.
Don't trust her.
"No," he says, pulling away from her.
Forcing his feet across the room, he drops to his knees by her body, hovering just out of reach. He reaches out, his fingers shaking, knowing with every fiber of his being that he has to do this. Has to know one way or another.
He makes contact.
"What if I am all that is left of her?" the Replicator whispers in his ear.
He closes his eyes, anger boiling up and over the grief, snapping everything into bright clarity. Including one inescapable fact: "Then she really is gone."
The Replicator turns, her hand ripping out of Jack's forehead with nothing close to gentleness. He sags forward, his body trapped by something hard and metal. Opening his eyes, he can see that the room has shifted yet again, the light bright and painful against his eyes, his body sluggish as if from long immobility. He's partially encased in the wall itself, blocks covering his body, holding him in place.
Next to him, there's a second alcove. Empty, nothing but a trail of blood leading away from it.
Only the Replicator looks confused, staring at the empty alcove like she's misplaced something.
"I suppose I should thank you."
They both turn to see Carter leaning against the doorway, her face pale and drawn, but decidedly not dead. Free, he thinks, glancing at the empty alcove, finally understanding.
The Replicator tilts her head to one side. Shifting her variables, Jack thinks. "For what?" she asks.
"For teaching me about our greatest weakness."
The Replicator smiles, like this is all playing perfectly into her hands, like she's finally getting what she's really wanted all along—Carter. Every single manipulation leading to this moment.
"Don't you want to know what it is?" Carter asks.
The Replicator's eyes dart to Jack. You hold her back. Is that what this was really all about?
Carter smiles. "This whole time, you were looking in the wrong place."
"You're confused," the Replicator says, taking a step towards Carter.
Only Carter has never looked farther from confused. "It's arrogance," she says.
The Replicator stops, her brow furrowing in confusion that makes her look alarmingly childlike. A machine trying to understand things way beyond her.
Carter lifts her arm from behind her back, the Replicator weapon swinging into view. "What else could have possibly driven you to bring one of these with you?" Carter twists it to the side a bit, looking down at it. "I have to admit that I didn't know what it was at first, but while you were busy playing your little games, running your experiments, it wasn't too hard to figure out. To take what I needed."
The Replicator seems to visibly relax, the cruel smirk back on her face. "Even if you did, you must also know that it can't hurt me."
"Can't it?" she asks, something in her expression sending a thrill up Jack's spine.
There is a flicker of real alarm on the Replicator's face. "You couldn't possibly have-."
Carter pushes off the doorjamb, her expression hardening, anger radiating from every angle of her body. For a moment she seems to glow with it, weeks of righteous indignation and helplessness bursting out through her skin.
"You don't tell me what I can and can't do," she bites out, each word like a bullet.
She fires the weapon.
Jack expects a scream, a tearing of metal, but the machine wearing Carter's face simply falls away, a rain of silver metal scattering like sand across the floor.
Tiny little pieces.
Carter sags back against the doorway, more than simple relief, as if she's been finally cut free, released from a web she's been tangled in for weeks and weeks. She did it. Jack has no idea how. But that's normal, he tells himself.
When her face lifts though, there is nothing of friendly camaraderie or triumph, simply sick resignation as if there is one last terrible task before her.
"Carter," he says, feeling his stomach drop.
She won't look him in the eye.
She lifts the weapon to his chest, pausing the barest second before firing. The blocks around him melt away, setting him free, nearly dumping him to the floor when his legs unexpectedly wobble under the weight of his body. Just how long has he been in there?
Carter is staring at him like she'd expected him to disappear too.
He steps out of the alcove, one hand on the wall as he cautiously moves towards her. "Carter."
She tentatively reaches out to touch his chest, palm flat against his heart. "You're real."
"Told ya," he says with a smile.
She stumbles, and now he sees it, the blood staining her shirt.
"Dammit," he swears, lowering her to the floor and pressing his hands against he wound in her shoulder. Wasn't that a ploy? Had the gun been real? "I actually shot you. I remember-."
"No," she says, grimacing under the pressure, head dropping back to the wall behind her. "This isn't a gunshot wound."
He glances skeptically at the wound, a thin, perfect puncture. Too perfect. "Then how?"
"It was her," she says. "Her hand-." She falters, her eyes closing as if to ward off an unpleasant memory.
"But why?" He would just assume Carter had pissed the Replicator off, but looking at the wound, it seems rather carefully placed to be painful as all hell, but not fatal.
Carter's brow furrows as she thinks it through. "She must have wanted you to think you'd killed me. It was the only way to-." She trails off, darting a glance at him.
"The only way to get me to choose to stay," he finishes for her. Not need. Just want.
Because it was the final puzzle piece, the one thing Jack really fears more than anything—Carter dying because of him. If he'd really killed her, he never would have been able to forgive himself. And if he took it badly enough, he might have been tempted to stay, to buy the fantasy.
She's looking down at her hands, a small subterfuge that normally he'd grateful for, but he thinks they are well beyond that now.
"She said I hold you back."
She looks up in surprise. "She was wrong."
"If she wasn't, we'd still be in there." The fact that they very well still could be seems to occur to her. She looks unnerved, pulling slightly back away from him.
"This is real," Jack says.
"How do you know?"
He's not sure how to put it into words, the millions of tiny things that alone mean nothing, but together mean everything. How to explain that Skaara was right. That he knows her, knows she's real.
Because I can't feel you in my head anymore, he imagines saying.
"Can you think of a way out of here?" he asks instead.
She glances around the room, no doubt running the variables of a ship with no controls or interface, just a pilot dead and gone and in pieces on the floor. There very well may be no exit for them.
"No," she admits.
"Exactly," he says. "It's way too messy not to be real."
She laughs, her smile turning to a grimace as she grabs her shoulder. "I suppose if this were fake, I could dream up some morphine and a last second Tok'ra rescue."
They both look up, as if waiting for either to appear.
Nothing happens. They catch each other's eye. "Worth a shot," Jack says, pulling off his jacket to start working on a rudimentary bandage for Carter's shoulder.
She closes her eyes, letting him work in silence, and he's almost convinced she's drifted off when she speaks again.
"I think maybe she thought bringing you in there would weaken me."
"Yeah?" he says, voice carefully neutral as he tears his shirt into strips.
She nods, her fingers twisting into the fabric of her pants as Jack starts wrapping his impromptu bandage around her wound. Her breathing is a little uneven when she talks, sucked in against the pain. "Instead you helped me remember."
"Sorry. Almost done," Jack says, grimacing when she hisses as he wraps the bandage around a second time. "Remember what?"
She opens her eyes. "Why I was fighting. Who I am, and not who she wanted me to be."
It had been confusing as hell in there, the Replicator attacking from all sides, tearing things apart, moving the pieces as she saw fit. It could have been so damn easy to get lost. But he thinks that might have been the fatal flaw too, the thing that in the end kept the Replicator from succeeding—her endless drive to fix and correct things, thinking that they needed to be changed.
Jack carefully ties the last strip of fabric into place. "Because you never needed to be fixed in the first place."
"No. I guess not." He doesn't particularly like the way she makes that sound like a something she's only just started believing.
He smiles. "I could have told you that a long time ago."
She regards him, clearly surprised by the statement, but also…also something else that he really hopes he isn't imaging.
"You always knew when it was me. How did you always know?"
Faith has never been her thing, not in the unknown, not in others, not even in herself. She can execute a plan, substituting with confidence and skill and knowledge, but blind faith? That will never be her thing.
So how to explain that faith in Sam Carter is one of the things he has come to fundamentally rely upon to keep them all alive? But she isn't asking for a lesson in faith. She's saying she needs to hear him say it.
"Because I may not know a whole lot, Carter, but I know you."
She grabs his hand. "Thank you," she says.
She shakes her head, like there are too many things to choose from. "For trusting me. For not giving up on me."
He glances at her hand in his. "That's just never gonna happen, Carter," he says.
The ghost of a moment that technically never happened, never existed, flows between them, and for a frightening moment Jack thinks he can almost taste it, that afternoon on his dock. You still want this. But the scenery doesn't change, reality remaining unshifted, leaving them with nothing but the memory of the very things they'd almost been tempted enough to believe.
He touches her face, like it's a tic now, this need to feel her. To be sure.
"Jack," she says.
He starts to pull away, to apologize, but she leans forward and kisses him.
This time there are a million reasons why this is a bad idea and Jack knows each and every one with a sharpness that no justification can ease. He still kisses her back. Maybe it's driven by relief, maybe by a need for just a little more proof, but mostly he thinks it's driven by the fact that he's tired of pretending not to want this.
Carter is the one to pull back, her eyes uncertain as she stares at him. She darts a glance around the room, waiting for things to change, he thinks. When you kiss me back…that's when I know it's not really you.
The room remains as it is though, her blood still warm under his fingers. The situation just as impossible as ever.
He raises his eyebrows at her. "Carter?"
She focuses back on him, eyes a bit wide as if she's just realizing what she's done. Maybe she still hadn't quite believed. The slight blush in her cheeks tells him she does now.
She gives him a helpless shrug, but doesn't pull away, doesn't reclaim the distance between them. "Just checking?"
He grins, thumb brushing her cheek. "Feel free to check as often as you like."
Her blush deepens, but her forehead also smoothes out, her shoulders relaxing, and he knows then that despite the mess, the insurmountable obstacles, things are going to be different between them from now on.
Not perfect. Not fixed.
"I have some questions, Carter. Important questions. Questions I'm not going to put off anymore."
Her hand wraps around his—tight, determined—as she nods against his palm. "Okay," she agrees.
"But I thought we'd get out of here first. What do you say?"
She smiles. "I say, help me to my feet."
He double checks the bandage one last time and carefully pulls her up to her feet, arm supporting across her back. They pause, just a moment standing close together.
"I may have some ideas," she says. "But they're a long shot."
Possible. But not easy.
He smiles. "Just what I wanted to hear."
They will figure this out. Together.
In that simple fact, he has all his faith.
Jack wakes in his bed, the sounds of the cabin familiar around him. He listens for a moment, cataloging the sounds, judging them against memory.
Everything is okay.
The woman next to him shifts, the skin around the still angry looking scar splayed across her shoulder prickling in the cool night air. Reaching down, he pulls the quilt up and over their bodies, his face pressing into the back of her neck as he slides up behind her, holding her close.
She sighs in her sleep, something that sounds like his name.
He smiles and closes his eyes.