Title: The Larks Still Bravely Singing Fly
Rating: Teen
Pairing: Sam Carter/Jack O'Neill
Characters: Jack O'Neill, Sam Carter, Cassie Fraiser, SG-1 in its various incarnations, Hank Landry, President Hayes, and a smattering of OCs that canon was not kind enough to provide me with. And possibly the kitchen sink.
Timeline: Now-ish. Post-Series, after SGA season 5.
Summary: Because that's what you do if you're The Man. When you send men and women out to take the risks you're no longer taking yourself, you'd better damn well keep the light burning at home.

A/N:Many, many thanks to ziparumpazoo for cheerleading and beta reading.


Thanksgiving Day

The ringing of the phone is quiet, muffled by distance, a closed door, and the noise of voices and computers on the floor of Homeworld Command.

It takes Jack a beat or two to register the sound in the first place, and a few more to decide what to do about it. He's been standing in the hallway for at least the last five minutes, trying hard to make some kind of sense of the technobabble Captain Watkins is throwing his way under the guise of making her report. But the probability that the good captain's got something of import to pass on seems to be dwindling with every word, and Jack's got no aide today to pick up the call for him. And since he'd rather not take the chance of sending someone with actual information to voicemail purgatory, he throws up a hand to stop Watkins mid-sentence, dashes back around the corner and through the door, and yanks the receiver from its cradle just in time.

"O'Neill," he barks into the phone.

"Oh," the voice on the other end says, uncertain. "Hey."

Jack winces and exhales slowly before he speaks again. "Hey, Cassie," he says, lowering his voice.

"Hey," she says again. "Are you …" She pauses, and he can hear the breath she sucks in before she tries again. "Is there news? Because you sounded —"

"Cass," he breaks in before she can go any further. "No. I was just — I almost missed the call."

"Okay." She pauses again, and this time Jack hears the noise in the background come through the line. He circles his desk and drops down into his chair, listening hard until he can pick out the high-pitched giggle above the murmur of lower, grownup voices. He rubs at the bridge of his nose and tries hard to get his head where it needs to be to have this conversation, to wrench his thoughts back from long-range sensor data and the latest reports from Pegasus and the early deployment of the newest X-304, weeks ahead of her scheduled launch next month.

"Everything okay?" he asks.

"Fine," Cassie says. "We just finished lunch."

He nods even though she can't see. "She behaving herself?"

"Better than you'd expect." He can hear the wry humor in Cassie's voice. "You want to talk to her? Do you have time?"

"Always," he says, and wishes that were really true.

"Hang on a sec."

As he waits for Cassie to hand the phone off, he glances out the office window and watches his staff as they weave back and forth across the floor. It's more people than should be out there today, even given the circumstances. Half the ones he'd tried to chase home hadn't left. His aide Rodriguez was gone only because he'd already flown halfway across the country last Saturday morning. As it was, the man had called four times in the last two days offering to come back early. The fifth time, Jack had hung up on him before he'd managed to form a complete sentence.

"I'm putting her on speaker," Cassie says in his ear, and the voices in the background switch from murmur to roar in a beat. "Molly, it's your daddy, honey."

"Hey, sweetheart," he starts, but she's talking before he really has a chance to get going.

"Daddy, I sat on the turkey!" she says, or at least that's how Jack's brain decodes her excited but phone-garbled not-quite-four-year-old speak. He's pretty sure that translation's not completely accurate, despite her tendency to get into and on top of absolutely everything in sight — not to mention some things that aren't.

"You … ateturkey?" he tries instead.

"Yes!"

He grins, imagining the bounce that goes with the enthusiasm in her voice. "Just turkey? Nothing else?"

"And Vala's pie!"

"I'll be collecting for that, by the way," Vala's voice chimes in from the background.

Jack snorts. "You can get in line."

"And I saw Santa," Molly says. "And balloons. Big ones. And Snoopy."

"Snoopy?"

"In the parade," Daniel clarifies, talking over the sound of Cassie saying something else Jack can't quite decipher.

"Maybe just one of you talking at a time, huh?" Jack suggests. "I confuse easily."

He's pretty sure he hears someone laughing at him, but the noise level drops a little anyway. More than enough for him to hear Molly's next words very, very clearly.

"Is Mama home yet?"

She sounds exactly the same, still bright and cheery, excited about the holiday and the surrogate family she's known since the day she was born. It's not unusual for Sam to be gone for days or a few weeks at a stretch. Molly doesn't know any different now. And it's Jack's job to act like it's notdifferent, whether that feels like a stab in the gut or not.

"She's still away, baby," he says. "But I know she wishes she were there with you."

"Okay," she says. She's quiet for several seconds, long enough that Jack's worried that he missed the mark completely. Then he hears her shrieking giggle, clearly coming from somewhere on the other side of the room.

The speakerphone switches off, and Teal'c comes on the line instead. "She is gone, O'Neill."

"Yeah, I noticed. Hey, exactly how much pie did you guys let her eat, anyway?"

"Colonel Mitchell brought cookies."

"Ouch."

"Indeed."

Jack has to laugh, despite the circumstances. "Tell Daniel to hide all that ancient crap if he doesn't want it broken in half. Putting it on the top shelves may not be enough."

"Daniel Jackson owns many artifacts, O'Neill. Too many. Perhaps your daughter can be of assistance."

Jack rolls his eyes. Daniel's apartment is a little crowded, admittedly, but the whole conversation is taking on an overt "dancing while Rome burns" feel. They're all keeping up appearances, so to speak, and it's completely for Molly's sake. But Jack can't fight on that many fronts at once.

"Give me Cassie back, will you, T?" he says, his gaze straying back to the window while he waits for the phone to change hands once more.

"We're going to stay a few days, okay?" Cassie says without preamble. "I don't have to be back until Monday."

Jack should be relieved. He's got no nanny until Monday, because this was supposed to be their first holiday off together in years. No major crisis. No impending doom. And Sam having put in enough holidays covering for her crew that she felt like she could finally take one for herself.

He should have seen it coming, really.

"Jack?" Cassie presses. "Is that alright?"

He'd so much rather be with his daughter right now. Because there's nothing he can do here. Nothing at all but wait and wait and wait. But if it were any other ship out there, Odyssey or Daedalus or Apollo, he'd be here waiting. Every waking hour, despite the inactivity and the helplessness and the futility of it all. And he wouldn't regret a second of it, because that's what you do, if you're The Man. When you send men and women out to take the risks you're no longer taking yourself, you'd better damn well keep the light burning at home.

It's just ironic that when it's his own wife out there, Jack's torn.

But he'll let Cassie and Daniel and the lot of them keep his daughter, and pretend to her that there's nothing to worry about. Just like he'd let Cassie take Molly in the first place when she'd shown up on Tuesday evening. With Carter and the Hammondthree days overdue, ship, commander, and crew lost somewhere between here and Pegasus, he really hadn't had another choice.

"Call me," he says, "before she goes to bed."

"We will."

"Tell her I love her," he says, his voice softer.

"Of course."

"Cass—"

"I know, Jack." And she does, of course. Because she's lost two mothers and an entire planet and lived through nearly losing the rest of them time and time again.

That doesn't make it any easier, though.

"Yeah. Look, I've got to —"

"I know. It's okay. We'll talk to you later."

"Okay."

"We all miss you."

"Yeah." He grimaces and stares hard up at the ceiling. "Me too, Cass."

The glass fishbowl effect of his office is the only thing that keeps him from putting his head in his hands the minute he hangs up the phone. Instead, he sits for several long, silent minutes, gaze resting on his hands where they're folded on the desk in front of him. When he's got himself together again, he pushes up from the chair and walks over to the window, gazing once again at his people working out there on the floor.

They're doing the same thing at the SGC, at Atlantis, at a dozen and more installations on Earth and off of it. Looking. Hoping. Waiting.

Everyone out there knows someone on that ship. The Gate program's like that; no one ever leaves once they've come in the door, unless they're kicked back out again. And even some of those folks Jack can't seem to get rid of, much to his chagrin. His staff out there, they know it's different for him this time, but they need him to pretend it's not. They need him not falling apart, no matter what's on the line for him.

Because that's what they'll have to do someday when it's all on the line for them, too.

-x-

December 8

"We're going to feed the ducks," Daniel says. Molly squeals and shoves her lollipop — brightly rainbow-colored and approximately the size of her head — into Jack's hand, then she scampers off after Daniel, across the path and down to the pond. Jack stares at the lollipop for a minute, twirling it in his fingers, before he sighs and drops down onto the nearest bench.

He assumes Vala will follow after Molly and Daniel; after all, he's not sure 'sitting still' is in her repertoire. But she perches on the bench beside him, pulling her new phone out of her pocket and tapping at the screen as she hums softly to herself. Jack's not certain allowing her unlimited access to Earth's internet was the best decision Landry ever made, but then again, Jack doesn't have to put up with Vala's kvetching on a day-to-day basis. And far be it from him to micromanage.

Though it doesn't seem to be far from his friends to micromanage him.

He's never been quite alone the last couple of weeks, not since Thanksgiving and the few days after. It started that Sunday afternoon, in fact. Mitchell and Reynolds arrived in town for a week-long meeting, their hop from Peterson to Andrews beating Cassie and Molly's commercial flight by a good three hours. The meeting had been planned for months; the fact that they brought Teal'c along for no reason that Jack could discern, not so much. And while Mitchell and Reynolds camped out on base at Andrews, Teal'c took over a guest room at Jack's house, dragging his supply of candles out of the bathroom cabinet where Sam keeps them and generally acting like an immovable object.

Jack was glad the nanny'd met Teal'c before, because he'd rather not have had to explain the big guy for the first time right then.

Teal'c and co. — Jack now thinks of them in his head as the first wave — had headed back to Colorado on Friday morning, and Jack briefly believed that he had his house, his daughter, and his morose mood all to himself again. Until Cassie showed up on his front stoop Saturday morning.

"I traded my call shift," she said, brushing past him and into the foyer.

Jack didn't think the doctor-training powers-that-be really let you do that, not if the last year and a half of her life was any guide to go by. "Did you have to give away your first born?" he asked, closing the door behind her.

She turned away to pull off her coat and gloves in an attempt to hide her wince, but Jack saw it anyway. "Cassie."

"My roommate's covering for me," she confessed, squaring her shoulders as she faced him once again. "But I might have to do the dishes for a year or two, because she was supposed to be going on a date."

He'd run a hand through his hair in exasperation. "You don't have to —"

"I want to see Molly," she said, cutting him off, and that was that.

She'd gone back to her apartment Sunday night, and Jack left for work Monday morning and returned that night to a remarkably undisturbed house. He shouldn't have let that lull him into a false sense of security.

Tuesday morning, Vala had texted him from that shiny new phone of hers to say they couldn't find the sheets for the guest bed, and did he mind if Daniel was rearranging the kitchen, because she'd told him that wasn't a good idea but he never did listen to her.

"What the hell is going on?" Jack barked into the phone at Daniel two minutes later. He knew he was being short, but this was getting ridiculous.

But Daniel was implacable, as only Daniel could be in the face of Jack's ire. "Vala wants to see the Spy Museum," was his only explanation.

"Doesn't Landry have anything better for you to do?"

"Not right now, no."

Jack sighed. A good Jaffa rebellion or Lucien Alliance incursion would go a long way to distracting all of them from the complete lack of usable intel or data about where the hell Sam and the Hammond had vanished to. And doing nothing was going to drive them allright to crazyville and strand them on the side of the road there. "The sheets are in the dryer," he said at last. "Don't move the damn coffeemaker." And he hung up the phone.

The Spy Museum seemed to be the first in a long laundry list of things Vala hadto do, a list that kept her and Daniel busy all week long, dragging Molly and her nanny with them here and there, from D.C. to Baltimore to spots farther afield. She'd run out of items on Saturday morning, at which point Daniel declared they were all going to the park.

And so here they are, on one of those weird warm days before winter starts her inevitable march in, mucking about with ducks and park benches and giant-sized lollipops. Jack looks up at the sky wondering when the invasion begins.

If Sam were here, she'd laugh at him for being such a killjoy. Of course if Sam were here, he wouldn't have to besuch a killjoy. He also wouldn't have to be avoiding thinking about her at all costs. But right now that's the only thing keeping him in one piece. Everything has to go in the right box.

Vala reaches over and plucks the lollipop from his hand and sticks it in her mouth. He glares at her, but she just shrugs. "Like she's going to finish eating it before Christmas?"

Jack grunts, but before he can comment, Molly comes barreling back up from the pond, with Daniel chasing after her. She's shrieking, and he's pretending it's hard to catch her, right up until he picks her up and swings her around and starts to tickle her.

"The bigger she gets, the more she looks like her mother," Vala says.

If she were anyone else, not one of them, he'd assume she was being insensitive, talking without really knowing what to say. If it were Daniel, it would mean he was trying to get Jack to talk. But it's Vala, who's seen the universe in a way the rest of them haven't, not even Teal'c and his 150 or so years. So she's saying something different.

"More like her mother every day," she repeats softly, musing, then continues on, her voice stronger. "Which is fortunate for her, because —"

"You don't have to do this," he says, cutting her off. He can't seem to say it to the rest of them, but he thinks maybe she's the one who'll understand. He can keep going, if he's left on his own. It's the tea and sympathy that's going to break him.

But Vala only shrugs. "Maybe not. But we are anyway."

Molly runs up to the bench full-tilt, still laughing, and clambers up between them. She retrieves her lollipop from Vala's hand and smiles up at Jack. "I love ducks."

He tweaks her nose. "They love you too, honey."

-x-

December 13

Jack loads Molly up into the car and heads out into the suburbs, because he really can't take any more of D.C. proper. Not that it's really any better out here, at some cookie-cutter coffee shop in an anonymous strip mall lost in the manicured vastness of Northern Virginia. But at least here he's not staring down monuments and museums and institutions of government that endow mystical significance to personal sacrifice with no thought to what that means in real life.

And Molly's happy with her cupcake and hot chocolate, no matter where they come from. She'd oohed over the snowflakes painted on the window, and aahedover the cheesy holiday tunes blaring from the speakers, and now she's got her face covered in chocolate and her fingers covered in red and green icing that she's licking off, one little smear at a time.

The clock on the wall behind the counter reads 3:12pm. Jack should be at the Pentagon still, doing whatever one does when one's waiting for other people to do things, but after verbally ripping Rodriguez's head off for the third time in the span of an hour, he'd decided maybe they'd all be better off if he made himself scarce for the rest of the day.

This morning, he'd sent the Daedalus off into the void to chase down the only lead they've had in the three-plus weeks since the Hammond went missing. It's just a blip, an anomaly in a set of sensor data that repeats a few more times than the geeks seem to think is natural. A sliver of something hidden inside a whole lot of nothing, that tiny bit of hope they've all been waiting for.

The damn thing of it is, Jack still can't do anything.

After all these years, he trusts Caldwell like he trusts Reynolds or even Mitchell and Vala, and almost like he trusts Daniel and Teal'c. Which is to say more than anyone else on this planet or any other except for Sam herself. But it had taken everything he had not to commandeer that ship and go himself.

Five years ago he probably would have. Four years ago he would have. But he's got this little three-year-old tether curtailing his freedom now. She needs at least oneparent to come home at the end of the day.

And it will take days to reach the particular patch of middle of nowhere between the galaxies, and days more to scour the sector and see what they find. There won't be news anytime soon. So he'd cut out early and headed home to collect his daughter.

When he walked through his front door, Molly was on the living room floor with the nanny, a tower of precarious design balanced between them. A heap of little plastic pieces sat pushed to one side, right next to the stuffed T-rex that Teal'c had given Molly for her birthday. Molly was stretching a hand out to add a new bit to her creation. Across from her, Alice-the-nanny had her head cocked sideways, the expression on her face clearly saying she wasn't certain this was the best idea Molly'd ever had. They made a neat tableau, set against the backdrop of the Christmas tree Daniel and Vala had insisted on putting up last weekend, but Jack had only a second or two to take it in before Molly reacted to the sound of the door opening and popped up off the ground. She hurled herself across the room at him with her usual enthusiasm, knocking down her masterpiece along the way and sending the pieces scattering across the floor. Alice rose a bit more slowly, dusting off her pants and straightening her shirt as she headed in their direction.

"General O'Neill," she said, her brow furrowing a little bit. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you were coming home early."

He straightened up with Molly still plastered, barnacle-like, to his chest. "Neither did I." Ignoring the unstated but obvious question about whyhe'd come home early, he nodded instead at the mess by the Christmas tree. "Sorry I brought down the Washington Monument, there."

Alice laughed and shook her head. "I'm pretty sure it was doomed anyway." She paused for a minute before speaking again. "She told me she was building a ship for Vala."

It was only discipline that had stopped his wince in the face of that revelation. Discipline, and years of verbal combat with the Goa'uld, the IOA, and more congressmen than Jack cares to count. Alice would have no way of knowing, of course, about his bedtime conversation with Molly last night. The conversation where she'd asked him whether Vala could go look for Sam. Vala was smart, Molly had said. She knew about dinosaurs. She'd probably know where to find Mama, too.

"As long as it wasn't a monument to Vala, I don't mind," he said. Then, because he'd rather not head down that rabbit hole any farther, he turned his attention back to his daughter, shifting her onto his hip and ruffling her hair. "Come on, baby. Let's help Alice clean up."

He set Molly back down, and she, in a miracle of minor proportions, immediately started gathering up the brightly-colored bits of toy from off the floor and under the tree. Jack snagged the bin he assumed they belonged in from the side of the room and tossed a few pieces into it himself before pushing it in Molly's direction.

You don't have to do that, sir," Alice said, but Jack grimaced and waved her off her protest.

"It's fine," he said. "More fun than paperwork, anyway."

She replied with something that sounded suspiciously like "yes, sir," and he rolled his eyes. He'd told her to lose the sirover and over again, of course. He got enough of it at work without his nanny piling it on at home, too. But no matter how many times he chided her, it didn't have any effect.

Jack tries to be nice to Alice, even on his surliest days. He really does. Because this probably isn't the job Alice had envisioned when she'd started talking to people at the State Department over a year and a half ago, back before Molly really started to make sense when she talked and everyone caught on to the fact that your standard childcare situation was in no way going to work in this particular case.

It's not every family that needs to hire a nanny with a high-level security clearance, after all.

Enter Alice Tsai, stage left. She was 24 when he and Sam first met her, soon to graduate from Stanford with her master's degree in political science. On paper, she came complete with high marks, perfect references, and a family the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs had known since before she was born. In person, she was quick-witted, funny, and kind, but she was also very, veryyoung.

She and Sam had hit it off right away, though, and it wasn't long before Alice was ensconced as the one tiny bit of normal in Molly's otherwise kind of outlandish life. And when Sam's around, she talksto Alice about things, real things with an intergalactic scope. It's a conversation that started as a way to brief the nanny about their daughter's weird family and friends, but eventually evolved well beyond the initial charter. It's good for Alice, and it's not half-bad for Sam either. Plus, Jack figures that particular conversation might be the only perk of being nanny to a precocious and too-energetic three-year-old who's in contact with literal aliens on a regular basis. That, and the Hotel California effect of the Stargate Program. Alice will have whatever job she wants once she decides she can't stand this one any more.

But for now, she's still here. A fact that Jack thanks whatever deity might actually be out there for on a routine basis, because he's got no idea how he'd be managing otherwise. Or more importantly, how his daughter would be managing.

Of course, right now what she's managing is to make a pretty good mess of the table they're sitting at, crushing the remains of her cupcake into chocolate-colored dust and singing a little song to herself.

"You done there, sport?" he asks.

She pops the largest remaining crumb into her mouth and gazes at him consideringly. "Yes."

She looks like she just fought a battle with Santa's kitchen and is glad she lost. Jack can't help but laugh. "C'mon. Let's get you cleaned up," he says, and leads her off to the bathroom.

Outside in the parking lot, Jack spies an outdoor skating rink, the sort that pops up at Christmastime every year. He hoists Molly up onto his shoulders and they cross the pavement, her hands clinging onto his fingers along the way. They watch the skaters from the edge of the rink, Jack leaning up against the painted plywood wall, and Molly still ensconced in her high perch. There's one little girl on the ice, maybe eight or nine years old, skating with a bit more flourish than the other three plugging around in slow circles. She's got polka dots on her tights and stripes on her shirt and a fluffy tutu of a skirt in a completely unrelated color. Jack's fairly certain his mother would have died of horror on the spot, but Molly doesn't look that different when Sam or Alice dress her, so he supposes that's the thing these days.

Molly's leaning forward, her hands resting on his head, when Stripes-And-Tutu skates a little faster and starts doing toe loops in the tiny space in the center of the rink. Molly makes little oohsounds every time the girl comes off the ground, tugging at his hair. He puts up with it for five good hard hair pulls, then he pulls her down off his shoulders and around to face him, perching her on top of the fence.

"I'll teach you to skate," he says, kissing her on the nose. "But not so you can do that. So you can play hockey. Because it's much better."

Molly looks at him like she's humoring him, or at least that what he imagines he sees there. There really is a cast to her features that's exactly like Sam, but purer and in miniature. Somehow he's never thought before about what it might be like to look into those eyes and that face, to watch those expressions chase across her features for years while he's missing the woman they unconsciously echo so much it's a physical pain.

He brushes Molly's hair off her face, his hand a little less steady than he'd like, but she shakes her head until it falls over down across her forehead again. Then she turns and watches the skater for a few seconds more.

"Mama would like her," she says.

"I think so, too."

After a few more minutes, he loads Molly back into the car and drives in towards town. They get supper at a diner not far from their house, and Jack takes a phone call from his office and ignores the one from Daniel. When they get home Molly's yawning fit to crack her face in half, leaning her head onto his shoulder as he carries her from car seat to house.

Her T-rex is sitting on top of her covers when they get to her room, where Alice must have put him after they'd left. Jacks lays Molly down on the bed, but she immediately sits back up, gathering up the dinosaur, her blanket, and the tattered and well-loved photo of her mother that sits on her nightstand. She thumps down onto the floor and stumps across the hallway into his and Sam's bedroom. She doesn't bother with asking, just climbs up in the bed, burrows under the covers, and lays her head on the pillow.

"G'night, Daddy," she says softly, her eyes already closing.

"Night, Molly."

-x-

December 20

"I'm sorry, Jack," Hayes says, leaning forward in his chair, elbows resting on his knees. "I thought for sure they'd come back with something."

"No, sir." Jack picks up his cup from the table in front of him. He's never gotten used to drinking coffee from fancy White House china, any more than he's gotten used to sitting in the Oval Office briefing the President and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He's dog-tired today, though, so he'll have to take what he can get if he's going to muscle his way through this conversation and avoid tripping over his own words. "It's a sensor artifact, or so I'm told," he continues after he's sucked down half the cup. "Blip on the radar, so to speak. They tried to explain it to me, but you know how I am, sir." He makes a face and gestures at his own temple. "I get confused."

Hayes makes a hmph sound and folds his hands together. Admiral Parke sits very still, quiet and thoughtful. Jack's false joviality isn't fooling anyone at this point, but they're all letting him pretend anyway.

Daedalus had spent days combing sector after sector in the void between the galaxies. In the meantime, the staff back Earthside had spent days playing with the sensor data, trying anything they could to get more information. To squeeze the proverbial blood from what turned out to be a pretty damn useless rock. Because in the end, some egghead somewhere had devised some new set of filters and determined that the signal they'd thought they'd been analyzing, that they sent Daedalusoff to chase all over space both known and unknown — that signal was really just so much noise.

Captain Watkins had taken great trouble to try to explain it all to Jack this morning. She isn't half bad, as translators of geek-speak go, but Jack eventually had to wave her off anyway. It wasn't her fault. It's just that he can't hear the science without substituting in Sam's voice in his head. And if he does that right now, he's going to go the rest of the way round the bend.

That's not a risk he can take. He can't get shut out of the room because his objectivity went all to pieces. He needsto be here.

For now, at least.

Hayes leans back in his chair and glances from Jack to Parke and back again. "Right. So what happens next?"

Jack studies the coffee in his cup for a long time.

"You've been missing for longer," Cassie had said to him last night as she loaded the dishwasher. She'd shown up unexpectedly for dinner, her eyes tired after a long day at the hospital. She'd held Molly on her lap while they ate, then read what Jack thought was the entire contents of Molly's library aloud before finally putting her down for bed. After that, she'd occupied his kitchen, setting in to work on the pile of dishes he hadn't quite mustered up the energy to tackle yet. She'd gone about the evening as if nothing were different, but tension stretched across her shoulders, and her smile was tight.

She gets a little tighter and a little more tense each time Jack sees her, and he's pretty sure she thinks she's hiding it. But she's not. Not to him, anyway.

"I went missing for three months," he'd said, grabbing a towel and wiping at the counter next to the sink. "Give or take. Of course that was before you were really old enough to keep us straight."

She flicked water in his direction and shot him a faint smile. "Plus, Daniel died."

"Several times. I think the last one was just to piss me off, honestly."

There was no smile this time, no answering laugh for his jibe. She stared hard into the sink, and he kept wiping at the same spot on the counter. Rome was still burning, but Jack was pretty sure they'd moved on past the dancing and fiddling for tonight.

Cassie loaded two glasses and a handful of silverware into the rack. Picking up a plate, she held it under the running tap and took a deep breath. "And this is Sam we're talking about." She set the plate deliberately to the side and raised her gaze to his. "Right?"

It took everything he had not to walk out of the room. He did not want to have this conversation. Not now, not ever. But Cassie looked so young, standing there in her bare feet with soap suds climbing up her arms, imploring him with her eyes to tell her everything would be all right.

She really wasn't that far from the little girl who wouldn't let Sam leave her side when she first came to Earth from Hanka. And she was even less removed from the not-quite-woman who stood at Janet's interment with straight back and squared shoulders, her head held high — and who could only do it because she was clutching Sam's hand with a death grip the whole time. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered how Molly would look, when she was old enough to really understand.

He couldn't have walked out on Cassie right then any more than he could have on Molly.

"We're still looking, Cass," he'd said, holding her gaze.

"Jack —"

"We're still looking. And you're right. This is Sam we're talking about." It was easy, keeping his voice steady, his manner calm and reassuring. A mere matter of decades of leading and ordering men and women into hell and back. Too easy, maybe. "There's no one better at getting people home. No one. If they're out there, and there's any way, any way at all …"

Cassie bit her lip hard, but she didn't look away. "Okay."

But despite the assurance, despite the straightforward delivery and his very best trust me voice, he's fairly confident he didn't convince her any better than he'd convinced himself. It's true, four weeks is hardly the longest any of them have been missing. But four weeks feels like forever this time around.

Hayes shifts in his seat, not impatient, but prompting Jack nevertheless. Jack shakes his head, still staring down into his cup.

"More of the same," Parke says, answering the question for him.

"Yeah." Jack sets the china back down on the table with a clink and sits back in his chair. "That's about it."

There's a part of him, a big part, that's longing for the days when he didn't actually have the galaxy's best intel-gathering operation at his immediate disposal. Back when there was something for him to do, somewhere for him to go. Tok'ra to talk to, Goa'uld to spy on, anything to give him hope that there was some piece of information they didn't already possess. If he had anything to go on, anything at all, he'd take the universe apart to get her back, whatever the cost. But there's nothing.

And even if he had somewhere to go, he never could. Not any more. Landry's sent SG-1 out, bit by piece; Daniel to Atlantis, Teal'c on the Apollo, Mitchell and Vala to grasp at what's left of Vala's web of contacts in the seedier end of the Milky Way. Jack appreciates the gesture for what it is. None of them are the ones who are wired in now. But at least they can make the trip, step through the gate or hop on a transport beam and go on the hunt. Jack doesn't have that liberty any longer.

He wonders what Hayes and Parke would say if he indulged the fantasy. If he told them he was walking through the gate tomorrow and not coming back until he dragged Sam and her crew home from whatever pocket of the universe they've folded themselves into somehow.

As if he or they could ever pretend that he got a choice in which of the many and varied flavors of personal sacrifice he'd partake of in the end. As if anyonewho made the Stargate the centerpiece of their lives ever did.

Jack's navigated a non-trivial amount of crap with these two men; Hayes in particular, of course, but Parke's been with them a few years now, and he's seen enough to know what's what. But Hayes is at the butt-end of his second term, and it's anyone's guess whether Parke will be around in a year, once the new President's settled in and making the place his own.

It's starting to feel like the end of the line, and Jack was up half the night thinking about it.

"We've got to talk about succession," he says, looking at Parke because he's the guy, not Hayes, who'll still be here once the inauguration's all said and done. "We need a plan. Worst case scenario. Because I've got this kid at home, and without her mother …."

It's one of the hardest things he's ever said.

Hayes sighs. Parke bows his head and nods.

-x-

Christmas Eve

If he leans forward and cranes his neck, Jack can see from his seat at the dining room table straight into the living room. Molly's smack in the middle of the floor, spinning in a circle with her arms stretched out wide and singing something that approximates Away in a Manger. The tune's recognizable, at least, but that's mostly because the radio's playing along with her. The actual words she's singing are anyone's guess.

Jack's not sure who set the stereo to playing Christmas tunes; Vala, maybe, or possibly Teal'c. Daniel and Cassie have spent the day in the kitchen, and Mitchell, despite having been drawn into Jack's bedraggled extended family by virtue of his years on SG-1, still regards Jack with that wary colonel-to-general sort of eye. But Teal'c and Vala both make themselves a bit more free, and they'd spent hours entertaining Molly, piecing together a complicated game that ranged from living room to bedroom and back again.

Day off or not, and in defiance of Jack's staff's best intentions, there's always some short list of problems that no one else seems able to handle. Several hours ago, he'd shut himself into the study for a bare five minutes to take a phone call, and when he'd emerged into the living room, his sound system had switched from the far-too-peppy preschool playlist Molly had begged for to something more holiday appropriate.

Grating they might be, but Jack still thinks a day filled with Raffi and Laurie Berkner would have been preferable to one set to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. He'd long ago given up the pretense of control over the motley little crew currently ranged around his dining room table, though. And he may bitch, and he may moan — and the next time they pull some stupid stunt off-world he'll rip their obstinate heads off like he always has — but today, he's profoundly grateful for every single one of them.

Not that he's ever likely to say it that way to their faces.

They won't all be here tomorrow. Mitchell and Teal'c head out in the morning, back to the SGC to cover Landry's week after Christmas off. Daniel and Vala are shipping out on the Odysseytwo days later, off on another wild goose chase that's a testament to the hope that's bound them all together for far longer than this last month. Cassie's leaving sometime before dawn for a Christmas Day shift at the hospital, a mundane sore-throat-and-fever reality that's the entire reason they've risked life and limb and loss every day for all these years.

That, and kids like Molly, living untouched by the darker realities of the greater universe around them.

"I know I'm not especially versed in your Earth traditions," Vala says from her seat at the other end of the table, "but I don't think there were actually dinosaurs in Bethlehem. I'm fairly certain the baby Jesus's T-rex just made a cameo in that song she's singing, though."

Jack shrugs. "Cinderella spent most of yesterday in the manger hanging out with a camel. I can't be held responsible for this stuff."

"Oh," Cassie says with a wicked grin, "I think Sam's going to hold you responsible for letting Cinderella in the house in the first place."

There's a little beat of silence after her remark, into which Jack imagines them all silently inserting their personal variation of his own inarticulate please, God. Then Jack says, "Smartass," pitching a balled-up napkin in Cassie's direction, and she yelps.

Cinderella, Barbie-shaped and clad in her shiny blue dress, had been a gift from Rodriguez and his wife, pressed on Jack when he was nearly out the door Friday evening. It was the last in a string of small gifts for Molly he'd been given by members of his staff. This time around, no one had looked at Jack like he ought to be skipping his holiday. They'd all wished him Merry Christmas, one at a time, here and there throughout the day. They didn't ask if he needed anything, but they stood there a little longer than necessary, and he knew what they were saying. And at the end of the day, Jack had left the whole shebang in Landry's care for the weekend to spend the holiday with his daughter.

There aren't many people on Earth who can understand this kind of family.

Alice had stayed on an extra day and helped Cassie and Daniel with shopping and baking before heading home to her family in Oregon. Not for any reason. Not because anyone asked. Just because she could. And when she'd left, Teal'c and Vala and Mitchell had descended, as if they didn't have anyplace else they'd rather be. And maybe they don't.

Out in the living room, Molly's moved on from Away in a Manger to Jingle Bells, the lyrics no more distinguishably about horses and snow than they'd been about a sleeping baby Jesus before. Cassie filches the last bite of ham from Daniel's plate right before Teal'c reaches across the table to clear it. Mitchell's looking like if he were at anyone else's table he'd have his feet propped up somewhere, but he can't quite manage it here.

The scene's like a Norman Rockwell with an extraterrestrial twist. They've buried that ever-present thread of worry and fear, set it aside for this one single day.

But when the transport beam flares somewhere around the corner, every head snaps up and the conversation stills in an instant. Cassie's up out of her chair so fast it wobbles behind her and nearly falls. Jack's a little slower, not because of reaction time, but because over the years, he's learned that hope's a thing best experienced when tempered by reality.

Tempering his hope with reality doesn't stop him from being the first one out of the room and around the corner, though. He's barely registered Sam's presence there by the front door before Cassie shoots past him and launches herself into Sam's arms. Sam winds her fingers into Cassie's hair and looks over her shoulder to Jack and then beyond, into the living room.

Norman Rockwell never had anything on this particular breathless, living tableau.

"Mama," says Molly, breaking the silence with a voice that's small and full of wonder. Sam pulls herself free from Cassie, grabbing Jack's hand as she walks past him and through the living room doorway. But just before Sam reaches her, Molly plops down in the middle of the floor and starts to cry, hard and inconsolable.

After that it's pretty much cacophony everywhere, chairs scraping and backs being slapped and Cassie having a more grown-up version of Molly's meltdown back where she's still standing in the foyer.

"What the hey," Jack says, gripping Sam's fingers and tugging at her until she turns around.

"Your phone's off," Sam says softly, extricating herself from his grip so she can sit down on the floor next to her daughter.

"No it isn't."

"Yes it is." She reaches out, then hesitates, her hands hovering as though she's not sure whether to touch Molly or not. "General Landry —"

"No it isn't. And anyway, Carter, half the SGC's in my house. He couldn't have found someoneto call?"

She turns her head and shoots him a look; he's pretty sure he's accurate when he translates it as something just north of I wanted to come home, you numbskull. As he blinks back at her, he decides that perhaps he's in more shock than his tiny, still-sobbing daughter.

"Did you at least bring your ship back with you?" he asks, shoving his hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels. "Because it's expensive, and I don't really wanna build another."

Sam huffs a soft, abstracted laugh. "Yes," she answers. "Safe and sound." Then she gathers Molly up in her arms and carries her over to the couch. Sam settles the little girl in her lap and pulls her close against her chest, hands stroking her hair.

But Molly won't stop crying in her arms, to Sam's distress; and while Jack is positive taking the little girl himself to calm her down would be the precise opposite of a good idea, he's begun to worry that she's going to make herself sick if he doesn't. He stands a few feet away and plays with the phone in his pocket — which had, in fact, been switched off — and turns the problem over a few more times without coming up with any new solutions. Until Vala, of all people, steps in to solve his quandary.

She settles next to Sam on the couch and trades her a plate of food for his daughter as though that's the sort of thing she does every day. Molly cries a little longer, her head on Vala's shoulder, but her sobs weaken, losing their edge. No longer a paean of confused relief wound up in grief, too much for even her precocious three-year-old heart to bear, the sound becomes instead a simple, tired complaint.

Sam watches, quiet and serious, but she doesn't protest.

With a vague wave of her hand, Vala sends Teal'c after Molly's T-rex, and Daniel fetches her sippy cup from where it had rolled under the Christmas tree. Molly grabs the cup in one hand and the dinosaur in the other and slides down from Vala's lap to sit on the floor, humming tunelessly along with the stereo once again.

"Daniel made that thing with the squash," Vala says, pointing at the plate in Sam's lap. "But don't let that stop you. It's surprisingly good, considering."

Blinking, Sam picks up the fork to eat, and Jack slips out of the room.

"We pushed 'em through medical," Landry says once Jack manages to get him on the phone, "and sent 'em home. I got the top-sheet debrief from Sam. And I called Parke. It's Christmas; the rest'll wait."

"Hank —"

"The rest will wait," Landry says again, heading him off.

But Jack's heard that tone of voice too many times to let it go. "Just … ballpark it for me, would you? On a scale of 'engine breaks in the middle of nowhere' to 'Daniel and Vala provoke the Ori,' what am I looking at here?"

"I'd call it a six."

"That's —"

"Worse than a five," Landry says over him, "but it'll keep till tomorrow."

"You're really not making me feel any better."

"Go see your wife, Jack. The world keeps turning without you, you know."

He opens his mouth to retort, then blows the attitude out with a grunt instead. "Yeah. Look, I owe you one."

"Nah. That incident with Senator Carlton last month, though. That, you owe me for. Big time."

Jack snorts. "Yeah."

"Get off the phone. Talk to Sam. Gimme a call tomorrow."

"Yeah." Jack closes his eyes and rubs at the bridge of his nose. "Okay. Thanks, Hank."

"Anytime."

When he leaves the study, he stands in the hallway, taking a moment to listen to the low murmur of adult voices and the accompaniment of Molly's singing and chatter. He runs a hand through his hair and tugs at the collar of his shirt and tries to make peace with the odd and overwhelming sense of his own displacement in time and space. Then he gives the whole thing up as a bad job and rounds the corner into the living room.

While he was gone, Molly had scooted from the foot of the couch over to the base of the Christmas tree. She's smiling that sweet smile of hers down at the floor, where Cinderella and the T-rex are pushing a plastic snowflake back and forth between them. Jack's eyes flick from Molly to Sam, who's still ensconced on the couch, her empty dinner plate now on the coffee table in front of her. Her own gaze wanders from the faces nearest her to her daughter and back again, a little pensive; then Mitchell says something Jack can't quite hear, and Sam smiles, brilliant.

Jack's breath catches hard in his throat.

The expression's deeper on Sam, marked by all the things she's seen and done over the years, but damn if it isn't still the exact same smile. Mother and daughter, a matched set. His entire goddamn universe.

-x-

Christmas Day

The clock reads a little after four in the morning when Jack wakes to a soft sound from somewhere beyond the bedroom door. With his daughter, five houseguests, and the prodigal colonel all sharing his roof, a sleeping house seems to have become the impossible dream.

It had taken hours to settle everyone and everything down after Sam's precipitous arrival. In a vain effort to pretend like everything was normal, thank you very much, Jack had crossed the living room and picked Molly up off the floor, Cinderella, T-rex, and all. "Bedtime for paleontologists," he'd said, settling her onto his hip. When Sam hesitated, he'd held out a hand for her, drawing her inexorably back into the everyday rhythm of their lives.

Being half of their whole has always been a little like that for Sam. Life forces her away for five minutes, and she somehow forgets how utterly and hopelessly lost he's always been in her. Once upon a time, it had bothered Jack that she could doubt him — doubt them — so easily. But years of convincing themselves they didn't see what was right in front of their noses had taken its toll on them both, it turned out. If the final cost is coaxing her back from the places she hides, time and again, he'll pay it as long as he needs to.

Molly remained strangely ambivalent towards her mother tonight, though. They'd picked their way through her room, a small space made smaller by the air mattress Cassie had pitched on the floor and the detritus from today's festivities strewn about here and there. Once they'd made it to her bed, Molly had crawled up into Jack's lap, handed him her book to read, and virtually ignored her mother the entire time.

Sam hadn't pushed it. She'd hugged her daughter and kissed her on the top of the head and preceded Jack out of the room when they were done. He'd had to grab her elbow and pull her around before she'd escaped back to the living room.

"Sam," he said, "It's not you. She's just —"

She held up a hand to stop him, shaking her head. Looking at her face, he could see the tension across her brow and the deeper creases at the corners of her mouth and eyes.

At this point, the contest to see which of them was closer to not handling this at all seemed to be pretty much a draw.

For a few heartbeats, he'd considered taking her hand and pulling her after him, down the hall and through the bedroom door and into his arms, and to hell with the holiday and their houseful full of guests and whether the two of them completely fell apart. There wasn't one person here who wouldn't have understood. But that isn't how they do things in this corner of the universe. So instead, he'd touched her cheek and kissed her temple and stepped away, letting her go in ahead of him.

Sam had settled herself back on the couch, and Jack had drawn up a chair on the other side of the room.

If they'd all expected the whole story to come out now that Molly had gone to bed, they'd been wrong; Sam tossed out a remark about finding themselves completely off their navigational charts, cracked a strained joke about reliving her old SG-1 days, and glanced over at the hallway leading to Molly's bedroom. After that, she'd clamped shut, turning their questions back around at them and pressing for details about what they'd been up to while she was gone.

It was a flashing neon sign for not now, not here, and after a few surreptitious glances at Jack to see if he planned to let that stand, they'd all got their toes on the officially sanctioned side of the line.

By the time the two of them were finally alone in their room, it was closing in on one in the morning. Sam came to stand front of him, still wearing the jeans and sweater she'd been wearing when she'd left the house a lifetime or so ago, way back in the beginning of November. The lines of tension had fled from her face, chased off by the flat planes of fatigue.

"Jack —" she'd started, exhausted but determined, but he shook his head and drew her close and ran his fingers though her hair. He was way past anything but thistonight.

Sam shifted away, creating a tiny space between them, and pulled his head down to hers. "God, I missed you," she breathed right before her lips met his.

She'd slept eventually, though not easily, and not until sometime well past two. Jack's not certain when, exactly, because he hadn't been watching the clock. He'd been watching her instead; the slow smoothing out of her expression in the dark shadows of the room, the even rise and fall of her chest under the blankets. He'd dozed off at last himself, falling into a light and fitful sleep, only to have it broken by the sound of floorboards creaking in Molly's room across the hall.

Next to him, Sam stirs and opens her eyes; Jack holds a finger up to his lips to shush her.

Molly pushes the door open and pads across the floor to Jack's side of the bed. "Daddy," she says softly, holding out her T-rex. He takes the dinosaur, and Molly scales the bed, clambers across Jack's legs into the space between her parents, and clamps herself onto her mother like a barnacle.

Sam breathes in swiftly, and her arms wrap by reflex around their daughter, holding her tight and stroking at the ends of her hair. Jack sets his hand on Molly's back and slides it up until he can hook his fingers over Sam's wrist.

The glow from the door Molly left ajar behind her falls across the bed and onto the pair of them, shining off Molly's hair and illuminating Sam's face as she looks down at the top of Molly's head.

He can see with sharp, aching clarity the exact moment Sam starts to cry.

-x-

New Year's Day

Jack picks up a pen from his desk and starts to twist it between his fingers. He swivels his chair so his back's to the window looking out into Homeworld Command, then he turns it to face outwards once again. He sets the pen carefully down on top of a pad of paper and rests his chin on his balled-up fist.

"No, sir," he says into the phone. "Nothing new to report. Except that I think the power bill may go up from all the crap they're processing on the computers in Nevada."

Parke replies with a snort from the other end of the line.

"I'm heading out there tomorrow, not that I think it'll help. But Carter's coming too, which has a better shot at scaring some numbers into submission."

Thank God for transport beams, too, so that at least one of them can be home in time for dinner.

"Right," Parke says. "Keep me apprised. We need those ships back out there."

"You don't need to tell me, sir," Jack says.

"No. I suppose not."

Jack hangs up the phone and leans back in his chair, hands behind his head. Parke's looking for answers, and Jack doesn't have any to give him yet. The brass is getting antsy in D.C. and parts beyond.

Jack's feeling more than a little antsy about it himself, truth be told.

The Hammond had come back home with a whole lot of data but considerably less useful information, leaving everyone baffled as to exactly how she'd ended up on the far side of beyond with no idea of where she was or how to get home. It's a testimony to Sam and her command that they'd managed to get themselves back at all; 'navigationally lost' is still the one gaping point of failure in a ship platform that's otherwise been made so redundant and foolproof, Jack himself could probably do most of the jobs.

If you don't know where you are, turns out it's really, really hard to figure out where you're going.

But the problem of the moment is how they'd gotten to where they'd been, and the candidates on the table include sabotage, technical trouble, or the always-possible and never-desirable fiddling around by aliens they haven't yet met. Since the entire fleet's effectively grounded until they get closer to an answer than 'no effing clue,' the science staff from Area 51 to Pegasus and back again have been overdosing on caffeine and mathematics since Christmas Day.

For the sort of geeks that work around the Stargate, an intractable problem is nothing more than a Christmas gift in another guise. Jack's light on staff here at the Pentagon today, though, since Command doesn't have a whole hell of a lot to do at the moment. He's got guys monitoring comms and enough people hanging about to get things rolling on averting the apocalypse should one happen to choose today to commence. Most of them, he's fairly certain, are playing solitaire on their computers, but he's not going to make the mistake of wandering close enough to be sure. It's bad enough being the unlucky bastards that drew the holiday-shift short straw in the first place, without The Man looking over your shoulder.

The sole exception is Watkins, who isn't supposed to be here at all. But here she is, spending her day alternating between conference calls with the team leaders at Area 51 and the SGC and the pile of printouts on her desk. If there are answers to be had, she's determined to extract them, but Jack's pretty sure those teeth won't pull just yet.

He's been watching everyone try all week, though, spending his days at the Pentagon and his nights in a house still populated by too many people and an overcharged current of emotion. Sam's taken over his home office, somehow managing to coordinate repairs to her ship, kick off the data analysis effort at Area 51, and debrief Jack, various brass, and a half-dozen useless members of the IOA, all without leaving home. This despite a daughter who won't let go of her leg and a houseful of guests who seem to have decided never to leave.

The week between Christmas and New Year's is never less than a blurry sort of haze, but this year has to be eligible for an award of some kind.

The only bright spot in their too-crowded house is Alice, who'd showed up unannounced, back three days early from visiting her parents. For about thirty seconds, Jack considered frog-marching her back to the airport himself and sending her home again, but the truth is, they need her. She's a quick fix for the guilt Sam would otherwise be feeling about heading for Nevada tomorrow, even for the day.

It's no big surprise that Sam's reluctant to leave Molly, even a week later. Jack's equally reluctant to let her leave. He's not about to admit that out loud, of course, though it might be the most effective way to get her butt out the door. She'll go when duty calls, like she always has, but it's going to hurt her even more than usual this time around.

There's a part of Jack that would like to tell duty and honor to take a long, hot hike right about now. At times like these, irresponsible or no, that part of him seriously considers gathering up his little family and emigrating to some quiet, out of the way planet where no one on Earth or off of it would think to look for them. Trouble is, they'd leave a larger family behind. Not related by blood, perhaps, but by bonds that are even stronger.

Welcome to the Hotel Stargate, indeed.

Speaking of which, there's at least one problem he can solve today, right now. He gets up and heads out onto the main floor.

"Watkins," he says, stopping in front of her desk.

Watkins looks up from the page she's studying, one of about half a zillion stacked around her. She stares for a few seconds, then her brain seems to catch up, and she shoves herself out of her chair to stand before him. "Sir?"

Usually, Jack's waving people back down before they've even gotten all the way to standing. Protocol for protocol's sake's never done much for him. But there's a larger point at stake here, and if protocol helps him make it, so be it.

"Correct me if I'm wrong here, Captain, because we all know how I get confused sometimes." He shoves his hands in his pockets. "You were here on Thanksgiving. You were here on Christmas. You were, in fact, here every day between Christmas and now, including both days this weekend. I've seen today's duty roster, and you're nowhere on it, but here you are today, yet again."

"Yes, sir."

"Now, you've got a family, right?" he asks. "Friends? Distant and casual acquaintances?"

"My folks are local, sir. They're up in Gaithersburg."

"And when was the last time you actually sawthem?"

She opens her mouth to answer, then snaps it shut again. To her credit, though, she doesn't flinch or look away.

"God," Jack says, "you people are gonna kill me." Folding his arms across his chest, he gives her the sort of look that would have made even Daniel fly straighter, back in the day. "Erin. You are a fine officer. You're a brilliant young woman with a bright future ahead of you. And speaking for myself, I'd be screwed if you weren't here to tell me what the hell those eggheads are actually spouting off about all the time." He leans forward and plants his hand on one of the stacks of papers on her desk. "But Captain, this crap is going to be here tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. It'll be here next year. It'll probably be here in your next lifetime. God knows I've lived through several, and somehow, the crap's still all here. The absolute stupidest thing you can do is to get so deep in it that you forget why we're here in the first place." He pauses to let the words sink in, then thumps the papers once more for emphasis. "Go home and see your parents."

She squares her shoulders and lifts her chin. "Yes, sir."

He turns around and leaves her there, probably wondering where the hell that came from. And short of living his life, he really can't explain it himself.

Back in the office, he picks up the phone again and dials Sam's cell.

"Meet me for lunch," he says without preamble.

He can practically hear the way she's blinking bemusedly at the phone. "We're not even dressed yet," she says after a moment's pause.

"So get that way, Colonel."

"I don't think you can order me to have lunch with you." She sounds like she's trying not to laugh at him.

"But you will anyway."

Now she really is laughing at him. "Yes, I will."

"Good," he says. "Call me when you get close."

She makes an affirmative-sounding noise, but she's already distracted, calling Molly as she — he assumes — walks down the hall. He hears the dresser drawer open, and he pictures her pawing around looking for some little-girl outfit that's likely to make his mother cry from beyond the grave.

They've changed somehow, this time around. Jack knows he's not going to bounce back quickly, not like he has before. But this feels good. This feels normal, or at least it feels like what qualifies as normal for them.

He's always been pretty fond of what qualifies as normal for them.

"Hey, Sam," he says, his voice pitched low and softer than before.

"Yeah?" she says absently, still messing around in the drawer.

"I love you."

He hears her movements still before he's even stopped speaking; the only sound on the other end of the line is her slow, deep breathing. "I love you, too," she says.

The silence lasts for another breath or two, until a shriek from Molly and an ooffrom Sam let him know the game's been changed once again.

"Oh my God," Sam says, her words slightly muffled. "I have to go." And the line goes silent.

Jack smiles to himself as he hangs up the phone and gets back to work.

.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

John McCrae, from In Flanders Fields