PART TWO: Chapter 3
The clean carpet smells like lemon. There is practically no doorway, and after taking the first few steps into the apartment, Jack sees the magnificent view of the city and the scattered greenery from the glass doors that separate the living room from the balcony. To the left, half-hidden, he finds the kitchen and the dining room; to the right he steps into the laundry, a bathroom, and a spare room that can be used as a study. Jack plans to use it for storing his videos.
The stairwell behind the living room leads to the upper level and its spacious bedroom with one wall entirely made of glass. The ensuite is a spectacular find—not only is it large enough to spar in, but it’s complete with a huge shower and jacuzzi. The only disappointing thing about the penthouse is the second spare room, and Jack doesn’t know what he would make of it—perhaps turn it into a TV room? He would certainly not be having any guests over. For a moment he feels guilty all that prized city space would be wasted on him, but Jack ignores it. He has been in Washington DC for over three years, and it’s about time he got himself his own place. He liked the apartment and furnishings the Air Force provided him with well enough, but it never really felt like home. And there are too many restrictions about doing anything that might ‘damage’ the place—no hammering nails into the walls for pictures, no renovating the bathroom for a larger tub. He’s an Air Force General, for goodness’ sake, and should be able to shoot his nail guns wherever he damn well liked. Then again, Jack doesn’t know of any other Generals who don’t have their own place, which is precisely why he’s spending his Thursday afternoon inspecting apartments. And it looks like he has finally found the one.
He climbs down the stairs, making a mental note to arrange a lawyer to handle the contract. And, due to a matter of principle, he will also need to negotiate with Valerie, the real estate agent; he would be damned if he paid the full asking price.
As he reaches the living room, Jack hears Valerie greeting another prospective buyer and giving them the lowdown on the property. Jack tightens his jaw, his hands fidgeting for his phone. Screw the negotiating—he will sign the contract and pay the deposit in an hour, if it guarantees the apartment would be his. He already has plans on buying a barbeque and slapping on some steaks on the balcony.
Jack frowns when he hears the newcomer talk. He cannot hear the words, but the voice is deep and low and strangely familiar, though laced with laughter he doesn’t recognize. He wracks his mind, trying to remember if he knows anyone in the market for an apartment, but comes up empty.
His eyes widen when the figure comes into view.
“Teal’c!” The Jaffa, dressed in his usual civilian outfit, complete with bowler’s hat, turns to him in delighted surprise. “T, buddy! It’s me,—”
“O’Neill.” There is so much happiness in Teal’c’s voice and eyes that Jack can’t believe this is the same warrior he had fought alongside for eight years. When Jack gives his friend for a quick hug, he feels the muscles that ripple beneath the Jaffa’s polo shirt. They release each other, and Jack feels more light-heartened than he has in years.
“Woah, buddy,” he says, gesturing to Teal’c’s biceps, “still working out and getting all the ladies?”
Teal’c inclines his head. “Indeed. A warrior must always remain fit and ready for battle.”
“So you—and Bra’tac—have kept telling me. Speaking of the old fellow, how is he?”
“He is well. What of you, O’Neill? You look as if you have aged, and carry many burdens upon you.”
As touched as he is by his friend’s concern, Jack is still aware of his surroundings. He looks around the empty apartment, and hears the agent’s distant chatter drifting from another room. “If by ‘burden’ you mean all that cake I’ve been eating, then you’re absolutely right. And you know, we humans just don’t digest as quickly as Jaffa. I bet you’re still having a dozen donuts at day, and you’re what, 150 now?”
“157. I am quite impressed you remember the details of our missions.”
“That one was hard to miss,” Jack makes out lightly. He takes a few slow breaths as the familiar ache rises, and Jack tries to wipe out all those nights when he wondered what happened to her while she was trapped on the ship, whether things would have been different if he had been there with the rest of them, with her. He fleetingly thinks to ask Teal’c about her, but pushes away the thought, too afraid to know. “So what brings you to DC, T? And looking for an apartment? How come I never heard anything about you getting your own place outside the base?”
Jack clears his throat when the agent emerges from the bedroom, but she’s speaking to a woman who makes his heart stop. They see each other at the same time, and the universe stills, free of everything but her large, blue eyes; her golden hair, now longer and softly curling down her back; her half-parted lips, full, soft pink, a sweetness he can still taste. Their nights making camp, their days in the field, their few mornings waking to each other, their friendship, their respect, their passion, their anguish; all his memories, all their memories, resurface, drowning him with their intensity.
“Ah, General O’Neill!” Valerie’s voice is intruding, almost grating. “I hope you don’t mind this couple taking a look around too.”
The world comes crashing down on him. It all makes sense now, Teal’c’s laughter, his easy manner, the flowing blue skirt she’s wearing. They are here, together, to buy an apartment, one which is suited for a family. The thought makes him nauseous.
“Excuse me, but are you two acquainted?” Valerie speaks again, this time looking at Jack and Teal’c.
“Indeed.” The Jaffa’s expression is unreadable. “Colonel Carter, is this dwelling to your liking?”
Jack sees Valerie make the connection. “You’re both in the military! Army?”
“Air Force,” Jack replies, forgetting how to breathe when he hears the soft voice he knows so well, entwining with his own as they answer in unison.
“What are the odds!” The real estate agent looks rather pleased, probably at the thought of the increased commission resulting from a second prospective buyer. “I’ll let the three of you catch up then. Mr Murray, Ms Carter, I’m sure General O’Neill wouldn’t mind showing you the upper level.”
She smiles at them and leaves for the spare bedroom, no doubt to rejoice in her good fortune. Jack wants to call her back, make an excuse and get the hell out of there, but she disappears before Jack finds his voice. The others are silent, and Jack dares not look at her, afraid of what he might find.
It takes all his training and control to appear indifferent. “So, Teal’c, buying an apartment with Carter? Who would’ve thought.”
Jack hears her sharp intake of breath, but keeps his gaze on Teal’c. It worries him when the Jaffa’s eyes narrow into a steely look he has only seen directed at enemies.
“I’m going to take a look upstairs,” she says, her voice wrapping around him. But he thinks he hears tremors, and Jack fights the urge to turn to his right—it would only take a slight shift, a tilt of the head as he inhales—and truly see her. “You guys enjoy your chat.”
She walks past him to the stairwell, leaving him lost with the jasmine and frangipani that swirls behind her. How he wants to take her in his arms and breathe her scent, breathe her…
“I do not know whether to pity you or remain angry with you.” Teal’c’s words are unexpected, and Jack looks up at his friend, confused.
“You have distressed Colonel Carter and insulted me.”
Jack feels a sliver of panic, and holds out his hands. “Sorry, T, I’ve got no clue what you’re saying.”
“Colonel Carter is searching for a place of residence in this city. I have been led to believe that such a task is a daunting burden in itself and need not be intensified by unfounded accusations.”
Jack doesn’t know whether the pounding of his heart signifies relief or trepidation. “So you mean you and Carter aren’t…”
Teal’c only has to raise an eyebrow.
Jack’s suddenly envious of the Jaffa. Neither of them belong to SG-1 now—there is no SG-1 any more, Jack has to remind himself—but Teal’c still knows the team and is still known by the team; Jack is an outsider now, the two-star General, the ex-member, the leftover. His lingering bitterness at his departure had kept him away from the others, and his guilt is stronger than his regrets.
“Sorry, T,” he repeats. “I wasn’t thinking properly.”
Teal’c nods. “I believe you also owe Colonel Carter an apology.”
The heaviness in his stomach that settles when he hears her name has lessened. “Okay, okay,” Jack says, keeping his tone sarcastic. “Gee, when did you become so bossy?”
Teal’c shifts his stance, signalling the immediate danger has passed. “I have been honoured with the position of Weaponmaster on Chulak, and my task requires me to deal with misbehaving pupils. Of course, they are usually much younger than you.”
“Yeah, I’d really like you to educate my kids.” The words just slip out, and Jack curses silently when Teal’c tilts his head in interest.
“Have you produced more offspring, O’Neill?”
“Uh, no.” He’s glad when the Jaffa nods, this time in acknowledgement. The silence slides around them, and Jack finds he does not mind so much. The Jaffa’s easy stance and strong jaw speaks louder than words, reminiscent of the hours they had spent guarding camp, watching movies, fishing in his pond. As the familiarity loosens his limbs, Jack’s mind drifts to her, upstairs, the sole figure in the empty bedroom.
He keeps his tone as light as possible. “So, T, how about we join Carter, see what she thinks about the place?”
Jack holds firm as Teal’c scrutinises him, and he doesn’t know what to feel when the Jaffa inclines his head. They walk to the stairwell, and are about to ascend it when Teal’c speaks, the hint of warning returning to his voice.
“Colonel Carter is a warrior, but Samantha Carter is a woman.” Jack nods, uncertain, as Teal’c deliberates his next words. “She spoke of many people in the fifty years we were trapped on the Odyssey: Jacob Carter, Mark Carter, Detective Shanahan, Captain Hanson. Not once did she mention you.”
Jack stills, guilt and jealousy tinged with a haze of hope. “Teal’c…”
“I believe it is Daniel Jackson who once insisted that ‘silence speaks louder than words’.” Almost imperceptibly, Teal’c draws together his eyebrows. “It did not matter to Daniel Jackson that silence cannot speak, nor can it be loud.”
But Jack understands, and is warmed by Daniel’s nagging wisdom and Teal’c’s calm sincerity. He keeps his voice light, and does not fight his smile. “Not a single word, huh?”
They climb the stairs, his thoughts deepening with every step. Teal’c has filled him with equal gratitude and remorse, and as he closes the distance between him and her—this time, a conscious decision, owing not to serendipity—Jack doesn’t know what he will say, how he should stand, whether he should show his fidgeting hands or hide them in his pockets. He has heard about her and come across her reports every now and then in the last three years—it was impossible not to, seeing how accomplished she is—but he has always buried those thoughts, discarding what arose from his most dangerous occupational hazard. He makes it a point not to know anything about her beyond her involvement with the Stargate program—now, she’s more of a stranger to him than the woman from the Chinese take-out place down the street.
When Jack sees her for the second time that day, she’s looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows, her breath caught from the view. He takes the time to study her, to study his view, and sees the slightly different way she holds herself, the crossed arms and stiff shoulders, the uncertainty in the furrow of her brow. But he sees confidence too, in her silver pumps, her determined gaze, her long, wavy hair, free of any restraints. She’s still Samantha Carter, but she’s also someone else, someone more.
She turns towards him when she hears them approach. This time, Jack does not look away and meets her gaze, watching in fascination as those brilliant eyes transform from alarmed to decided. He keeps his hands outside, fingers brushing his trousers.
“Teal’c,” she says, nodding to the Jaffa. Then, softer, ending in a whisper: “Jack.”
“Sam.” Her name rolls off his tongue like it always has. He lightens when her lips curve ever-so-slightly into a smile. So it’s okay to call her that, then. “How are you finding it?”
“The view’s gorgeous.”
Jack feels a pang when he thinks the same thing about his view and realises that he has no right. But her easy countenance makes it difficult for him to linger on his negativity.
“It really is.” He pauses a moment in case Teal’c wants to join their conversation; when the Jaffa remains silent, Jack continues. “Teal’c told me you’re on a bit of a house-hunting trip in DC. How’s that been going?”
Her glance flickers once more to Teal’c, and Jack thinks he sees gratitude. “It’s been pretty good, actually. Found a few places I like, though nothing quite compares to this view. I guess the ensuite’s an extra bonus.”
He couldn’t agree more. “So, you’re staying in DC for a while?”
She blinks in confusion at his question. “I’ve been assigned to work on the George Hammond. I thought you might’ve heard.”
“Nope.” Jack sees her downward glance that betrays her grief at losing the General. “They only give me the new folks to look at—security clearances, questions of competency, make sure they won’t jump off a cliff from the pressure, all that paperwork. No one bothers to tell me about veteran transfers any more.” He shrugs off his unease at being caught off-guard. “You’ll have fun with the project though. Congrats, Carter. And for making full-bird Colonel, too.”
“Thanks,” she says, giving him a genuine smile. “Congratulations on your promotion too, sir.”
Jack waves a hand, though the compliment has never sounded as heartfelt. “It’s nothing. Not like they gave me a new TV in my office. With The Simpsons on those Blue Laser Ray things.”
Her eyes sparkle—he has missed that. “If you do decide to buy this place, you can always turn one of the spare bedrooms into a TV room.”
“Exactly what I thought! Sweet, I’ve been Carter-approved.”
She blushes slightly, the pink tinge drawing his attention to the fine lines on her face. She has matured during the years, become more defined, more divine. Jack’s suddenly conscious of his own age, and wonders if she sees the few pounds he has gained; he had spent the last three years holed up in his office, while she conquered enemies he has not even met. Which, considering those particular creatures are life-sucking aliens, is not entirely a bad thing.
He has to ask, because now he’s curious. “How was the Atlantis command? Bring back any souvenirs?”
“Nothing apart from a broken leg to add to the list of battle wounds.” He smiles, and she continues. “It was all pretty eventful, but very different. I don’t think I got used to their Stargate though—it was too…metallic.”
Jack remembers his brief visit to Atlantis and how everything was cold. “Agreed. I like my DHDs to have more oomph.”
A quiet growl from Teal’c completes their unanimous agreement.
Jack frowns for a moment, wondering how Teal’c knows. Then he lights up in recollection. “Oh yeah, you went to Atlantis to do some IOA-training this year!”
“Your memory is rather susceptible to rust, O’Neill.” The Jaffa delivers his sentence with his usual frankness, but Jack detects an easiness that was never there before, an easiness that had made it difficult to recognise Teal’c’s voice when he first heard it. They have both changed, so very little and oh-so-much. He starts to feel estranged again, and knows a diversion is in order.
“Seeing you’re both in town, how about we go out to dinner, have a beer, then watch a movie at my place? Tonight any good?”
The apprehension returns when they exchange a look. “I must travel to the Stargate Command tonight and return to Chulak. I am sorry I cannot accept your invitation.”
“No sweat.” Jack’s sure his disappointment shows, but he has another idea. “What about right now? It’s only”—a quick glance at his watch—“1430. We can go for a snack—I know a great donut place you’ll love, T. And they do a decent coffee too.”
“Actually,” she says, her hesitation answer enough, “our afternoon’s fully booked with about six other apartment inspections. But you’re welcome to go with Jack, Teal’c.”
The Jaffa makes his refusal bow, which Jack has also missed. “I must complete my task with Colonel Carter first. I am sorry, O’Neill. When you are not so preoccupied, you should consider visiting Chulak.”
“Gotcha.” The invitation almost makes up for the rejection. Almost. “Can’t wait to see all the kiddos you teach.”
Teal’c inclines his head again. “We will take our leave then, O’Neill. Colonel Carter?”
He chances another look at her then, and catches the reluctance in her eyes. But it dissipates before Jack can question it, and she flashes him another smile, one tinged with sadness. It reminds him of the last time she looked at him like that, after she had kissed him. Before he had walked away. “It was nice seeing you, Jack.”
She leaves, disappearing down the stairs with Teal’c. He wants to run after them, to spend the rest of his afternoon talking and joking like they did in one of the rare days off-base, but it’s too late. The final exchanges have been made, the front door has closed. She’s gone, and Jack’s still here, breathing in the last whisper of jasmine.
Sam can’t get the dazzling, unobstructed view out of her mind. She compares every other apartment she visits that afternoon to the penthouse, and barely pays them any heed—none of them are even close. Sam’s certain she’s found the place she wants, and her quick mental calculations confirm she can afford it. She would have to sell her house in Colorado Springs first, and the mortgage would be a killer, but she could live with that, as long as she could live in that.
And it isn’t just the view—everything about the penthouse simply sang to her. The previous owners moved interstate years ago, only recently deciding to sell the place; that explained the emptiness, the space calling out to her, waiting to be filled, the walls barren and aching to be decorated. All the other apartments she visits are already furnished, and stepping into them feels like intrusion on her part; the penthouse is different, because it needs her as much as she needs it. She loves the openness of the living room, the slightly elusive kitchen, the first spare room which she would turn into her lab, and the second spare room which would be her study. And so much space, in the rooms, on the balcony, through the windows, that Sam can forget she’s living in the city and almost believe she’s tucked away in her own place in the universe.
But he had been there too, and to say she was surprised would be an understatement. Sam knew she would run into him sooner or later, was even been prepared to renew her efforts at avoiding him. Atlantis was a blessing because she spent a year not having to worry about them unexpectedly crossing paths, and her latest assignment to work on the Hammond, as exciting as the prospect, is a curse simply because she moved from being a galaxy away to sharing the same city with him. But it’s a big city, and it never once crossed Sam’s mind that she would see him outside the Pentagon, much less outside of uniform. Perhaps it was that element of surprise and an added, surreal touch that prompted her to be so bold and call him by name. It occurs to her now that she doesn’t know why he was there—Sam had always assumed he has settled in after three years. Was he looking to buy another place? Or was he there on another’s behalf?
They are in a cab, a few blocks from her hotel, when Teal’c finally speaks. “I believe you have found a suitable dwelling, Colonel Carter.” She snaps up from her thoughts, to see that the Jaffa is smiling. “I am quite certain O’Neill also approves of your choice.”
She’s either that transparent, or Teal’c is an excellent judge of character. Sam’s mouth twitches, suspecting a bit of both. “It was wonderful, wasn’t it? I didn’t expect to see General O’Neill there, though.”
“I believe he was just as surprised.”
“I guess.” She can’t deny being somewhat disappointed he didn’t know about her assignment, but she’s proud and honoured to be on a permanent shortlist with Homeworld Security. But some part of her had hoped that perhaps, just perhaps, he had thought and wondered—and cared—enough to see what she was up to.
The cab stops at their destination, and Sam pays the driver. They reach her hotel room, and Sam pulls out a bottle of Fanta for Teal’c from the minibar and takes a Diet Coke for herself. They drink at first in silence, interrupted by the unabashed swallowing that speaks of their familiarity.
“Thanks so much for everything, Teal’c,” she says when her bottle’s half-finished. “It means a lot to me.”
The Jaffa simply nods, eyes full of warmth. “It was my pleasure, Colonel Carter. I would gladly offer you any assistance, provided it is within my power to do so.”
His sincerity touches her, as it always has. “I hope it wasn’t too boring for you—you’ve probably had enough of apartments to last a lifetime.”
“Quite the contrary. I have been intrigued by some of the interiors and furnishings—perhaps I will implement those ideas in my own home on Chulak. You, of course, would be more than welcome to assist in embellishing my dwelling with useless but aesthetically pleasing trinkets.”
She manages to suppress her giggle just in time. “Maybe Ishta is better suited for the job.”
He shakes his head, but Sam hears the humour and love in his voice. “That woman does nothing but complain of what she suffers while she bears my child. It appears she has forgotten it was she, not I, who was keen about producing offspring.”
“I can’t believe she’s due in a month.” It seems like only yesterday Teal’c when stepped into Atlantis and shared the news with Sam. “You’ll let us know when she gives birth? Vala’s been dying to hold a party.”
“I am certain Vala will find another excuse before then.”
This time Sam does laugh—it’s been too long since the team was last together.
“Colonel Carter, you are too strong a warrior and woman to spend so much time on the past.” It amazes her how much Teal’c sees and understands. “There is an old saying in Chulak that roughly translates to ‘the roof over your head is the ground under your feet’. We do not change dwellings as often as the Tau’ri because to move would be to start again. But you are starting again in this city, and your new roof will provide you with a new path.”
Her vision becomes misty. “Thank you, Teal’c,” she says, voice trembling. “Thank you.” Sam takes a deep breath to steady herself, then glances at her watch. “We should get you to the airbase or you’ll miss your flight back to Cheyenne.”
As if on cue, Teal’c’s phone rings, the driver calling to inform him of their arrival. Sam picks up her purse when he hangs up, and makes it halfway to the door when the Jaffa holds her arm, stopping her.
“You need not accompany me,” he says in a firm tone. “Your constitution is not as hardy as mine, and I am feeling the effects of this hunt for houses. You require rest.” She tries to protest, but Teal’c cuts her off. “You should listen to your elders, Colonel Carter.”
His softly spoken words remind her that he’s more than thrice her age and, more than that, had spent fifty years with an alternate her aboard the Odyssey, fifty years he’s kept to himself. That’s why he understands her more than anyone else, more than she does herself; so Sam nods in resignation and embraces her friend, her throat tightening at the abundance of love and loyalty she finds in the Jaffa.
Sam doesn’t know how long she stands, looking at the open suitcases and boxes in her hotel room, after Teal’c has left. All her personal items are there, all the things that really matter to her, all her hopes and dreams of finally devoting her time to work on the new Daedalus-class ship—all this, are whimsies that aren’t so important any more. She knows her apathy will pass once she unpacks and truly settles into her new job, but now, she feels small, misplaced, and utterly alone.