PART TWO: Chapter 4
It’s been almost a week since Jack found the penthouse and stumbled into her, almost a week of partially restless nights. He had checked the full list of Hammond personnel after their encounter, and saw her name right at the top, as head scientist and interim commander of the ship. Unable to stop there, Jack had looked through some of her correspondence and found she had requested to arrange her own accommodation—that explains her search for apartments. But what Jack can’t understand is why she’s looking to buy. Is there perhaps another reason, a more personal reason, fuelling her decision to move to DC? Jack had put away the files then, realising he was entering dangerous territory. Her life is none of his business, not any more.
That was five days ago. Now, Jack’s spending his lunch break in his office, mindlessly flipping through the newspaper, searching for a distraction. He religiously avoids crossword puzzles and glances over the comic strips, their pleasures long lost. He’s only interested in news of the intergalactic variety, but that’s hardly accessible through the Washington Post. The sports section usually provides some entertainment, but lately, Jack can’t find it in himself to focus on game details. Sighing, he tosses the paper aside, unable to idle and unwilling to work.
A corner of the paper catches his attention, and Jack pulls it back towards him, gingerly flipping it open. His stomach lurches when he sees the production photograph amidst the triumphal scene of Act II, the Egyptian costumes saturated with warm colours. His fingers trail across the title of the opera, the four letters bright and bold—how befitting, how uncomfortably close to home. It stirs in him a memory he never fully discarded, always lying in wait, in that cesspool of lost things. But it’s there, as is the ad, as is she, and he has planned it before, planned this before, though it was in another lifetime, another reality. He picks up the phone before he can truly think and dials the number printed in yellow. The woman on the other end’s too happy to help, and Jack passes on his details, his heart already racing. It only occurs to him after he hangs up exactly what he’s done, and by then, there’s no room for doubts. Jack has taken the first step, and though the next few might be thwarted, he has to try.
He picks up the receiver again, this time dialling the extension for his aide.
“General O’Neill, sir?”
“Johnson, find the contact details for Colonel Samantha Carter and patch me through on a secure line.”
“Yes, sir. Putting you on hold, sir.”
Jack drums his fingers to the piano instrumental that plays, pausing when it’s replaced with the prolonged beeping that indicates their phones are trying to connect. He counts three rings before she answers. “Carter.”
His spare hand clenches the table, knuckles white. “Hey, it’s me,” he says, hoping he sounds casual, “Jack. O’Neill.”
In the silence that follows, Jack mentally kicks, strangles, and flogs himself in a hundred different ways for sounding downright stupid. He grasps for something to say when he hears her voice again. “Oh, hi, Jack. I didn’t know you had this number.”
“I didn’t, I don’t. Homeworld Security does, though.” Now he sounds like a stalker. He glares at the telephone for being so deceptively difficult. “Um, is this a bad time? Are you working?” Which makes him idiotic, because that would mean she’s somewhere in the same damn building as him.
“No, actually.” He isn’t sure if she’s being calm, or cold. “I start in two weeks.”
Jack freezes. He was too caught up with the idea of her being so close that he hasn’t checked much else. “Right, looking for somewhere to move in and all that.” At least that wasn’t particularly suspicious, seeing he did run into her while inspecting the penthouse. “Found any places you like?”
“A few.” A pause. “I’m still making some final decisions, tying up loose ends back in Colorado Springs, that sort of thing.”
“Wow, so you’re planning to stay here long-term? That’s a big step.” He realises after he has spoken that their conversation is reminiscent of their discussion three years ago. The hesitation on her end tells Jack she hears it too.
“It is. I guess I’m finally moving on from the Stargate program.”
He understands the sorrow in her voice all too well. “You’ll miss it,” he says quietly. “I still do. But knowing you, you’ll love working on the Hammond. Most of the basic constructions have been done, and all she needs now are her Asgard upgrades and that magic Carter touch.”
He’s trying to cheer her up, but his attempts are ludicrous even to his own ears, and it’s clear she’s struggling for something to say. But Jack has gotten this far, had stalled for too long—he can only go forward now.
“So, Sam,”—he slips in her name because she had used his and she didn’t seem to mind and he just wants to—“seeing you’ve just got here and have a few weeks off anyway, I thought maybe you’d like to explore the place, see some sights? I mean, I know you practically grew up here, but that was decades ago and things, you know, change.”
Even through the abysmal connection, Jack hears her considering, weighing her options. Finally, when he begins to doubt whether she’s still there, Sam speaks again. “Sounds good. What do you have in mind?”
He’s almost too stunned to reply. “Actually, there’s an opera on tonight that I’ve been wanting to see.” It’s not a lie, not entirely. “I know it’s kinda last minute, so maybe we could—”
“Tonight’s fine.” It’s been a long time since he’s found such relief in an interpretation. “What’s the opera?”
This is the jackpot question, the revelation of exactly how much she’s on his mind, no matter how spontaneous he makes it to be. “Aida.”
“Oh.” Jack’s skin tingles at the sound, at how he can feel her breath as she exhales through parted lips. “That would be wonderful.”
He had not seen that coming. Reluctant agreement, polite refusal, dancing somewhere in between—he was prepared for anything but her wonder, her excitement. It’s enough to make him feel the same way, too.
“The opera’s at nineteen hundred, so I’ll pick you up at seventeen hundred for an early dinner?” Jack’s afraid he seems too eager, but she placates him with a soft ‘mm hmm’. “What do you feel like?”
“I’m fine with anything, really.”
That’s her usual response when asked about her preferences, but this time, Jack wants her to choose, wants her input. “C’mon Sam, you gotta pick. Or we’ll end up in Jell-O-Land.”
She laughs, and for the first time, the phone seems alive. “All right, let’s do Italian, considering we’re going to an Italian opera and all.”
“Done. Where should I pick you up?” Jack can find the information in her personnel file, but he wants to hear it from her, wants to prolong the conversation. And above all else, though they will always be anything but, Jack wants this to contain a shred of normalcy. He’s not disregarding the long years they’ve known each other, but something’s different now, something new and unexplored. He wants to hold on to that for as long as he can.
Sam doesn’t hesitate in giving him her address, and Jack writes it down, pleased to find her hotel’s not too far away. He thinks of places they can go, and a small, intimate restaurant he’s been to once or twice pops into mind. They have a nice menu, and a killer chocolate mousse.
“So I’ll see you at seventeen hundred?” She sounds slightly breathless, and Jack feels his own breath hitch.
“Yeah, seventeen hundred.” There’s an awkward moment while he agonises between trying to find something to add and just hanging up the phone, but he’s saved when she speaks again, this time in an almost whisper.
“Thanks for inviting me, Jack.”
He smiles, letting her voice wash away his doubts. “Anytime, Sam.”
The rest of the afternoon goes by quickly, but not fast enough. After he makes their dinner reservation, Jack attends to the reality of his job, the endless paperwork, the reports, the meeting he presides over but doesn’t absorb. He jumps out of his seat soon after his closing words and rushes to give instructions to his aide. There’ll be more work to do tomorrow, but now, Jack’s day’s over, his evening just about to start.
He steps into the limousine that drives him home, his fingers wrapped around the set of keys in his pocket. It’s been a while since he’s taken his truck—then again, it’s been a while since he’s done anything personal. His thought startles him when he realises his plans for the evening are suspiciously like those for a date. The fact that Sam—his heart jolts, but he calms; it’s okay to think of her as Sam now—doesn’t seem to mind is even more puzzling. Is she expecting more from him?
No, it isn’t a date, but a night between close friends. He has barely seen her in the last few years, and it’s only natural for him to extend a hand in light of her transference. It’s not an easy or temporary move, either—she’s alone, in a city she knows but doesn’t know her, looking for a place to plant her roots. Jack’s all too familiar with the feeling of being adrift; yes, he’s there to help her, as a friend, as her former commanding officer—nothing more.
It’s sixteen-fifteen when he arrives at his condo. Jack takes a quick shower and, before he realises what he’s doing, shaves. He brushes it off as reflex from routine, not a desire to impress her. He digs up a pair of nice jeans, barely worn, and buttons up a black shirt, throwing a leather jacket over his shoulder as he walks out the door. He’s a simple man with simple tastes, and finds it refreshing to shed the skin of formality on an evening out. He hums indistinctively as he drives to her hotel.
Jack’s five minutes early, but he knows she won’t mind. He nods to the concierge, her room number already etched in his mind. He knocks twice, and she opens the door.
His mouth goes dry. She’s wearing a stunning green dress that hugs her curves and leaves just enough to tease, the skirt stopping above her knees, where the rest of her endless legs continue. She’s left her hair out, the soft curls kissing her bare back, and Jack notes yet again how long hair suits her. He sees the barest hint of makeup across her cheeks and lips, and something glitters from her ears. Her eyes shine with anticipation.
“You look really nice,” she says. He smiles at her admission that she’s been checking him out.
“Right back atcha.” He purposefully gives her the once-over again, whistling when he reaches her eyes. “You look amazing. Really.”
She blushes, but doesn’t look away. “I’ve never been to the opera before, so I wasn’t sure if this…” She gestures to her dress.
“It’s perfect,” he reassures her, but Jack isn’t talking about the dress. He hears the silent warnings soon after—they are just going as friends, nothing more. “It might get a bit cold though, so…”
She ducks back into the room, then reappears a few moments later with a denim jacket. “I um, didn’t have anything to go with it…”
Her nervous downward glance tells Jack her dress might be a last minute purchase—women, as far as his understanding goes, always insist on having an outfit that ‘matches’, whatever that means. He thinks she’s splendid.
“You know, I’ve got a spare SG-1 vest in my truck, so if you prefer that instead…”
“Point taken.” She grabs her purse and closes the door. In the hallway light, her dress shines like peridot; Jack feels slightly dizzy. Does she know it’s his favourite colour, one of the many reasons why he had found it so hard to take his eyes off her whenever they were off-world?
The moment of hesitation when his truck comes into view lingers about them, and Jack sees the flash of memories haunt her features. His stomach clenches, and he wonders if it will always be like this, moments in the present coloured by all that happened in their past, a past responsible for where they are right now, and where they are not. Perhaps he should have taken the limousine after all, regardless of how trite and formal that might’ve seemed.
“I wasn’t sure if you still had your truck,” she says, in a tone he can’t identify. “But it looks different somehow, kind of…”
“Clean.” She smiles. “I guess I never imagined it without all that mud.”
“Hey, it was never that bad!” Okay, maybe it was, but his pride’s at stake here. “I get carted around in a limo all day that it’s nice to feel normal sometimes.” He opens the passenger door, and she climbs in. He drives out of the parking lot, put at ease by the sporadic rattle of the loose jacks in the back.
“My dad used to say that too. He wanted us to have a normal life, a public education, no reminders of military privileges in the house. A part of me always resented him a little for it, especially when he refused to go the easy way for some of the most difficult things.”
Jack longs to take her hand, to brush that sadness away from her voice. “He just wanted the best for you.”
“I know that now. I lost him so long ago that I couldn’t quite believe it when he was back in my life again, really in my life, and now that he’s gone…” She sighs. “Sorry, I’m babbling.”
They stop at a red light, and Jack turns to look at her earnestly. “Hey, it’s okay. You know I’m here for you.”
It’s almost a replica of the conversation they’d had years ago while watching Jacob leave, but the sentiments are the same and just as strong. Jack’s done avoiding her in fear of losing himself; she needs him, and he needs to be needed.
They speak of lighter matters, trivial matters, the weather, the traffic, new SGC BDUs, for the rest of the ride. Jack pays little attention to what she says, instead focusing on her voice, her tone, her pale fingers as she wrings her hands against her lap. She’s nervous, or apprehensive, or perhaps even having second thoughts; Jack can’t tell. But when they finally reach the small pocket of the city where their café’s tucked away and he opens the door for her, Sam’s smiling again.
She’s quiet as they enter the building, but Jack sees her eyes wander around the interior, over the paintings on the walls, the candles on the tables, and back to him when he pulls out her chair. In the low lighting he thinks he sees the soft wrinkle on her forehead.
Jack takes his own seat, feeling uncertain again as they peruse the menu. He had acted on impulse that afternoon, the phone calls, the reservations, even the driving. Now they are sitting opposite each other, their knees almost touching, and Jack realises this can only be interpreted as a date. So when he’s offered the wine menu, Jack quickly waves a hand. “No thanks. We’ll just have water.”
He sees some of the tension leave her shoulders, and Jack feels the bitterness climb up his throat. This is the first date they never had, and never will have.
“Have you decided yet?” he asks, almost brusquely. He softens when he sees her stiffen again, chiding himself for making it sound too impersonal. He needs to find the right balance. “I’d love to have a nice, slow dinner with a long conversation about…quarks…but we’ve got a show to catch.”
She nods, the dancing candlelight casting shadows on her face, making him hunger for something more. Jack clenches the hand he has across his lap, doing his best not to react when he hears her voice again, a lovely lilt. “I’m ready to order.”
Jack calls the waiter, then asks about her thoughts and plans on the George Hammond. She pauses before answering, and they both spend a moment of silence for the late General. They all owe so much of what they have now to the man in the blue shirt, always watching over them from the control room like they were his own children. There’s a sad reverence in Sam’s voice when she finally answers, and Jack knows she will dedicate all her efforts on the new ship in Hammond’s memory.
It’s a relief when their meal finally arrives, hers a chicken and mushroom risotto, his, ravioli in tomato sauce with basil. They keep their thoughts to themselves as they eat, letting the mellow jazz weave between them, their shared silence more comfortable than forced speech. They have surprisingly little in common beyond their jobs, but their bond, their mutual understanding, goes deeper than words.
She sets down her fork a few minutes after him, then dabs her lips with the napkin. “That was really good. Thank you, Jack.”
So they are on a first name basis tonight. He nods, fingers itching to reach across the table and cover hers. They are given the dessert menu, and though she considers it carefully and Jack already knows what he will order, they have little time left. Jack extends his hand enough so that it rests on top of her menu, catching her attention.
“I’m sorry, we really need to get going.” She looks at him in disappointment, and he feels the same way. “They make the best chocolate mousse here!”
She closes the menu, pushing it to the side. “We can always come back some other time.”
Jack hears hope in her voice, and he wants to believe in her casual words. He pays the bill and they leave the restaurant together, slipping back into his truck. Jack feels her attention drifting as he drives, but he does not comment, and she provides no explanations. He turns off the engine when they reach the Kennedy Center, and sees her moment of recognition. He wonders where her brilliant mind has gone this time.
But when she steps out and her eyes fix on the city lights that reflect off the water, Jack knows she’s with him again. “It’s really beautiful here,” she murmurs. “Reminds me a bit of P8X-395.”
“That planet with the twelve moons and giant lake,” he says, just as quietly. She nods. “I remember that. Too many bugs.”
She chuckles softly. “There were so many fireflies that last evening before we left. It was really something.”
Jack hears the yearning, the almost regret; Sam misses the life, the thrill, the challenge, the constant companionship. He misses it too, but they are going forwards now, exploring new things that will always be both novel and familiar.
“We’ll go back someday,” he promises. “Take the rest of the team, have a picnic. I’ll bring the beer.”
She laughs this time, her movements causing her to brush against his arm. She’s closer now, her warmth seeping through their clothing.
She nods again, and Jack offers his arm, determined not to make too much out of her acceptance without hesitation. They enter the foyer, making their way through the other patrons clad in suits and evening gowns. Jack ignores the feeling of being underdressed, and steps to the priority counter at the box office.
“O’Neill, two L’s,” he says to the assistant. He thanks the woman after receiving his tickets. The scattering of the crowd starts moving as if suddenly instilled with purpose, the lovers and families and friends lining up at the doors. Jack checks his tickets, his lips twitching into a smile. It’s so like them to be different, to be going elsewhere, because they are so different. He leads them to a staircase where a handful of others head, and they climb the red velvet steps. The usher, a young man, perhaps still in college, gives them a half-bow after checking their ticket, and takes them to a box that houses only four seats.
“Mr. O’Neill, there won’t be anyone else joining you tonight,” the man says politely. Jack raises an eyebrow—he can’t remember the last time he’s not addressed by rank, and he’s impressed the usher used his name at all. “Here’s tonight’s programme.” The man passes them the newly printed booklets. “If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Starting to feel uncomfortable with the treatment, Jack nods and glances at the usher’s nametag. “Thanks, Nick, we’re okay.”
The youth bows again, understanding the dismissal. “We hope you enjoy your opera.”
Left to themselves again, Jack feels an unfamiliar heat creep to his cheeks. He gives himself a moment before turning to Sam, and by that time, he hopes she won’t see his faint blush under the dim lighting.
The sparkle in her eyes takes his breath away.
“Been a while since you’ve been here, Mr. O’Neill?” Her voice is light, teasing. Jack shrugs, his heart racing.
“You could say that. I’m not used to the…extravagant service.”
Her laughter rings out like bells above the hum of talk. “Well, I’m glad to hear that, because I guess I was kinda nervous, too.”
He makes a show of letting his eyes roam her body, lingering a bit too long at the expanse of flesh above her chest, now uncovered. “Yeah, looks like you’re dressed for a wedding.”
“Too late for that now,” she says, punching him lightly on the arm. Then she stills, and quietly adds, “It’s not too over-the-top?”
“It’s perfect,” he repeats his earlier words. Then he can’t resist leaning over to place a soft kiss on her hair, a kiss that could be interpreted as friendly, if it isn’t between him, and her, and the decade of emotions that sleeps just beneath the surface. When he withdraws, her eyes have shifted again, this time clouded with something he can’t make out in the semi-darkness.
As if on cue, the crystal chandelier hanging overhead dims until it fades completely, leaving only a sprinkling of lights along the carpet below them and a soft glow that comes from the orchestra pit. The chatting dies instantly, and, after a moment of complete silence, the music begins.
The overture starts, the notes nothing new, but not the same. He hears slight nuances that aren’t on his recordings, entire lines that are different because they are softer, slower, more tender. Jack’s no musician, but this sounds different, this feels new, like discovering an old lover a second time, a third time. When the lights finally return, it drenches the stage in the brightness of the Egyptian King’s palace, his court vivid with white and gold. Jack has only seen this opera once when he was a college student escaping his outside world with the cheapest tickets in the back of a theatre, where he could only see half the supertitles; now, in his box that gives him an unrestricted view of the stage, Jack feels the wall between fantasy and reality break down, and he slides easily into the world before him. The battles, the dreams, the fear and excitement of being someplace strange with someone that matters, weave with the story of his own life until Jack can’t tell them apart. He’s been there, in those cities and chambers and prisons, fighting for what he believes in, for the promise of having a future. He’s been forced before, to confess his feelings for someone he can’t love but won’t not love, only to realise that the action meant nothing because nothing would change, not amidst their duty, their obligations. As Jack watches Aida and her lover starting their long descent into despair, he feels his own misery clutch at him. He’s here not because he doesn’t have opportunities, nor because he hasn’t tried enough—things are the way they are because there’s just no other way.
It takes more than the dimming of the stage lights and the lighting of the chandelier that signals the intermission to pull Jack back into reality. The music and singing and despondency swirl in his mind, broken only by the sound of her voice, the one thing that’s kept him grounded for so long. Jack’s momentarily afraid of appearing so vulnerable, but he sees that she’s equally affected.
“That was…” She shakes her head, tossing aside the barely-formed words. “I wish I’d discovered this earlier.”
Jack only nods. The crux of the matter’s there, somewhere, but he doesn’t want to find them because nothing can compare to the half-concealed secrets in her eyes.
“And the sound…all the music, the singing, everything was just amazing. You really picked the best seats.”
Well, he can’t take credit for that. He raises his hands in a shrug, but she understands.
“It’s the acoustics of this place, everything cumulates here,” she explains. “You see how most of the seats are raised near the back, and how the orchestra pit and stage are both slightly elevated?” He nods, feeling his eyes start to glaze as they slip into their familiar roles. “It’s to help with the sound waves that travel around the room. Sound can be absorbed and reflected to different degrees depending on the materials in the room—all this velvet isn’t particularly good, but the walls and ceilings are made from some kind of wood—but those sound waves usually travel upwards before they bounce. The music actually sounds very different depending on where you sit, and though all the people in the front row might get a slightly crisper sound from the instruments, they won’t get to hear a lot of the warmth and reverberation of the lower frequencies that we do. That’s just one very simple example—acoustics is fascinating because it depends on a wide variety of factors, like what the instruments are and where they’re played and how they’re played, so the seats that give you the best view aren’t necessarily the best for the auditory experience.”
His mind’s spinning, but Jack revels in the feeling. It has been long—too long. “We’re good here?”
She nods, rewarding his attention with a grin. “I did some calculations during the first few minutes”—he tips his head to her dedication, and Jack knows only she can find an opera more enjoyable when coupled with running complicated equations in her mind—“and if I’m right—”
“And we know you always are.”
“—if I’m right,” she continues, a slight tint on her cheeks after his interruption, “then we’re sitting in the optimal spot for the acoustics in this Opera House.”
“So you really did pick the best place for everything.”
Jack never thought a spontaneous decision on his part could be met with such approval. “I’m glad,” he says, the honesty a lump in his throat. The intermission draws to a close, the twenty minutes almost gone, and the lines of men and women trickle back to their seats. He feels a bit foolish when he makes a half-hearted attempt to rise from his seat. “Want anything to drink?”
“I’m fine,” she replies, touching his arm. The lights overhead dim, and long after she withdraws her hand, Jack still feels the quiet heat. The story unfolds again, but this time, Jack’s attention strays to the woman beside him, her wide eyes drinking the scene before her. Perhaps because their talk had reminded him how much he’s missed their bizarre, one-way conversations; perhaps because the initial splendour of the opera has faded to a more subdued appreciation. The magic drifts away from the singers and the dancers, settling into her quiet breathing, the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest, the parted lips, a soft red against her pale complexion. This time, when plans are formed and accusations made, Jack only sees Sam’s relief and concern. When Aida and her lover’s fate are sealed and they are doomed to their death, Jack only feels the ache of her tears. When the last note plays and the final chord fades, Jack’s throat clutches because they signal the end of his evening with her.
He doesn’t mind staying after the red and gold curtains have closed and they are the only ones left in the opera house. Jack’s vaguely aware of the ushers waiting just outside their box, knowing better than to interrupt—for the first time that evening, Jack appreciates the level of service that comes with the tickets he’s bought. He barely remembers how he’d felt after his first live opera, but now, watching the faraway gaze in her eyes and the tears that pool along her jaw, Jack experiences it all over again, overwhelmed by her raw reaction.
He feels her returning to their world, to him, when she shifts and fumbles in her purse. She pulls out a tissue and blows her nose, and the unfamiliar sound echoes.
“Sorry.” Her voice is still thick with tears. He shakes his head, eyes never leaving hers.
“Don’t be. Take your time.”
She’s grateful for his understanding, but she’s still Samantha Carter, the seasoned soldier and scientist who always manages to collect herself when necessary. When she looks at him again, eyes bright, cheeks flushed, the rampant emotions are neatly folded away.
“That was amazing,” she says. Jack lets his lips curve; she’s amazing. “Thank you, Jack.”
She shows her gratitude with such sincerity for the second time that night, and though it already feels like too much, Jack hopes it won’t be the last. But with the spell of the performance finally broken, there’s a life to return to, a job to resume, roles to play. The clock has already struck ten, and Jack wants to take Sam back to her hotel before the night stretches and she doubts his intentions. Before he doubts his intentions.
She appears to sense his thoughts, and straightens. “We should probably go,” she says, looking around self-consciously. “I think the staff’s waiting for us to leave before they can clean up and go home.”
Jack surveys the spotless room. “Clean up? What’s to clean?” Still, he stands up, extending an arm. She takes it without a moment’s thought; this time, the warmth of her hand is real, tangible. Jack dreads the day he no longer feels that warmth.
It’s much cooler outside, the first kiss of spring leaving chilly evenings in its wake. Jack shrugs into his jacket as Sam does the same, walking past the last cars leaving the Center. He starts the engine and glances to see if she’s okay and relaxes at her small nod.
They are almost at her hotel when her voice rings out.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to appear unappreciative, but it’s just that I don’t really know what to say… I mean, about the opera.”
The sliver of panic in her tone tells Jack of the residue between them; he doesn’t know whether to embrace or ignore it. “It’s okay, I get it. That really was something, probably the best opera I’ve seen. And I would know—I’ve been to a total of...” He counts off his fingers. “Three.” A huff. “Not much free time between all that world-saving.”
That gets a smile from her, but it disappears all too quickly. “I just… It doesn’t really make sense, you know? It was a performance—an excellent one, mind you—but a performance, a story that’s not real. We know what’s real—we’ve been there through the Stargate—and yet… I don’t know why it’s affecting me so much.”
He pulls up in the parking lot of her hotel and turns to her. Under the streaks of streetlight, Jack can make out the silver trails down her cheeks.
“I know Ancient Egypt looked nothing like that—I mean, they were all singing in Italian!—but I was so drawn to it all, and… I don’t know what I’m trying to say.”
Not every day does Jack see a flustered Samantha Carter, struggling for words; he only knows one way to comfort her: to draw her into his arms, where nothing exists beyond the beating of their hearts. Instead, he leaves his hands on his lap, clutching them into fists.
“You fell in love,” he says quietly, and her eyes snap to his. “With the costumes, with the story, with the characters. It’s what Verdi would’ve wanted.” Then, lightly, he adds, “I can take you to a crap production to make up for it. College students are always looking for an audience.”
Her sweet laughter’s a relief, but far too short. “I just wasn’t expecting to have such a reaction to that. Even at the end, I was hoping that things would pick up, that it would be, you know, happy.”
Jack nods, understanding her all too well. “I think that it was happy, for them at least. Aida chooses to die with her lover, and they’re finally together in death.” He clears his throat when he realises what he’s said, and the tone in which he said them. “I know it’s corny and a huge cliché, but clichés are clichés because they work.”
His voice is dry and cynical even to his own ears, but this time, her smile doesn’t disappear. “You’re right. Thanks.”
“Not a problem,” Jack says, though he doesn’t know why she’s so grateful. They are getting comfortable in the enclosed space of his truck; perhaps too comfortable. He opens the driver’s door before something happens he can’t anticipate, and this time, she gets out of the car before Jack offers his assistance, breaking the illusion they have maintained that evening. She’s self-sufficient, she’s independent; she’s not his.
But they aren’t strangers, either. “I’ll walk you up,” he offers, telling himself it’s perfectly acceptable, perhaps even expected. She makes no objection, and so he follows her into the foyer, up the elevator, through the corridors. He wants to say something, to prolong these moments for as long as he can before they part. Jack suspects he won’t be seeing her in civilians, much less stunning dresses, for a long time.
“Tonight was fun.” He winces at how insincere and contrived he sounds. It’s not as if this is the first night they’ve spent alone in each other’s company, enjoying good food and divine music—except, in a way, it is. “Maybe we can catch something else another time.”
“That would be nice.” They have reached her room, and Jack watches as she dips her key card and opens the door, letting in the stream of light into the dark room. He remains still as she turns on the lights, and prepares to say goodnight when she brightens.
“Oh, I’ve got to give you...” She walks inside, leaving the door open as an invitation to enter, stoking the hope in Jack that the night still has breath left. He follows her into the room, taking in the neat piles and half-empty suitcases strewn on the floor, as she searches for the elusive something. When she finds it a few minutes later, Jack wishes he’d said his goodbyes at the car.
“I’m sorry I held onto it for so long.” She holds out the CD he has missed but didn’t mind missing because it was with her. “You thought I’d forget, didn’t you?”
He doesn’t answer, and simply takes the CD back, breaking the last bond that exists purely between the two of them. Jack has spent so many weeks tossing and turning, his life empty without her, without the temporary comfort the music could’ve given him, but he had embraced his pain because its existence meant there was still something for him to hold onto, no matter how he should’ve discarded it. He had coveted the idea of still having a chance to meet, to speak and to understand and to finally have some closure, simply because she had something of his, something tangible that could be returned. Now, with the Bach back in his hands, Jack has no excuse to see her again.
He grips the CD, eyes darting around the room, looking everywhere but at her. When he catches sight of the unmistakable case, he meets her gaze with surprise. She hears his question before he even knows he’s asking it.
“I’ve been taking some lessons,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper. “I wasn’t sure if I could find a teacher here, but I thought I’d bring it anyway…”
She watches him intently, no doubt to gauge his reaction, to see whether he would acknowledge that short interlude in their past. Jack senses the challenge, but his mask has already begun to slip.
“I’m happy for you.” He feels a terrible sadness in his heart, a sadness which surfaces in his tone, in the way he refuses to meet her eyes. These years have barely scratched a dent in his life, and yet, the changes they have brought…
“Would you like to hear me play?” His startled gaze meets her steady one. “I’m not very good,” she continues, nervous, “especially compared to that amazing orchestra we just heard…”
“I’d love to.” This time, there’s no mistaking Jack’s certainty. “Besides,” he adds, “my hearing’s starting to go, so I won’t be able to tell the difference.”
Sam smiles and Jack finds himself relaxing, the slight hunching of his shoulders bringing him that much closer to her. Wordlessly, Sam gestures for him to sit, not on the couch laden with technology, nor the spare chair where she will take her place, but on her bed. Jack ducks his head and fusses with the coverlet long enough for the heat to leave his cheeks. He sits down with the horror and perverse delight at discovering how uncomfortable his pants have become.
But she appears to take no notice of his reaction, and has removed the instrument from its case. Jack inhales the rich, woody scent, instantly reminded of the floorboards from his cabin. He wonders if she makes the same connection. Struggling to keep his thoughts from wandering into forbidden territory, Jack grasps at some small talk.
“How long have you been playing?”
“About two years.” She withdraws her bow, then sits, twisting the small metal at the end. The hair on the bow tightens and bounces back when she presses a finger to test it. Jack remains silent, urging her to continue. “It was actually Teal’c who convinced me to go for it.”
Jack raises an eyebrow. “T did?”
“We had a chance to chat a bit when he came to Atlantis. It turns out that during the fifty years we were trapped on the Odyssey, I had become quite the cellist.” She shrugs at Jack’s perplexed look, her long hair brushing against the wood. “I guess he saw that I needed a distraction from work at the time, and thought it was okay to share that bit of information. I’m glad he did, though. When I was…recalled to Earth, I decided to get some lessons. It hasn’t been easy, but I don’t regret it.”
Jack nods, and has nothing to add. He watches her return to her work—she rubs a flash of amber wrapped in red velvet along the length of the bow, her strokes firm and purposeful, and Jack makes a small choking sound. He turns it into a series of coughs, mumbling about the approaching cold season, but the sudden tenseness in her movements tells Jack she’s seen through him. So much for small talk. He thinks he sees her hand shake as she rests the bow atop the strings, but there’s no trace of those nerves in the rich, low sound that echoes through the room as she draws the bow across her body. The familiar concentration paints her face, those knitted brows and slightly pursed lips transforming her uncertainty to one who understands her craft. Jack has never seen the elusive tuning process up close, and now it fascinates him: she plays a note, head cocked and deep in thought, then her left hand reaches two-thirds down the instrument and twirls a tiny bolt there, just so, as if she’s adjusting one of the finer points of a naquadah generator. She repeats this until all four strings ring out to her satisfaction. Jack can’t tell the difference she’s made, but her resulting smile needs no musical ear. She inhales deeply and closes her eyes, those deft fingers silently dancing across the neck of the cello in a prelude to what will come. Jack’s heart skips a beat, though he does not know why.
Sam draws in a breath—not too deep, not to calm, just to control—and Jack finds himself mimicking her, an unconscious attempt to follow her into a place he does not belong. She repositions her bow, this time without hesitation. Her eyes still closed, pink lips now parted, she creates the music that defines him.
It’s the Sarabande, like Jack has never heard before. Gone are the perfect strings of notes, the slight metallic tang of a recording studio miles away—instead, her music wavers with hitches, as if the music runs out of breath because there’s too much, or too little; her music sighs with slight scratchings, half squeaks, every now and then, that come from the bow slipping from her control; her music brims with notes that should have been but don’t quite make it, notes lost entirely, notes surreptitiously added, neither intentional nor accidental. Her music simply is, and it makes the sounds more real, makes the woman more real, with her gliding successes in one draw of a bow and her tumbling failures in the next.
And with those notes, the past three years spill back into the hourglass of now. The loneliness, the quiet desperation, the ever-persistent knowledge that he has played a part in destroying something beautiful. All those regrets, all those empty nights and meaningless days, all those angry questions and bitter answers—they surround him, grasp him, trap him. Then, when he finds himself quivering and unable to comprehend, only embrace the myriad of pain and desire and forlorn hope, the music—her music, their music—gives him one last caress, and lets go.
In the ensuing silence, Jack knows he has been so completely wrong. She has not forgotten him, has not tried to forget him. She had listened to the CD he gave her—truly listened, until she understood—and now makes it her own. But she isn’t just creating music with those slender fingers and steady wrists; she creates in herself the memory of him, of them, which she carries inside her and replays at will. She has made him her own, in the only way she knows how, with the only keepsake he’d left with her. She’s returning the Bach not to end what they have together, but to let him truly begin without her.
But Jack isn’t ready to move on, not just yet. Not when she has reappeared so suddenly in his life, after he’d tried so hard to bury her smile, her voice, her scent. Jack almost wishes he’s not himself—a lesser man wouldn’t hesitate to take this woman in his arms and woo her in every possible way until she becomes completely his, lost in him forever. And Jack doesn’t doubt she’ll obey willingly, not because he’s her superior, but because his power over her completes her.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been thinking, analysing, realising. Perhaps it takes only a moment, perhaps long minutes; but Sam looks at him now, those bright eyes barely capturing the low light, telling him, despite her nonchalant soldier’s mask, of her anticipation, her apprehension. It takes an effort for Jack to clear his throat and mind, and his fingers seek for the cold plastic case that has caused him so much grief moments ago, and has now been overshadowed by the real thing.
“That was beautiful,” he says. His voice cracks at the last word, and he can’t help but add, in a softer tone, “You are beautiful.”
Her gaze bears into him, but Jack looks away before he can decipher the something that flashes across her eyes. “Thank you. The music you gave me was beautiful.”
Jack swallows, unsure whether she’s thanking him for his unguarded compliments or for allowing her privy to all his secrets, left unguarded in the Cello Suites. He holds up the CD. “I guess you don’t need this any more, seeing you have that.” He tips his head towards the instrument, noting the way her fingers gently stroke it.
Her lips curve slightly. “There are still many pieces I can’t play. Producing all those sounds is only simple in theory.”
Jack smiles, too. Trust Sam to scientifically deconstruct music and then declare its simplicity. “Maybe you can convert it to an…electric cello or something.”
“That’s not how it works!” She tries to hide her laughter, but it escapes from her in waves of golden bells. Jack finds that he likes the sound too much, that they’re slipping too easily into their familiar banter, indistinguishable from flirting. And Jack can’t risk allowing himself to laugh with her, to enjoy her companionship, because he’ll always want something more, something which she’s given once before, and will be selfish of him to ask for, this second time. So Jack forces them back into the decorum required of them, that he requires of her—he glances at his watch.
The effect is immediate. Her laughter dies, and she snaps to his presence, her body suddenly tighter than the strings of her cello. In one way, Jack’s glad that he’s prepared her for his next words; in another, he regrets not being able to mould and play her as his instrument.
“It’s getting late. You know how early we have to start.” Jack makes the last, unnecessary comment out of habit to drive home his point. She gives him a perfunctory nod and swiftly sets aside the cello, rising to her feet.
“I’m sorry, I must be getting lax from all this leave.” Jack nods in return, not calling her on the blatant lie; they both know how little Sam sleeps, regardless of the circumstances. Then, as if in penitence, she softens. “I really had fun tonight. Thank you, Jack.”
And there, again, his name on her lips. They’ve reached the door when she inhales deeply.
“I was wondering…” She hesitates. Jack draws in his own breath, more subtly than her, and holds it. “I’ve made an appointment with Valerie tomorrow at 1, to see the apartment. The penthouse. And if you’re not too busy then, I was wondering if you’d like to come along? You were there first, and you seem to like it, and I’ve already made the appointment, so maybe you’d like to take another look too, if you’re still interested.”
He can’t stop the thoughts—oh, the thoughts—that swim in his mind. She’s gone very still, so different from rambling that immediately preceded. Jack says the first thing he thinks as vaguely appropriate.
“Are you still interested?”
“Well, I guess I am.” She’s trying to respond in a way that won’t hurt him. “I want to take another look at it, but I’m not entirely sure. I mean, it’s a bit big for me, and I still need to sort out some of my finances, so I don’t really know. I’m interested, but I don’t know if I’ll buy it, you know?”
Her uncertainty, her slight tinge of embarrassment, slices through Jack, tearing away the curtains that had kept him from seeing it earlier. She loves the apartment, yet she’s trying so hard to appear otherwise simply because she suspects he loves it too, and she believes it belongs to him because he was there first. But Sam’s been there too, a long time ago, with him, in his dreams that are more than dreams: she’s awoken with him in their master bedroom with its vista of the city, she’s come home to him in their living room flooding with lights from the city at night, she’s lain with him on the balcony after making love. What he hadn’t realised before is so clear to him now; the apartment draws him in because it reminds Jack of all he wants to share with Sam.
And it’s ironic, in a cruel, twisted way, that she’s drawn to the very same apartment when their lives are no longer entwined.
Jack lifts a hand to his forehead, giving her a reason for his slow response. “Sorry, I’ve been blanking out on you, damn the latest project proposal.” It’s not untrue, but Jack closes his eyes and continues to massage his temples, biding for more time. “I know what you mean. Buying the place would be a big decision. I’ll see you at 1 then. Thanks for the invite.”
He hopes she won’t take his shortness personally, and Jack’s grateful when he sees her concern. The details for the Icarus project are still classified, but given her involvement with the George Hammond, he assumes she knows about the scope of the proposal.
“Don’t work yourself too hard,” she says in a tone he suspects she doesn’t use with her other colleagues. “Goodnight, Jack. Drive safely.”
He touches her arm lightly; he can’t risk leaning in, towards that expanse of soft skin and intoxicating scent, to give her a kiss on the cheek, no matter how chaste his intentions. “I will. Goodnight, Sam.”
He catches a small, sad smile before he turns away, the image of her surrounded by the desolate hotel room burning into his mind. But Jack doesn’t look back as the door shuts behind him. He knows what he must do.