Chapter 5

Jack saw Carter two more times that next week. He agreed to stay with Daniel after Daniel agreed to forgo mentioning to anyone at the SGC, past or present, that he'd seen Jack. Though he loudly claimed that Jack's new directive was going to kill him in steady increments, Daniel finally agreed that he wouldn't say anything. Sitting on the hottest information for an entire week without talking about it nearly did Daniel in.

But that wasn't Jack's problem. Whether he had expected it or not, liked it or not, was confused as hell about it or not, Doctor Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter, retired, was now the focus of his attention. The more he stared at her, or just thought about her, the more puzzled he became.

Jack couldn't even tell Daniel if he was at a place in life where he was able to forgive and forget the transgressions that, to him, Samantha Carter had committed. The fact that she'd done her transgressing in public was, for him at least, mistake number one, bar none. He wasn't sure that, even considering what he'd said to Daniel about getting over that Gate Room scene, he would ever be able to separate in his mind the cloned Carter and what she had asked of him from the real Carter. He didn't want to blame the real Carter for what a copy of her had said to him, but it was hard, even on his best days.

Since he didn't know quite what to think, he decided that one or two visits to the nursing home to see Carter in her 'natural habitat' were in order. The reality of the situation then hit him like a sledgehammer.

The first day Jack dared to show himself, he only observed Carter rather than talked to her. Dressed in a cowboy hat that shaded his face, a button down shirt and sweatshirt, faded jeans, and tennis shoes, he figured that he was almost unrecognizable with the addition of dark sunglasses. He wasn't stopped as he pulled his car into the parking lot, nor was he accosted in any way when he sauntered into the Rest Well Nursing Home. He was busy musing over the horrible name of the place, deciding that it sounded more like a funeral parlor than a nursing home, when he immediately caught sight of her the minute he walked through the door.

She was sitting in her same wheelchair, parked at a table, assembling a puzzle in a large room just to one side of the door. She was alone, and he noticed that the other residents gave her a wide birth every time they neared her, as if experience had taught them that if they got too close to the young blond woman, it invited her wrath.

So they ignored her as much as they could. Jack took the time while she just sat and stared at the puzzle to look around the room. A large screen TV played a classic movie from an Old Movie Channel. Two more white-haired women sat together at another table, playing Scrabble. Two men sat on a worn couch near the TV debating the merits of which war had been more dangerous, the Korean War or the Vietnam War. Jack would have told them that the Cold War had been much more dangerous, as it had been political, and politics raised the danger level of a situation without even trying. Then there were two more women who were younger whom Jack figured were the therapists that he'd heard Sam mention. They were busy conducting some kind of craft project to a group of grinning senior citizens.

By far, Carter was the youngest resident in the room. The other residents besides Carter were easy to identify by the colorful shirts they were all wearing. Jack supposed that so much color was intended to be cheerful, but the effect of all the color was more overwhelming than cheerful. The fake cheerfulness was too loud, too insistent in its falseness. It reminded him of the System Lord Summit that Daniel had told him about attending. The entire place looked like it was full of Goa'uld, an effect that simply made Jack's skin crawl.

It did, however, give him a complete understanding of why Carter didn't much care for the place.

Surreptitiously, he watched her from his chair across the room. He figured that the fact that he wasn't talking to anybody would be less noticeable if he was sitting in a chair rather than on the other couch. He needn't have worried, though. No one paid him any attention, and he was amazed that the security of the place wasn't tighter than it was. Didn't these people know that they needed to keep constant vigilance, or some threat of galactic proportions would inevitably fall onto their heads?

Then Jack remembered that no, these people probably didn't know about any galactic threats, have any worries other than what was on TV next, or who was going to do the craft project. There were no broken objects in the place for Carter to fix, no doodads for her to fuss with, nothing at all for her to do with that amazing brain of hers. Jack gave a grimace. Geez, Carter must be bored to death.

As he watched her from behind the magazine on hunting that he had picked up, she sighed, listlessly picked up a puzzle piece, listlessly attempted to fit it in with the rest of the pieces, sighed again, dropped the puzzle piece, then ran a tired hand over her tired face. Frowning, she contemplated the puzzle as if it held the secrets of the universe, then slowly lowered her head on it, not in defeat, but in utter boredom. She didn't cry, didn't call attention to herself at all. It would have been easier to watch if she had dissolved into a bundle of tears. But she didn't, and that made the scene seem even more dismaying to Jack.

The entire scene tugged on Jack's heartstrings like nothing else had in the months since he'd left the SGC. The fact that Carter was being wasted here was evident to see. The fact that she was seriously depressed (or bored) about her situation was even easier to see. The fact that she had almost given in to her bored despair wasn't so obvious, unless her observer knew her well. Jack felt any residual anger that he was still holding against her melt away on the spot, just from looking at her. Even if he didn't want to feel such emotions, he could hardly help it while witnessing one of the most awful things he'd seen since watching Charlie die.

Jack was just on the verge of throwing caution to the wind and joining her when a group of soldiers walked in wearing BDUs, military caps, smiles, and teasing each other in a way that he instantly recognized. To his horror, he found himself watching the team members of SG-13 walk in good natured nonchalance over to where Carter was sitting and throw themselves into the chairs surrounding her table, leaving their leader, Colonel Dave Dixon, standing. He quickly hauled a chair from the neighboring table over to hers, then sat on it backwards. The energy the group automatically exuded was at odds with the steady calmness surrounding them.

“Colonel,” Dave politely greeted Carter, as if he was making a special announcement. “What have you got for us today?”

Carter didn't miss a beat as she lifted her head, then casually replied, “Two scrabblers, Colonel, and I caught four of the healers doing a fake supply run when they were really trying to procure pizza for the inmates. Three more women have gone craft bonkers, one learned some form of weaving called 'knitting,' and those two over there?” She gestured with a nod of her head towards the two men arguing about wars. “They're clearly involved in some form of communication via the air waves that come through the picture doohickey on the stand. Or it could be mind control - I haven't determined that yet. But it's alien, without a doubt.”

Dave grinned at what she said and teasingly accused, “Crazy as ever, I see.”

Carter snorted. “Just doing my job, Colonel.”

“When they gonna spring you from this joint?” The question came from that scientist guy the team had... Mr. Rock... something...

A third fella gave a playful slap to the second one's arm. “Balinsky, how many times she have ta tell ya?”

Then every one of them quoted a line that was obviously said a lot. “She's working on it!”

Balinsky-the-rock-man hung his head and tried to hide his contrite expression. “Okay, okay. Just hit me over the head with a rock, why don't ya?”

Dixon piped up, “We may try that someday.”

Carter dragged their wandering attentions back to the subject at hand. “Anyway, that's all there is to report this week. I'll try again for a better outcome next week, though I don't expect to see much change.”

Dixon gave a dramatic sigh, agreeing with her assessment of the situation. “But as I always say...”

Wells broke out of the role of subservient airman he was playing to say, “No, you don't! You got that saying from...”

“Did not!” Dixon insisted, protesting the other man, seemingly predicting what he had been going to say, a common trait among SG team members. “'For crying out loud' - I got that one from him!”

Bosworth scrunched his forehead in thought. “You sure?”

“Yeah.” Dixon gave a definitive head bob.

Wells still looked puzzled. “I could have sworn...”

His voice trailed off as Carter said, “I worked with the man for seven years, and not once did I hear him say 'Ya gotta be smarter than the rock!'”

There was a general burst of smothered laughter that wasn't very smothered, then Dixon looked around at them all and said, “So, same thing next time?”

Carter nodded her head. “Same time, same place.” Then she heaved a huge sigh. “I'll be here.”

Dixon nodded, and there was a scraping of chairs as the four men rose from the table and prepared to leave. Just as they were getting ready to go, Carter halted Dixon with a hand on his arm. “Can I borrow your rock? It might help if I hit him just so...” She pantomimed sideswiping someone. “Maybe I just need the right rock.”

It belatedly occurred to Jack that she was talking about the cop. His discovery almost made him miss Dixon's next statement.

“We'll bring some back for you,” Dixon promised. He turned to face Balinsky. “Hey, you like rocks - it's your job to find a really good one for the Colonel here.”

Carter added, “One that says, 'You're a dork!' on one side, and 'Shanahan' on the other.”

Jack had to bite his lip hard in order to suppress his laughter. The magazine on hunting was beginning to slip, showing his face, and Jack hastily righted it.

Dixon gave Carter the high five, slapping her hand. “Next week, then. Colonel.”

“Colonel,” she firmly replied.

The four men departed.

Jack was glad to see that Ba'al hadn't been able to torture all the humor out of her.

* * *

Jack stayed concealed in the bushes the next time he was at the nursing home, and unashamedly watched Carter from there. He happened to catch her during another visit from 'the dork.'

Carter was sitting outside, enjoying the fresh air while reading a book. Shanahan came through the door in a jovial move that was also clearly false. “Hey, Sam!” he said when he caught sight of her.

Carter didn't even lift her head to give him the benefit of meeting his gaze, but only bluntly stated, “I'm still crazy, I still can't stand the sight of you, and I still want a divorce. If you're not here to give me one, then go away - you're blocking my light.”

And though the cop spent the next ten minutes trying to talk to her, she refused to answer. He might as well have been talking to a wall.

* * *

Jack decided he had seen enough. Carter was clearly channeling her fighting spirit into simply surviving the nursing home in the best way she knew how - by resisting with sarcasm and pointed barbs. She sounded like him. It warmed his heart to know that he'd had at least some influence on her.

But Jack knew it was time to talk to her, face to face. It was one of the scariest prospects he'd ever considered, but he was also determined not to let his fears rule his head. He needed to speak to her, and so he set up a meeting with her in attendance with Daniel. It couldn't be at the nursing home, where just any old person could interrupt them (Jack supposed he should be thinking about the other residents of the home when he had this thought, but he wasn't. He simply had no wish to run into Shanahan. Ever.) A neutral site was a better bet, one that was more controlled and regulated. Someplace where Daniel might lure Sam, on a pretext that made her feel safe.

The birthday party held at Colonel Reynolds' home was just the thing. A party would be loud, which would cover up any untoward exclamations Carter might make when first seeing him (at least, Jack assumed there would be some sort of exclamation. He was coming back from the dead, after all. Making untoward exclamations was something he would do if the shoe were on the other foot). Plus, they could control the immediate surroundings. Daniel had a mission scheduled with SG-11 48 hours before, but was sure to be back in plenty of time to drive Carter to the meeting site. Jack would have preferred having this meeting off-world, where he could be certain that no one would bother them, but as he didn't carry a convenient Stargate around in his pocket, a back bedroom at the Reynolds household would have to do.

He and Daniel planned the entire thing very carefully. The hardest part fell on Daniel, who had to convince Carter that she wanted to attend a potentially large party where many of her former colleagues and their families would undoubtedly show up. She would probably be peppered with questions about her circumstances, and be constantly reminded by well-meaning individuals of what had happened to her. Heck, she'd be more the center of attention than even Colonel Reynolds at his own party! And she would have to do it all from the low position that a wheelchair provided. Persuading her that she wanted to invite this kind of a nightmare wouldn't be easy.

Daniel was all for telling her up-front that Jack was alive and wanting to see her, but Jack insisted that surprising her at the Reynolds party was the better course of action. She wouldn't have the chance to back out at the last moment, or flat out refuse to meet him if she didn't know he was going to be there. And truth to tell, Jack was terrified that she wouldn't want to see him after all this time, no matter what Daniel told him about how she'd asked for him the minute she'd come through the Gate. That was then, he argued. This was now. And now, he'd seen first hand how she wasn't afraid to fight it out. The direct approach, Jack assured, was definitely the way to go.

Jack snuck in and secreted himself in the back bedroom while the crowd was busy swarming Reynolds and wishing him a happy birthday. The back bedroom was still the guestroom that he remembered from previous parties that had been held at the Reynolds' house, and hiding himself in the space behind the door was as easy as eating pie in the Commissary. And now that Jack had thought about Commissary pie, he was busy conjuring several imaginary deserts, and almost missed the appearance of Carter with Daniel.

Jack heard Carter say, “In here, Daniel? What could possibly be in a bedroom that I have to see?” But she'd obviously decided to humor Daniel, for the next thing Jack knew, the image of Commissary pie that filled his head faded and he was staring at the back of Carter's head, barely two feet away. Daniel's darker colored head followed her as he walked into the room, too, and she swiveled around on her one good foot to stare at Daniel. “Okay Daniel, I'm here - what's the big surprise?”

Jack pushed the door closed behind them now that both Daniel and Carter had cleared the opening, finding himself standing close to Carter for the first time in months. It annoyingly made his heart skip several beats. He'd say he was supposed to be over this kind of reaction to Carter, but he would have known he was lying if he said so. “Hey Carter. Whatchadoin?” he instead said with a wry grin on his face.

He didn't realize until that very moment that Carter wasn't in her wheelchair like he'd expected her to be, but was using a pair of forearm crutches in order to get around. The balance she needed to use crutches had to be prodigious, but he was perfectly aware of how good her sense of balance was, and should have predicted her use of crutches. But he hadn't.

Stunned at seeing him alive and well after months spent thinking he was dead, Carter could do nothing but gape right at him, her face showing positive astonishment. Then the next thing Jack knew, she shrieked, “Clone!” and sent a mighty whack right at his head with her right crutch.

Jack managed to deflect part of the blow with his left arm, but felt the side of the crutch slide down his hair just as pain blossomed in waves through his skull. He sailed backwards and sideways, smashing into the wall behind him, then slid to the floor.

Jack fuzzily noted that Daniel and Carter were arguing about something, just like they always did, and something sticky was hindering the sight in his left eye, and his arm was pulsing with fire, and his head was pounding... Darkness beckoned at the edges of his vision. Yeah, falling unconscious right now sounded like a fine thing to do.

Chapter 6

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