Chapter 28

Hours later found Jack again reorganizing his supplies as he continued thinking about the Carter clones, and hence Carter by association. Both Daniel and Teal'c had disappeared to tasks unknown, and Carter herself was conspicuously absent - she was either still talking to Shanahan, or, knowing Carter the way he did, had quietly vanished into the bowels of the engine room and was currently tinkering with Goa'uld crystals, and doohickeys, and whatnot. Or else she was so depressed about the abrupt return of her previous one-legged existence that she had cornered herself away so she could grieve in private.

Jack grimaced. Grieving alone for anything was very in keeping with either one of their characters. He wished she didn't feel as if she had to deal with all this upheaval alone, but he couldn't blame her for being that way, either. He was the same. How could he take her to task for something that he was just as likely to do?

Though that idea reminded him that she hadn't spoken much about this situation with him at all. She'd said that she'd been tempted while on Thor's ship to jump out the airlock when the little alien had stopped her. Jack was extremely glad that he had, and felt indebted beyond what he could repay to the alien, but it emphasized how Carter needed the catharsis of conversing about this. He felt a rush of overwhelming fear hit him just from contemplating discussing an emotional situation, but just as swiftly came a strong determination to be there for her, for once in his life. In fact, he determined to be there for her forever, if that's what she needed.

That sounded so... trite. Yet, if 'trite' was what they needed right now, then he was happy to become the embodiment of the worst cliché. He was more sure than ever that Sam Carter was worth it.

* * *

Those thoughts kept Jack relatively well entertained (worried) until they finally reached Earth. Like much of this adventure, returning to the SGC was almost anticlimactic. They landed in secret at Peterson after quickly attaining the proper clearance. Jack was surprised that it all happened so fast: the greenhorn General that he remembered being in charge of the SGC seemed to be taking an awful lot of this mission of theirs on faith. It would be only too easy for them to say they were who they were, then turn out to be Goa'uld agents bent on conquering the planet. It was all too likely a scenario. Jack promised himself to have a word with the General before departing the SGC for (hopefully) the last time as a retired officer, and (doubly hopefully) with Carter by his side.

The entire ease of their acceptance explained itself away as he soon grew aware that it wasn't General Charles at the helm of the Stargate Program, as he'd expected, but General Hammond, who was so familiar with many of the individuals on board Bra'tac's ship that he wasn't remotely fazed when they requested to make an emergency landing.

A crazy debrief followed, with all those people tripping over themselves to tell the General all about this cloning adventure, giving more than her due to Carter for delivering them from the jaws of death. But Jack was okay with a little Carter-worshipping. She deserved it if anyone did.

But it seemed that a great deal of this came as no surprise to Hammond, particularly any part dealing with a clone. It turned out that the Earth clones had been discovered not long after Jack and Carter's precipitous departure. As an added insult, that uncovering had been at the unlikely hands of The Dragon Lady Doctor.

“She first noticed your clone's lack of a broken arm when it should have been only half healed,” Hammond patiently explained to Jack as he walked beside him down a corridor in the direction of the holding cells housing the clones. “When you didn't show for your next two appointments in the Infirmary, she notified General Charles as well as me.” He gave a head shake. “I'm more than glad that she was worried enough about this that she thought to call me as well as tell her CO.”

“And it kind of snowballed from there?” Jack inquired, trying to keep up with this turn of events - he'd expected to have a difficult time convincing TPTB of the clones, not that the entire situation would already be resolved by the time they arrived home.

“The fact that I also heard from the SGC helped,” Hammond went on the explain. At Jack's confused look, added, “What else was I supposed to do, Jack? Besides the more professional call I'd just gotten from The Dragon...” He forcefully cleared his throat, then corrected, “From Dr. Lam detailing her concerns about you, I also received one very panicked phone call from General Charles telling me that the SGC armory had just disappeared half an hour before in a flash of white light. I knew a flash of white light had to be an Asgard beam, and a vanished armory has always been somehow connected to SG-1 in the past, Jack, and that means that it was somehow connected to you. Which meant that the other you was somehow a fake, a copy, a clone. And if this was all about you - as I'd already heard reports that you and Samantha Carter were also gone - you were with Thor. So I secretly flew to the SGC, then we contacted the Asgard, who explained what was really going on, and they sent a ship to help us separate who had been cloned from who hadn't. Their ship's scanners are much more accurate than our less technological machines.”

“Gotta love those Asgard,” Jack softly quipped.

Hammond continued as if Jack hadn't interrupted, “Capturing the clones was simple after that. However...”

Hammond's recitation abruptly stopped, as if he'd run into a wall. Jack glanced at him, suddenly nervous. “Why don't I like that 'however?”

Hammond heaved a sigh. “That's because I didn't feel right sending your retirement paperwork through the system when you were so obviously on a mission for the Air Force. You didn't want to end up a retired General with an entire Air Force base worth of armament in your possession.”

True. But... “Not retired yet.” Jack's dark echo sounded flat in the corridor. It was way worse than he'd suspected. He grumpily growled, “Why the heck did it matter if I was retired or not?”

Hammond reared back. “If I'd retired you, you would have been a civilian, son! Do you know the penalties for being a civilian with an entire base's armory compliment?”

“I was with Thor!”

“I know that! But Thor is classified! The whole Asgard fleet is classified! If word of this... theft... got out...”

“It wasn't theft!”

“That's what it looked like to General Charles!”

That stopped Jack right in the middle of the corridor. In all this time, he hadn't considered anything except what was happening to him, doing this job for Thor, stopping Ba'al, doing whatever it took. He hadn't once thought to wonder how it might appear to those on the outside. Jack's protest, when it came, was vehement. “But as the leader of the SGC, Charles would have been aware that weird things like this happen all the time.”

Hammond's response wasn't so slow. “You're not considering that he didn't have a the background like yours, are you, Jack?”

“Wouldn't someone... like, say, Reynolds... have pointed this out to him, have..?”

“The only Colonel Reynolds that General Charles ever knew was a clone - you just proved it.” Hammond stopped walking when Jack did in order to carefully say, “Just how much weight do you think a clone's words are going to carry in a court-martial, Jack?”

Jack gazed at Hammond's sincere expression, speechless.

“I did the only thing I could at the time,” Hammond gently repeated. “Keeping you in the military was a favor, Jack. I'm sorry that still being in the Air Force doesn't fit in with your personal plans... whatever they are... but in the long run, it seemed like the best thing I could do for you at the time.” The soft voice soothed as it argued. “Jack, I'm sure that spending time in prison isn't part of your future plans. Just give me some time - I'll get your paperwork sent through, I promise.”

Jack's first thought was to acerbically point out that this was the third time he'd tried to retire this year, and the way things were going, he didn't quite trust Hammond with this situation anymore. Yet he knew that voicing those thoughts wouldn't be the smartest thing for him to do. So he swallowed his misgivings and muttered, “Okay - but this is the last time!” he warned. “After this, I'm seriously going AWOL!”

Hammond chuckled. “I wouldn't blame you if you did. But you won't have to.”

“I better not!”

“You won't.” Hammond's promise couldn't be any more sincere.

Jack's irritation at this situation couldn't be more sincere, either.

Hammond grinned a tiny grin at the younger man. As if sensing that he'd pushed Jack as far as he could at one time, said, “In fact, I'll help you get the ball rolling - get out of here while I'm not looking.” He smiled slyly. “I can't assign a mission to you if I can't find you.”

* * *

Jack escaped from Hammond in the only direction that was open to him - before he even realized where he was going, he found himself heading for the elevator on level 27. It hadn't occurred to him that this level's elevator might be in demand for the other personnel for this mission as well.

More to the point, Carter stood at the elevator, obviously waiting for it to arrive. She was alone, meaning that no Pete accompanied her for the time being. The cop had been her shadow for the duration that they'd been in the SGC, but now he assumed that Shanahan had finally been shown to guest quarters prior to another, more detailed, debriefing. Carter must have already endured her debrief, and was finally being allowed to head home. Except 'home' was now a nursing home in Denver. She had no lab at the SGC any longer to while away her extra time in, no quarters, and no locker with a convenient change of clothes hiding in its depths. If she chose not to avail herself of the SGC guest quarters, she had no place left to go. Why she was even at the elevator was a complete mystery to Jack.

“Carter,” Jack called, catching her attention. She looked up, startled, as if she'd been deep in thought. “Where ya going? Thought we could go out for a bite to eat or something.” His voice faded as he caught up to her. “Or not. You don't look too thrilled with that idea.”

Carter shook herself. “Oh, I am - thrilled, that is.” She looked almost uncomfortable. “I was just thinking about a few things.”

“Such as?” Jack asked after she didn't elaborate.

Carter looked surprised that he even cared about what was on her mind, but of course he cared. He cared about everything connected to her - she just wasn't used to him displaying his interest.

“Um...” she answered now, and Jack watched as she frantically tried to sort through her thoughts in quick fashion. He'd always loved the way that what she was doing showed on her face. “I was thinking about the clones.”

“What about them?”

“That they can't stay here. Having two of anybody around would just be too confusing. And they can't stay in the SGC - being confined to base would just be too... confining,” she lamely ended, being uncharacteristically vague for her.

Jack was glad to hear that vagueness. “Being so imprecise almost makes you a real person,” he teased.

She quelled him with a look as she continued, “Then I got to thinking about what I would want to do in that situation, where I would want to go. I immediately considered our allies who...”

“Thinking about the Asgard? The Tok'ra?”

“They at least have some form of technology for clone-Sam to play with - she'd be bored to death otherwise, and trust me! I've done the bored thing - it's not for her!”

Jack considered the idea of Carter stuck on... he shuddered.

“Yeah. I see you get my meaning.”

Jack sighed, tired and wanting to go home, but glad for even a clone pow wow in her presence. “Yeah - it's a mess... but how about..?”

She and he spoke at the same time. “Langara.”

Jack peered closely at her. “Do you mean that?”

Carter shrugged. “Why not? The people of Langara know about the Gate, the recent Goa'uld occupation diminished their population, they all know strategy, the military, and several of the scientists have had dealings with naquadria.”

“You being one of them,” Jack helpfully pointed out.

“With the naquadria research what it is... or isn't... it's the perfect place for the Sam clones. So why not see if the clones can go there?”

It was a good suggestion. “Maybe even Jonas can help with them.”

“Maybe.” Then again, maybe Jonas wouldn't want to have anything to do with reminders of his one year spent on Earth.

“It's something we can think about,” Carter said.

“Yeah - we can think tomorrow. Right now...”

“I was also thinking about something Pete said earlier.” She was faking her bright good will.

Jack didn't have any good will left, and frowned. “Okay, what did that low life do this time?”

“Nothing,” she adamantly stated. “He just said that he would take care of the whole nursing home/Thor-beaming-us-up thing.”

“Yeah, I guess it did look like we just...”

“Vanished?” she finished for him on a grimace. “Pete told me that he would say it was for a magic trick he was working on for some of his friends at the station... that if we could fool the people at the Home, then...” Her voice trailed away until she suddenly blurted, “He asked about his wife.”

Aware of the potential stickiness of this subject, Jack proceeded with caution by not saying anything definite. “And you told him..?”

Carter gave a tiny grin at Jack's reluctance - some things never changed. “I'd already told him that his wife wasn't me.”

But Jack wanted something more specific than that. “What did you tell him about..?” His open-ended tone led her on.

Carter heaved a sad sigh, but explained, “I told him the truth, like I'd been telling him for months - that she's dead.”

Jack winced - the thought of a Carter - any Carter - dying was enough to make him break out in a cold sweat. Yet the following thought that at least it wasn't his Carter who had died made relief flood through him. The two opposing emotions made him squirm. “How did he take it?”

Carter paused, but finally said, “He'll be alright... I think. He did say that he'd revoke his Power of Attorney. And that he'd give me a divorce.”

Which made Jack do a double take. “A divorce?” She nodded. “Just like that?” Then he shook his head. “Not just like that, but... Why now?”

Carter shrugged. “I guess after seeing the clones, he couldn't pretend anymore.”

Jack's face darkened, recalling what Shanahan had said aboard Thor's ship about having a marriage license that proved that he was definitely married to Samantha Carter. “He wasn't pretending.”

Carter was silent for a minute until she claimed in a small voice, “Yes, he was.”

Jack's eyebrow rose in complete disbelief.

“You look like you don't believe me.”

Jack gusted air. “I want to,” he admitted at last. “But experience tells me that when you get that one thing you desperately want, it usually means that you're going to regret it, or you're going to die before it can come true.”

Carter laughed. “You fatalist!” The grim atmosphere surrounding them dissipated. “I'm sure I won't regret this, Jack, and as far as I know, I'm not going to die... at least, not for awhile yet.” Her smile now turned into a grimace. “I might do a bit of the limping thing... or the clunking thing... or the wheeling thing...”

“I'm good with the limping thing... and the clunking... and wheeling... so I've been told,” Jack said, quick to steer clear of where she was heading with this topic. He stared straight at Carter, trying to let his eyes show his feelings for once instead of shutting them down, as he was much more used to. “I guess we're not ones for the talking thing.”

“Not so much.” Carter's own assessing stare raked over him. “But the wheeling thing... it's much more likely now than... the Asgard thing.”

Meaning that Frazer had already done her magic, and this was as good as it was likely to get. “I told you before, I don't care about that.”

Carter was quick to point out, “Some people might not be so accepting of things several years from now.”

“I'm not some people.”

Carter rolled her eyes. “That's putting it mildly.”

Suddenly, Jack was tired of all the double speak that he and she naturally engaged in. “Sam, look, I told you before: you gotta lay it all out straight for me - I'm a dense guy.”

Carter rolled her eyes again. “You're not dense unless you want to be.”

“I don't want to be about this anymore.”

Looking oddly shy, she quietly said, “I would be lying if I didn't say the same.”

Jack's brows rose to his hair. “Well then?”

Carter regarded him in the haltingly thoughtful way that he knew so well, and suddenly he understood how her clones could come off as so unsure of themselves. Carter looked discombobulated, but more because of what she was contemplating rather than distressed at not being able to make up her mind.

He was all for what he hoped she was contemplating, and his prompt showed that. “Well?”

As if he had reminded her of the discussion they had shared while on board Bra'tac's ship, determination settled over her like a shroud. “Dinner - with me... you and me... how about it?”

He didn't want to seem too eager by answering right away, and she took his silence as an opportunity.

“I'm paying,” she cajoled.

Suddenly her hidden meaning stunned Jack. “Carter,” he expostulated. “Are you asking me out on a... date?”

The fact that she didn't reply said quite a bit.

“Sorta,” she said at last. “Yes,” she more definitively stated.

Huh - a date - with Carter - Sam. Jack didn't know what do to with a date. He'd never faced this before. Oh, sure, he'd dreamed about it, even almost gathered enough courage once or twice to ask the same thing of her, despite the presence of the regs. But...

Daniel and Teal'c casually passed by just then, the two of them taking up practically the entire corridor. Daniel had his nose habitually buried in a book, and the Jaffa's hands were firmly clasped behind his back in his 'relaxed Jaffa' pose. Neither of them looked around, and both passed by in total unconcern, but Jack could have sworn that just as he went by, Daniel whispered to him, “Just say yes,” and Teal'c reenforced that command by raising his eyebrow in his 'don't be an idiot this time!' expression. Daniel seconded their friend's look by adding, “If you don't, I'll shoot you myself.”

They'd both been so quiet that it was almost as if they hadn't spoken at all. Teal'c hadn't, unless you counted his silent eyebrow communication.

But their advice was still good, even if it had transpired from thin air.

It also happened to agree with Jack's desires. “Sure,” Jack said to Carter before he could second guess himself. “Can't say that I want anything more just now.”

Carter looked relieved, and simultaneously as if she knew this was how things would go all along - she just had to give it the right opportunity. She didn't say anything, but gripped her crutches tighter, as if what was ahead scared her to death, but she was sick and tired of being scared. “Good.” Then she smiled.

It was that smile.

Rockets exploded. Fireworks flared. Sparks flew.

Jack felt his gut clench in response, just like it had always done.

But like he'd never allowed himself to do before now, he smiled back, just as slow, and just as big. “Let's go.”

The End

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