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After a year spent traveling only by jumper and stargate, Sam welcomes the thrum of jet engines. She opted for a commercial flight for the anonymity, and finds that the motions of civilian flight don't frustrate her as they once did; even the unavoidable delay brings with it the knowledge that she is home.

There is something special about being on Earth. Sam once tried to attribute the sensation to the slight differences between the gravitational forces on different planets, to explain that a human born and raised on Earth could never find legitimate equilibrium somewhere else because his center of gravity would always be a little bit off. "That very well may be," Teal'c had said when she had put forth her hypothesis. "Yet I do not believe it accounts for the emotional sensation one feels upon returning to their homeland."

His word more than anyone else's was axiom on the matter and Sam grudgingly gave in to the idea that despite all her longing to travel among the stars, this particular ball of dirt would always have a stranglehold on her heart.

Sam looks through the window at the clouds, fingers tightening on the folder in her lap. It is wonderful to be home--so good to be among those friendly faces at the SGC, to eat Cameron's silly cookies and listen to Vala's chatter, to see the smile in Teal'c's eyes and ignore Daniel's complaints about the short duration of her stay--but her somewhat abrupt arrival has brought more complications than she would like.

There is, first, the matter of her reassignment. The Air Force has provided her with three choices, all of them excellent, and she can read an official apology between the lines of the classified pages; the whims of the IOA should not have been enough to force her recall from Atlantis and whoever devised these options was well aware of that fact. She could take on the role of Special Scientific Adviser to the President, based out of the Pentagon. She could return to the SGC as second-in-command of the facility and teach a class each semester at the Academy. Or she could take command of Research and Development at Area 51 and assume joint command responsibility over the Groom Lake facility.

If she was cynical, and she likes to think Jack hasn't rubbed off on her quite that much, she would think that someone in the Air Force leadership and the Stargate Program is concerned that she'll quit. She doesn't think she will, but it's something to consider. After all, they just revoked her command on--what? Political grounds?

It isn't that Sam adored Atlantis; in some ways, she hated the assignment. Spending months at a time a billion light years, give or take, from everyone she loves wasn't her idea of a good time, especially when they were inadequately replaced by McKay and his blathering. She can carry on long-distance friendships, had absolute faith in her former teammates, but conducting a relationship by email and periodic video links proved frustrating and demanding. She and Jack knew what they were getting into when she took the assignment--hell, he recommended her for it, shrugging at her with a "You're the best for the job, Carter," when she'd asked--but had struggled nonetheless.

Another reason she's glad to be back, even if the next two weeks in Minnesota will probably prove as maddening as they will be relaxing.

But between the nuances of daily life on Atlantis, the scientific and command discoveries she was making, and the ways in which working closely with people she didn't know taught her more about leadership than when she directed those whose habits and reactions she understood as well as she knew herself, Sam found herself enjoying the experience.

Sam was surprised at how rewarding it had been, actually. She had thought that SG-1, characterized by a shared intimate knowledge of combat habits and critical thinking, was the pinnacle of team balance and success. And it had been, in some ways; she knows exactly how long it will take Cam to pull his sidearm in any situation, understands when the unique perspectives that Vala and Teal'c bring to hostile situations will prove valuable, can map Daniel's thoughts in the way he furrows his brow. They know her equally well, and as their friend, she revels in their knowledge.

But watching Sheppard and McKay, learning a language of tactics and camaraderie that is different but no less effective than the one she knows, forced her to learn about building a team rather than simply living within one. And she found that navigating new politics and someone else's old enemies made her think more carefully about how to direct her people and utilize their strengths, a task which proved fascinating.

And they learned from her as she did from them, and Sam began to trust herself enough to step back and watch. Establishing the give and take of authority was at once the most challenging thing she has ever attempted and one of the more rewarding. To have that taken away, even if the Air Force will replace it with a posting most officers of her experience could never dream of, smarts more than she wants to admit.

To have that taken away and given to Woosley? Sam thinks it is lucky for everyone involved that she hasn't stayed at the SGC for her leave; she might smack someone, and assaulting a superior officer wouldn't look terribly good on her service record.

Sam runs her hands over the folder in her lap. It might be easy enough to put Atlantis behind her, to take this next position, except there is, of course, the question of Jack. His terminal leave began four days before her recall; somehow, after all this time, his retirement really has gone through. It's a minor miracle that he lived to see it, considering the lives they lead, but she won't say that to him. Instead, she will agree that it is about time as she takes in the sight of the man relaxed on his dock.

But Jack won't spend the rest of his life fishing, no matter how much he insists he wants to; there's too much activity left in him and he will have to find something to do. He had hinted in their last brief conversation that when she did return--and she wonders if he knew about her imminent recall when he'd said this; he probably did--that perhaps he'd just follow her across the country as she worked on her gadgets.

If he was serious, and she thinks he might have been, he's a variable in the equation in a way he's never been. He was content to watch her gallivant between galaxies, or faked it well enough, but then he had a demanding job that kept him busy and distracted. He won't have that now, and she will have to consider his needs as well. Now, any decision she makes has to include him, not only as a factor, but as a participant in her life.

Sam isn't sure she knows how to do that. Her attempts at normality have never worked before, and Jack won't stand for any attempts to apply the logic of command to their relationship.

She sighs, flattening her hands against the papers in her lap.

The man in the seat beside her takes in the Air Force logo on the manila folder, and recognition forces his eyes to the combat bracelet she wears on her wrist. "You been deployed overseas?" he asks, seeking confirmation in her dress or demeanor.

"Yeah," Sam says, nodding slightly. Something like that, at least.

He nods. "Welcome home," he says. They're in the air somewhere over Nebraska. Close enough.

**

Jack meets her at the baggage claim, looking every inch the Minnesota fisherman. He's rolled his jeans up an inch too short and donned an oversized flannel shirt, and Sam can tell even from a distance that he combed his hair with his fingers. But Jack's ability to play the fool and remain the most alert and discerning person in a room has always been one of his greatest advantages, and as soon as Sam steps near him, his eyes find hers.

He lets her come to him, as if it hasn't been five months since they've been on the same planet, let alone sharing the same space. It makes her laugh, his feigned indifference, because she can feel the way he tracks her movements, counts her steps, and she can't keep from grinning as she stops just within his reach.

It's almost a ritual between them now, this two-step they do as they ease back into each other's lives. There's a rhythm to the movements, more comfortable after so many hours spent apart than almost anything they do, the only thing they've practiced. Sam's smile broadens as Jack reaches out to snag her hand in his and he squeezes her fingers.

"Hey, Carter," he says.

"Hey," Sam responds.

"You're late," Jack says.

"Mechanical delay," Sam replies.

Jack tugs on her hand, bringing her closer. "You offer to fix it for them?" he asks, pulling gently.

"Outside my area of expertise," Sam says, and now she is so close she can smell him, feel his breath on her skin, and she drops her carry-on at her feet and lifts her free hand to his face.

He laughs at that, leaning into her touch. "Not big enough to bother with?" Jack asks, settling his other hand at her waist.

Sam shakes her head and giggles. "I thought size didn't matter," she says, bringing her hand around to run her fingers through the hair on the back of his head and pulling him down toward her. So nice to flirt, to be no one other than that GI returning home after a long deployment, and not Colonel Samantha Carter, technological marvel, astrophysical genius, command prodigy, periodic destroyer of worlds. Just Sam, right now.

Jack's nose bumps against hers and she can feel his smile. He drops her hand pulls her flush against him. Her hands land on the back of his neck, and she leans up the last centimeter to kiss him. It's gentle, exploratory, as they relearn the taste and feel of each other. She opens her mouth and touches her tongue to his, reveling in the simple action before pulling back from the kiss and wrapping him in a hug.

Once, they wouldn't have done this in public, still won't if there is a chance they'd be seen by people they know. Their relationship is the worst-kept secret of the SGC and Homeworld Security, but it is a secret nonetheless, and they respect the institutions they serve enough to keep their hands to themselves even when visiting with SG-1. But here, in the anonymous confines of the Minneapolis airport and with Jack's retirement pretty well finalized, she drops her head to his shoulder and grins when his hand finds her ass.

Jack rests his cheek against hers, rocking her slowly back and forth, as if the motion will somehow cleave her to him. He will never say he missed her, but he doesn't need to. She can feel the sentiment in every touch.

They stand like that until the crowd begins to thin. They should get her bag and be on their way, but Sam is content to stay still and, it seems, so is Jack. After another moment, she strokes her hands up and down his back, feeling the worn material of his shirt beneath her fingers. His arms tighten around her for a moment, but then Jack steps away, forcing Sam to lift her head.

"Here you are," he says.

Sam nods. "To stay, it seems," she says. Jack's presence has pushed the thoughts of reassignment out of her head, but conversation has a way of forcing Sam to think. Yes, it does look like she's back on Earth for good.

Jack shrugs, smiling. "Let me know where we're going," he says. She was right; he will be following her to her next posting. His decision will probably complicate their lives more than ease them, but Sam is willing to give herself a little while before she starts worrying more than she already is.

She kisses him, letting it linger longer than she should when they have to spend an hour in the car before they'll be at the cabin and in any position to follow up on the hope of that kiss. "Home, please," Sam says.

"So not what I meant, Carter," Jack says, but he lets her lead him to the slowly-revolving baggage claim and then out the door.

**

They have spent most of the past few days sprawled across his bed and lawn chairs; she can't remember when her body last felt so relaxed. But, now having put the consideration of her reassignment from her mind for almost a week, Sam finds that even being able to feel the evening air as it breezes through the open windows doesn't stop her thoughts from racing. And so she parked herself at Jack's kitchen table after dinner, planning to take an hour or two to sort through her choices and arrive at a conclusion.

It isn't working. She has paged through the papers so many times the edges are creased and grey, and she can feel a kink developing in her back as she goes back over words she has committed to memory.

Jack himself is leafing through a bad mystery novel--he swore it was complicated and worth his time, but she's pretty sure he'd identified the murderer within the first fifty pages--on his old, comfortable couch. She is doing her best to ignore him, but he sits just outside her peripheral vision and years of training have made her aware of his every breath. She notices every time he turns a page.

The problem isn't that Sam doesn't know what she wants, not really. It's just that for all her comfort in Jack's presence, in his life, she has no idea how to broach the topic with him. She sorts through her options again; easier to make mental lists than have this conversation.

She could resign, of course, and the decision probably wouldn't surprise the Air Force. But Sam has spent too much time living in a universe where her allies walked through walls and her enemies could destroy planets, and to return to a world in which Heisenberg rules physics would be to ruin every discovery she has made traveling through the stars. Her life is defined now by higher planes of existence and comrades returned from the dead, and there isn't a civilian research department on the planet that could make her an offer good enough for her to give that up.

She also knows that she won't go to Washington. The job would remove her from the front lines of scientific research, and breaking down others' work for policy wonks strikes her as something of a nightmare. Moreover, she won't ask Jack to move back to D.C., a town he has suffered through with clenched teeth. He once lamented that he couldn't feed the politicians with whom he worked to the Goa'uld; she knows he wouldn't wish Ba'al on anyone, but, he'd joked, it was a pity Yu or Tanith wasn't around anymore.

And yet part of her also doesn't want to return to the SGC. So many things about it would be wonderful, and she can't resist the prospect of having her friends again within reach. But therein lies the spectre of watching people she loves march off into danger every day without having even an ounce of control. Oh, as second-in-command of the facility, she would set mission schedules and oversee briefings, control discussions of tactics and manage personnel concerns, but she wouldn't be out there with her P-90, protecting them. That would be someone else's job, and it had been hard enough on Atlantis to step back with fingers crossed; doing so when it was her team--her family--might be impossible.

She doesn't know how Jack survived, just that Homeworld Security, with its politicking, infighting, and budget meetings, had proved a better fit.

Still, she would have a hand in things in a place she loves, and would have countless hours to devote to all those fun alien devices she had always before handed off to Drs. Lee or Felger. Every now and then, between seminars introducing the field of astrophysics, she could throw a bone to the few brilliant cadets and offer insight into the truth of the matter: an understanding of how to apply the theory could, quite literally, open the door to a whole new universe.

Sam runs through course topics in her head; really, teaching at an undergraduate institution like the Academy isn't a terribly good use of her skills. No potential for lectures on fluid dynamics or the specifics of computational physics when the class is made up of twenty-one-year-old kids without the mathematical acumen to understand.

Professionally, returning to Stargate Command wouldn't be bad at all, she has to conclude. And Jack could--what? She doesn't know what he plans to do with his time now that he won't be working. But he could see the guys whenever they were home, certainly more easily than he could if they were in Nevada.

But there's an airport and SG-1 isn't around that often; from Daniel, she has heard that their mission schedule has been particularly grueling lately. The Ori threat is gone, but there are planets upon planets to secure, treaties to sign, more addresses to explore. It is a less frantic sort of busy, but it is eventful nonetheless, and she doesn't know if she wants to move back to the SGC to be near people who are never home.

As for Groom Lake, well. If Jack weren't part of the equation, she'd take it in a heartbeat. Complete control over every piece of alien technology brought through the 'gate. Oversight of the development of all new space-faring technologies. Scientific recommendations passed on to, yes, the Special Scientific Adviser to the President, the job she knows she won't be taking. And no concern, for now, of being the person deciding if her dearest friends get sent to die.

Professionally, it's ideal; personally, she's not so sure. The posting has the potential to be a logistical nightmare, given Area 51's location and security procedures. It isn't that the base is so far from everything that it would be impossible to find a place within reason. They would live outside Vegas, most likely, and she would fly in each day. Not so bad, not really, but the hours she knows she would keep might make coming home each night a hassle in a way it wouldn't be anywhere else.

Then again, maintaining a relationship by seeing each other at the dinner table most every day has to be a step up from periodic weekend visits. And Sam assumes that while she's working that Jack will--well, not fish, because that part of Nevada is all sand and wind, but she imagines he'll golf or hike or consult or--Jack will find something to do, she's sure.

She has to conclude that it's the best option. Sam takes a breath and looks to where Jack sits. He's slouched down on the couch, peering at the pages of his novel; she wants to tell him to put on his glasses, but she doesn't want to nag. He knows where they are if he wants them, so Sam turns back to the pages spread before her.

This should be easier than it is, but there's a voice in the back of her mind that refuses to stop screaming that she shouldn't have to be making this decision at all. For all she knows, Jack could have retired to Atlantis, which makes her even more frustrated at this turn of events; the job she wants is the job she had.

Not an option, she knows, and a pretty minor concern in the scheme of things. But it smarts that some paper pusher somewhere could decide that her position at the helm of a frontier command was better filled by another paper pusher. They wanted someone in an administrative role, not someone in a command role. Pretty fine hair to split, that.

Sam closes the now-worn folder and pushes away from the table; Jack had joked that if she wanted to take up residence, she was welcome, but that she might want to find more a more comfortable chair in which to do it. Sam crosses the room and drops down beside him.

Jack looks at her over his shoulder. "This is bullshit," Sam says.

He raises an eyebrow, then two. "Really?" he asks. From his perspective, she's sure the world looks very rosy indeed; from the moment he met her at the airport, he has been almost unable to keep his hands off her, and she knows that every touch is a gesture of thanks for coming home alive to him.

But Jack's pleasure at her presence doesn't negate her frustration at the situation that brought her here. "Richard Woosley is an idiot," Sam states. "And no one in their right mind would ever consider him for that position!"

"Yup," Jack says, eyes glancing back toward his novel. He's almost done, she can see, and if it were her, she would resent the untimely interruption.

"Atlantis is going to come apart at the rivets in two weeks," Sam continues. It doesn't matter that for all intents and purposes she has a better deal now, because when that pompous mole took command--no, not command, administrative control--of her city, everything she had accomplished there fell victim to his politicking. She doesn't think there will be anything left. She takes a breath. "I should be there."

Jack looks resolutely at the book. It was the wrong thing to say, of course, because there's no way he can't take that personally even if she's just talking about professional preference. The two are inseparable, which is why this thing between them--surely she can call it a relationship now that they're talking seriously about relocating together--was never a smart choice. She's always been more about the job than her life outside it. Most of the time, no one minds.

"Yeah, well," Jack says. "We don't always get what we want."

Sam blows out a breath of air. "I don't want to be there," she says. "But I should be." She's splitting a pretty fine hair there, too.

His jaw tenses. "Maybe," he says.

She rolls her eyes at that. "You honestly think that Woosley, who is inexperienced in scientific, military, and cultural matters, is going to have any success on Atlantis, which is a hotbed of scientific, military, and cultural affairs?" He couldn't possibly--no.

"Of course not," Jack says.

"Then how the hell do you explain the IOA's revoking my command?"

She's sure now that he'd been in the room when the decision was made, or at least party to the conversations that led to it. "They felt that someone with a background in administration would make a more effective leader of the Atlantis expedition," Jack says. It's the line they'd fed her before they sent her back to Earth. It's crap.

"And you believe that?" She shifts to face him, finds he is still staring somewhere other than at her. That page must be absolutely riveting.

"Of course not, Carter," Jack states. He looks at his hands, the dog-eared book, his shoes.

"So what?" Sam asks. "You sat there and let them give it to Woosley?"

Now she has his attention, because his eyes snap to her face, dark and angry. "I wasn't involved in the discussion," he says flatly.

"That's bullshit, too," Sam says. "You had to be there." She can picture the scene: Jack, the leaders of the IOA, a few of the joint chiefs, maybe Landry in by conference call.

"I was there," Jack responds. "But I don't make those decisions about your career now, and you damn well know it. Or haven't you ever heard of conflict of interest?" His sarcasm is biting.

She nods. "So you gave Atlantis to the wolves rather than interfere," she says. Of course. Circumspection rules their world, but not so much that everyone at that table hadn't known the truth, that the golden children of the SGC spent their short leaves together in his bed. The men in that room probably slapped Jack on the back when they first learned, or had wanted to, except for the care they all showed in pretending not to know.

All the reasons this was a bad idea.

His eyes narrow even further. "You are not sitting here pissed at me because I didn't fight to keep you a zillion light years away, Carter," he says.

"I--." But that's what she said; she just sat there and told him he should have made an effort to keep her out on the front lines, often under fire and almost entirely unavailable. Jack doesn't have that in him, not with this; he has stepped out of her way as she's gone charging off in pursuit of her career, had no real objection to the Atlantis assignment except the space between her visits home. But he gave up his willingness to deliberately send her into harm's way, to make the final call about her life that first moment when they had agreed to give this a try. He never said anything about being on the other side; he never had to.

Until now, apparently.

"No," Jack says, stopping her apology with a word. He won't absolve her that thought, not yet. He stands from the couch and runs a hand through his hair, mussing it badly. Leaning down to snatch up his discarded novel, Jack rubs his face, looking down at her, lips still set in a steel line. "I know you suck at this Carter," he says. "But sometimes I wish you didn't suck quite so much."

Jack turns and heads for the bedroom; she knows she isn't invited to join him.

**

It takes hours before she comes to any conclusions, and even those are confused. She wants Atlantis back, but she won't get it. That's someone else's responsibility now, and if it turns out badly, it won't be her problem as much as she will try to blame herself for it.

There are things she wants that she can have, of course, Jack first among them. But there are so many other conversations to get through if she's really going to take the best offer, which will take him away from his friends and provide almost nothing in return. It's the better position, with more room for growth and scientific potential, but she still doesn't know how to tell him that she wants to remove them both from what little familiarity exists for them on Earth.

She sighs. If Jack is asleep, and he ought to be by now because it's after three, she should be able to continue her thinking in bed. He didn't ask her not to come in, so she'll take her chances. If he wants her to stay on the couch, she'll go, but she's hoping he won't stir.

They have only spent five days together, and she still craves his touch even if she's sure he's ready to take her head off. She strips off her clothes and slides into bed, squirming until she is spooned up under Jack's chin, her back pressed firmly against his stomach. Lying like this she can feel the extra weight he has put on resting softly against the skin of her back. Most women her age wouldn't look twice at him, the gray hair and the desk belly just enough to make them ignore the sly smile, but Sam doesn't care. Their bodies are both riddled with scars, and she is as likely as he to wake up shaking as bad memories fade into the night; she can hardly begrudge his relaxing in his middle age.

He curls his arms around her, pulling her closer, and she revels in the touch. In his sleep, he forgets the trials of the day, remembers the things he enjoys most about her presence. Indeed, Jack does not seem to mind, seems to savor, the shape of her body as it navigates its fifth decade. Sam has never considered herself vain, but she sees the lines around her eyes, the pounds she carries at her hips and stomach; Jack only notices when she points it out, and though he will often growl out a rebuke--"Carter, stop being such a girl!"--he always remembers and rewards the offending body part with a kiss when she least expects it.

Sam wriggles against him, trying to get comfortable. They sleep together so rarely, those nights when they are in the same time zone and keeping the same hours so few and far between, that she struggles to remember where to put her feet, her knees.

She can't seem to shake the concern that any decision she tries to make will be the wrong one, and she thinks about getting up until her mind is quieter. No use waking Jack by tossing and turning, not on a night he seems to be resting, not on a night when a wrong move could easily force her out of the bed. But she likes the feel of his body against hers, has tucked herself quite firmly against him, and she doesn't want to budge.

There isn't any particular excuse she can give for her words to him, though her mind travels to the old adage; you always hurt the ones you love. She always signed her notes to him with a quick, "Love, Carter," but neither of them is particularly verbal about the idea, though that doesn't make it any less true. She needs to tell him in so many words, or somehow explain that she wouldn't sacrifice him for Atlantis or anything else. She needs to apologize for implying he should do the same, but she doesn't know where to start.

He's right, of course; she's awful at this, certainly worse than he is. It was a surprise, sometimes still is, that for all Jack's bluster with his friends and colleagues, his offers to listen or to work through whatever problems they may have are genuine. He always stumbles through well enough, once she can see past the sarcasm and preferred silence; she's been reading between the lines with him for too long not to see the time he puts in to making things right.

Sam gives equal effort, or more, but of the two of them, Jack is so much better at conducting a relationship than she is. Her most frequent answer to his easy questions about next steps is always, "I don't know," even if she does. He's tugged her along to this point, given her ample opportunity to turn back, but guided them here nonetheless. Without that, she's sure they'd still be stuck somewhere in a command relationship, miserable and curious. She knows he'll work with her to fix this, but she doesn't know how; that famous reticence will be out in force, she's sure. She wants to be better, but doesn't know how. She thinks he loves her despite that. Despite today.

She will never sleep at this rate, needs to either get up to sort through her thoughts or figure out how the hell to relax. She shifts her arm underneath her body.

"I can hear you thinking," Jack says, voice heavy with sleep. He shifts his arms so they are crossed over her breasts, keeping her from turning toward the sound.

"I didn't mean to wake you," she says. She must have jostled him one too many times; neither of them sleeps deeply, especially not when they share a bed. "Sorry."

He nods a bit, smiles gently into her hair before dropping a kiss on the crown of her head. "It's okay," he says. "As long as you stop thinking so hard." Ah. All is not forgiven, but he knows that she will have a better time sorting through her remaining concerns if she's slept. Smart man, no matter what he says.

He moves his hands to cup her breasts, weighing them gently, and she brings a finger up to rub the back of his hands, encouraging. He smiles again, breath soft against the nape of her neck. "Relax," he whispers, kneading her breasts.

She can't do much from this position, still lying on her side with her back pressed into his chest, but Jack clearly doesn't care. He brings his head down to kiss the place where her neck becomes her shoulder, nuzzling his face into her skin. His tongue traces the top of her collarbone, and she shivers. He presses his hands more firmly against her breasts, bringing his fingers up to tweak her nipples, gently first and then more firmly.

Again and again, barely moving, barely touching, but Sam feels a burning between her legs and sighs, arching her back against him.

Jack drags one hand away from her breast and down her side, skimming down to touch her stomach and her hip, those problem spots she can't bring herself to love, and as his fingers play against her skin she can feel his own arousal pressing into her back. "Mm," she says, and her breath escapes her in a sigh.

Jack is quiet in bed, which shouldn't have surprised her given his obvious preference for touch over words. But she had asked him about it once, early on, and he had regarded her gravely. "I think I'm quite eloquent," he had said, deadpan, and she stared at him before collapsing into helpless laughter on the bed. It would have been cliché if it hadn't been so funny--and so damn true--and after Sam had expended her giggles, she had turned toward Jack with serious eyes.

"You're right," she said, and reached for his hand, pulling his fingers between her own. He had nodded once and kissed her firmly.

He is no less eloquent tonight, though she knows he is tired and frustrated. Still caressing her breast, he brings his other hand down to her thigh, reaching around to touch her softly; so gentle, though she thinks she has no right to request it. She shifts against him, drawing her leg back over his and moving up so she can feel his hardness between her thighs, and she delights at the sharp intake of breath he cannot suppress at the contact.

Jack's fingers have reached her clit, and he touches her once, twice, pressing more firmly and finding the rhythm that will make her squirm. She does, arching back toward him and bringing his cock more solidly between her legs, wet heat spilling across the soft skin of the head of his dick.

Jack nips at her neck, biting down gently, making her hiss, and Sam wiggles again, reaching between her legs to grasp his dick in her hand. Her fingers brush his as she strokes him, and he kisses her shoulder in response. More intimate, that small touch, than anything else they will do here.

Sam brings her hand up and down, letting her nails scratch over the soft skin--so hard beneath it, but the skin there is softer still than anything else she has confronted in nature--feels him jerk against her. He taps his fingers against her clit, rubbing more intently, trying to break her concentration.

Oh, so good, and she shifts her raised leg back even further against his thigh. It requires more maneuvering than perhaps either of them should engage in, but they love sex like this; his hands on her breasts and cunt, hers on his balls, each touching stem to stern as they move together. She grinds back against him, so good but not enough, not yet, because she wants him inside her, not just fingers but long, hard flesh pressing against her.

Sam takes his dick in her hand, presses her ass against his thighs. "Good?" she asks, breathless. He nods against her shoulder and she rotates her hips forward, pulling his cock with her hands and shoving against him with her--oh, there. She stops for a moment, content to sit with him inside her, giving him a moment to rest, regain control.

He has it, now, she knows, because there is a tug at her hip and a whispered, "Carter," before he again turns his attention to her clit. Three fingers now, probing and questing, even as he shifts his own hips to encourage her to move.

She does, sliding her hand between her legs to fondle his balls, fingers moving in time as she rotates her hips. She gasps as the head of his penis comes in contact with that spot over and over again, as his fingers move faster, faster, less of a cadence and more of a fight against her. She can feel his breath against her neck, wet and quick, the hand on her breast grasps more tightly, so tightly, it could hurt if it weren't so--oh, oh.

So close, and she rocks against him harder, eyes closed, back arched, and he scratches his fingers over her, shifts his hips, and bites down, not softly, against that same spot on her shoulder. Reflexively, her hand tightens against him and he gasps. She hears herself, she thinks, call his name, but she can't be sure, because there is only his own rough voice as he shudders against her.

His hands relax, soft against her stomach. He wipes his fingers against her skin, drawing her own juices across her belly. "Better?" he asks, as if there was any question. Sam nods, turns her head almost painfully against the pillow to peer at him. He smiles at her, a dreamy look reserved only for her at hours surely better spent asleep. He leans over, kisses her gently, and she turns more firmly against him, face pressed into his shoulder and hair tickling his chin. "No more thinking," Jack says, wrapping his arms around her.

Sam drops off to the sound of his breathing.

**

She wakes up alone and spends the day alone. Neither surprises her; for all their ability in the field to sleep on command, both she and Jack struggle through what should be easy nights. Many times she has slid from bed because his tossing and turning has kept her up and she knows better than to disturb him in the middle of a nightmare. And more often than not, she stumbles into the living room to find Jack asleep on his recliner because she kicked him or snored or otherwise disturbed his sleep. Every permutation, always the same result. Another thing to work on, she figures, their apparent inability to share a bed.

But on so many of those mornings she'll crawl in beside him when she wakes, reluctant to miss that moment when Jack turns gummy, confused eyes on her. "Carter," he'll say as if he has to remember that she's there for the day before closing his eyes and resting his head against her shoulder. There's always a little bit of wonder in his voice when he does that, as if in that moment between sleep and alertness--a moment that is a luxury for two old field soldiers--he cycles through the years before and catches himself up to now.

Today, he's nowhere to be found. Not in the house, and a quick look at the dock reveals that the fishing gear and one of the chairs is gone, and Sam's sure that if she were to check the fridge, there'd be a six-pack missing as well. She doesn't know if Jack has decided she needs space to sort through her decisions or if he needs to be away from her to reason through his own concerns, but whatever his thinking, he's clearly out for the day.

Sam spends her time mostly on the couch, back in jeans and his old beat up sweatshirt. She sits with her feet up under her, staring not at the mass of papers behind her on the kitchen table, but at the wall. She lets her hair fall around her face; if Jack was here, he'd make a joke about Cousin It and regale her with stories of cartoons or bad movies as he brushed the strands out of her eyes.

She has always been the undisputed expert at solving problems; scientific puzzles and command decisions are her forte. Sam has a system, a way to break down the big problems until she can identify the smaller concerns and their concomitant solutions; even if the concern is giant in scope, there is always a way. She'd blown up a sun like that, once, saved the galaxy a few times, but she's never been able to apply that kind of focus to her own life.

She woke up on the Prometheus to discover she'd let everything slip away and then woke up the day after her father died to discover she'd been wrong. She'd identified the problem: Sam needs a life outside of the SGC. She'd found a solution: new boyfriend! And it had worked for a while, like most of the quick fixes she's pulled off over the years; unlike most of those, it fell apart at a critical juncture because she'd been trying to repair something that wasn't broken.

Of course she should have known that Plan A never worked out, but she hadn't had a backup then. In some ways, though, the years since that debacle have been some of the best of her life: taking time away from the SGC to look after Cassie and finally, finally sort things out with Jack left her with fewer terrestrial cares. Even the Ori hadn't diminished her pleasure at the way things had turned out, exactly the way they were supposed to be. Stumbling along seemed to work out and Sam stopped trying to apply the scientific method to her personal life. Mostly.

Identify the problem. Use available data to arrive at a hypothesis. Test hypothesis. Use results from testing to develop a conclusion.

There might be an equation somewhere for anticipating human behavior, but even the best game theorists haven't really sorted through it. The underlying idea, the only thing that really matters here, is the thought that individuals succeed if they work together, that the best outcome is that which makes everyone as happy as possible and creates the least trouble.

Thinking sociologically, which Sam prefers not to do--she can put together the multivariable equations that would map each possible outcome in her sleep, but has had little use for the vagaries that arise when the ideas are applied to real people--the ultimate question is which choice will cause the least harm.

Sam is sure that somewhere, Daniel is laughing at her.

This isn't a decision she can make alone, as much as she would like to, and Jack's out fishing somewhere. Sam falls back on the couch with a sigh, closing her eyes. She drapes an arm over her face and tries to keep her breathing even. She has no idea how long she sits like that, trying as hard as possible not to think.

"Well, you're certainly looking miserable," a voice comes from much closer than she would have expected. Sam drops her arm and opens her eyes, peering up at Jack's face just a few feet from hers.

"Consider it my penance," she says, sitting up with a groan.

Jack stands beside the couch, a half-filled bottle of beer in hand. He has clearly spent time to rip the label clear off, surely wadding it up and tossing it into the woods. She wonders how many bottles received the same treatment over the course of the day; somehow, she notices, the sun is beginning to cast long shadows over the house.

He smiles tightly and drops the beer onto the side table. He shoves his hands in his pockets and looks down at her, face etched in stone. "So?" he asks.

Sam shrugs. "I don't know," she says, answering the unasked question.

"Carter," he says, probably more harshly than he means to.

"Oh, don't," she says. Most days, she likes that he has turned her surname into an endearment, but most days he doesn't use that tired, pissed off Colonel O'Neill voice with her.

"Fine, Sam," he says, stressing the single syllable of her given name. "What's the problem?"

She smiles tightly and looks away. So hard for her to cede control back to him when they've both struggled to maintain something resembling balance. A deep breath, another one. "Would you--," she starts. From the periphery of her vision, she sees him frown. He's probably stifling an annoyed, "Carter!" but he waits nonetheless.

"SGC or Groom Lake?" she asks, and that took more effort than it should have; surely every decision that will come later, about housing and cars and insurance plans and who takes out the trash will be easier. She already knows they will never agree on toothpaste or the proper placement of socks in the bureau. Sam throws her arm back over her face and sinks down into the couch.

She feels Jack shift on his feet and slowly approach. He sits beside her, his thigh just touching hers. He reaches out and pulls her arm from her eyes. He looks down at her, so gently, and she turns away, pressing her face into the pillow. He reaches out again, this time to touch his fingers to her face and chin, not trying to force her to face him, but tracing the lines by her mouth and eyes, running his knuckles over the skin of her cheek. He continues in that vein, stroking ever so lightly, until she can bring herself to look at him fully.

"Are you asking me what I want?" Jack asks softly. Sam nods against the pillow, now unable to look away. He smiles again, but it looks more like a grimace. "Why?" he asks.

Now it is her turn to narrow her eyes at him, and she sits up with an inelegant grunt. The move lands her nearly in Jack's lap, but she doesn't try to pull away. "You said I could choose whatever I wanted," she says quietly. He had, on that first day when she poured over words that didn't change for all her looking over them. He nods. "Groom Lake is a better posting," Sam says, looking down at her hands. "But I don't want you to be unhappy."

It is such an easy thing, such an obvious thing, and yet she has spent the day working up the courage to say those words out loud. "I really do suck at this," she says, apropos of nothing other than her discomfort.

He nods. "Yeah," he says, reaching out and pulling her closer. She is half on top of him and half on the couch and it isn't comfortable. She shifts so she can rest against his chest and lays her head against his shoulder.

"So what do we do?" she asks.

He strokes her head; whatever conclusion he arrived at while spending the day fishing and drinking, he's obviously decided to forgive her for her inopportune words from yesterday. Beer and sex, the two great restoratives of the male mind. Sam almost smiles.

"You know you'll have the SGC as soon as Landry moves on, right?" he asks.

Sam tries not to sit up so fast that she hits her head on his jaw, but she pulls away quickly enough. "You can't be serious." But he is, of course, and she has to acknowledge the idea makes sense; it's a logical progression just like Jack's command had been. Sam doesn't know if it's something she wants--wouldn't want it now, certainly isn't ready for it--but she thinks that in six or seven years, the chances that she'll be sending her SG-1 out into the unknown while she stays firmly behind will be much smaller. She might be able to do it, then.

Jack nods. "Why else do you think they gave you those choices?" he asks, reaching out to tap her nose with an index finger. "Both of them integrate scientific research with a little more command experience." That's a phrase she never thought she'd hear come from Jack O'Neill, and she gives him a piercing glance. He shrugs, pulling her back toward him. She settles against him again, poking him in the ribs for good measure. "That," he says a little proudly, "is a discussion I took part in."

He really is a bastard. A smug one. She pokes him again. "Doesn't solve the immediate problem," she mumbles.

"House hunting."

"Jack," she says, because now he's stringing her along. All things being equal, she deserves it, but it is precisely what she doesn't need right now, when she's hanging on the edge. Next problem to solve: not freaking out at every major conversation.

"I don't know, Carter," he says. "But I've always liked Vegas." He kisses the side of her head. "Call girls, gambling. Really, what's not to love?"

She'll hit him later, when she's not so relieved.

**

They have a retirement party for Jack in Colorado Springs a few nights before Sam's new assignment starts, and they arrive together. It's a small gesture, but significant; there are so many members of Stargate Command present that Sam can barely keep up with the familiar faces as they pass by SG-1's table, but she knows that each and every one of them is taking in Jack's arm along the back of her chair and the way he casually snags fries from her plate. No one says anything, no one has to; she can read their acceptance in the smiles they flash as they nod.

Somewhere around the fifth round of drinks, after General Hammond has abandoned the revelry for quieter pursuits and everyone else has lost any compunctions they had about carrying on, Daniel starts telling stories. They're all ostensibly about Jack, about the hazards of space travel as the leading member of a technologically idiotic race, but it soon becomes clear that there isn't a single tale he can tell that doesn't incorporate her, himself, or Teal'c . Soon enough, all of them are chiming in to correct his details, and no one else seems to have noticed that the rest of the room has fallen quiet, the assembled staff hanging on to every word.

When she has finished modifying Daniel's version of their battle with Hathor--and how could he have known, anyway?--and they have all raised a glass to Janet, she meets Jack's eyes. He is wearing an easy smile, beautiful for its rarity, and reads something that looks like genuine happiness in his gaze. It is an expression she's seen more and more in the week since her somewhat muddled decision to take Area 51; for all his storied self-sufficiency--Daniel has wisely moved on to the one where Jack had singlehandedly saved him from alien-possessed South American rebels, though how he knows the details of that, either, Sam couldn't say--Jack is most at ease with other people, values and will have her presence in his life.

Sam can't help but smile back at him, and Jack shifts his arm from the back of her chair to rest across her shoulders. He pulls her closer to him and she settles more firmly against his chest. The entire exchange can only have taken fifteen seconds, but Daniel apparently noticed their momentary inattention and clears his throat. The rest of SG-1, past and present, follows his gaze and soon she finds herself under the fond scrutiny of her friends. Glancing back up at Jack, Sam shrugs. Nothing to hide, now.

Jack doesn't put up with the study for long. "So not how that went, Daniel," he says, pointing a finger on his free hand at his friend. "Sit back and let the master tell the tale." He squeezes her shoulder and begins.

***