Far From the Cynics in This Town
The restaurant is named Chang’s.
Normally that would be a bad enough sign to begin with, but this particular Chang’s is also tucked into a back alleyway with a partially burned-out neon sign marking its entrance with flashing red light.
It reminds Jack far too much of those seedy, but very expensive places the Secretary of Defense tried to drag him to with a wink and a nudge when he first moved here. There are just some political ‘bonding’ activities that he has absolutely no interest in.
Staring dubiously at the worn, nondescript door, Jack tries to remind himself that introducing him to places of ill repute is probably not high on Carter’s list of things to do while she is in Washington. One would hope.
“You sure this place actually serves food, Carter?” he asks.
The look she shoots him back over her shoulder is very familiar: annoyance loosely tempered with respect. It’s not enough to hide that she is still fairly freaked out and trying her damnedest not to show it, but he’s willing to ignore that for now.
Personally, he can’t quite believe she’s actually here either.
The black door pulls open to reveal a small waiting room with deep crimson walls and a few mismatched chairs lining one side. Behind a high table topped with a phone and a ledger, a curtained doorway leads off to what Jack assumes is the dining room. Judging from the noise filtering in, it’s fairly packed.
That’s when it registers that this is Friday night and they certainly do not have reservations. Carter doesn’t look concerned though, so he just goes with it.
It’s not long until a young man dressed in all black appears, his dark hair a spiky mess on top of his head. “Can I help you?” he asks, flipping open the ledger.
“Is Jimmy here tonight?” Carter asks.
The host either doesn’t know who Jimmy is, or just doesn’t care, merely shrugging as if supremely bored.
Carter smiles brightly, baring her teeth in her best ‘please the natives’ expression. “Could you tell him Sam Carter is here?”
The kid shrugs again, disappearing through the curtains.
Carter looks back at Jack, something of an apology on her face. “That must be the latest nephew of the month,” she explains. “This place cycles through them like you wouldn’t believe.”
Jack makes a vague sound at the back of his throat, not for the first time wondering what the hell Carter is getting him in to.
A moment later the curtains rustle again, revealing a man Jack can only assume is Jimmy.
Jack isn’t sure what he expected, but the short, plump man wearing an insanely loud Hawaiian shirt is not it. He’s at least in his mid-seventies, but the smile that breaks over his face when he catches sight of Carter makes him momentarily look decades younger.
“Sam, mei mei!” he croons, gathering her hands to his chest in greeting before stepping back and sweeping her with a critical glance. “Still working too hard, I see. Too skinny, too skinny!”
“Hey, Jimmy,” Carter says with genuine affection, leaning in to give him a kiss on one wrinkled cheek. “Haven’t I told you it’s rude to comment on people’s weight?”
Jimmy, apparently having heard this many times before, waves her rebuke away, his eyes shifting to Jack with something akin to surprise. “And who have you brought with you?” he asks, raising an eyebrow.
“This is Jack,” she says, her hand coming to rest on Jack’s arm, pulling him forward. “He’s just moved here and I expect you to take really good care of him.”
“I see,” Jimmy says, giving him a rather appraising look.
“Nice to meet you,” Jack says, sticking his hand out.
Jimmy grabs it in both of his, enthusiastically pumping it up and down a few times. “Welcome!” he says.
“Thanks,” Jack replies, managing to politely retrieve his hand from Jimmy’s grip.
“I know you’re busy,” Carter says, leveling her most charming smile on Jimmy, “but is there any chance you could squeeze us in?”
Jimmy narrows his eyes at her, obviously aware that he’s being manipulated. “She knows I can never say no to that smile,” Jimmy comments as an aside to Jack, shaking his head with fond exasperation.
Jack’s pretty familiar with that feeling.
“Come, come,” Jimmy says, taking Carter’s arm and gesturing for Jack to follow him into the dining room. “You know I can’t resist a chance to fatten you up, mei mei.”
The restaurant looks like it might have been a warehouse at some point, the bare brick walls decorated with hanging scrolls and intricately carved wooden railings. The entire space is full of small tables that have been shoved into various combinations to accommodate groups of diners, including a large family unit of at least eighteen over in one corner.
They end up with an insanely small table right near the kitchens where they can easily hear two women chattering loudly to each other in Mandarin.
Jack picks up his menu, but Carter just waves it away. “Don’t bother. Jimmy will just bring us whatever he wants anyway.”
It’s strange, how much she seems in her element in this bizarre place, completely relaxed in a way he hasn’t seen, well, ever, if he really thinks about it. He almost feels like he’s getting a secret glimpse of a part of her life he’s never been privy to.
They’re served family style, but the table is so small that they can’t fit more than one item on at a time. They are left huddling over small bowls of rice as they pick at each delectable dish, their knees bumping occasionally.
Jack hadn’t been kidding earlier about not having had good Chinese food since he got to Washington. The nearest he’s gotten was a horrendously greasy box of chow mein his assistant brought him once for lunch, just further cementing his suspicions that the kid has it out for him.
There is absolutely nothing horrendous about this food, not to mention that he hasn’t seen a single plate of anything resembling chow mein leave the kitchens. That’s pretty close to heaven in his books.
Someone Jack suspects is the cook herself, whisks away the near-empty platter of their first course, replacing it with a still sizzling bowl of Szechuan beef. “Very spicy,” she says with a wink before disappearing back into the kitchens.
Jack corrects himself: this place is heaven.
“So how did you find this place?” he asks, deciding it would probably be rude to completely ignore Carter in favor of the food, no matter how good it is.
“I just stumbled over it one day, strangely enough. And the food was just fantastic,” she says, pausing to look at him as if for confirmation.
Jack just shovels another bite of Szechuan beef into his mouth, assuming his inability to stop eating for any amount of time will talk for itself.
She apparently gets his meaning, gesturing at the rapidly dwindling second course. “Exactly. Great food, but I also really liked the atmosphere.” She looks around, her fingers absently trailing down the condensation on her glass. “It’s sort of chaotic, but also…”
“Sincere,” Jack supplies, saying the first word that comes to mind when thinking of this place.
Carter looks at him, surprised, but pleased. “Yes, exactly. There’s no doublespeak or political wrangling here. It’s easy to forget, when you live here, that you don’t always have to be suspicious of everyone and everything.”
He wishes he didn’t know exactly what she’s talking about, but he’s only been here a few months and can already feel it sucking away at him. Shoving that unpleasant thought away, he shoots her a wry smile. “Are you saying you’re scared I’ll become cynical?”
She looks taken aback for a moment before she smiles. “You? A cynic? Never,” she teases.
He’s pretty fond of that wicked gleam in her eye.
Nodding sagely, he says, “I’ve always considered myself a real optimistic sort of guy.”
“Downright cheerful,” she mocks.
She rolls her eyes, muffling a huff of amusement in her napkin.
“And Jimmy?” Jack prompts.
“I don’t think he’s particularly Ghandi-esque either,” she says.
He pokes his chopsticks at her. “You know what I mean.” Over her shoulder, Jack can just make out Jimmy leaning against a wall talking to another table of diners. As he has most of the evening, however, his eyes constantly stray towards them. “How did you become such good friends?” he clarifies.
Following his gaze, Carter turns, sending Jimmy a small wave.
“I think he was a bit freaked out by my habit of eating alone,” she says after a while, looking mildly embarrassed. “The first few times I came he just hovered nearby as I ate, but when he finally figured out I wasn’t completely insane, despite my strange habits, he started chatting with me when he had the time. It just became habit. It sort of grew from there.”
He wants to ask why she was always eating here alone, but vaguely feels like he doesn’t have the right to ask her something like that, shoveling another bite into his mouth instead.
“I didn’t want this place to have anything to do with work,” she says after a while, almost as if she heard his unspoken question. “It’s nice having a place where I’m just Sam.”
Jack stares at her a moment, a bit taken aback by her honesty. She shifts uncomfortably under his gaze, dropping her eyes to the dish in front of her and he reaches out to touch her elbow. “Yeah,” he says, trying to remember the last time he felt like just Jack. “I think I get that.”
She smiles at him then and he’s suitably distracted so that he doesn’t notice the waitress’ stealthy return, swiping the platter from their table.
“Hey,” Jack says indignantly. He really had intended to lick that plate clean, manners be damned.
“Don’t worry,” Carter says, leaning back in her chair as if settling in for the long haul. “There’ll be a third course.”
He doesn’t know whether to be scared or grateful.
Two long courses later, Carter has barely excused herself from the table before Jimmy claims her empty seat, as if he’s been waiting for an opportunity to catch Jack alone.
“I hope you enjoyed the food,” he says.
“I did,” Jack confirms, vaguely wondering how he will roll himself out of here when the time comes to leave. “It was fantastic.”
“Good, good,” Jimmy says with a smile. “You must come by anytime you like.”
“I will, thank you.” He means it too, he gets why this place appeals to Carter.
Jack assumes his audience with Jimmy is done at this point, but the other man doesn’t seem particularly inclined to vacate Carter’s chair. Jack contents himself with watching the other patrons and listening to the creative Mandarin curses floating out behind him every once and a while.
Jimmy nods at people as they pass their table, greeting many of them by their first names.
“You know,” Jimmy says after a while, his eyes still tracking his waiters as they wind their way through the crowded room. “You’re the first person she’s ever brought to me.”
Jack looks at Jimmy in surprise, mostly wondering why he’s bothering to tell him this.
I didn’t want this place to have anything to do with work.
Jack tries not to think too hard about that, because he’s enjoying not having to dissect every little thing for once. He’s tired of analyzing motives.
Jimmy just smiles, patting Jack on the shoulder.
Carter returns after a while and Jack sits back, watching them argue over whether or not they will pay for the meal, Jimmy eventually throwing his arms up in exasperation and Carter slipping a small wad of cash under her plate when he isn’t looking.
It’s an energetic ending to an already eventful meal. Jack’s brain feels about as full as his stomach.
Another round of enthusiastic hugs and they are back out in the alleyway, only now it’s fully dark, the heat of the day somewhat diminished at last. The main goal of the evening having been achieved, they are both back to being unsure, lingering listlessly in the alley.
He knows he should probably thank her for coming all this way to see him, say goodnight, and head back home, but the words don’t come and he’s left shifting from foot to foot in the awkward silence.
He thinks of his apartment with distaste, really not wanting to burst this bubble of normalcy they’ve managed to wrest. He’s not ready to go back yet.
“Do you want to walk for a bit?” he suggests in desperation.
“Sure,” she says, looking equally relieved. “There’s actually something I’d like to show you, if you want. It’s a bit out of the way though.”
He smiles. “Lead on.”
It’s strange, but really nice to be walking next to her, wandering down the street like they are just two normal people out and about.
“Do you like it in Nevada?” he asks about four blocks into their walk.
She slows, glancing over at him as if weighing her answer and Jack wonders if he should have just left this topic well enough alone.
After a while she shrugs. “I’m getting a lot of interesting work done.”
He can tell it’s her standard response and he’s vaguely disappointed to have been fed the party line. “Okay,” he says, shoving his hands into his pockets.
She darts a furtive glance at him, obviously picking up on his dissatisfaction with her non-answer. “It really is nice to have the time to focus on my projects for once,” she says and now he’s not sure which one of them she’s trying to convince.
“But?” he prompts, having heard the hesitation in her voice.
She sighs. “I guess…I’m just not sure if it’s the right place for me yet.”
“Yeah,” he says, nodding in understanding. He envies her a bit, the giant array of choices available to her, a veritable galaxy of options. He hasn’t felt like he had a choice in a very long time.
“Not that I miss getting shot at all the time,” she says, bumping her shoulder against his with a smile.
“Just admit it, Carter,” he teases. “You’re an adrenaline junky.”
“I still have my motorcycle,” she reminds him.
He can easily imagine her out on those long desert roads, racing along at a speed just past sane, no one around for miles. “Made friends with the fine officers of the Nevada Highway Patrol yet?”
“Maybe,” she hedges, sliding him a sly glance.
Towards the end of the next block, she grabs his arm to pull him to a stop, her hand sliding into the crook of his elbow.
“Are you ready?” she asks, clearly getting into the spirit of their little excursion.
“Should I cover my eyes?” he says, her excitement infectious.
She just rolls her eyes, dragging him forward. When they round the next group of buildings, a large park stretches out in front of them and in the distance is the National Cathedral. He’s seen it out the window of his car at least a dozen times since he moved here, but this is completely different.
Tonight the entire façade is lit up with bright colors, gradually morphing through a set of various abstract patterns. It’s pretty spectacular, and he’s not the only one to think so, judging by the huge crowd of people gathered on the steps of the church.
“I read about it on the plane ride here,” Carter says, leaning into him with her voice slightly hushed as if they are already inside the church.
They are still some distance from the Cathedral, but Jack doesn’t really feel like dealing with the crowds, so he pulls Carter to a nearby bench where they can sit and watch.
“That is pretty cool,” he says after a while.
“It’s kind of nice to know that after everything we’ve seen, there are still amazing things to be seen right here on Earth, don’t you think?” she says, her arm still threaded through his.
He knows exactly what she means.
“Yeah,” he agrees, squeezing her hand.
He’s not sure how long they sit there, both of them just silently mesmerized until the bells begin to ring and the lights abruptly switch off.
Carter glances at her watch. “Is it really midnight already?”
Jack is pretty surprised himself. At the very least he should be exhausted; it’s been a long week of early morning meetings. He still doesn’t feel like going home, a vague beat of panic announcing itself at the back of his mind, as if letting Carter out of his sight might cause this whole thing to unravel.
He knows far too well how capable they are of regaining the status quo.
But they also can’t sit here forever.
“Are you tired?” Jack asks.
“A little,” she says, sounding just as reluctant as he is.
Bowing to the inevitable, he pushes to his feet, trying not to feel disappointed when her hand drops away from his arm. Now they just need a destination. He’s trying to think of a tactful way to ask her where’s she’s staying, but she gets there first.
“My hotel is actually pretty close to your apartment,” she helpfully offers.
“Oh, okay,” he says. “Do you want me to call for my car?” God that sounds awful. Sometimes he really hates that this is who he’s become.
Judging from the look on her face, she doesn’t like the idea any more than he does.
“There’s a Metro station just down the street,” she offers.
Jack can just imagine his assistant’s face if he ever heard of him taking public transportation. That alone is worth it. Maybe he’ll accidentally leave a ticket stub in the pocket of his uniform the next time the kid takes it to the cleaners.
These days, Jack takes amusement anywhere he can.
“Sure,” he says, falling into step next to her.
The station is easy enough to find, following the general flow of people also returning home at the end of the Cathedral light show. The Metro is pretty crowded, the standard Friday night throngs combining to make a tight squeeze.
Jack catches himself thinking almost fondly of his spacious private car complete with driver and air conditioning for a moment. Or at least he does until they climb into a car and the doors slide shut, resulting in a general shift in the mass of bodies around them, shoving Carter forward into him. His back is already pressed flat against the wall, leaving neither of them anywhere to go.
Her leg slides forward between his, one hand floundering for a railing, but coming in contact with his shoulder instead. It’s the most natural thing in the world to put his hand on her waist to steady her.
When she finally regains her equilibrium in the shuffle, Carter is fairly well plastered up against him, her eyes focused on some point on his neck while her other hand flutters near his chest.
She’s near laughter when she darts a glance at his face, shooting him a rather self-conscious smile as she manages to shuffle back enough to at least create a sliver of space between them.
Frankly he’s surprised by her reaction. Surprised, but grateful. He grins back at her.
She stumbles into him again, apparently getting shoved from behind.
“Sorry, s-,” she begins to say.
He can see her physically bite down on the truncated word, amusement just as quickly replaced with annoyance at herself for the near slip. She’s gone at least five hours, after all, without calling him ‘sir’ once.
“Sorry,” she reiterates, dropping her eyes from his face. At this point he’s not sure what she’s apologizing for anymore.
When the car comes to a graceless halt a moment later, her fingers tighten on his shoulder as people jostle on and off around them. Deciding he doesn’t like the look of the guy now standing behind her, Jack pulls her a little closer. He’s just thinking of her safety. The car speeds up again and he watches the top of her head as the lights in the tunnel whiz by, splashing colors on her hair.
“Why are you sorry?” he asks.
She looks up at him, clearly startled by the question. Her mouth opens as if to reply, but falls short of forming any actual words. Her hand flattens against his chest, her fingers tapping absently.
“I guess I’m not, really,” she eventually decides, a glimmer of stubbornness in her eyes.
“Good,” he says, glad to see the resurgence of her earlier surety.
“Yeah?” she asks, raising one eyebrow at him.
She’s looking amused again, and he definitely prefers that.
“Yeah,” he confirms, pulling her a little closer under the guise of letting some people squeeze by.
A noisy bunch of teenagers push on at the next stop, but he likes to think that is just the excuse she uses. She’s always been stellar at tactics.
She pitches forward again, only this time instead of settling back, she takes advantage of the forward momentum. With her face now mere inches from his, her eyes latch onto his as her fingers deliberately slide across his shoulder, coming to rest at the back of his neck. He sucks in a breath, the gentle press of her fingers against his skin sending a trail of sensation down his spine, making him very aware of every point of contact between them.
All he would have to do is lean in slightly, he thinks, his hands tightening on her waist as the urge to kiss her rises as physical pressure in his chest. The surge of the metro lifts her just slightly closer and he’s not sure who actually kisses who in the end, only knows that it doesn’t really matter.
Like everything else about this surreal evening he’s spent with her, kissing her is surprising and easy and much, much better than he would have expected.
This isn’t really where he thought he’d end up today when he’d woken insanely early to put on his perfectly pressed uniform. In no way could he have imagined that mere hours later he would be kissing Carter while wedged in a crowd of strangers on a balmy summer night in Washington D.C.
Lifting one hand to her face, he allows himself the luxury of threading his fingers in her hair, feeling her hand curl in response against the nape of his neck, her mouth sliding open under his.
He is peripherally aware that people are still moving around them, the car’s doors opening and sliding shut with each stop, but he’s honestly far more focused on the languorous movement of her mouth against his, the way she’s leaning into him now, the pressure building spectacularly even as he absolutely refuses to rush past a single moment of this experience.
He loves that she’s just as content to take her time with this as he is.
Someone nearby makes a loud harrumph of disapproval and Carter tenses, pulling back from him as if being caught doing something terribly wrong. He wonders how long that will always be their first reaction, registering the startled pounding of his own heart.
Turning slightly, Jack can see that the source of disapproval is not a stiff in a uniform, but a grey-haired lady wearing at least four layers of sweaters despite the heat and clutching a large black plastic garbage bag to her chest. He’d be willing to bet the nondescript bottle next to her doesn’t contain designer water.
She’s giving them both the evil eye and Jack fights not to laugh. Glancing around the car, he sees the standard collection of individuals you would expect to find on a late night city train. And other than one nosey old lady, not a single one of them is paying any attention to Jack.
He’s probably the single most powerful man in Washington and no one here knows it, or is even giving him a second glance for making out with a woman previously under his command. As far as these people are concerned, he’s just a slightly lecherous old man.
That is more than fine with him. For the first time since he moved out here he feels truly anonymous.
He looks over at Carter where she hangs onto an open railing, a careful distance away, still looking a bit flushed. Despite the distance, he notices that her other hand hasn’t let go of his arm, clinging like some last stubborn refusal on her part to relinquish this new intimacy between them.
She hadn’t introduced him to Jimmy as General O’Neill.
“Thank you,” he says, stepping a bit closer and slipping her hand into his.
She eyes him for a moment before nodding. “Sure,” she says, squeezing his hand.
He wonders what she thinks he’s thanking her for.
Looking around, Jack is somewhat disappointed to realize the car has mostly emptied of people, leaving plenty of room for personal space. There’s always hope, though, that the next stop might bring another crowd of people.
He could really learn to love the Metro.
“Which one is our stop?” he asks, peering out the window and trying to figure out where they are.
Carter clears her throat, sounding vaguely embarrassed. “We, uh, already went past it.”
“Really?” he asks, turning back to look at her with something akin to surprise.
“Yeah,” she confirms with a slow smile. “About five stops ago.”
Jack grins at her, loving that she sounds more proud than embarrassed at this point.
“That’s okay,” he says, pulling her closer. “I’m not really ready to go home yet anyway.”
I want to take you far from the cynics in this town
And kiss you on the mouth
We'll cut our bodies free from the tethers of this scene,
Start a brand new colony
Where everything will change,
We'll give ourselves new names (identities erased)
The sun will heat the grounds
Under our bare feet in this brand new colony
Everything will change...