“Well, this is certainly…what’s the word I’m thinking of?” Jack asks.
“Surreal?” Sam guesses, looking out at the sea of reporters in front of them, the majority of them jostling for position and calling out questions, despite the Stargate Program’s new PR’s animated attempts to quiet down the room.
Jack tugs at his collar. “I think I was going for something a bit more like…terrifying.”
Sam smiles. Eight years together spent fighting the Goa’uld and the Replicators, and yet this moment may be the most frightening. “You have a point, sir.”
“Remind me again, how exactly did Daniel and Teal’c get out of suffering through this ‘great honor’ with us?”
“Well, they do live on other planets, sir. Or galaxies, in Daniel’s case.”
“Right,” Jack says with a dismissive wave. “Like I haven’t heard that excuse before.”
“Well, we can work out a way to short sheet Daniel’s bed trans-galactically after the press conference.”
Jack seems to consider that plan. “I have a better idea. Why don’t you just invent some way to get us the hell out of this?”
Sam is torn between rolling her eyes and giving him an arch glance just for old time’s sake. The potential combination sounds dangerous though, so she settles for keeping her face straight as she jumps into the familiar fray. “Just throw something together right here?” she asks.
“Yeah. Why not?”
“Sure. Got a power source on you?”
“Nah, but I do have a stick of gum.”
“Perfect. So what would like me to make out of that, a personal cloak?”
“Or an anti-reporter device,” he suggests.
“The anywhere-but-here transporter?”
“Funny, Carter. When did you become a comedian?”
“As we met, sir.”
Jack frowns. “Maybe you should leave the stupid jokes to me.”
“Please. I’ve heard your idea of a knock-knock joke.”
“I’ve had years to come up with better ones,” she reminds him.
He slides her a look she can’t quite interpret. “Yeah, I guess you have.”
They lapse into silence as the PR continues to read from a prepared statement, not seeming to care that no one is remotely paying attention to him.
“I’m…glad you’re here. I don’t think I could have suffered through this on my own.”
It’s not like she had a choice, really. When the President of the United States requests your presence, you sort of have to do what you’re told. But she still knows what he means. They’ve been through way too many firefights together for her to abandon him now, no matter how much she secretly wishes she were back in her lab in Nevada.
Bumping him slightly with her elbow, she says, “Anytime, sir.”
“And now we’d like to welcome to podium Major General Jack O’Neill and Colonel Samantha Carter, two of the original members of Stargate Command.”
The room falls into hushed expectancy, every eye trained on the pair of officers.
“Just like old times,” Jack says, one hand pulling at his jacket.
Sam smiles. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, here goes nothing,” Jack mumbles.
Together, they walk up to the microphones.
* * *
Jack picks up the two pint glasses with a nod at the bartender.
The small bar is one of those great ones with dark wood fixtures and eclectic furniture and all the best beers on tap. The owner was generous enough to agree to close the bar down to the public for an evening, allowing the various members of the SGC to mingle in privacy, something that is harder and harder to find these days outside of secure military installations.
Jack winds through the room towards Carter where she sits at a table with familiar faces like Paul Davis (now a Lt. Colonel), some scientist whose name Jack could never be bothered to remember, and Sgt. Siler.
Jack places a beer in front of Carter, slipping into the open seat next to her.
“To surviving the gauntlet,” he proposes, holding his own glass up.
The press conference hadn’t actually been that bad, all things told. The general mood surrounding Disclosure is surprisingly positive, probably having something to do with the influx of amazing technologies out into the public and the peaceful state of the galaxy. For the moment, at least. Sure, there are naysayers and political discontents, but today’s press conference had been more about sharing humorous stories and personal anecdotes.
It had been almost…nice to stand up there with Carter and rehash old times. Plus, they know each other well enough to jump in to the rescue if the topics ever strayed too close to something better left untouched. Strategic distraction has always been one of their specialties.
Jack hadn’t been looking forward to this long week of press conferences, ceremonies, meet and greets, and parties. Knowing Carter would be there…he hadn’t really decided whether that was a bad thing or not until she was standing there next to him under the glare of the lights, taking on a sea of hostiles with him. He’s still trying to decide if he should be relieved or a little bit freaked out by the way they so easily fell back into their old patterns after three years of near silence between them. It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that it’s been that long since they all moved on from the SGC.
SG-1, the four of them, had only one week together at his cabin, one week of farewells and job-well-dones before they all scattered in their own directions. Daniel to Atlantis, Teal’c to Dakara, Carter to Nevada, and himself to D.C. They were almost anticlimactic, those blurry days after the culmination of eight years’ struggle against the Goa’uld. Victory. But peace isn’t quite what Jack had envisioned.
“I’ll drink to that,” Carter says, drawing his attention back to her. She takes the offered glass and clinks it against his.
Jack tries not to, but as always happens when he is foolish enough to think of those last days or of Carter, his mind latches onto that late summer evening so many years before.
The moon is full, offering more than enough light to navigate down to the edge of the pond, the silver highlights dancing across the surface of the water. Carter is little more than a shadow against the restless light as she stands far enough from the house to almost be swallowed by the trees.
Even from the distance, Jack can feel the tension radiating off her. The loss of Jacob hit hard, the one man Jack felt comfortable enough to assume would outlive all of them. But for Carter, obviously, the loss is magnified. Jacob’s death was the price for this win; one Jack knew Jacob was happy to pay for the rest of them. Carter has a harder time accepting that.
“Carter,” Jack says, stepping up behind her.
“Sir,” is all she says, not turning to look at him, but he knows, just from her tone, the barely discernible waver in her voice, that she’s unsettled, maybe just a tiny bit lost.
Jack feels the standard response of backing away from a vulnerable Carter at all costs, but fights it down, instead taking another step so that he’s standing by her side. There’s not really anything he can say, so he simply reaches out and touches her arm, attempting some kind of comfort.
She lets out an unsteady breath, but when she turns to him there is no evidence of tears. Then she glances at his hand on her arm, the point of contact between their skin. “We’re friends, aren’t we?” she says, no trace of the waver left.
Jack pauses, his eyes sweeping over her face. “Yeah, Carter,” he says, a bittersweet smile on his face that she doesn’t look up to see. “We’re friends.”
The relief on her face is like a kick to the gut. “Good,” she says, nodding, her eyes once more caught by the shimmer of the lake.
He removes his hand from her arm.
Three days later she goes home to pack for her move to Nevada, and Jack takes off for Washington.
And they’re friends.
Looking at Carter now as she leans on her elbow, listening to something being said by Siler, that night feels like a lifetime ago, no matter how sharp the image remains in his mind.
Turning her head, she smiles at him in just the right way and he can feel it, low down in his stomach, still there, but manageable, like a degrading echo. Enough that he can convince himself that it’s well on its way to fading away completely.
It’s gotten a lot easier over the years. They rarely see each other anyway. With Daniel and Teal’c nearly permanently off-world, reunion get-togethers are infrequent, barely more than once or twice a year.
He’s a bit relieved by that, but has the decency to feel guilty for it. Just because things never worked out the way he might have hoped is no reason to avoid her. She’s important enough to him that he can accept her choices. Not that he’d been so certain of his ability to do that in the beginning.
He’d still thought it was possible, after that day at the cabin, waited for some signal from her, the tiniest sign that he wasn’t just spinning his wheels, that he hadn’t just imagined the entire thing. But then months became years. Doubt evolved into resentment and eventually into acceptance.
It’s taken a hell of a long time to get here, but it finally doesn’t hurt the way it used to.
She laughs at something Davis says, her hand brushing his arm as she turns to share the joke, looking genuinely pleased to see him, no recrimination or ambiguity in her clear eyes. He feels the familiar camaraderie winding between them, returning her smile with ease.
Soon she’ll be off to take the job of her life, and he’ll be happily doing nothing much at all in the middle of Minnesota, if the reporters let him.
But he can do this. He can let her go. He can be her friend.
It’s a relief.
* * *
Sam sits on a low bench in a plush carpeted hallway, watching the purposeful bustle of important looking people. No one spares Sam a glance as they pass and it’s a nice change for once, not being the center of attention. She imagines the people who walk these particular halls are used to seeing far more important people than herself on a daily basis.
She hadn’t really been prepared for the spectacle when she flew in for this week-long Disclosure celebration. She’d even been stupid enough to try to walk back to her hotel from an event earlier in the week, only to come face to face with a crowd of people wanting to meet her, get an autograph, or, embarrassingly enough, get a picture with her like she was some sort of movie star or something. It had taken less than five minutes for members of the press to pop up as well.
Luckily General O’Neill had been leaving the same meeting, but was savvy enough to have his car collect him at the rear of the building. He managed to sweep to her rescue, throwing open the door to his car and beckoning her to get in.
She gratefully jumps in, watching the jostling crowd with wide eyes. “God, I don’t know what I was thinking. It just…it isn’t like this in Nevada.”
Jack smirks at her. “Yeah, well, welcome back to civilization. I haven’t been out in public on my own since Disclosure Day.”
The weariness in his voice makes her ache a little. “It won’t always be like this though, right?”
He pauses a little too long before waving a hand dismissively. “They’ll realize how boring we really are soon enough.”
She can tell he’s lying to her, but she’s grateful. She figures it’s a lie they both desperately need to believe.
Sam looks up to see a young woman in a smart grey suit standing in front of her. She seems unflustered by any of the controlled chaos dancing around her, almost as if she were born to walk these halls. Sam’s a little envious.
“Yes,” Sam confirms a bit belatedly, pushing to her feet and trying not to look like she’s been caught woolgathering.
The woman gives her an understanding smile as if promising not to call her bluff. “The President will see you now.”
“Thank you,” Sam says, running her hands down her uniform and resisting the urge to check her hair. Strange that this one small office on Earth can give her butterflies when she’s been in a thousand more perilous situations. But at least then she usually had her team by her side.
Taking a deep breath, she pushes aside the beat of nostalgia and follows the woman to the Oval Office’s doorway, stepping through. The President meets her in the middle of the room and shakes her hand.
“Colonel Carter,” he says. “Thank you for taking the time to come see me.”
Sam smiles, amused by his need to make it sound like she’s the one doing him a favor. “Thank you for inviting me, sir.”
The President gestures to another man standing slightly behind him and to the side. “I believe you know General Landry.”
Sam smiles at Landry, crossing over to shake his hand. “Yes, sir. I’ve been lucky enough to help out at the SGC occasionally over the last few years.”
Landry laughs. “Modest as always. She kept us from blowing ourselves up, mostly.”
The President gestures for them to sit and Sam perches on the edge of one of the couches framing the Great Seal in the carpet. “I’ve asked General Landry to be here for this meeting as the new Head of Homeworld Security.” Sam’s head snaps up in time to see the President give Landry a wry smile. “Try as we might, we couldn’t get Jack to change his mind. Dead set on retirement, the stubborn coot.”
“Retirement?” Sam says.
The President looks surprised. “I’m sorry, Colonel Carter, we assumed you knew.”
“No,” she says, forcing her face to complete nonchalance. “I didn’t know.” The two men share a glance and she forces herself to smile. “Congratulations, General.”
“Congratulations to us both,” Landry says with a wink.
“I’m sorry?” Sam says, really beginning to feel like she’s on seesaw.
Taking pity on her, the President decides to let her in on the joke. “We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected by the IOA and Homeworld Security to be the new commander of Atlantis.”
“You’ve done an excellent job heading research and development out in Area 51. Your scientific background in combination with your distinguished military record makes you the ideal choice for Atlantis.”
“Thank you, sir,” Sam says, her pulse drumming loudly in her head. “I’m-,” she tries to squeeze out the word ‘honored’ but can’t quite seem to manage it.
“Completely blindsided, we can see,” the President comments good naturedly. “We will, of course, give you time to think it over. I just wanted to personally add my encouragement and to reassure you that your contribution over the years has never been overlooked.”
Pulling her wits together, Sam straightens her spine, following the President as he pushes to his feet. “Thank you, Mr. President. I’m honored, sir.”
“Congratulations, Colonel Carter,” the President says, holding out his hand.
Numbly, she shakes it.
* * *
Something is up with Carter. Jack is certain of it.
She’d been unusually quiet through this morning’s blindingly boring event. Polite and articulate, of course, and he imagines that no one else even noticed that her mind was engaged somewhere else entirely. He knows she is having a hard time adjusting to the limelight, so he’d chalked her mood up to that. He hadn’t started worrying until she blew off the afternoon session without telling anyone, but it was the fact that she wasn’t answering her cell that finally drove him to drastic measures.
That’s why he’s here, standing in the hall outside her hotel room, banging loudly against the door. “Carter?”
She pulls the door open in the middle of his second barrage, her eyes wide. “Sir?” she asks, looking around the hall as if expecting Replicators on his heels. “What’s wrong?”
He drops his arm, breathing out a long breath in relief at seeing her in one piece. “You weren’t answering your phone,” he accuses.
“What?” she asks, her brow furrowing. “Oh. Yeah, I turned it off.” She shrugs. “I guess I just wanted some quiet.”
“And the meet and greet this afternoon?” he asks, still riding the edge of his adrenaline, his panic ebbing slowly.
She seems to connect the dots. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think. I didn’t mean to worry anyone.”
That's when he notices that she’s wearing running gear, her hair pulled back into a ponytail. He looks at her closer. “Going for a run?” he asks.
She looks down at herself, almost as if surprised to see herself dressed like that. She shakes her head. “No, I…,” she trails off, looking self-conscious. “I almost made it to the elevator before I remembered I’m too famous to run anymore.”
Jack feels the last of his panic fade away. Carter’s always been an insanely private person, it makes sense that she might just want to chuck it all for a day.
“This place has to be swank enough to have a gym,” he suggests, still watching her closely because there is only one reason to avoid the treadmill: you aren’t running to keep in shape; you’re running to get away from something. Running had always been one of her ways of dealing with agitation in the old days, after all.
She looks up at him, seems to know she’s been caught out, and steps back from the door, gesturing for him to come in. After the briefest moment of hesitation, he does, pulling the door closed after him. Looking around the space, he can see they’ve put her up in one of those fancy deluxe suites, complete with kitchen and living room and wide, tinted windows with an expansive view of the city.
Carter has lowered herself onto a plush armchair but she’s perched right on the edge, her fingers digging into the arms of the chair.
“What’s going on, Carter?”
She pins him with a gaze. “Are you really retiring?”
Jack feels his stomach drop. Damn. This is one possibility he isn’t prepared for. “You had your meeting with the President already?”
“Yesterday,” she confirms.
He winces. Well done, O’Neill. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I thought I’d get a chance to mention it to you first.” As bad as he feels though, they both know that is bullshit. He’s had ample opportunity. He just put it off, over and over again, for some reason he refuses to acknowledge.
She doesn’t call him on it, instead looking down at the table in front of her. “Is that a yes?”
“Yes,” he confirms. He’s having a damn hard time reading her right now. “Already am, officially.”
She abruptly pushes to her feet, stepping across the room until she is only a few feet from him. He’s completely unprepared for the confusion and anger mingling uneasily on her face. “And was or was not your last official act getting me a job that guarantees I am as far away as is humanly possible?”
There’s way too much in there for him to process, so he latches on the one concrete fact. “Do you not want it?”
She's staring at him as if he’s started speaking in tongues. “That’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point?” he demands, his own anger sparking in reaction to her belligerence.
She looks pensive, her eyes traveling over his face as if trying to assess his sincerity. “You really don’t understand why I have a problem with this, do you?” she asks, anger completely replaced with a painful sort of incredulity.
“No,” he says honestly. “I’m sorry, but I don’t.”
She seems to shrink, looking winded like she’s just been kicked off the edge of a cliff. Turning away from him, she crosses over to the kitchen, leaning on the edge of the counter.
She stays like that for a while, until Jack is unnerved enough to cross over and touch her shoulder. “Carter, what’s going on?”
She turns, looking up at him, and he’s almost knocked back by the rawness of her expression, the emotions so blatantly sitting there. “How can you not know?” she says.
He’s still trying to process the look on her face, unable to believe what he’s seeing. “Carter…,” he says for lack of anything else.
He likes to think he’s a hard guy to catch by surprise, but Carter crosses the space between them with single-minded focus and her mouth is on his before he can even think to react. A million different reasons and excuses and plain old common sense keep him completely motionless against her lips, but she pushes through his lack of reaction, stepping closer, changing the angle of the kiss, and something inside him snaps and he’s kissing her back, his hands firm on her arms as he pulls her even closer.
It’s pretty amazing how quickly the sensations ratchet up, until kissing her just isn’t enough because she’s kissing him just as intently back and her hands press against his hips, holding them flush against each other.
“Jack,” she breathes when he stops kissing her just long enough to taste her skin.
He’s not sure if it’s the word itself that breaks through the spell, or the breathless way she speaks it with just an edge of awe. Either way, it’s like the intrusive ring of a gong. What the hell are they doing?
He stills, his breath heavy against her neck as he rests his head against hers, trying to find some semblance of control. God, he thinks, feeling her sway against him slightly and tightening his arms around her in response.
“I assumed you knew,” she whispers.
“No,” he says.
“It always felt so obvious.”
He shakes his head. “I would have retired a hell of a lot sooner, Carter, if I thought you still wanted this.”
Her face turns into his neck, her hands coming up to rest on his chest. “I never would have asked you to do that.”
He wishes she would have, because now it is far too late. “I still won’t,” he says, his voice heavy with regret.
“Atlantis,” she breathes.
“Atlantis,” he repeats. Pulling away from her, he paces just far enough away so that they are no longer touching, trying to wrap his mind around this. Carter reaches for the counter, leaning back against it and wrapping her arms around herself. She looks so damn adrift that he wants to reach for her again. “You can’t tell me you don’t want it,” he says instead, standing his ground. “I know you that well, Carter.”
It’s a dream assignment. A city built by the Ancients. Her own command. Daniel. Add in her discomfort on Earth these days thanks to her fame, and he can’t think of a single reason for her to stay.
“For this-,” she stops, looking up at him and correcting herself. “For you, I would stay.”
Jack sucks in a breath, and he’s peripherally amazed how easily she’s thrown him off-kilter yet again. If only it actually meant anything. He gives in to the impulse to touch her hair, sliding a finger down her cheek. “Oh, there’s not a chance in hell.”
She reaches for his arms, her fingers twisting into the fabric of his shirt. “If I go, I’m scared there won’t ever be another chance.”
He smiles wistfully at her. “I’m pretty sure we ran out of those a hell of a long time ago.” Somewhere between promising to shut any feelings away and letting denial become more concrete than reality. Somewhere between that painful day on the pond and today.
“Do you really believe that?” she asks.
It’s the slight falter in her voice rips at his skin. No one has ever been able to tear him apart the way she so easily can. He wishes he didn’t resent that, but damned if he does. So much for his upstanding acceptance of the situation. “What exactly do you think went on these last three years, Carter?”
She pales a bit, her voice wavering. “What do you mean?”
And there it is, the resentment welling so easily in his chest. “You asked me, that day at the cabin, you asked me if we were friends.”
Her eyes widen as she latches on to the elusive memory. “No. I didn’t mean…,” she trails off.
Jack waits to see if she will continue, but she doesn’t seem to have anything to say. He reminds himself that it doesn’t really matter what she did or didn’t mean that day. It doesn’t change anything.
“We’ve been playing at being friends this week,” he continues, “but we’re not even that anymore, are we? I’ve seen more of Daniel these last three years than you, and he lives in another galaxy.”
“I couldn’t-,” she tries to defend, but he can see it on her face, the grim acceptance of the uncomfortable truth. She knows exactly how far they’ve let this drift. Enough that anything they do today is too little too damn late.
Jack sighs, feeling any last bit of fight draining out of him. It doesn’t really matter what they’ve done to each other over the years, what they may or may not have hoped for at some point, not when she practically has one foot already in another galaxy. She’s going to pack her bags and get on her plane and step through that gate and he probably won’t see her again for years, if ever.
They simply aren’t part of each other’s worlds anymore. They haven’t been for years. He’d been well on his way to accepting that before today, he’s almost sure of it.
“This is my fault, isn’t it?” Carter says then, her face pale.
“Carter,” Jack says, not wanting her to try to take this pile of guilt and regrets on herself. She doesn’t deserve that.
“I did this,” she says.
He shakes his head. “Sometimes these things just…don’t work out. We have to accept that.” It’s what he’s been telling himself for years.
“Have you?” she asks, finally looking up at him. “Have you accepted that?”
He forces himself to nod, ignoring the twist of pain in his stomach. “I have.”
She visibly flinches, looking away from him just a moment too late to keep him from seeing the devastation on her face and he can’t help but feel that he might as well have slapped her.
“Carter,” he says, his voice softening of its own accord. “Just…go to Atlantis. You were made for that place. You’ll be amazing.” She’ll be there and he’ll be here and everything will be back to the way things have always been. An impasse.
She doesn’t seem to have any fight left, simply nodding her head. “Okay,” she agrees and he can already see her pulling everything back inside, shoving this aberration away with all the others. “If that’s what you want.”
“Okay,” he echoes, finally moving for the door as the need to be anywhere but here with her builds in his chest like physical pressure under his ribs. He makes the mistake of looking back at her one last time, sees her sitting on the couch looking deflated and he knows, knows without a shadow of a doubt, that her expression as she watches him leave is going to live with him for a hell of a long time.
He closes the door.
* * *
It’s the last major event of the week, a swank cocktail party attended by the highest echelon of Washington society. Word seems to have traveled fast about Sam’s new position, many people stopping to offer their congratulations. She’d only told the President himself a matter of hours ago. Not such a long time since she accepted her fate.
Sam still isn’t used to this attention, being the center of the room. Shifting uncomfortably, she wishes she’d ignored the dress code and worn her dress blues. Her publicist (Oh, God. How has this become her life?) had insisted though, giving her a gown by some designer she seems to think Sam should have heard of, like she has any need of ball gowns in Nevada.
It is beautiful, a smooth sort of silk that feels wonderfully cool against her skin. Though the skirt and neckline are modest enough, the fabric drops away alarmingly on the back, leaving most of her back exposed. Sam just wishes there were a bit more to it, or that it came with combat boots and a P-90.
After only twenty minutes of socializing, she tires of craning her neck around in hope of finding familiar faces in between awkward conversations with strangers, and disappears out onto a convenient balcony with a breath of relief. She takes in the cool evening air, tries to calm the droning pain in her head.
It’s still spinning from yesterday’s fallout with Jack and she can’t fake a single more smile tonight. She’s already skipped every other scheduled meeting today though, and she’s not sure she can come up with an excuse to miss this as well. Not when the President had mentioned during their call today how much he was looking forward to seeing her when he dropped in for a short while.
Sam closes her eyes, leaning forward over the stone railing, shutting out the view of the night-shrouded garden, feeling weariness tugging at her bones. She’s spent most of the last 24 hours trying to find the answer to one simple question.
How is it possible that Jack hadn’t known?
In her mind, she’d run through all their stolen moments, all those times she slipped, but when she thought about it, really thought about it, she was forced to realize that he was never there, not when she was her most raw. He was off being lost or almost dead, leaving only Teal’c and Daniel to witness.
And every time Jack opened even the slightest crack, hadn’t she always been the first to walk away?
Maybe there had always been too much baggage and resentment and pent up frustration for it to ever have worked. But even now, after the spectacular fallout, she still can’t believe that, can’t believe it never could have worked. Which only means that she must have missed a chance somewhere along the line.
That week at his cabin, maybe that should have been the time, but her father had just died and her career was up in the air. It wasn’t the time to make big leaps. But then, when had been the time? After she settled into her new job halfway across the country from him?
After that week by the pond, it was far too easy to let everything slide. With Daniel and Teal’c off-world, they rarely had reason to see each other.
Jack had still been her boss, technically. Maybe he wasn’t the one directly in charge of her or her promotions, but he still decided how much funding her lab received, how many new hires she was allowed each year as the program expanded. Strictly speaking, it was still frowned upon.
But it wouldn’t have landed either of them in jail, wouldn’t ruin careers, and maybe she should have just stopped caring what people thought a long time ago.
It’s the complete breakdown of their friendship that she can’t excuse though. She just hadn’t known how to fit into his life outside the bounds of their professional relationship. They so carefully trained themselves to avoid any sort of superfluous contact that when they changed jobs, moved apart, they were left with nothing at all. So she hesitated and second-guessed and tripped into an endless silence that she convinced herself he would understand. She’d left him with absolutely nothing to go on for years. Is it any wonder that he moved on?
Maybe the real truth she’s avoided acknowledging for so long is a simple one: she’d panicked. Finally having what she’d thought she wanted for so long, the reality of it, all she could think of was the high probability that she would find some way to screw it up. And when it went bad, she knew it would be spectacular. Hadn’t she proved that last night?
She’s a coward.
There is still a large part of her that believes she doesn’t have what it takes to actually make a relationship work. And maybe that’s what Jack’s really been all these years: an excuse to not even try.
No. He’s more than that, she knows. But she did capitalize on it. Used it as an excuse not to risk failing again. Jonas taught her more about herself than she wanted to know. She hates that she let him have that much of an effect on her life.
Had she really shut herself down so completely over the years?
It’s awful, having such brutal clarity after all this time, the way it illuminates every misstep she’s taken, every careless thing she’s done, never before letting herself think how it affects him. The knowledge throbs in her head, burns at her throat, but she hasn’t shed any tears over this yet, and refuses to start while standing right outside a glitzy Washington party complete with reporters.
The door behind her opens and Sam resigns herself to dealing with yet another stranger’s intent questions. When she turns, she finds Jack standing there instead, looking surprisingly comfortable in a black tuxedo. She wonders if he has a pushy publicist too.
“Hiding already?” he asks, carefully closing the door behind him.
She tries to force a smile. “I’m just…not really in the mood.”
Crossing over to stand by her near the railing, he shoves his hands in his pockets and peers into the packed ballroom. “Yeah,” he agrees. “Me neither.”
Silence falls between them then, surprisingly comfortable considering everything that’s happened. Sam continues to stare out over the garden when she feels his eyes sweep over her profile.
“Did you get any sleep last night?” he eventually asks.
“No,” she admits, knowing she can’t hide her exhaustion from him even if she wants to. He knows her too well. “You?”
“Not really, no.”
She’s not sure if she’s supposed to take comfort in that or not. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see him tugging at his tie as if wanting to take it off. The eternal fidgeting is such a familiar side of him that she feels a smile curve her lips, only to drop quickly away. There are still far too many unpleasant thoughts floating near the surface of her mind to pretend that things are fine. She’s just not ready for that. Yet.
She clears her throat. “I don’t…I mean, I’m not trying to drag this back up again, but…I just need to tell you that I understand. And that I’m sorry.”
Jack is quiet for a while, his hands having dropped from his tie to grab at the edge of the railing behind him. “You don’t have anything to apologize for,” he eventually says.
“How can you say that? I cut you out for all these years…,” she says, feeling the need to get this out and in the open, even if it’s just her being selfish again. She needs him to know these things. “I was such a coward.”
He gives her a look of disbelief. “You’re one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met. And I have seven years of first hand experience to go on.”
She knows what he’s trying to do, trying to deflect her guilt, not wanting her to feel bad about any of this after she’s gone. Trying to get her to pretend too, pretend that nothing is wrong, but she’s not playing anymore. “Not when it comes to this,” she says, turning at last to face him.
He looks up at her, his expression purposely bland. “Carter,” he says.
She’s given this way too much thought to let him try to dismiss it with that gentle tone, to let herself pretend it doesn’t matter. “I became so adept at shutting myself off, and not just because we had to, but because some comfortable idea of forbidden mutual affection was so much safer than actually risking anything real. And…I dragged you along for the ride.”
He sighs, probably resigning himself to having part two of this conversation. “Carter, I don’t blame you.”
“You should,” she insists.
“I don’t want to,” he says, the blandness falling away as he grabs her arm. His sudden intensity catches her off-guard and she inadvertently sucks in a breath. His hand softens on her arm, trailing lightly over her skin. He closes his eyes as if trying to compose himself, but when he finally looks at her again there is only honesty, his feelings for once completely open to her. There’s such longing and affection there that she wavers slightly, reaching out to the railing for support. “I don’t want to blame you,” he repeats, the words incredibly soft this time.
“Jack,” Sam breathes.
He drops her arm, turning away. “I’d rather we just say that we were cursed from the word go.”
“I won’t be on Atlantis forever,” she says because there’s nothing else to say, nothing else to be done, but, God, she doesn’t want to believe it. “There’s always the chance…”
“Maybe someday,” he says with a small smile, but she knows that’s the same hollow make believe they’ve been feeding themselves for years.
“Maybe someday,” she echoes, because at the very least, she knows how to play her role.
Jack glances back into the ballroom. “You know, I don’t think we’ve ever danced.”
“No,” she says, working to keep her voice steady. “We haven’t.”
“One for the road?” he asks, canting his head towards the dance floor.
She doesn’t trust herself to speak, just swallows her surprise at this strange twist. Nodding, she follows him back inside.
His hand brushes across the bare skin of her back as he guides her towards the floor, just the barest skim of his fingertips across her skin. It’s enough to send a shiver down her spine. He pulls her into his arms, perfect careful distance between them, but she still feels every point of contact rising like a flush across her skin.
He doesn’t bother trying to hide that he’s looking at her, like he’s trying to soak her in, somehow managing to say both hello and goodbye with the simple action.
Her hand tightens on his shoulder, panic welling in her throat at the thought. This is it.
“Carter,” Jack says softly, no doubt concerned by the tension building in her body.
“Come with me,” she says in a rush, the words building and compressing and tumbling out before she really gives them any thought.
Jack isn’t an easy man to shock, but she can tell she’s caught him off-guard. “Excuse me?”
Sam takes advantage of the next step of the dance, moving closer until her body almost touches his. “Come with me to Atlantis,” she repeats, steadier this time, because the longer the thought is in her head, the more sense it makes.
His eyes are a bit wide as he stares back at her. “I can’t just-.”
“Yes, you can,” she says, cutting across him. “You were the single-most important, powerful person in the program. You can find a way, if you want to. I know you can.”
He’s shocked that she would ask this, that she would deliberately take advantage of a system she has obediently served for so long. To be honest, so is she, but all she can think is we earned this.
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” he says, his voice a bit hoarse.
“Yes,” she says, looking up at him. “Yes, I do.”
“People would talk.”
“Let them,” she says, and it’s so damn liberating, letting it all go. “I don’t care.”
“It matters, Carter,” he says. “Your career-.”
“No,” she says, her hand moving across his shoulder, her fingers barely grazing the skin right above his collar. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.”
“Do you think that really makes a difference? You know what they’ll say.”
She does know. Innuendo and accusations of using the system to their own advantage and for once, they would actually be right. Funny how it doesn’t bother her as much when she’s actually committing what they suspect. She’s just not willing to hide behind circumstance. Not anymore.
Staring at the turn of his collar, she can’t quite bring herself to look at him. “Is that just an excuse?”
“If you don’t want to come…if you don’t want this, just tell me.”
It’s Jack’s turn for his arm to tighten around her. “That’s not… I didn’t mean-.” He breaks off, obviously flustered, and she may have found it endearing if she weren’t having a hard time just getting enough air. She hears him heave a deep breath as if making a decision. “Sam,” he says, his finger skimming along the edge of her jaw, gently urging beneath her chin until she looks at him. “You know that’s not true.”
She leans into the touch, her eyes closing briefly, swamped with a rush of relief at his words. Of course, that doesn’t change the material facts. Jack won’t willingly do anything to impinge on her reputation, even if it makes them both miserable. This she knows with complete clarity. Ball in her court again, then. This time she knows what to do with it.
The only warning she gives him is the glance she sweeps around the room, taking in the faces all around them, testing her courage. By the time her eyes return to his face, she knows he can read her intent, but in that fraction of a second before she acts, he doesn’t try to escape, doesn’t protest, rather staring at her in a sort of awed fascination and it’s enough. Right there in the middle of the ballroom with Senators and Generals and the rich and the nosy, Sam closes the last breath of distance between their bodies and kisses him.
She’d gone in with the simple intent of proving her point, but she hadn’t counted on the warmth of his mouth, his ready response to her simple kiss, to the solid press of his body against hers.
She can’t be sure, but she thinks there may be a flash of light somewhere. Go ahead and splash it on the front page, she thinks, pulling back just enough to see Jack’s face. “I should have stopped caring what people think a long, long time ago,” she says.
He glances past her, probably at the ballroom full of people openly staring at the drama unfolding on the dance floor starring two of the most highly recognizable faces on the planet.
“You picked a hell of time to decide that,” he comments, but when he looks at her again, his lips curve into a soft, intimate smile that she is sure she will never get tired of seeing. His hand brushes the small of her back, urging them back into motion. She hadn’t noticed they’d stopped dancing.
They make a few more laps around the dance floor, Jack holding her much closer this time. “You sure know how to make a point, Carter.”
She smiles, her cheek lowering to brush his shoulder. “Someone once taught me the importance of never giving up.”
“Must have been a stubborn old bastard.”
“You have no idea,” she says. Spreading her fingers across his shoulder, feeling the solidity of him next to her, the rightness of it, she makes her decision. “The way I see it, you can come with me, or I can stay with you. Either way, I’m not letting this go again.”
“You’d really do it, wouldn’t you? Pass up Atlantis just to sit on some old rickety dock with me.”
“Yes,” she says, her complete certainty audible in her voice. “I would.”
He regards her soberly. “I’m…,” he starts, trailing off as if having a hard time coming up with the right word.
“Honored?” Sam guesses, trying to cling to any last bit of levity out of desperation.
“More like I’m scared to death that it could never be enough for you.”
“Jack,” she says, waiting until he meets her gaze to continue. “I know I have a lot to make up for, but the one thing you should never doubt...” Taking a breath, she glances around at the crowded room again, wishing they had maybe a smidgen more privacy before deciding that doesn’t really matter. Lowering her voice, she leans in closer until her chin nearly rests on his shoulder, finally laying all her cards on the table, peeling back the disguise she’s spent so long perfecting. “You should know that I’ve spent ten years trying everything I could think of not to feel this way about you. Nothing, not time, distance, rationalization, or fear…nothing has changed the fact that I’m in love with you.”
She’s so close now that she can’t see his face, but she feels his fingers tighten on hers, feels the sudden stillness that overtakes his body before he steps back into the flow of the music and the other couples around them. They dance in silence and Sam focuses down on the feeling of his arms around her, his body guiding hers, the warmth of contact between them.
“We do this on one condition,” he says midway into the next song.
Sam feels her stomach flutter, almost missing the next step. “Name it,” she says as he smoothly helps her regain their rhythm.
“We leave the past in the past.”
She doesn’t say anything for a while as she tries to wrap her mind around the request. Only at his gentle urging does she finally move back enough to look at him.
“Sam,” he says. “I know you. I know that brain of yours has probably been working overtime looking for every mistake we’ve ever made, trying to see how it’s your fault. There is no way this is going to work if we can’t start with a clean slate.”
She looks away, staring at his lead hand where it’s wrapped around hers, the way his thumb slides across the back of her hand. “No guilt and no regrets, huh?”
“Something like that,” he says.
If he knows her that well, he should also know that isn’t so easy for her. Turning back to him, she says, “I can promise to try.”
He smiles. “Good enough for me.”
“Are you saying… Are we really doing this?” she asks, needing to know one way or another.
“Yeah,” he confirms, his eyes trailing over her face with affection that is impossible to miss. “I think so.”
She wants to kiss him again, her eyes darting to his lips, but she figures she’s already given the press more than enough to chew on. Judging from the smirk on Jack’s face, he knows exactly what she’s thinking.
“Oh, and one more condition,” he says.
Sam looks up at him, wary of whatever new curve ball he might be throwing at her, but he just pulls her closer, flirting with the boundaries of public decency as he lowers his mouth to her ear, his fingers tracing the line of her exposed back. “You keep this dress.”
His voice is warm and intimate, and it slides right down her entire body. She doesn’t bother wondering how he manages to keep them both afloat when her knees have turned to jelly, instead looking down at the dress with new eyes.
Her publicist is getting a giant fruit basket as soon as Sam can manage it.
“Deal,” she manages to breathe.
Jack increases the space between them to a more appropriate distance and she tries not to feel disappointed. She wonders how early they can leave without offending the President.
“So, Carter,” Jack says, his voice lowered conspiratorially. “How long do you think we have to stay at this shindig?”
She grins up at him, and then, audience be damned, kisses him again.
* * *
Six Months Later…
Jack lifts his arm, the pole an extension of his body, and with a flick of his wrist, releases the line, the lure arcing gracefully out over the water to land with a small splash in the distance. He watches it bob in the undulating surge of the waves with satisfaction and reaches into the small cooler next to him, only to frown when his hand comes up empty. He must have been a little more careless with his supply than he hoped.
“Damn,” he swears. Fishing certainly loses something without proper libation.
“Good thing I hid a few in reserve,” announces a voice behind him, a brown bottle with a homemade label reading ‘O’Neill’s Brew’ crossing into his vision.
Jack reaches for the beer with a sound of appreciation, the condensation of the chilled bottle slick against his palm. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”
Sam laughs, dropping down into the chair next to him. “And here I thought it was for the sex.”
Jack slides her a look, openly leering at the patch of skin revealed by her open collar. “No,” he corrects. “The sex is why you overlook my on-the-side bootlegging,” he says, waving the bottle at her.
“I guess I assumed that somehow fell under your purview, Mr. O’Neill,” she says, leaning back in the chair and turning her face up to the sun. “Maybe I should take a closer look at your contract.”
“Nah,” Jack says, popping the cap off the bottle and dropping it into the empty cooler. “You have way more important matters to attend to.”
“Hmph,” she says. “I’m sure a brewery improves the security of the city somehow.”
“Exactly. Keeps the natives from getting restless.”
Sam smiles, her eyes sliding shut. “Hey, anything that helps with morale.”
“You are a wise and benevolent commander, Colonel.”
“I wonder if you’ll still believe that when I get around to informing you that your next batch has been commandeered for a trade agreement with the Tirrelli.”
Jack feels the blood leave his face. “What?”
She doesn’t open her eyes, still lying back and looking completely serene as she soaks up the sun. “I wouldn’t worry, your production must have improved vastly since Rodney and Zelenka began spending so much shift time optimizing your vats for you.”
Oops, busted. The woman really never missed a thing. Or possibly Daniel tattled. Either way, Sam has an intelligence gathering ring in this city that would put most four star generals to shame. Or at least one former two star general with a lot of time on his hands.
“You know, it’s almost scary how much you were made for this job,” Jack complains.
She cracks one eye open, peering up at him with an intimate smile that shoots straight down to his stomach. “Don’t you forget it.”
He wouldn’t dare.