When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Kahlil Gilbran, The Prophet
Sam blinks in the bright light of the hotel lobby, a sharp contrast from the December darkness of the street outside. The sun had set hours ago, not that sunset mattered much to an internal clock that was programmed to ship's time instead of some more terrestrially acceptable time zone. But it's well past the cocktail hour now, into dinnertime and beyond, and Sam's a bit later than even she'd planned to be.
That wasn't entirely her fault, though admittedly she hadn't protested much when Frakes and Hernandez from Engineering had caught her in the corridor on the way to grab her things. Neither of them were invited to Senator Monaghan's shindig, not that either one seemed to mind, which meant they weren't in too much of a hurry. Sam couldn't muster much enthusiasm about the good Senator's party, so she wasn't in too much of a hurry herself. But by the time they'd all mutually not hurried themselves to a conclusion, Sam had been left with less than no time to pop Earthside, check into her hotel, and throw herself into an evening gown and the appropriate hair and makeup. Then she'd walked briskly down the street from that hotel to this one, heels and dress and all, stalwartly ignoring the fact that the light coat she'd brought was bordering on completely inappropriate for tonight's weather.
She's pretty sure she still managed to miss dinner, despite refusing to go back and do something about the coat.
She takes a step or two into the lobby, her heels clicking softly on the marble floor. The place is dressed to the nines for the holidays, poinsettias stacked into pyramids on every available flat surface and the dark wood-paneled walls trimmed in magnolia garlands and holly berries and big gold bows. A Christmas tree the size of a Tel'tak sits right in the middle of the floor, covered with enough ornaments that Sam thinks if she looks at it too long, she might knock one off. The room's glorious, bright and shining and perfectly manicured, everything Sam would expect in one of the finer establishments in the nation's capital. But she can't help but feel more at home with the tiny artificial tree that someone's set up near the door of the Hammond's mess, or the sprig of mistletoe hanging in one corner of engineering that everyone so studiously avoids.
Not to mention she's a lot more at home wearing her uniform instead of this damn dress.
She doesn't see any familiar faces among the clusters of people sitting and standing here and there about the lobby, but that's not surprising. They're most likely already in the ballroom, enjoying the fruits of Senator Monaghan's generosity, with a side dish of his political whims and ambitions. Shrugging out of her coat, she turns about, hoping to locate the cloakroom, and spies instead the couple who've just walked through the door.
They spy her too, more's the pity.
"Colonel Carter!" Congressman Fisher calls out, raising a hand to wave in her direction.
She waves back, putting on her game face as the pair approach. "Congressman," she says by way of greeting.
"Jeff, please." He pulls off his gloves to shake her hand. "I'm glad we're not the only ones late."
She smiles and nods appropriately, but thinks in the privacy of her own mind that her reason's probably better than his. And her reason really isn't especially good.
"Have you met my wife?" he asks, turning slightly to gesture in her direction. "I can't remember."
"A few times." Gail Fisher, curiously enough, works for the State Department, serving as a liaison with Homeworld Command. Sam thinks that probably gives the congressman an unfair advantage of some kind. Still, she's a nice woman, as far as Sam's ever seen. "It's good to see you, Gail."
"You too. Are you just in?" Her eyes flick briefly upward.
"Almost literally," Sam laughs.
"I don't think I'll ever quite wrap my head around that. So far away, and then back in the blink of an eye." She shakes her head. "That's got to be weird."
Sam shrugs. "Weird's kind of a lifestyle choice at this point."
"I can respect that." Gail grins, then glances over at her husband to find his attention focused somewhere across the lobby. "But as much as I'd rather stand out here all evening and hear about the oddly bizarre life of Colonel Carter, Jeff here's going to get an earful if he doesn't make an appearance at the actual event." She slips out of her coat and waves a hand first at a side hallway, and then in the direction of the giant Christmas tree. "Come on. Cloakroom's down here. Ballroom's way over on that side."
"Lead the way."
The congressman and his wife enter the door first; Sam slips in afterwards, more quietly, without the pretty smiles and the flesh-pressing that Fisher turns on as soon as he's in the room. She drops back, and the pair quickly leave her behind as they pass from one person to the next, making small talk about heaven only knows what as they seek out the more influential people in the gathering.
Influential people are here in plenty, of course. Sam spots several of them as she surveys the room. A smattering of senators and congressmen. A couple of IOA representatives she'll be doing her level best to avoid. An Assistant Secretary of Defense General O'Neill had spent considerable time complaining about at dinner at Daniel's place about two years ago. And way over on the other side of the ballroom, the man himself, currently stuck between Carl Strom of the IOA and Congresswoman Antonia Lee.
She's got no doubts about exactly how much he's enjoying that conversation.
Her eyes linger for a moment longer, a bit of a luxury. Across the crowded ballroom, her interest won't be obvious to him or to anyone else. It's been a while since she saw him in person; just shy of three months, actually, when they'd sat at a conference room table along with Landry, Ellis, Caldwell, and the new commander of the Odyssey. There've been a few more meetings like that, in briefing rooms both terrestrial and not. Before that, he'd been at the commissioning of the Hammond, and she's spoken to him on screen and by phone and in the occasional tossed-off email. But it's nothing like it used to be.
It's nothing like those years in the SGC, even the ones after he left for Washington. No carefully accidental run-ins in the hallway, no time to drop in to her lab, none of those rarely-planned-in-advance get-togethers with the two of them and Daniel and Teal'c when he happened to be visiting from the SGC.
She's been busy; her life has a structure built by duty rosters and protocol, made challenging by the occasional crisis or puzzle to solve. And somewhere in the back of her mind she knew it, but she hadn't felt till right now exactly how much she'd missed him.
Or maybe she's just getting a bit maudlin as the years go by.
She turns away, deliberately putting the mood aside, and spots Paul Davis heading her way.
"I'm surprised you didn't find a way to get out of this," he says.
She raises her eyebrows. "Was that an option?"
He shrugs. "Not for us Washington hacks. But Caldwell sent his XO, and Ellis escaped with his entire crew - had to chase down some anomalous bit of noise out near PGY-934, apparently. And I don't know about anyone else, but General Landry's sure as hell not here."
Sam laughs. "I think we're all better off for that."
"Truer words," Paul says. "Speaking of which, it's a good thing it's Friday night, because at least I don't have to endure General O'Neill's post-party mood tomorrow."
"I can imagine." Her eyes shift involuntarily back to the spot where she'd seen him last, but he's moved on. "Still, I think I've got a few here who were looking forward to it," she says, shifting the subject.
He snorts. "They're too young to know better."
He's probably right. Sam can pick them out now, around the room: Lieutenant Kirby, who's on her command staff; Captain Alverado, with his doctorate in materials science and his slightly cracked sense of humor. A few other young officers, each dedicated and driven and brilliant in their own way. Frighteningly like herself a little over a decade ago, before she'd stepped through the gate the first time and come face first with the realities of a universe fraught with risk and wonder all at the same time.
No one's explained to her what Senator Monaghan's agenda is with this party. She assumes he has one. Whatever his motivations, the majority of invitations have gone to fairly junior staff in the program, from the Area 51 to the SGC and beyond. She even spots one or two from Atlantis, probably home on leave.
It's not that she feels old, exactly, just that she's not accustomed to being so forcibly reminded of what she's not anymore.
"Strange feeling, isn't it?" Paul says.
She makes her way around the room because she knows she should, talks with Caldwell's XO for several minutes, greets the scientists from Area 51, and has a word or two with the personnel from Atlantis, asking after the people there. She seeks out the officers from the Hammond and spends a moment with each of them. But she knows she's making her own people uncomfortable, even if they're too well-trained to show it. They can't enjoy the evening with the ship's commander hanging about over their shoulders. And even the young scientists from elsewhere in the program get that look in their eyes, like either they're afraid to talk to the legendary Samantha Carter, or they're bound and determined to impress her.
Paul's right. It is a strange feeling, like being one of the elder parents of all these bright, young faces.
She assumes she'll cross paths with the general eventually, because that's how things work for them, so she doesn't actively seek him out. She watches him, though, here and there as the situation allows. He spends five minutes in the corner with the senior senator from Wisconsin, whose name she's purposely forgotten ever since she had to brief him after the Atlantis incident last year. He gets grabbed on the way to the bar by General Cafferty, then stops to talk to Gail Fisher, who seems to have parted ways with her husband for the time being. But he spends most of his time on those twenty-something young men and women. Her junior staff, and the ones from around the fleet. Landry's people. The folks from Area 51 and the handful who'd come from Atlantis.
She stops at the bar and grabs a glass of wine and gives up pretending she's not watching him. It's the sort of place she's rarely had the chance to see him, and it's both fascinating and a bit humbling. He hates this sort of thing, of that she's got no doubt. But that's not all that's going on here.
"He's really good at his job," says Gail Fisher's voice from just behind her shoulder.
Sam turns and nods as the other woman steps up beside her.
"He hates D.C., of course," she continues, echoing Sam's earlier thought. "Makes no secret about it at all. But he cares about those kids, so he does it anyway."
Sam takes a sip of her wine in lieu of a response. It's probably not fair of her to be annoyed with Gail Fisher for being right, for knowing these things. After all, the list of things Sam knows about Jack O'Neill that none of these people do could fill up several volumes if she ever bothered to write it down. But she hasn’t been part of his life here, not the way she used to be. Not the way some part of her thought she'd always be.
"Not that he's easy on them or anything," Gail continues on, oblivious to Sam's inner musings. "Kicks their asses every chance he gets as near as I can tell."
Now Sam smiles, because that's the Jack O'Neill she knows.
"But still …."
"He always took it personally," Sam offers, her voice low and tinged with memory. "When we lost anyone. Didn't matter how annoying he thought they were the day before. Wasn't important if they'd gotten into trouble all on their own. He'd failed them somehow, and he hates doing that."
Gail looks hard at Sam, then nods, slowly. "Yeah. Like that." She takes a sip of the drink in her hand and puts on a lighter expression. "Look, we're heading out soon. I'm told we've got one more party to hit before I get to go home and get out of these shoes. The holiday circuit may be the thing that drives me to early retirement."
Setting her glass down, Sam holds out her hand. "It really was good to see you."
"Likewise," Gail says. "Come back sometime and tell me more about your weird life."
Sam laughs. "I might just do that," she says, watching as the other woman turns and weaves her way back through the crowd toward the door.
It seems like an end to the evening, closing out not so differently from how it began. Sam finishes her wine, and she shakes a few more hands. Jack's been backed into a corner by Cafferty and Monaghan, quite literally, and it looks like the sort of serious conversation that can go on for quite a while. Crossing paths doesn't seem meant to be, at least not tonight. There's an ache inside her at the thought, but she's used to that by now; just another part of Colonel Samantha Carter's weird life. So she slips out of the ballroom and across the too-beautiful lobby and collects her things from the cloakroom. Nodding her head at the doorman as she slings her coat around her shoulders, she heads into the night.
She's out the door and standing in the middle of it before she realizes the snow is falling. It's not that cold, not by the standard of some of the places she's been in the last decade or so of her life, but then again, she's not used to braving the weather in heels and an evening dress. Squaring her shoulders against the shivers that threaten along her spine, she draws her still-unfastened coat closer around her. It's nowhere near appropriate for the weather, but it'll have to do for now.
"You didn't really come dressed for the occasion."
His voice drifts from behind her, carried on the wind that's skating the snow off the sidewalk and into the street, and she pivots around to face him. He's standing several steps away, right outside the hotel's entrance, his own much heavier coat already buttoned, a grey wool scarf pulled around his neck. "Hi, sir," she says, lifting her chin and meeting his eyes with a smile. He looks a lot more put together than she feels right now, and she's not certain she's totally comfortable with the reversal.
But the corners of his mouth tip upward too, just for a moment, and she feels a little warmer, standing here looking at him. It's an old, familiar reaction, that mix of trust and longing, so old and so familiar that it's become yet another part of normal, like reporting for duty every morning and being grateful she's still alive every night.
She's really, really missed him.
"And it's funny you'd get that wrong," he continues on, finishing his original thought as though she hadn't spoken, "because I'm pretty sure we beam weather reports up to the Hammond every day." He tilts his head back and looks up into the sky, squinting his eyes against the light snowflakes. "Also sports scores. Probably amazon.com at this point."
She snorts softly. "I think those delivery logistics might be too much for even UPS to handle."
He makes a face up at the clouds. "Maybe," he says, studying the dark starless night for a moment longer before he shrugs his shoulders and abandons the mock-search for data streaming up into the firmament. "Not that I'd know, since the geeks in IT have pretty much given up all hope of explaining what they're up to in any way I could possibly understand."
She shakes her head but doesn't argue. There's not much point, because they both know she doesn't buy his old saw about ignorance anymore. "It's good to see you, sir," she says instead.
"Yeah, about that." He takes a slow step closer to her, and then another, his hands shoved into the pockets of his coat. "I get the whole 'leaving without saying goodbye' thing a lot, Carter. But you were doing it without even saying hello. That's new."
She laughs on a soft breath, surprised, and one side of his mouth quirks up again. His eyes, though, are strangely serious, and she finds she can't quite hold his gaze. "Well," she says, looking over his shoulder and through the glass doors of the hotel and into the warmly lit space beyond, "you seemed to have a lot of groupies tonight keeping you busy."
He lets out a soft sound in response, one part exasperated groan and several more parts long-suffering sigh, and she glances back at him just in time to catch the fleeting end of the expression that went along with it. This one's not so easy to fill in from that brief glimpse, because she hasn’t seen it nearly so often. It's flatter, drawn out and tired in a way that all those years out in the field had never made him look. As she holds his gaze for several seconds that are stretched by some sort of relativistic trickery, Sam finds herself wondering if she's ever looked that way to him. Then the wind picks up in a gust that flings snow against her ankles and tugs at the collar of her coat, and she shudders, scuffing her feet and kicking the tiny drifts off the toes of her shoes.
His fingers are already starting to work at the buttons of his coat as he closes the remaining distance between them. Sam rolls her eyes and holds up her hands in protest.
"Carter," he says, "freezing to death is a stupid way to go, considering the other options you've had the last few years."
She smiles at the quip, but she waves him off again despite it. "I don't have that far to walk," she says. She points vaguely down the street. "My hotel's down that way. Just a few blocks."
He raises an eyebrow in question. "You're not…." His fingers wave vaguely upward as his words trail off in some Stargate-Program-accepted sign language for taking a ride on a transport beam.
Sam shakes her head. "I'm going to see Cassie tomorrow," she explains, then gestures at the hotel behind him, "and I can't afford to stay here on my own dime, so …."
He snorts. "Yeah." He jerks his head in the opposite direction. "My Metro stop's that way."
"What, a guy like you doesn't rate a driver?" With a grin, she nods towards his shoulder. "That's an awful lot of stars to be carrying around D.C. on foot, sir. Don't they get heavy?"
"Thanks for the reminder, Colonel," he says, scowling.
Shoving his hands back in his pockets, he bounces on the balls of his feet and glances up and down the street. He pauses as he looks in the direction of the Metro station, and Sam realizes with a pang that he probably has better things to do than stand around in the snow talking to former colleagues, no matter how much past they share.
"I should let you –" she breaks off, and she knows she winced at her own awkwardness. She takes a deep breath and tries again. "It was really good to see you," she says, somehow managing to close her mouth on the automatic sir before it escapes.
He blinks at her, clearly confused, but when she darts a glance down the street to where his own gaze had been moments before, his nonplussed expression clears, shifting slowly into a smirk. "I was going to say I'd walk you there, Carter." Reaching up to his neck, he pulls loose his scarf and drapes it around her before she has time to muster a protest. "That way if you do freeze, there's someone around to identify the body."
She shifts from one foot to the other, uncertain, but he just stands there, looking pleased with himself. That pang she'd felt earlier gradually gets displaced by a warmth climbing up the back of her neck that has nothing at all to do with the scarf she's wearing.
"C'mon," he says, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close as he propels her down the sidewalk. "Before you get frostbitten toes. I don't think you can drive a spaceship with frozen feet."
They miss the light two blocks down, the blinking Don't Walk turning solid when they're a few steps from the curb. The cross street's wide and filled with Friday night traffic, so the signal stays red for a span of time that's just short of forever. The snowflakes seem to grow bigger as they stand still, the heavier patches scattered here and there foreshadowing the incoming storm. The wind's kicked up even more, steady now as it tosses scarf-ends and dress hem and pulls free a few locks of her hair. Sam tugs on the cuffs of her gloves and turns away, watching the taillights as they stream off down the street. She's feeling cold and self-conscious, and she's more than a little confused.
But Jack's hand closes around her arm, sure but gentle, and he pulls her back around, drawing her closer until they're standing chest to chest with his arms looped loosely around her back. He tips his head to the side and furrows his brow, and she waits for him to speak, but he's strangely silent.
With the heels she's wearing, they're nearly eye to eye. His sarcasm, his fatigue, and that reliably irreverent mood he's been holding on to for the entire decade plus that she's known him, they're all gone now, fled from his face and replaced by something deep and speculative that she's not sure she's ever seen before. He's studying her, though she's not sure what it is he thinks he'll find.
She wonders what it is she wants him to find.
A city bus blasts by, interrupting their reverie with a stronger gust of wind that pushes at her back and twists around her ankles, and by instinct, Sam shifts closer. Not much, an inch, maybe two; but his brow relaxes and his eyes soften, as though he's gotten whatever answer he wanted.
"It's good to see you too, you know," he says, his voice low and a little rough. Then he leans in, his lips brushing lightly at her cheek before he rests his chin on her shoulder. Through the flush of heat in her face and the tightness in her chest, she can't help thinking that this is how they might have been, if only it hadn't been for one intergalactic war after another.
Judging by how much she's aching right now, it's one hell of a might-have-been.
Predictably, the light turns green at that very moment – it always was a little more than the planets and the aliens that kept them apart, after all. Jack releases her slowly, first one arm and then the other, but as he steps away and off the curb, he reaches back to draw her by the hand across the street.
They're almost at the hotel when his steps start to hesitate. Sam glances over and finds him looking the other way, his gaze sweeping along the buildings beside them and continuing back down the street behind them.
"What is it?" she asks. But when he turns back to her, he just shakes his head. Tugging gently on her hand, he leads her into an alleyway between an art gallery and what looks like a very high-end furniture shop, both already closed for the night. He doesn't stop until they're several yards back from the street, standing in the dubious shelter of the gallery's service entrance.
"Sir?" she asks softly.
He lifts a hand and brushes those few escaped strands of her hair back, out of her eyes and off her face, and his fingers linger, tracing a line down from hair to cheek, drifting onwards until they're resting just at the corner of her mouth.
She's holding her breath and fighting off shivers again, but these don't have anything to do with the cold.
"Sam," he says. "Why didn't we ever …."
Her breath escapes in a rush, half sigh and half something else altogether, and she closes her eyes as his lips meet hers. His nose is cold, and his lips are, too, but she opens her mouth and darts out her tongue and he groans and presses into her, closer and closer, and she really doesn't care about the snow anymore.
She's smiling when she pulls him after her by the hand, into the hotel and across the lobby to the elevators. It's not fast, and it's not frantic, once they reach her room, as she'd thought it might be once upon a time. As maybe it would have been way back then. They stand inside the door and the seconds tick by. He's playing with her hair again until she turns and brushes her lips against his wrist and he lets out an oomph and leans in and kisses her once more. Then he takes his coat off and hangs it in her closet, drawing her own down her arms and off to do the same.
But when he reaches for the scarf around her neck, his fingers brushing bare skin along the way, she shakes her head, closing her own hand around it.
"Maybe I'll keep it," she says, smiling as she pulls it off and hangs it up with her own coat. Her voice sounds strange to her own ears, like an echo from another time, years younger, and his fingers flex where they're still resting on her shoulder. Like maybe he heard it, too.
"If you wanted my stuff, Carter," he says, "all you ever had to do was ask."
She turns back from the closet a little faster than she'd planned. His words are flippant, the delivery pure Jack O'Neill, but his eyes burn into hers, and his fingers slide from her shoulder to the nape of her neck, and when he kisses her this time it's fierce, deep and sure.
"God, Sam," he groans when they pull apart, his voice rough and his breathing ragged enough to reassure her about her newly weak knees and dizzy head. He cradles her cheeks in his hands and leans his forehead against her own. "Why the hell didn't we do this years ago? This has got to qualify as the stupidest thing I've never done."
She laughs, low and throaty, and presses in even closer. Her nose bumps against his as she brings their lips together once more before she draws him back after her toward the bed.
She wakes, sleepy-eyed, to find him watching her, his head half-burrowed into the pillow but his hand looped securely around her upper arm. Behind him, she can see the snow in little piles on the sill outside the hotel window, outlined against the grey of early morning light. The sky's still clouded, but the storm's beginning to clear.
Jack's thumb strokes the skin of her arm, and she scoots closer across the sheets and kisses him, a light brush of her lips across his own. "We didn't pull the drapes," she says, smiling.
He snorts. "I'm not sure we even turned on a light."
"The one by the door, I think?" she says. Goosebumps chase the path his fingers trace as they slide across her shoulder and into her hair, and she has to fight the urge to close her eyes again. "I don't know."
"Carter, I don't care." He kisses her back, and it's definitely not a little brushing of their lips. For a moment, she relaxes into him, warm and happy, a soft sound emerging unbidden from the back of her throat. But when he responds in kind, rolling over onto her and trying to pin her in place, she squirms out from under him with a laugh. As she makes her way to the bathroom, her skin flushes with the warmth of his eyes on her bare back.
She flinches a bit at the bright light when she flips on the switch, and then again, but with more humor, at the reflection the mirror presents her with while she's at the sink, washing her hands. She looks exactly like she'd gone straight to bed without doing much more than taking her hair down – and she hadn't done much of that part herself. She splashes water on her face and wipes off the worst of the damage; the rest will have to wait until later. With a last swipe at the corner of her eye, she tosses the washcloth back on the counter and reaches over to pick up her toothbrush.
She shakes her head and laughs softly to herself when she finds it's already damp. She ought to think that it's lot of gumption on his part, making free with her toothbrush when all they've really done is fall into bed together practically by accident. But she can't manage to summon any indignation. They've shared so much more enforced intimacy over the years. The dirt and the campfires and the inedible alien meals were bad enough, of course, but it wasn't just that. They'd nearly died together, time after time, been told to give each other up for dead and – impossibly – not given up, then or in the end. The minutiae of daily life faded against a backdrop like that.
Which, in retrospect, might have been part of their problem.
She leaves the toothbrush by the sink, runs her fingers through her hair once more, and heads back into the room. When she climbs back into the bed, sliding under the covers and settling onto the pillow, Jack props himself up on his elbow and looks down at her with a deepening crease in his brow.
"What?" she asks. "I don't care about the toothbrush, you know."
One side of his mouth tips up in a half-smile, but he shakes his head.
She reaches up and touches the line in his forehead, then traces her fingertips across his eyebrow. "So?"
"You looked like that last night."
She pulls her hand back, surprised, and she knows she's not hiding it at all. Jack's look of concern shades a little closer to a scowl, but he doesn't say anything more. Instead, he touches her shoulder and runs his hand down her side. When she bites her lip and sighs, his expression lightens, sliding slowly to a smirk.
"Actually, that's what you looked like last night," he says, and she blushes. But the serious look returns to his face. "I meant before, at the thing in the ballroom. You looked like that. Thinking heavy thoughts."
She hadn't realized he'd been watching her.
"I mean," he continues, "you might have been upgrading the Hammond's warp core in your head, for all I know. I'm guessing those would be pretty heavy thoughts. Though I can't be sure since I have no idea –"
Sam sets her fingertips against his mouth, and he falls silent. He's deflecting now. She recognizes the technique, the mannerism. They're flying blind, both of them, that one startling moment of clarity from last night having slipped from the instruments, and if they aren't careful they'll end up tipping themselves completely upside down.
She's glad to know she's not the only one with questions that haven't got answers, but it's terrifying nevertheless. She draws in a deep, slow breath.
"Carter –" he tries again, but she cuts him off.
"I've been in love with you forever," she confesses.
And like the snow last night, she'd been in the middle of that, too, before she knew it was happening.
Jack stares at her, his jaw literally dropping; then he gathers her closer and buries his face against her neck. "That's what you were thinking?" he asks, his lips moving against her skin, the rough whisper of his breath sending shivers up and down her spine.
"Kind of," she says. "Not exactly. I just …." She's struggling to find words, partly because he's sucking on her skin now, tugging at the exact spot where her neck turns into her shoulder. There's no way she's ever going to find that less than distracting, so she pushes on him gently and draws back to look into his face again. "They're all so young," she says in a firmer voice. "And we're not, not anymore."
Jack scowls. "I was never that young."
"No." Sam smiles at the old, familiar line. "But I was. I was very, very young." And it's very, very hard to admit it. "I've been living and breathing this stuff for so long, for so many years, and sometimes I wonder …."
What she'd missed. What she'd given up. What all those might-have-beens would have looked like, if they hadn't been so caught up in saving humanity and everything else that went with it.
"Carter," he says, cutting into her reverie, but he winces a little after he speaks. "Sam," his tries again, his voice softening. He caresses her cheek with his fingertips, cups her face with his palm. His thumb brushes over her lips, back and forth, and Sam's fairly certain she's not going to breathe again until he stops.
Though she's also fairly certain it would be okay with her if he didn't ever stop.
He does stop though, eventually, and pulls his hand away from her face again. "It's been a lot of really long, really crappy days," he says, his eyes never leaving hers. "I know. And honest to God, I think they're crappier now than they were when we were getting shot at all the time. Schmoozing with a whole town full of self-interested wonks and politicians who wouldn't know the better interests of the people they're responsible for if you tattooed it on the inside of their eyelids isn't … well, let's just say that some days I wish picking fights for fun wouldn't make life suck quite so much for the people I'm responsible for."
It's practically a speech, coming from him, and she takes his point. Because as much as he might hate it, it's got to be done. And right now, he's the best one to do it.
"And I know you love that ship of yours," he adds. She thinks maybe he'll go on, but he stays silent, watching her. Whatever point he's trying to make, he's waiting for her to fill in the blanks and get there herself.
She does love the Hammond, and her crew. Just like she'd loved Atlantis and all the quirky, headstrong folk who were brave and foolish enough to live there. Like she'd loved SG-1, all those years ago. When she was younger, she'd thrown herself into her work out of a sense of wonder, and of duty, for the challenge and the excitement of it all. But over time, it turned into so much more. And somewhere in the back of her mind, she's always wondered how it would even be possible to give herself so wholly to those ideals, those noble enterprises, so much larger than life, and have anything left over. The farther she goes, the bigger the stakes get, the more people depend on her – and the more insurmountable that challenge appears.
Then again, it's not like any of that has changed how she felt about him. Not once, not ever, in all those years.
Things were easier, simpler when it was the two of them and Daniel and Teal'c against the rest of the universe. But he's still the guy at her back, the one person she can trust without question. Maybe more than that, now, despite how long they've put it off.
"Maybe I do," she says at last. "But I love you, too."
With a finger under he chin, Jack tips her head up to look more fully into her eyes. "A lot of long, crappy days," he repeats. "But I wouldn't give 'em back if I could."
She nods, slowly, and he leans in and kisses her, soft but deep, rolling her to her back as he runs his hand up her side to cup her breast. His leg slides between hers and she arches up into his touch, needy, but she manages to pull her lips away for a moment, breathing hard against his shoulder.
"Not a day? Not even to get here sooner?"
He laughs into her hair, presses a kiss against her temple. "Well," he says, "you can't blame me for being a guy, Carter."
Then he shifts, his skin sliding on hers and driving the temperature even higher. He rises up over her and her hand meets his between them and he slides inside without further ceremony.
Like this, it feels like there weren't all those days, weren't all those years. It feels like maybe they've been entwined like this, right here, forever.
His arms slip around her to hold her tight as his face brushes alongside hers, morning stubble coarse against her cheek. "Not a single goddamn day, Sam." he says against her ear, his voice hoarse. "Not as long as we got here."
And maybe that's it. They're whole and hale and the world's hung on long enough for the next generation to come and help them hold it all together.
Turns out at the moment, she doesn't much care anyway.
When they finally drag themselves out of the bed an hour or two later, Sam lingers in the shower, while Jack orders room service and calls someone to bring him some clothes.
"Lugging all those big, heavy stars around has to have some perks," he says. "And there's no way in hell I'm doing the walk of whatever-it-is in mess dress. I barely forced myself into it the night before, and it's damn well not happening the morning after."
She laughs at him, but she answers the door when the bellhop brings up the bag, and again for breakfast about five minutes later. They don't say much as they linger over the coffee and eggs, looking out the window at the clearing sky, but the silence has a contented quality, reminiscent of mornings spent over campfires or in the mess, in between one universe-shifting moment and the next.
Until he sets his hand on her knee, sliding his fingers up the inside of her leg and forcing her to slap him away, laughing, before he takes them someplace indecent she really doesn't have time for this morning.
"When are you meeting Cass?" he asks.
"Eleven. Up in Baltimore." And she's got to hit the road soon if she's going to make it.
He nods. "You due back tomorrow?"
He nudges her foot with his own. "Stay at my place? It's even lower class than this joint, of course, but the food's not bad."
She flushes, and laughs, and looks down into her coffee cup. "Sounds okay," she says, then she raises her eyes and sets down the cup and kisses him one more time.
When they draw apart again, he's got a hand slipping under her shirt, and she's leaning out of her seat and practically into his lap. "I'm going to be late," she protests, pulling away and shoving at his shoulders.
"Get your stuff." He presses a last kiss to her lips and pushes himself up out of his chair. "I'll call Cassie."
Sam's packing up her things when he heads down to get her rental car brought up by the valet. When she exits the elevator, she spots him by the hotel door, still talking on the phone. She heads for the front desk to turn in her key and let them know she's checking out early, and as she waits for the clerk, she spots a couple of the younger staff from the SGC in the sitting area off to the side of the lobby. They're turned sideways in their chairs, peering around the corner and very obviously trying to see if that's really General O'Neill without actually being seen themselves.
She bites her lip and shakes her head, laughing to herself as she signs the receipt the hotel clerk sets in front of her. Jack turns back to watch her crossing the lobby. She smiles up at him, and he falls in behind her, and she heads out the door without looking back.