Disclaimer: Not mine...don't own anything...yadda...

Dedication: In the spirit of eternal friendship, sisterhood and all things sappy, this story is dedicated to my best mate Nikki; who's been around since the beginning of our teenage angst, and who, I realised over the past fourteen years, will continue to be there no matter how great the distance.
As a teenager, she was the devil on my shoulder. As an adult, she is my conscience.

So this one's for you, tart, right down to the title - because we never really were.

From one reluctant Brighton Bird to another...I'm gonna miss you.



Major Samantha Carter wiped her hands dry on one of the complimentary towels provided in the restaurant's gleaming white bathroom before checking her makeup in the mirror. Grimacing distastefully at the reflection staring back at her, she rummaged around in her purse for a moment before triumphantly producing a small compact.

She wiped the pale powder (appropriately named 'Porcelain' by the oh-so-original Cosmetics Company) across her nose, cheeks and forehead; thereby transforming the shiny appearance of her face into a much more satisfactory matt-like texture.

Snapping closed the lid; she placed it back into her bag and, straightening her tired shoulders, walked determinedly back to the milling throng currently swarming around the bar.

Carter's eyes searched through the crowds of people for a familiar face. They stopped suddenly as she spotted Jonas, seemingly deep in conversation with one of Janet Frasier's infirmary nurses. Best not to interrupt him, she decided, remembering with a small smile the conversation she had caught him having with another nurse a few days previously. //with any luck I'll get sick.//

Continuing her visual journey, Sam desperately tried to remember the names of various people that her eyes came to rest on. Unfortunately, and despite the fact that she had worked along side most of these people for the past six years, she knew less than fifty percent of their names.

Definitely spend too much time in your lab, Sam. She thought to herself as she finally spotted another familiar face.

Familiar: yes. But judging by the expression on her CO's face, also incredibly uncomfortable.

Sam grinned amiably and with some measure of amusement as she pushed through the crowds to Jack O'Neill's position - ensconced against a corner of the bar and desperately trying to be invisible.

"Evening Carter." He smiled in relief as she came and stood next to him.

"Sir." She replied in kind and watched as he gave the airman sat on the next stool a look to rival any Goa'uld - who in turn got up and moved away *very* quickly.

"Not really fair to be pulling rank on downtime, sir." She softly scolded as she sat on the now vacant seat.

"I never actually *said* a word, Carter." He reminded her, an amused glint in his eyes.

Grinning, Sam conceded the point before turning her attention to the patiently waiting barman and ordering a beer. "Another?" she asked Jack, who nodded and drained his glass in reply.

"So what are you doing here anyway?" the Colonel asked when she had paid for the drinks and her attention was, once again, all his. "I thought you'd pleaded too much work."

"I did, but Janet can be very persuasive when she wants to be." Sam replied, smiling.

"Ah." Jack knew Doc Frasier's methods of persuasion all too well. It was well known throughout Stargate Command that no one *ever* said 'no' to the base CMO without giving up the ability to sit down properly for a week. "Big, honkin' needles?"

"Yup." Sam grinned before taking a long pull on her bottle of beer.

"So where is she?"

"She called to say she was running a little late. Two members of '6' have come down with a nasty virus of some kind, and she wanted to monitor them herself for a little while before turning them over to the duty nurse." Jack knew immediately that Sam had meant they had been injured off world, but despite Hammond having booked the restaurant out for the evening thereby effectively making it a private function, the staff serving both the food and behind the bar were civilians. This reason alone was enough to necessitate the coded conversation.

But still, Jack mused as he watched the gaggle of people surrounding the small bar, the cover story for the Stargate programme had been ingrained into all of them so long ago, that it had become second nature. More than that even. Like breathing.

As if on cue, Doctor Janet Frasier appeared beside Sam just as the announcement came that their table (or more specifically their 'restaurant') was ready.

Jack took his place next to General Hammond at the head of the table, and Sam sat next to him. With some measure of surprise, O'Neill realised that even if Carter had been the last to arrive she would still have found the chair next to him empty. And even more, despite his show of fierce superiority over the poor S.F earlier, he had known immediately that the soldier would have moved the moment Sam arrived...with or without prompting. It was as if it had become second nature, not only to the two members of SG1, but to everyone who worked with them. O'Neill and Carter were a natural team. Inseparable.

The strange thing about it was, that despite the fact that it made Jack feel *really* good to know that Carter was always by his side, no one found their relationship strange.

In fact, aside from the whole Za'tarc-followed-by-entity incident a few years ago (which caused no end of gossip among the ranks), no one even bothered to ask about their relationship. There was no longer any conjecture about just how close the two officers were, there was no muttering about airforce regulations under people's breath, it was just...accepted.

Jack's musings were politely interrupted by the waiter and he placed his meal order quickly. To his left Sam was sat deep in conversation with Janet, and the Colonel took the opportunity to surreptitiously study his 2IC.

She really was beautiful, he decided. Even in her requisite BDU's she had the ability to do nothing short of bring a man to his knees. But it was never really her external qualities that had captured his heart. From the moment she had walked into the briefing room on that first day back to Abydos, she had re-ignited a fire within him that he had thought long since flickered and died.

The chip on her shoulder, deeply ingrained from years of fighting against masculine military oppression, had quickly been replaced by fierce loyalty to not only her team-mates, but to the SGC as a whole. Her unbridled passion for science and discovery and her unerring ability to boggle the most academic of minds gave O'Neill a sense of such pride and wonder.

But most of all - and this was the thing that made a cynical old Air Force colonel want to get on his knees and thank God for - was the fact that this woman, whom he loved with everything inside of him, had not only accepted his feelings for her with grace and dignity, but had also found it within herself to love him back.

"Jack, are you okay?" General Hammond's voice broke Jack out of his silent contemplation and he turned to face his CO.

"Fine Sir, thank you. I was just thinking about stuff." He explained, and nodded politely to the waiter as his starter was placed before him.

Throughout the rest of the meal, Jack made a conscious effort to join in the myriad of conversations going on around him. Hammond talked with him for a time about the new Military regulations coming into effect early next year. During the main course, Siler told a very funny joke about the difference between an Oldsmobile Cutlass car and a malp (who knew he had a sense of humour...) and just as dessert arrived, Carter started rambling on excitedly about the latest astrophysics conjecture surrounding 'dark matter' (luckily Jack had taken out a subscription to 'New Scientist' years ago and could therefore understand at least a quarter of what she was saying).

Everyone was talking animatedly and, Jack realised with some pleasure, seemed to sincerely be enjoying themselves. They did deserve it. He thought to himself. Things had been pretty tough on everyone lately. Every SG team had played their part mucking in to get the Alpha site, not to mention the men who lost their lives protecting the site from the Ashrak. The remaining members of the Russian team were sat huddled together at the foot of the long table. After their CO's death a few days earlier, they had been called back to Russia for the funeral, and returned to base without a replacement.

Jack realised, and understood, that they were mourning the loss of more than just a commanding officer and therefore would find it extremely difficult to accept a new team member. They were grieving for the life of a friend. Jack knew this all too well; he had experienced the same emotions himself only months earlier.

When Daniel had ascended he hadn't really known how to react. Sam had shed many tears over the loss of a man who she saw more as family than her own brother, and Teal'c had excused himself and disappeared into his quarters for over twenty-four hours. But Jack? Well, for a time, he tried to carry on as if everything was okay, and that Danny had only gone away for a while, but eventually it had gotten to him too. And despite knowing that his friend wasn't 'dead' per se, he still found himself crying into his pillow a couple of days later, missing his friend so much that he thought his heart would break.

When Jonas was assigned to SG1, he blatantly refused to accept him as a permanent fixture, choosing instead to belittle and humiliate him at every given opportunity. But instead of running to Hammond for a transfer, as many fully trained officers would have done, Jonas Quinn just took it like a man and eventually, earned his trust. Even now, Jack felt embarrassed by his earlier behaviour towards Quinn. After all, as much as he wanted to blame him, it really wasn't Jonas' fault that Daniel was gone, and over the past few months he had proved himself to be a valuable asset to any SG team. Jack felt proud to be his CO...not that he would ever tell *him* that. Wouldn't want the boy getting an ego, now would we?

Jack looked around at the faces once more. All the people sat at this table, he mused, had chosen to spend the rest of their lives lying to those around them. Each of them agreed to become part of the biggest secret in the history of the United States of America - Hell, in the history of the planet. Some, like Daniel, had even been forced to disappear entirely. Cutting themselves off completely from those they had known in the past.

Everyday questions regarding their chosen careers could be fielded and palmed off with ease, but sometimes, those queries became more sinister...dangerous even. Both he and Carter had experienced the brunt of those situations.

But it was accepted. By every single person sat at this table, from the lowliest SF to General Hammond himself. They all accepted their positions with dignity and pride. Each and every one of these people - some whose names he would never even know, had made the conscious decision to chose the fate of the planet and Earth's population in general, over a 'normal' life.

It truly was humbling.

There was a tinkling of metal on glass, and General Hammond stood up to speak. The room fell silent, and the waiting staff stepped back respectfully.

"You realise there is little I can say right now that would express my true gratitude to you all." He began, still keeping the message personal, coded so that only those privy to the classified information would understand. "But I just wanted to tell you how proud I am to be serving with each and every one of you. Both Civilian and Military. You have all done me; and your country, proud"

There was a general murmur of affirmation and a small applause as Hammond finished his short, yet poignant speech. Then he raised his glass high, wordlessly encouraging those around him to follow suit.

Jack could have sworn he saw mischief in those wise old eyes as he said; "To Deep Space Radar Telemetry."

"Deep Space Radar Telemetry." Everyone, including Jack chorused, and they all drank to the toast.

From his left, Sam nudged his shoulder companionably. "You okay sir?" she asked, repeating Hammond's earlier question.

He grinned back, causing Sam's pulse to quicken involuntarily. "Fine." He replied, and squeezed her hand briefly before letting it go.

Back to protocol.

He could accept that. For now.