Title: Fine With It
Spoilers: season 8
Summary: Jack's with another woman, and she's fine with it.
Disclaimer: I own nothing to do with Stargate but my rabid fan behavior. Alas.
Sara knew that laugh. It still lanced through her, stirred her in places past reason, and her heart skipped a beat. Like her infant's cry in the night, capable of reaching into her and making her react. Knee jerk. Instinct. Autonomic response.
Sara couldn't stop herself from turning at the sound of that laugh. The restaurant was crowded. Friday night and all. Diane sat across the table from her, unaware of that soul-stirring laugh Sara would recognized anywhere... had thought she would never hear again. Diane, a friend from work, had lost her son, too. Her Jeremy had been twenty-one years instead of ten; he'd died overseas in the service instead of at home. Still, the two women could relate. As mother of a unjustly slain child and former wife of an Iraqi prisoner of war Sara had enough to understand enough. Diane was a comfort. Not to say she filled the loneliness Sara always felt, nothing and no one ever would, but empathy without the need to voice those pains was something.
Sara hadn't wanted to go out to eat that night, but it was Jeremy's birthday. She couldn't tell Diane no. Sara thought she might help, at least giver her some company on the coldest of all summer days, and she'd thought 'what could it hurt?' That laugh, god it was about to show her just how much.
Sara's eyes skittered over the crowd at O'Malley's bar and grill, seeking the source of that other-worldly sound.
As soon as she looked toward the pool tables she saw him. Jack. Jack wielding a pool cue like a walking stick, one hand stuffed in his jeans' pocket. He almost blended into the back wall shadows in his leather jacket, but with that smile he could never be lost in darkness.
Sara's lips parted, whether to gasp or cry she wasn't sure. Jack smiling. That smile. That laugh. He was different than her memories of him. Older. His hair was completely gray, his face sported heavier lines, but he was still breath-taking. Still completely attractive, and that smile made him even moreso.
A second laugh joined Jack's, a woman's lithe chuckle. Sara had to look. Next to Jack, a pool cue of her own in her hand, was a woman. Blonde, tall, thin, younger than Jack by at least ten years... making him smile and laugh. She had short hair, form-fitting blue jeans, and a plain white T shirt. She wasn't dressed to impress, but it seemed she was doing just that all the same.
Jack's eyes were alight. Even from a room away Sara could see it. He didn't take his eyes from the woman... not once. Sara remembered a time when he'd looked at her like that, when her life seemed too good to be perfect... clearly too perfect to last.
The woman with Jack said something, earned herself that lopsided smirk that used to make Sara melt, then she bent over to line up a pool shot. Surely believing himself unwatched, Jack's eyes traveled to the woman's ass.
Sara was furious all of two seconds, the time it took for heartache's old tang to settle in.
A crack of pool balls colliding and the thunk of three settling into table pockets.
The woman cast Jack a superior glance and straightened. Jack seemed more bummed by her rising than her scores.
And then Sara could almost crawl into a corner and hide. The woman stepped toward Jack and with the kind of brazen boldness as if she had every right she slipped her arm around him. Jack's hand snaked around her waist, held her close, and Sara could remember in visceral clarity the way Jack used to feel, the way he smelled, the way he touched.
The two spoke in quiet tones, nearly attached at the hip. If it had not been for outside intervention Sara might have stared ghoulishly at them all night.
"Jack!" a male voice called through the crowd.
Jack and the woman both looked up at the voice as a young man, handsome really, weaved his way to the duo. Jack released the woman in his arms to put aside the pool cue. His hands were free by the time the young man in glasses had reached the table and, flashing another brilliant smile, Jack and the man hugged.
Sara startled and looked up at the waitress. She was addressing Diane, not Sara.
"Busy night," Diane commented absently, "what's going on?"
"Some general's retirement party. You ready to order?"
Sara looked back toward the pool table, took the effort to look at anyone else other than Jack and those within his arm's reach, and noticed a 'vibe' in the surrounding crowd. They all did seem familiar with one another, joking and laughing en mass more than regular restaurant patrons would.
Sara glanced over at Diane. She had a brutal, openly honest relationship with the older woman. The subject of their children was off-limits but everything else was fair game.
"That's my ex-husband."
Diane's eyebrows rose. "Jack? Which one?"
Sara jerked her head in the direction of the party. "The one at the pool table..."
Diane narrowed her eyes in that direction. "The one with the blonde?"
Sara grimaced. "Yeah."
"You want to leave?"
"We just ordered. No... it's okay... I just didn't expect to see him here."
Diane studied Jack a time and Sara couldn't help but follow suit. Jack had abandoned the pool cue and was merely a spectator to the blonde woman who apparently was something of a pool shark. His eyes got presumptuous again when she bent over and someone in the crowd called him on it.
Raucous laughter exploded, oh god from Jack included, and the woman looked over her shoulder at Jack and his uncouth stare. Jack shrugged, unapologetic, and the woman returned her concentration to her shot. If anything, she bent over a little more... more than necessary.
"Humph," Diane grunted. "He's obviously got a type."
Sara had to concede that point. Fifteen years ago Sara herself had not been so physically different from the blonde pool-player with the distracting backside. But that had been a different time, a lifetime ago.
"I can hardly remember the last time I saw Jack smile and laugh like that..." Sara murmured to herself.
"Men," Diane grumbled.
"No, I don't begrudge Jack that," Sara surprised herself with her quick defense of her former husband. "I... I mean, it hurts, but I'm happy for him. Jack deserves it." Sara watched Jack a moment longer, then made a decision. "I'm going to go say hi."
Diane gave a faint smile. "Good for you. I'll wait here... unless you want me to come."
"No, I'll only be a minute."
She slipped from the booth and made her way toward the gathering. As Sara drew closer the woman abandoned pool to stand before Jack as he sat propped on a bar stool. Their hands met atop his left thigh and their fingers interlaced, unassuming but intimate.
Sara slowed before she was noticed, hanging back and waiting. Never before had she felt intrusive around Jack. Unwanted and unappreciated during those dark days right after Charlie died, but she'd never been hesitant about walking right up to Jack, even when he didn't want it. Now she watched him smile at another woman, watched his dark eyes dance with inner light at the sight of someone else, and she felt unwelcome.
The party clustered around the pool table raged on. The young spectacled man came to Jack's side and said something to him, talking almost as much with his hands as his mouth. Jack cast the woman before him an indulgent, patient smirk and turned his attention to the younger man.
The woman disentangled her hand from his and excused herself. Sara watched her move off and head toward the bathrooms.
Sara looked back at Jack as he continued to listen to the talkative young man. She'd seen that look before; something akin to the gentle expression he used to make toward Charlie. That almost hurt too much but Sara didn't retreat. It had been so long since she'd stood so near Jack O'Neill joy, and there was something glorious about it, like the rays of the sun breaking through the clouds on a winter day.
Jack lowly said something to the young man, and the latter abruptly shut up, frowned, and tucked his arms over his chest almost defensively. Sara could imagine how Jack could look upon this man like a child, because for all his adult years at that moment there was something vulnerable about him.
Jack smiled and patted the man on the arm. The younger man gave an affronted look, obviously tried to look put upon, but all the same when he shifted on his feet it brought him a half-step closer to Jack.
Jack smiled softly, looked down, then looked up and his eyes squarely met hers.
Sara stood her ground and stared back at him. She wasn't sure what kind of reaction she expected and so she could only wait.
Jack didn't react at first, probably startled, then his expression sobered (but didn't grow less gentle) and he rose from his perch.
In a handful of steps he was a pace before her.
Jack studied her a moment, and it was like a dozen years had never fled. His aged appearance was a trick of the lights and to her he was exactly the same as the day she'd married him.
Sara took in a breath. "I was having dinner with my friend Diane and saw you over here... thought I'd come over and say hi."
Awkward silence descended.
"The, uh... waitress said you were all here celebrating a general's retirement. Anyone I know?"
Jack smiled up at her and his head cocked in that boyish tilt. "Yeah... me."
Sara's eyebrows rose. "You? A general? Congratulations. I know–" she stopped sharply.
Sara continued carefully, "I know how important your military career is to you."
Jack pursed his lips, the crease in his brow deepened, then he shrugged. "Was."
"Yeah. Look, I'm sorry. I didn't come here to ruin your party." She considered him closely, could not help but remember the blonde. "You look good."
Before Jack could muster a response a movement from the corner of Sara's eye made her look over at the blonde woman standing uncertainly a distance away, watching them.
Jack followed her gaze and for a moment was lost for words. Seeing she had already interrupted them both, the blonde woman came forward and stood casually next to Jack. "Hello. Sara, right?"
Sara blinked. "Do I... know you?"
"We met once, briefly, seven years ago, and I've seen your picture in Jack's house."
Jack gestured between them. "Sara, Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter. Sam, Sara."
Sara shook the woman's hand. When Sam's arm dropped back to her side Jack discretely reached out and took her hand in his. Sam cast a fleeting look at him in reassurance.
Sara hated that Jack needed support to face her. "Well, I don't want to intrude, I just came over to say hello. Congratulations on your retirement, Jack." She couldn't help but smile sadly. "I never thought you'd make it this far."
Jack looked at her querulously.
"I always thought... feared you'd end up being killed in action. It's really good to see me proven wrong."
Sam looked grim, and Sara thought she knew how the woman felt. That expression told Sara that Sam might truly know Jack O'Neill just as well as she herself once had.
Jack let go of Sam and, to Sara's surprise, stepped forward and gave her a hug. Sara ached for a second then hugged him back. Age didn't change the way he fit against her, the way he smelled. Sara envied Sam these days, ones she'd had once upon a time before Jack lost his way along with his son.
The Air Force party continued the entire time Sara and Diane ate dinner. Diane imbibed in far too much alcohol, and by the time they'd received their check she was close to inebriated tears on the table top. Sara arranged for the manager to call a cab for her friend and once her bleary-eyed companion was packed safely away in a cab headed home Sara returned to their empty table to finish her own drink slowly. She hadn't found comfort in alcohol when Charlie died... not like Jack had. Sara remembered the nights she'd left Jack passed out on the living room couch because she just couldn't deal. Her husband's grief, his guilt, were too much for her broken heart to handle.
His laughter punctuating her ruminations was almost cruel. Still, Sara lingered because she was enchanted by the sound.
Sara flinched in surprise and looked up to see Sam standing at the table. She gestured toward the empty spot across from Sara.
Sara could only wave acquiescence.
Sam slid down in the bench and Sara sat face to face with the other woman. The two ended up staring a long time at each other in utter silence. Sara couldn't imagine what this woman's intentions were. There seemed so little to say, really. She had Jack, she had what Sara once had. It spoke for itself, and aside that what else would these two have to say to one another?
Sam finally broke the stale-mate. "I... I don't really know why I came over here."
Sara smiled thinly at the honest remark. Then it occurred to her this person could tell her what perhaps no one else could. "How has Jack been?"
"Good, I think. I hope." Sam stopped, gave a troubled frown, then glanced surreptitiously toward the distant party. Sara was attentive when she spoke again.
"I never knew the general right after... um... after Charlie."
Sara stiffened but listened.
Sam fidgeted. "I... I think he's a lot better though. I hope. Daniel would know."
Sam nodded. "Our friend, the general–Jack's best friend. He was there right after... he saw him right after. I think he's the only one still left who saw Jack like that. But I think he's better now."
Sara considered Jack's behavior that night. As she happened to glance in that direction she saw Jack standing shoulder to shoulder with the glasses-wearing young man, Daniel presumably. They were both talking to someone else but from a distance Sara saw only body language. Jack was open, accepting, comfortable at Daniel's side. When he smiled Daniel did, too, like the two were bound by mood. Sara had not seen Jack with a friend like that in a long time. When she thought about it, she couldn't remember ever seeing Jack quite that companionable with another man. Not even Kowalski. Certainly not after Charlie died. "I think you're right."
Sam gave a relieved smile.
Sara took another drink then set her glass down deliberately. "How long have you and Jack been together?"
"About a day."
Sam nodded almost sheepishly. "The general, damnit, Jack, was my commanding officer until fourteen hundred hours day before yesterday."
"A day after he officially retired and you're already together..." Sara mused. "How long have you two wanted this?"
Sam blushed. "Years."
Sara shook her head. "That's typical."
"Jack denying and disregarding everything except his work."
"It wasn't just the gen–Jack. I was just as bad. Neither one of us... we were just friends when it was all we could be."
"I guess it's just as well he found someone who can understand that. I never could."
Sam sighed softly. "He's... a very passionate man."
"Sometimes. When he wanted to be he could be."
Sam looked toward Jack among his friends. Her eyes were tender as she regarded him and Sara imagined she'd once looked very like her. Sam looked back at Sara and asked suddenly, "Are you okay?"
Sara blinked. "Me?"
"Yeah. It can't be easy seeing him with... well, me."
Sara felt a little of her distaste for this 'other woman' fade. "No... it isn't. I'm okay, though. It's... it's worth it to see him smile again."
Sam smiled with Sara this time and both women were united in the ever vigilant club of Jack O'Neill smile adorers.
"I'm not bitter about seeing him move on," Sara confessed. "I just don't think I could keep that up. It takes too much hate to be resentful and I just don't have the energy for that. I want him to be happy. If you can do that, and I hope you can, then so be it." Sara smirked sadly. "When it was good, it was the best."
Sam sat quietly a moment and Sara let the silence stand.
"He still loves you, you know."
"In his own way I'm sure he does. I do, too. Still love him, that is. I don't think you ever really stop loving the father of your child."
"Or the mother," Sam said with a gently playful smirk.
"You're going to make me like you if you don't stop."
Sam smiled. "Good. You're a part of Jack's life, you always will be; I would never try to change that... I'd like us to be... friends?"
"You must plan on making this long-term... you and Jack, I mean."
Sam nodded and was brutally honest with a near stranger in her next remark. "Rest of my life if I can swing it."
"Good luck to you, then." Sara thought a moment, then asked softly, "Do you think Jack wants that?"
"I don't know. We've gone day to day for so long... it's hard to say beyond tomorrow."
"That probably suits Jack. The future... he never was good with that."
"I can understand being wary of the future; it's too uncertain, but tomorrow... you can bank on at least one tomorrow, even if it's your last, and even if that falls through... well, then at least you only lost one day."
Sara smiled sadly. "You sound like just the woman for Jack."
"I hope you're right."
Sara studied Sam a moment, and the younger woman allowed it without offense or protest. There was a visceral, down-to-earth openness to her. She wasn't a super-model girlfriend to sew old oats, she wasn't after money or a prestigious arm to hang on, she didn't want his name for vanity's sake. The honesty of her affection for Jack was readily apparent, no vapid cheerleader or gold-digger glowed the way Sam did every time she looked toward Jack. It came from the depths of her soul, the way Sara once offered up herself to the same man. Jack owned this woman, and Sam surrendered.
For Sara it was bittersweet.
"Sam," Sara said gently, and it was the first time she'd uttered the other woman's name. Sam looked attentively at Sara. "Take care of him?"
Sam smiled gently and it did strange things to her face. She looked one part child and another mature woman, neither quite fitting with her chronological age. "I always have."
Sara believed that, and it helped ease the ache.
Both women turned at the voice each knew as well as their own. Jack was standing a few feet away from the table, looking between the two of them with uncertain trepidation. He looked askance at Sara, as though he wasn't sure she wouldn't leap up and bite him if he took one misstep. Sam must have seen it too, and the two women shared an enigmatic, humorous smile.
It made Jack even more uneasy.
"Daniel's going to make excuses if we want to sneak out," he finally said.
Sam looked at Sara and the former O'Neill nodded.
Sam slid out of the booth, stepped up closely alongside Jack, and her eyes turned up to his face. Their gazes met and they were AWOL. Sara watched them disappear, lose the rest of the outside world for five seconds, and she bid them well. As she looked at him she noticed the gray in his hair, the wrinkles he'd earned in her absence, and she understood that, for all this was her Jack, it was a different Jack, too. He was Sam's Jack, and it seemed to suit him. It didn't make him younger or stronger, but it did make him content, and Sara could live with that. She could let him go for that.
Jack broke the frozen moment by reaching down and taking Sam's hand. There was shyness in his approach, but once her fingers were laced with his he sported his certainty with all the pomp and superiority inherent in Air Force pilots. Sara knew it wouldn't take long for them to drop the shy hesitance; they were too good together to be bashful long.
"It was good to see you again, Sara," Jack said gently, and she would remember to reflect later with relish on the softness to his voice. It had been a long time since she'd heard him say her name like that.
"You, too, Jack. Sam," Sara only nodded in understanding at the other woman.
Sam and Jack slipped toward the door and Sara sat back in solitude. The party-goers on the other side of the restaurant didn't seem to notice they'd been ditched by the guest of honor; Daniel was a good talker and mingler, apparently.
Sara put down a tip on the table and shuffled out of the booth. It was time she went home.
Stepping into the Colorado night, she pulled her coat closer around her and looked upward. Dancing in the yellow light of the street lamps were lone snowflakes. Fall was setting in.
Sara reached into her pocket for her car keys and stopped when she noticed the parking lot was not devoid of human life. Two rows back stood Jack and Sam.
Sara decided to steal one more look.
They were locked in a tender hug. Sam snuggled into his chest, Jack's arms circled around her back. Sam burrowed tighter against his shoulder and one of Jack's hands left her back to curl around the nape of her neck. He pressed his face into her hair, pulled back to downturn his face toward hers, and even from so far away Sara could see him smile.
No... she wouldn't begrudge him this. Sometimes she might wish she were Sam instead of the ex, the one in his arms instead of the one standing on the side, but as long as Jack remembered how to smile like that it was all right.
She was fine with it.