Author's note: Shippiness ahead; you have been warned ;)
The next two days brought only excruciating boredom and great mental turmoil. Doctor Frasier had ordered Carter to go home and rest, wanting to allow her body time to heal from the concussion, the superficial abrasions on her palms, and any unforeseen trauma from going through the force field. Carter had protested rather strongly, preferring to be the one to get the initial crack at the crystal technology of the Vak'Umcuu, firstly, and also to stay busy with work. Time away from the base translated into lots of time wandering around with nothing to do but think. Unfortunately for Carter, Frasier possessed supreme authority where medical matters were involved, and the Major's objections had fallen on deaf ears.
The diminutive doctor had also stipulated that Carter was not to drive or engage in any strenuous activity until she returned to work, and so Carter had reluctantly arranged to go home. She hadn't seen the Colonel since their conversation in the infirmary and her emotions were still too close the surface for it to be…safe…for her to ask him to drive her. She'd thought of Daniel next, but then imagined what the ride home would be like: her, still vulnerable and introspective after the conversation with O'Neill, trying to remain composed in the face of his quiet support. It made her realize that she'd be better off alone, at least until she got some things sorted out.
Deciding that while having a cab meet her at the entrance of the complex was hardly a breach of security, it just felt odd, she'd tapped Siler, who had been more than happy to do her the favor. Riding in silence, Carter told herself that she wasn't running away from the mountain, or anyone in it.
Yeah sure, as the Colonel would have said. You betcha.
The time away was as agonizingly dull as she'd suspected it would be. She rattled around in her empty house, all alone with nothing but torturous memories for company.
"I don't think you understand what I'm saying here…I want there to be a way."
Colonel O'Neill's words echoed unceasingly in her thoughts, all day, all night, twisting sinuously through her mind and causing her to toss and turn into the wee hours of the morning. No matter the position, though, and no matter how many times she came back to the conclusion that there was no help for it, she wanted there to be a way, too.
It wasn't easy being an intelligent, blond woman, even in the twenty first century. In a military environment the obstacles were even bigger; the hurdles higher. Surrounded by mostly men, many of whom seemed to divide their time evenly between ogling the women in their midst and carefully watching for any perceived symptoms of 'that time of the month'. And always, always, there was the ever-present pressure to prove yourself worthy of wearing the uniform. Worthy of being there and doing the job, like the men. The old cliché about having to work twice as hard for the same amount of respect came to mind. And despite the pitfalls of being perceived as an 'ice queen', Carter had always done her best to adhere strictly to the regulations, maintaining an impenetrable, irreproachable exterior. It had been a long while since she'd had to wear that chip on her shoulder; she'd earned herself a niche in the Stargate program. She was well-known there, and respected. But the practice of throwing herself into her rank and following regulations to the letter had become habit.
It was mostly for this reason, to retain the essence of the professional woman she'd worked so hard to become, that she'd suggested what she had during the zay'tarc incident. She remembered her words clearly…"Sir, none of this has to leave this room."
…and the look of uncertainty – and disappointment? – that had flashed across O'Neill's face as he'd asked if they were okay with that. At the time she'd thought his question was in reference to whether or not she'd still be able to serve under his command, knowing his feelings for her. Now she wondered if perhaps he'd meant something else, in addition. Or perhaps even something else entirely. If maybe he'd meant…Is that what you want?
"Yes, sir," she'd replied, seeking only to preserve her career, and his. Being a woman in the military, she was perhaps even more aware than he of what even the hint of impropriety might mean. When she suggested that they 'leave it in the room', a part of her had been doing the only thing she could to protect her commanding officer from potential fallout.
But now, the question had been asked again. And though the stakes were clearer, finding the right answer felt more elusive than ever.
The prospect of a third day stuck at home alone had been too much for her and she'd finally broken down and called Daniel, realizing that she needed to talk with someone.
She'd been in luck. Though he – like Carter – often occupied himself during downtime by working, he'd been at home when she called and had come right over.
Carter had nearly peed herself in excitement. Okay, that was a bit of an exaggeration, but it was nice to see someone other than her own, haunted face in the mirror, again, and a huge relief to be able to get everything off her chest. Her plants had been very attentive listeners over the past three days, but it just wasn't the same. Plus, they couldn't give advice.
Daniel had refused her attempts to play hostess, and instead cooked her lunch, only allowing Carter to stir the tomato soup he'd prepared along with the grilled cheese sandwiches. She thought he was being a little too protective, considering that she was well enough to be permitted to return to work the next day, but he would not be dissuaded.
Now, as he polished off the last bite of his sandwich, Daniel wiped his mouth with a napkin and shook his head, reeling from the wealth of information Carter had provided him with this afternoon. "I still can't believe no one told me about the zay'tarc thing."
"Well, it's hardly something we wanted everyone to know," she said defensively.
"I'm hardly 'everyone', Sam."
"I know," Carter said, guilt tugging at her. "It's just…it wasn't an easy thing to go through. It's still not easy." She dropped her head, resting it in her arms, which were crossed on the kitchen table. "Oh, Daniel, I don't know what to do."
"Well, what do you want to do?" Daniel asked pragmatically.
Carter thought about it, trying to sum up everything she was feeling in a logical, rational order. "I love my life, Daniel. And I love the Air Force. True, at first I just viewed it as a stepping stone into NASA, but I've worked hard to get where I am and I'm good at it."
Daniel nodded his agreement, and she went on. "And I love the Stargate program. It's everything and more than I was hoping for back when I was a kid dreaming of being an astronaut. I don't think I could give it up. I don't think I should, for that matter. I mean, I know the program would go on without me, but I also know that what we're doing is very important. But…"
A small, gentle smile graced Daniel's lips. "But you love Jack."
Carter nodded, looking down. She didn't trust herself to speak, just then, suddenly overwhelmed again by the emotions that had plagued her even more acutely ever since rolling through that damned barrier. A longing so penetrating that she felt hollow, as if something precious had been taken from inside her, leaving her empty. Something was missing, and she could no longer deny what it was.
She took a deep breath. "He was right. It was easier before, when it wasn't out in the open. When neither of us could be sure exactly how the other felt. Now that we know…"
She finally looked up at the archaeologist again, her eyes pleading for help. "What do you think?"
Daniel's expression was pensive…a very familiar look, for him. His voice, when he spoke, was calm and thoughtful. "You want to know what I think. Well, I think it's very telling that you didn't call Janet for advice. Of course, she's an officer as well as your friend. And Teal'c…well, he's pretty insightful in his own way, but the Jaffa are their own sort of military. What I find interesting is that you called the one, single, non-military person you can talk about it with. What does that say to you?"
Carter reflected on that for a moment, belatedly wondering if she'd given any thought to calling Janet at all. As a fellow woman, she may have been more sympathetic to her dilemma, no matter how close Carter's team members were to each other. But Daniel was right…Janet wasn't just her friend; she was also an officer in the United States Air Force, sworn to uphold the same regulations that Carter was. While Janet the woman may have sympathized, Dr. Frasier the officer would have been compelled to advise Carter to transfer out from under Colonel O'Neill's command. She would have been obligated to advise her not to pursue any sort of unprofessional relationship with her commanding officer.
And that, Carter realized, was why she hadn't called Janet.
"It says," she replied slowly to Daniel's question, realization dawning on her face, "that I already knew what I wanted, and I just needed someone to bounce it off of. Someone who'd share my opinion."
Daniel sat back and grinned. "So, what are you going to do?"
It was Carter's first day back after the vacuum cleaner cave incident, and Colonel O'Neill had yet to encounter her.
He knew she was back because Dr. Frasier had told him (on Monday, when he'd innocently stopped by the infirmary after Carter was discharged) how long she'd be out and when she'd be fit to return to duty. He also knew she was back because Daniel had mentioned (today, when O'Neill had a little more obviously strolled into the archaeologist's office seeking his 2IC) that he'd given her a ride in to work this morning, due to the fact that her car had been left at the base during her down time.
So he knew she was here, he just…couldn't find her.
She hadn't been in her lab when he checked it upon reporting to the base that morning, nor any of the half-dozen times he'd checked it throughout the day. Daniel's office, Teal'c's room, command, and the commissary had all been equally devoid of the Major on each of his circuits.
He wondered if perhaps it was for the best. The whole reason he was looking for her was because he wanted to talk some more. He was far from satisfied with the way they'd left things in the infirmary, and wanted to discuss the plan he'd developed to give them a chance. But then again, they probably really shouldn't be talking about any potential relationship between them while on base, anyway. He'd actually given a thought or two (or eleven or twelve) to calling her up or going over to her place while she'd been away from work, but figured that was an even worse idea. At least on base he could be certain he wouldn't break down and do something General Hammond would make him regret.
So maybe it was fortunate that he couldn't locate her, although it was frustrating as hell. He'd really wanted to go over his plan of action with her before implementing it. However, it was quitting time on the last day before the weekend, and he just couldn't wait anymore.
He stopped by his office one last time, pausing to appreciate the nice, clean surface of his desk. It had been awhile since he'd seen the polished wood beneath all the papers and reports that usually littered it, and he allowed himself a final, admiring glance at the empty 'inbox' tray. It had been some time since he'd seen the bottom of that puppy, too. He skimmed the fingertips of one hand over the nameplate resting on the edge of the desk, and then left, shutting the door behind him. He had no need to use the computer. He'd typed up his resignation three days ago.
General Hammond looked back up at Colonel O'Neill. "What's this all about, son?"
O'Neill nodded at Hammond's hands, indicating the letter that the older man had briefly scanned after removing it from its envelope. "I believe it's self explanatory, General."
"I'm not asking you the purpose of it, Jack, I know what a letter of resignation is for. What I want to know is why?"
O'Neill parted his lips and drew a breath, then realized he had no idea how to tell his commanding officer that he was in love with his own second-in-command. "Personal reasons, sir," he finally said.
General Hammond stared at him hard for a moment, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, Jack, that's just not good enough. Request denied."
Shock rippled through O'Neill, shooting his eyes wide open with incredulity. "Denied? But…you can't deny me retirement!" Hammond continued to stare at him, and O'Neill began to feel a little uncomfortable. "Sir," he added, just to be on the safe side.
"I can, and I will, Colonel," the General declared. "You're one of my best people, and we can't afford to lose you right now."
"That's my final word, Colonel. Dismissed."
O'Neill knew an order when he heard one, and the General's voice was nearly sharp enough to stiffen him into a salute. Nearly. "Yes sir," he managed to bite out, then turned to go, fuming.
He made it as far as the doorway before he spun around. "No, damnit. No, sir."
He stalked back to Hammond's desk, slapping his hands down on its surface and leaning in to face the seated man. "All right, you want to know why? I'll tell you. I'm in love with Carter. I have been for a long time, actually, and I can't keep pretending that I'm not. You remember when you insinuated that you knew how much she meant to me, and I brushed it off, saying I was concerned just because she's a very valuable member of my team? Well you were right. You were so on target. You're a very perceptive man, General. You have to have been aware of this…this thing between us. This can't be a surprise to you."
General Hammond calmly regarded his team leader, inclining his head in inquiry. "And have you discussed this with Doctor Carter?"
O'Neill stood up again, subconsciously backing off as Hammond effectively put him on the defensive. "Well I'll…uh, I'll get to that, when I can…find her."
Hammond shot him a look. O'Neill couldn't describe it, but he suddenly felt like a kid again, impetuous and sort of stupid. "She's been on down time," he said defensively. "And I tried to find her today, but she's disap…look, this is beside the point, General!
"I'd think her opinion would play a big part in this sort of decision, Colonel. Don't you think you should talk to her, first?"
Something in the General's tone triggered a buzz of suspicion in O'Neill's brain. What was the General getting at? "Is it just me, or are you taking this way too calmly?" he asked.
Were Hammond's eyes…twinkling at him?
The General waved a hand. "As you said, Jack, this is hardly news to me. It's just been a matter of time, really."
O'Neill's instincts were clamoring, now. Something was definitely off. He shook his head. "No, I don't buy that. What's going on?"
"I'll answer your question, Colonel, if you'll answer mine first. Everything you've achieved in the Air Force, your rank, all of the things you've seen and done. All of the worlds out there as yet undiscovered. Are you really willing to give all of that up for her?"
At least O'Neill had an answer for that one, even if it was difficult to be so open with his commanding officer. "Yes, sir. I uh…I can't deny that I'll miss all of this. But I've put another whole part of my life on hold for it, and I'm not willing to do that anymore. If I've got a chance with Carter…I've gotta take it, sir."
To his surprise, General Hammond smiled. "That's very touching. I wish Doctor Carter could have heard it."
O'Neill self-consciously dropped his gaze, looking down at his feet. He resisted the urge to toe a circle on the floor with his shoe and say 'Aww shucks, General.' Instead, he settled for, "So does that mean you'll accept my resignation?"
Hammond's smile remained firmly in place. "No. Request denied."
O'Neill's eyes flew back up to meet the General's. "What?" he sputtered. "But…sir…why the hell not?!"
He was right. Hammond's eyes were definitely sparkly. "Because I won't lose two of my best officers on the same day, Colonel."
O'Neill knew his face was a mask of confusion, and he bet he didn't look very intelligent just then, either, with his mouth hanging open. Sometimes, there just weren't enough words or good grammar to properly convey a sentiment. Now was one of those times. "Huh?"
Hammond's smile widened into a grin, and damned if he didn't look downright jovial. "You two should really talk more, Jack. Doctor Carter was in here an hour ago to submit her own resignation, for the same reason you just tried to. You just missed her."
O'Neill absolutely could not wrap his brain around what the General was trying to tell him. It just didn't make any sense. Inconceivable; that's what it was. He'd always liked that word, after Cassie made him watch 'The Princess Bride'. Inconceivable!
"What do you mean she…" he finally started, his mouth faster than his brain (so what else was new?). Then something else the General had been saying finally penetrated. "Have you been calling her Doctor Carter?"
Hammond's mirth finally beat him, and he chuckled, shaking his head. "If only you could see your face, Jack. I'll have to save today's security tape from my office."
O'Neill crossed his arms, displeasure radiating off him in waves. "I'm so glad my life amuses you, sir."
Finally, thankfully, the General wound down. To give him credit, O'Neill thought, he hadn't exactly gotten 'wound up'. Two Star Generals just didn't do such things. But of all the times for him to abandon professionalism, when all O'Neill wanted was a straight answer! "All right, son. Yes, Doctor Carter resigned earlier today. And yes, I've been referring to her as 'doctor'. Frankly, the only reason I accepted her resignation, besides the fact that she got here first, is because she's going to continue on in a civilian capacity, like Doctor Jackson. We can't afford to lose her, either."
Here he shot a meaningful look at his 2IC. "You know that question I asked you? About whether you really wanted to give it all up for Doctor Carter? She gave me the same answer you did."
O'Neill was stunned, not sure how he felt, yet. Everything he'd been intending had just been turned completely upside down. No surprise, Carter seemed to always be one step ahead of him.
On one hand he'd just lost his Major. Already the first strings of guilt tugged at him, guilt that she'd given up a part of her life for him. On the other hand, he'd just gained…
Holy crap, what was he still doing here?
With absolutely nothing less than dawning joy on his face he looked at the General, wordlessly seeking permission.
Hammond smiled benevolently at him, correctly interpreting his 2IC's expression. "Dismissed, Colonel. And I don't want to see either of you in here until Monday."
This time O'Neill did salute…a snappy one that would have made his old drill sergeant (tough old coot that he'd been) proud. "Not a chance, sir! Thank you, sir," he said enthusiastically, feeling ridiculously giddy.
He spun on his heel and headed for the door for the second time in five minutes…this time in a decidedly better mood. Again, though, he paused at the door and turned back. "Oh, and General…"
He nodded at his resignation and the General, still smiling, picked it up off the desk and ripped it in half. O'Neill grinned at him, and hurried out.
Unfortunately for the archaeologist standing just outside the General's door, O'Neill didn't get very far.
The Colonel saw nothing in his haste; he was aware of only one objective: Get to Carter. He was so focused on it that he completely missed Daniel standing outside the office, trying to listen. There was an impact, and the next thing he knew his teammate was sprawled out on his back on the floor, blinking rapidly behind his glasses, which had been knocked askew. He straightened them with one hand as O'Neill hauled him up by the other.
"Sorry, Daniel, I didn't see you there," O'Neill said distractedly. Then it hit him. "Hey, you were eavesdropping!"
Daniel held his palms out in a gesture of innocence. "In my defense, I was running after you the whole way here, trying to stop you once I realized what you were going to do." Consternation broke out all over his face. "He didn't let you resign, did he?"
"No," O'Neill said. "Wait a minute, you knew? You knew all day, and every time I came to your office looking for her you didn't tell me?!"
Worry dropped away and Daniel smiled in a mixture of relief and amusement. "I sort of figured it was her thing to tell you, Jack. I, ah, I guess neither of us expected you to try and resign on the same day, though."
A helpless laugh escaped O'Neill as he restlessly shifted on his feet, unable to remain still. He abruptly became aware that he was grinning like an idiot.
It was infectious. Daniel couldn't seem to help but smile slowly back at him, observing the way he was champing at the bit. "Go get her, Jack," Daniel encouraged him, and it was all that was needed.
O'Neill took off at a run.
The roar of an engine outside caught her attention, but her heart didn't start pounding until there was a squeal of tires, then the sound of a door slamming shut a moment later.
Heart catching in her throat, Carter rose from her position on the floor against the far wall in the foyer and took a step toward the front door. She'd been in the same spot for the past hour, ever since arriving home. Entering the house proper only long enough set some CDs on to play quietly – in the hopes that music would distract her from her jangling nerves – she'd returned to the foyer and slid down the wall facing the front door, sitting at the base and waiting. Hoping.
She'd only made it another two steps before there was a sharp knock at the door. Loud and insistent. Carter stared at the innocent white door, wondering if she'd ever been quite this scared before. Before it was reasonably appropriate, another harsh, impatient knock sounded from the other side.
Oh, she couldn't breathe. But she could run, apparently, because suddenly she was at the door, scrabbling at the deadbolt, turning the knob and pulling the door wide open so hard that it slammed against the inner wall.
He loomed on the other side, eyes already burning into her, so much meaning in his expression that she couldn't speak. But by this point words were unnecessary. All the desire, the tenderness, the passion, the history, the possibilities…they were all unveiled, now. She felt dizzy from the sudden lack of restraint between them, and already unbearably aroused.
Then O'Neill was moving forward, advancing upon her, his hands cupping her face. Carter instinctively retreated, fingers fisting in his jacket to pull him closer as he backed her up against the wall. Only when the knob briefly jabbed her in the back did she realize she was actually pressed up against the still-open door. But then his lips were on hers and all other thought but the feel and taste of him flew from her mind.
The kiss was somehow hard, yet gentle. He crushed his lips against hers, bruising them in his intensity but with none of the haste she'd expected. His thoroughness had her moaning into his mouth; sent her hands arcing up to skim over the planes of his back underneath the jacket, clutching him to her with hands hooked over his shoulders.
Her response galvanized him, triggering an answering groan and a fresh onslaught of kisses. His fingers threaded through her hair, making her entire body tingle, then brushed down her sides to grip her around the waist. He devoured her with his mouth, and she frantically tried to return the favor.
"Say it," he commanded, dipping his head and gently biting her neck before sucking on the sensitive spot. "Please."
"What?" she gasped, ready to tell him anything he wanted to hear. "What?"
He managed to pull away for a moment, resting his forehead against hers as he fought to catch his breath. Carter was glad to see she wasn't the only one. "My name," he answered. "Will you say it?"
Oh God. Rational thought returned to her on a wave of feeling, enabling her to concentrate on his expression. He stared at her hungrily, close to breaking. And she knew that what he asked for would send him over the edge. Perversely, it engendered a sudden gentleness in her and she reached up a hand to trace his scarred eyebrow lightly with the first three fingertips of her hand, grazing them down over his cheek. "Jack," she said tenderly. "My Jack."
He closed his eyes, savoring the touch and released a breath she hadn't known he was holding. "You can say that again," he murmured.
When he opened his eyes the mood had changed again. He looked more emotionally vulnerable than Carter had ever seen him, and it sent a thrill through her that she'd never known. "I love you," he whispered, dropping his head heavily onto her shoulder with release. "Sam, I always have."
Tears sprang to her eyes, filling them and threatening to spill over. Her arms slid up around his neck and she cradled his head to her. "I know," she said softly. "I love you, too."
Some of his natural cockiness returned to him as he lifted his head to look at her. "I remember," he smiled. "Thank God for vacuum cleaners."
Carter uttered a surprised giggle. "Don't let Daniel hear you say that."
"Daniel," O'Neill said with mock severity, "is going to feel my wrath come Monday morning. I was in too much of a hurry to get out of the mountain tonight to really give it to him, but he's going to pay for not telling me all day what you were planning."
Carter smiled, enjoying his good mood and loving that she was now allowed to have this conversation while squeezed between him and the door behind her. "Well, he was supposed to tell you at the end of the day. One little secret's not so bad, is it?"
"Well, not if it had actually gone that way, I guess. It's just that it was a little awkward for me when I went in to Hammond's office to submit my resignation and found out you'd already handed in yours."
Carter's jaw dropped. "When you what?!"
O'Neill grinned at her reaction, but apparently found her astonishment irresistible because he leaned in to nibble on her lower lip. "'Sokay," he continued, "it all got sorted out after he'd had his fun torturing me."
"But…you…what did…?" Carter tried to say, but his hands had now worked themselves under the shirt at her waist, and the feel of his skin on hers was wreaking havoc on her body.
"Of course," O'Neill continued his assault on her lips, pausing sporadically to speak. "Daniel did…sort of…redeem himself…"
He lifted his eyes to hers again, grinning wickedly. "He told me to come 'get you'."
Carter was trapped in his gaze, entranced. O'Neill's double entendre was loud and clear, and Holy Hannah, she could hardly think for wanting him. Her knees were definitely weak, and if she didn't calm down she was going to hyperventilate. But it felt amazing.
She reached up and nipped at the angle of his jaw, satisfaction washing through her as he inhaled sharply. "There's just one more thing preventing that, Jack."
Startled, he pulled back from her, grasping her upper arms. "What?" he demanded, and she smiled at the hint of alarm in his eyes.
Carter jerked her head to the right, indicating the front porch. "I don't think there should be any more 'getting' of me in my open doorway."
O'Neill's startled gaze followed hers, then he grinned. He wrapped an arm around her waist, keeping her tight against him as he backed up. His other hand reached out and swung the door shut before returning his attention to her. "Any more barriers?" he asked mischievously.
His tone was light, but his eyes were penetrating, seeking a connection, needing to know if this was what she truly wanted, too.
She returned his gaze, draping her arms around his shoulders and matching his tone happily. "No, sir!"