"With Polytus' permission, SG-12 is all set to head to Nete tomorrow morning for their long-term cultural exchange assignment, with an emphasis on any Goa'uld information we can gain," Daniel said. "The Nisian delegation should arrive the following day for the initial tour and they'll stay overnight for the trade talks on Thursday, when we'll also decide on the best way to consolidate our knowledge bases. And Polytus has also already sent over the specs on their space…uh…Darts, I think they called them."

"I've taken a look at the design," Carter interjected. "They're amazing. And if all goes well with the trade negotiation, we should be able to begin mining for enough naquada to start building a variation of our own, soon."

O'Neill watched with mingled exasperation and fondness as Daniel beamed a wide smile around the briefing room table, caught up in the exciting rush of meeting and getting to know a new, rich culture. "All in all, guys, I think we've really lucked out, here."

"It's about time we caught a break," O'Neill acknowledged. After everyone around the table glanced at him questioningly, he elaborated. "Oh, don't get me wrong. The Tok'ra have been…well. And the Tollan, they're…uh…really adorable while they're spouting off about how primitive we are. And…I know Thor means well, but... It's just that it's about time we found someone just as interested in an equal alliance against the Goa'uld as we are."

"The powers that be agree, Colonel," General Hammond said from his usual position at the head of the table. "And that's why we're going to extend the Nisians every available courtesy."

"Through the use of their simulation technology we've managed to prove our good intentions," Daniel added, "now we just have to make good on them."

"Thalia's also offered to let me see the specs on those…simulation…um…" Carter started.

"Head gear things?" O'Neill suggested.

"Rings," she finished. "Imagine if we could recreate that sort of technology. I mean, look what the Nisians were able to accomplish with it. They know beyond a doubt, now, that we can be trusted, which led directly to this unprecedented level of faith between us."

"And Thalia wasn't angry that you tried to nick one?" O'Neill asked.

Carter smiled and glanced down at her lap before responding. "Since she knew I thought we were being held captive by hostiles when I took it, sir, she didn't have any hard feelings."

"Well that's good," O'Neill said. "We wouldn't want to get off on the wrong foot in our very lucky, very lucrative association with the nice people who want to share."

"I too believe that we will reap great benefits from this alliance," Teal'c said.

"Yes," Hammond agreed, smiling, but there was no mistaking his slightly troubled look of concern. "But while we're on the topic of the simulation rings…Major Carter, I understand from your report that the effects of the Agonis were present only in the 'virtual reality', but are you sure you're all right? While all of SG-1 went through quite an ordeal, you bore the brunt of it."

Cater smiled. "I'm fine, sir. The simulation ring is a very sophisticated piece of equipment. Frankly, I can't wait to get my hands on one. Everything that we experienced for those five days was only in our minds, even the pain. I wasn't really hurt, and when I woke up there were absolutely no physical manifestations of the symptoms that I'd experienced while in the program."

"That's good to hear," Hammond said, and when the worry lines went away only the smile remained. "Out of curiosity, were any of you informed why Major Carter was chosen to be the test subject?"

"Ah, no," Daniel said, "but they did ask for it to be her, specifically. If I had to guess, I'd say it was probably because she was the only woman. Nisian culture is approximately the same as ours, gender-wise. Women have equality, but stillcontend with a long-held perception by some that they're theweaker of the two sexes. The Nisians probably chose Sam in anticipation that if any of us would surrender, it would be her."

"And that is where they were mistaken," Teal'c said.

Carter smiled, and O'Neill raised an eyebrow. "Yeah…they should've gone with Teal'c. Everyone knows he's the one who freaks out at the first hint of pressure."

The stoic Jaffa cocked his own eyebrow back at O'Neill, who grinned when everyone stared at him. "Oh come on. The constant crying? The whining? The blubbering? It doesn't bother anyone else?"

General Hammond shook his head, his eyes twinkling. "Dismissed, people."

Everyone stood and began to trickle out of the room. O'Neill was almost to the door when he heard Carter's voice behind him. "Colonel?"

He paused, wishing he didn't have to…wondering if she'd cotton on to him if he just pretended that he hadn't heard her and kept walking. Since he knew she would, he turned and a quick rush of apparently unrelated images flashed across his mind when he looked at her. Shapeless orange smocks? Now, why would he be thinking about all of that right now?

Oh yes. Because that was what she'd been wearing the last time he'd been in this position. The last time he'd had to somehow manage to cram it all back into the bottle.

He noticed that the Major had lingered to collect the design specs she'd passed around during the briefing and he watched as she gathered them into a neat stack and tapped their edges against the desk to align their edges.

He'd been doing that a lot lately since their return from Nete…staring at anything except Carter's face when he couldn't avoid her. Both masters at emotional repression, neither had yet sought out the other to discuss the events in the virtual reality. For his part, while O'Neill understood what Carter meant about everything they experienced over those five days having been real only in their minds, they were still real to him. And since he had damn good reasonfor wanting some of it to have been real, he'd figured it was best if he just kept his distance. They were, after all, back in the real real world, where he was still Carter's commanding officer…a situation that wasn't likely to change anytime soon.

So he was a little surprised by her hail, but waited obligingly nonetheless. "Major," he replied.

When she didn't immediately respond, he chanced a glance at her face and discovered that her own eyes were riveted on the papers that she kept mindlessly shuffling. Finally, they flicked back up to him as she set the stack down purposefully. "Sir…we need to talk."

"Here?" O'Neill asked in surprise, both of his eyebrows going up.

Carter winced. "It's not the ideal location, no, but…the only other option is to meet alone somewhere outside the mountain, and that's too much like a…"

A date, O'Neill thought. She was right. Meeting outside of the SGC compound was too risky. Too casual. The ice was too thin, and there would be too much room for thoughts neither of them could allow.

"Right," he said, striving to remain nonchalant. "So."

"So," she repeated nervously, then cleared her throat and raised her chin to look at him directly. "Okay look, I'm just going to say it. I…I don't know where to go from here. I need to know where we stand."

O'Neill fought to keep tones of gloom from his voice. "I guess I just sort of figured you'd want to leave the virtual confessions in the…uh…virtual reality."

Carter momentarily closed her eyes, and he knew that she was thinking of the same moment he was…that infamous scene in the infirmary after the zay'tarc testing, when she'd told him that nothing they'd revealed to each other about their feelings had to leave that room. It was only one of the first of many moments over the past year and a half where he'd had to battle down his emotions, and the impending disappointment from having to do it again loomed over him.

And so he was utterly floored when Carter opened her eyes again to meet his stare head-on. "No," she said.

Something like hope fluttered in his chest with soft wings and he cocked his head slightly, one ear angled toward her as if he hadn't heard correctly. "No?"

Carter shook her head. "No," she said again. "I…I don't think I can, really. Not again. Not after..."

She sat down again, briefly running her hands over her face. "I know it wasn't real. To the rest of the world it wasn't real. But we were there," she said, looking up at him meaningfully. "It would be different if it had been just my mind, or just yours. But we were both there. It was us, and that makes it real."

He watched her silently for several long moments, his lips parted as his pulse galloped. "Yeah," he finally agreed softly. "It does."

"I mean, maybe it would've been different if we'd just continued to dance around it without actually saying anything, like we always do," she rambled, "but we used the L word, and you don't just walk away from that."

Despite the seriousness of the situation, O'Neill found himself smiling. She was just too damn cute when she was flustered. "The L word?"

She was immune to his humorous take on the phrase. Indeed, she looked a little tense. "I meant it," she blurted.

"So did I," he replied evenly.

She stared at him, eyes searching. "Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Carter appeared overwhelmed by the admission and looked down again, taking a deep breath to steady herself. O'Neill could empathize. He suddenly wished he were sitting, also. While he was at it, a shot of JD would go down swell right now, too. His stomach felt as if it were full of restless replicators.

Honestly, he'd never imagined that he'd find himself in this position. Sure, he harbored deep feelings for his 2IC. Sure, he knew that she felt something for him, too. And sure, everyone else sort of seemed to know about it. But there had been so many reminders as to why it couldn't work that he'd managed to convince himself to give up hope. Or at least, he'd thought he had.

But now his heart was pounding like he was a kid with his first crush. She'd told him that she loved him. She'd meant it. And she didn't want to take it back.

And he really didn't want her to take it back, either, despite the way his whole world had just been tilted askew. But something – hell, a lot of somethings – niggled persistently at the base of his brain. "Carter," he started reluctantly, "there are reasons why we never got that far before. With everything this planet is up against, we're both needed right here."

She swallowed, but never took her eyes off him. "I know."

Hating himself, he pressed on anyway. "Those reasons are all still there."

Carter nodded. "I know that, too."

Hm. O'Neill jammed his hands into his pockets and regarded her silently for a moment, a little taken aback by her acceptance. It appeared contrary to what she'd been indicating earlier and now, well…yes, okay, he was confused. "So what are we saying, here?" he finally asked. "Because to be completely honest, I don't see where anything's changed. I didn't learn anything in there that I didn't sort of already know."

"Neither did I," Carter admitted. "But…it's different, now. I can't…I can't pretend now that I don't want more. Some sort of future with you."

More. She wanted more. A future. With him. Holy crap. That was...amazing. That was wonderful, that was…

Bad. Oh, very, very bad. Because… "Carter," he said, pained.

"I know," she said quickly. "I know, nothing could happen right now. There's too much else at stake. Honestly, no matter which way I turn the pieces in my head, I can't think of any way that we could…explore this…and still do what we need to be doing. At least," she said, looking at him with a sea of uncertainty in her eyes, "not right now?"

He went very still as the light bulb flicked on in his brain. Slowly, very slowly, he smiled. "Hence the 'future' part?"

Carter shyly returned his smile. "Yeah. I mean, if…well, I'm willing to wait for that, if you…"

"I'll wait," he said immediately, making her blink at the interruption.

"You're sure?" she asked.

"Yeah," he said, then reached a hand up to rub the back of his neck. "Um. So when you say 'waiting', are you saying like…"

She reddened. "Um…yeah, that's what I was saying. Does it…do you want to change your mind?"

"Hell no," he said, grinning because he could finally tease her again without worrying that he was revealing too much. "I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page, here, so none of your alien suitors get their hopes up."

Carter opened her mouth with a quick comeback and the angle of her head combined with her narrowed eyes warned him that it would be a good one. But then she reconsidered and snapped her mouth shut again without saying anything.

"What?" he asked, intrigued.

"I can't say," she said. "For now, you're still my commanding officer. We've both got to remember that."

He thought about it. "Okay," he allowed. "But this whole conversation is already way against regulations. So how about this…when we walk out of this room, we'll go back to our proper military relationship. But for right now…tell me what you were just going to say."

She pursed her lips but was unable to camouflage the wicked smile that lurked there. "I was just going to say that at least the only thing my alien suitors ever got up were their hopes. Unlike certain colonels I know who'll hop into bed with the first alien woman who comes along. And the second."

O'Neill coughed, then cleared his throat. He definitely hadn't been expecting that. Continuing to adhere to military protocol after they left this room was probably in his best interests…he didn't know if he could handle Carter in a working environment with no rules. "Hey," he said in his defense, "waiting now, remember?"

Her smile this time was wide and luminous…one of those killer smiles that had always hit him like a fist in the gut (but in a good way) back when she hadn't had to curb her reactions to him.

Now he felt that familiar lurch in his stomach and was pretty sure that his own smile was rather goofy. He rolled his eyes. "We'd better get out of here," he finally said, and she nodded in agreement as if she, too, could no longer trust herself to maintain the necessary distance.

Carter gathered up her papers again and walked toward him. "I'm glad we cleared this up," she said, her tone abruptly professional. Too professional. O'Neill glanced at her out of the corner of his eye as she came abreast of him and they turned toward the briefing room door. She looked happy, but focused and business-like.

"Yeah?" he asked.

As they reached the doorway she paused and turned to face him. "Yeah."

"So…we know where we stand, then?"

She smiled again, and this time there was more than a hint of mischief in her expression. He knew it! She was setting him up for something. He could smell it a mile off, he just didn't know what it was, yet. "Absolutely," she answered, nodding toward the room beyond the briefing room. "On the other side of that door we go back to being commanding officer and 2IC until…well, until things change, or until we decide to change them. But before we do, there's just one more thing I wanted to say."

She stepped closer to him under the pretense of leaning to check out the view through the window that looked out over the gate room. O'Neill couldn't help but take a deep breath; this close he could smell her shampoo and the distracting, intoxicating scent of her skin. His treacherous pulse skyrocketed in response and he fought the urge to reach out and pull her against him as he had after they'd awoken from the virtual reality. Damn security cameras.

"Back when we were in that room," she murmured, "in the dark, with you pressed up against me while we had our very not in the virtual reality kiss…"

She paused, eyes flicking up to him to gauge his response, and God, he was so already there. Seeing that he was, she smirked and let the axe fall. "You know I didn't have any underwear on either, right?"

Ah! Aah! He had…of course, he had. How could he not? She'd been all curves and soft, feminine warmth beneath his hands; of course he'd known. But her saying it now – in that throaty, sexy purr – just shot him mentally right back into that room.

Unfortunately, it also inspired certain parts of his physical anatomy to remember the events of that room.

O'Neill briefly closed his eyes against the onslaught of stimulating memories, letting out a disbelieving huff of air. "I can't believe you just…that was….you are so…"

Mission accomplished, Carter strode briskly through the doorway and turned back toward him, once more firmly immersed in her military persona. But O'Neill knew that Sam – his Sam – was still in there, giggling over his predicament. And how did he know this? Because her eyes were sparkling at him and she couldn't resist, with her polite, professional expression, asking, "Coming, Colonel?"

Wincing at her choice of words, O'Neill still couldn't help laughing. "Gimme a minute."


FIN
Thanks again to everyone for reading!