One moment of doubt.
That was all there had been.
Ironically, she had been able to see easily the moments he had broken the rules. Tried to tell them. The sly hints. Or the not so sly. It had seemed so clear in the beginning. So obvious. It had certainly made more sense than the nightmare that was unraveling her life before her eyes. Then had come the moment he walked through the Stargate and left her with nothing. Just the sudden fear that she had played the fool because the unbelievable was better than apparent reality.
One moment, when he stepped through the Stargate, and she doubted.
Because he never looked back.
Carter's wary face was revealed by the retracting door to her lab, and Jack found himself fighting a confused mixture of anger, disappointment, and pain as it crested and crashed through him.
"Carter." he said carefully.
Her hand was frozen against the doorway, her body blocking entrance, and she glanced once behind her before smiling awkwardly. He planted one hand on her shoulder and pushed firmly.Too firmly.She lost her grip on the wall and started to fall. He grabbed the fabric of her BDUs, then stared down at her as she looked back at him,her blue eyes wide.
What other mistakes had he made?
Carter was the one who watched him. Analyzed him. Broke apart his decisions as she tried to figure out what sort of officer the Air Force wanted her to become. She was the one whose puppy-dog hero-worship had finally shifted into a maturing officer's respect. Her reactions had stopped being about what Jack wanted as a superior officer, and had started to be about where she fit in as his right hand, his taken-for-granted 2IC.
The other half of himself in the field.
She was the one who took care of the details so he could take care of the hard decisions. The one who did not always agree with his decisions, but always understood why he made them. Teal'c, when all was said and done, was an alien, and Daniel still thought that Jack and the uniform he was wearing could be separated. That uniform represented the biggest part of who he chose to be.
He had thought she got that part.
With her SpecOps father and her SpecOps ex-fiance and her SpecOps sense of humor - she was the one who should have known him better. She should have been down in the infirmary hounding Janet to find a biological reason for Jack's insanity. Hounding Hammond or hounding Jack for a personal reason. That, or figuratively belting her CO so hard his ears rang for a month. Anger spiked as pain tightened his chest.
Bad enough that she thought he would be so stupid as to not even realize what he had done. Bad enough that he would betray SG-1 to do it. But she was not even angry. Hurt and confused...maybe. Luckily the rest of the base had thought so. But when Jack had ostensibly stolen that piece of alien tech, he had betrayed every ideal he had spent three years passing on to her and he had not just killed his career, he had killed their team. The lives that the four of them had together.
He had betrayed his honor as an officer.
Betrayed his obligations to an officer under his command.
She should have wanted to kill him.
"Can I do something for you, Colonel?"
She had not even been angry. She just forged ahead, leaving everything easily behind. Hammond had been...surprised. Makepeace had taunted Jack with the ease his 2IC had accepted the change in command. Kawalsky's ghost had haunted him with the sure knowledge that at least once before the charade was revealed, Jack would have been nursing a bruised or busted jaw. Carter just shrugged and soldiered on...
...and never looked back.
She remembered the first time she had seen it. She had paused in the hospital parking lot, turning around when she realized the Colonel had not followed the rest of his team. Had seen the hug, the look on his face as he said good-bye - and the look on his face as he left Sara behind.
He never looked back.
If he expected to see his team again, the Colonel always looked back. Holding the hand of an alien wearing the face of his dead son. Throwing Daniel a cheeky grin when the archaeologist had been forced to stay behind because of a cold. Throwing Sam herself a sarcastic quip about not blowing up the planet the day she had stayed to work on the Naquadah reactor with Merrin. The routine was always the same. An unofficial ritual. An unspoken promise. If the one left was watching from the control room, at some point, the Colonel would find an excuse to look back.
That was why she had doubted. Sara. Laira. Even Earth itself. He left them, not without regrets, but forward, ever forward without looking back. So she had doubted. For one moment.
"You drew straws, Carter?"
He watched as she glanced over his shoulder before stepping back, his grip on her BDUs dragging him with her. She reached around him, hitting the button to close the door.
"Daniel told you about that, Sir."
"Yeah...well he left out the part where you did it within earshot of two SFs and an airman first Class."
"Chatty bunch, were they Sir?" she asked mildly.
His eyes narrowed. Before he could respond, the grate covering the air exchange system exploded inward, hitting the floor with a crash. Daniel fell out of the ductwork and landed in a groaning heap beside it.
"Sam! We've got a problem. I couldn't get to the..."
He was interrupted by the wail of an all-base alert. Carter grabbed his shoulder and hauled him to his feet. Daniel stared at her wide-eyed.
"Not me. It wasn't me."
The door behind Jack slid open unexpectedly.
"Major Carter! Did Daniel Jackson...?"
The Jaffa closed his mouth and froze as he caught sight of Jack. Jack raised one eyebrow, then watched as Teal'c's eyes slid first to Daniel and then to Carter. They all turned to look at Jack as the alarm continued to wail.
The loudspeaker cut in sharply. "Offworld Activation. SG-1 to the Embarkation Room."
Carter and Daniel bolted. Teal'c escaped with a bit more dignity. Curiosity beginning to outweigh anger, Jack followed.
It had made no sense at all.
The man flippantly unaware of what he had just done was not the same man she had served with for almost three years. Oh, if you did not know him, the attitude probably seemed the same. On the surface. But it lacked the underlying steel core of respect and honor that made the Colonel the officer he was. A man who believed to his soul in the creed of the elite soldier. An honor indeed.
She had meant that.
She still did.
All her instinctshad screamed that this was not Colonel O'Neill. She kept waiting for the punch line. The explanation. A goddamn clue as to how she was supposed to react.A man who would carelessly admit to interplanetary theft in time to keep her from lying to a superior officer was not a man blind to the consequences of his actions.
That man was not Colonel O'Neill.
Neither was he Goa'uld, much as she might have welcomed that excuse. Anything to put her world back on an even keel. Anything to chase away the howling fear gnawing its way through her stomach and cried that this time...this time it was truly over. She had been on her way to - discuss - the possibility of alien influences and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome with Janet when she had met the Colonel in the hall. She had not meant to say anything, not publicly, but there had been something in his face.
His sharp set-down as good as drew a picture; a blazing neon sign that shouted to anyone who knew him that he was undercover and doing wetwork. It had amazed her that no one else seemed to hear what was so blindingly obvious to her. The seeds of truth in the old joke about his former career path.
If he told you...he would have to kill you.
Everyone saw what he let them see. What they expected to see. The fools. Outraged and insulted glances had surrounded her from technical specialists who heard secondhand what he had said. It was no secret that the "real" soldiers regularly bemoaned the babysitting duties that made up the bulk of the military duties for the offworld teams. That most of the bitching came from the Marines newly assigned to the science and follow-up teams was just taken for granted among the first-contact and senior personnel. For anyone with serious offworld experience, babysitting came as a welcome and - all to often- brief respite. The snarking among the senior military personal was just the usual camaraderie and bullshit.
She supposed it might be hard to tell the difference from the outside.
The truth had been stark and dangerous. The only him that came before the SGC was the him that had been assigned to missions that had been carefully removed from his official file. Missions he would not talk about even if he could. Ugly missions. Classified missions. Darkside operations.
The Tok'ra did not look happy.
Not that the Tok'ra ever looked happy. They came. They saw. They delivered the bad news. It was enough to make a man want to run in the other direction when he saw their IDC. Not to mention that it always seemed to be his team taking the staff blasts up the butt when it came time to divert whatever disaster had overtaken their little corner of the galaxy. SG-1 to the rescue.
"Jacob?" Hammond stepped into the Embarkation Room and approached slowly.
Jacob's grim expression stayed in place and his voice, when he spoke, echoed with symbiote tones. "I am afraid we have come with bad news, General Hammond."
Hammond glanced again at the two Tok'ra accompanying his old friend. "I see."
Lantash met Jack's eyes gravely," We have been informed by one of our scouts that SG-5 has been captured by a minor Goa'uld in the service of Heru'ur."
Selmak looked at Jack." You must act quickly if you wish to save them."
It had been easy to make that final choice...
...and one of the hardest things she had ever done.
For the first time, she was going on nothing more than faith in her knowledge of another person, and somewhere in there she had crossed a line. She was still not absolutely certain what that line meant, or where that decision would take her. She had only known that there were two choices: believe that the Colonel had good reasons for what he was doing; or believe that the last three years were a lie.
Risking her life would have been easier.
Terrifyingly, she was okay with her final decision.
It was easy for Teal'c. Earth would never really be his home. If necessary, he would leave with few regrets. As for Daniel...Daniel had already found his true home on the other side of the Gate. And he was a civilian. That pretty much said it all. She was the one who had shaped her entire life, career, and sense of honor around a military code of conduct. A code that not only said she had an obligation, but a right to put duty before personal considerations.
She had spent a very ugly, sleepless night wondering if she was deluding herself simply because she could not face the fact that the man she had followed, admired, and modeled herself after, was fallible. Human. Merely a heroic creation in her own mind. Then she had remembered all the times he had made hard choices, hurting choices, for all the right reasons, and could not bear to do less than live up to his example.
His team would not leave him behind.
The briefing was short. The ease with which they all slipped back into the familiar was tempting. Deceptively seductive. He had expected to pay for his charade. Even with the justification of orders, he had committed the sin of using his knowledge of his team against them. He had known just where to strike - and he had done so as cleanly as he could. The fact that he had wanted them as far away from Maybourne and his cohorts as possible had help steady his aim.
But he had hurt them, and he expected to pay for it.
He had just not expected it to be so easy to drive them away.
He jerked his head upright, startled to find that the briefing was over. A quick scan of his memory showed nothing of importance, but the fact he had drifted off was a grim reminder that he could not let himself be distracted.The next snake to sneak up behind him might not be so friendly.
"I understand congratulations are in order." Jacob's smile was cheerful.
Jack blinked, then realized that Hammond must have told them what had happened. He shrugged,"They weren't too bright."
"Well, I can't say pissing off the Asgard ranks very highly on the intelligence meter, but you still did a good job Jack. The Council was impressed." Jacob said.
Jack shrugged, then eyed the other man consideringly."I suppose we have you and Selmak to thank for the fact that the Tok'ra didn't threaten to cut ties as well?"
"There was little chance of that, Colonel." Lantash stepped up beside Jacob and regarded Jack gravely. "While we may question your headlong acquisition of advanced technologies, we have no doubts about the SGC commitment to doing so with honor."
"I don't suppose the fact that the Goa'uld are actually a threat to you had anything to do with it?" Jack asked."Unlike the Tollan, Asgard, or Nox."
Jacob snorted," Sure it did. But don't let that fool you, Jack. The way they acquired technology in the past is a pretty big sore spot with the Tok'ra. If they had not been absolutely certain the SGC had nothing to do with the thefts, they'd have dropped Earth in a heartbeat."
Jack studied the two Tok'ra curiously."Not that we don't appreciate the vote of confidence, but why the certainty? Our core mission is to acquire advanced technology."
The two Tok'ra glanced at each other, then looked back at Jack with nearly identical expressions of amusement.
"They've met you, Jack." Jacob said dryly.
It would have been frighteningly easy to do nothing.
By their silence, they condemned the Colonel to any observers. Backed up his cover story. Confirmed to whoever was watching that the three people who knew him best believed this wassomething Colonel O'Neill was capable of doing. Which left him free to do what he had to do. By continuing in their roles as SG-1, they kept the team intact, Gate-ready, prepared for his return.
Doing nothing else would have been the smart thing. The proper thing. The safe thing. The one thing she could not do. It felt...wrong. Like she was hedging her bets. As if she were willing to believe in the Colonel - but just in case, she would distance herself, prove that in spite of his actions, she was still an officer to be trusted. All of which might be good for her career, but somehow betrayed...what?
That had been a very good question.
All she had known, was that she had to do something. She could not defend him or protest his innocence, but she needed to know she was not leaving him alone on the field, even if she could not join him there. She saw the same frustrated need, the same desperate hunger for action, in her teammates' eyes. Even if she could have set aside her own needs, she could not ignore theirs. SG-1 needed...
...and by God, she would provide.
The Tok'ra knew him well enough to know the theft had been a set-up.
Jack was still in a mild state of shock over that revelation. The damn Tok'ra knew. So, why had his own team been oblivious? Or had they? Jack frowned as he regarded his 2IC thoughtfully, without the fog of hurt feelings obscuring his vision. He had thought Daniel was joking about drawing straws. At the time it had seemed like a mild form of revenge, but the rumors had confirmed it was true. The team had drawn straws and the loser got to confront the snarly traitor in his den. Rumors...
"Son-of-a-bitch." he said softly. The SFs had confirmed that Daniel had been upset when Carter did not get command of SG-1. A fact that was supported over the next week as Makepeace grimly hauled a resentful Daniel back through the Stargate after yet another misadventure resulting in bruises, short tempers, and lost equipment. Lots and lots of lost equipment. Laptops.Explosives. A MALP.
That it was always Teal'c the oh-so-cooperative Major Carter sent after the recalcitrant archaeologist never rang a single alarm bell with Makepeace. He had probably just been grateful to get the Jaffa out of his sight. It was the blue eyes, Jack thought grimly. The blond hair and the big blue eyes. She would have looked so darn anxious to please, it would never occur to Makepeace that there was an evil genius residing behind those baby blues. No...not the ever so helpful Major Carter who had so easily accepted Makepeace's command.
As quickly as it had started, it was over. Colonel O'Neill had caught the bad guys and she was left counting the regulations she had bent, by-passed, and broken. It was...annoying. She could not tell him. She could never tell him. Her life, the very manner in which she viewed her duty to this war, her team, and the planet, had shifted and she could say nothing.
She had done the right thing. For herself and more importantly, for her team. His opinion would not change that fact, but his judgment would matter. She was not ready to cross that bridge. Not yet. But still she wanted him to know. She ached to prove that they had not left him behind. That his team knew who he was...and that they had been ready.
As much as she had wanted to storm the Gate, to prove to all the doubters, the disbelievers, that SG-1 held its honor intact and always had, she had learned something about herself. It would have to be enough.
She would not look back.
As it turned out, SG-5 saved themselves. However, there were still mop-up operations and ruins to study. The Tok'ra figured they had maybe a week before Heru'ur returned to reclaim the planet. Daniel was itching to take pictures.
She snapped her head toward him, her hands automatically coming to rest on her P-90. He studied those hands for a moment, caught by the fact that she had reacted reflexively to the tension in his voice first, then only second to her knowledge that she was safely ensconced in the Gateroom of the SGC, surrounded by half a dozen armed soldiers and three Tok'ra.
"Sir?" her voice was startled.
Daniel and Teal'c were also watching him curiously. In and of itself, that would have meant nothing - except everyone else was watching his 2IC. Not because she was doing anything odd or outrageous, but because they saw her tension - not his.
His team could read him like a goddamn book.
"How did you know?" He asked finally.
It was a good question. A reasonable question. It was even a question he could ask without worrying which one of his official personalities would need to keep the answer from the others. Besides, he used to be good at this stuff. Be nice to know if he was losing his edge. Amazingly, his team even seemed to know what he was talking about.
"You told me, Sir. " her voice was matter-of-fact.
Teal'c raised an eyebrow,"Indeed, O'Neill. I was most relieved when Major Carter explained the hidden message in your statement. Until that point, I experienced a considerable amount of concern regarding your mental stability."
Jack rolled his eyes at his 2IC,"Carter, that was meant as an insult! I was trying to get you to back off."
She did not believe him.
Yep, like a bloody paperback.
Which led to the questions he could not ask. The things, as her CO, he could not officially know. Like the fact that, contrary to all reasonable and strategic thinking, his genius Major had jeopardized her own career for nothing. Less than nothing since they had obviously been confident he was doing all this under orders and would be informed if they were needed.
Or maybe not for nothing.
He looked again at his team standing relaxed and ready, when no one would have blamed them for falling apart. Teal'c, calm and stoic. Daniel, his blue eyes tinted with mischievous glee. As for Carter, she stood at the apex of a triangle, flanked on both sides by her two teammates, ignorant of the way their attention was focused not just on Jack, but on her. There was neither doubt, nor regret in her eyes. Just a calm he had waited three years to see.
Not for nothing, after all.
Which was something, he decided, that as her CO, he was very happy to know.
He swept his hand out toward the Gate expansively. "Shall we?"
He could not stop the small thrill of familiar possessive pride as his team turned as one toward the Stargate. Still, as they made their way up the ramp, he could not resist a tiny- very tiny - bit of revenge.
"So, Daniel. Hammond tells me you lost enough equipment offworld this past week to outfit a small army..."
Carter's laugh rang off the walls behind them as she stepped into the event horizon beside him.
They did not look back.