The NC-17 version of the first six chapters of this story are archived at helio2. Same author, titled "Endings and Beginnings"

Samantha Carter sat staring silently through the glass. In the infirmary bed below, her father was saying goodbye to his Tok'Ra friends, but she wasn't seeing any of that. Instead, the words of her last conversation with Jacob rang through her head. Years ago, when they had thought he was dying of cancer, he had tried to get her what he'd mistakenly thought she had wanted: a career with NASA. And now…

She would be forever indebted to the Tok'Ra for giving her these few years with him. For the chance to get to know him and for him to get to really know her.

Maybe even better than she knew herself.

Her father was right, of course. She had accomplished everything but still felt empty. Her whole life had been about her career, both as a scientist and an Air Force Officer. In both she had succeeded beyond her wildest expectations, but her personal life was a disaster. She had tried to manage it the way she had managed everything else. She had set a goal to achieve happiness, determined what steps were necessary to accomplish it, made a plan, and executed it. She had failed.

Stupid, stupid genius. In the end, she had made a mess of everything, realizing her mistakes only now when it was quite possibly already too late. But she was finally through with pretending, with building false walls around her life and relationships and defending them as though they mattered. She didn't understand completely what Jacob meant when he said she could have everything, but she believed she had to try. Anything had to be better than the misery she'd been living in for the past few months.

Later, she would find Jack. They would finish the talk that had been interrupted earlier. She would get the answer she had been seeking. Yes, there was Kerry. But there was also Pete. And something about the look in his eyes – she couldn't help but still hope. Maybe. Maybe the answer to her question was 'yes.' Maybe he still loved her; maybe his feelings remained unchanged after all this time…

Well, then, they'd worry about the details later. It was time to put first things first. Jacob had taught her that much, at least, in the end.

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Jack entered the infirmary observation room. At his approach, Carter glanced up from where she sat. He sat down next to her, as close as he dared, barely touching from shoulder to knee. His need to be with her fought with his fear of crowding her, of pushing her too quickly at this time of need and hurting her even more. Jack knew her better than she realized and had heard the unspoken question she'd been about to voice in his backyard before they were interrupted. Before her pain at finding another woman in his life had cut him more deeply than he cared to contemplate.

And he could answer her now. For the first time in as long as he could remember he felt free. She loved him, of that he was certain. And he loved her. And, damn it, that mattered. More than his position or his career or, well, anything else. What was the use of saving the human race if you were forever destined to remain an outsider, able to watch other people find happiness but unable to grasp it for yourself?

Only, now wasn't the time or the place. All that could come later, after he had helped her say goodbye to Jacob. She was hurting, and while there wasn't a lot he could do, he was determined to do what he could.

Turning to her, he asked, "You okay?"

"Actually, I'm fine." Surprised, he turned to look at her. "Good, even, as strange as that sounds." She did sound different, at peace in a way he couldn't remember hearing before. "I thought I lost him four years ago. Since then we've been closer than we ever were my whole life. In a way, Selmak gave me the father I never thought I'd know."

This, then, was his Samantha. Just when he thought he knew her, knew how she was feeling and how she'd react, she'd prove herself so much greater than even he imagined. Suddenly and irrevocably, he felt his entire universe shift. Instead of being there for her, giving her strength, Jack realized it was he who needed her strength. He still wasn't certain what the future held, how they would find their way through the mess they'd created to happiness. But, finally, he was certain they would. Somehow. Together.

Jack slipped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. "C'mere." It was an order, and a request. And, miraculously, instead of resisting, she reached up to grasp his hand where it rested on her shoulder, caressing it as she nestled into his side, pulling him into an even more deeper embrace.

Their bodies so close, he could sense as well as hear her intake of breath, summoning her courage before she spoke again. "Thank you, sir."

"For what?"

"For being here for me."

The enormity and simplicity hit him like a freight train. So many years, so much time, trying and failing to figure out what she could possibly see in him. What he could do for her besides diminish her brilliance with his own bumbling ineptness. Afraid if he got too close she'd suddenly realize this and he would lose her completely. And all along it had been so simple. She needed from him nothing more or less than what he needed from her. She didn't need him to do anything or fix anything. She just needed him here, with her now and into the future. For some reason, in some crazy way he knew he would never be able to understand and could only accept gratefully, that seemed to be enough.

And that – thank God – was the one thing he knew now he could give her. He had been trying for years and he could never stop. Since the day they had met he had been there for her. Wherever and whenever necessary and she hadn't seen it. She had never realized he was doing it for her. Not just because she was a member of his team, but because she was Samantha Carter, and he loved her, and he couldn't help himself.

So he said the only thing possible, an explanation of the past and a promise for the future rolled into one two-syllable word. "Always."

Samantha understood. She understood that he was answering the question she hadn't managed to ask earlier. He could see it in her eyes when she glanced up to look at him. Sense it in the way she caressed his hand against her cheek. She understood, and accepted, and it was enough.

Together they looked back at Jacob, finding comfort finally in just being together, waiting together for the inevitable end.

It wasn't long in coming. Within moments, Jacob mumbled something to the Tok'Ra with him. As one they turned to look up at Samantha, gesturing for her to come down.

Before extricating herself from Jack's arms, however, Carter glanced up at him, clearly not wanting the moment between them to end. He gestured for her to go. He wasn't going anywhere. Not ever. He had meant what he'd said, and his 'always' was forever. He'd still be here waiting when she needed him.

Jack watched through the window as Carter approached Jacob's bed. She bowed her head over her dying father, kissing him gently on the forehead. Tears streamed down Samantha's cheeks as behind them, the numerous monitor's suddenly went flat. The enormity of what he had committed to washed over Jack, flooding him in a conflicting wave of grief, hope, fear, joy, confusion… Overcome, he closed his eyes and bowed his own head, letting the emotions run their course, for once not trying to control or suppress them, letting himself feel their full force for the first time in a long, long, time.

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Sam didn't need to glance up at the monitors over the bed to know when Jacob was gone. Unable to control her grief, she bowed her head, tears falling unstopped from her cheeks onto the infirmary sheets.

After several long moments, she felt a hand on her shoulder and a gentle, "Samantha?"

Turning, she looked up to see Jack standing in front of her, arms open in wordless invitation.

She stepped into his embrace and his arms closed around her, pulling her close. She cried against his shoulder as he held her silently, letting her grief run its course. Finally she pulled back and away.

"Sorry, sir." She indicated his wet uniform collar.

"Carter, I think when we're alone, you can call me 'Jack.'" The significance of this comment was not lost on Sam. Looking up into his eyes, at the depth of feeling in them, she knew she had not been mistaken earlier. He had meant what he'd said, that he did still care, and that he was hers. Always.

"Yes, s—Jack." She managed a small smile through her tears. Then, suddenly remembering, and unwilling to put off knowing, she added, "But what about Kerry?"

It was his turn to smile, though a bit self-consciously. "She dumped me."

Finding this hard to believe, Sam looked at him doubtfully, "Really?"

"It seems, to paraphrase, that she is unwilling to continue dating a man who is so clearly in love with someone else."

"Oh…" Then, as the full significance of his comment sunk in and she realized what he had just said, she repeated, "Oh!..."

"In fact," he continued before she could, "She even suggested you and I shouldn't let our careers get in the way of our relationship."

Sam looked down at her father's body lying on the bed next to them. "That's almost exactly what Dad told me just before he died." She couldn't quite keep the waver out of her voice on the last word.

Jack looked down at Jacob as well and smiled despite his obvious grief. "I always did like Dad."

Sam couldn't help a slight smile in response. "Yeah." Then, after a long silent moment, remembering all the times her father and Jack had spent verbally sparring, and her last conversation with Jacob, she turned back to Jack. "Sir… uh, Jack?"

He returned her gaze, "Yes… Samantha?"

"It's just… I know the timing sucks… but… I need you to know, I lo —"

Jack smoothly interrupted her before she could complete the sentence.

"No, Carter. Not now."

Surprised, and more than a bit embarrassed, she mumbled quickly, dropping her gaze, "Sorry, sir."

"No," he quickly reassured her, gently cupping her chin and forcing her to look back into his eyes. To see the love in them. "It's just that now isn't a good time. There's someone you need to talk to, first." She nodded silently, understanding as he continued, "Don't worry, I'm done pretending it's none of my business."

She managed another small smile at this as she remembered all the times he had done just that. When she'd tried without success to get him to interfere in her relationship with Pete, hoping against hope he would do more than simply let her walk away.

"And besides, you need to call Mark and let him know what's going on. Your father is entitled to a military funeral, and I can work out those details on this end if that's what you two decide. Okay?" She nodded. "Just give yourself some time, Samantha. We've got all time in the world. I'm not going anywhere, and you'll always know where to find me if you need me."

And, slightly awkwardly, Jack bent down, planted a quick kiss on her cheek, turned on his heels, and left. Sam watched him leave, one finger lightly touching the spot his lips had been. Then, a few moments later, she too headed out the door.