Title: Signal Degradation
Summary: Jack feels like he's missing half her words, sitting here on the distant end of a phone line. Sequel to 'DC Sleeps Alone Tonight'
Season: 9, sometime after 'Origin'
Categorization: Drama, Angst, Sam/Jack
A/N: Resistance is futile. I get it. Special, giant thanks to Trout for not letting me take the easy way out. And to Sharon, for not making me wait until Christmas.
Jack is going to kill Daniel.
And not in an ascended-but-soon-to-reappear-naked-in-an-office-of-his-choosing kind of dead. No, he's talking real dead. Dead dead.
At first the memos crossing Jack's desk about Daniel's new alien girlfriend and her special bondage bracelets caused him no end of glee. Only then it had led to Ancient treasure troves and evil new enemies even more narcissistic than the Goa'uld and who knew that was even possible? As if that were not bad enough, thanks to all the endless meetings and general scrambling about caused by this new enemy, Jack has not seen Carter once in the last four weeks.
Four long, long weeks.
Sure, he's gone longer than that without seeing her, but that had been before. Now they are in the middle of a very vague and surprisingly confusing new place. Jack may not be all that great at relationship stuff, but he at least knows enough to recognize that four weeks of nothing but rather awkward phone calls is Not Good when it comes to anything as tenuous and overloaded with baggage as this thing between them.
And it's all Daniel's damn fault.
Jack is going to be really pissed if this thing with Carter gets completely botched before he even gets past first base.
God, he swears there was a time he wasn't this embarrassingly lecherous. He's almost sure of it.
He signs a form with a bit more vehemence than is probably necessary and momentarily contents himself with imagining creative ways of ridding himself of Daniel and his leather clad, alien Barbie.
Shit, even Daniel is probably getting laid.
The next signature rips right through the paper. Whoops.
"For God's sake, O'Neill, get a grip," he mutters to himself. Carter would probably kick his ass if she could hear his thoughts.
Now there's an idea.
Glancing at his watch, he decides that it's finally late enough to try and do something about the deplorable situation rather than continue to maul defenseless, mostly innocent forms. Tossing his pen aside, he reaches for his phone, hitting speed dial.
She picks up on the third ring.
"Hello?" she says, sounding slightly out of breath.
Jack leans back in his chair, feeling some of the tension in his back already easing. "Carter. Finally got both feet back on the ground?"
"Jack," she says with what he'd like to think is a smile in her voice. "Yes, I just got back a few hours ago."
She's been up on the Daedalus for the last five days, running tests and overseeing an upgrade of her major systems. As important as he is, Jack doesn't really have a direct line to Earth's flagship, at least not one he'd let himself use just because he missed her.
Not that he hadn't considered it. A few dozen times.
"So, everything go as planned?"
"As much as it ever does," she says, and he tries to picture her there on the other end of the line, looking a bit exhausted, but still shining with that glow of accomplishment she gets at the end of a long project.
"That bad, huh?" he quips.
She laughs and Jack feels an answering smile on his own face at the sound. It may be a small thing to feel proud about, making her laugh, but he takes anything he can get these days.
"Are you still at the office?" she asks.
His eyes dart to the clock on his desk. Half-past ten. "Yeah. What can I say? Things to do and such."
There's the briefest beat of silence before she speaks, a pause just long enough for him to notice and still have absolutely no idea how to interpret.
"Sure," she says, like she really might like to say more, but won't. "Of course."
And this is right about where things always stall out. He doesn't know if it's because the unsecured line kills so many topics or if it's something much more insidious. Like, say, their complete inability to talk about anything even remotely personal.
"Um," she says, probably trying to fill the growing silence. He's always thought of her as an incredibly articulate person, but these calls have a way of reducing her vocabulary to single syllable non-words. "Have you managed to find yourself a new place yet?"
Right. The apartment from hell. One of only three safe topics between them. "Not so much," he says, because as much as he hates that place, he lacks both the time and the dedication to apply to the hunt. Sure, he has an agent who emails him listings every once and a while, but honestly it feels a little overwhelming, not to mention permanent and he's pretty sure it's the latter that is really bothering him.
Of course, he doesn't say any of that.
"What with the…um," she stumbles again and Jack tries not to wince, "Daniel's new friends, I know you've been really busy."
Jack uselessly nods into the phone, making another mental note to send an email to Mitchell with every single one of Daniel's surefire pet peeves. There's no reason Daniel shouldn't be miserable too.
"I could help, if you like," she finishes in a rush.
Ah, and here they are, plummeting right past the uncomfortable silence straight to rock bottom: Carter being helpful. She's always offering her insider help these days, and it's not that he doesn't appreciate it. He just feels like she's trying to find ways to be indispensable to him somehow, when any idiot could see that she already is, even without Chinese food and real estate advice.
But maybe that's his fault.
He really hates talking on the telephone. Neither of them have ever been big talkers, so much between them said in a glance, a hand gesture, or a shift in posture. He feels like he's missing half her words, sitting here on the distant end of a phone line.
God knows this was hard enough in person.
I miss you.
Three easy words, not a big deal.
I. Miss. You.
"Sure, thanks. I'd appreciate the help."
He spends the next twenty minutes answering her questions, falling back into the familiar routine. He has a problem and she devises a set of solutions, deferring the final choice to him.
Apparently old habits die really, really hard.
He's pretty surprised she never slips up and calls him sir.
"O'Neill!" someone calls out.
Jack is in the process of trying to duck out the back door, like he always does after off-site meetings, having learned quickly never to risk walking out the front of buildings unless he'd like to be treated to a half a dozen extraneous conversations on the way out. Sure, this anti-social streak probably makes him look a bit eccentric, but eccentric he can live with. Any more conversations about the Secretary of Defense's golf game or the FBI Liaison's love of Korean BBQ might just push him over the edge.
Turning to look back across the semi-crowded hall, Jack spots the source of the hail, recognizing General Vidrine gesturing for him to come closer.
"Shit," Jack mumbles under his breath, knowing that of all the people around here, Vidrine is the hardest to derail. The guy never did get Jack's sense of humor.
He's about to concede defeat and resign himself to yet another painful conversation, when the ring of his phone miraculously rescues him. Pulling his cell out, he manages to shrug at Vidrine in a way that he hopes comes off as apologetic rather than victorious, pointing at the phone in explanation.
Apparently it works, as Vidrine waves him off.
Sweet, Jack internally celebrates, pulling his sunglasses and cover on as he heads for the rear exit. Assuming it's Jenkins calling him, he silently promises to be nice to the kid for the rest of the week for his good timing. Well, at least an hour or so.
"O'Neill," he says into the phone.
That is definitely not his assistant's voice. "Carter, hey!" he says, pleased, but definitely surprised to hear from her. It's been another long two weeks, after all, of increasingly stagnant phone calls, capped by five days of telephone tag that made him begin to suspect they were avoiding each other's calls.
"I hope this isn't a bad time," Carter says, sounding a little out of breath…or maybe just nervous? That is definitely new.
"No, as usual, your timing is impeccable."
"Years of practice," she says.
"Well, thank you for that. You've saved me from having to gnaw my own arm off."
He's a little disappointed when she doesn't laugh. "Anyway," she says, apparently impatient to push onto a different topic. "I was wondering…are you busy this afternoon?"
"Not too much. Just finished with my last meeting, thank God. What's up?" he asks, pushing open the door and stepping out into the small street.
"I was thinking of letting you take me to lunch."
Jack lets the door shut behind him, lifting the phone up to his other ear, thinking he can't have heard her right. "Excuse me?"
Jack shifts slightly, and there she is, leaning against the side of his car next to Mike, his driver, waving at him.
There's a moment where he's almost convinced he's hallucinating, but then he returns his attention back to his phone. "Sorry, Carter," he says. "I'll have to call you back. There's a really hot blond here that requires my full attention."
He hears her huff of amusement over the phone before she hangs up, slipping her cell back into her pocket and pushing off the car to join him on the sidewalk.
"Hi, Jack," she says, giving him a bright smile that makes him glad he's got his sunglasses on.
God, she looks good.
Of course, after six weeks without seeing her, he would probably think she looked good in a plastic sack. As it is she's dressed in a skirt and a sort of soft looking shirt that makes him want to run his hands over it.
Oh, who is he kidding, he just wants to touch her.
They continue to stand there just staring at each other until he reaches for her and she steps towards him at almost the same moment, bumping into him. They breathe embarrassed laughs and Jack can only be thankful that Daniel and Teal'c aren't here to witness the freak show they have become.
Trying again, Jack sweeps off his cover to pull her in close for a proper hug.
He can feel her let out a long breath as she relaxes into him. "It's good to see you," she says, her fingers pressing against his back.
"You have no idea, Carter," he says, lowering his face to her neck.
He'd like to stand there all day, holding her like that, but eventually pulls back. "So who exactly do I sent a fruit basket to in thanks for this unexpected pleasure?" he asks.
She grins and, damn, isn't this all a hell of a lot easier in person?
"Conference," she says, lifting the suit jacket folded over her arm so he can see her plastic name badge. "A few people in my department presented this morning."
She rolls her eyes. "Hand holding has always been my favorite pastime."
"You aren't presenting too?"
Her smile stretches, now slightly over bright. "Nope. Just supervising."
There's something a bit fishy about her expression, but Jack's too pleased to see her to care. "Well, your misfortune is my gain." He gestures towards the car. "So, you mentioned lunch?"
"Yes. I'm starved," she says as she falls in step next to him.
Mike straightens as they approach, ready to come around and open the door for them, but Carter just waves him off. "I've got it," she says with a warm smile.
To Jack's complete amazement, Mike actually lets her open the door herself. He shoots his driver a look of disbelief, the man who absolutely refuses to stop opening the door for him not matter how many times he asks him not to.
"Traitor," Jack mutters as he slides into the backseat next to Carter. Is there anyone she can't charm?
Mike pretends not to hear him, raising the privacy screen between them without comment.
"Conspiring with my staff, Carter," Jack admonishes, shaking his head. "Low blow."
"Sorry," she says with a grimace, one of her fingers pulling at the edge of her skirt. "I would have given you a head's up that I was coming, but it was all very last minute."
He covers her restless hand with his own, squeezes her fingers. "This is the kind of surprise you never have to apologize for, Carter," he says.
She stares down at his hand on hers for a moment before looking up at him and smiling.
"So. Italian?" he suggests.
She nods, leaning back against the seat. "Sounds good."
Jack knocks on the glass. "Hey Mike, let's go to Lucia's."
The car smoothly pulls away from the curb and into the midday traffic.
Lunch was good, with actual conversation and everything, but the whole time Jack couldn't shake the feeling that something more was going on than he was aware of. Hell, he's used to missing half of what's going on around him, especially when Carter is there, but this was different.
She's been all smiles and quick wit, but there is something just under her surface that he can't put a finger on. He still hadn't figured it out by the end of lunch. "I think I finally found a new place," he'd said out of desperation.
"Really? That's great."
Inspired, he'd glanced at his watch. "Got time to give me a second opinion?"
So, here they are, driving to one of the neighborhoods she recommended, to see the house he is thinking of making an offer on. He just wants the time so he can gather more information.
Louisa, his real estate agent, is waiting for them on the steps of the townhouse as they pull up to the curb. She's got the fussy business suit, big hair, and boisterous smile that seem to be a sort of uniform among those in her profession.
"I've always loved this neighborhood," Carter says as she stares out the window.
"Yeah," he says as Mike opens the door for them. That probably influenced his choice more than he'd like to admit.
"General O'Neill!" Louisa greets him, coming forward to shake his hand.
"Hey, Louisa," Jack says.
"Brought someone with you this time," she observes. "Good!"
"Yeah," Jack says, turning to Carter. "This is my…" and he stupidly stumbles, not really sure how to introduce her.
Carter doesn't miss a beat, sticking her hand out. "Hi, I'm Sam Carter."
"Ms. Carter," Louisa says, taking Carter's hands in both of hers. "Nice to meet you."
Pushing open the front door, they walk into a large empty room with hardwood floors. A simple kitchen with modern appliances is off to the left, a slightly sunken great room on the right. A large bank of windows runs the length of the back wall, opening out on a small, enclosed courtyard.
Jack trails slightly behind as Sam slowly walks into the room, her hand sliding along the counter lining the kitchen. It's not until she's actually in this space that he realizes how important seeing her here is to him.
"There's two bedrooms upstairs and a finished attic on the third floor," he says, pointing to a staircase.
Carter turns to look at him, something strangely wistful on her face. "It's very…you," she says.
He wants to ask if that is a good thing, but Louisa chooses that moment to sweep in behind them.
"So what do you think?" Louisa asks, walking further into the room. "It's a complete gem, I know. The General is rather…adamant about certain features. I was beginning to think I would never find one he would approve of! But then this property came on the market and I knew it was perfect."
Carter has her polite smile on again, and Jack knows then without a shadow of a doubt, knows that something isn't right.
"Well, go on up," Louisa says, shooing them towards the stairs. "I'll be down here if you have any questions!"
Jack wonders if Louisa ever gets sore from smiling so much.
Taking Carter's arm, he steers her towards the staircase, letting her go up the steps ahead of him.
The stairs open up on a small landing with two doors leading off it. Behind the first is a small, bright bedroom with built in cabinets overlooking the front street. The walls are warmly painted, but not fussy, certain small, finished details speaking to the high craftsmanship of the building.
"Nice," Carter comments, but Jack isn't really interested in the house anymore. He's too busy going back over this afternoon, trying to pinpoint what exactly is off.
He follows her into the larger bedroom, watches the restless movement of her hands.
"So how long is this conference anyway?" he asks, really hoping to hear that it's one of those weeklong things. That might be long enough to get a handle on things.
"I'm on the red-eye tonight," she says, not quite meeting his eye.
Beyond his obvious disappointment, Jack's suspicions only grow. He knows the government tends to be tight-fisted when it comes to spending money on scientific inquiry, but they'd never be so bad as to make someone fly out all night, present, and then fly back.
She looks exhausted.
"Carter," he says, following her into the attached bathroom, bracing his arms across the door.
"Yeah?" she answers, her voice calm, even if her posture is betraying her.
"What's going on?"
She turns a faucet on and off with almost clinical absorption, but he knows a stalling tactic when he sees one. "What do you mean?" she hedges.
"Why are you really here?"
"I thought you wanted a second opinion?" she says and he's pretty sure she's being deliberately obtuse, which just isn't like her.
"In Washington," he clarifies.
"I told you, the conference," she says, opening the medicine cabinet.
She's lying. He's certain of it now. Every nuance of her body language fairly screams it. "Carter," he says yet again, unconsciously giving her name an edge of bite, a commander demanding direct answers.
She flinches reflexively and he immediately feels like a Grade A ass.
"I guess it didn't occur to you that I was just looking for an excuse," she says, the fake smile finally fading from her face. Without it she's left looking painfully uncertain.
She's back to looking at him like he's an idiot. "To see you."
Shit. He really is a Grade A ass.
There are so many damn things wrong with this situation. Not the least of which is that she shouldn't need an excuse to see him. They weren't supposed to need pretense anymore. Things were supposed to be different.
For a few bright, shiny moments they had been, he's certain of it.
Only then the Ori had happened.
"I hate Daniel," Jack mumbles, but he's fairly certain he can't actually blame any of that for this, no matter how much he'd like to.
Sam smiles gamely at him, but he can tell her amusement is only skin deep, just the type she always used to appease him in the old days. Fair's fair, he supposes. After all, they've done nothing but slide backwards for weeks.
Sighing, he sits down on the edge of the tub. "We're really terrible at this whole phone thing, aren't we?"
"God, yes," Sam says in a rush, as if intensely relieved to admit it.
She shakes her head, leaning back against the counter. "It's not your fault. I'm pretty sure there were two of us in this, after all," she says with resignation.
Enough resignation that Jack feels his blood run cold. Were?
She must read something in his expression. "What?"
He swallows. "I know things have kind of sucked lately. Hell, the whole universe seems to be conspiring against us," he says. "But…I'm not ready to concede defeat." He looks up at her and there's that wistful look on her face again. "You know that, right?"
Pushing off the counter, she crosses over to him, stopping just short of touching him. "I'm not either."
Oh, thank God, Jack thinks, letting out a long breath.
"Is it stupid that I just really needed to hear that?" she asks, looking embarrassed.
God, no. What's stupid in this situation is that she had to fly so far for him to be able to say it. Reaching for her hands, he pulls her closer until he can reach her waist, his head lowering to rest against her stomach.
It should be surprising that touching her this way is the easiest part of this whole thing so far.
"You couldn't be stupid if you tried, Carter," he says.
Her fingers slide into his hair, trailing soothingly across his scalp. "I'm not so sure these days," she admits, sounding just as tired as he feels.
His fingers tighten on her waist, still not quite able to look at her. "We both knew going in that this wouldn't be easy, even without the damn Ori."
"True," she concedes. "I guess I just worried you thought it was too hard to bother."
Jack looks up at her. It's true that they've had nothing but roadblocks thrown up between them since they decided to give this a try. Jack's been plagued with his own piles of doubt, most of which thankfully disappear the second he's back in her company, but they both know they will be spending more time apart than together. Just one of the unavoidable facts of their lives.
"Jack?" Carter asks when he's been silent a little too long, looking even more uncertain than before.
It's only then that he realizes what a leap this whole conference thing was for her, like a big blatant signal letting him know that despite everything conspiring against them, she's still on board. She's willing to put in whatever it takes, if he is.
So does he think a relationship with her is too hard?
Pushing to his feet, he waits to speak until she looks up at him. "Not even close, Carter." His voice is more intense than he plans, but the relief on her face is worth it.
Standing this close to her, he takes the time to get his fill of just looking at her, his hands discovering that her shirt is just as soft as it looks. Looking up at him, she draws her lower lip between her teeth, an unconscious gesture that would look overly coy on anyone but her. It makes him painfully aware of just how long it's been since he last got the chance to touch her.
"I'd really like to kiss you," he says in the name of full disclosure.
She ducks her head, letting out a small breath of amusement before looking back up at him again. "Then why don't you?"
Leaning forward, he pauses just out of reach. There is one more very important thing to be said. "I missed you a hell of a lot, Carter."
Her lips curve into a soft smile he has no problem interpreting, the signals for once perfectly clear as her hands slide inside his jacket, skimming up his sides. "I know exactly what you mean."
"How's it going, you two?" a voice calls up the stairs, just as Jack's fingers have discovered the smooth warmth of Carter's skin.
Crap. The real estate agent. How had he possibly managed to forget that they weren't alone?
Without giving it a thought, Jack lets go of Carter just long enough to yell down the stairs, "We're fine!" and nudge the bathroom door shut, pausing another moment to lock it for good measure.
Carter gives him a wry smile from where she leans against the counter, looking wonderfully disheveled. "You know, you don't actually own this place yet," she reminds him.
"Details, details," he says dismissively, reaching for her again.
"Just so you know," she says as he leans in to resume kissing her neck, her own hands reclaiming their place under the edge of his shirt, "I do not plan on making a habit of this sort of thing."
"This sort of thing?" he asks, pausing just above her shoulder, sliding the fabric of her shirt to the side.
She waves a hand in an abstract all-encompassing gesture. "You know-," she says, a hitch in her breathing as he finally makes contact, his tongue running along her collarbone.
"You know…," he prompts when she doesn't continue, inordinately proud at his ability to so easily derail her.
"Um…," she says, blinking as if trying to remember her train of thought. "Right. Uh, canoodling all over strange, semi-public parts of D.C."
"Canoodling?" Jack asks, leaning back to look at her. "Is that what they're calling it these days?"
She thumps him on the arm. "You know what I mean."
He looks her over, his attention momentarily distracted by the edge of lace enticingly peaking out from under her shirt. "Not an exhibitionist. Got it," he says, pulling his hands back to much more appropriate places.
She frowns, looking pensive a moment. "You're probably going to buy this place though, right?"
God he loves the way that mind of hers works. "Yes," he says with a solemn nod. "After all, this place is special. It already holds a lot of great memories for me."
She considers him a moment before catching him completely off-guard by swapping positions with him in one smooth move so that he's the one backed against the counter. "Good enough for me," she says, leaning in to kiss him again.
He thinks he may have asked her to marry him right then and there if his mouth wasn't already very pleasantly engaged in other, more pressing activities.
Only then there's a knock at the door that makes both of them jump. Jack only has time to be thankful he thought to lock the door before Louisa's muffled voice calls from the next room.
"General O'Neill? Ms. Carter?"
"Oh, God," Carter mumbles under her breath, pulling her hands back out from under his shirt. She pats at his hair in what he assumes is an attempt to make him look at least mildly presentable.
"We'll be right out!" Jack calls out, running his fingers down Carter's shirt under the guise of straightening it.
He's just trying to be helpful.
Carter bats his hands away, buttoning up his jacket for him, biting her lip in concentration on the task.
"We're just…checking the plumbing," he improvises.
Carter makes a strangled sound, turning away from him.
"Um, okay!" Louis calls back, her cheery voice now rather forced. "I'll be downstairs when you're…ready."
They hear her footsteps moving back off into the hallway.
Jack turns back to Carter, expecting embarrassment, but instead she's leaning over the sink, one hand clapped to her mouth. For one completely frightening moment, she almost looks like she's crying.
Lifting her head, she meets his eyes in the mirror and that's when he realizes she's shaking with barely contained laughter. It's almost as unexpected as the possibility of tears.
"I'm sorry," she manages to say between gasps. "It's just…"
And then she loses it completely, waving a hand at him in apology. She slides down to the floor until she is leaning back against the cabinets, hand clutched to her stomach.
Watching her, Jack can't help but smile himself, her amusement infectious.
A long, deep breath and she drops her head back against the cabinet. "God," she says, wiping at a stray tear. "I haven't laughed like this in ages."
He knows. Everything has been so damn heavy on her for long; it's a relief to see her shrug that all off for once. Sitting down next to her, he tries to remember the last time he saw her lose it like this. It really has been a long time. "Not since Teal'c and the thing," he reminds her.
"Oh, God, yes!" she says, nodding emphatically and flapping a hand in front of her. "The bird!" She looks like she's seriously in trouble of losing it again, her face turning into his shoulder.
He lifts his arm around her shoulder and she slides closer.
"I'm sorry," she says. "This is just probably the last place I thought this would go today."
"I can't imagine why not," he deadpans.
"I may just be…overly relieved."
"Yeah," he says, his arm tightening around her.
She sighs, her face turning into his neck. "We are never going to do anything the easy way, are we?"
Jack shakes his head. "Probably not."
There's the abnormally loud sound of something being moved around downstairs, as if Louisa is doing her damndest to remind them both that she is still here.
"God," Carter says. "I feel like I'm sixteen years old again."
He grins at her. "Get caught doing this sort of thing a lot as a teenager, did you?"
She arches him a look that seems to say 'wouldn't you like to know.' He almost feels sorry for Jacob in that moment.
He catches her circumspectly glancing at her watch, feels an answering beat of panic, knowing time is running out.
"I'm sorry-," she begins to say. Once again trying to apologize for something that is completely not her fault.
Jack cuts her off the best way he knows how: he kisses her, long and languorous like they have all the time in the world. She should realize by now that he'll gratefully take whatever small snippets of time with her he can get.
Pulling back only when he's sure she's distracted enough not to try and apologize again, he says, "So, what do you say I give you a ride to the airport?"
She looks up at him, soft smile on her lips. "I'd like that," she says, her fingers squeezing his. "But first, if I'm going to give you a second opinion, don't you think I should see the rest of this place?"
Jack's eyes dart to the door. "It would be the responsible thing to do," he agrees as she gets to her feet.
Carter nods solemnly. "And who knows," she says as she pulls the door open and disappears out into the hall. "There might be some fixtures somewhere you'll need to inspect."
Jack grins. Oh yeah, he thinks, this place has lots of potential. But not nearly as much as this complicated, messy, wonderful thing with Carter, no matter how hard the universe tries to conspire against them.
He's not too worried though.
They've always been pretty great at defying the odds.