Title: Clinging to Starlight
Author: a. loquita
A/N: Written for supplyship based on her prompts. Special thanks to mrspollifax for her beta work.
This planet's moon moved in a shallow orbit and normally appeared impressive in the night sky. Clouds obscured the sky tonight though, and only hints of moon and stars could be seen. Between the lack of light making it difficult to find their way and the fog on the ground, it felt to Sam like the set-up for one of those bad B-movies where a bunch of young people flee through the woods, hunted by a chainsaw-carrying guy. Which wouldn't be a bad thing, now that Sam thought about it. First, it would make things a lot more exciting. And second, it might rid her of a few annoying young people.
It was probably a good thing that the DHD was just ahead.
"Then she had the nerve to suggest that the twins were actually fathered by David Beckham."
Sam was tired of the never-ending conversation between Lieutenants Sheraton and Goodman. She was tired, and in need of the kind of shower where the water ran so hot that it left her skin a little pink. She did not want to hear another debate about who would win America's Next Top Model or discussion about a strange person named Brangelina, and if she did, she was going to shoot someone. Hopefully, only with a Zat.
This seemed like a nice idea originally, to accompany a group of a dozen or so new trainees off-world and work with them in various exercises. It was the sort of duty that was actually a bit beneath her now, but Sam had volunteered for 6 weeks of this while she "considered her options." And after her success as commander of the Atlantis expedition, she had nothing but options.
But Sam wasn't ready yet to make any decisions about her future, and furthermore, she wasn't ready to analyze why she hadn't been in a decision-making mood lately.
"Lieutenants," Sam grumbled, noting that she sounded more like her former commanding officer than she'd intended. "Someone dial us home, please."
On P72-445, the leaves on the trees were turning colors. But no matter how hard Mitchell tried to think of fuchsia as a fall color, he couldn't make it work.
As they reached the DHD, Mitchell ordered, "Dial us home, Jackson."
Vala put her hands on her hips. "I don't understand; one more day isn't too much to ask. Now that the Ori have been dealt with, and the final Ba'al clone is dead, I think we deserve a little vacation and why not here of all places?"
"And your desire to stay," Mitchell shifted his weight and regarded her, "doesn't have anything to do with the fact that these fine folks think paperclips are fascinating, and are willing to trade just about anything for them?"
"A proper vacation always includes bringing home souvenirs."
"Guys," Daniel interrupted his teammates' chitchat after his third attempt to dial home failed. "Something's up."
"Master Teal'c! Master Bra'tac!" a young boy ran into the chambers calling out their names in alarm. The congregation of Jaffa Elders paused their conversations.
"Steady yourself," Bra'tac ordered, as the child stopped and panted to catch his breath.
The boy finally said, "Master Kai'la told me to come quickly and inform you that the Tau'ri cannot be contacted."
Teal'c and Bra'tac exchanged a look. Teal'c spoke first. "Explain further."
"There was a scheduled meeting this morning between our newly-formed Trade Commission and the SGC. Kai'la says it was routine, but after more than two hours attempting to dial the Chappa'ai, no connection can be made."
O'Neill walked the halls of the new tricked-out Alpha site with General Carson McConnell. OK, so it wasn't all that new, Jack reconsidered; it had been in operation a few years now. But tricked out, he was standing by that part.
"Very impressive," McConnell said as they exited the X-302 bay.
"That it is," O'Neill replied. "Of the five areas under your supervision now, this one is the least trouble. I'm typically only here once every three months or so."
"I can see how the Battlecruiser division, Atlantis, and the SGC take most of your time and attention. But I would have thought Area 51 is the quietest of them all?"
"Oh, no." Jack shook his head. "Those scientists—they always have something up their sleeves that shouldn't be there. Likely something they were expressly told not to touch in the first place."
McConnell chuckled. He was looking forward to his new post as the Director of Homeworld Security and it certainly helped that the man leaving the post behind was happy to show him the ropes. The added bonus was that O'Neill was entertaining to be around, as this was the fifth of their six-week overlap. One more week and O'Neill would be a free man and, as McConnell had recently learned, immediately headed to a cabin in Minnesota to fish.
Red lights flashed and sirens announced an incoming wormhole. O'Neill and McConnell made their way to the Alpha site's gate room just in time to see SG-1 step through.
O'Neill watched as Mitchell, Daniel, and Vala descended the few steps from the gate. The latest edition of SG-1 was still in need of a fourth, and that was one more thing that Jack was happy to hand over to McConnell to deal with. Jack wasn't sure which one of the current members of the team would prove to be pickier about the options for their newest member.
Daniel didn't answer the question spoken by Jack's expression. Instead, he countered with his own. "What are you doing here, Jack?
"I could ask the same."
Mitchell offered explanation. "We tried dialing home and couldn't get through. So we came here instead."
O'Neill turned to the gate room technician. "Dial the SGC immediately."
"Yes, Sir," the mousy woman replied, and as the chevrons began to light up one by one, all watched and waited for final chevron. It failed to lock.
"Alrighty," Jack said, not worried yet, but perhaps starting to consider it. "You guys debrief with General McConnell and I'll see what I can find out."
Sam stepped through last after each of the new recruits went through the gate. The moment she saw SG-1 on the other side, she put it all together and realized that her own trouble dialing home wasn't a single instance; there was a larger problem.
The thought that Earth might have been completely destroyed, gate and all, did cross her mind. Reflex perhaps. But these days, with all the major threats of the past effectively defeated, she didn't seriously consider the apocalypse a possibility, not as she once would have.
It was likely a partial outage of the gate network, or just a malfunction at the SGC. The first, she could do something about; the second, Sam didn't want to consider, because she'd be sitting around doing nothing but waiting. Especially when she saw Jack O'Neill step around Daniel and flash her a smirk.
"Welcome to the party, Carter."
"Sir, if it's malfunction affecting the gate system…"
Sam waited for O'Neill to order her to look into it with a flick of the wrist and a casual, "Go." Instead his eyebrow-raised expression read, 'Um, Carter, aren't you forgetting something?'
She blinked twice, the wrinkle in her brow growing deeper, until McConnell cleared his throat.
She swung around to face McConnell, her eyes going wide. "Oh, I… It's habit, Sir, I'm very sorry."
"That's alright, Colonel Carter. I am sorry that I don't know the shorthand yet. Can you fill me in on why a gate malfunction translates into you doing something?"
Daniel spoke up, a little surprised that Jack still hadn't come to Sam's rescue. "Sam's the leading expert on—"
"I know that, Dr. Jackson," McConnell interrupted. "I'm interested in what the Colonel intends to do."
In the pause that followed, McConnell glanced around at his most elite people. Jack had warned him that they were loyal to a fault, fought like children at times, but would never leave each other behind. At the moment, Mitchell looked nervous, Jackson appalled, and Vala wasn't smiling. It suddenly clicked what was going on.
"I'm interested," McConnell amended his statement, "not because I don't trust her or any of you. I'm trying to learn here, people, and physics was never my best subject in school.
"Please, Colonel." Now he focused only on Sam, with what he hoped were words that smooth ruffled feathers. "Do what you need to do, but it would be both an honor and a learning experience if I could observe, and you could walk me through what you're doing."
"Of course, General."
Jack stepped back as the entire thing played out. He knew the transition was going to be tricky, on both sides. He watched Carter type things into the computer while explaining stuff to McConnell. The way she'd done with him for years.
Jack was looking forward to retirement, peace and quiet, no starched collars, and he knew he could find companionship from time to time if he so desired. But companionship with the added "my heart would be ripped out of my chest if I ever lost you" only came with Carter.
Things with her were far more complicated than any self-help manual, song lyric, or anything on the subject could ever describe. Breaking down what Carter was doing on the computer into simplest terms was a task for the brilliant; people who broke down feelings like the kind he had about Carter into simple terms were idiots.
Those 16-year-old pop stars singing about heartbreak and true love, what did they know of any of it? Jack experienced loss in ways he hoped no 16-year-old would ever grow up to know. He was a little sketchy on the details of the "true" part but "love" he understood. It was that feeling he had when he allowed himself on the rare occasion to stop thinking about Carter as an officer and just look at her, as he was doing now. Now that he wasn't her CO, there over her shoulder, trying to make sense out of the words she was saying.
Now, he was nothing more than a man at the back of the room, who was seeing her as a woman, her smile, the sway of her hips, and those eyes. He was capable of recalling every shared experience, the knowledge of where each scar had come from, but also had the sense to know that they didn't have to rehash it, should just be glad they'd somehow gotten through it all. That was the only companionship that he wanted, but he'd never figured out if he had a right to ask for it.
This gate malfunction, or whatever it was, Jack knew what it was really about. It was the cosmos trying to tell them something by sticking them here together.
Work this damn thing out once and for all, and until you do I'm not letting you go home.
Carter entered and let the door of the VIP private quarters close behind her before she spoke.
"You asked me to report here at 2100 whether or not there were any findings."
O'Neill looked up from a Sports Illustrated where the Cubs were featured on the cover. When she said nothing more, he asked, "And are there any?"
"Sorry, nothing yet." Sam ducked her head, as if embarrassed that she hadn't already solved the gate problem, and solved world hunger on the side. "I've run every conceivable diagnostic and everything on our end is working properly, we're running a scenario using the data from..."
As she talked, he got up from the chair he'd been lounging in, the magazine he'd been reading left behind as he crossed the room to her. He didn't miss the fact that she stayed in the same position, as if her body had stilled to sleep, though her mouth never quit moving.
She stopped saying whatever it was that he had stopped listening to long ago.
"Is there anything more that you can do tonight?"
"Well, I, I should—"
"Wait," Jack cut her off, "let me rephrase that. Is there anything that needs to be done tonight that can't either wait until morning, or that one of the tech guys can't do for you?"
At her look, Jack smirked. He'd caught her, and she knew it. Their eyes held and for Sam, in that moment, it clicked that they were alone. Very alone. With her brand new CO in the other VIP quarters right next door. She suddenly felt like the room was shrinking around them, just like in Teal'c's favorite scene in the Star Wars movies.
Sam couldn't remember the last time she'd been alone in a room with Jack O'Neill. It was something that they'd both avoided, especially the last few years, knowing that he was growing enticingly close to retirement and that could've been used so easily to justify things. Things that were still wrong, even if the line she'd held onto with almost white-knuckle determination over the past 12 years seemed to be blurring lately. Alone with him now, she could feel her fingers loosening and slipping.
"Sir," she said abruptly. "If you're going to order me to get some sleep, I should go to the bunk room and leave you to—"
Oh God, Sam thought as she closed her eyes for a moment, he was really going to…
"I can't," Jack continued, "because you fall under McConnell's command and I can't order you to do anything." He waited for that to sink in; she was forgetting it more often than he liked. Or had hoped.
"Your report of this incident, whatever ends up happening here, and your job performance from now on, everything goes to him. Not me."
"In one week," Sam clarified.
"As of now."
It was a standoff, one they'd had many times. But unlike most standoffs, theirs never ended in one side winning. Both sides always walked away feeling as if there was nothing left to bargain for.
"I have to go." She turned, fumbled for the doorknob, and then was gone.
"It's like having the band back together," Mitchell smiled and slapped Teal'c on the back. "The reunion tour."
"We should get t-shirts made," Daniel said. Mitchell scrutinized him, unsure if he was mocking or not.
The ensuing welcoming conversation became background for Vala, who couldn't stop looking at Sam. Everything seemed normal enough, Vala considered, as her former teammate hugged Teal'c like all the others, adding a word or two in the exchange so it didn't seem as if Sam wasn't paying attention. But something in the forced gestures made Vala suspicions that despite what Mitchell said, Sam had no idea what band she wanted to belong to.
Jack appeared, shook his friend's hand and smirked. "Not to worry, T. The Apollo just returned and reported that it was only a malfunction at the SGC. Siler's got it all under control, and we'll be able to dial Earth in a few days."
"That is good news, O'Neill."
"Of course that's what they claim happened."
Daniel groaned, "Oh, here we go."
Teal'c studied his two former teammates, waiting for someone to explain.
O'Neill beamed. "Obviously, this is all a big act. So you guys can gather here for my surprise retirement party."
"Right," Daniel said in a tone that might otherwise be used to placate a child.
O'Neill clapped his hands together and rubbed. "Better get to that bunting, Daniel."
Sam felt the pull of work; she was sure there might be some report she could be writing. Someone stationed here would do her a huge favor right about now if they walked over and requested her expertise, asking her to look at a system or piece of equipment.
But she also knew the others would notice and question in uncomfortable ways if she didn't stay, at least for a while, and celebrate the upcoming—only 2 hours, 14 minutes, and counting—retirement of their former leader and friend.
There hadn't been a party planned, but Jack made such a big deal about his "conspiracy theory" that everyone decided to stop fighting it and give in. Besides, what else was there to do but wait?
Vala had insisted the girls "get ready together", and Sam still felt like she was wearing a little too much eye makeup. However, it turned out to be like so many other times with Vala; Sam was reluctant at the start but in the end was laughing and enjoying herself. As irreverent as Vala could be, she was now essential to all their lives and Sam learned long ago that Vala had a heart of gold with good intentions—no matter what Vala's opinion on pink, shimmery lip gloss happened to be.
Sam sipped her drink and watched Vala work the room on Cameron's arm. Teal'c was talking to a former Jaffa who was now stationed here at the Alpha site, one of the first to return after the standoff years ago with the Tok'ra that caused both alien alliances with Earth to falter. This former Jaffa—Sam remembered him but not his name—had been a long-time friend of Teal'c's.
Daniel had cornered someone, and Sam wondered if he was the famous Dr. Engleson she'd heard Daniel talk about. She was pretty certain that Dr. Engleson had been transferred from Area 51 to the Alpha site sometime last year. The rapid conversation between the two men certainly confirmed that they were geeking it out over something, so that sealed the evidence in support of her hypothesis.
Sam missed them all, her former teammates. She was glad to see them, but part of her was annoyed with herself that being around her friends wasn't helping with the feelings lingering inside. The ones she couldn't put a name and face to. She'd hoped that missing them was the problem but now, clearly, she was wrong. Because their presence helped, but not entirely.
What was wrong? Why couldn't she just make a decision and move on with her life? Weeks ago she had forgiven the IOA and Woolsey for their slap-in-the-face behavior. She wrote and said goodbye to her team on Atlantis, promising them to keep in touch and requesting regular photos of Torren to see how much he'd grown. This was ridiculous; she wasn't one to wallow in the past or in what might have been.
With that, her thoughts drifted once again to the man this party was in honor of. She'd been thinking of Jack O'Neill a lot lately, more than she wanted to. And each time her mind went in his direction, Sam had forcibly tried changing the subject. It wasn't working and she hadn't figured out why.
They were the past also, weren't they? Retirement or no retirement, they'd proven many times that things between them were destined for friendship and nothing more. Anything more only caused confusion and pain.
Sam's thoughts turned to an Academy professor she'd admired, maybe because of her rehashing of the past or the sight of Daniel and Teal'c. The professor was a physicist, but one who also was fascinated by the history of physics, the lives that people led while making amazing discoveries, and even how famous physicists thought about everyday life, not just theories of relativity. One of his favorite sayings had been from Einstein: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Sam tried, but never found she could share his passion. The theory of general relativity she understood in a single lecture, but Sam was sure she still was trying to learn the science behind living life.
As if drawn by her thoughts, or perhaps in challenge to them, Jack O'Neill brushed behind her. It was so quick and with barely a touch on her waist and a whisper in her ear, that she might have thought it a ghost if it didn't have Jack's distinctive voice.
"Stop by later, if you want to."
It wasn't an order and it wasn't a question. The implication was clear.
Sam was, in some ways, shocked he'd be so bold. Of course he could be now that he was retired. But the more she thought about it, as she drank punch and talked to colleagues and friends, it wasn't really any different than it had always been. It was her choice to make. He would wait, would always be waiting, should she ever decide what it was that she wanted.
Did she want to go fishing with him? Or keep working on whatever it was she was working on alone? 12 years and he was still waiting for her answer to change.
They were both insane.
"I don't think anyone saw me."
Jack blinked in the dim light. "OK."
There was a long silence, during which Sam still hadn't moved from the two or three steps she'd already taken to enter his room. He saw her fingers twitch and wondered if they were longing for the doorknob or for him.
"Good," Jack said. "Because if you've stolen some expensive piece of government equipment to give me as a retirement present, I'm happy that there aren't witnesses."
"Retirement present." Sam looked down at her feet for a moment. "I don't have one for you."
Jack quirked his head sideways, marveling at the fact that her being here wasn't somehow present enough. She'd probably never consider this a gift for either of them. Some men would be offended by that. He knew it was one more patch in the fabric of Sam Carter that he'd long ago grown accustomed to.
Sam turned and put her hand on the door. After a measured moment in which both his breath and his hope were on hold, she slid the lock in place and turned back around.
"I feel like I should say something," she said.
Jack thought for a second about how to answer that, and was only mildly surprised that the answer was the same as it's always been. "You don't have to say anything."
"OK then… One small step for man…"
She smiled, holding in a chuckle by diverting her eyes. Jack took the opportunity to move closer to her, not invading her space but making his opinion on the matter at hand, the matter still technically unspoken, very clear.
She took a deep breath. "I have all these options in front of me, and I haven't been able to decide."
"I think part of it…" She raised her head, but Jack saw the struggle to bring her eyes up to his as well. She'd been the one all along that could face any threat bravely, except for this thing that threatened between them. "It could be that none of my options are anywhere near Minnesota."
"Ah." Jack wanted to touch her, but he got the sense that this needed to go first. "Well, understandable… I hear Minnesota is nice."
The little enigmatic smile was back on her face. "I've been there, it's very nice."
"But I also hear that sometimes, take the middle of the winter for example, not so great."
"No?" She sounded more surprised than either of them were expecting.
"Well, not nearly as good as say, the nice warm Nevada desert…" He took her hand. "Or the Phoenix."
Sam Carter laughed, and in that moment, Jack knew. Holding her hand and hearing her laugh was the best retirement present anyone could give. Even if it came with all the other complications, and there would certainly be complications between them; there had been the whole time, and some things never change about people. But this, this made it worth it.
"So," she looked down at their fingers interlinked. It was something they'd never done before, yet was so simple that few people thought much of it. For them, this was the most intimate thing they'd ever shared. "We're…" she cleared her throat of emotion, "we're really going to try this?"
"Try?" he was flippant, another attempt to keep the mood light enough so as not to scare either of them away.
She admonished him, "You know what I mean."
"I'd like to try, among other things," he said. And despite the fact that many would be fooled into thinking that Sam Carter was nothing but confident in this moment, Jack knew better. "You?"
Part of Sam wanted to cry and she couldn't understand the rationality of that. He was looking at her in a way that made all her thoughts evaporate. She hated when he used to do that, but now, now she gave in and enjoyed the flutter that ran through her and then settled itself low in her belly. Except the tears also gathered beneath the surface of her stable outer shell.
"Don't," he whispered. "Please."
Sam put her arms around him and her cheek on his shoulder. He hugged her tightly in response, pulling her body up against his own, sharing heat, comfort, and years of struggle—both external and internal. This felt familiar to her; she'd been here before when she needed it most, when she couldn't pretend anymore.
If they had this much, and if it felt so incredibly right the way that it did, wouldn't a little more feel just as right? Sam lifted her head from the resting place it had known, and she ventured out, kissing him gently, slow and aching. New and strange, and yet, not as much as she always had anticipated it would be. Jack's hands were clutching the back of her t-shirt, bunching the material in his grip on control.
"Carter," he said as he slowed.
"I want this."
And that's when he let go of the grip on her shirt, his restraint, and everything else too.
He never allowed himself to fantasize about how she might feel or taste. It seemed wrong and even if he wanted to, something inside wouldn't let him go there. But Jack could never stop one particular fantasy he'd had repeatedly over the years, pretty tame compared to most men's fantasy lives.
Perhaps this one about Carter slipped through because after all, they had slept close to each other for years off-world. So he had some idea of what it could be like. And from there his fantasy took over, painting an image and dreaming up feelings of them lying naked and satisfied together, her believing him to be a stallion since he'd just make love to her better, hotter, harder than any man ever had before (hey, it was his fantasy); and then they did nothing else but lie together. Sometimes they talked, sometimes not. Occasionally they were lying in a bed, sometimes in a forest or on her couch at home. One thing was always consistent, the sense of calm and content.
It never happened because the world was about to end or they'd broken the rules and "Oh my God, what did we do?" was about to come out of her mouth. No, they were happy in his fantasy. She was happy.
So, no matter how unbelievable the night before had been, when Jack lay there in the morning, dim light casting shadows across the features he knew well, but never really knew until now, it was real. Sam's eyes opened. "Hi," she said in a sleepy voice, a goofy smile spreading across her face.
That was the instant his fantasies came true.
Jack barely got words out of his choked throat. "Hi."
There was a long pause; he searched for anything to say that wouldn't, God forbid, sound as mushy as all his insides were feeling right now ("I profess my undying love to thee.") or sound inappropriate ("I'm totally a stallion, aren't I?"). In his contemplative silence, the smile started to slide off her face, giving way to trepidation.
Sam asked, "Everything OK?"
Oh, no, no, he was not going to let her think that he was having second thoughts. "Fine! I was…wondering… if you slept OK?"
"What?" he asked worried that it wasn't as neutral as he'd intended. Women had an impressive ability to twist almost anything around to nonsense.
"Nothing." Her smile started to come back, so he breathed again. "It's just…" Sam shook her head. "I don't think you've ever asked me that before."
"We've done a lot of things in the past 12 hours we've never done before and 'How did you sleep' is the one that strikes you as odd?"
Sam laughed, hiding her head in his shoulder. "Not odd, surreal." She looked up and kissed his lips briefly. "Surreal but good."
She drew circles on his chest and he decided he really liked that. None of his fantasies had that detail. It was all good, until his stomach announced that lying here all day with her wasn't an option.
Sam asked, "Breakfast?"
"Sure. I need to meet with McConnell first but then—"
"You're not going to tell him." She sat up as if the rest of the world had just reappeared around them. "Are you?"
"It's better if he hears it from me before he hears it from someone else." Didn't she understand? They didn't wait this long to do this the right way, only to have it unravel.
"You can't." She closed her eyes briefly. "I mean, can't you wait a while—?"
"Carter." He sat up also, grabbing her upper arms, and was almost tempted to shake her. "We've done nothing wrong."
"Despite popular opinion…" She looked away. Her words came out softly and in a tone that Jack knew even before she finished, would bruise something sacred. "I do make mistakes. I'm just very good at hiding them."
Jack never replied because he was paged and got out of bed to answer it. He was not surprised that she took the opportunity to disappear because the trouble with fantasy is that it always ends with reality.
Larkin was the Siler of the Alpha site. Sam was shoulder to shoulder with him looking at the guts of a MALP when Daniel and Vala found her.
"Lunch?" Daniel asked.
Sam was afraid to look up at them. She was sure one of them would be able to read 'I slept with my former commanding officer last night' all over her face. She just wasn't sure which of the two would read it faster.
"I'm busy, Daniel, you guys go ahead."
"You don't look busy," Vala noted. "I mean, it appears that you and Mr. Handsome there are staring at that thing, having no idea what to do or how to fix it."
Sam almost wanted to smile. Of course she wasn't fixing something, she was avoiding Jack O'Neill. And that wasn't fixing a thing, but Sam was nothing if not ridiculously bad at handling feelings between her and Jack. Why change now?
She chanced looking up.
"And you're looking a bit peaked, my dear," Vala continued. "We, as your friends, cannot stand by and let you wilt away."
Most people glow after a night of pretty amazing sex; leave it to her to look peaked. "Of course," Sam agreed, standing and brushing off her pants.
"Mr. Handsome?" Vala asked, "Care to join?"
Larkin just blushed and shook his head no. Though Sam had the impression that if she hadn't been there, the Captain might have agreed to Vala's request for lunch, among other things.
Daniel waited until halfway through the meal of soup and sandwiches before he did what this lunch was designed to do.
"So, Sam, how's things?"
"Fine." There was a silent face-off.
'Fine, don't talk if you don't want to.'
'Fine, I won't.'
Vala jumped in. "What Daniel means to say is, we're all wondering what your next assignment will be? Another exotic locale? An interesting adventure?"
Sam smiled. Atlantis wasn't exactly exotic in her book, but she could see how Vala would view it that way.
"I haven't decided yet. When I do, you guys will be the first to know."
"What's taking so long?" Daniel asked.
Sam looked at him. He knew something. Damn his freaky powers of appearing as if he's paying no attention to anyone or anything but his own problems. And then out of nowhere, casually coming out with the one thing hanging in the air that nobody wanted to realize.
Sam was on the sidelines of the pick-up game of volleyball in the sandy area to the east of the main complex that made up the Alpha site. Daniel was holding his own but Cam was the real superstar and it didn't amaze Sam at all that he'd been putting on a show. Especially since the opposing side had a petite and pretty redheaded lieutenant on the team. Cam always had a thing for redheads.
McConnell stepped up next to Sam, but stayed facing the game. He said without preamble, "I feel we got off to a rocky start."
"General, please allow me to apologize again."
"No need, Colonel." After a long breath, where Sam assumed he was choosing his words, the General added, "Have I happened to mention yet that I met my wife in the service?"
"We were stationed together overseas. It was supposed to be a cushy position with no real threats. Until a terrorist with a bomb decided to prove that there are no cushy positions anywhere in the world these days, especially not if you're an American."
Carter knew this dance, sharing old war stories was a typical military tactic. It was used for bonding with someone you're stuck in a cell with when you want to say, "We've been through worse, we'll get through this," without really saying it. War stories were like credentials to impress a new CO, not that Sam knew anything about that. And occasionally, a CO used them in an attempt to open up to officers newly under his command. As a way to say, "I'd like to get to know you, and I'm looking forward to working with you."
The military was big on finding ways to communicate the things that either shouldn't be said, or that no one wanted to say for fear of sounding weak or unprofessional. Especially when a terrorist bomb blows up in your face.
Carter knew what he was trying to do, and she knew it was in her best interest to follow his lead in this waltz. "Sorry to hear that, Sir. You seem to be OK now."
"Took some shrapnel, but otherwise." He shrugged.
Sam nodded. He was probably laid up for weeks with a collapsed lung, or something similar. She hadn't realized until now how good she'd gotten at all of this. Somewhere along the line she became not just an officer but a career officer; there was a difference.
She knew exactly who had made her that different.
There was a stretch of quiet contemplation between them as both watched the game for a moment. The redheaded lieutenant winked at Cam between sets.
McConnell didn't turn back toward Sam as he picked up his story again. "I watched the woman who would one day become my wife carry a wounded solider to safety. I watched her patch me up. Not once did she bat an eyelash at the carnage around her."
Sam swallowed. This was going somewhere, and she was starting to think that it wasn't an "I'd like to get to know you" gesture.
"My wife is quite a woman."
"I'd like to meet her someday, Sir. It would be an honor."
Now, finally, McConnell turned to regard Sam and she pulled her eyes from Cam's flirtation with a girl in order to face her CO.
"That would be nice, Carter; I think you two might have a lot in common. My wife understands the kinds of things that can happen between two people that share a bunker together."
Sam felt her insides turn to stone. "Yes, Sir," was all she could manage. There was no doubt now that Jack had had some sort of conversation with him.
"She's the best damn thing that ever happened to me," McConnell said with a smile. It was the first time Sam had seen him smile and it reminded her of General Hammond, just for a moment. "Not a day passes that she doesn't remind me of that."
"Sam," Daniel shouted out as he came over, a little out of breath. "You're in."
McConnell gave Carter one last look before excusing himself. "I'll leave you to your volleyball game. I've got paperwork calling to me like a siren's song. Colonel," then he turned to Daniel, "Doctor, have a nice afternoon."
O'Neill didn't expect to find her. Well, for one thing, he wasn't actually looking for her. And two, if he were looking, this was not where he expected that she would be found. He was en route between buildings when he spotted unmistakable blonde hair.
Carter had a blanket spread out on the ground and was leaning back on her elbows, looking up at the night sky. He was surprised she wasn't using her remaining 12 hours at the Alpha site doing precious projects up until the last second. There were so many things she always wanted to improve on but never found the time.
Jack probably fell into that same category.
He thought about turning around and going back inside but the tensing of the muscles in her shoulders told him she'd been alerted to his presence. He couldn't walk away now without saying anything, not if he didn't want his actions going over the wrong way.
"Looking for time and space," he asked, "or only one of the two?"
She glanced away from the stars for a moment to take in his features, then focused back on the night sky that once made her dream. Along the way, the stars had somehow become nothing more than work.
"I wasn't looking for anything," she said, and wasn't that the truth; she never wished for any of this to happen. She was never the girl in school that bought bride magazines and planned the names of her children. She didn't even know how to begin to be that way, and at any rate, it was probably too late to start trying.
"It's a nice night to…" he cleared his throat, "not look."
She almost smiled, it was a peace offering in typical O'Neill-speak. He also meant it was a fine night not to talk, or think, or feel. But she was OK with talking, she just wasn't sure what was about to come out of her mouth. Or which feelings were going to win over thinking.
"I'd like the company," she said, "if you don't mind?"
At those words, Jack lowered himself to her blanket. He also found that this was not at all like it used to be, full of tension and weirdness. Nowhere was that instinct to run before he touched her. That act alone once held the power to cause everything to come tumbling down after.
"Sure, Carter, I'm all about staring off into the void while not doin' a thing."
He shifted around next to her. She was no longer lounged back, so they were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder facing the horizon, where the stars slowly slipped down out of sight.
"You told McConnell."
Jack waited. It wasn't a question, and actually, it wasn't much of a statement either since it was a given. It was more about Sam finding acceptance in that. Saying it aloud probably helped.
Three words that said a lot more than three words.
The funny part was that Jack hadn't used all that many more to talk with McConnell, because there wasn't much to tell. He had no idea where this thing with Carter was going, so vagueness with McConnell was the honest truth.
Jack finally spoke, "I'm sorry that you think it was a mistake."
Sam wasn't sure if he meant letting her CO know, or the rest of it. "It's not."
"You said that despite popular opinion you do make mistakes."
She went completely still, realizing that even when they attempt to verbally communicate they still can't quite get there. "You got it wrong."
Jack thought about that, because it was rare he was that far off. Because he was relieved but also sorry that he'd walked around for more than a day believing the thing he cherished was worth so little to her. Because it meant they must be that out of sync with one another.
"I told you I'm very good at hiding mistakes," Sam repeated. Despite her judgment before, it was easier explaining this than she thought it might be. "As in, I'm used to hiding the fact that everyone will now know, that I was in love with you for all those years when I wasn't supposed to be. Or if I was, I should have let it go. They'll think that the decision about the next step in my career will have been made taking you into consideration."
"I'll support whatever you decide." He was getting a little frustrated with her not getting that.
"I know that. They won't."
"Why do you suddenly care?" His words came out a little harsher than he meant. "It matters that much what other people think of you?"
It wasn't completely unheard of. There were rare moments in the past, but to take it to this level, that surprised him. After all, it wasn't like they had broken the regs, or she had miscalculated and had blown up something by accident. This was just them, and nothing more.
"It's not that I care so much what they think." She met his eyes; hers were shining in the starlight. "It's that I'm no longer hiding."
It suddenly made sense, the whole entire thing. This wasn't about her running from him, or thinking he was a mistake. It was the mechanisms they both had in place around them that were harder to change than figuring out how to be together. He nudged her shoulder with his own.
"Not hiding is that scary to you?"
"You have no idea, Sir." It came out in a whoosh. But there was a dryness in her tone that he took as some kind of amusement about the whole thing, as absurd as it might be.
"You think I'm not freaked out too?"
Her eyes were dancing now, and that was a good sign. "Not as much as I suspect you should be."
"I'm sorry for—"
"Don't be," he cut her off.
"It's going to take me a while to figure out how to be open about this."
He could do this however she needed to do this. There would be more of these, he knew, these moments of panic and doubt. But if they could get through one, they could get through them all. Right?
"A little faith, Carter, that's all I ask."
She nudged him back playfully, a small smile forming on her lips. "You have that, and more."
"Then let's go home." He stood and reached out a hand to help her up off the ground. It was only the difference of a few feet, but it was still moving in the right direction, and closer to the stars.