Title: The Short Straw
Author: Annerb
Summary: Carter pulls the short straw. Things only get worse from there. 'Shades of Grey' AU.
Categorization: Angst, AU, Sam/Jack UST
Warnings: Mature for Jack's potty mouth and the inevitable violence.
A/N: Written for the Day of Indulgence 2009! What's more indulgent than rewriting a canon episode for maximum ship angst? Oh, and the melodrama! Special thanks to katcorvi and her mad zebra spotting skillz. And to dimizo for the last minute beta!

The Short Straw

A knock on his front door lets Jack know that the next part of his little charade is underway.

He's been waiting for someone to show up at his house for two days now, ever since his carefully choreographed 'forced' retirement. This is the part he's been least looking forward to. Blowing his top in the briefing had almost been kind of fun after all. And sometimes he really does want to tell the Tollan off, even if he knows why he shouldn't under normal circumstances.

Ripping their technology from the walls of their shiny, modern buildings had been cathartic in a strange way.

So, for the most part, pretending to go dark side to infiltrate a rogue group of off-world thieves has been not so bad.

It was always going to be dealing with his team that would be most difficult. Jack knew that going in, basically from the moment Thor demanded that only Jack be in on it. He would have to lie to his team, distance himself from them as swiftly and completely as possible.

There was never going to be a clean way to do it, and that knock on the door means it's now or never.

He can't decide if they will all show up together to try to gang up on him, or if Daniel will suck it up as the diplomat of the group. He already knows exactly what to say to Daniel for maximum impact.

Greater good, remember, O'Neill?

When he finally pulls his front door open though, it's not Daniel. In fact, it's probably the last person he ever would have thought to come.

Carter.

Shit. He never for a moment considered it might be her. What the fuck is Daniel playing at?

"Hi, sir," she says, looking tentative but hopeful, as if she's sure there is some easy explanation that can make everything all right.

Why the hell did it have to be Carter?

"What is it, Carter?" he snaps, not really having to fake the fact that she's unwelcome.

She looks taken aback by his rudeness, but recovers quickly, squaring her shoulders and plastering a smile on her face. "I wanted to see how you're doing."

"Peachy," Jack says.

She's staring at him like he's grown a second head and can't be sure what he might do next. It might be kind of fun to see her this off-balance if the situation weren't as dire as it is.

"If that's all?" he says, beginning to swing the door shut.

Carter's hand slaps against the door, keeping him from slamming it in her face. "No, it's not," she says, pushing past him into the house.

Despite himself, he's impressed with her nerve. Which is stupid on many levels, not the least of which is that her stubbornness will only drag out the inevitable. He'd rather this were as quick and relatively painless as possible.

Oh, who is he kidding? There is no way this will be painless.

Jack leaves her standing in the entryway, not bothering to close the door. Walking into his kitchen, he grabs a beer, purposefully not offering her one.

She watches him warily as he pops the cap and walks past her into the living room. He knows he's made her lack of welcome as obvious as possible, hearing her make a sound of annoyance before closing the door and following him down the steps, stubbornly claiming a spot on his couch.

She probably promised herself she wouldn't leave without an answer to his bizarre behavior.

"I don't understand why you did this, sir."

And they're off.

"Finally, something that you don't know. What a relief."

She ignores his caustic tone, refusing to be deterred. "Did something happen?"

Jack takes a long pull on his beer. "Even if it did, what makes you think I'd want to talk to you about it?"

That silences her for a while.

"Is this because of…Edora?"

Edora? Jack takes a moment to study his beer, covering for his momentary confusion. He has no idea why she's bringing that up. Glancing up at her, her face gives it away. She's always had a damn expressive face.

She doesn't think he wanted to be rescued.

Seriously? God, he's not sure what's worse: that he hurt her that way without even realizing it, or knowing that he has to use it against her. He's been scrambling for something suitable to make this damn convincing and here it is.

He's forgotten exactly how much he despises undercover work.

Working in just the right amount of accusation into his tone, he says, "I had a life there." And he had, just not one he particularly ever wanted. But Carter doesn't need to know it took a hundred days to even consider accepting it. Or that even then it was a distant second.

She's got that look in her eye again that he first saw as he turned away from Laira to follow his teammates back home: slightly bewildered. Only now does he also recognize the hurt. There's something even more layered in there too that he still can't quite place.

"What, so you wish we'd left you there?" Carter asks, and it's only now that he's pushed her to it that he realizes she's wanted to ask that question for a long time.

"Would have been preferable to dealing with all of this bullshit," he says. "All this work and what have we accomplished? Nothing. Not a single damn thing."

"You can't honestly believe that."

"What the hell does it matter what I believe? It's over and done with and I'm glad."

She stares at him, long and hard, her bewilderment finally giving away to anger. "That's pathetic, sir, even for you."

She has zero intention of letting him push her around, former commanding officer or not. Damn, he admires the hell out of her. He has to shove all that behind his indifferent façade though, and jump in with two feet. It's time to drive the message home.

"Well, fortunately, Carter, I no longer have to pretend to give a shit what you think. The peace and quiet alone is worth it."

It's scary how easy being an ass comes to him.

Carter's face has flushed pink, but her voice is steady when she speaks. "So these last three years were…what? An act?"

"As usual, you only saw what you wanted to see."

"Bullshit," she snaps. "The four of us…we're more than just a team."

Carter isn't really one for swearing, which makes it all the more shocking. None of this is going the way he planned. He needs to finish this off before it gets even more out of hand.

"You were my subordinate, Major. What makes you think I'd want to be your friend?"

She can't quite hide her flinch this time, a lifetime of bullish commanders coming back to bite her in the ass. Maybe she had convinced herself that he was different. He's proving her wrong.

She laughs then, a self-deprecating sort of huff like she's finally realizing what an idiot she was for thinking she could salvage him. Even worse is the slight sheen to her eyes that betrays how close she is to crying.

She won't though, he knows. She's too strong for that.

"God, I'm so stupid," she says, pushing up from the couch.

Jack has to remind himself that he should be happy to see her finally losing her composure. He isn't. It's terrible to watch and more than anything he just wants to take it all back.

"I can't quite decide who I'm most disappointed in," she continues, not looking at him, almost as if she's talking to herself. "My mentor, my friend" (she practically spits that last word) "…or the man I was stupid enough to let myself actually care about."

Wait. What?

Did she just…

What?

Thank God she is looking elsewhere, because he's sure he could never have hidden the shock on his face. Quick enough he remembers the bugs planted all over his damn house, the whole purpose of this crappy performance. And then he's imagining those assholes listening to this conversation. Shit. She really can't have actually insinuated… Judging from the look on her face, she can't really believe she said it either.

He needs to get her out of here right now.

"Is that what this is really about, Carter?" he asks, letting his bottle smack down on the arm of his chair. He almost can't bear to look at her. "You've come for a quick tumble now that it's legal?"

God, she looks like he just reached out and punched her. It's just a flash though, quickly replaced with complete indifference as she puts on her best good soldier face and he knows he's won.

Mission accomplished.

Fuck.

"Goodbye, Jack," she says, her voice as emotionless as he's ever heard. "Enjoy your retirement."

She doesn't slam the door, just leaves it listing half open behind her, mocking him with his inability to go after her. He hears the roar of her engine and then she's gone.

He doubts even an entire bottle of scotch will be enough take the edge off.

He tries anyway.


It takes way less time for Maybourne to approach him than Jack would have thought. On the one hand, it's a relief. The sooner he can reach minimum safe distance from Colorado Springs, the better. But he can't seem overly eager either. So he forces himself to tread water for two whole weeks before bowing and telling Maybourne he's in.

One nice little flight on Maybourne's private plane and Jack's up to his neck in intrigue. No turning back.

It's time to make his exit off-world.

His plan to ask Hammond for permission to retire on Edora, back with his lady friend Laira, seems in even worse taste than when he planned it, knowing Carter will hear of it. Knowing how she will interpret it. Like everything else though, it can't be helped.

He's really beginning to hate the greater good.

Jack is surprised to see Daniel and Teal'c waiting in the gate room to see him off. He's less surprised by Carter's absence. More relieved than anything, if he's honest.

He wonders exactly how much she told them about their conversation. Judging from the fact that they look more confused than angry, not much.

Jack doesn't draw it out and neither does Hammond, so in a matter of minutes he's heading for the event horizon. Something makes him look back one last time and there she is, leaning against the doorframe just out of sight of the others.

She doesn't wave or smile, just stands there with her arms crossed, her face pale and drawn. For a beat, they stare at each other.

She's the one to break the moment, turning away and disappearing down the hall.

Jack takes a deep breath and steps through.


Crouched behind a copse of trees on P4C-463, Jack watches the Stargate.

Maybourne's little off-world operation is much more sophisticated than Jack expects. The personnel are well trained and efficient and Jack finds himself looking at each person wondering what it was that made them turn their backs on their country. For the most part they seem brave and dedicated rather than morally ambiguous.

But that doesn't change the fact that they are traitors.

It's the guileless theft and cavalier dismissal of the alien cultures they are leaving defenseless that sets them apart. Someone obviously forgot to mention that easy rarely equals right. God knows Jack's own mission is far from easy. He just hopes that means it's right.

He's been in their main camp for two weeks now. He has tagged along on three different missions and visited a secondary base. They are trusting him more and more each day.

Which is why no one looked the least bit suspicious when he volunteered to do the drop mission today. It's his best hope of discovering who in the SGC is in league with this rogue cell, knowing that the only way to get things back to Earth is through the Stargate.

Having hidden the stolen artifact at the base of the DHD, Jack has been sitting waiting for half an hour when the gate finally comes to life. Moving forward to crouch behind a boulder, Jack watches the SG team step through the gate.

Jack bites back a groan as the four figures materialize. Of all the teams in the SGC, does it have to be SG-1?

With the way this mission has gone so far…of course it does.

It's not particularly pleasant to watch Makepeace order his team around, stealing his place. Even worse though, is the way dread fills his chest each time Teal'c, Daniel, or Carter move within ten feet of the package.

They would never betray their planet, he reminds himself. They would never betray him the way he's seemingly betrayed them.

Teal'c passes within a few inches and Jack's hands inadvertently clench on the rock in front of him. That's the problem with double crosses; you begin to doubt everything around you, even those who least deserve it.

Soon enough, they set off in groups of two to do their tests and Jack settles back to wait.

Hours later the team is assembling to return back to the SGC, and Jack has almost convinced himself there has been a mix-up, that the wrong team was sent, the traitor in the SGC unable to retrieve the stolen goods.

But then, as Carter steps up to the DHD, Makepeace drops to one knee next to her, pulling at his laces as if tying them. From Jack's vantage point, he can easily see the man pull the stolen artifact from its hiding place.

Bastard.

Movement from above catches Jack's attention.

Carter has paused mid-dial, looking down at Makepeace just in time to see him stuff the package into his pocket. There is a flash of confusion on her face, quickly hidden as she returns to dialing, but it's too late.

Makepeace is watching her, his eyes narrowed.

Shit.

"Sending the code," Daniel says, completely unaware of what has just transpired. He and Teal'c head up the steps, Carter moving to follow them.

Almost there. Just keep going, Carter, Jack mentally projects.

"Major," Makepeace calls out right before Daniel and Teal'c disappear.

Carter pauses, just long enough for Jack to know she's considering disregarding the order, before turning to walk back towards her CO.

She's all the way back to the DHD before he speaks. "I know it hasn't been easy for you, adjusting to a new commander."

She flashes him a smile that Jack can tell isn't quite genuine. She's suspicious. He just hopes Makepeace doesn't see it.

"It's not a problem, sir," she says.

"I know," Makepeace replies, his voice light and friendly and it makes Jack's stomach churn. "I just wanted to say that you're doing a great job."

Carter blinks, apparently taken off-guard by the compliment. "Thank you, sir."

"Let's go home," he says, gesturing toward the gate.

Carter nods, turning her back on him as she moves towards the steps.

That's when Makepeace hesitates, just long enough to lag slightly behind, his hand moving to his weapon.

Jack doesn't think of his mission or the imperative need not to be discovered or anything really, he just sees Makepeace's gun lifting to the back of Carter's head and scrambles to his feet.

"Carter!" he bellows.

Three years of working together guarantees that she reacts instantly, her body following the commands of a man her brain hasn't had time to remind her isn't allowed to order her around anymore.

She spins on her heel, her arm slamming into Makepeace's gun just as it fires.

They struggle for a moment and Jack doesn't dare take his own shot when they are still so closely tangled together, but then Makepeace shoves Carter away and she collapses back to the ground.

Jack doesn't hesitate, dropping to one knee as Makepeace turns in his direction, landing three quick shots in his opponent's chest.

Pausing only long enough to kick Makepeace's gun away and feel briefly for a pulse, Jack rushes over to Carter. She's gingerly sitting up, one hand pressed to her side. For a moment she looks fine, and then he sees the blood seeping between her fingers.

"Jesus," he swears, dropping to his knees by her side and already rummaging through her tac vest for pressure dressings. "How bad is it?"

When she doesn't answer, he looks up to find her staring at him like he's a ghost. She seems to be having a hard time reconciling what she's seeing, probably shock from her wound.

She shifts them, peeling her fingers back to look at her wound and Jack lets out a breath of relief. The bullet seems to have glanced off her ribs, leaving a nasty gash down to the bone, but definitely hasn't hit anything vital.

He reaches for the hem of her shirt, but she jerks back away. He forces himself to remember that to her, he's just a traitor. He's done his job so very well. He should be proud. "Gimme a break, Carter," he says. "I may not be your favorite person, but that doesn't mean I can't dress your wound before you pass out from blood loss."

Her eyes narrow, but she eventually relents, letting him help her out of her vest and expose the wound so he can apply bandages. Other than the occasional hiss of pain, she's completely silent as he works and normally he would assume it's a sign that her brain is working overtime on something, but he suspects she probably just has very little to say to him.

He should have known better.

"It's all been an act, hasn't it?" she says as he finishes with the last bandage.

Jack's hands freeze for a moment before he pulls the edge of her shirt back down. "We need to get you back to the SGC," he says in a lame attempt to distract her.

She ignores him. "Whatever Makepeace picked up, he knew it would be there. And there is only one reason to smuggle something back from off world. And only one reason to kill someone for observing it."

So much for suffering from shock. He should have known nothing as feeble as a bullet would faze her. She's just been busy tying it all together in her mind. Jack lifts his hand to run it through his hair, but catches sight of the blood on his palm before he can. God that had been close. Too close.

Carter's still talking it through. "Which all means that either you have gone dark side on us and are working for some nefarious organization to procure alien technology, or…"

"Or?" Jack prompts, wiping his hand on the grass.

"Or you're infiltrating their operation. And this has all been an elaborate ruse to get you undercover with them."

Well, hell. It's all pretty well blown now.

"You've always been too smart for your own good," Jack complains. Pushing to his feet, he crosses over to Makepeace's body and retrieves the package from his pocket, pulling the device from the bloodstained pouch. He holds it up so Carter can see it. "They took this from PX3-595, one of the planets under the Asgard's protection. It makes you disappear. Of course the locals just use it to protect themselves from a deadly predator, but now that it's been stolen…" He trails off, and his disgust at the theft must be pretty obvious because Carter shakes her head, rubbing a hand across her face.

"God," she says with a hollow laugh. "I should have seen this."

Jack sighs, sitting back down beside her. He checks her bandages again, probably as an excuse not to look at her. "I wouldn't have done my job very well if you had."

Carter's radio toggles then, Hammond's voice coming through. "Colonel Makepeace, Major Carter, please come in."

Their eyes meet. "What do I say?" she asks.

"I still have to go back to their camp," Jack says. "It's not done."

She glances at Makepeace's body. "Won't this pretty much break your cover?"

Jack shakes his head. "With Makepeace gone, all that's left is the big reveal. This probably won't have time to get back to them."

"Probably," she repeats, staring at him a moment as if trying to tell if he's being straight with her. Then she grabs her radio, apparently having come to a decision. "Command, this is Major Carter."

"Major," Hammond says, sounding relieved. "What is your status?"

She pauses a moment, biting on her lower lip. "Requesting that you disengage the wormhole, sir, and dial back in twenty."

"Major Carter, what is going on?"

Jack knows where she is trying to go with this but doesn't think Hammond is going to get there on his own. "Give him my command code," Jack says. "No one will recognize it but him. Delta-9-4-7-Tango."

Carter nods. "Authorization Delta-9-4-7-Tango," she relays.

There is a long pause and Jack can easily understand the general's confusion with this bizarre twist. "Understood," Hammond eventually says. "We will redial in twenty minutes."

"Thank you, sir," Carter says before turning her radio off.

Behind them, the wormhole blinks out.

"You should get going, sir," she says.

He really hates the idea leaving her here alone, twenty minutes or not. "Are you sure you're going to be okay?"

She pats her P-90. "I'm armed and twenty minutes away from rescue, sir. I think I can handle it."

He smiles. "Yeah, I'm sure you can."

She smiles back, but it isn't quite genuine and he's forced to remember everything isn't right between them. He doesn't really have time for this, should be dialing already, but he can't quite get himself to stand up.

"For what it's worth," he says, "I'm sorry, Carter. For what I said. I had to make it believable."

She looks away. "Of course, sir. I understand."

"You have to know I didn't mean any of it."

She nods. "Sure."

Jack sighs and resigns himself to the fact that they will just have to deal with this some other day. But before he can push to his feet she speaks again.

"I did," she says. "Mean what I said." At first he thinks he hears her wrong because she's spoken the words so quietly, but then she furtively glances up at him. "It's inappropriate, I know. I'm sorry-."

"It's not," he says, cutting across the apology.

"Excuse me?"

"Inappropriate," he clarifies. "Technically, I'm not your commanding officer."

Her lips quirk, but she's still looking embarrassed. "Well that's a rather convenient way to look at it."

He smiles fondly back at her, his hand reaching out to pull a small twig out of her hair. He stops mid-motion, a strand of her hair still between his fingers, and just stares back at her, the way her eyes have widened slightly at the unexpected contact.

He knows what he felt that split moment when he thought he was going to have to watch Makepeace kill her right in front of him. He knows what he's felt for a while now, what he's become really, really good at ignoring and pretending doesn't exist.

Carefully tucking the strand of hair behind her ear, he pulls back away. "I'm really glad you're okay, Carter."

Part of him wants to say a hell of a lot more, to tell her that he knows exactly what she's talking about, that this thing between them, whatever the hell it is, isn't just one-sided. Only he knows that soon they will back to Colonel and Major and all of this really will be inappropriate.

But there is one thing that does need to be said.

"Carter, about Edora…"

She stiffens, the fragile moment dissolving with the ease of a popped soap bubble. "What about it?" she asks, her tone artificially light.

He touches her arm, waits until she's really looking at him to speak. "Thank you," he says, "for bringing me back. I should have said that straight off."

She blinks up at him, something easing her posture. "You're welcome."

Jack glances at his watch. Thirteen minutes left. "Could you maybe just promise me something?"

She looks wary again. "What?"

"Next time you think I've gone evil, send Daniel to talk to me."

She actually laughs then, a soft huff of amusement that Jack is only now allowing himself to acknowledge is one of his absolute favorite things. "Deal," she says.

"So, friends?" he says, holding out his hand.

"Friends," she agrees, slipping her hand into his.

He holds her hand a little longer than is probably appropriate because he's not supposed to enjoy things like holding Carter's hand, but after the last few months they've had, he figures they deserve an extra moment or two.

Her fingers squeeze his and he guesses she gets that too.

For now, that will have to be enough.

.fin.