A/N: Today was my father's funeral service. As Sam does in this story, I had a difficult time sleeping last night. The service within reflects what went on today. Tomorrow we go to spread his ashes at sea. I process my feelings by writing, and this is the result. I hope you enjoy it. Reviews are always answered and never taken for granted.
The title comes from the celtic myth of the Ouroboros, which represents cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end. It worked for me.
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Sam Carter stood at the edge of the deck, head tipped back, arms crossed, eyes closed, simply enjoying the night. It was cool...cold, even, and she didn't care. She just needed be outside...away. So lost in her thoughts was she that she was startled to hear General O'Neill's voice quietly in her ear. Startled, but not surprised. She'd half expected that he'd follow her, eventually. He always found her, just as she was always able to find him. It's how they were.
"Can't sleep?" Jack's voice was soft in the night, barely a whisper.
"No, Sir." Sam opened her eyes and studied him, noting his rumpled cargo pants and untucked shirt hanging out under the sweatshirt he'd thrown over it. He stood as he always did, hands tucked carelessly into the pockets of his softened-with-washings trousers, his head tilted to one side, a tiny little half smile playing across his lips. The thin sliver of the moon provided just enough light to see him, to catch the silver in his hair.
Sam sighed. "I am if everyone stops asking me that. Sir." The honorific was belated and she shot him a small smile in apology.
Jack nodded, then held out his hand. "C'mon, Carter. I've got just the thing."
Sam stared at his hand for a moment, then slowly drew her left from her pocket and slipped it into his. She waited for him to notice. As usual, his long, nimble fingers gently enveloped her own, his worn calluses comforting against her skin. She felt his thumb slide automatically to her ring finger and felt him still. She waited patiently, her face turned toward his, simply enjoying the warmth of his hand surrounding hers.
Jack slowly lifted her hand closer to his face, thumb still searching for a ring that wasn't there. He turned to face Sam fully, one eyebrow raised in question. "Ring?"
Jack turned and stepped off of the deck, her hand still captured in his. She smiled as she saw that he'd built a small fire in the pit at the end of his yard. How he'd managed to accomplish it without her hearing...Sam shook her head. She'd been more lost in her thoughts...and memories...than she'd realized.
Jack stopped at the worn cushion they'd shared so many times before, knowing that after tonight, nothing would be the same. Her house was full of people, every room holding two or more relatives. Sam had been at her wits end with her brother and his family, not to mention her two aunts and their assorted followers. She'd quietly packed a small bag, grabbed the garment bag holding her service dress, and driven across town, knocking on O'Neill's door just after nine. He, as he always did, just smiled, and opened the door. As she changed and got comfortable, he'd opened another beer and they'd sat together watching mindless television for hours. She hadn't been in bed more than an hour when she'd given up and come outside.
Sam scooted over to make room for Jack, only to have him tug her back closer. He set two fresh steaming mugs on the bench behind them and Sam could smell the rich chocolate aroma coming from the mug nearest to her. She sighed again and then did what she'd wanted to do for so many years. She rested her head against his shoulder. She wasn't sick, she wasn't dying, they weren't under some weird mind stamp...they were just Sam and Jack.
"Sir, I...Sir." Her head still on his shoulder, she chuckled softly. "That's so..." Sam lifted her head and turned her face to his. "Jack." O'Neill smiled into the fire, his face still in profile to her. She could see the contentment on his face and for the first time in her life, felt it reflected in her heart. Sam nodded and said again, this time with a satisfied sigh, "Jack."
"C'mere." O'Neill reached out and gathered her into his shoulder, his hand absently caressing her hair. "I know you don't want me to ask if you're okay, so I won't. But I need you to do something for me, Sam."
"I'll agree not to ask if you'll agree to tell me if you're not. Deal?"
Sam just nodded against his shoulder, letting her eyes slip shut as she enjoyed the warmth of their togetherness mixed with the crackling warmth of the fire. She breathed in, savoring the musky, outdoorsy scent that was uniquely 'Jack' to her, mixed with the sweet smell of the juniper burning in the firepit. This was home to her, this man...this place. For so long, it had been home to her. She reached out and slid her hand up his crossed leg, tangling her fingers with his and reveling in the thrill of discovering that the...thing...was still there. Always.
"Sam?" Jack's voice was so low she almost missed it.
"Can I..." She felt him take a deep breath, his shoulder rising and falling as he did so. "I'd like to stand with you tomorrow, if I could."
"Si– " Sam caught herself and lifted her head to look at him. "Jack? I'm not sure I understand."
"I'm still your CO, Sam. I know that, even if it is for just a few more days." Jack squeezed her fingers, gently tracing his thumb over the back of her hand. "But...tomorrow...at the funeral...I don't want to be your CO, I want to be your..." O'Neill trailed off, then turned and raised an eyebrow. "What do I call myself?"
Jack studied her, his brown eyes deep and searching as they locked with her blue-eyed gaze. Sam felt he could, as he had been able to since day one, read every private thought in her head, his gaze was so intense. She held nothing back, for the first time not looking quickly away, not putting up her shields, not blocking anything. That time was gone. She let everything she felt for him show in her face and knew when he saw it. Understood it. Accepted it.
Finally he nodded. "Nice," he breathed. "I can do that." He leaned forward, lifting her chin as he did so and gently kissed her lips. "As long as you are my Sam."
Sam felt him smile against her lips and knew what was coming next.
"Oh, I'm so trying not to make a Dr. Seuss comment right now."
Sam leaned in and kissed him again, preventing any sort of comment. After a moment they drew apart and Jack rested his forehead against hers. Breathing deeply, Sam absently cataloged the new scent, a mixture of them both. Something she could get used to, she thought. "Jack, nothing would make me happier than to have you stand with me tomorrow."
Jack drew back and nodded. "I didn't want you to feel I was slighting Dad by having Reynolds preside, but..." His shrug was eloquent. "It's important to me."
"And I love you for it." Sam watched as a full blown Jack O'Neill grin spread across his often stoic features. His eyes lit and sparkled in the light of the fire and the expression of joy on his face took Sam's breath away. He stole her next breath too by quickly leaning in and kissing her senseless for a moment.
"I love you."
Sam smiled at him. "I half expected you to say something like 'ditto.'"
Jack was suddenly serious and he leaned in close. "Samantha Carter. I have waited for eight years to say those words out loud. The first time I did, it was not going to be some cliché line. I. Love. You." Jack punctuated each word with a kiss, finishing with a longer one.
When he finished, he gathered her close and they sat together watching the fire. Sam's eyelids grew heavy and she eventually drifted off, safe in Jack's arms and content to remain so for the rest of her life.
Jack O'Neill stood tall behind the figure of Sam Carter, close but not inappropriately so. Standing just to her left, he had deliberately chosen to stand a half-pace behind her so he could, as unobtrusively as possible, keep an eye on her. His own eyes were hidden, both by the shadow provided by the decorated bill of his service cover and by the mirrored shades perched high on his nose. His face was, as always, expressionless; his eyes, however, restlessly scanned the crowd in attendance, returning every few seconds to Carter's tense profile. He watched as she bowed her head, Chaplain Connors was finishing the final invocation and he could see Carter's jaw tense.
Like her, he hated what was coming next. No soldier who ever served in combat could hear the sound of weapons fire and not have their hands twitch and long to duck and provide cover. He watched as the OIC of the firing team gave the low commands to ready their rifles. On the other side of Carter he heard Mark murmur something to his wife, then heard her equally low answer as she slipped her hands over her son's ears. Beside them their two older children stood huddled closely together. The first volley cracked across the valley, sharp and perfectly in sync. Only someone watching Carter as closely as he was would have seen her slight flinch. As the team prepared for the second volley, as small blonde figure slipped between Jack and Sam, wrapping her arms around Sam's slim form. Jack recognized Carter's niece Kate and he gave her a small smile as she hid her head against Sam's side. Carter reached around and wrapped her arm around Kate, making sure to cover the little girl's exposed ear as the second and then the third volleys broke the afternoon stillness.
As close as he was standing to Sam, Jack couldn't miss how both of the blonde Carters trembled slightly in the aftermath of the tribute. Unable to help himself, he stepped closer, laying one hand over Sam's where it now rested on Kate's shoulder, and the other on Sam's opposite shoulder. He gave them a brief squeeze, sliding his one hand down Sam's shoulder and arm and running his other over Kate's glossy blond hair. Sam glance back at him, her eyes warming slightly and a tiny appreciative smile slid across her lips. Next to her, Mark glanced over at them, his face a mask of grief. Jack nodded once and stepped back again. The moment was fleeting, but it was right, for him. For just a single burst of time he'd felt needed, felt a part of a family. A part of the family into which he was meant to be.
As the bugler began to play Taps, Jack heard a soft sniffle. He glanced down and saw Kate lean forward to wipe her nose on Sam's pristine service dress coat. Jack shook his head slightly and offered the little girl his own handkerchief, using it to wipe the tears from her face before pressing it into her hands. She offered him a wider smile this time and Jack felt his heart catch. This little girl was pure Carter, down to the guileless wide blue eyes and the grin that could stop him at twenty paces.
As the last strains of Taps drifted over them, the honor guard stepped forward, slowly and solemnly lifting the flag from where it lay draped over Jacob's casket. Their white-gloved hands pulled the cotton fabric taut, and Jack absently counted as the detail began folding the flag; thirteen precisely snapped turns, one for each of the original colonies, if he remembered correctly. His attention wandered as the captain of the flag team dressed the flag, tucking in the edges so only the blue field bearing the white stars showed. The Captain slowly turned and presented the tri-folded flag to the OIC who in turn executed a sharp right face and stepped forward. Jack was glad he'd discussed this portion of the ceremony beforehand with the OIC. Technically the flag would go to Mark, as the eldest child and next of kin. However, Jack knew that Jacob would have wanted Sam to have his flag. He also knew that Mark wanted that to happen too. He hoped that she would understand his stepping in and phoning Mark about it when she found out.
Solemnly the OIC paced forward, finally coming to a stop before Carter. Jack watched as she stiffened, her arm tightening around Kate's small shoulders. Jack leaned forward and gently pulled Kate to him, freeing Carter's hands. Sam glanced over at him, her eyes wide. Jack gave her a gentle smile and nodded. Blinking back tears, Sam straightened to attention, her posture perfect, her eyes straight ahead.
The OIC cradled the flag in his crossed arms, and as he approached he slowly extended his arms, presenting the emblem to Carter. "On behalf of the President of the United States, the Department of the Air Force, and a grateful nation, we offer this flag for the faithful and dedicated service of Major General Jacob Carter."
"Thank you," Sam whispered, choking back her tears.
The OIC returned to his position at the head of the honor guard and led the pallbearers off as the color team followed, retiring the colors. Jack waited until the last of the color guard disappeared behind the low hill before nodding to Reynolds. Reynolds, in turn, turned and began speaking with funeral director. As the director stepped forward to speak, Jack turned to where Sam still stood, holding the flag against her chest. Her face was dry, and he had some idea of the enormous amount of control she was exerting. Before he could speak, Kate tugged gently at the edge of his coat.
Jack bent low and removed his sunglasses so that the little girl could see his eyes. "Yes, Miss Kate?"
She held out his handkerchief. "D'you want this back? Aunt Sam says I can't keep things that people borrow me."
Jack shook his head. "No, Kate, you can keep this one. It's not a loan, you can think of it as a little gift. I have plenty more." He couldn't hold back his smile as that Carter grin lit up her face. She flashed him a dimpled grin and impulsively gave him a hug. "Thank you, Colonel Jack. I'm not always scared, you know, but the guns...they were loud."
Reveling in her fresh little-girl scent, Jack could only nod. As he released her he tweaked her nose. "It's okay, Kate. They kind of scare me too."
Before she could answer, Mark and his wife stepped forward. Jenny pulled Kate aside, checking to be sure the gunfire hadn't scared her too badly while Jack straightened to shake Mark's hand.
"Thank you, Jack. For everything." Mark nodded to where his sister still stood beside their father's grave. "I appreciate the phone call. Dad and I made a lot of progress in our relationship in the last few years, and I think you might have had something to do with that."
"Not me, it was Car–, er, Sam. All Sam."
Mark shook his head. "Not to hear Dad talk, anyway." Mark looked away for a few minutes, his own blue eyes, darker than Carter's, far away. "Look, I won't pretend to know what Dad did these last few years, or what it is Sam does." He shrugged. "Or, for that matter, what the hell happened with Pete." Mark eyes Jack for a moment, waiting for a reaction. Seeing none, he continued. "To tell you the truth, I'm relieved that she...well, I figured they'd go out a few times and that would be it."
Jack had nothing to add, he wasn't entirely certain of what it was Mark wanted from him. He did however, know that he wanted to go to Carter and that he wanted everyone else gone when he did so. His eyes strayed to her figure, his expression unconsciously softening.
Mark watched O'Neill for a moment, then followed the General's gaze over to where his sister stood. He cleared his throat, pulling O'Neill's attention back. "You know, I sometimes can't believe that that beautiful, amazing Air Force Colonel is my sister. My little sister." He shook his head again, clearly baffled. "Our Mom would have been so...amazed by her, I think. I know I am."
"You should tell her."
"I will. Tonight. Before we leave." Mark held out his hand again and Jack took it automatically. "Jack. I'm more like my Dad than I like to believe so I'm just going to say this straight out. I know how Sam feels about you. Dad told me. I also think I have a pretty good idea how you feel about her. Nobody had to tell me that, I figured that out myself. I just wanted to say, well, welcome to the family." With a final shake Mark turned and moved off, stopping to quickly hug Sam before shepherding his family back to their rented car and leaving Jack speechless.
As the last of the mourners left the gravesite, Jack stepped closer to Carter. He slid his sunglasses into his breast pocket and reached out to lay a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Carter? You...oh, right...not asking that."
Sam turned to him, smiling gently. "I'm good, Sir." She glanced around, noticing for the first time that they were alone. "Jack. I'm good, Jack." Ducking her chin toward the flag in her arms, she asked, "Did you do this?"
"Sort of. It was really Mark. He called the base to ask about the protocol and when I called him back, he asked..." Jack shrugged. "He wanted it...and I think Dad would have liked it."
"Dad." Sam tilted her head, giving Jack a wider smile. "You've always called him that, haven't you?"
"I'm glad. He liked you."
"I liked him...even with Selmak."
Nodding, Sam looked back once more toward the casket, then turned away. Jack knew she wouldn't be back until it was time to install the headstone. He gently laid his hand in the center of her back and escorted her back to his truck. As they approached, he stopped her from getting in. "I, ah, have something for you."
Jack opened the box he'd set in the backseat of the truck the day before. Pulling the object out of the leather case, he revealed a triangle-shaped cherry wood case designed to hold the folded US flag. He opened it for Sam and watched as she laid it, along with the shell casings the head of the rifle team had gathered and presented to her, inside of the case. He gently eased the cover down and snapped the fitting closed, waiting while Sam read the small brass plaque mounted on the edge.
Major General Jacob M. Carter, 1942-2005.
"Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul."
"Oh." Sam looked up at him. "Who said that?"
"Pamela Vaull Starr. I liked her name." Jack quirked a small smile.
"I thought so."
They stood there, Sam still half within the circle of his arms, holding the large framed box. Finally Sam reached around him and set it inside. She slipped off her service coat, folded it gently, and laid it atop the box. With a sigh of pure contentment, she slipped fully into Jack's embrace, snuggling deep into his shoulder and breathing in his scent.
Jack tightened his arms around her and buried his face in Sam's neck, indulging in a little scent-appreciation of his own. How long they stood there he didn't know, but when he felt her release him he slowly pulled back. Kissing her softly, as gently as he had the night before, he asked, "Come away with me. Come to my cabin."
Sam kissed him, lingering against his soft lips for a moment before answering. "Yes."
"Yes. I've wanted to for...well...it's time. Yes." She tilted her head back, meeting his eyes.
Time. Yes, it was time. Jack knew she meant much more than coming to his cabin, and certainly more than the fishing. It was time. Their time. Jacob knew that, Hammond knew that, hell, even the President knew that. It was the only reason the President had been so willing to grant the concessions he had. He nodded and pulled her back into a hug. "Next week. I can get us away next week. We'll go. No excuses."
"Next week." Sam squeezed him and then stepped back, taking the hand he offered and stepping up into the truck. "But first...let's go home Jack. We have family to take care of."
"And Jack?" Carter's voice was lighter, with a hit of mischief.
O'Neill paused, his hand on the door as he prepared to close it behind her. He raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to finish.
"There's cake. Dad insisted on it."
Jack's eyes lit up, and he let a grin slide across his face. Carter was smiling at him. Mark had welcomed him into the family, and Dad had requested cake. Things were indeed looking up. "Sweet."
End note: I had several reviews metion Mark's kids and their ages. I have decided, call it creative license, that Mark and Jenny did not stop at two kids, and in the years since Sam first mentioned them (Season 1's Cold Lazarus), they've added two more little Carter's.