A/N: Another Embrace Me story. This one is set after Entity, and written specifically for Amanda, by request. And thanks to Amanda for being available to beta it on short notice at 10:30 at night. And, let me just say, thank you to the folks who've written and wondered where I am. Facing a new teaching term, doctoral term, and pending back fusion surgery has put me a bit off of my writing game. I need to write, and have been feeling the lack. I will endeavor to do better. Happy 2010, belatedly, to everyone.

As always, a fanfic writer's only pay is feedback. Enjoy.

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Walking After You

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Jack pulled to the curb, sliding the truck's transmission to Park before turning off the engine. He sat quietly, fingers tapping an absent tattoo on the steering wheel as he studied the neatly kept house set back on the bright green lawn. As he'd expect from his Second, not a blade of grass was out of place, and the low white fence looked recently painted. Taking a second look, Jack realized that the flowerboxes could use some attention and he found himself imagining for a moment puttering in the dirt with Carter while they . . . he shook his head. Let it go, Jack.

He blew out a loud breath, reached across the bench seat and gathered up the small stack of papers piled there, then shoved his shoulder against the door as he slid out. Just . . . get it over with.

Making his way up the walkway, he was too preoccupied with his thoughts to notice the stunning sunset painting the sky behind the house. Nor the cheerful Saturday afternoon sounds of the neighborhood. Once on the porch, he knocked his standard three raps, then turned and leaned against the door, fighting the urge to fidget. He glanced down and was surprised to find the forms he'd so carefully stacked earlier now rolled into a tight tube, slightly dented at the middle from the pressure of his grip. Jack frowned at the papers, then made a conscious effort to relax his hands. This was . . . yeah, this was a mistake. Not bothering to knock again, he straightened and stepped away from the door, just as it opened behind him.

"Sir?"

Carter's sleep-laden voice halted him mid-stride. Jack turned and felt his heart lurch at the sight of an obviously still sleepy Carter yawning and leaning against her doorframe, one hand covering a yawn while the other made an attempt to smooth her pillow-tossed hair. He opened his mouth and quickly shut it again, at a complete loss for words.

Blinking sleepily up at him, Carter frowned in confusion. "Sir?"

"I, ah . . . I woke you. Sorry. I should –"

"Sir." Carter reached out and laid a hand on his arm, stopping him before he could pull away. "I'm good. I mean, I'm awake. I was just . . ."

"Napping?"

Tossing a sheepish grin over her shoulder, she chuckled, and the sound went straight to Jack's heart. "Yeah, I guess I was." She waved him toward the kitchen stools while she circled the counter and opened the fridge. "Um, I've got . . . hmm. Diet cola, um, tea, and . . . ," her voice trailed off as she searched for more drinks.

Jack's eyes widened as Carter's upper body disappeared into the fridge, and he quickly glanced away as her backside rose as she bent lower. He hastily cleared his throat. "Ah, Carter, I'm goo–"

"Ah HA!" Triumphantly holding a bottle high, she turned and placed it on the counter between them. "I knew I had one of these left over from the last barbeque."

Jack swallowed hard as he twisted to top off of the very cold Guinness bottle. "Thanks."

"No problem." She shot him another small smile as she turned and began filling the kettle with water.

Jack watched her, his thoughts echoing with Hammond's words earlier in the week.

Jack moved to follow Daniel, Fraiser, and Teal'c following Hammond's dismissal. He paused as the general raised a hand, delaying his exit.

"Sir?"

"We may have to make some difficult choices. I know that Major Carter means a great deal to you."

Steeling himself, Jack choked back the first words that rose in his throat, instead forcing his voice to remain steady. "She's a very valuable member of my team, Sir." He kept his eyes low, then realized that by doing so he couldn't judge Hammond's reaction. Very slowly, Jack lifted his gaze to meet the general's. There it was, just as he'd somehow always assumed it would be. Caring. Compassion. Understanding. Jack kept his expression as bland as possible, hoping that even his little eye tic wouldn't betray him this time.

After a moment that seemed an eternity to Jack, Hammond simply nodded and agreed with him. "Yes, she is."

Ducking his head, Jack strode quickly from the room, gritting his teeth against what he was sure was coming next.

"Colonel?"

"Hmm?" Jack blinked, surprised to find Carter leaning on the counter, resting her weight on her elbows, her hands cradling a steaming mug of tea. "Sorry, Carter, what?"

"I asked if you were cold, Sir. You kind of . . . shivered." She lid her mug forward. "I could make you a cup, if you'd like."

"No. Thanks. Beer's fine."

"Okay."

He watched as she fiddled with her spoon, knowing she was wondering why he was there. Sucking in a deep breath, Jack reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the now slightly tattered paperwork he'd been clutching when she opened the door.

"Sir, I–"

"Carter,–"

"Sorry, Sir. Go ahead."

"Okay. Thanks." Jack took a long, calming swallow of his Guinness. "I've had to do some . . . things in my life, Carter. Some damned distasteful, some . . . well. Not as bad. But, last week, I . . ." Jack shook his head, then shoved the papers toward Carter. "I think you need someone else on these papers, Carter."

Without a word, Carter took the papers from him, smoothing them out as she recognized them. "It's my Advanced Directive and Durable Medical Power of Attorney." She shook her head, clearly puzzled. "I'm sorry, Colonel, I don't–"

"Carter, it nearly killed me, you know. Killing you. Then . . . then I had to do it again. Fraiser wanted to do it, to follow your wishes, and I . . ." Jack stood abruptly, slamming his half-empty bottle of beer onto the counter. He strode angrily to the sink and glared out of the windows. Damn it. Damn it! They'd come so close. So unbelievably close. He'd asked Fraiser for a minute, his mind racing for other options, every sense trained in the woman on the bed, looking for any sign, even the most minute, that she, that Sam Carter, was still in there. He'd known her wishes, they'd talked about it, all of them. Well, not all of them. He'd never felt the need to name someone. When she'd asked him to be her DMPA he'd agreed, blithely believing that he'd never have to make that decision.

And in the colossal unfairness of the universe, he'd had to make the decision after being the person to put her in that position in the first place. Then when the time came, he couldn't. Couldn't decide. Couldn't let go.

Well, no more. He knew how he felt about her, and she him. They'd acknowledged it, at least to each other. And to Teal'c, Fraiser, and Anise or Freya–whoever was plugged in at the time –but who's counting? They'd said it, then they'd agreed to not say it again. At least not until . . .

And suddenly, there was no 'until.' There would never be. Because he'd killed her, and because he couldn't.

Carter's whisper startled him and Jack turned slowly, leaning against the counter, his hands fisted in the pockets of his khaki trousers. "What?"

"I said, I'm sorry, Sir." Carter leaned back against the counter, her own hands tucked up under her armpits, her arms crossed tightly across her chest. "I . . . when I asked you to be my DMPA, I only thought about not having Daniel do it." She gave him a wan smile. "You know Daniel, I figured he'd want to, I don't know, negotiate with Death, or something."

"Drag it out."

"Yeah." Carter shrugged. "But, that was before . . . before." She raised her blue eyes to his, her gaze searching, intense.

Jack nodded, understanding that she, too, was thinking of their confession before Teal'c, Fraiser, and the Tok'ra agent. "Yeah, before." He watched as Carter straightened and took a step closer to him.

"And I never imagined that . . ."

"That I'd be the one to shoot you?"

Carter took another step forward, closing the distance between them until she was close enough that her crossed arms brushed his. She was still wrapped tightly, her arms hugging herself. Jack could feel the tension radiating off of her. "Yeah. That, too."

"So, you see why, Carter, I can't–"

"No."

"–be the one to . . . what? 'No'?"

"Ah . . . no . . . Sir."

Jack shook his head. "I don't care about the 'sir,' Carter. Whaddya mean, 'no'?" He watched as she ducked her head and tried really hard not to notice how her t-shirt stretched tightly across her chest with her arms crossed. Or how those crossed arms served to emphasize that fact. Finally, in self-defense, he reached down and lifted her chin with his index finger. If his thumb brushed gently across her cheek as he did so, he assured himself that it was an accidental touch. Mostly. "C'mon, Carter. Spill."

Carter's blue eyes were bright, luminous as she gazed up at him. "Colonel, do you trust me?"

"With my life."

"And I trust you with mine."

Jack dropped his hand, but when he would have returned it to his pocket she stopped him. Holding his hand in hers, she stood there, one hand holding his, the other still tucked up under her armpit. "Colonel, please. Nothing's changed. In fact," she paused and glanced away quickly before meeting his gaze again. "Last week proves to me that I made the right choice. It was you, Sir, who was willing to do what needed to be done, and that saved me."

Yanking his hand from hers, Jack slipped past her to slam his hands down on the counter. "No! Carter, jeez! Can't you . . . I killed you! I fired that damned zat at you not once, but twice! Knowing full well that two shots kill!" He punctuated each statement with a slapped hand on the counter, making the bottle and mug rattle in protest.

Jack was so angry, still so incredibly angry at the feelings of fear and helplessness that had overwhelmed him that he didn't hear her approach until she was there, pulling him around. Suddenly his arms were full of warm, soft Carter, one arm sliding around his waist and the other up and over his shoulder, pulling him down to her.

"C'mere, Sir."

For a moment, Jack let everything go. He responded to her touch as he knew he always would. Molding himself to her shape, he ducked his head down into her neck, absorbing that elusive and oh-so-tantalizing Carter-scent that intrigued him. She smelled as she always did, with an additional overlay of sleepy-Carter added to the mix. His arms encircled her, and as he pulled her closer, reveling her warmth, his last conscious thought was, Don't touch her butt or it's all over!

Long moments–or a lifetime, Jack wasn't sure–passed while they held each other, the crumpled papers forgotten on the counter. He wasn't entirely certain who was trembling, him or her, and found that he didn't really care. He was content to hold and be held. He needed it, as he suspected she did too. He only let go when he felt her loosening her grip on him. Easing back, Jack guided them both to the counter to give them something to lean against. He was reluctant to break their connection and was relieved when Carter slid her hand down to his and held on. She placed their entwined fingers on the papers.

"Sir. If you . . . if you really can't do it, then I'll find someone else. But . . ." She ducked her head and swallowed audibly. When she raised her head, unshed tears sparkled in her eyes. "I really can't imagine anyone else having my back but you, Colonel. I hope you'll reconsider."

Jack gazed at her for a long moment, then slowly nodded. "I will, on one condition."

Smiling up at him, she said, "Name it."

"You do the same for me." Jack knew the moment the realization hit her, that he was asking her to be the one to terminate his life if it became necessary. And with that realization came an understanding of his position. Of his pain at having to make that decision. Now you understand, Carter, why I can't–

"I will, on one condition, Colonel," she said, mirroring his earlier agreement.

"Name it, Major." He could play the copycat game too.

"That we'll always be out there together, to watch each other's back, making all of this moot."

"Moot? I always thought it was 'moo.'"

"Sir."

"Deal."

- -

End.

Afterword: I don't tend to work as hard at keeping these Embrace Me stories as properly in canon as I do the Campfires. So if we veer into the realm of "possibility" and away from "awful TPTB reality" from time to time, bear with me. Or not. Your choice.