Jack clicked his mouse button, refreshing the status report on his screen one more time. Still no update on the Hammond. Their initial ETA had come and gone four hours ago. Not that he was worried. Cause he wasn't. He'd had it patiently explained to him often enough that he'd finally understood. The slightest fluctuations in speed while in hyperspace could throw arrival time off by far more than that.

No, it wasn't worry.

You just never knew how long twenty-three days could be until you had to spend them alone. Or almost alone. Or at least without the one person who made almost everything else bearable.

He glanced at the dark blue mess dress uniform hanging on the coat rack by his office door. It was still wrapped in plastic from the cleaners, starched and pressed and ready for the evening's affair.

Which he so didn't want to attend.

At least… not alone.

He glanced at the clock on the wall. 1740. He was running out of time. Compulsively, he hit the refresh button again. Still nothing. He was going alone.

Jack logged out of his secure connection to the Pentagon server and turned off his PC. He stood up and, after grabbing his uniform off the rack, stepped out of the office.

Sergeant Bourne glanced up from his desk as Jack left the inner office. "Leaving, Sir?"

"Yeah… about that time. Gotta get ready." He held up his uniform as proof of intent.

"Have fun, Sir." His aide paused for a second, studying Jack's face before asking, "Hammond still not back?"

"That obvious?"

Bourne smiled sympathetically, "Not really, Sir. You're just not…" He waved his hands, searching for an appropriate word.

That did bring a smile to Jack's face. "So… that obvious," he concluded. He found himself curiously pleased with the observation.

"I guess so, Sir," Bourne said, returning Jack's smile.

"Well, you have a good evening, Sergeant."

"You too, Sir," his aide replied as Jack stepped out the door. Just as the door was closing, he added, "And I don't suppose I have to tell you to have a good weekend."

Jack couldn't help it if his smile grew a bit broader at the other man's only slightly inappropriate innuendo. "You betcha," he murmured under his breath.

Assuming, of course, the Hammond actually managed to show up sometime in the next two days.

-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-

Jack's good mood had worn off long before his limo arrived at the White House. First - and most importantly - he hated his mess dress uniform. There was really only one reason he could think of for ever wearing the darn thing, and she was currently stuck in hyperspace somewhere en route to earth. He hoped.

He also really wasn't sure if they - that ubiquitous 'they' whom he had long ago determined did nothing but think of ways to make service members lives more miserable - could have designed a more uncomfortable uniform if they had tried. Other men complained endlessly about having to wear civilian monkey suits, but those were nothing compared to the Air Force's own version. The shoulder boards pushed his collar into his neck, the cummerbund was always too tight - no matter how large it actually was - and as for the bow-tie… He really despised bow ties.

Especially when he had to tie them himself.

Then there was the long line of vehicles he'd had to wait in before actually arriving at the White House door. Which under other circumstances wouldn't have been a problem - so not a problem - because he'd have been able to find something to do… And he didn't dare even think too much about that now, but the PSP tucked into the limos backseat storage bin proved inadequate to completely prevent such thoughts. Especially given the twenty minutes it had taken to get to the front of the line.

All of which meant he was feeling anything but festive when his driver finally opened the door to him at the front steps of the White House and he stepped out - alone - into the brightly lit night. The holly festooning the front door, the garland across its frame - every reminder of the holiday seemed to do nothing but darken his already black mood. But he had grown accustomed to feeling alone and out of place. Plastering on his best "I'm happy" political smile - and inwardly cursing the fact he even had one - Jack O'Neill stepped through the White House doors prepared to at least attempt to pretend enjoyment of the night's events.

-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-

He should have remembered to slip on his wedding ring but, despite doing nothing more dangerous these days than risking a nasty paper cut, he'd never gotten into the habit of wearing it in uniform. Which was a shame. Jack always forgot just how 'attractive' the three stars on his shoulder boards were to some women. And, at a party like this, there weren't a lot of other single seemingly available men to share that attention. Most men at his level were either married or more than able to find someone young and attractive and willing to spend the evening rubbing shoulders with the Washington elite at the White House.

Very few came alone.

And even fewer came alone because their wife - who put most of the other young and attractive women in the room to shame - was a Colonel herself who would have had her own invitation if it hadn't been for the little detail that she was currently deployed 'out of town.' In fact, as far as he knew, he was the only one. It also, unfortunately, wasn't the kind of thing you could easily bring up in casual small talk

Though he was getting just desperate enough to try it. Maybe next time he'd wear a sign. Or at least remember his wedding ring.

Kathy Oregon, the relatively attractive main anchorwoman of one of the major national networks - he forgot which one - had somehow managed to get Jack cornered. Literally caught between the giant brightly-lit Christmas tree and the equally oversized fireplace. She had quickly been joined by several other women, each intent on outdoing the other in order to claim Jack's attention. And unfortunately, the stars on his uniform prevented him from being outright rude. At least for now, although if this kept up much longer he'd begin to rethink that position. So he was effectively trapped, feigning interest in whatever it was the women were talking about - he thought it had something to do with the current 'energy crisis' - and trying to resist the urge to launch into an explanation of how all those problems could be fixed if only they had access to some sort of Super Metal and a generator with which to turn it into a nearly endless supply of energy.

Which thought did not help because suddenly all he could think about were bright blue eyes and an even brighter smile as she'd look up from whatever she was working on to smile at him. And then she'd launch into a long explanation of whatever it was she was doing, patiently restating and clarifying until he finally understood what she was trying to tell him, growing ever more animated - and more attractive - as she did so.

Failing to readily understand her explanations was the smartest thing Jack ever did.

He was pulled back to the present by - for the life of him he couldn't remember her name - but she had her hand on his arm. And he couldn't think of a polite way to get her to move it short of removing it forcibly himself…

"Are you enjoying the party, Jack?" He was saved by the President himself who, along with the First Lady, were making the rounds of the room. Obviously, it was Jack's turn. Or, possibly, judging by the sympathetic look on the other man's face, the president had seen his predicament and taken pity on his misery.

"Yes, Mr. President. These ladies are keeping me company."

The first lady smiled knowingly. "I can see that." Jack tried to avoid glaring at her. She'd actually met his wife and had no excuse.

With the President's next words, though, Jack forgave all: "If you ladies will excuse us, there are some people I'd like to introduce General O'Neill to." And, before they could protest, he'd taken Jack's arm and was leading him across the room. "I thought maybe you could use a rescue, Jack," he explained as they moved, "But these gentlemen really are hoping to have a word with you, and I promised..." And with that scant introduction, the president deposited him in front of a group of men before he and first lady left to continue their rounds of the room.

They were all reporters, but at least their interest in him appeared to be purely professional which made that almost forgivable. "So General O'Neill, we've been trying to speak to you for some time now, but your aid has claimed you were too busy for an interview…"

Jack tried to hide his grimace. Maybe he'd been wrong. Out of the frying pan…

He wanted to concentrate on what the reporter was saying. Really he did. But someone close by was wearing the exact same brand of perfume as Sam, and it was proving impossibly distracting. And he would almost swear he could smell her soap. And her shampoo. And her…

A hand on his arm. Fingers lightly pressing into the starched sleeve of his uniform. And everything else was forgotten in an instant. Nothing else mattered. Her touch was electric; he nearly forgot to breath.

Then he was looking down into bright blue eyes, and a smile which seemed to fill the room. A very smug smile. She leaned in to kiss him on the cheek, pausing to whisper into his ear, "Surprise." The scent of her so close consumed his senses, and he couldn't have responded if he'd wanted to.

She stepped back, her smile grown somehow still more satisfied at his reaction, and slipped her arm through his. The men he had been in conversation with waited, expectant looks on their faces. Finally finding his voice, Jack explained, "Gentlemen, allow me to introduce my wife, Colonel Samantha Carter."

She nodded at the group. "Gentlemen."

Jack could see the other men's glances slowly pass over Sam, checking her out. He might have been offended if he hadn't been so busy doing the exact same thing himself.

Her hair was pulled up and piled on top of her head, a few stray strands curling against her cheeks. She was wearing the dangling diamond earrings he had bought her last Christmas and the matching choker, which accentuated the low cut of her black dress, giving a tantalizing glimpse of… The dress hugged her hips, ending several inches above her knee, giving him another tantalizing glimpse of…

He tore his gaze back up to her face. Which helped slightly. But he could still smell her. And he could still imagine….

Sam's smile grew still impossibly more smug. One of the reporters - Mike Andrews from CBS, Jack knew that one - interrupted their wordless exchange. "So, Colonel, we were just discussing with your husband the possibility of doing--"

She cut them off. "I've been out of town for the better part of the last month. Now's not really a good time. Maybe after the holidays?" she asked sweetly. A bit too sweetly, really, only they didn't know Sam as well as he did.

Fortunately for him, Andrews quickly agreed, "Sure. That'll work."

"Good, then just have your people call my people," Jack said and before anyone else could speak, he quickly steered Sam away from the group of reporters.

"My people call your people?" she asked under her breath as they walked.

He laughed, "Believe it or not, around here, that works."

She snorted and rolled her eyes. And who'd have thought that could look so hot?

They claimed an empty spot of floor back near the Christmas tree, tucked out of the way. But still not private enough. Not for what Jack really wanted to do. But it would have to do for now. One simply didn't duck out of formal state dinners to fall into bed with one's wife. Even if she'd been gone for weeks. No matter how desperately one wanted to.

As if reading his mind - and she probably could by now, though it might not have, strictly speaking, been his mind she was reading - Sam asked, "How long before we can get out of here?"

"Seating for dinner's at 2000. So…"

"Three hours?"

"Sounds about right."

She sighed. "It's going to be a long three hours."

He smiled. "You got that right." Then, suddenly struck with an idea, he glanced around the room. And found what he'd been looking for. "C'mon," he ordered, stepping out of the corner and starting across the room.

She followed, and half-way to their destination started to chuckle.

"Who's the genius now?" he asked.

"I never doubted you," she agreed, laughing.

They stopped directly under the mistletoe. Jack pulled her into his arms as his mouth opened over hers. They stood in each others embrace, melted together for long, long moments, exploring with lips and tongues and teeth. Rediscovering the taste and feel of each other. Finally, breathlessly, they separated slightly, Sam still clinging to him for support.

Applause echoed around them. Startled, Sam looked out at the crowd who had gathered to watch their kiss, a slow blush spreading across her features.

But not Jack.

Now was his turn to look smug.