He retires while she's off world.
It shouldn't surprise her really, Jack being ... well, Jack.
Still, when she hears the news she has to ask for it to be repeated. Twice.
Later she finds out that he didn't let them give him a party.
Jack, who loves parties-especially parties that come with cake-had requested a cake-free send-off.
He's already gone when she gets back to Earth, so it's Teal'c who tells her where to look. He does it with a faint smile, a gentle hug, and a low-voiced, "Be well, Colonel Carter."
He doesn't tell her to look for Jack at his cabin, at his house or hers, or even at the Pentagon.
Instead she finds Jack standing at the top of Cheyenne Mountain looking out over the city. He's wearing civilian clothes, which is a little bit strange, and he has his hands stuffed in his pockets, which isn't.
He doesn't turn, even though she knows he hears her approach. And he doesn't have to ask who it is.
She stops twenty feet away and realizes she has no idea what to say. "Sir."
When he shakes his head, his hair glints silver in the setting sun. "Not anymore."
His hands come out of his pockets and he turns to look at her. She tries to read his expression without success. When he wants to, Jack can do stoic almost as well as Teal'c.
"I heard," she says.
Eyebrows raised, head canted a little to one side, he studies her quizzically. "Heard what?"
So. He wants to play it like it isn't a big deal. Only it is a big deal. It's a huge deal. It's a monumental deal. It's a thistimethere' kind of deal.
But if there's one thing she's learned since joining the Stargate Program it's how to keep her head in a crisis.
"About your retirement."
"Oh. That." He blows out a breath and goes back to staring out over the city.
Her head tells her not to push, but it's usually her heart that she listens to when it comes to Jack. And it's her heart that urges her forward now, one slow step at a time.
"Why, sir? Why now?"
He's quiet for so long that she begins to wonder if he even heard her. When he does finally speak she's struck by the pure exhaustion that drags down his shoulders and weights his tone.
"I'm tired, Carter. Tired of spending every waking moment fighting off bad guys. Tired of worrying which one of my teams might not make it home today. Tired of ... Well, pretty damned near everything, if you want to know the truth."
His teams. He still thinks of them that way even though he hasn't been directly involved in SGC operations for years. Each member a personal responsibility. Each death, a tragedy and an affront. It's no wonder he's tired.
"I want a life." He slants a glance her way. "I think I've earned it, don't you?"
"Yes, sir. I'd say so."
He turns on her, exasperation rising in his eyes. "Would you stop that? I'm don't want to be anybody's sir anymore." His voice drops, and she almost misses the rest. "Least of all yours."
Oh, God. OhGodOhGodOhGod. Did he really go there? She should ignore it. Pretend she didn't hear. It's what they usually do - pretend and ignore. But this time she can't ignore. And she can't pretend. Apparently she's tired, too.
"Why?" It's barely more than a whisper, but he's never been hard of hearing.
He's playing dumb because it's what he does. He'd rather face down Anubis in unarmed hand-to-hand combat then talk about this stuff. But this time she doesn't let him get away with it.
"Why 'least of all' mine?"
"Come on, Carter. You know why."
"Do I? It isn't as if we ever talk about it." And they don't. Their feelings for each other have always been, as Jack would put it, the mother of all elephants in the room.
"Because we can't. And you know it."
"Past tense," she says. "Couldn't." She risks a light touch on his arm, feels him tense beneath her hand, and lets her fingers fall away on a sigh.
It isn't really why she came. She doesn't want him to think that the first thing on her mind when she heard about his retirement was this. But now that it's here she isn't going to run away from it, either.
"You still have a job to do," he says.
"I know that."
"You don't need any distractions out there."
Her heart aches with the knowledge that he's putting her first. Again. Sometimes she wishes he'd put himself first once in a while. "Is that really how you see yourself? As a distraction?"
He gives her one of his patented grins. "Hey, I can be pretty damned distracting when I put my mind to it."
An answering smile tugs at the corners of her mouth. "Yes, you can," she admits. "But not all distractions are bad."
There's a sobering intensity to the way he says it.
"I don't know what to call this ... thing between us," he says quietly. "Hell, maybe it's nothing." His eyes lock on hers, and suddenly she finds it hard to catch her breath. "But that life I said I wanted?"
She nods because she's half convinced that if she tries to speak all she'll be able to manage is an ignominious squeak.
"I want you in it."
She's often heard people equate moments like this with dams breaking, but it isn't like that for her. For her it's more like giving a Rubik's Cube that last twist of the wrist that brings all the colors into alignment.
But, "I'd like that," is all she says, because she still doesn't quite trust her voice. "I'd like that very much."
His best smiles are always the ones that start in his eyes. This one is like that. And she answers it with one of her own.
For a long moment they just stand there with matching goofy grins plastered on their faces. She's a little stunned and a little disbelieving. Could it really be that easy? Then he opens his arms and she realizes that yes, it really can be that easy.
She goes eagerly, without thought or question, and when his arms close around her all she can think about is how good it feels. Before he can change his mind she tucks her head into his shoulder and draws his scent deep into her lungs. He doesn't change his mind, though. His hold on her is tight, almost desperate, and she responds in kind. They've waited so long for the chance, just the chance, to give want and need equal footing with duty and honor.
His heart beats strong and steady against her ear, and with everything she's been through, everything she's seen and done, this is still the one place she always feels safe. Always.
He shifts, and she leans back in his arms so she can look into his eyes. But she doesn't let go. She never wants to let go again. His hands come up to frame her face, calloused palms moving gently along her jaw. He holds her there while the seconds tiptoe past on slipper-muffled feet, and it occurs to her that his eyes are softer and warmer than she's ever seen them before. This is Jack, unguarded and vulnerable, risking everything and hiding nothing.
"Are you sure about this, Sam? Because if you aren't sure ..."
She's smiling. She knows she's smiling. But she also feels the burn of tears behind her eyes. I love women, he'd said once. I just have a little problem with scientists. She blinks once, hard, and summons a wobbly smile.
"Shut up and kiss me."
His eyebrows shoot up, and his lips twitch into a faint smile. "Are you always going to be this bossy?"
But he kisses her anyway, and it's both sweeter than anything she'd ever imagined and hotter. She presses herself against him as his tongue sweeps into her mouth, and he responds by dropping one arm to her waist and pulling her even closer so that she can't miss the growing proof of his arousal. Her hands race across his back tracing the curve of his spine, measuring the distance between his shoulder blades, and kneading the muscles of his lower back that quiver at her touch. When his tongue dances along her teeth she captures it, nips lightly, and gives him her breath on his indrawn gasp. This is what she's wanted for years, what she's hungered for, dreamed of, fantasized about. And she wants more. Needs more.
But he's already pulling her back, easing her off the cliff before it's too late to turn away. His lips nibble lightly at hers, soothing now instead of arousing, and his thumb slides across her cheek with impossible tenderness.
A moment later he draws back to rest his forehead against hers. They're both breathing hard. Her heart is racing, and every muscle in her body is tight with heat and hunger. The last thing she wants is to stop doing what they were doing, no matter how insane it was. But then she pictures what would happen if somebody discovered them up here. It's an image that accomplishes what rational thought could not. Jack might be retired, but that wouldn't matter if word got around that they'd been caught making out on top of Cheyenne Mountain.
She casts about for something safe to say and latches onto the first thing that comes to mind. "So what's this I hear about you turning down cake?"
"When you retired. No party? No cake?"
He drops his hands to the curve of her hips. The warmth of his touch reaches her even through her uniform.
"You were off world," he says. "Parties aren't much fun if nobody comes."
And by nobody he doesn't just mean her. He means SG1. His team. His people.
"I tell you what. " She wraps her hands around his forearms, and this time he doesn't tense up. This time he just watches her with a kind of warmth in his eyes that makes her insides feel like melted chocolate. "Why don't we grab a couple of steaks and a bottle of wine at Safeway. Hell, maybe we can even find some cake for dessert."
"Now that," Jack says with a bright smile, "sounds like a plan."
"I thought so. In fact, I think I've gotten rather good at planning."
"Oh really." He drapes an arm around her shoulders and turns her toward the trailhead. "Do tell."
"Well, for example, right now I'm planning what we'll do after dinner."
The keen interest in his voice makes her smile. "Yes. And I think you'll approve."
"Oh, I'm sure I will, Carter. I'm sure I will." He drops his arm from her shoulders and takes her hand instead. "I only have one question."
"Can we make it chocolate cake?"
The laugh that bubbles up and out is younger and more carefree than any she's enjoyed in years.