This is a sequel to A Whole Alphabet of Plans.
It's a party for the kids. That's how they decide to play it and whatever makes Cassie happy makes Jack happy. The New Years Eve celebration is also doubling for Cassie's goodbye party and Carter's house is filled with teenagers. Most of Cassie's friends had left in the fall but are home for the holidays so it works out pretty well. There's gotta be at least twenty or twenty-five kids that Jack has never laid eyes on, but beyond the kids are his team. Daniel and Teal'c and Carter. There are a few other adults, some of Carter's friends, some of Janet's friends, and the occasional SGC staff person, but mostly it's loud, pounding music and kids.
Jack and Cassie had pushed all of Carter's living room furniture against the walls to make room for dancing and Jack can see Cassie in the middle of the crowd on the dance floor, laughing and spinning and surrounded by her friends. She looks happy and Jack is relieved that losing Janet hadn't been the last straw for that poor girl.
"How long before my neighbors call the cops?" Carter asks, appearing at his side. She hands him a fresh beer. She has to yell, practically, to be heard, but he can read her lips easily enough.
"Nah, it's a holiday," he says, choosing to lean in and speak directly into her ear.
"True," she says. "Hey. Come with me?"
He follows her past the living room and the kitchen, down the dark hallway into the back of the house. Her office is back there, as well as her bedroom and Cassie's. Before the guests arrived, Jack had gone through the house and zip tied all the handles of the bedroom doors so they couldn't be closed. The last thing he needed was Cassie getting knocked up two weeks before she left for college because he wasn't paying attention to who had slipped down the hall.
Carter leads him past the office into her bedroom. He hesitates at the threshold, suddenly nervous. Carter's bedroom. Kind of uncharted territory and they're already in some pretty unexplored waters after Christmas. He'd lost control a little, had kissed her, and now he's nervous that the one slip was just the top of an oh-so-dangerous slope. It hadn't been a proper kiss, but it had been enough.
She looks over her shoulder when she realizes he isn't behind her and smiles. "I won't bite."
He narrows his eyes. Little minx. She narrows her eyes right back and holds her expression until he takes a few more steps in.
"I have a gift for you."
She bends over the nightstand and he makes an effort not to stare at her ass as she digs around in the drawer.
"New Years isn't a gift giving holiday, Carter," he says, staring at the ceiling. She clears her throat and when he looks back, she's facing him, a small, wrapped package in her hands and a highly amused expression.
"Consider it a late Christmas gift," she says, extending it to him. It's wrapped in blue paper covered with white snowflakes and tied with silver ribbon.
"You already gave me-"
"Just open it, sir," she says. He concedes, tearing the paper away. Inside is a picture frame and he flips it over to see the photograph inside. It's a picture of him and Cassie, both of their long bodies shoved onto the one sled that Jack has. She sits between his legs, laughing. In the picture, he's smiling too. He hadn't even realized that Carter had taken a camera along. Sneaky Carter.
"Wow," he says.
"Sometimes," she says. "I feel like even if everything else goes to hell, we got this one right."
"You get a lot of things right," he says, looking at her and then back to the picture. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," she grins. "Something to keep on your desk, maybe?"
"What desk?" he teases. "If I keep it in your lab, I'll see it way more often."
She clears her throat. "I have my own copy," she admits.
Down the hall, the song changes and the kids all cheer, apparently pleased with the new loud, repetitive noise.
"We'd better get back to it," she says, now.
"How much longer til midnight?" he asks.
"Less than an hour," she replies, leading him out of the relative quiet and privacy of her bedroom. He sets the picture down on the bed before he follows. He'll retrieve it later.
Daniel is leaning in a corner, watching the kids with a beer in his hand. Carter moves off to the kitchen to talk to some of the women in there, so Jack leans next to Daniel.
"Hiding in the garage," Daniel says. "Like a coward."
"Really?" Jack chuckles.
"He muttered something about Earth children and disappeared. About the same time you and Sam went MIA too. Where ya been?" Daniel asks, waggling his eyebrows.
"She gave me a gift," Jack says primly.
"Ew, I didn't mean for you to actually tell me," Daniel says.
"A real gift, Daniel," Jack says. "A picture in a frame."
"Look, I know you are having fun on your high horse, but Major Carter and I are the professional colleagues that we always have been." Jack nods once, for emphasis.
"That's convincing," Daniel says sarcastically.
"Look, don't think I won't beat your ass just because there's a bunch of kids here and it's a holiday."
"As if you could, I get one shot to your knee and you'll be weeping like a baby," Daniel smirks.
Oh that's it. That is just it.
"You'd better not." Carter's voice in his ear and his abandoned beer is being pressed back into his hand.
"You are so lucky, Jackson," he murmurs, nudging Carter affectionately. "He started it."
"Did not!" Daniel says.
"Boys!" Carter snaps. "There are writhing, dancing teenagers who currently have better control of their hormones than you two."
Daniel pulls a face and mutters, "I didn't, though."
Carter reaches out and smacks the back of his head.
"Oh man," Jack says seriously. "You are the perfect woman."
"So they tell me," she says. Daniel just rolls his eyes and makes a beeline for the door to the garage.
About ten minutes before midnight, Carter is in the kitchen popping bottles of Apple Cider and one of champagne for the adults. Jack has been thinking about this moment since Christmas and he's realized something about himself. He should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to kiss Carter at midnight. It will just set a bad, bad precedent and as fantastic as doing so might be, he knows his limits.
"Hey," he says, standing next to her. "I just wanted you to know that when the ball drops, I'm not going to kiss you."
Her hands pause, the cider bottle just shy of pouring into the plastic flute. But she recovers quickly and tips it.
"All right," she says.
"It's not that I don't... you know, it'd be... but, I just think it's a bad idea."
"It is a bad idea," she says. "I understand, sir. It would be completely inappropriate."
"So... okay then."
"Okay," she says. "We're just about ready. Will you give these to the kids?" She shoves a tray of cider in his hands and turns her back on him. Well, he deserves that. When his tray is empty, one of the women that Sam knows and he doesn't hands him a flute of real champagne. He looks around for Sam, but he doesn't see her and Daniel and Teal'c are missing too.
The garage is cold, but it's where he finds his team. He closes the door against the din and warmth of the party and they all stand and look at one another.
"Happy New Years, guys," Daniel says finally. When Carter's watch beeps, it's midnight and they clink glasses and drink. And then Daniel throws a wrench in all his plans by pulling Sam to him and giving her a big sloppy kiss. He kisses her cheek, mostly, perhaps the very corner of her mouth and Sam giggles and allows it for a moment before pushing him away.
The jealousy is enough to blind him.
Teal'c is next, standing in front of Sam and pressing a very soft kiss to her forehead. Sam beams at him, grinning hugely and Jack wants to stomp his foot like a child. Teal'c spins her, presenting her to Jack who just stands like an idiot.
"Do you not participate in this Tau'ri tradition, O'Neill?" Teal'c asks when Jack doesn't do anything. Sam looks hesitant, remembering surely that he'd told her he wouldn't be kissing her not just a few minutes ago.
"It's okay," she says but it isn't okay, it's not fair or right that no matter what he chooses now, he's going to be hurting her and that he's going to get hurt. Instead, he shakes his head.
"Happy New Years," he says and leans down to kiss her cheek.
Sam allows it, his slight brush of lips against the soft, pale skin. He holds it there for too long and she has to be the one to step back.
"Thank you, sir," she says. Daniel clears his throat, always the first to break under pressure.
"It's freezing out here," he announces and then heads for the door.
Jack is the last one back in the house, watching Teal'c and then Carter follow suit. He stands for a few seconds rooted to the spot. It is cold, and the laughter and warmth from the house is inviting but he feels like he doesn't deserve to go back in and play nice.
"Son of a bitch," he says to no one.
His phone rings just after 9:00. He didn't sleep well and he thinks about ignoring it all together, but it's his cell phone, not his land line so he can at least see who is calling him so damn early on a holiday. The small screen says 'Carter' and he answers it before he realizes that he probably shouldn't.
"Hello." He doesn't bother to hide the fact that she's woken him, doesn't clear the sleep from his voice.
"Good morning, sir," she says sounding more amused than she has any right to be. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"What do you want, Carter?" he says but this gruffness is an act, they both know.
"Brunch, mostly," she says.
"Cassie and I are going to brunch. Daniel, too, I think. Want to come?" she asks.
"Brunch," he says. "That's the one with the melon and the little rolls?"
"It's just breakfast for people who sleep late, sir," she says, laughing. "Cassie told me to call you, she wants you to go."
"Well, as someone who has never said no to Cassie before, I guess I don't have a lot of choice in the matter," he says, rolling over and stretching.
"La Baguette," she says. "One hour."
"Fine, fine," he says. "What does one wear to brunch, Carter?"
"Do you even have anything besides baggy jeans and flannels?" she asks.
"Yes sir." He can hear her grinning.
He hangs up, tosses the phone into the sheets, and groans loudly.
"Come on," he says to the ceiling, to what's above it. The sky, the stars, the entity that has chosen Jack to be the butt of all jokes ever. "Please."
But he receives no answer except the wave of stupidity that follows on the heels of him talking to himself, of what might have been a prayer.
When he dresses, showered and shaved, he chooses black slacks and a gray sweater. The clothes aren't new because they'd been purchased by Sara for some holiday party, but they're like new because he never wears them and they had never tried to be stylish, only clean lines and classic cuts. He's not dressing for Carter, he's dressing to prove Carter wrong. The slacks feel tight only because they're not a size too big like he buys for himself and when he goes outside to warm up the truck, he sees that it's snowing. He adds a red scarf he finds hanging in the closet by the door and his black leather jacket.
Brunch sounds fancy, anyway, and if he's overdressed it'll still be worth the look on Carter's smug face when she sees him dressed like a grown-up.
The parking lot of the little restaurant is brimming and he has to circle to find a spot and even then it's in the very back by the dumpsters. He doesn't see Daniel's little tin can of a car but he does see Cassie's Accord, parked crookedly in the lines of the space and the tail end sticking out like she didn't pull in far enough. He's about three minutes late and knowing Carter, she'd been at least five minutes early. He hopes they already have a table. He doesn't want to wait by the door with all those other people.
The restaurant is stuffy and warm, the heaters working overtime because of the foul weather outside, and it smells like wet wool and mild hangovers. People look tired, but game, and there are children everywhere, running around underfoot while their parents look on tiredly. He used to do this sort of thing all the time with Sara and Charlie. Lunch after church in family restaurants, dinner with the in-laws, pizza parties after little league games. It's been a long time and he feels something in his gut curl a little and he has to fight the urge to run.
A hostess looks up at him, a young girl who doesn't look a day over sixteen but still looks just as hungover as he'd expect.
"Carter," he says because he doesn't see her or Cassie in the waiting area and there's a whole big chunk of the restaurant that he can't see. "Two of 'em. A blonde and a teenage girl."
"Table 64," she says. "I can show you."
He wonders if Daniel will show up but when he sees them at the table, there is one empty chair and another piled with coats and purses and he knows that it's going to be the three of them, just like before when he'd still had a family to call his own. He pushes down the maudlin thoughts because Sam half rises in her chair, gaping at him.
"Damn, Jack," Cassie says because Carter is still doing her goldfish impression. "You just won me ten bucks."
"You made a bet?" he asks Carter, who has managed now to at least close her mouth. "About my clothes?"
"Well," Carter says. "I lost, didn't I?"
They all manage to find their seats and he leans back in his wooden chair, smugly. No one mentions Daniel. Cassie carries them through the drink order, the coffee carafe arriving and Carter pouring them all mugs. Cassie puts more cream and sugar in her cup than actual coffee but he remembers that once he'd had to acquire a taste as well. Now they all drink the black sludge that Daniel brews when they're off-world and never complain.
Cassie talks about the party more and they laugh but eventually even she tires out, sipping at her sickly sweet beverage and they all seem pleased when the waiter comes. Carter orders eggs and toast, Cassie gets pancakes. Jack hasn't really even looked at the menu so he just hands it to the kid and says, "The special." That almost always works. Carter looks at him like she knows.
"You do look nice," she says, instead.
"Thanks," he says with a nod. Carter is dressed up a little too, though she tends toward the girly when she's out of uniform, he's noticed. She has on a cream sweater and a skirt and he thought he saw tall boots when she almost stood up earlier but he can't be sure and reminds himself to check her out more thoroughly later.
Or not. Damn.
"Do you think the people at the other tables think we're a real family?" Cassie says out of nowhere. Cassie has been doing this lately and he thinks it's just a symptom of her leaving the nest. She says these things that make them all vaguely uncomfortable, that force them to reevaluate their relationships with one another. Cassie says family, Jack thinks co-worker and orphan and then feels like shit but they're not a family either, are they?
"We are a family," Carter says smoothly. Good girl, he thinks. "Why are we different than anyone else in this restaurant?"
"Come on," Cassie says. "We are total freaks."
"Hey," Jack says. "Carter doesn't even look old enough to have a kid your age."
"Smooth," Carter says, smirking.
"And I'm barely old enough to be your rakish uncle," he continues.
"So people know we don't belong together, then," Cassie says.
"Wait..." Jack says, wondering how that got turned against him so quickly.
"Cassandra," Carter says now sounding awfully motherly. "First of all, why do you care what people think?"
"I don't, but..."
"Secondly," Carter says. "Jack and I love you like you were our own blood. Most families get stuck with one another but I consider us all very lucky because we got to choose people we actually like."
"That's true," Cassie says after a moment. "That's a nice way of looking at it."
"I bet people look at us and do think we're a family and they're right," Jack says and Carter smiles softly at him, most of it up around her eyes. "And Carter and I are going to miss you when you ditch us for an education."
"I'll miss you guys, too," Cassandra says. "Will you come visit me?"
"Will you come visit me?" Carter shoots right back and they both grin with some joke that he's not a part of but he doesn't care. He smiles too.
The food arrives and they all settle in. His eggs do come with a slice of pale orange melon, but it doesn't look very good and he figures it's more decorative than anything else. He also gets hash browns, bacon, and toast. The special never fails him and is almost the same everywhere.
"I'm supposed to meet Megan and Danielle in fifteen minutes," Cassie says when Jack has already given his credit card to the server.
"Where?" Carter asks.
"The movies." Carter looks at her watch and then back at Cassie, a small frown on her face.
"I'll take you home," Jack says and doesn't wait for Carter to agree or disagree. "We still on for your big move?"
"It's not that I'm using you only for your truck..." Cassie says jokingly. Jack rolls his eyes. "Are you sure you can take the time off?"
"I told General Hammond it was non-negotiable," Jack promises. It doesn't mean much, that SG-1 is off the mission list for a week so he and Carter can move Cassie. Best laid plans, and all, but he's really hoping the universe can hold it together for just a couple days so they can get their kid all set up. Not their kid, but... the person they've decided to share.
"Thanks," Cassie says already pushing away from the table and slipping into her winter coat.
"Please be careful," Carter begs. "The roads are icy."
"I'm always careful," Cassie says. "Thanks for breakfast, Jack."
"Brunch," he corrects absently and they both watch her wind her way through the tables and disappear around a corner. He looks at Cassie's empty chair and the one Daniel was theoretically going to occupy and then at Carter, the only other person at the table.
"Well," he says.
"I can take a cab," she blurts and then closes her eyes briefly. It doesn't have to be awkward but they're both trying so hard to do the right thing that everything seems just slightly off.
"That's stupid," he says because it is. Jack finds their server across the dining room. He's still waiting for the kid to bring him his card back, but the server is standing by the entrance to the kitchen, chatting up one of the blonde waitresses. He watches the exchange for a second, the way the waitress touches the kid's chest just briefly while she laughs. "You got plans?"
"No," Carter says carefully. "Cleaning up from yesterday."
"You know, we could see a movie, too. That's a thing people do, I hear. No reason for us to sit alone in our houses all day," he says even though internally he's cursing Cassie for even presenting him with the opportunity. Cassie is always manipulating him into situations like this, the little mischievous brat.
"Just imagine the look on her face if we show up at the same theater as her and her friends," Carter says.
"There are others," Jack says. "There's that little art house one downtown that plays shit I wouldn't want to see in a million years."
"Quite the sales pitch," she says.
"We could drive up to Denver? Go to the IMAX?" Why is he pushing so hard? And the moment he says Denver he realizes it's a mistake because it just reminds them both of Pete and here he is asking her out on a date when she's only been single for a couple weeks and he can't even date her anyway, so what the fuck is he even doing?
She must see it all on his face because she throws him a bone.
"Let's swing by Daniel's," she says. "He's slept enough."
"Great," he says. "It's a plan."
Daniel answers the door pretty promptly, though Jack wouldn't classify him as awake. Or dressed, for that matter. He's got on a pair of pajama pants, green and blue flannel, but nothing else. Sometime in the last seven years, Daniel had bulked up considerably. He's not the scrawny scientist he once was.
"It's early," he complains.
"It's nearly noon," Carter says. "Are you going to invite us in?"
Daniel steps aside and they enter the narrow front hallway and all file into the big living room. The snow is coming down now, really coming down, sticking to everything on Daniel's balcony. The little table and chairs and the dead plants in their snowy pots.
"I'm going to assume the world is not ending," Daniel says, shuffling into the kitchen. Jack hears the sink come on, the noises of someone fumbling their way through morning coffee making. For his last birthday, Carter had gotten Jack a coffee maker with an automatic timer. He'd accused her, at the time, of poking fun at him but damned if he didn't set the thing every night now.
"I guess that depends on your definition," Jack starts but Carter elbows him and he shuts up.
"You bailed on brunch," Carter says, a little louder. "We thought maybe we could do something else instead."
"Yeah sorry," he says. "I got your message but I was sleeping."
"It's fine," Carter says. "The Colonel suggested driving up to Denver to see a movie."
"It's snowing," Daniel says, poking his head through the kitchen door just long enough to look at them like they are crazy. "And there are theaters in the Springs."
"Not ones with massively huge screens," Jack says.
"I'm all for fun, guys," Daniel says. "But can't we do it without driving for an hour?"
"Bowling?" Carter suggests but that gets shot down too. Teal'c went off world after the party to spend some time with the Jaffa and it doesn't seem right to play his favorite sport without him.
"We could just find bar and do shots til one of us falls over," Jack says.
"We could go clean my house," Carter retaliates.
"Both of those ideas are terrible," Daniel says, emerging with a mug of coffee. He doesn't offer them any, but they did show up unannounced and have just come from brunch so he lets it slide.
"You could put on a shirt," Jack says instead.
"Yeah," Carter says. "That should probably be step one."
"You two suck," Daniel says. "I'm going to take a shower and when I come back we're going to have this all figured out, right?"
"Right," Carter says, smirking.
"Also, Jack," Daniel says in that tone that always precedes an insult. "Did you let Sam dress you this morning?"
"I know, right?" Carter says. Jack turns to give her an incredulous glare and she does look vaguely surprised at herself. But she stands firm. "I mean, you know. It's not like there's a historical precedent of you... wearing... nice..." She trails to a stop.
"No, no," Jack says, leaning against the wall. "By all means, finish that sentence."
"You always look very nice, sir," she says.
Down the hall, a door closes. Daniel has abandoned them for the shower. Probably for the best.
"I do," Jack agrees. He flops himself down onto the sofa. After a moment, Carter sits next to him, a little more carefully. "Nice boots," he says.
"Pretty good," she says. "Wouldn't take them off world or anything."
"Well, the heel would probably slow you down a bit," he jokes.
"I don't know," she says, extending one leg to get a better look. He swallows. "You get pretty used to it. It wouldn't be the running, ultimately, but the mud."
"Yeah," he says. "There's always mud."
"Plus I don't think they go with the BDUs," she grins.
"You could make it work," he says. They have to stop talking about her shoes. He looks around a little frantically but she saves him.
"TV?" she asks. He zeros in on the small, antiquated television that sits on the little shelf.
"Hardly worth the effort," Jack says. She furrows her brow a little. "The screen is covered in dust which means that there's probably not even cable and anyway, you know he never watches it because look at the weird angle it's at. He probably only uses it to watch documentaries on... Egypt and... you know, Daniel stuff."
"You're probably right," she says. "I let my cable go this month, actually."
"Never home," she murmured. "And with Cassie leaving it seemed... time."
"You doing okay with that?" he asks. "Cassie leaving?"
"I mean," she says, shrugging. "It's been nice to have her with me but she needs to go to school."
"You going to be okay alone there?"
"Sir," she says. "I've lived alone for a lot longer than I've had Cass."
"Well, yeah, but you get used to having someone around and then it feels harder to go back to the way things were before them."
She blinks at stares at him, her big eyes searching his face.
"We still talking about Cassie, sir?" she asks softly.
"Are we ever just talking about one thing?" he responds. Ever since Christmas it seems like every time they're together, they just keep piling on layers of things not to say. It's getting hard to keep track. But she looks a little uneasy, so he throws in a joke to let them off the hook. "If Daniel and I can have a discussion about the Goa'uld in the middle of Starbucks without anyone being the wiser, then I can talk about more than one thing at once."
"One thing I will miss about Cassie is she gave me a reason to go home more," Carter says.
She has been going home more often. There was a time when he could have wandered down to her lab day or night and found her, but nowadays he finds the lab dark, the door closed, as often as he finds her in it. He'd thought that had always been about Pete but now he isn't sure. It's selfish, he knows, to be happy at the prospect of her being on base more simply so he can see her whenever he wants.
"I'll make you a deal," he says. "If you're on base, I'm on base."
"That doesn't even make sense," she says.
"Why not?" he asks. "Are we both not members of the same elite, ass-kicking team?"
"Yes," she says with a forced patience. "But I've always kept longer hours than you. You're an out in the field guy and I have to put in time at the lab."
"I have paperwork and stuff," he says. "I have base quarters."
"I get called to base every time there's a gate malfunction or some sort of technology problem. You're saying if they call me at 3am and I have to go in, I should call you too?" she asks skeptically.
"Deals a deal," he says.
"You'll stay for my frequent all-nighters?"
"And if I end up in the infirmary?" she asks.
"I stay for those times already," he says, his voice a little softer.
"What if I have to work through the weekend?"
"Or through a major holiday?"
"What about if I walk through the gate first and get back to the SGC before you do?" she asks.
"You're asking about the .3 seconds?" His eyebrows shoot up.
"We'll just be sure to go through together," he says. Finally she breaks, grins, dips her chin.
"You've thought of everything, it seems," she says.
"Okay, maybe we don't always have to be on base at the same time, but when I leave for the night, I'm stopping by your lab from now on to make sure you've come up for air," he says.
"That's a deal I can live with," she tells him.
"SO!" Daniel says, looking markedly more cheerful. And more clothed. "What are we going to do?"
"Oh," Carter says, biting her lip. "We forgot to talk about it."
"Forgot?" Daniel asks. "What did you talk about?"
"Cassandra," Jack says quickly.
"Okay," Daniel says. "Well, you know, there's that new exhibit on the penny at the Money Museum."
"I don't even know why we like him," Jack says, looking at Carter. "Why are we friends with him again?"
"He speaks a lot of languages," Carter says.
"Come on, there are some really interesting statistics on the penny. Did you know it costs more than a penny to make a penny?" Daniel says.
"Have you already gone to the penny exhibit, Daniel?" Jack asks.
"Once, but I there was plenty more to see..."
"Okay," Carter says, slapping her hands on her thighs and then standing up. "I'm making an executive decision. We're going back to my house to clean but I'm going to make margaritas so we don't notice that it's boring. Agreed?"
Jack and Daniel exchange a glance.
"Agreed," Daniel says.
Daniel is asleep on the couch. Well, it's a fine line between asleep and passed out from drunkenness, but Jack watches Carter drape a blanket over him just the same.
"He's on my list today," Jack says quietly.
"List?" she asks.
"One, man can't hold his liquor," Jack says. She rolls her eyes. "Two, he wanted us to go learn about pennies."
"Three... well, I'm kind of drunk so I don't know about three yet, but I'm sure he'll do something in the next hour to piss me off," Jack says.
"He's not doing anything in the next hour that isn't being unconscious," she says.
"Maybe," he concedes. "But now I have to wait around for him to wake up before I can drive him home. Ha! Number three."
"First of all, he's not waking up anytime soon," she says. "Secondly, you're in no condition to drive."
"We've been drinking for four hours," she says. "I've had a lot less than you two and I'm not fine."
"I'll be fine in a bit," he argues.
"It's snowed seven inches since we came here," she says, shaking her head. "Sorry sir, but we're all in for the night."
"You don't have space for me."
"You can sleep in Cassandra's bed," she says.
"I don't think it's appropriate for me to sleep with Cassandra," he says, scrunching up his face.
"Sir, Cass called an hour ago. She's at Megan's for the night," Carter says. "Remember?"
"Oh," he says. "Right. Well still, that's weird."
"Fine," she says. "You can have my bed, I'll sleep in her room, Daniel will continue to drool onto my throw pillow and in the morning we'll all pretend like this never happened. Sir."
"Fine," he says.
"Fine," she repeats, crossing her arms like she can't believe she's won so easily.
It's not really that late. Only a little after nine. They'd cleaned soberly for a while. Jack had set up shop in the garage, sorting the recycling and eventually Carter had made a couple frozen pizzas and fed them and that's when the margaritas had come into play. Daniel had complained about drinking frozen, blended drinks during a blizzard at which point Jack had mocked him for being a pansy ass and talked about Minnesota for long enough that even Carter got bored and told him to shut up, already, sir and then... they'd switched to just tequila.
Even though it's been over an hour of just water, now, he's pretty proud of her for managing to stay up right as long as she has because he's about to fall over onto the nearest flat surface. She seems to sense this in that way that she has and points him down the hall. Her bed, Carter's bed, beckons him and while he knows that spending a night in her bed is only going to emotionally damage him in the morning, right now he just wants his face on a pillow. He collapses onto it fully clothed and on top of the comforter.
He wakes up to her easing off his shoes. He thinks about telling her to knock it off, that he's fine, but that would require a level of motor skill he's not sure he possesses so he just... lets her. Next she helps him out of his jacket. There's a moment when their eyes meet as she tries to shimmy it out from underneath his shoulders and she smiles at him. The thing about spending so much time together, especially field time, is that even very intimate things sometimes seem commonplace. Watching Teal'c rest his hand on the small of Carter's back is normal. Jack sometimes reaches over and pushes Daniel's glasses up his nose when Daniel is concentrating too hard on something. These little touches, these familiar moments are part of the package now.
She drapes the jacket over a chair and turns back to face him.
"You secretly stopped drinking way before we did, didn't you?" he murmurs.
"Oh yeah," she says, matching his quiet tone. "Get under the covers."
"I'm fine," he protests but she's already tugging the blankets down and it takes some squirming, but soon enough she's pulling them up over him and, rather daringly he thinks, tousles his hair affectionately.
"Go to sleep," she says and turns off the light. She doesn't leave, though. She goes into the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face. By the light of the bathroom, he sees her come back into the bedroom and root around in her dresser for pajamas. He watches all of this greedily. He's seen Carter brush her teeth a hundred times, has seen her peel off a wet uniform and replace it with a dry one from her pack, but watching her move easily around her own bedroom seems different somehow. She takes the fresh clothes into the bathroom and closes the door behind her. The toilet flushes, the sink again, and then she comes out in shorts and a long sleeved shirt and dumps her dirty clothes in the hamper.
"Carter," he murmurs, just on this side of conscious.
"Happy New Year," he says.
"You too, sir," she says.
It's early when he gets up to pee. Really early because Carter isn't even up yet. It's not even six. They'll all have to go onto the base at some point, but he can't worry about that now. In the bathroom, he sees she has left a brand new toothbrush on the counter for him. God bless her. There's Tylenol in the cabinet and he carries it with him to the kitchen. He takes three and drinks a glass and a half full of water.
He fills a second glass and sets it on the coffee table next to Daniel along with a little pile of Tylenol. Daniel doesn't stir, not even a twitch. Jack stands still a moment to make sure he can detect the rise and fall of Daniel's chest.
He goes to check on Carter. Cassandra's room is already being disassembled. The posters have been taken down and there are a couple boxes already stacked. Carter is just a lump in the middle of the mattress, covered by the purple comforter. He can see the crown of her head, the soft rise and fall of the shape of her.
The furnace kicks on and the curtains ripple as hot air blows into the room. He steps across the threshold of the door, navigating easily through piles of books and dirty clothes to get to the edge of the bed. He sets the bottle of pills on the nightstand and sinks down to sit on the mattress. She doesn't stir. He should just let her sleep but it feels important to check on his team. When they're off-world, he does this. If he wakes up in the night to pee, if he's just coming on or off his watch, he checks on each of them individually, making sure everyone is okay. He's checked Daniel for signs of life so he must do the same for Carter.
He pulls the comforter down enough to see her face. She's sleeping on her stomach. He doesn't know how she does it, it seems terribly uncomfortable with her arms all tucked under her like that, but he's seen her do it before. He places a warm and heavy hand on her back. Her eyes open.
"Hey," he says, softly.
"What's wrong?" she mumbles, trying to sit up, but he holds his hand against her and she doesn't move.
"Nothing," he says. "It's early. I just wanted to... how's your head?"
"My head?" she asks.
"I'm fine, Jack," she mumbles, still more asleep than awake. His eyes crinkle up at the slip, though he manages not to grin stupidly at her like he wants to. "You?"
"Yeah," he says. "I'm good. Daniel's still out of it."
"If you want to go, I'll take him to work," she offers, rolling onto her side to face him. His hand moves with her and ends up on her hip.
"I don't need to leave yet," he says, drumming his fingers.
"Good," she says, yawning. "Will you hand me my phone so I can text Cassie?"
"No way she's awake," he says, reaching to get the phone from the nightstand.
"She can see it when she wakes up," Carter replies, tired.
"I'll do it," he says. "What do you want it to say?"
"You can text?" she asks, raising an eyebrow.
"I assume the little letters on the numbers have something to do with it," he says, dryly. He looks down at the screen and sees her contact list. He scrolls down to Cassie's name and then starts. "You have me in here as Colonel O'Neill?"
"Just gimme the phone."
"What's wrong with that?" she asks, snatching it from his hands. She makes short work of the text.
"It's kind of impersonal, don't you think?" he says.
"What am I in your phone?" she asks.
"Oh yeah, that oozes with familiarity," she snorts.
"It's not the name, it's the way I read it. You know, when I call you. It's not Carter, it's Carter," he says, easing the phone out of her hands and placing it back on the nightstand.
"Oh, well then," she says. "What would you like to be called in the phone, sir?"
"I dunno. Jack O'Neill? Jack? Captain Awesome God of Sex?" he says. She bursts into laughter, burying her face into the pillow and curling her body into him. He can feel the whole bed shaking as she tries to smother it. "Ouch, Carter."
"I just... that was funny. You're funny, sir," she says. She makes herself stop laughing and gives him a look. "I'll change it to Jack, I promise."
"Good," he says. "Okay, well, I'll let you get some more sleep."
"No," she says quickly and then winces slightly. "I just mean... I'm up and you're up so we could make breakfast or something?"
"Sure," he says. "Breakfast."
She kicks the blankets back and he stands, watches her get out of the bed. Cassie's sheets are white with little yellow flowers and frilly pillowcases. She stretches and then pats his arm as she walks by.
He remembers Sara complaining, in the final months of their marriage, in that dark time after they'd lost Charlie, that Jack's problem was that he had no idea how to be intimate without sex. He hadn't understood at the time, what the difference was, but he thinks maybe he gets it now. Just talking to Carter for several minutes while she was in bed, sleepy and warm, and watching her walk down the hallway now, her legs long, lean, and pale has filled him with this wonderful sense of knowing. That no matter what may or may not happen in the future, she'll always be the person he knows best, the person he wants by his side, watching his six. That even if he never gets to have her in the way he wants, having her in any way will leave him a happy man.
His reverie is broken when he hears Daniel wake up, bolt for the bathroom, and empty his stomach into, hopefully, the toilet. Carter pokes her head around a corner to catch Jack's eye with a sympathetic wince.
"Daniel's up," she offers.
"Hey Daniel," Jack says, knocking on the bathroom door. "Want to go to the Money Museum? Learn about the penny?"
"You sure you have everything?"
"Yes, Sam, I have everything," Cassie says, sounding just a little exasperated. "And if I forget something, you can just mail it to me."
Jack stays out of it, concentrating instead on tying the last corner of the tarp down over the bed of his truck. He predicts it will be a long road ahead. At least they are driving west, to California and away, hopefully, from the snow. He could do with a little warmth and Carter could too.
"Okay," he says. "All set."
Both women whip their heads around to look at him and he forces himself not to flinch. They've been bickering and snapping since he'd arrived to start loading the truck, but mostly it has been directed at one another and he really doesn't want to start being the recipient now. Instead, they look at one another and Carter bites her lip.
"I'm going to miss you so much!" Carter says and they hug tightly.
"Huh?" Jack asks, mostly to himself. "You know we haven't even left yet. We still have a two day drive ahead of us."
"I know," Carter sniffs.
"And I want to make it to Vegas by tonight, so everyone in the truck." Carter glares at him, telling him that he's pushing his luck, but they climb in. Cassie has filled the narrow back seat with boxes, so they all sit up front with Cassie in the middle. She has a brave face on, but when Jack gets in she looks at him and he sees her lip tremble.
"Just the start of a great adventure," he promises her.
She nods and when he catches Carter's eye, she smiles.
It doesn't take long for Cassie to fall asleep. She's tucked into Carter's side, her head on Carter's shoulder. Carter's arm is around her. It can't be comfortable and Carter keeps flexing her fingers like her hand is going numb.
"I'll pull over," Jack says softly. Carter looks at him, blinks, furrows her brow.
"You hungry already?" she asks.
"No, but you two should switch. She could sleep against the door," he says.
"I'm fine," she says, but he has already flicked on his turn signal. "Sir, really."
He turns off the signal and straightens the truck back into the lane but glances at her.
"Cass," he whispers softly and lifts his arm. Carter understands and helps navigate Cassandra against Jack and off her her own arm. Cassandra doesn't seem to care who she's sleeping against and cuddles up to Jack easily. Carter rotates her shoulder a few times.
"Thanks," she murmurs. Jack had offered to let Carter and Cassandra simply borrow his truck. Carter would have been perfectly capable of moving Cassandra into her dorm, but Cassandra had wanted Jack to come and so he had. He's glad to be able to do it. He'll never get to do any of these things with Charlie and sometimes with Cassandra, and with Carter, everything feels like a second chance.
When they stop for lunch, they get fast food which Carter clearly doesn't like but it isn't like they have a lot of options. Jack wants to eat on the road, but Carter won't have it and points at a booth until his ass hits the hard plastic seat. It's just burgers and fries and while it isn't good, it's at least as good as the crap they eat every day on the base.
Cassie is getting quieter. He thinks, at first, that she's just tired but she's slept a lot and now she sits next to Carter, across from him, putting fries into her mouth one by one, saying nothing.
"You okay, princess?" Jack asks.
"I just... never thought I'd be doing this without mom," Cassie says. "You two are wonderful, I didn't mean that, but..."
"I know," Carter says. "It's okay to feel how you're feeling."
Carter and Cassie get in the truck while Jack checks the tie downs once more. He takes his time, stretches his legs a little because he can see Cassie crying in the truck and wants to give Carter a chance to work her maternal magic. For someone who has never had a kid, Carter is great with them. He tries not to picture it too much, all the kids he's seen Carter interact with over the years, tries not to use his memories of Sara's pregnancy to imagine what Carter would look like heavy and glowing and ripe with a baby, definitely tries not to imagine what a mini-Carter would look like, all blonde hair and blue eyes.
He opens the door to the truck and climbs in. Carter really doesn't fit in the center seat very well, he doesn't know why he thought it would be better, but her legs and arms are too long and she has to sit at an angle. Cassie is digging through her backpack, hiding her splotchy face, and even Carter won't quite meet his eye as she struggles to pull the seat belt across her hips.
"Are we all set?" Jack asks, giving them all a chance to come clean, to rearrange, to start again.
"Yeah," Cassie says, pulling a CD from her bag. "Road trip music."
Jack doesn't have high hopes for Cassie's taste but actually, the music isn't bad and Carter even hums along to the Beatles a little bit. She catches him watching her out of the corner of his eye.
"I know, don't quit my day job," she says, a self-deprecating smirk on her face.
"I've heard you sing off-key there, too," Jack says, keeping a straight face. Her mouth opens a little bit, half surprised and half like she's going to defend herself. "But I like it."
"Liar," she says.
"No," he promises. "It's nice to know there's at least once thing you're not better than me at."
"I've never heard you sing," Cassandra says, leaning past Carter to look at Jack.
"Good," Jack says.
"When do you sing?" Cassandra presses.
"Well," Jack says, feeling slightly uncomfortable now. "I was terrible at art in high school so I dropped it and joined the choir."
"Oh my God," Cassandra says. "Did you have to wear a tux and do the shows and stuff?"
"I looked very dapper," he says. Carter suppress a smile.
"High school was forever ago," Cassandra says. "For you, I mean."
"I just mean how do you know you still can sing?"
"Like riding a bicycle," he says.
"Well let's hear something," she demands.
"Cass," Carter says, quietly but with enough force to let the girl know she may be pushing too hard.
"Aren't you curious?" Cassandra demands.
"Carter is always curious," Jack says. "It's why we all like her so much."
"Later," Jack promises. "When the time is right."
This seems to appease Cassandra and she settles back against her seat, kicking her foot up to the dashboard. Jack can't bring himself to tell her to put it down. He'll wipe the shoe print away later with a soft cloth. He glances at Carter, still angled away from him, and her cheeks are slightly pink.
"You okay?" he asks. She waits for him to pass a semi, flicking his turn signal on and accelerating past it and then moving back into the right hand lane.
"I'm fine, sir," she says.
It's late when they pull into Las Vegas. It's not an ideal place to stop, really, but it's the biggest city and because it's Vegas, they can get cheap rooms if they don't stay in one of the nicer, touristy hotels. Cassandra makes a crack about staying at the Luxor so they can feel at home and he reaches past Carter to swat at the girl.
They stay on the old strip. The hotel is tired and warn but still filled with smoke and slot machines, dinging and bright. When he asks for two rooms, Cassandra rolls her eyes.
"Really?" she asks. "You and Sam go camping together all the time. Don't play proper on my account."
"Cassandra, you should be grateful that Uncle Jack is paying for your room at all and stop sassing us," Carter snaps, clearly out of good humor. She gets this way sometimes after particularly long, wet hikes or when they're stuck on a ship traveling to Earth the long way with nothing to do.
"I was just saying," Cassandra says, though she does look chastised, "I know he's paying, that's why we could share." She mumbles the last bit, embarrassed and hurt.
"She's right, you know," Jack says, sympathy for Cassandra making him side against Carter. "We do camp together all the time. I don't mind if you don't mind."
"It's just a few hours," Cassandra says.
"Fine," Carter says, shifting her weight from foot to foot. "Let's just... get some rest."
Jack turns to the concierge and gives him a wan smile. The man behind the desk watches impassively, his fingers poised above his keyboard.
"You heard the ladies," Jack says. "One room. Two beds. Big ones."
"Yes sir," the concierge replies.
"We're taking my niece to college," Jack says, because the silence is unbearable while Cassandra and Carter fight with their eyes.
"Of course, sir," the concierge says.
"Been in the car all day," Jack says, sliding his credit card across the desk. The man says nothing but runs the credit card and hands it back. "So," Jack says conversationally. "Anything fun to do in this town?"
Cassandra giggles, for which he is grateful, but Carter gives him one of those looks and he signs his name on the bill silently and accepts their room cards. They all follow Carter to the bank of elevators. Inside, Cassandra wrinkles her nose at the smell of cigarette smoke. The whole elevator is mirrored and they all make a tired, rumpled picture. Jack nudges Carter with his shoulder and everyone watches him do it.
"Stand down, Major," he says, softly.
"I'm fine," she says.
"This is what families do," he says, though he probably should just be quiet. He's the last person who should be lecturing her about family - he had one and it all fell apart, but they don't have a lot of time with Cassie left and he wants it to be right. "We're not pretending to be a family here, we are one, and this is what they do."
Cassandra's face in the mirror looks happy and sad all at once. Carter says nothing at first, just watches the numbers on the digital display climb but then she lets out a breath and says, "Okay." And she nudges him back.
That's the important part, Jack thinks. She nudges him back.
He wakes up and sits up in his enormous bed to look at, first, the clock and then the little bit of light streaming in through the closed curtains. The heater unit sticking out of the wall blows hot air into the cool room and he rubs his face and then checks the clock again. It's after seven - he wanted to be at least showered by now, but when he looks at the other bed, both of the girls are still asleep. He can see Cassandra's mop of dark hair and past her, Carter, her head and one shoulder exposed - her foot on top of the comforter, too. She's closest to the heater. Carter always sleeps a little warm.
He pushes the covers back and hits the bathroom. He showers in three minutes and decides that this is enough like a vacation that he can skip shaving for the day. When he opens the bathroom door in yesterday's jeans and a white t-shirt, Carter is there holding her toothbrush, waiting.
"Hi," he whispers.
"Morning," she says. She looks sleepy. She's wearing a black t-shirt and some flannel bottoms that are just a little too big and hang off her hips. He can see a sliver of pale skin just peeking out.
"C'mere," he says. It's been hard for them both, this road trip. Yes, it's a transition time for Cassandra and it will be hard to have her far away - Carter will be alone in her house again and her last, tenuous tie to Janet will be gone, but it's been hard in other ways too. They've been close and it's something they used to be better at avoiding. But she's sleepy and warm and walks right up to him when he summons her. He puts his arms around her and she sighs into his chest, her wrists sliding across his ribs to wrap around him. She takes a deep breath.
"You smell clean," she murmurs.
"You gonna shower?" he asks, dropping his nose into her hair. She smells nice, smells like Carter which is good enough for him. She makes some noise that he interprets to mean yes but doesn't move. "Want me to wake her up?"
"Jack," she says very quietly, her lips moving against his chest. She sounds serious. "You're a very good man."
She squeezes him tightly and then angles her head up so she can kiss his cheek. It all happens very fast and then she's slipping out of his grasp and closing the bathroom door behind her. He stands dumbfounded for a moment, his heart racing. He's all tingly from touching her; he feels a little woozy.
He hears the shower come on and he knows he has to shake it off.
Cassandra is already sitting up in bed, blinking at the bright window that Carter must have opened. She turns to look at Jack and she looks like she might have heard something but she isn't sure what. She doesn't say a word.
When Jack and Carter had agreed to drop Cassandra off together, Jack hadn't really thought past saying goodbye at the dorm. But they've done that now and what faces them is a long drive alone. No Cassandra in the center seat, no truck bed full of boxes, no idle chatter about pop culture to keep them all occupied. Only Jack and Carter. Just him and Sam.
She's still teary eyed, still dabbing at her face with a damp napkin he'd dug out of the glove box 30 miles ago and they haven't said much yet. He keeps thinking he should speak up but honestly, Carter crying isn't something he has a great deal of experience with.
"We'll visit." This is what he settles on.
"She'll visit." Carter's voice sounds strong, at least. "We never get away."
"We got away this time."
She sends him a look. "You moved heaven and earth to get us this time. You pretend like you didn't, but I know."
He winces, adjusts his rear view mirror even though doing so makes it a little worse.
"I'll miss her too," he says. This seems safe, honest. A truth. "She'll do great things."
"Yeah," Carter says. She sounds wistful.
"If you want, I could drop you at Nellis and you could just... I mean, it's a lot of driving and I'd understand," he offers.
"You don't want me to stay?" she asks, surprised.
"It isn't that it's just... never mind," he says. He wants her to be happy, is all. To have her have the choice. "It's an option."
"I don't want that," she says, firmly.
"Good," he says.
She sleeps, a little, emotionally exhausted. While she sleeps, he thinks about his grandmother, his mom, Sara, Cassandra, all the women who have ever been important in his life. He thinks of Carter, of Sam, of the way she looks sitting across a campfire from him, the way she looks on the other side of the briefing table, the way she looks now, on the other side of the cab.
"You want to switch?"
She stretches, glances at her watch. She hasn't been asleep that long. He has to figure out a way to tell her, to explain to her how she's taken this place in his life, how she's the last of a line of women before him, how each had been important in their own way but they'd always, always been leading to her.
Except he can't tell Carter that.
"Sara had small hands," he says.
She looks at him, her eyebrows a little high.
"I'm tall," he says. "My dad was tall, too. My uncle is taller than both of us, he's like 6'4"."
"That's tall," she says when he doesn't explain.
"Yeah. So you can imagine that my grandmother wasn't a petite lady."
"No," was Carter's faint reply.
"When I asked Sara to marry me, I bought her a ring. I saved for months, actually. The ring was nice... it was flashy. I thought it was a little... you know... much but it made her happy and it was the style so I got it and that was that," Jack says.
"Huh," Carter says.
"My Grandmother's ring would have been way too big for her," Jack says. "We would have had to have it completely re-sized and I didn't want anything to happen to it so I just said screw it and bought the new one and Sara loved it and we got married and I thought I was in the clear. Except for one day Sara found the ring and when I told her what it was she went nuclear."
"It was already breaking down, our marriage, it was on the rocks so I don't think it was about the ring exactly but she was really mad that I hadn't given her my grandmother's ring."
There's about half a mile of silence.
"What's it look like?" Carter asks, finally.
"Simple," Jack says. "We never had a lot of money. Gold band, little diamond. The setting is nice. Eventually Sara admitted to me that she didn't even really like it, which I knew she wouldn't, but by then it didn't matter anymore."
"Yeah," he says. It is starting to rain. He flicks on the wipers but it just makes the dirt smear and they're quiet as they watch the blades start to work with the water instead of against it.
"I have the ring," he says. "I've always had it and I can't give it to you now but that doesn't mean it isn't yours."
He can feel her eyes burning a hole in his head and when he glances, her mouth is hanging open.
"You have the perfect hands for the ring," he says. "And I wanted you to know that I never gave it to Sara. It's your ring, Sam."
He doesn't just swerve off the road, but they're about two miles from a rest area. The silence, the tension in the truck is nigh unbearable while they watch the signs for the rest area pass. Three quarters of a mile, half a mile. Carter starts to shift in her seat at the quarter mile mark and she's already undoing her seat belt when he exits. It's still raining and mostly, the rest area is abandoned. There are two semis, guys asleep in their rigs, but they're the only car and he doesn't even bother to park close to the building. He shuts the truck off and the rain obscures their view without the wipers.
She slides toward him.
"Carter, I just wanted you to know..."
"Jack," she says, cutting him off. "Kiss me like you wanted to kiss me at the party, but wouldn't."
"Do it," she says. "We deserved that kiss and we didn't get to have it. I want to have it now."
He's going to tell her no, he is, he even takes the breath to do so but she shakes her head.
"Please don't make me ask twice."
Her hands reach for him, for his face. Her fingers are a little cool against his skin. She doesn't seem to mind the scruff she finds on his jaw. She angles her head, moves closer, and then waits. She wants him to kiss her. He wants to kiss her.
Her lips are warm just like he thought they'd be. He feels her exhale through her nose a little and then press harder. He swipes his tongue against her lips and they open with a small squeak from Carter. He suddenly has a blinding desire to get her to make that noise again. His hands reach for her and then the seat belt locks and just for a second it holds him in place.
There's a wet pop as their lips disengage and then Carter, industrious little scientist that she is, is pressing the button on the seat belt and pushing the strap away from his body. His arms wrap easily around her now, but he has to twist at a sort of odd angle that makes his back protest with a twinge.
"Wait, wait," he whispers hurriedly, like too much time not kissing might break the spell. He scoots toward the middle of the bench seat and she seems to understand. There's a lot more space without a steering wheel in front of him and she doesn't waste time. She swings one of her denim clad knees across his lap and then she's straddling him, her rear sinking onto his lap, her hands back on his face, her mouth hotly slanting across his and suddenly they're not just kissing, they're making out. She's kissing him like she may never again get the chance, aggressive and so, so hot. There's no mistaking her intentions, her feelings, with a kiss like this.
Her waist is so small under his hands, her body warm. She presses her hips into his and, Christ, he can't hold in the groan. She breaks the kiss and presses her forehead to his and they breathe for a few seconds in the same small space.
"This wasn't the plan," he manages. "We talked about this, Carter."
"You just proposed to me," she says. "That sure as hell wasn't the plan either."
"I just..." and he moves his face into her neck, sweet and warm. "Said that I would. One day. Not the same." When she doesn't immediately respond, he lets himself kiss the skin of her neck and she shifts against him again and he has to tighten his hold on her waist so she doesn't squirm too much because he's already half-hard and things could potentially get embarrassing really fast.
"It feels the same," she says.
He holds her for a few minutes. They don't kiss, they don't move or grind or squirm, they just stay pressed together, his face in her neck and her mouth by his ear, holding tightly.
Another car drives past them, parks in front of the building and a couple of kids spill out and then the parents.
Carter slides off his lap.
"I'm gonna," she says and then pushes open the door and gets out of the truck, not even bothering to slip on her jacket. For a few steps, she looks unsteady on her feet but then she straightens up and heads toward the bathrooms, disappearing inside. Jack gets out, too. The air is cold on his bare arms but he likes it, lets it wash over him, cooling him. The man from the other car gives him a nod like they're just two guys at the California state line, waiting for their wives to come out of the head.
Jack drives past Vegas. It's tempting to stop, but it's not even dark and he just keeps driving. If they drive all night, they can make it home. It's the same as taking off for Minnesota and he does that trip in one shot all the time. Carter says nothing.
They stop for gas in Utah when the sun sets and she says, "Let me," and then takes her wallet into the little store with her. He watches her through the glass and she waves at him when it's clear for him to pick up the pump and start fueling. When she comes back she has two bottles of water, two bottles of Coke and a bag of sunflower seeds. She sets them in between their seats and climbs into the driver's spot. "My turn."
He doesn't argue. This is how they communicate best, after all, with silence and sharp, clear commands. If he starts talking now, like he started talking before, they'll just end up at another rest stop except maybe this time, he'll get his hand down her pants and then everything will be ruined. There won't be a later or rings or happily ever after, there will be only the moment things went wrong.
She adjusts the seat and starts the engine. They've regained a modicum of control but it's tenuous and he isn't sure how long it will hold. The radio plays country music, one of the only clear stations to come in.
Carter's phone rings and she fishes it out of her pocket and hands it to him. She doesn't like to drive and talk at the same time. He flips it open.
"You're not Sam." Daniel's voice. Jack is surprised it has taken this long for Carter's phone to ring.
"That's true," Jack says. "Everything okay?"
"Oh yeah, I had a question about P3X-478," he says.
"Is it the kind of question I can relay to her and then explain to you?" he asks.
"Is it the sort of question that can wait until tomorrow?" he asks.
"I guess," Daniel says. "How's it going out there, where are you?"
"Utah," Jack says. "We'll be on base tomorrow."
Jack glances at her. Her eyes are on the road, her hands tightly on the wheel. "Fine."
"Was leaving Cassie hard?"
"Come on, Daniel, I dunno," Jack says. "There were a lot of boxes, if that's what you mean."
"It wasn't," Daniel says. "Teal'c's back. We're back on the mission list for Wednesday."
"Put him on speaker phone." This is from Carter and he glances at her.
"Uh, hang on," Jack says into the phone and then peers at the screen. It takes him a few moments to figure it out but he does. He looks at Carter.
"Hey Daniel," she says.
"Sam!" Daniel says, sounding much more excited than he had for Jack. Jack frowns.
"Daniel!" she says. "What's up?"
"Jack's letting you drive his truck?"
"Hey," Jack says. "Better Carter than you."
"That's your life motto, Jack," Daniel says. On a normal day, Carter might have smirked but now she just looks vaguely uncomfortable.
"Did you have a question?" Carter says.
"It can wait until tomorrow," Daniel says. "You two have fun."
"We always do," Jack says and ends the call. They settle back into uneasy silence.
"Yeah," he says.
"I know Daniel was just joking, but I really don't expect your favoritism."
"I don't favor you," he says. "I just like you the best."
She glances at him, a slight smile.
"I'm being serious," she says.
"Carter, I'm never, ever going to do anything to jeopardize your career," he says.
"I know that," she says. "I do."
"That's why... that's why we're here, isn't it? I want you to go all the way, Sam, I want you to make general some day."
"I want that, too," she says.
"We'll figure something out," Jack promises. "We'll do it soon, okay?"
"I never know what that means," she says. "I never know what soon means."
He doesn't know what to tell her. He could tell her six months, he could tell her a year but he can't promise her a future he knows nothing about. He has retired once before, after all. He doesn't want to promise her something he can't deliver.
"I don't want you to give anything up, either," she says.
He rubs his face, his hands through his hair.
"We'll figure it out," he says again. "Just... keep driving."
She closes her mouth and pushes her foot down a little harder on the gas pedal.
Nothing bad happens off-world. It's a relatively easy assignment. Daniel is working with SG-8 on some dig and Jack is there as muscle. He and Teal'c hold the gate and Sam moves back and forth between SG-1 and the scientists, her elbow resting against the butt of her P-90, her cap pulled low over her eyes in the white hot sun. He'll spend hours baking in this desert heat and then have to shovel snow out of his drive when he gets home.
She's walking toward him now. They're in khakis because of the terrain and it's almost hard to make her out against all that sand. She's pale, her blonde hair tucked into her cap. Her mouth twitches and he realizes she's caught him staring.
"What'd you bring us?" he asks. She tosses Teal'c the MRE packages and lets him choose first. After so many years, Carter knows what they all like and when Teal'c is done passing things around, they're all as happy as they can be with military food. They sit on the steps in front of the gate, Carter between them.
"You think we'll be done by sundown?" Jack asks her. He has stayed away from the ruins. He and Teal'c are completely outnumbered by scientists and he knows, he just knows, that if he strays too close to Daniel in archaeologist mode, Daniel will want to start explaining things and will never, ever shut up.
"Camping on sand is better than rocky terrain," is her reply and he hangs his head for a moment. He'd packed the tent hoping he wouldn't need it. They probably don't, actually. The planet is warm and dry and even if it gets chilly when the sun goes down, the sleeping bags are more than enough to keep them warm, but they've made the mistake before of sleeping under the sky on desert planets and waking up to the wind blowing sand into their face.
"I will take first watch," Teal'c says. Teal'c always takes first watch. He likes to watch the camp settle into silence and slumber.
"Nothing is for sure, though, right?" Jack asks hopefully. Carter looks at him for a moment and then flicks the button down on her radio.
"Daniel, it's Sam. How's it going?" she asks. There's a long pause and then Daniel's dreamy, far away voice.
"Fine. We've discovered a tablet that seems to predate the ruins by several hundred years and though the language is the same, the dialect is slightly off. Dr. Ramirez and I believe..."
She turns down the volume slightly and looks at him knowingly. When Daniel finally stops, she tells him to keep working and she'll be back down in a bit. He doesn't bother to respond.
"We could just leave him here," Jack suggests.
"You have a hot date, sir?" Carter asks, her voice light but her eyes narrowing.
"Oh yeah," he says. "Me. Beer. Can of soup. Hard to reschedule these things, you know."
"I can imagine," she says. Teal'c hands his trash back to Carter and she spends a couple moments shoving all the trash back into her pack where it sits by her feet. Teal'c rises and starts his slow circle around the gate, his staff weapon in hand but it's more to fend off boredom, Jack thinks, than about safety. There hasn't been a peep all day. Their scheduled check in isn't even for another four hours.
"It's been a while since we've been camping together," he says. She studies his face. She can't see his eyes, he thinks, through his glasses, but she looks at him just the same. "Las Vegas notwithstanding."
"Maybe it will be nice," she says. "This planet has two moons."
"Two, huh?" he says. "Seems greedy."
"Sir," she says, and her voice changes, like maybe she's going to say something important but then Teal'c circles back around again and she smiles, her face relaxing into something normal. "I think I'll head back."
He nods. He watches her go, stumbling a little on the hot sand.
That evening, Carter sets up the tent from his pack while Daniel unpacks his only to discover that one of the poles is bent and the whole thing simply won't stand.
"Huh," is all Daniel has to say.
They can cram three to one tent, four if they really have too, but generally having two is always a better option. Carter and Teal'c, Jack and Daniel and someone is always on watch anyway.
"SG-8 is camping closer to the ruins," Daniel says. "I can bunk with them for the night. Better shelter down there anyway." And off he goes, hefting his pack and stumbling back toward the ruins in what is left of the fading daylight.
"There was a time when he would have at least asked my permission first," Jack grumbles.
"There was not," Teal'c says quickly. Carter is in the tent, rolling out the sleeping bags, but he can hear her laugh just the same.
True to his word, Teal'c takes first watch and Jack finds himself in the tent with Carter next to him. Enough light filters in that he can see her clearly enough - two moons - and her eyes are open. She glances at him and the looks away, her bag rustling a little. There was a time when Jack would invent ways to get himself alone with Carter and now, when it's the worst possible things for them, he can't figure out how to stop being alone with her.
"Cassie called," Carter says, deciding, apparently, not to feign sleep. "She was a little homesick."
"Is she okay?" he asks.
"I think so. She wants to stick it out but I understand why things are hard for her. We had a long talk about whether or not she wanted to go to a school in Colorado and she said no," Carter says.
"You'd let her just give up like that after a week?" he asks.
"No," she says. "But Cassie has lost a lot this year and I just... want her to be happy again."
He gets that.
"I did have a date," he says. Her head turns swiftly to look at him, her eyes achingly blue in the silver light. They are wide and there is this little line between her eyebrows. "Not a date. An appointment. A tentative one."
"Okay," she says.
"With Hammond," he says.
"Jack..." She's already shaking her head. "Don't do anything rash, please."
"Not rash," he promises. "I was just going to make a plan."
"A timeline," he says.
"Don't you think I ought to have some say?" she says. "You can't just go in there and tell him what happened."
Jack rolls over onto his side to face her. "George, I accidentally told Carter that her hands are perfect and now we have a problem."
"General," she says, playing along. "Colonel O'Neill told me a story about his grandmother and then I shoved my tongue down his throat and now we have a problem."
She shifts closer to him a little, maybe unconsciously, but Jack doesn't think so. She's grinning at him, a sleepy smile and he can't help himself. He reaches out and runs his fingers along her arm. She's in her sleeveless shirt and her skin is still warm from the long, hot day.
"I am sorry about that," she says. "About kissing you."
"No you're not," he says.
"A little," she insists. "Now I have to think about it all the time and it's distracting."
"Carter," he hisses. "We shouldn't talk about this right now." His fingers circle her wrist tightly.
"I know," she says. "But if you do go see Hammond, I want to be there."
"Carter, no," he says. There's no need to drag her down. He can say the right thing, he can take all the blame.
"This isn't something that's happening to just you," she says. "It never has been."
He regards her but her face doesn't change, she won't back down, so he nods and releases her arm from his grasp. He tucks his hand back into his bag and rolls onto his back.
"Get some sleep, Major," he says. He has to end this conversation. Whispering with her alone in the dark will only lead to badness and he knows Teal'c is right out side, knows that he probably heard the whole thing. He has caught Teal'c watching him, watching them more often lately. The days of Teal'c not understanding Tau'ri interactions are over. Jack thinks Teal'c understands far more than most people, especially about his teammates.
He closes his eyes.
When Teal'c wakes him for his watch, Jack has to untangle his fingers from Carter's where their hands have met between the bags sometime in the night.
Teal'c says nothing which is not unusual for Teal'c but when Jack crawls past him toward the tent flap, Teal'c puts his hand on Jack's shoulder like a condolence.
"Come on," Jack says, sticking his head into her lab. Carter looks up at him. "It's time."
She stands, sheds her lab coat, and follows him. He doesn't say anything until they are alone in the elevator, going down.
"You don't have to do this," he says.
"Yes I do."
"Carter, no, you don't," Jack says.
"You're doing it," she snaps.
"I can... take the brunt of whatever is happening. I'm the higher rank," he says. She looks at him like he is completely moronic. It stings a little. "Fine."
Jack knocks on Hammond's door and Carter squares her shoulders. She won't look at him as they walk in.
"Colonel," Hammond says. "Major Carter, come in."
They walk in, stand at attention. Hammond is looking at them almost fondly and it makes his heart speed up with guilt. After all, they're about to ruin everything.
"What can I do for SG-1 today?" Hammond asks.
Carter looks at her boots.
"Not SG-1, exactly," Jack says. Jack can actually see Hammond's face go from friendly to confused to a dark understanding.
"Are we really going to have this conversation now?" Hammond asks, sounding suddenly exhausted. Carter's eyes snap up, move quickly back and forth between the men. Is she really surprised? Jack and Hammond have never really had the Carter talk, but Hammond isn't an idiot. He's been looking the other way for years.
"I think it's time," Jack says. Hammond doesn't offer them a seat.
"What happened?" Hammond asks.
"Nothing," Jack says.
"Sir," Carter says and Jack isn't sure who she's addressing exactly, but her voice sounds brutally honest.
"Almost nothing," Jack corrects. Hammond sighs, leans back in his chair and glares at both of them.
"What exactly does that mean?" Hammond asks. Jack looks up to the ceiling. "Major Carter?"
"Colonel O'Neill and I have been spending some time together," Carter says. "Off base."
"Alone," Jack says.
"Kind of alone," Carter says. "A lot of it was with Cassandra, sir."
"Some of it," Jack says.
"You two need a minute to get your stories straight?" asks Hammond.
"General," Jack says, wincing. "Carter and I are usually pretty good at not... being alone... together but lately we've been... not good."
"The holidays," Carter offers and then seems to shrink just slightly when both men stare at her. "They can be kind of hard."
Hammond softens a little, just for Carter. Jack understands.
"Major," Hammond sighs, taking a moment to rub his brow. "Okay. Let's start at the beginning here. Exactly how long have you and the Colonel had to try to not be... alone together?"
"Well," Carter says, glancing at Jack. "It's been some time, sir."
"Weeks? Months?" Hammond says.
"Years," Jack says. "Look, sir, the thing of it is, we've been doing this awhile and I really don't think it's been bad for SG-1."
"And yet here you are in my office," Hammond says. "What exactly do you want from me, Jack? Permission? You know I can't give you that."
"No, sir," Carter says, still rigidly at attention.
"You two have picked a bad time," Hammond says.
"Yes, sir," she says.
"We need you," Hammond says, looking at Jack. "We need her even more."
Maybe bringing Carter in on this had been a mistake.
"I don't know what you two were expecting, but nothing can change here," Hammond barks. He's getting a little red in the face, getting himself angry, the genial grandfather type from the beginning of this meeting long gone, replaced by several shining silver stars. "Colonel O'Neill, it's high time you got your act together. Figure out a way to straighten out your team. If it's a court martial you're worried about, I can tell you that you should be more worried that your inability to reign in your emotions is going to get your team killed."
"Yes, sir," Jack says.
"And Major Carter, I expected much more of you," Hammond says. Carter doesn't move, but Jack knows that had to feel like a punch to the gut.
"Yes, sir," she says.
"Fix this," Hammond says. "Dismissed."
Carter doesn't wait to argue, simply turns on her heel and rushes out the door, her chin tucked to her chest. Jack gives one more look at Hammond and then follows her. He doesn't catch up to her until she's swiping her card to call for the elevator.
"Carter," he says, helplessly.
"No," she says, her eyes flashing. "Don't."
"I didn't know he'd do that," Jack admits before he can't think better of it. Hammond is like family in many ways, especially for SG-1 and Jack had really thought that the General would have been a little more understanding, a little more willing to work with them.
"What else could he have done," she asks. The elevator doors open and a few people spill out. She walks in and jams her finger against the button. He doesn't get on the elevator.
"Sam," he says.
"I'm sorry," she says. "We can't anymore."
Her face disappears behind the closing doors. He turns around, plants his back against the cool concrete wall, and lets out a painful breath.