Blunt edges in the merciless light

Summary: Things are not happening the way they'd hoped in the stormy days following Jacob Carter's death. My take on 'Threads' and beyond. One-shot. S/J eventually.

Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended.

Spoilers: Threads, Grace, Chimera


~oOo~

In Colorado Springs, the new dawn brings a new start and it's the first in a long time that Sam wakes up with a clear head.

Her father's ashes are scattered on a distant world and she's newly single. No one knows the latter piece of news yet. It is the General – Jack, a name that's finally taking root in her mind – with whom she first wants to share this.

But even that takes planning. He has been called away to Washington in the hours after Jacob Carter took his last breath and hasn't been back since.

So for a minute, Sam allows herself the luxury of dreaming.

She stretches and looks through the windows at the newly shorn lawn, the song of the birds echoing the growing song in her head. She revisits clichés that have only been given life in her own head for years and finally finds that she's not afraid of examining them too closely.

Maybe…just maybe, there's a possibility things will finally be right between them.

After all, in that second when time stood still, he'd promised her always, hadn't he?

"Soon," she says aloud, letting the thought tilt her lips upwards.

~oOo~

In Washington D.C., Hammond personally tells O'Neill that his latest physical check-up has revealed something that sheds sombre light on the issue of mortality.

"It's time, Jack."

The implication of the General's news is sobering. Hammond has always been at the top, the stalwart leader who's watched his six over the years, a significant, rational piece in the contradictory puzzle that made up Jack's world.

But perhaps a part of him is just not ready to let go of the old SGC hierarchy with which he's grown too comfortable.

"Time for what?" He blurts out.

The disapproving look that the General shoots him makes him feel like a child whose hand is found deep in the cookie jar. He resists the urge to squirm, then sincerely wishes Hammond all the best in his retirement, knowing that Hammond is leaving a gaping hole in Stargate program that he's expected to fill.

The position as Director of Homeworld Security guarantees another star on his shoulder, an additional burden that he strangely welcomes because it takes him away from the SGC and away from Carter.

And away from the memories of flesh upon flesh, of a brief spark that was kindled only to be extinguished too abruptly for its own sake.

Jack sighs and stops resisting the wave of memories, allowing them to sweep him back to a time when, despite the ever-increasing layer of complication that separated them, it was just Carter and him.

In a strange, not-quite relationship shakily built on the strain of Daniel's ascension that they'd turned, briefly, to each other for comfort which they'd thought they both needed. Again, they'd clung to each other after they hauled themselves out from the bottom of the sea and once more after she'd been nearly fried in Nirrti's machine. But when he'd tentatively shown an interest in wanting more, she'd backed away. Perhaps rightfully so, in order to keep an unblemished record of her stellar career, but it'd stung, nonetheless, because she hadn't given him the chance to gracefully bow out…and that she hadn't give him the chance to do the right thing for her.

It turned out that she'd handled it all on her own, all too easily, at a point in time when he was only beginning to realise he liked being needed on some level.

Shanahan came into the picture a while later after Carter hit her head hard in the Prometheus; her humming in the elevator did nothing to quell his fevered longings and spark the dormant, unfamiliar feelings of jealousy that he'd no right to feel. Her acceptance of the spud's proposal had been the final nail in the coffin and the life of denial that he'd begun to lead soon after was interrupted by a whirlwind of activities fronted by a pretty brunette who worked with the CIA.

Kerry Johnson wound her way eventually into his bed and for that moment, he thought he'd rediscovered a semblance of the centeredness he'd lost when it all went to hell with Carter all those years ago.

But Carter's unexpected interruption of his leisurely backyard barbeque tossed things up into the air for a moment. Kerry walked out of his office and out of his life, Jacob Carter died with his symbiote not long after and he had simply sat in his chair, shocked at the turn of events.

And like the good friend that he convinced himself he was, promised her that he'd always be there for her. Just not in the way he thought he meant years ago when he once confessed that he'd rather die than lose her.

~oOo~

The phone call from Washington comes as the Tok'ra stream into the SGC to pay their last respects, so he packs an overnight bag, hops on the next flight out and trusts Walter to run the base in his absence. Little does he know that this small hop is going to take him somewhere further away, more permanently.

The flight is to D.C. is long and Jack takes some time to think, to really untangle the mess of threads that had gotten hopelessly knotted in the years of ruined hopes, fragmentary dreams and crushed expectations. He decides that he isn't going to wait to prolong his own happiness any longer, not when he finally realises that he has a right to be happy – just as Carter does – a decade or so after Charlie and Sara.

It has never been a guarantee with Carter, he sees that now, not when nothing in their circumstances has changed.

With a slight twinge, he convinces himself that 'thing' he once thought existed between him and Carter is good and buried.

Especially when she'd left him running on empty for so long. And certainly not when she's still en route to the altar. Coupled with Hammond's bad report, Jack feels – all too keenly – the all borrowed hours, days and months that had somehow been added to his life in the years when SG-1 cheated death time and again.

Maybe this insight has come too late, but he decides that he would finally be moving on. Long after Carter, Daniel and Teal'c did.

So he picks up the pieces of a broken, short-lived relationship that only saw the light of day once, with a woman who perceives too much and with whom he now would try his damnedest to make happy.

~oOo~

Kerry Johnson opens the door of her apartment to see a man who looks exhausted but determined. Clad in his Class A blues, his tie's slightly askew and his hair's adorably ruffled – all of these a reminder of what she's recently lost and mourned.

"Jack?"

His touch is feather-light, a caress on the side of her face that she still leans into before she realises that it has been over between them for a while.

"Can I come in?"

She nods and lets him step through.

The silence between them is deafening. Then he tells her he's sorry in very few words and that he wants to leave the past in the past. He promises her all that that he can give and hopes for her forgiveness which he knows he doesn't deserve.

~oOo~

The General returns to Colorado Springs after a few days in D.C. and holes himself up in his office. Each time Sam comes up to see him, he's busy on the phone or in a meeting. There's hardly a word that she can get in edgewise before he's called away to some emergency or another.

He looks tired, but happier, she notices, a subtle shift of emotion that she effortlessly reads after having spent years together with him in the field. No, not just happier, Sam corrects herself suddenly, but at peace.

Her brow furrows in curiosity as she enters his office with a report in hand and sees the yo-yo on his table. Curiosity makes her open her mouth to ask about his unusually cheerful mood, but propriety makes her shut it again.

He glances at her and simply tells her that he's cleared his paperwork for the day and that he's actually got time to play.

She smiles politely in response, hands him her thick report and tells him cheekily that the work's not done yet.

He snorts, then waves her away with a mock-outraged sigh, a familiar expression of the exasperation that's so much of the Colonel O'Neill she knows that it's just too easy to think that things haven't really changed.

But things had changed, some time ago.

The chemistry that they've always had hasn't diminished, but she still detects a note of distant politeness that has never left since she hummed in the elevator.

~oOo~

O'Neill calls for a meeting with his former team and tells them about his reassignment on the other side of the country.

Then he invites them fishing – a low-risk, boring activity that is the unlikeliest of swan songs of the legendary SG-1.

His decision to take up the position in D.C. blindsides all of them. Professionally, it's good for him, a meteoric rise in his career that shouldn't be peaking at his age. Against all odds, Jack O'Neill is far from retiring.

Yet there's something he isn't saying. The something that isn't paperwork and is most probably responsible putting that small jaunt in his step again.

And to a team that thinks they know him well, it still feels like a rejection.

~oOo~

Late one night in the cabin, Sam creeps outside when she spies him by the dock, framed by the bright stars against the inky velvet sky. Daniel and Teal'c have long gone to bed and dinner seems like a distant memory after the rounds of poker they'd played, interspersed with spontaneous reminiscing of their better offworld jaunts.

Strangely enough, Jack doesn't hear her footsteps on the wooden boards. Then he shifts slightly and she sees his mobile against his ear and hears a whispered endearment to Kerry Johnson before he hastily calls time on a conversation to which she's not privy.

Sam freezes in disbelief, the tension pushing her heartbeat into a gallop as he turns around and casually gestures at the empty space next to him.

"Just a sec, Carter," he mouths at her, then returns to speaking in a tone that's more intimate than she's ever heard from him.

"Oka-" she starts out, but he's already walking away, to the edge of the dock for some privacy.

From the little that she's heard of his conversation, Kerry has returned to the picture. It is then that she realises that the promise of 'always' is a promise of friendship and support, and not quite one of romantic love.

She regrets that once upon a time, that word could have meant so much more.

There is nothing more to say and if her silence about her broken engagement ensures his happiness, then it is what she'll do. After all, when Pete Shanahan had wormed his way into her life, O'Neill had done the same for her.

So Sam refuses his invitation gently, gives him a semblance of a smile and stutters out an excuse that brings her straight back into the cabin's guestroom and away from the bemused expression on his face.

She mentally resolves to be his friend, just as he is undeniably hers, then flops down, dry-eyed, onto the old bed that creaks as she twists restlessly, filled with an uncontrollable sense of panic that accompanies the yet-unacknowledged fear of losing him to someone else. The irony of it is, she's finally placed in the same position that she must have put him in when he snapped shut the small, velvet box containing her engagement ring.

Sleep eventually comes, but her dreams are filled with the fractured images of their heated trysts that she thought she'd long put behind her.

Back then, the aftermath of her few encounters with Jack – even though borne out of the desperate need to put the grief and some other overflowing emotion somewhere – had only filled her with shame and mortification, that she'd stooped as low as the women who'd slept with their commanding officers.

Now she can only cling to them as memories that she now wishes had taken a different reality of their own on the day she'd untangled herself from his arms and walked out the door without looking back.

Jack hadn't stopped her, even though a part of her had hoped that he did. It had taken hindsight and a failed engagement for her to realise that for her, happiness came in unusual forms, at unexpected times and not in the shape of a white picket fence or a yellow kitchen.

Maybe it was really too late.

The phrase that jumps unbidden into her mind makes her snort aloud at its simple truthfulness. The particular condition of just being too late defines the trajectory of the both of them – two separate lines that draw closer and apart at the wrong time, the wrong place yet never quite converge.

Perhaps, in some other reality, there would have been a 'them' much sooner, had she realised how deep her own feelings really ran and if he'd been less ambiguous about his own. Perhaps the consequences of the decisions that she'd made over the years to separate her professional and personal lives had brought her too far out to sea, adrift in a sea of turbulent waves where the horizon was shrouded in mist.

And perhaps, she thinks, it really just comes down to the last measure of empathy that has always been sorely lacking between the both of them. For every instance of genuine care and concern that they show each other, there is also their uncanny ability to hurt each other deeply where it counts the most. Funnily enough, it's because they seem to want to do the right thing but keep getting it wrong.

Sam's new, fragile hopes of forging ahead with Jack O'Neill suddenly crumbles like a sandcastle built too close to the waves that ride in the incoming tide. Faced with an unexpected twist in their quickly-diverging lives, she longs suddenly, for stable ground where the familiar comfort of work sans distractions awaits.

As the rainy dawn cracks through the curtains and with it, she makes a decision and ignores the twist of pain and loss in her chest.

When they return to Colorado Springs, she requests a transfer to Area 51 as soon as Jack's new assignment becomes official, believing that hope is for the foolish.

~oOo~

Two months, three weeks and four days of a nine-to-five job with no offworld emergencies later, Sam's bored as hell. But her concern and commitment to Cassie keep her there. Apart for the occasional briefing with the Joint Chiefs and the other scientific heads of departments in D.C., Sam's most exciting days at home consist of trying different methods of souping up her malfunctioning air-conditioning unit and the weekly girls' night out with Fraiser's adopted daughter.

On a lazy Sunday morning, she gets a call from Daniel who is strangely off-base and probably in his apartment downtown in Colorado Springs. Almost immediately, he launches into a bitter diatribe about the space pirate called Vala Mal Doran but she's more than happy to hear his voice as she throws the last of her remaining clothes into the duffel.

With a start, Sam realises how strange it feels see her colleagues and friends lead a semblance of ordinary lives, or at least hold on to a measure of it. Because with it comes the pretence that there's something normal to look forward to. But the normal that she once obsessed over had taken its course, leaving merely regret in its wake.

It's an emotion that lingers, so she shakes it off as best as she can.

She packs for her third D.C. visit as she talks to Daniel, who finally lets on that he's going to be somewhere in her old stomping grounds because he's also paying Jack a visit.

He drops the information innocently and waits for her to stumble in her reply.

She trips over her words as predicted. Daniel picks up her hesitation immediately and cheerfully tells her that they'll catch up, maybe even with Jack, when she lands on the east coast. Then the phone goes dead in her hand and she's left glaring at the manipulative way Daniel's wheedled her into staying longer in D.C. than she normally plans for.

She hasn't seen O'Neill since that time in the cabin when it was unwittingly revealed that he was back with Kerry Johnson; he'd headed straight for the Pentagon from Minnesota and she'd returned to the SGC. All this time, it's surprisingly easy not being part of his social circle any more, so her reluctance to see him again, she thinks, is well-founded.

As far as she emotionally is from fully accepting that their once-shared paths are diverging, refusing Daniel is futile because he knows her well enough to know her avoidance tactics and counter her excuses.

With a sigh, Sam continues her packing and tries not to curse out loud.

~oOo~

Kerry cancels the mid-afternoon tête-à-tête at the last minute with an urgent assignment and leaves Jack with a cup of fancy coffee and a boisterous, collegiate atmosphere that he doesn't really like.

Some time ago, he hadn't minded it. So when had he started behaving like an old codger with a hearing problem?

He scowls at that description, throws the insipid brew down his throat and makes to get up when a familiar blond head walks in and heads for the counter where he's sitting. Like moth to flame, his gaze is immediately drawn to her and as though feeling the sheer power of his stare, Samantha Carter turns in his direction.

The expressions shift on her face the same way the sun momentarily hides behind the clouds to leave a silver lining. He sees trepidation that eventually melts into a tentative smile of surprise and in her eyes, the years disappear.

Suddenly, they are Colonel and Captain again, treading new ground, through the gate to Abydos.

The memory of their first trip through the gate makes him smile back, gently. He blinks and the scene shifts and suddenly, they are back in the café, nearly a decade later.

Jack waves, gets up and motions her to the free seat that he's about to vacate.

Carter walks forward and he tries not to think how lovely she looks in her casual, blue jeans and the yellow summery blouse, or how those shades perfectly complement her natural colouring.

She entreats him to stay after she gets her coffee. Unable to refuse her, he does.

Past the first awkward greeting, they fall into inane small talk and move onto topics that stay wholly on safe ground: the state of her research, her pending reassignment back to Colorado, his frustration at not being able to stargaze in a place that's full of light-pollution and Cassie Fraiser's general well-being.

They forget how fast the minutes pass as they move effortlessly between subjects and it is as though that the cracks that had formed between them are smoothed over in that liminal space.

A glance at her watch breaks the spell that's fallen over them; the cracks reappear when she finally asks about him and with some hesitation, about Kerry.

The direct question throws him for a loop, not because he's ashamed of the new life he's trying to forge with another woman, but because he's ashamed of discussing this with someone who has once meant – and possibly still means – the universe to him.

Try as he might to forget however, Carter will never be just another woman whom he's had sex with.

~oOo~

Landry's period of emergency leave means that Jack finds himself back at in Colorado Springs as interim base commander. For a while, it is as though the clocks have turned back yet it is beyond bizarre that he finds himself one morning in the commissary with Carter arguing about the benefits of red jello.

The Ori are pressing in and Cam Mitchell's leadership of SG-1 is tenuous at times, both of which give him some cause to worry.

For the umpteenth time, he stares down at SG-1, the excruciating exclusion from the new team not lessening and waves them off through the blue puddle, his eyes helplessly trained on the last person to go through.

Carter stills before stepping into the wormhole and as if feeling the weight of his gaze on her, turns and flashes him a smile that causes his chest to contract almost painfully.

It is only after he finishes his stint under the mountain that he realises that he hasn't thought once of Kerry at all.

~oOo~

Sam bumps into O'Neill once more when she's next in D.C. for her briefing, in that same, boisterous coffee shop where they shared something over an overpriced cup of coffee.

He looks good, she decides in a bittersweet fashion, then reminds herself that he doesn't belong to her anymore, not after she'd unequivocally slammed the door shut on the both of them. Idly, she watches him fiddle with the sugar packet as he talks, unable to stop the wave of regret that she never quite allows to surface.

For a second, she resents Kerry Johnson and allows the jealousy to burn deep because the other woman can be everything to O'Neill that she can't ever be.

Then he makes a joke, an honest-to-god one and she forgets her maudlin musings as she bends over herself laughing.

On impulse, Sam clutches his hand and sees a grin splitting his face. Perhaps it is her imagination, but something flickers across his face before the sudden flare of something is shuttered behind his eyes.

The reminder to herself to let go is tinged with bitterness and discontent. She'd never wanted to become this woman – one who made the wrong decisions and took the long and winding road to make things right.

But only then does she relearn the meaning of only friendship with a man she's finally confessed to herself she's wanted all along and that the long-cherished but mistaken idea of forbidden mutual attraction is most likely, just bullshit.

~oOo~

The ring has been in his pocket for weeks now but something keeps him from taking it a step further with Kerry. In fact, the thought of proposing fills him with apprehension he can't quite explain.

With her, things are good, Jack admits readily. They're good together and although her schedule can be just as unpredictable as his, they somehow make it work. At the very least, they're both working in the same city with easy access to every entertainment venue that they want. Jack continues to make that list in his head, in a vain attempt to convince himself that there is absolutely nothing for him to be afraid of.

Even though he's just fresh out of a quarrel with her over a matter that he can't even remember anymore.

So why the hesitation?

Typical male commitment issues, Kawalsky had once said dismissively when he'd confided his fears about walking down the aisle in another lifetime.

But Jack knows it's more than that. He taps his fingers absently in time to the jazz standard that the band has got going and orders another beer on that rare Friday night that he's free and alone.

It's only when the drink comes that he comes to a conclusion that he's been avoiding all along, that it's got to do, as always, with Carter.

"Hey."

The woman in question appears by his side and it takes him by surprise. But then, Sam Carter never fails to take him by surprise and in the recent years, those surprises hadn't always been too pleasant.

How…what…w-?

"Carter?" He asks with no small amount of disbelief.

"Do you know anyone else with that name?" Her arch question elicits a grin from him.

When she slides into the booth that he's in, looking like she belongs there all along, the questions that rise from his throat die before they can be vocalised. In that millisecond where there is nothing else but her, Jack lives though all the clichés that his addled mind can recall.

Aided by some alcohol, their conversation flows easily as the band plays on. But Jack talks with a hand continually in his pocket, needing the small, physical reminder that he's with someone else who isn't her.

Because, with Carter, it's always easy to get lost.

When the tab is finally paid, he excuses himself as he bids her goodnight, carelessly pulls his hand out of his pocket without realising what he's really doing and the shiny burden that's hidden within tumbles out and rolls to a stop at her booted feet.

A glance is all it takes for the familiar feeling of loss and resentment to well in her gut. Sam quickly flicks her eyes away from the offending object and thinks fuzzily, that the look of shock on his face would be amusing if not for the situation.

Suddenly tired of the leading and the pushing and all the rabbit trails that they've made around themselves, she brings up the subject that they'd purposely avoided.

"Thinking of proposing to Miss Johnson?" She asks him evenly, proud of the steadiness she hears in her voice.

He flinches slightly. "Carter…"

Sam tries to school a neutral look, ignoring the butterflies in her stomach. But she's sure that her desperation shows on her face and that he can see right through her.

"I haven't asked." Only when the words are out of his mouth does Jack realise they're lame as hell. Obviously the ring wouldn't be in his pocket if he had. Unless she'd rejected it, but then-

He gives himself a hard, mental shake of his head as Carter asks why. A thousand responses flit through his head, but not all of them are entirely truthful. So Jack chooses not to answer. Instead, he gingerly picks up the ring and shoves it back into his pocket, out of sight.

"Don't. Don't do it," she tells him baldly.

"What?"

He's still staring at her in shocked fascination when she takes her final leap.

"Don't marry her. Because I'm still here and waiting and I love you."

She doesn't give him a chance to respond; in the next second her arms have wound themselves around his neck as she pulls him close to her.

In the hazy smoke, their lips meet, hungry and ravenous as she leads him back into the maze that is pure Carter – of which he now knows he can never be free.

The journey back to his apartment in some exclusive suburb is forgotten in their haste to tear the remaining barriers from each other's body, and when they finally do, the doubt in his eyes also flees.

Flesh is scored upon flesh and soon enough, he finds himself deep in her welcoming heat, thrusting and groaning without preliminaries. Each shift, each caress is how he relearns the curves of her body as she urges him on by drawing her knees up to his waist and tries to absorb him into her.

~oOo~

Jack picks up his pants, suddenly remembering the ring in his pants pocket – sure evidence of his betrayal of another woman - and cannot help but traitorously think what they had last night still felt so right.

But this is not who he is.

It feels like he's been walking in a self-destructive circle, one that has led him around, far out and finally, back to her.

He shrugs on some clothes and gently untangles himself from the woman who slumbers with a small smile on her face. Stumbling to the window, he wishes that the grey light of the coming dawn could cast a harsher light on their actions.

In spite of it all, he finds himself unable to be a penitent man.

~oOo~

Jack confesses all. His fears, his doubts, his hopes and his sins. Deeply ashamed, he tells her he's beyond sorry.

So Kerry Johnson leaves the same man twice. Because even after their second try, she knows that his heart has never left the shadow of another woman.

Because she knows he owes her that much.

~oOo~

Grief, anger and resentment colour the edges of his consciousness as he walks away from Kerry's apartment. It's yet another thing that he's screwed up when he screwed Samantha Carter.

He'd never meant for all of this to happen.

But the lies that he's lived for so long had seemed too much like truthful reality that he honestly doesn't know what to do with himself anymore.

Another woman waits for him back in his own apartment. Blond, blue-eyed and everything he's dreamed about.

Her clothes are still rumpled but he doesn't care.

Finding himself too burdened, too crippled to make anymore promises, Jack simply relies on Carter's strength. For once, she's strong enough for the both of them as she whispers comfort and love into his ears.

It's not too long before her breath is hot on his neck and she is urging him on, faster and harder. He growls low in his throat and obeys her unspoken command, pushing her deeper into the mattress as he rides her into oblivion.

Their tryst is fevered, messy and breathtaking and Jack thinks, when his heartbeat finally calms, that he wouldn't want it any other way.

He tucks a stray blond strand behind her ear and waits for her to open her eyes. When she does, she runs an absent hand down his sweat-dampened back and traces the contours of his thigh.

Holding himself above her trembling body, he finally learns to forgive.

- Fin