Rites of passage

Summary: When an off-world mission involves fish, Naquadah, a foreign language and a loincloth, it was better, in hindsight, to have shoved this trip onto another SG team's plate. Resolutely S/J.
Rating: T for some language
Author's note: I thought I needed to give the 'accidentally married' cliché an unoriginal try. No copyright infringement intended.

Mines. Raw material. Cloth. Fish. Naquadah.

Whatever rocks their boat.

But the moment Daniel begins to participate in a long, convoluted chant involving fertility rites and their connections with the lunar cycles, Jack tries to stop listening.

Yet, as tempting as it is to put his fingers into his ears to stop words like 'ovaries' and 'manhood' from filtering through, he's still the leader and the main representative of Earth and is thus, required to feign an interest in, well, everything that Daniel talks about.

It's entirely unavoidable when the entire village is looking at you for some kind of reaffirmation.

So he merely forces what he hopes is a look of constipated agreement onto his face and nods once at the gibberish that's around him, only to belatedly realise in horror that he's apparently just said his marriage vows without opening his mouth at all.

The second time. Off-world. In a ceremony that binds him to his second-in-command.

It's painful, exhilarating and downright embarrassing. Not to mention totally against the regulations that they'd sworn to uphold back home.

But it could be worse.

Much worse, as he half-heartedly tries to convince himself.

It doesn't however, change the fact that he's beginning to hate this damn planet with a vengeance and wishes, for the nth time, that he'd actually listened to that trusty inner voice that told him to take that vacation up north and go fishing. But no, being the stupid moron he is – and for reasons he isn't quite willing to delve into just yet –, he'd thought that the base was actually an acceptable place to spend the night simply because, well...because Carter had still been in her lab and hadn't yet gone home. Granted, she worked on another floor, but she was still nearer than she would have been at her house. That made him feel better but absolutely pathetic.

Then news of an off-world emergency had filtered straight into the SGC briefing room and into their personal quarters and before he knew it, all members of SG-1 were kitted up and ready to ship out as soon as Hammond had given them the green light. That all of them were on base, ready for action, also attested to how far gone they were when it came to their personal lives.

The emergency turned out to be the inability of SG-15's linguist to translate the nuances of a language so complicated that Daniel Jackson's services were required off-world.

Jack heaves a loud sigh as his reminiscence tapers off, drawing a few raised eyebrows from the crowd. Ever since this fiasco started, he cannot help but think, for the umpteenth time, that fishing in Minnesota has never sounded more appealing. But the reality of it all is that he's stuck here, doing something he shouldn't be doing and knowing that the bluster he's showing is part-discomfort, part-embarrassment and possibly the scantest bit of hope.

Jack sighs loudly again, then shuts his mouth immediately when the sheer force of Carter's glare falls on him. He shifts uncomfortably, transferring his weight onto his other foot while the damned village chief drones on about the sanctity of this particular union he doesn't really want to think about. The knee is sore and hurting from standing too long in an elaboration ceremony he doesn't really understand, but he doubts anyone really gives a damn, least of all Carter.

Yet a small part of him still insists that it could have been much worse.

Given SG-1's infamous luck, they could have already been captured, beaten, separated and given up to the Goa'uld as soon as they stepped through the Stargate on the other side of the wormhole. So the fact that he's standing here with Carter – on an elevated wedding dais constructed out of bamboo and clusters of big, chunky leaves – isn't technically the worst thing to have happened to him. But Carter's spitting nails, shooting daggers at anyone who is of the opposite sex and generally looks like she's eaten a basket of lemons in one go. And when she's this way, even Teal'c shows some amount of trepidation around her.

At the most fundamental, Jack doesn't like seeing Carter upset. They're friends (he likes to think so) and there's always a measure of care and concern (okay, maybe more than just a measure) that he knows he has for her. So he opens his mouth and allows the first, casual question to escape his lips, then kicks himself mentally in the ass at the sheer insensitivity of it.

"You okay, Carter?"

Big mistake.

Around her, only the Kiengir men nod their approval at something the village elder says…something obviously to do with wifely obedience or domestic duties. And that he – the groom – is free to take on concubines and other wives after his first conceives a male heir.

The women collectively bow their heads in supplication.

Naturally, it raises Carter's hackles even more.

He gets his answer in her incredulous glower before she speaks. "Do I look alright to you…Sir?" The grooves around her eyes grow deeper as the last word is spat out like an expletive.

Jack winces, then sighs in empathy and chagrin. Carter isn't a happy camper right now – not surprising for the woman who's just become the new Mrs O'Neill. Mrs Carter-O'Neill, he hastily corrects himself mentally. God forbid that he treads on her feminist sensibilities even more, even if it's only in his mind.

Patriarchal societies and Carter are never a good mix, particularly after an incident involving a blue dress that made his eyes bug out and a Mongolian wannabe who had his eye on her. But all their luck in the past two years avoiding such cultures had to run out one day. And run out it did, in spectacular fashion.

Literally.

Fully tuning out the village elder's speech, Jack decides that Daniel's the one to blame for this whole situation. Had Dr. Jackson not been more meticulous in researching the finer details of this particular civilisation's mating rites, they wouldn't have been caught in a damned tribal re-enactment of the heroic action of some (false) god as soon as the wormhole snapped shut behind them. The villagers wouldn't have seen him and Carter launching a misguided 'rescue' of a 'damsel in distress' as she was chased by a group of louts, one of whom was her supposed husband-to-be. Carter wouldn't have tripped, he wouldn't have caught her and they wouldn't have stood in the middle of growing applause and the congratulatory showers of grain, wondering what the hell just happened to the both of them.

It was an unexpected comedic turn of events they'd been prepared to laugh off until a bewildering number of fruits and fish gifts started coming their way. A few hurried questions and a few mishaps in translations later, they'd slowly learned, courtesy of Daniel, just how screwed they were.

"They, uh, think that you, well, have worthily caught your bride," he had said with some mortification. "I…well, the translation didn't come to me only after I caught onto the words that meant 'ritual' and 'marriage' in their language. You see, they seem to be speaking something that sounds like a dialect of Sumerian in the-"

"Daniel!"

"Caught? What the hell-?"

Jack had never seen Carter gone from white to red in the face so quickly. For the first time, Carter's bellow had overpowered his colourful string of curses.

According to Daniel's supposed translation, they'd stumbled onto a hallowed ritual that takes place every four hundred solar days, a goddamned thing that celebrates fertility, unions, love and the triumph of the fish god over some other sea monster in a bizarre mix of religious rites that seemed hell bent on making cavemen out of normal men.

Memories of a degenerating into a Neanderthal make Jack grimace. He'd been there, done that, bought the T-shirt that said 'Carter tried to jump me and I'm proud of it'.

Yeah, it was so not an ego-booster.

Their unintended participation in the Se'im ritual had delighted the natives so much that the treaty was to be quickly brokered with Daniel Jackson as the key negotiator…just after his and Carter's wedding.

Just like that, a precious Naquadah trade had been secured.

Jack hopes Carter recognised its significance. The pressure on the Stargate Program to produce something concrete and of worth had been mounting. Hammond, under a rare moment of stress, had collected all department heads, military or otherwise, and drilled it into their heads just how critical it was to bring something substantial back from their off-world trips. And if that didn't help justify the SGC's mission, it helped at least to justify the rocketing electricity bills each time someone dialled out.

From the look on Carter's face, it was obvious she'd understood. So Jack had tried to play their game, mostly by keeping his mouth shut, much to Daniel's and Teal'c delight. Carter, on the other hand, had grunted her way through the preliminary talks that bounced between wedding preparations and Naqudah mining. But his self-imposed vow of silence had only lasted up until he was shown his official wedding attire – a thin, white loincloth that was meant to demonstrate a man's body and by extension, his virility to his potential wives. In less than a minute after that, he was pushed behind a translucent screen, stripped naked, fawned over like the bridegroom he's supposed to be, then partially wrapped in a white linen sheet by a gaggle of old, flabby women.

Jack assumed that the same thing had simultaneously happened to Carter.

How one thing led to another after that is still a blur to him, but before he'd known what was happening, they had been dragged to a stupid altar resembling a cheesy Vegas wedding arch.

With him in a teeny damned…diaper with frills around the edges and Carter in a tribal robe that was woven for a woman's modesty in mind.

She looked…beautiful enough to make his jaw drop. He, on the other hand…

Carter had taken one look at his state of undress, pursed her lips and stammered her indignation. Lacking her controlled reservation, he remembered echoing the sentiment with an outraged roar that he'd tried to pass off as an exclamation of happiness when the village elders brought out some of the precious Naquadah as a wedding gift.

Only after yelling up a storm, Jack had reminded himself that it was only for the good of the mission.

And damn Daniel who is still more interested in the culture than his very interesting predicament.

Briefly, Jack wonders if he could get Daniel fired from the SGC for being an entirely inadequate anthropologist who failed to make mention of this additional detail. If not, he'd personally take it to Hammond himself. At this moment, he's sure Carter would help him type the letter of complaint herself, complete with footnotes and references that will probably do the job in three seconds flat.

But that would mean that SG-1 wouldn't be complete without Daniel and Carter, after getting over her anger, would probably resent him and the whole affair-

Jack shuts his eyes briefly in resignation as the ceremony draws to a close.

That hunk of metal is so not worth this.

oOo

The elder finally declares them wedded according to Kiengir law and the hall immediately bursts into animated chatter and congratulatory shouts. Thankfully there hadn't been any Kiengir version of 'you may kiss the bride'.

Sam can't decide if it's a blessing or not. She fingers the hem of the heavily-embroidered sleeve, barely seeing the happy faces that move past her. Somehow, all her fragmented thoughts coalesce into a single question: what had just really happened?

She starts from the beginning again and tries putting things in order, mentally coming up with an elementary flow chart that somehow leads her back to the first question.

A sigh of frustration escapes her gritted teeth as she vacillates between panic and forced calmness.

These are extenuating circumstances, right? After all, everything's unprecedented in the Stargate Program.

Still, the consequences…are telling a different story that her frazzled mind can't quite yet process.

The swish of heavy skirts puts a temporary halt to her dismal thoughts. Sam looks up to see a matronly woman in front of her, winking in a way that's too sly for her own good. Then she leans down and whispers conspiratorially, "You are one lucky woman. Your man is exceptional. I've seen everything and it's magnificent."

Now that leaves no room for any misinterpretation.

Sam turns a bright red, now unable to stop her mind from wandering to her CO's finer bits after hearing that short but graphic description. But somehow, she remembers her manners and nods politely with a smile that's closer to a scowl. That woman doesn't need to know that it's all a pretence taken too far for the sake of a successful alien treaty.

Sam shuts her eyes and groans aloud, then realises that the Colonel has turned to her in question.

"Carter?"

"I'm fine, Sir," she tells him immediately.

He doesn't look reassured, but it's all she can say right now. So much time has been spent wanting and denying that she's sure that she has become a walking bundle of contradictions ever since they've sat in front of an alien lie detector that had revealed her CO's feelings in the most humiliating way possible.

It hadn't been fair to him, but even now, months after that incident, it's hard to look past her own confusion. So she's been doing what she does best – work, science and missions. All because she'd running scared, having gone from exhilarated to crestfallen in a space of five minutes, and dreaming of vague things in the future that might have involved a picket fence and a yellow kitchen.

The honest-to-god truth is that this sham of a marriage is only cementing the disturbing realisation there's nothing that she wouldn't do for him – way more than she would for any Naquadah deal. And if that isn't…undying devotion, loyalty and…love, she doesn't know what it is.

With a sinking feeling, Sam thinks that it's the last straw that might just break the camel's back.

oOo

The post-wedding celebration kicks off in fine fashion, but Jack's too bothered, too hyped-up and more than a little too cold to care. Carter is sitting next to him, dressed in the finest linen, still looking like she's attending a funeral, her face mirroring just how he feels. Daniel and Teal'c are by now, knee-deep in negotiations that seem to be going just dandy, so he leaves it to them to get them out of this mess. Rightfully so, he scowls, since it was Daniel's fault to begin with anyway.

Apart from the dire circumstances however, he's got to admit that these people know how to throw a party. The music's surprisingly good – if he can tear himself away from the central event that actually brought this about – and the food is grilled better than he can ever hope to do in his backyard.

Jack relaxes fractionally and forgets to keeps his legs tightly crossed. A cool wind blows through the trees and he snaps his legs shut again as he resentfully looks again at Carter's dress that covers most of her.

Suddenly, he decides that he's had enough. It's clearly a farce of a marriage and all it would take is another twenty-four hours – an excruciating twenty-four hours locked up in the same tent so that they can consummate their marriage in peace – before they're ensconced happily at the SGC, briefing Hammond about a successful trade with the Kiengir people while omitting a conspicuous event that had helped cement this alliance.

Sneaking a glance at his new bride, he understands that the young, brilliant woman by his side has gotten the worse end of the deal. And he knows, just knows, that he wouldn't do a thing top stop her if she wanted an immediate out. But until then, all they needed now was a damn good pretence and after that, she cou-

"Sir."

It's the first willing word that she'd spoken all afternoon and evening, the first word to him as her...husband. And never mind if it's his rank, not his name. He looks at her in surprise, struck again by how good she looks in that loose native garb that's a brilliant mix of white, blue and green.

"Carter."

She looks away from him as though mustering her courage to do something forbidden. Oh wait, he caustically reminds himself, they'd crossed that line a few hours ago.

"I…I'm sorry about this."

Her apology blindsides him. She's sorry about-

He blinks in incredulous disbelief.

Why the hell would she be putting this on herself? But then Carter's penchant for putting blame on herself is legendary. In fact, she blames herself for pretty much anything that goes wrong off-world even though the fault mostly lies with anyone else but her. What she's doing now fulfils that same pattern with which he's familiar. It's touching in a way, given their unusual situation, but entirely misguided.

Jack snorts dryly, fidgeting with the stray ends of his loincloth, careful not to push it up his thighs too much. "Trust me when I say this ain't your fault."

She looks down, blinking and he's suddenly terrified that she's biting back tears. Then the words tumble out all at once, like a dam bursting loose.

"It is," she tells him miserably. "If I hadn't tripped or fallen, we wouldn't be in this mess. Had we not been so impulsive in that ritual chase, this whole thing wouldn't have even hap-"

For a moment, he sits stunned into silence, wondering just how far down this road of self-blame she's driven herself.

"-I just can't imagine the magnitude of what we've just done. Your career…I…Sir...the consequences of which-"

His career? He's over the hill, has ruined knees, is halfway to retirement and she's worried about his career?

"I never thought I'd say this, Carter," he interrupts her, then tells her about the option that he's been considering since this whole farce began. "But this is something I say we leave out of the mission report."

She pauses, then tilts her head in a Teal'c-like fashion as she considers his words. Jack watches the play of emotions across her face, knowing he'd give up his beloved telescope at this very moment just to know what she's thinking.

He's done it before and he can do it again, if the occasion calls for it. But telling Carter to omit any details – even to save her own ass – is probably as good as ordering her home in the weekends. Still, he wants her to have that choice if she ever decides to outthink her own sensibilities.

Her face is unreadable. "Do you mean that, Sir?"

Jack purses his lips and forces himself to say what needs to be said. "Yeah." She doesn't reply, but it's probably hopeful relief in her eyes that he's seeing, he thinks. And it stings, more than it should, so he does the only thing he can do: reassure, joke and make light of things, so that it's easier to push aside some very real feelings that he's left behind in a certain room. "Anyway, can you imagine how embarrassing it'll get if word gets out that I've been rubbed down with steak marinade then forced into a loincloth?"

She's biting her lip in an effort not to laugh. It's a look he recognises well, especially when it comes to the lame jokes he makes around her. "You kinda smell funny, Sir."

"They rubbed marinade on me, Carter," he grumbles. "Now I know what my meat feels like before I grill it."

"I'm sure it's a spice blend reserved only for special occasions."

But he's only just getting warmed up. "They said it's 'enhancing'."

"'Enhancing'?"

"Uh, well, enhancing, uh, masculinity," Jack chokes out the last word, questioning the wisdom of telling her what he'd overheard as he was being scrubbed down.

"I don't see a problem with that, Sir," she laughs, then seems to realise the magnitude of what she'd just revealed. As though hoping to deflect any attention from her slip, she quickly adds, "They simply made me bathe in something floral."

God help him, but now that she's mentioned it, there's a fragrance coming from her that seems to be a mix of jasmine and peach. And it's coming together in a heady aroma that he-

Jack jerks himself back to reality, blindly relying on his trusted method of light-hearted self-deprecation to get through this ordeal. "Better you than me, Carter," he says then gestures roughly in the general area of his crotch.

Uh oh.

Her eyes are following his movements and her brief glance at his dressing – or the lack thereof – sends a shiver down his spine.

Like any red-blooded male, Jack recognises lust, desire and anything along that forbidden spectrum in an instant and in Carter's look, there's a little of everything. Finally, he hears a slight, breathless giggle that makes him groan inwardly.

"I should be grateful that I'm not wearing something matching, huh?"

The images of Carter wrapped up with strips of linen covering strategic areas pound through his head. Jack squirms onto another butt cheek, trying to keep his breathing even.

So not going there, O'Neill.

A villager comes to his rescue by offering them more exotic fruit in congratulations. Jack takes it gingerly, avoiding its sharp spines and puts it aside as he gathers his thoughts and tells certain parts of his anatomy to behave. "It's starting to get cold, isn't it? I'm looking at major shrinkage here."

Her grin widens. "Don't worry, Sir, it's not noticeable from I'm sitting." More softly, she mutters, "More's the pity."

Time skids to a halt at Carter's last three words that Jack unintentionally manages to catch. He thinks he's forgotten how to breathe in that revelation that may or may not have been only a flirtatious joke that meant nothing on Carter's part.

Did she really say that? Had it meant what he thought it meant? Did she want thi-

Jack shakes off the thought and reminds himself firmly that he's after all, a warhorse long past his sell-by date. Clearing his throat, he blindly reaches for two cups of a deep purple drink that the servers are handing out, trying to talk around the awkward subject. "So, uh, want a drink?"

"I wouldn't drink that if I were you, Sir." Her grin melts into a genuine smile. And lord, he's missed that look. But it's his wedding day, dammit, and if there's anything he should be allowed to do, it's to drink away the events of the past twenty-four hours.

He deliberately holds up the cup in front of her face in a mock-toast and tosses back the purple brew before talking. He looks at the empty cup, briefly pondering its contents. It's grape-ish and liberally laced with alcohol, not as crude as Skaara's homemade moonshine.

"Give me a break, Carter. I just got married after all."

"And you think I didn't?" She asks, then adds the 'Sir' almost as an afterthought. "It takes two, you know, to create this mess. I played as much a part in it as you did. And I wish I-" Carter shakes her head, leaving the sentence hanging.

Jack mentally completes it for her. I wish I'd changed my mind about this. I wish I'd fought harder against this decision.

In every permutation and combination he can think of, her incomplete sentence can only express a regret.

She has a point, he thinks. It takes two. Two caught in an unending circle of repressed emotions, two to talk, two hands to clap. Two to create a mess. And as much as he likes to think that the attraction is mutual, this farce of a wedding is starting to prove that wrong. He's always given Carter as much reassurance as he could in so many words, leaving it to her to read in between the lines how it had always been up to her. Now, Jack wonders just how much they've been reading each other wrong all along.

He opens his mouth to reply, then changes his mind, tired of the complication that lines every sentence when they speak to each other. Instead, he shoves the other cup into her hands and gestures for her to drink.

oOo

Sam examines the shimmering liquid, absently noting its pretty hues, feeling the coldness seep into her hands. The purple reminds her of the colours that comprise numerous nebulae – pretty and exotic enough to be dangerous. It's however, a big comfort in the sweltering weather and right now, pretty much the least of her concerns.

In a single day, her life has been completely turned around. The man next to her is the man she wants but can't have and it's his nearness now that's making her wonder if duty and honour cannot co-exist with personal happiness. But it's not the first time that she's asked herself this, and the answer comes as a familiar voice that sounds suspiciously like her father stamping out anything that is other than a 'no'.

Sam takes a tentative sip of her drink, then downs all of it in one go when she finds that it tastes like a cross between fruit juice and diet sprite, the aftertaste of which sends a delicious tingle down her spine.

Perhaps it's been spiked, laced with aphrodisiacs. Right now however, she's furthest away from caring.

Well, why the hell not?

It's her wedding night and it's going to be a long, tortuous one.

She looks at the empty mug appreciatively, then signals for another.

oOo

The tent, Sam realises with a wicked grin to herself, is a loose description for what she'd always thought of as a camping tent. It's closer to a pavilion that has been elaborately decorated in the Kiengir's wedding colours, the interior of which contains a huge bed and all the amenities a couple might ever need for their wedding night together.

Holy Hannah.

A throat is cleared behind her. The Col-

Jack, she mentally corrects herself giddily. They were married after all and that at least gave her some right to his given name, didn't it?

"Oh crap."

She turns around and glares at him. He's uncomfortable, fidgety and probably wishing he can get the hell out of this impossible situation that they've placed themselves in. And the thought of him wanting to bolt a little too quickly when a small part of her is actually enjoying it fills her with no small amount indignation.

"Look."

She follows his pointed gaze at the bed. "So?"

"So, you…uh," he tries then stops, rubbing a hand over his eyes and heaves a sigh of resignation.

Sam watches in fascination as he looks at anything else but her, his momentary distraction allowing her a long moment to study his physique.

Oh my.

"You're staring, Carter."

She whips her eyes away instinctively, wincing. But he's…hot and he's…hers. An insane urge to giggle wells up inside of her. "Sorry, Sir."

"For cryin' out loud, Carter, we just got married, I'm in a damned diaper and you're in your wedding dress. We're looking at our…conjugal bed so think you can drop the 'Sir' for now?"

Finally, the giggle escapes her as a tiny, high-pitched laugh. He's rambling and flustered and she's finding it…quite empowering. "Conjugal bed?" She repeats with a straight face.

He bravely forges on and shifts his hands to his hips, surreptitiously holding his loincloth in place. "Uh, let's…be adults in this, 'kay? You can take the bed."

A quick look around shows that there's no space on the pavilion floor. At least, not for someone of his height and built. Again, his concern for her modesty is touching, but misguided. Sam turns around slowly, smiling, then places a hand on his bare chest. "There's no where else to sleep. We'll have to share."

"Oy."

"It's not that bad," she says, her attention already drawn to his neck.

"Carter?"

"Hmm?" His neck and shoulders are fascinating, Sam decides. And he smells nice too. Spicy, woodsy and purely masculine. Whatever those women did to him earlier, well, all she could say was that they had definitely known what they were doing. Experimentally, she wriggles her fingers lightly in the whorls of his chest hairs.

He yelps in surprise at her touch, then looks terrified a second later. She grins in response, shifting her other arm around his neck.

"Uh, whatcha' doin'?"

"You're drunk, Carter," he proclaims and gently tries to extricate himself from her. Tired of his uncertainty, she presses her body up against his, smirking at the gasp that the move elicited.

"You told me to drink." Her words are muffled against his neck.

"Uh…yeah…but…not…Carter!" He dances away clumsily, but gets pulled back by her insistent tug on his shoulders. "But not that much!"

"It's our wedding night, Jack."

"Carter!" He barks, stilling for a moment. "How much have you had?"

She giggles again, moving her hands over his loincloth, a hair's breadth away from pulling it all off. "Apparently not enough."

When her questing fingers touch his lower abdomen, his breath hitches loudly enough for the both of them to hear.

"Carter!"

"Six cups," she tells him proudly, watching his eyes bug out in surprise.

"The stuff's potent! I only managed one!"

"Good for me, then," she tells him cheekily, then pulls his head down for a kiss.

oOo

For Jack, there's only one, non-poetic word that can describe kissing Carter, as they somehow stumble to the large bed that's impossible to miss.

Drugging.

Then she's atop him, her hands touching all the places that make him shudder, rendering him more senseless than he's been for a long, long time. The sensation of nimble fingers unwrapping the top part of the loincloth is also incredible and then he's flipping her over to-

Shit!

"Carter, stop!"

The barked order seems to knock some sense back into her and she instinctively obeys even in her inebriated state, her eyes suspiciously moist as she removes herself from him. "You don't want this? Want me?"

It takes him a long while to answer. "Not like this."

oOo

As lush as the honeymoon suite set-up is, the night passes in sullen silence, broken only by the occasional sounds of shifting and resigned sighs.

The only furniture in the tent is a large cot for two and like people who have suddenly developed a haphephobia, they've gravitated towards the opposite ends of the bed and stayed so near their own edges that he and Carter had both fallen to the floor at different times of the night.

Jack wakes up with grit in his eyes and sees his BDUs lying by the door, washed and clean. Gratefully, he puts them on, changing surreptitiously so that he wouldn't wake the other sleeping occupant on the bed. Carelessly, he flings the loincloth to the other end of the tent, happy to feel the heavy fabric on himself again.

"Sir?"

She's sitting up, still dressed in the wedding attire, looking uncertain and ashamed.

"Carter?"

"About last night," she barrels contritely ahead, "I think I must have had too much to drink. I would never have done that if I had known. I'm sorry, Sir."

He stares at her intently, wondering at the meaning behind those words. Had it really only been the alcohol speaking?

But there's only a bland look on her face and Carter's actually a better actress than he gives her credit for. Whatever she feels is now safely hidden behind their ranks. Lately, Carter has been all about professionalism and decorum with him, so how else is he to interpret her statement as yet another thing she'd like to throw into that room? The Za'tarc detector had after all, called him on his feelings, not hers. All she'd confessed to was her agony in knowing that someone would die for her – hardly anything that equalled his humiliating revelation.

Perhaps then, it's best to take what she's saying at face value. "No worries, Carter."

"All of this is not going into the mission report, right?"

She asks the question so hopefully that he can't help but feel a twinge in his chest. Suddenly, he wants to argue, wants to tell her that it shouldn't be another thing they've got to shove aside and that he'd retire in a heartbeat if he only knew what she really wanted. But the tension between them has been honed to such a fine balance that all it would take is a stupid word or a wrong move to upset it all. And frankly, Jack's not too sure if he's ready to turn that strange relationship inside out yet if it means he gets to keep Carter even only as a teammate.

Still, unable to help himself, he asks, "And we're okay with that?"

Beat.

The question's deliberate and pointed, an oblique way of asking about their recent holding pattern. Perhaps it's unfair of him to have brought this up so soon after that trying time, but when was there ever an appropriate moment?

"Yes, Sir."

His heart sinks at her reply.

oOo

Exhausted and grumpy, Jack feels only slightly better walking around in something other than a loincloth, knowing his mood will probably improve once they bug out of here and walk through the gate back home where this can also be shoved into that room where it wouldn't ever see the light of day again.

Being with him is the last thing Carter wants, that much seems clear from the night in the tent. So he gives her the space she needs, adding to the physical and emotional distance when he can. It's not that hard, but it's ego-bruising.

Jack leaves the tent and hunts down Daniel and Teal'c, eager for this charade to end. Only then does he learn that a whole contingency of the Kiengir village elders are also preparing to depart with SG-1 in their eagerness to meet the 'venerable chief' of Stargate Command to whom they will personally gift more Naquadah.

There's nothing he can do but curse. The only thing that marginally perks him up is hearing Carter swear like a sailor at Daniel when she finds out just what's going to happen.

So much for leaving the non-important bits out of the report.

oOo

"Would you care to repeat that, Colonel?"

Hammond's voice is low and incredulous, with a dangerous edge to it that Jack knows better not to cross. "Carter and I got married because of Naquadah."

When put like that, it sounds ridiculous. But it's the truth. Okay, sort of the truth. And with half the Kiengir elders walking around in the SGC, any hint of disrespect for their culture's treatment of marriage would call off the precious Naquadah deal immediately.

"Major?"

Carter is standing as straight as he is and her posture radiates tension and unhappiness. "It's true, Sir."

The frown on Hammond's face looks fearsome. "Did you know just what the hell you just did, both of you?"

"No, Sir."

"Yes, Sir."

The contradictory responses are said simultaneously and before he can help himself, Jack turns to his second-in-command, finding her eyes already trained on him.

He snaps his head back, coughing out a plausible reply. "With all due respect, Sir, we were just following orders."

Hammond's exclamation is loud enough for everyone in the control room to hear. "I didn't order you to get married!"

Shit.

Jack sees Carter's eyes shift nervously to the door. Like her, he knows that the grapevine is going into overdrive and if there hadn't been any truth to the rumours that have been flying around before, there are certainly grounds for those now.

In the end, it's Carter who manages to strangle out a weak justification for their actions. "All for the good of the mission, Sir."

Jack's more than impressed by the way she holds up under the General's withering glare.

Thankfully, Hammond seems to understand the conundrum that his two best officers had been placed in. Still, he reads them the riot act, shoves them into a VIP room together and then picks up the red telephone for a contingency plan for a certain Colonel and his second-in-command.

It's not long later that they are told the huge amount of Naquadah that's up for grabs is too important to pass over. A presidential special dispensation and an uncomfortable cough of congratulations later, Hammond sends them back home and orders them away from the SGC for a week to 'get their respective acts together'.

oOo

The digital numbers on the elevator's small LED have suddenly become a source of fascination for the Colonel. From the way he's intently staring at them, Sam's starting to think that it's his first and unsuccessful attempt at learning how to count.

The silence in the long journey up in the elevator car is finally shattered by a nervous cough.

"So, uh, how are you doing, Carter?"

Just peachy, she thinks grumpily, then cringes when she realises she's just used an O'Neill-ism, even if it was just in her head. It's not everyday that women married their Commanding Officers in a ceremony that hadn't been too accidental after all and of course, not all women were also in love with them.

She levels her breathing and bites back a retort. The fault was never his to begin with. "Fine, Sir."

He's looking at her strangely, like she's grown another head. "Sure?"

"Yeah."

Liar.

For one who always dives into the core of any scientific problem to find a solution, she's finding herself oddly reluctant to look any closer at this very dilemma into which they've tossed themselves. It was just simply easier to not think about it right now and freak out later in private.

Sam sneaks a glance at him.

O'Neill's ill at ease, his uncomfortable stance showing everyone who cared to look just how much difficulty he's having in accepting the situation. She's only just gotten used to the fact that there's yet another thing unacknowledged between them when it's suddenly announced that they can be together, officially. But the drunken night has only shown his reservations when it came to her and the dispensation is as good as useless if they can't move on from this. Was it so wrong then, to want to know if he-

"What are you gonna do?" O'Neill interrupts her morose train of thought.

Sam blinks in surprise at the attempt at small talk. "The usual, Sir. Cleaning, working, grocery shopping." And thinking.

"Ah," he pauses, then says, "Get some rest, Carter."

O'Neill ducks his head briefly, then glances at the ceiling, the lines etched more deeply his mouth and eyes. And somehow, she just knows that he's drawing away, rebuilding a wall that he had allowed to come down for a moment.

If she were honest enough, she knows that it's the last thing she wants, more so because it feels as though they've gone further in the past twenty-four hours than they've ever done so in the past four years. But the elevator doors open just as she's trying to formulate an appropriate response and O'Neill's out the doors faster than she could say 'wait'.

He's disappearing around the corner as though Anise and/or Freya herself is on his six, leaving her staring after him in disappointed chagrin.

Her shoulders droop as she makes her way to an empty house.

oOo

Exactly five hours go by before Sam tries to escape the silence of her own house, and two more before she finally points her car in the general direction of the O'Neill's secluded abode.

He swings open the door as she raises her fist to knock, the suddenness of his violent motion startling them both.

"Carter?" His look is quizzical and a bit wary.

The eloquent speech she's got prepared falls to pieces when seeing his face evokes memories of a man clad in a loincloth who endured a ceremony when he hadn't needed to.

"Sir! I, uh, wanted to talk to you," she tells him lamely.

He hesitates for a fraction of a second, then wordlessly steps aside to let her through. She follows him in with uncharacteristic timidity, knowing that five hours of thinking had still led her nowhere. Yet she's here, unprepared for everything.

But it was good to talk it out, right? At least they would be following the General's orders by sorting things out together.

In an instant, Sam feels foolish. Talking? With the Colonel? What had seemed like a good idea at the time as she'd stood under the hot shower, now appears to be nothing but naïveté speaking in the guise of courage. Then, all she'd felt was a rare determination to get to the Colonel's house…and wing it. With the moment upon her, she's finding her own ass on the ground, the rug having suddenly been pulled from under her.

Oblivious to her internal distress, Jack turns back and sees her frozen by the door, deep in thought. "Do I need to carry you through?"

His tone is brusque and heavy with irony, a clear, somewhat inappropriate reference to bridegrooms, brides and thresholds that she gets immediately.

"Oh, right." She steps in hurriedly, not wanting to take the slight chance that he would have made good on his threat.

Sam stands by his sofa, taking in the masculine décor of the living room. The house is airy and clean, and the breeze from the elevation beyond his backyard blows gently in. She's been here before on team nights, but it feels different today and not just because they're alone together.

He closes the door, walks straight past her and disappears into the kitchen. "Beer?"

"Uh, sure. Thanks," she calls back and makes herself comfortable as much as she can on the edge of the sofa.

Jack returns, pressing a cold bottle into her hand and all it does is to bring back memories of the last time they shared a drink. But still, there's only silence and distance that stretch as far as the low hum of the refrigerator and the distant song of the birds. He sits opposite her, putting up a deliberate distance between them.

Not liking it, Sam gets up, walks towards him and sinks down next to a man who's supposed to be her husband, placing a hand over his.

The sudden contact makes them both jump a little.

"Look, Carter, I-"

"Sir-"

They speak at the same time, and even then, momentary amusement sinks under the weight of the awkwardness that chases the tail end of too many unfulfilled longings.

"You first."

"Go ahea-"

"Sir-"

"Cart-"

"For god's sake, Jack!"

The sudden silence is awkward and ridiculous.

Finally, Jack decides to take the proverbial bull by its horns. There are things that she needs to hear, as difficult as it is for him to say them aloud. So he waves at her to be silent as he opens his mouth, ignoring the indignant look on her face and pushes out the words before his courage fails him.

"Carter, we'll force an annulment, when the Kiengir finally get lost from the SGC. The special dispensation is only an offer. Nothing needs to happen."

She pales considerably. "Is that what you want?"

Her eyes are boring into his and he can't find it in himself to lie, not when she's looking so lost, an expression that he rarely sees. In the first few weeks following Jolinar when he'd kept a closer eye on her than usual, it had scared the shit out of him seeing his kick-ass Major sporting a lost, off-centre look that she had desperately tried to hide.

It's one thing to be given that presidential dispensation; it's another to know that she wants it as much as he does. And if making use of it is going to make her unhappy, Jack realises he'll do anything in his power to reverse it, even if it means screwing up a treaty in the process. But as much as he doesn't want to be responsible for tilting her off balance, her question is too compelling not for him to tell the truth.

"No," he tells her curtly.

"Then why-"

For cryin' out loud, is that woman blind?

He rakes a hand through his hair roughly, unable to help the frustrated words from bursting out. "Because you look so unhappy, dammit! It's the worst situation you could have ever found yourself in and believe me, I know it when-"

"But I thought…I thought you didn't want this!" Her startled exclamation cuts him off mid-ramble.

What?

The gears in his brain grind to a shuddering halt and disbelief helps raise his voice an octave. "I thought you didn't want this!"

She stills under his intent gaze. "You mean you wanted this?"

His rejoinder is harsh and mocking. "Are you cracked? You thought I didn-"

"Jack!"

"Oh, for cryin' out loud, Carter!"

Suddenly, she laughs at the absurd turn the conversation's taking, tries to compose herself, only to giggle again when she sees his mouth hanging open in disbelief. "Are we still on the same page?"

Jack's suddenly shaky with the realisation that the circumstances that had brought them to this point don't really matter after all. Carter's unfettered laughter is a sound that he hasn't heard for so long and just knowing he's in some way involved in it helps send a deep thrill through him.

"God, I hope so," he tells her softly, holding her steady, blue gaze.

They fall into silence, but this time, the air is alive and charged with the sparks that neither can quite act on. Then, without warning, he tumbles forward. Only when he rights himself does he belatedly realise that she's got both hands on the lapels of his shirt and has tugged on them hard enough until they're nearly nose to nose. The proximity burns but he restrains himself, simply moving to brush away a stray, golden lock that has fallen into her left eye.

"Sam." His whisper is a warm caress against her lips. But he's leaving the question unvoiced, knowing she'll understand the hesitation, the need and the depth of his feelings, willing her to say what he needs to hear.

"I want this," she tells him earnestly before pulling his head to hers with the same force that he thought her only capable of when she jumped him in the locker room all those years ago.

His world explodes in a burst of colour and life, all because Carter's holding him and kissing him with the hidden promise of more. And technically, that enforced week off has just now become a honeymoon, so-

She breaks away, giving him her first order. "One more thing. Wives aren't allowed."

It takes him a while to get his head unscrambled. When it finally sinks in, Jack grins as he tells himself that Carter's probably going to be as possessive of him as he is of her. He traces a finger down her throat, stopping only where cloth meets cleavage.

"Luckily for you, I'm a one-woman man."

"Good."

-Fin