A/N: After 53 or so rewrites, the final chapter of the story is finally here! Huge thanks to the awesome Amara D'Angeli for betaing this one for me and to A Karswyll for helping me brainstorm whenever I got stuck.
Colorado Springs, CO
It was already dark outside when Jack arrived at Carter's and even though he'd walked right up to her front door, he was hesitant to knock. He hadn't exactly lied to Daniel about her needing her rest; and, well, if she was awake then she might be totally pissed at finding him at her doorstep at this hour. His behavior over the past couple of days made it worse, he knew.
Grimacing, he looked at the paper bag in his hand and steeled himself; according to the Doc she needed these meds tonight. Besides, Daniel would never give him a moment's rest if he backed out now. Jack reluctantly knocked on the front door, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he waited for a response. He realized now that he was actually here, he wanted to see her too. Not seeing her for days was unusual and perhaps catching even a glimpse of her would help erase the memory of her pale face and lifeless form haunting his dreams…
His breath caught in his throat when Carter opened the door with a small apologetic smile, sleepy eyes, ruffled hair and color on her cheeks; so much healthier than he'd last seen her and very much alive. Words wouldn't come and instead he just looked at her, drinking in the sight of her.
"Oh," she said, the smile disappearing from her face. "It's you. Sir."
Her disappointment hit Jack harder than he'd expected and a greeting died on his lips. Trust Daniel not to tell her of the change of plans – or perhaps she'd been expecting Shanahan? The thought made him grit his teeth and he had to stop himself from shoving the bag of meds in her hands and turning back around to his truck.
"Carter," he said reflexively, before taking a deep breath to compose himself and trying again. "Hi."
The look he got in return was skeptical at best. "Hello, Sir."
Shit, his behavior must have hurt her worse than he thought. "Is this a good time?"
"Not really," Carter said, crossing her arms and leaning – with her good side – against the doorpost, thereby blocking his view of her hallway as he tried looking over her shoulder.
Damn but she was good at making him feel unwelcome! Hell, he probably deserved it after the way he'd pretty much ignored her since leaving the infirmary, he reflected. "I, uh, brought you something." The moment the words left his lips he mentally slapped himself. Could he sound any more juvenile? When she glanced down at his hands and raised an eyebrow in an impressive imitation of Teal'c, he sighed and tried to explain. "Daniel asked me to drop this off."
Was that a flicker of… disappointment? Crap, now she thought he was only there because Daniel had asked? "But I wanted to check on you anyway. See how you're doing and all."
"Can I come in?"
Carter sighed and glanced at the bag again, avoiding his question. "What is it?"
"Your new meds."
She reached out to take them from him but he pulled them to his chest. "Sir?"
With more confidence than he felt, Jack kept the bag from her and reiterated his question. "Can I come in?"
"You're not going to give me my painkillers unless I invite you into my house?"
He shifted on his feet in discomfort, realizing what it sounded like. "No," he said slowly, risking a look at her face. There was a fire in her eyes he knew all too well, but it had never been aimed at him. "It's just that I'm supposed to make sure you read the instructions and actually take the pills. Doctor's orders."
Carter looked even more peeved now, narrowing her eyes at him. "These aren't the first pills I've ever had to take and since when do I need a babysitter?"
"You don't, Carter. The Doc just wants to make sure you're okay. And this will give us a chance to talk," Jack said, cringing as he caught her surprised look – they never talked. "You know, catch up and… stuff."
"Yeah, you know," he waved his hand around as if that explained everything. "Isn't that what you and Daniel have been doing all week?"
She arched an eyebrow at him and looked at him the way she looked at one of her uncooperative doohickeys. "Daniel usually brings over food and shares base gossip with me."
"Food?" Jack ran a hand through his hair as he thought through his options. It was late and him being here wasn't appropriate but he doubted the Air Force made a distinction between talking to your subordinate in her living room or talking to her while making her dinner. "You haven't eaten yet? Well, I guess I could cook you something."
For a moment, she looked stunned. "Um, well, I don't actually have anything edible. But, um, thanks for the offer. Sir."
"Carter," he drawled her name, smirking a bit at the sudden opening, "you do know you're supposed to take these meds on a full stomach, right? And Doctor Brightman said you weren't allowed to skip meals because your recovery takes up a lot of energy."
"Are you offering to buy me groceries?"
Jack narrowed his eyes at her. "You sure there's nothing in the fridge or your cupboards? I could probably whip you something up."
"Not a thing, Sir. Daniel and Teal'c bought me groceries when I first got home, but they've eaten all of it already. The past couple of days it was just takeout."
He cast a glance at his watch, before looking back at the house. She was still blocking his view of the entryway and seemed determined to keep him outside - had she been expecting Shanahan and was therefore reluctant to let him in? Jack didn't want to contemplate the other kind of surprises Carter might have for her fiancé but his brain went there anyway; at least there was an upside to her injury, because he knew lying down was uncomfortable for her, never mind anything more strenuous. Shaking himself, Jack made a decision. "Fine, grab your stuff."
"You need food, Carter."
She looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "I don't think I'm dressed to go out, Sir, and I'm not entirely sure that's appropriate anyway."
He rolled his eyes after giving her a once-over; she was wearing sweats and fluffy socks. "You look fine for what I have in mind. Grab your coat, some shoes and your keys."
The reluctance was obvious in her stance but when her stomach chose that moment to voice its hunger, Carter admitted defeat and went back inside the house. She left the front door open but he patiently waited on the step until she came out to join him a minute or two later. "Fine, but this better be worth it. Sir."
"You betcha," Jack said, after an awkward silence in which he considered her choice of phrasing. "C'mon, let's go."
"Sure." She wrapped her opened coat around her body, but not before he noticed she'd exchanged the oversized top half of her sweat suit for a fitted blue cardigan. Keys were dangling in her hand and it looked like she'd quickly run a comb through her hair too.
He opened the passenger door of his truck for her and waited until she'd caught up with him. From the way she moved, he could tell her injury was causing her discomfort yet she didn't utter a word. "Need a hand?"
"I'm not an invalid, Sir," she snapped, glaring in his direction.
Jack bit back a retort and patiently waited until she'd climbed into the cab, before closing the door. The amount of effort it took her to get into the seat had been obvious, but he knew she wouldn't appreciate his comments. So, he rounded the truck and got in on the other side, ignoring her labored breathing as he settled in. "Good to go?"
Carter wiped her forehead with her free hand and buckled her seatbelt. "Yeah. Where are we going?"
He started the car and they drove off in silence. There was this little diner about twenty minutes from her place that he went to sometimes, although he hadn't been there in quite a while. Back when he'd still been commander of SG-1 he often went there after a long mission to get some decent food and unwind, but lately he'd been too busy.
The road was quiet at this hour and he found himself stealing glances at his passenger from the corner of his eye. Aside from her labored breathing there wasn't a sound in the cab – he'd hoped she would feel a need to fill the silence without the radio – and the tension was high. The streetlights bathed them in their fluorescent lighting every now and then, and Jack could see the death grip she had on both the door and her seat in them.
"How are you holding up?"
"Just peachy, Sir." Sarcasm was dripping from her words and the fire was back in her eyes when he looked at her.
"Don't you think it's a bit late to start showing concern for my wellbeing? You haven't bothered checking in on me once since I was released from the infirmary."
He knew this had been coming, but had no idea how to respond. "Car-"
"Getting updates from the CMO doesn't count, General. And now what? You're here because you drew Daniel's short straw and had to bring me my meds? Well, thanks for your help, but I can take it from here."
As they pulled up to a traffic light, Jack turned towards her and placed his hand on her arm. "That's not true-"
She pulled away in anger and grimaced, grabbing her injured side and gritting her teeth. "No, you don't get to pull that right now! If you really wanted to see me you would have visited at least once in the week since I've been home. Or, you know, called to ask how I was doing. And before you say it, asking the guys how I'm doing isn't the same thing!"
"I know," Jack said, his shoulders slumping. There was no way he could deny it, after all. If they wanted to move beyond this, they had to clear the air. Starting with him apologizing for avoiding her the past week. He'd never been much of a talker, even less so when it concerned relationships but he wasn't completely oblivious or too emotionally stunted to recognize when it was needed.
"What, that's it?"
"No." She was impatient and still fired up, which he understood, but he'd never been any good at this whole talking thing. Or apologizing. "You're right, I should have made time to see how you were doing. I'm sorry, Carter."
She looked surprised, perhaps even a little taken aback. Casting her gaze downwards, she placed one hand on her injured side, while the other rubbed over the fabric of her sweatpants.
He recognized her need to think, so he didn't push and simply waited.
Now it was Jack's turn to be surprised, but before he could do or say anything a car behind them honked; the light had turned green. He cleared his throat and turned his attention back to the road, driving off. "Okay."
They drove on in silence and a few minutes later, they took another turn and the diner came into view. The place looked pretty much deserted, with just two cars in the parking lot, but the lights were on and that meant they'd serve food.
Carter broke the silence unexpectedly. "I broke things off with Pete."
"You broke th-," he parroted, stunned by the unexpected reply. "Oh."
Her gaze was on him, as if she was trying to read him. "Yeah."
His mind was racing to come up with an appropriate response, while ignoring all the inappropriate questions he wanted to ask. Instead, he had to drive onto the lot and park his truck. "Oh."
"I would have told you sooner, but…"
Jack chanced a glance at her, but she was looking out of her window so he kept quiet and found a parking spot close to the diner's entrance. After turning off the ignition, he got out and opened the door for her, ready in case she needed some help.
Carter ignored him and managed to get out of the truck with great effort, breathing hard once her feet were on the ground. There was a slight sheen of perspiration on her face and she took a moment to lean against the truck.
"How're you feeling?" He asked, pointing in the general direction of her injury.
"Fine." When he raised his brow skeptically, she rolled her eyes. "Like hell."
He smirked at her honesty and was pleased to see the corners of her mouth quirk up too. It was rare for her to be this honest about an injury – unless they were in the field – and he liked that she didn't hide it from him. He didn't know if it meant anything or if she just figured it was hard to deny, but he liked to think it was the former. "You didn't pull your stitches, did you?"
"No," she glared at him, before casting her gaze down. "I just… need to rest for a minute."
Tempted as he was to wrap his arms around her, he tamped down the urge and instead placed his hand on her left shoulder, squeezing it gently in silent support. Maybe this little trip hadn't been such a good idea, but he'd figured they needed somewhere neutral to talk – and she needed food. Not to mention that she'd been holed up in her house the past week and before that the infirmary, and that usually made her climb the walls. Only this time she wasn't fit enough to do something about it, leaving it up to him.
"Okay, I'm good. I think," Carter added, swaying slightly when she stood upright.
Jack smiled inwardly at her befuddled expression when he moved his hand to her uninjured side to guide her towards the entrance. "Think we should head into the diner before you keel over?"
"Oh." She blinked and, after he gently exerted some pressure, started walking. "I can walk by myself."
"I know." Despite her tone, she hadn't shrugged off his hand so he kept it right where it was. He could feel the warmth of her skin through the layers of clothing and had to resist tightening his grip. His mind briefly went back to that night in the cave, when his hands had been on her bare skin… then she suddenly stopped in front of him and the diner, bringing him back to the present. "Ack, wait," he said, moving quickly to open the door for her.
"I know," he huffed. "Geez, Carter! I'm not trying to give you ideas, just trying to be nice. I'm afraid you'll pop a stitch if you keep bowing up at me like that."
She rolled her eyes, but took a visible effort to rein it in. "Right. I'm sorry."
They made their way over to the table at the back, even though only one other table was occupied and just one person was sitting at the counter sipping coffee. Jack easily slipped into the booth, placing the bag of meds next to him. Carter, on the other hand, was visibly in pain when she tried to sit down but didn't say a word. Her eyes were closed and she gritted her teeth while trying to breathe through the pain using one of Teal'c's Jaffa techniques. He knew drawing attention to her pain would only make her more uncomfortable, so he beckoned the waitress and ordered for them both when Carter waved her hand to let him know he could.
It didn't take long for their food – pancakes and cake for him, a BLT for Carter – to arrive and their coffee cups to be filled.
However, Carter had been distracted by her injury and discomfort, worsened when she struggled to get her coat off, and ended up staring suspiciously at a cup of coffee after taking a sip. "Decaf?"
"Yeah," Jack admitted with a slight grin, amused that she hadn't listened to his conversation with the waitress. "You need all the sleep you can get. Food's here too, so you'll be able to take your meds soon."
He watched her as she uncharacteristically fiddled with her cardigan, trying to find a way to broach the subject of… well, everything really. Her health, breaking off the engagement, Voarios. Them. The silence between them wasn't uncomfortable for which he was grateful, because it allowed him to drink in the sight of her; no longer pale and lifeless, albeit visibly tired.
Carter smiled when she dug into her sandwich. "This is really good," she said between bites. "I didn't realize how hungry I was until now."
"Sounds familiar," Jack teased, reminded of all the times he interrupted her lab work for a meal. He grabbed her pills from the paper bag, opened the two bottles and placed them in front of her, before turning to his own pancakes.
"Thank you." She dry-swallowed a pill from each bottle, took a sip of coffee and went back to her half-eaten BLT.
After wolfing down his meal, he drank the last of his coffee and reached for the slice of cake that he'd ordered. "So…"
Carter simply raised her eyebrows in a silent question, watching him expectantly.
Jack leaned back in the boot, trying to find the right words. "So… you broke off the engagement."
"Why?" The question came out a bit too hopeful so he tried again, after clearing his throat. "I mean, maybe you shouldn't be making life-changing decisions right after nearly dying."
She lifted her chin minutely, in that stubborn way she had when he chanced a glance at her. "Maybe what happened on that planet put things into perspective for me."
For a long while she just stared at him, his heart pounding in his chest in anticipation of her answer and the world seemed to come to a stop.
"More coffee?" The waitress asked, interrupting them.
The moment was gone and Jack was pretty sure there was a brief flash of relief on Carter's face, before she schooled it in a neutral expression. "No," he said, waving off the waitress. "Well?"
"Considering our line of work, I doubt I'd get anything done if I had to wait until the nearly dying part was over before I could make an important decision."
She glanced down at her cup, avoiding his gaze, and put a hand on her injured side. "Yes," she said, resolutely. "Yes, what happened on Voarios made me realize some truths."
He could tell there was more, that she was holding something back and he suspected he knew part of the problem. The only thing he wasn't sure of was her reason for breaking off her engagement and he was almost afraid to hope he was part of the equation – his battered heart could only take so much. Still, no matter how much he disliked it, they really had to talk after what had happened on that planet. "Nearly dying does that to a person."
"Watching others die, too."
From the look she leveled him with, Jack knew she was referring to him. If she cared about him even half as much as he did for her, then finding him under the ice must have been terrifying – never mind performing CPR on him. He could still feel the panic after she went down and seeing that gaping hole in her side… "I know."
"I suppose you do…" Her voice trailed off as she looked away.
He watched her for a moment, his gaze moving from the top of her blonde head down the curve of her cheek, her lovely mouth, along her neck and all the way down her arm to land on her hand where it rested on the tabletop. Even sleep deprived, bruised and in pain she was beautiful and graceful to him. His heart constricted at the sight of her bare ring finger, knowing the engagement had been called off and the cop's ring had been returned. There were some minor abrasions on her hand too, which reminded Jack of her current condition. A little trip like this was probably exhausting to her, so he had to take her back to her place soon – but not before they'd talked.
Looking up, he found her watching him too. With a soft, genuine smile he pushed his slice of cake in the center of the table, wordlessly offering her some. "So, now what?"
Carter ducked her head and after a moment, grabbed the fork off his plate. "Now," she said, taking a bite of cake, "I need to focus on my recovery. Apparently, I have weeks if not months of physical therapy ahead of me before I can even think about being on active duty again."
"Yeah." Jack couldn't tear his gaze away from her mouth, watching as his fork slipped from her lips. What had he been thinking, offering her his cake? "Uh," he said, belatedly realizing she was waiting for something more from him. "Noel is the best PT. She'll fix you right up, make you good as new. It'll just take time, like it did with Teal'c when he lost Junior."
"We both know that might not be possible."
If he didn't know her so well, he would have missed the undertone. She was scared. Not just in pain and concerned about her recovery, but scared she wouldn't be able to fully recover. "Carter…"
"I'm lucky to still be alive, I know," she said, smiling weakly.
The memory of her getting hit by that staff blast and seeing the extent of her injury flashed before his mind's eye before he shook it off. She had survived. She was alive and sitting in front of him, clearly needing to get this off her chest. "We both are."
She licked the fork clean and handed it to him, giving the plate a small shove in his direction. "Yes. Maybe… maybe I'll be able to stay on as a civilian."
"No need to get ahead of ourselves just yet," he said. The uncertainty had been clear in her voice and Jack was pretty sure she hated that idea; she was military through and through, and he doubted she'd be content tinkering in her lab all day after traipsing around the galaxy. Perhaps if it had been by choice… but not when it was forced upon her.
"We need to be realistic."
Jack struggled to find the words she needed to hear and holding the fork that had been in her mouth only minutes ago wasn't helping. Think, think… "It's only been a few days," he said, "we don't really know anything yet."
Carter huffed and wrapped her arms around her torso as best she could. "I know how I feel and we also know what the doctors told me. This wasn't just a superficial wound-"
"I know!" He interrupted her in a raised voice, her words making him relive that awful moment on Voarios and his careful self-restraint just snapped. "Christ, Carter, when I saw you go down… I thought you were dead! The whole time you were in the OR I couldn't stop," he swallowed, "blaming myself for what had happened. You were dying because of me and all I wanted to do was… trade places with you."
She seemed slightly taken aback by his outburst and just stared at him for a moment. Then, one of her hands found his and covered it. "It wasn't your fault. I should have taken cover earlier."
"No, you shouldn't have been there at all."
"You and the team failed your scheduled check-in, there were signs of an attack… It was my call," she said, suddenly bristling. "If you don't think I'm capable of making command decisions, then maybe you shouldn't have left me in command of the base!"
Jack placed his hand over hers when she made to pull back and tried to explain. "You know that's not true, Carter. Hell, if I didn't think you were command material I'd have never kept you on as my 2IC," he said, thinking how much easier this thing between them could have been. "You deserve command of SG-1 and one day, you'll run the base. There's no doubt about that."
"Then… what? You think I made the wrong decision by setting up a search and rescue or do you believe I can't think straight when it comes to you? Because that's inc-"
"For Christ's sake, I screwed up on that planet! Hell, I fucked up the whole mission and got just about all the Voari and my own people killed. And why? Because I wanted to go offworld again and was enjoying the party a little bit too much! If I'd listened none of this would have happened," he admitted, holding up his hand to forestall her protests. "You saved my ass, all our asses, Carter – and you ended up paying the price."
She cast her eyes down, blushing. "I did what anyone would have done."
"I would have done it for anyone," she said, catching his gaze.
Jack swallowed at the intensity in those blue eyes. "I know."
A silence descend on them during which Carter closed her eyes and shifted on her seat, discomfort written on her face. She pulled her hand back and placed it on her injured side, as if it somehow eased her pain. He turned his attention back to the cake he hadn't even tasted yet, knowing she needed a moment to herself.
When he heard her groan in pain as she reached for her coffee, he pushed the plate away – he'd lost his appetite – and grabbed his wallet, threw some bills on the table and stood. "Time to get you back home."
Straining herself, she got up with a grimace and reached for the pill bottles. "We're not done yet."
"We can talk more on the way over," he said, purposely misinterpreting and ignoring the leftover cake.
"Fine," she said after a moment's hesitation. Once she was standing on her own two feet, she headed for the door and let him put his hand on her uninjured side again to escort her to his truck.
Jack patiently waited for her to climb into the cab before closing her door and making his way around the truck to slip behind the wheel. It was getting late, yet he was reluctant to part from her already. They weren't done talking, either. At least, he wasn't. So, he started the engine and drove off in silence while trying to find the words to express how he felt about her without scaring her.
Carter was the one who unexpectedly broke the tense silence in the cab when they reached her neighborhood, picking up where they'd left off in the diner. "Risking our lives is part of the job description."
She shot him a reproving look. "We knew what we signed up for."
Jack bit back inappropriate laughter. "More or less, I guess," he said, shaking his head. None of them could have expected what the SGC had in store for them back in the beginning. Or did she mean… what they signed up for by keeping their respective positions and locking their feelings in the room? Stunned, he felt his heart skip a beat and his palms started to sweat at the implication. Turning, he found her gaze on him, her eyes pleading with him like they'd done all those years ago. His mouth suddenly turned dry and he had trouble swallowing, her name was on his lips but no words came out.
"I-I… God, I don't know." She looked away, hand in her hair, but not before he caught sight of her blush.
Jack sighed and held his tongue until he pulled up in front of her house and killed the engine. "C'mon, let's get you inside." The house was dark and when she searched for the keys, he pulled out his own and used it for the first time to open her front door. Without waiting for an invitation, he followed her inside. She grimaced in pain when she sat down on a barstool in her kitchen so, taking a calculated risk, he placed his hands on her shoulders and instead steered her towards her bedroom.
"You're in pain and need to rest," he said by way of explanation. Entering her bedroom felt forbidden but he ignored his instincts and turned on the lights. "Sit."
It took her quite a bit of effort, but eventually she was sitting on the bed with her palms on the mattress behind her for support. Her face was almost as pale as the sheets and a slight sheen of sweat had broken out over her skin from the exertion. "So…"
Jack knew it was now or never and figuring he might as well go for broke, carefully sat down next to her on the bed. "A couple of things became very clear to me when I was in the infirmary, waiting for you to pull through, Sam."
The use of her given name caught her attention and surprise was written on her face. "Like what?"
"That I wouldn't know what to do if you didn't make it," he admitted, "and that I couldn't be your commanding officer anymore. When it comes to you, I can't think straight anymore, regardless of whether you're engaged to some asshole or not."
He held up his hand, forestalling her protest. "Please. Carter, I can't… I don't think I can trust myself anymore if it comes to choosing between you and someone else – or hell, the whole fucking base. I can't lose you."
She took a deep breath at his admission before replying. "What are you saying?"
"I broke cover for you, for god's sake! I didn't even think about it, I just ran straight towards you the moment you went down," he said in a raised voice. One look at her told him she didn't understand how this was any different from the other times. He didn't know himself, so how could he explain it to her?
"That's why you've been keeping your distance."
It was a statement, not a question but he still nodded an affirmative. She'd always been the brains of the operation; it was no wonder she had him all figured out. The past couple of days he'd been trying to bury himself in paperwork in the hope of suppressing the guilt he felt over what had happened to her and now it reared its ugly head again. He swallowed hard, staring at the half-eaten cake as the image of her being hit and falling to the ground replayed in his mind's eye. He remembered the smell of her burnt flesh and what was left of her clothes, barely covering the gaping hole in her side.
He shook his head, trying to get rid of the memory. "I can't… Christ Carter, I could practically see the ground through that hole in your side! If Brightman hadn't been there, you would have been dead."
"But I'm still here," she said. After a moment of hesitation, she reached out and grabbed his hand, entwining their fingers. "I didn't think you were going to make it that night in the cave," she confessed all of a sudden, tightening her grip on him.
"You got me out of there. Saved my ass with your crazy plan." He looked down at their hands and caressed hers with his thumb, fascinated by the feelings the simple touch elicited.
Carter carefully bumped his shoulder with hers without releasing his hand. "And here we are again; back where we started.
Jack could think of a few things – like a certain cop who'd remain nameless – that had changed but he knew she was referring to their respective positions and the frat regs. "Maybe not…"
"Well, I suppose I'm on medical leave at the moment and we have no idea if I'll make a full recovery required fo-"
"No," he said, interrupting her before she'd convince herself she would get a medical discharge. "That's not what I meant. Remember that mission Daniel went on with Teal'c while you were in command of the base?"
"The Rebel Jaffa?"
"We're setting up a plan to prevent Anubis and Ba'al from taking over the galaxy." It was true that he'd buried himself in work to avoid her the past week, but he'd actually been in meetings about this and they'd even called in Jacob's help.
Carter frowned and tossed her bottles of meds next to her on the bed. "Well, unless they've found a sarcophagus somewhere, I won't be able to contribute."
Jack grimaced at the mention of the alien device, still associating it with the torture he'd undergone two years ago at Ba'al's hands. "No, nothing like that. But there's a chance we'll be able to take them and the Replicators out at the same time. Even your dad and Bra'tac are hopeful."
"He's been involved in the planning and will drop by later this week," he explained.
She looked surprised – apparently Daniel hadn't mentioned that tidbit – but didn't question him any further about it. "That's great news, but what does it have to do with-"
"Us?" He grinned at the shy smile she gave in response to his answer. Now it was time to tell her the news, something he hadn't even shared with Daniel or Teal'c yet. "Hammond wants to retire for medical reasons and he wants me to take over HWS for him."
"Oh – wow."
Jack could tell from her reaction that wasn't what she'd expected and he tried to explain. "He's been holding it off for a while now, because he wanted to give me a shot at commanding the base first. But he doesn't want some schmuck to take over from me when all the baddies are still around."
"And if your plan works, he can step down and you can take over," Carter finished. "In Washington, DC."
A few weeks ago, with her wedding looming at the horizon, he'd welcomed the chance to leave Colorado but he knew it would complicate things now. "Yeah…"
She pulled her hand from his and fiddled with the bottle of painkillers while taking a moment to process all the new information. The silence between them wasn't tense but he was still glad when she broke it a minute or two later. "Well, for all we know I won't even fully recover. I've been stationed in DC once and I could go back-"
"Carter, wait," Jack said, interrupting her. "I don't want you to sacrifice your career. You're gonna kick ass when you start PT tomorrow and will be back to full health before you know it."
"Something has got to give, Jack," she said, shaking her head. "If I can't go back into the field it doesn't really matter where I'm stationed, because all I'd need is a lab with proper equipment."
"Not gonna happen."
She sighed in exasperation, as if she'd gone over all the possible simulations ten times already. Knowing Carter, she had and it didn't bode well if she thought it was impossible. "You don't know that for sure."
He narrowed his eyes and leaned slightly towards her. "Neither do you."
"If you take over for Hammond, you'll still be in my chain of command," she said, her shoulders slumping at the realization.
"We'll figure something out."
Carter bit her lip, obviously conflicted about the situation and got to her feet to pace around. She wasn't the kind of woman who'd ask for special treatment and probably felt like she didn't deserve any. "How can you be so sure?"
"A few years ago I meant every word when I confessed I'd rather die than lose you," he said, going over to her until they stood almost toe to toe. "Back then, I was willing to leave it in the room. I can't do that anymore, Carter." Jack could see the moment it hit her, her brain kicking into gear as she searched his gaze. His heart was hammering in his chest and he hated that he couldn't tell what she was thinking – in the field she was like an open book, but over the years she'd perfected her mask.
Slowly, he raised a hand and reached out. She didn't move, just kept looking at him so he continued until his callused finger touched her cheek. Her skin was softer than he'd expected and he felt a strange sense of wonder as he watched his hand trail along her cheek before brushing away an errand lock of hair. Carter's breath hitched when he touched her ear, her eyes falling closed. Jack was fascinated with both her reaction and her soft skin, as he moved back to her cheek and cupped it in his hand.
Her breathless whisper sounded sexy as hell but he didn't feel the full Carter effect until she opened her eyes and looked straight at him. "I mean it," he said, after clearing his throat. "I know a lot has happened since then, but how I feel about you isn't one of them."
"I… I wasn't sure," she said, covering his hand with her own. "It's been so long."
He smirked, brushing his thumb over her lower lip. "I know." Both of them had pulled back after their confession and everything that had happened that year. There had been days he could have sworn he had imagined it. Neither of them wanted to expose their feelings due to their working relationship but apparently they had become so good at hiding it from others, they even fooled each other. Trying to move on had been a good idea, even if it had hurt, but clearly it wasn't working. This thing between them would never go away and while he'd known it that day in front of the force field, it seemed she had finally realized it too.
"I meant what I said earlier too. About the search and rescue mission," she said, frowning. "But I was going out of my mind thinking of all the things that could have happened to you. Then, I saw you there under the ice… God, Jack."
"Hey," he said, pulling her closer and wrapping an arm around her. "C'mere."
She hugged him as tight as she could with her injury, her lips moving against his neck as she spoke. "I thought we'd finally run out of luck and you were dead."
Jack pressed a kiss in her hair after inhaling her scent. "You're not gonna get rid of me that easily."
"Do you have a plan?" She asked, pulling back to look at him.
"Yeah, and you know if Plan A doesn't work, there's always B…"
He smirked at her. "I thought I was supposed to be the pessimist?"
She rolled her eyes and punched him lightly in the shoulder. "I think you're rubbing off on me."
"Nothing wrong with that," he said.
"Okay, so we have a plan… now what?"
Caressing her cheek, Jack leaned in slowly until his lips captured hers. The kiss was gentle but she responded immediately to him, eagerly returning it. He reluctantly broke it off, worried he'd get too caught up in her and exacerbate her injury. "Now, it's time for you to get some rest. It's past midnight already."
She kept her eyes closed and reached up to touch her lips, as if savoring the moment. Taking a deep breath, she glanced up at him and smiled shyly. "Stay?"
"If you'll have me," he said, smirking.
"I haven't been sleeping well, but I think the bed is big enough for the both of us or you could-"
He placed his finger on her lips to stop her from rambling. "Sam, it's okay. I've seen the damage, I know what to expect."
She nodded in understanding and took a step back. "I'll just get ready for bed," she said, indicating the bathroom.
"I'll be here when you get back." Jack waited until she'd left the room and started taking off his clothes – he'd sleep in his boxers. He'd just finished hanging them over the back of a chair when she got back, her sweats exchanged for pajama shorts and teamed with a tank top. There wasn't a sign of a bulky bandage under the skin tight top and he was trying really hard to see it instead of admiring those bare legs or her full breasts. "No bandage anymore?"
"Doctor Brightman said to leave it off during the day and only wear it a night to cushion the wound," Carter explained, holding up her hand with the bandages in it.
"Need a hand?"
She pulled at the hem of her top, looking uncomfortable. "You don't have to."
He reached for the bandages and tipped up her chin to look her in the eye. "I want to help. Doing it yourself has got to be painful."
"It's not pretty," she said, before slowly lifting the hem to bunch it under her breasts.
"I don't care how it looks." Jack kneeled down in front of her, one hand on her uninjured hip and the other slowly trailing along the broken skin held together by dark sutures. It would become a hell of a scar, zigzagging from her hip to the side of her breast. The internal damage had been even worse, he knew. "Certainly looks a lot better than before Doc Warner got you into his OR."
"Jack," she sighed, her hands running through his hair.
He leaned forward and pressed kisses along the marred skin. "Sam, I love you and I'd rather have you with a scar than bury you with a gaping hole in your side."
She tugged on his hair until he looked up at her. "That might be the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me, Jack O'Neill," she said sarcastically.
"Yeah well, what can I say? I'm better with actions than words," he replied, waggling his eyebrows.
"Is that a promise?"
Smirking, he grabbed one of her hands and kissed it. "Yeah sure, you betcha."
She giggled softly, shaking her head. "Well, I'll hold you to it."
"I can live with that," he said, before starting to work on the bandages.
"So," she said, while he wrapped them around her, "we're really going to do this?"
Jack finished up and got to his feet, cupping her cheek. "We are. Right now, we're going to get some sleep and tomorrow you'll start your PT. The rest we'll figure out later."
"Okay." She nodded and pressed a kiss to his palm. "Oh and Jack? I love you, too."
A/N: Hope you all enjoyed the story and the ending wasn't too anti-climactic after the long wait. Thanks for sticking with my fic despite it taking forever to finish. I appreciate it. Now, I'm gonna continue writing the other unpublished WIPs I've been working on in the meantime - I'll be back in a few weeks with something new, I hope.