She hadn't been in the gate room when he'd come through. That was ... weird.
Not that he'd been looking forward to seeing her more than anybody else, or anything. It was just weird.
She wasn't in the infirmary, either, and he only realized he was looking up every time someone went near the door when Teal'c said quietly, "I do not believe Major Carter is currently on the base, O'Neill."
Jack tried to read what his Jaffa friend meant by his face, but of course it was pointless.
Fraiser, her face schooled into a likewise unreadable mask, merely shone her penlight into his eye. Well, that was ... only sort of weird.
She then proceeded to examine his leg for the third time.
"I told you, Doc. Jalen fixed it." He stretched to show her. The one benefit of being rescued by the Tok'ra instead of by his own people: instantaneous healing. Even if it was with glowy snakehead thingies.
"And you trust the Tok'ra completely, do you?"
Jack sighed, resigned.
And looked up at the door again. Still no Carter. Weird, but he wasn't going to take it personally.
He was feeling much less paranoid now, thankyouverymuch.
Four hours later he was home. It had only taken an X-Ray and an MRI to get Fraiser to release him ... on the condition that he had an SF do the driving. Actually, the fact that she'd let him leave Sublevel 23 at all was ... unusual.
Jack generally kept his house pretty clean -- boot camp discipline -- and he almost never had any fresh vegetables around. So it wasn't really that bad, considering he'd been gone a month. He just had to toss the milk and the eggs, and take the rubbish down to the garage, to make the place livable again. It was cold, though; the heat had been turned down for too long in the middle of winter. It'd take a couple of hours to reach room temperature again.
He climbed the stairs to his bedroom, found a clean sweatshirt and jeans, and stared at the bed. It looked surprisingly enticing, after the way he'd been spending his nights. But no, he wasn't tired yet at all. His internal clock was completely screwed up. He didn't know how screwed up because he had no idea what time it was now on that damn moon.
He did know that it had been awfully quiet ... when Maybourne hadn't been throwing grenades around. TV. TV would be good. Heading back downstairs, he grabbed a beer, ordered a pizza, and settled in with the remote.
The picture was brighter than he remembered, the voices and music more harsh. Tinny and hollow, even -- unreal. And naturally, there was absolutely zilch on. It figured. He checked his watch -- 19:30-something -- and kept flipping. Seinfeld repeat (seen it at least a dozen times), Wheel of Fortune (stupid, and he had the phrase figured out in two seconds), Extra (holy crap, were they still all worked up about Ben Affleck and J Lo?). Ooh, This Old House. That was kind of okay. Not that he'd be fixing this place up anytime soon, or that he ever spent any time here anyway.
They were relocating a 30-foot tree -- it was pretty cool, actually -- when he saw headlights turn into his driveway. Hey, the pizza place wasn't usually that fast. He dug some money out of a drawer in the kitchen and waited for the doorbell to ring.
Weird. But the car didn't pull out of his driveway, either.
Maybe he was still a little paranoid. Hell, Maybourne alone'd have that effect on a person.
Puzzled, he headed for the front door and cautiously opened it, intending only to see whose car it was. His eyes never made it that far, though.
She was sitting on the top step, her back to him, and she didn't seem to have heard him open the door. That wasn't just weird, that was scary.
She turned, startled. "Sir! Hey."
Well, she certainly looked happy to see him in one piece.
"Hey. You wanna come in?"
Now she looked away again, balancing her elbows on her knees. "I don't think that's a very good idea, Sir."
He puffed out a quick breath, already pretty sure he knew why she'd said that. "Well, okay then." He grabbed the first coat he found on the rack in his front hall, closed the door behind him, and sat down next to her.
The cement was cold through his jeans. The wind bit at his hands.
"I'm glad you're okay," she said after a long pause.
"Thanks. It wasn't that bad, actually. Nice weather, no natives, a few fish. A change of clothes and some golf clubs would've been nice, but I'm not complaining."
She didn't react to his attempt at humor. Or maybe she did, because she said, "I heard you shot Maybourne."
"Twice." He wondered who she'd talked to on base. No, make that whom.
"Not like you to miss your target both times, Colonel."
He shrugged. "Moment of weakness. Okay, two moments."
Carter said nothing. And she was oddly still; he could feel the tension in her body even though he wasn't touching her.
Well, this was interesting. Teal'c had hinted that the past month hadn't been easy for her, either, but Jack was beginning to wonder if she'd had the raw end of the deal after all. He'd just had to deal with Maybourne, and hell, Carter could take Maybourne. Easy.
"Really," he said, not quite sure if he was overstepping his bounds, "I was okay, Carter. I knew you'd find a way to get me home, anyway."
"Ah." He really didn't know what else to say. He tried to bend down a little to see her face, but it was shadowed by the porch light and she was staring at the frozen ground.
"General Hammond was ready to name your replacement," she said.
"I know." He'd spent more than an hour with Hammond in between scuffles with Fraiser and cryptic exchanges with Teal'c. "For the record, Major, he knows what my recommendation is on that. Has for years." He knew he didn't need to spell it out for her, and that was nice. Easy, comfortable. Carter always preferred her compliments to be delivered sideways.
"Thanks." She drew her hands inside the sleeves of her parka, and he thought about asking her inside again. "That means a lot to me, Sir. Your recommendation."
His ears were getting a little numb, and the air smelled like it might snow any minute. He fought the urge to order her to come out with whatever she was here to say. He might not know much, especially when it came to her, but he knew that that would be a colossally bad mistake. And some instinct told him to tread carefully.
He did kind of wonder, as the silence stretched out, where his pizza was.
"I just ..." she started finally, stopped, and started again in a softer voice. A dangerously vulnerable voice, actually. "I don't know if I can do this anymore."
He registered the lack of a "sir" in that statement, and he knew it was no oversight. But he did need some clarification, so he decided to give her an easy way out. "Which part?" he asked. "Kicking Goa'uld butt? Out-geniusing the Asgard? Putting up with my jokes? Saving my ass?"
"Mostly that last one," she admitted.
He nodded silently, though he knew she wasn't looking, and waited. Waiting wasn't something he was good at, in situations like ... well, like whatever this was.
Carter eventually took a deep breath, and shook her head like she needed to clear it. He'd seen her do the same thing when working out a complex scientific problem.
"When you were with Baal," she said. It seemed like a non sequitur but he figured she knew where she was going. She usually did. "All we knew was that you had walked out of the Tok'ra base. We never imagined ... it never occurred to me to think of anything that bad." She paused, and he could sense her trying to decide what to say next. "I never really had a chance to panic. I think I've made up for that lately."
And suddenly it hurt to think of her, here, not knowing if he was alive or dead or being tortured by a sadist with a goatee. If he'd been the one left behind, and she'd been God knows where? Not something he wanted to imagine.
"I'm fine, Carter," he said. "I always knew I'd be fine. No question."
"I know. You said." He watched her pull up her knees, hug her arms around them, make her body as small as possible. It was one habit she had that fascinated him, because in his eyes, her strength was overwhelming. But mostly he wanted to kick himself, now, for not pressing Teal'c for more information that afternoon.
"I, uh," he fumbled, hoping that it would sound more sympathetic than ... something else, "I'm guessing it wasn't a good month."
Her bluntness surprised him. God, she was brave. Way braver than he was. "I was a wreck," she said. "Completely unprofessional. I'm amazed nobody called me on it." A harsh sigh, and another shake of her head. "Luckily Teal'c was the only one who saw me fall apart."
Fall apart? Carter?
He didn't let himself think before he did it. "Carter, c'mere," he said, turning to put his hands on her shoulders.
Her head snapped up to attention, as if he'd slapped her. "Sir?"
He pulled her towards him anyway. "A hug, Carter," he said. "Jesus, I'm not gonna grope you." She let him settle her chin on his shoulder, even wrapped her arms around his waist, but she didn't relax. "I might think about it. A lot."
She sniffed. God, was she crying? "Stop it," she said, but her tone was light, and some of the tension eased out of her.
He was not going to smell her hair. He wasn't. He also was not going to kiss that incredibly inviting place right behind her ear, just a couple inches from his own nose. The day their moments of weakness coincided was the day that led straight to the court martial.
At least they were warmer this way. And she was much better company than Maybourne.
"You know," he said, adjusting his arms to hold her a little tighter. It was surprisingly difficult to say, even considering their current position and what she'd just told him. "I have impossible days, too."
Her response came quickly. "You're better at hiding them than I am."
Now that was completely ridiculous. "No, I'm just a much bigger jackass than you are, Carter. Nobody even notices."
This time her laugh was a little stronger. He knew she was humoring him -- she was better at that than anybody -- but somehow it didn't matter. And he let his hand cradle her skull, just for a minute. A minute wouldn't hurt.
It was enough to make her pull away, though. And she wasn't crying, after all. Was it wrong of him to be a little disappointed?
A car pulled over in front of his house, and she started.
"I ordered pizza," he said. "Ages ago. Wait here?" Shit, where had he put his money? Oh, in the pocket of his jeans. He took three long strides to the curb and really did not appreciate the look he was getting from the teenage delivery boy. Yeah, it was pretty insane to be sitting outside in this weather, but he didn't need anybody else to point that out to him. And besides, on the O'Neill/SGC insanity scale? This didn't even begin to register.
Carter had stood while he forked over his change. He walked back to her, the pizza box warm in his arms. "Share this with me?" he asked, unable to keep a note of hope from creeping into his voice. Crap.
She smiled, a nice, safe, professional smile, and kept her arms crossed over her chest. "No thanks. You have it. I'd better go."
"Carter, wait. We're not finished." He really hated having to slide back into CO mode right now. He also wasn't wild about the cagey look in her eyes, so he said the rest quickly. "If you meant what you said, about ... not taking it anymore, then maybe it's time for us to make some tough decisions."
"I don't want you to retire," she said, too fast.
He blinked. "Well, that's one possibility ..."
"I don't want to break up the team."
He didn't point out that the team had already changed its configuration once, and they'd survived ... sort of. "Hammond's talked plenty of times about giving you your own command. A scientific team." Of course that kind of team would be on the back line, not her first choice, he knew, but ...
"I know," she said. "I don't want it. And it wouldn't solve anything, anyway."
Well, that was true. A gray area in the regs, but still -- high ranking officers stationed on the same base, reporting to the same CO, plus the certainty that they'd eventually be sent on an offworld mission together. But then again, it wasn't like they were drowning in options.
He wanted to put his hands in his pockets, and not only because of the cold, but the pizza was in his way. More than that, he wanted to drag her inside and up to his very enticing bed. Screw the regs. Screw the pizza. "There are things about this job that really suck, do you know that?"
"I have noticed," she said dryly. She looked away, and the wind played with her hair. "I don't want anything else to change," she almost whispered, still not looking at him. "I want this damn war to be over."
All he could do was agree. "Yeah."
They stood there, on his frozen front lawn, and now he was sure he'd lost all feeling in his ears. Worse, they'd actually talked about something they never talked about -- and ended up exactly where they'd started.
Well, maybe not exactly.
In fact, if he thought about it, he did feel a little ... lighter. Less depressed than he'd been after Anise and her stupid za'tarc thing, less angry than after he'd had to stop being Jonah and start being himself again, less desperate than after he'd zatted her. Just ... lighter.
He bounced a little on the balls of his feet -- and not only because of the cold.
"You know, Carter," he said, trying to be coherent and not humiliate himself, "I don't think it's breaking the regs to talk about ... uh ... how hard it is not to break the regs." Great. That made perfect sense. Only it did, sort of. "Once in a while," he added.
The smile she gave him was soft and a little lazy, familiar. "The impossible days?" she said.
He felt his lips curving to mirror hers. "Yeah," he said. "Then."
She held his eyes for a few moments, then looked over her shoulder towards her car. "Um, I'm gonna go."
"Sure you don't want some pizza? Uh, pizza that's probably frozen by now."
"I'm sure, thanks." But the smile hadn't faded from her face yet.
She turned and started to walk away. He didn't move. As she opened the car door she looked back.
"I really am glad you're okay, Sir," she said.
"Back atcha, Major."
He watched until her car turned the corner at the end of his block, then shivered a bit and went inside.
Funny, he wasn't really interested in the pizza anymore. He dumped it on the kitchen counter. The TV was still on, the house had already warmed up, his half-drunk beer still sat on the coffee table ... and he couldn't help bouncing on his feet a few more times while he rubbed his hands together to warm them. Finally.