He used to stop by her lab all the time, but he hasn’t done that in a while now. So, if she needs to speak to him, she has to visit his office. She tells herself that’s why she hasn’t handed him the invitation yet, because she never has it with her when she’s passing his office, or in a briefing, and he never stops by her lab anymore.
But they’re only half-truths, and in the end, with the wedding only a matter of days away, she makes herself pull the envelope from the drawer in her desk and walk to his office.
It’s late, but he’s always there late. He’s always there, period. This place, she thinks, would fall apart without him. Perhaps they all would.
He looks up when she knocks on the door and offers her a tired smile, leaning back in his chair and waving her inside. Only his desk lamp is on and the briefing room outside is dark too, so the shadows are deep.
“Hey,” she says as she steps inside. “Are you busy, sir?”
“Yes,” he sighs. “But I’m always busy, so…” He cocks his head. “How’s your dad?”
“Oh, good,” she says with a nod. “The new symbiote seems…different.” She considers the idea for a moment, how her father has changed subtly after Selmak’s death and the implantation of another Tok’ra. “He’s younger, I think.”
“Kamarl,” she says with a smile. “The Tok’ra.”
“Ah.” He can’t hide an involuntary shudder and she knows the path his mind is walking.
“Dad said he’d have died if they hadn’t found a new symbiote,” she explains, as if she needs to justify his choice. “I guess he was lucky.”
The general doesn’t comment, just gestures toward a chair. “So what do you need at this late hour, Carter?” Under the circumstances, she doesn’t blame him for changing the subject.
She doesn’t sit down, but hovers behind the visitor chair with one hand resting on its back. He picks up on her sudden nerves and gives her a wary look. There was a time, she remembers, when her unease would have provoked concern and it pains her that now it just makes him more guarded. Swallowing the feeling, she offers him the invitation, getting it over with, and says, “I’ve been meaning to give you this, sir.”
He doesn’t take it immediately, his reluctance obvious, and for a few awkward moments she just stands there holding it out. But then he reaches up and takes the envelope from her hand, scans his name on the front – General Jack O’Neill – and puts it down, unopened, on one side of his desk. “Thanks,” he says, not looking at her. He’s got a pen in his hand, twirling it between his fingers like a baton, and the room fills with silence.
There’s something tight in her chest that wants to come out, words she wants to speak if only she knew what they were. “Sir,” she begins awkwardly.
He interrupts. “I have something for you too, Carter,” he says, and pulls a sheet of paper out of a stack that might be his inbox.
He glances at her, briefly meeting her eyes, as he offers her the letter. “I presume you’ve seen this?”
She takes it, her heart still racing, and it’s a moment before she can focus enough to know what she’s reading. When she does, she looks at him in surprise; it’s the letter from Groom Lake. “Oh,” she says. “I didn’t know you’d been copied in, sir.”
“Base commander,” he says. “I see everything.” He leans back in his chair, regarding her thoughtfully. “Head of R&D at Area 51.”
She nods. “Yes sir.”
He spreads his hands. “And yet…?”
With a sigh she comes around to the other side of the chair and sits down. “I don’t know,” she says. “I guess I can’t see leaving the SGC.”
“You can’t stay here forever,” he points out, and for some reason the assertion rankles.
“Why not?” she says. “You will.”
He lifts an eyebrow, giving her a look that tells her she’s about to cross a line. “It’s your career we’re discussing, Colonel.”
“Yes sir,” she says, dropping her gaze back to the letter outlining the job offer. “It’s flattering to be asked—”
“Bullshit,” he says. “Flattering, Carter? You’re by far the most qualified person in the world for the post and you know it.”
His insistence jabs at her. “You sound like you want me to go.”
“I’m your CO,” he reminds her, his expression carefully neutral. “And I’m thinking of your career progression, Carter. This is a good move for you. I think you should consider it.”
She puts the letter on his desk. “Now’s not the right time.”
“Why not? Things are quieter here than they’ve ever been. Now’s a great time.”
She shakes her head. “There’s been so much change this past year. I need time for things to settle down.”
He’s silent for a beat, watching her with an unreadable expression. “You mean because of,” he hesitates, “your personal life?”
It’s not that, really, although she can’t deny an increasing sense of anxiety at the thought of making such a life-changing commitment. But that’s normal, Pete tells her, everyone has pre-wedding jitters, and she knows she can bulldoze her way through them. Yet the thought of leaving the SGC, of leaving her team, upsets her in a way she can’t rationalize — or maybe, that she doesn’t want to rationalize. “I just want to keep things the way they are,” she says.
He looks away. “That’s not possible. Nothing stays the same.”
Her heart jolts because she’s afraid he’s talking about her – about them – and she doesn’t know what he means.
But then he snaps out of the moment, looks back at her and says, “Well, think about it. You don’t need to decide until after. The wedding,” he adds, as if that wasn’t the elephant in the room.
“Yes sir,” she says, getting to her feet. Her eyes dart to the unopened invitation on his desk and she wants to tell him she’d understand if he didn’t come, given their history. But the truth is she doesn’t know what, if anything, that means to him anymore and, either way, she figures it’s better not to dredge it all up again. So instead she says, “If you want to bring someone—”
“No. But thanks.” He pulls a stack of papers towards him, makes a show of getting back to work. “Night, Carter,” he says, a gentle but clear dismissal.
She doesn’t move. He looks tired and alone, and she’s struck by the realization that there’s no one there for him now that he doesn’t have a team. A beat of guilt follows, a fear that maybe she’s dropped the ball. She’s been so preoccupied with Pete and the wedding. Maybe she’s let him down?
She wishes she could tell him that she’s still got his back, but even if she could find the right words she doesn’t know how to speak them out loud without saying more than she should. Nevertheless, standing there looking at him carrying the burdens of this heavy command alone, she feels a swell of emotion. “Good night, sir,” she says in a voice that’s more feeling than she intends. “Don’t work too late.”
He glances up and for a moment there’s something warm in his eyes, something that makes her ache because she knows that, however much her life is changing, he’ll always be there for her.
It’s that certainty, she thinks, that’s allowing her to let him go.
It’s not the worst day of his life.
There’s a whole battalion of desperate days lined up in his past that are much, much worse: fouled-up missions, stinking jail cells, torture and despair. The day his marriage ended. Yet none of them come close the blackest of days, marked by a single gunshot and an obscenely small coffin.
So, no, the day Sam Carter marries Pete Shanahan is not the worst day of Jack’s life; he’s already lived that day.
But that doesn’t make it easy.
He wears his dress blues because it’s either that or jeans. He’s definitely not buying a suit. Besides, the uniform is a stark reminder of reality should he have a sudden urge to jump up and shout, “I object!” Not to mention the fact that Shanahan finds it intimidating and he’s not above enjoying that, just a little. He’s got to take his pleasure where he can find it these days.
Daniel offers to drive, but Jack turns him down. He knows what Daniel’s thinking – that he’ll probably need a stiff drink to get through the dancing and the speeches – but Jack knows drinking at all would be a Bad Idea. Today, of all days, he can’t risk dropping his guard for a moment. Besides, he happens to know that Sgt Harriman will be calling him an hour into the wedding reception with an urgent recall to the SGC and he’ll need to be able to drive. He knows this because he’s given Harriman a direct order. There are some advantages, after all, to being base commander.
He figures Carter probably won’t buy the excuse, and Daniel and Teal’c certainly won’t, but he also figures they’ll all understand. It’s a little cowardly, perhaps, but he prefers to think of it as a strategic withdrawal rather than a rout. He’s never put much stock in bravado, and if you can get the hell out of Dodge without firing a shot then so much the better. So says Brigadier General O’Neill.
He parks as far away from the church as possible because he needs some time to brace himself before he enters the melee. Speaking of bravado, there are a lot of cops strutting around, heading into the church with their spiky-heeled wives and girlfriends. Unlike Jack, they’re all out of uniform but that doesn’t make them any harder to spot.
He pauses for a moment when he turns off the engine and glances at his reflection in the rear-view mirror. He’s not sure who’s looking back at him from behind the dark glasses, but whoever he is, he’s stern and uncompromising. Jack tries a smile on for size, but it doesn’t really fit. Still, who’s going to be looking at him anyway?
Grabbing his keys and his phone, he climbs out of the cab and heads for the church. He’s surprised Carter’s getting married in church because she’s not really a person of faith, despite what it says on her dog tags. But he supposes that Shanahan shares his own Irish Catholic roots and Carter seems happy to go along with whatever he wants. And that surprises him too, but then there’s really nothing about this whole setup that doesn’t defy all his expectations.
Teal’c and Daniel are hovering near the church door, and although he’s deeply uncomfortable that they know what he’s feeling, he still appreciates that they’re there for him. The guys have got his back, as always.
“Jack,” Daniel says as he draws closer, eyebrows rising over the tops of his sunglasses. “So you went with the uniform, then?”
“I told you,” he says, “I don’t own a suit.”
Daniel nods. “And on your salary, how could you afford to buy one?”
He doesn’t respond to that, just turns to Teal’c. “Did you bring the rice?”
“I did.” Teal’c’s eyes narrow. “However, despite your suggestion, I did not cook it.”
That gives him the first genuine smile of the day and he throws a disapproving look at Daniel. “Spoilsport.”
Daniel rolls his eyes behind his sunglasses and says, “I guess we’d better go in.”
Jack’s amusement, thin as morning mist, evaporates as his eyes turn to the church door where Shanahan is standing with the man who must be Mark Carter, the best man. It feels a little like stepping through the Stargate into enemy territory.
“Colonel O’Neill,” Shanahan says as they approach, grabbing Jack’s hand and pumping his arm up and down. “Glad you could make it.”
“It’s General O’Neill,” he corrects with an expression that’s probably nowhere near a smile. “And, uh, it’s good to be here.”
“It sure is!”
There’s something weirdly intense about Shanahan, but Jack tries to push the thought aside. He’s going to have to like the guy, or at least tolerate him, after all.
“I’ve heard a lot about you, General,” Mark Carter says then. “Sam talks about you all the time. All of you, I mean,” he adds, gesturing to Daniel and Teal’c.
Jack offers the guy his hand once Shanahan eventually lets go. “It’s good to meet you, Mark,” he says, with more genuine sincerity. He tries to trace Carter in her brother’s face, but thinks he can mostly see Jacob. “I’m a friend of your father’s as well.”
Mark nods. “I know. Dad talks about you too, General.”
“I can imagine,” Jack says with a slight wince.
And then Daniel is talking to Mark and Jack’s moving on into the cool shadow of the church.
Ushers direct him to the bride’s side of the aisle, and he sees – with some relief – that he’s not the only one in uniform. Behind him, he hears Daniel swallow a laugh and glances over his shoulder. “What?”
“It just feels a little Westside Story,” Daniel says, gesturing to the division in the church. USAF on one side, Denver’s finest on the other. “I hope there’s not going to be a ‘rumble’ later.”
“It’s a wedding,” Jack points out. “Although I can’t vouch for my stomach.”
“Since we are Air Force,” Teal’c says with a straight face, “perhaps we should sit with the ‘Jets’?”
Jack almost smiles at the joke. “Nice,” he says. “Funny.”
“Jets or Sharks, we should probably take our seats,” Daniel says and leads the way to a pew halfway down the aisle. It has a better view of the altar than Jack was hoping for, but he finds if he angles his head slightly to the left that Sgt Siler’s head blocks his view nicely.
Daniel nudges his arm.
“You’re still wearing your sunglasses.”
With a sigh, he pulls them off. “Fine.”
Daniel matches his sigh. “I know I should feel happy for her,” he confesses in a whisper, “but I just—”
“Daniel,” he warns.
“No, I know. It’s just...I guess I never thought she’d actually go through with it.”
Jack shoots him a dark look. “You’re lucky she’s still talking to you, you know that?”
“Hey, I was just trying to be a friend,” he protests. “I wanted to make sure she was sure.”
“And she is,” Jack says. “Which is why we’re all sitting here. So just drop it, will you?”
Daniel retreats, but Jack can tell by the way he folds his arms over his chest that he’s still turning the problem over in his mind. A lot of good it will do him.
It’s not long before Shanahan and Mark Carter enter to take their places at the front. A few of the cops call out encouragement and the buzz in the church begins to rise. Jack feels his heart rate accelerate in a way that makes his fingers itch for the reassuring weight of a weapon. His palms feel clammy and he actually starts to feel nauseous. He’s beginning to reassess today’s place in his list of worst days – it might make the top ten, after all.
Then the music starts and his heart gives a horrible lurch as everyone, himself included, gets to their feet. There’s a lot of peering toward the back of the church but Jack feels like he’s standing to attention, eyes front. He doesn’t want to look at her.
He tries a little mental dissociation, lets his mind drift up past the rafters of the church, imagines himself in the cockpit of an F-16, punching through the clouds until there’s nothing but blue, blue sky above.
All around he can hear appreciative ‘ahhs’ and Daniel touches his arm, silently reminding him whose day this is. It’s not dissimilar to going into battle, the way he jams a lid on his feelings and braces himself as he turns his head – and there she is, the woman he loves.
“She’s beautiful,” Daniel murmurs and Jack can only nod.
Sam walks down the aisle on her father’s arm. There might be a few flower girls too, but he’s not really paying attention to anything but her and the pain constricting his chest.
She sees her team and smiles like sunshine, but then she catches Jack’s eye and a flash of something difficult knocks the smile away. He wonders what she’s seen in his face and turns his head. The last thing he wants is to spoil things for her.
But then she’s past them and Shanahan steps forward to claim her and it begins.
Jack spends most of the service pretending he’s elsewhere or studying the back of Siler’s head. There’s sitting and kneeling and singing and more sitting and standing and at last it’s over. Music – Bach – plays and Jack manages to be not quite looking at Carter as she and Shanahan walk down the aisle, arm-in- arm.
It’s over, he tells himself firmly. It’s done.
He wishes it felt like the end of the story.
In the parking lot outside, Teal’c is throwing rice – uncooked – but Jack spies Hammond on the edge of the crowd and heads toward him with relief.
“Jack,” Hammond says, as they shake hands warmly. “It’s good to see you.”
He doesn’t miss the tone of sympathy in the general’s voice, but chooses to ignore it. “Did you just fly in this morning, sir?”
“And flying back this evening,” Hammond sighs. “But I wasn’t about to miss this.” His expression sobers. “Colonel Carter must miss her mother today.”
“Yeah, it’s tough on her.”
Hammond nods, his astute gaze narrowing. “And what about you?” he says, rocking back on his heels.
Jack feigns innocence. “Me?”
There’s an eloquent silence after which Hammond, ever the gentleman, pretends he was asking an entirely different question. “Have you made a decision, Jack?”
“Oh. That.” The truth is that he hasn’t made a decision. Washington is a long way from Stargate Command, from his friends and – he won’t lie to himself – from Carter. What he’s not sure about at the moment is whether those are reasons for or against taking the job.
“I need to know soon,” Hammond says, his eyes moving over to the laughing crowd gathered around the happy couple as they climb into the wedding car.
“Things change, Jack,” he says, fixing him with a meaningful look. “You’ve been here eight years. That’s a long time.”
“You think I could use the break?” he says, and he’s not entirely talking about the job.
Hammond claps him on the shoulder. “There’s a lot going on in DC. I think it wouldn’t hurt to broaden your horizons, meet some new people.” And Jack knows he’s not entirely talking about the job either.
He gives a nod. “You’ll have my answer by Monday.”
The reception is being held in a bland hotel that Jack doesn’t recognize. There are the usual flowers and seating plans in the lobby but none of it feels like Carter’s style. He thinks – dangerously – that if he’d married her it would have been by a judge at the county courthouse, with a handful of their friends, and a party at home afterward involving beer, barbecue, and lots of laughing.
But maybe this is what Carter prefers? He has to assume it is.
He pulls out his phone on the way in and skims through his messages, none of which are urgent, but it’s a good excuse not to meet anyone’s eyes. After Hammond’s less-than-subtle sympathy, he’s seized with the conviction that everyone from Stargate Command knows how he feels about Carter; he’s starting to feel a little like the specter at the feast.
“...it’s actually a very old tradition,” Daniel is telling Teal’c as Jack joins them. “No one really knows why it started, but it’s almost certainly a fertility ritual.” He glances at Jack and explains, “Throwing rice at weddings.”
“The grains represent abundance,” Daniel carries on. “So presumably, it’s a way to ensure an abundant union, so to speak.”
Teal’c lifts an eyebrow. “I did not realize Colonel Carter wished to bear children.”
“Okay,” Jack says, ending that particular topic of conversation. “We should probably head in before—” Before Harriman calls is what he’s thinking, but he swerves in time to say, “Before someone eats all the cake.”
Daniel gives him a narrow-eyed look that’s too sympathetic for Jack’s liking. “I think there’s going to be plenty of cake, Jack.” Nevertheless, he leads the way toward the day’s last hurdle: the receiving line.
It feels like he’s lining up for his execution, shuffling along to shake hands with the groom and kiss the bride. But he’s rehearsed this in his head a hundred times so he knows how to handle it. The important thing will be not to look at Carter while he talks to Shanahan.
He says the right words to the people he assumes are Shanahan’s parents – Great couple. Beautiful ceremony. Yes, I work with Colonel Carter.
And then it’s Jacob, looking slightly uncomfortable, and Jack wonders what the new symbiote is making of all this.
“Jack,” Jacob says, shaking his hand. “Glad you could make it.”
“Well,” he says with a smile. “I was passing anyway.”
Jacob nods and looks like he wants to say more, but isn’t quite sure if he should or if this is the right time. Certain that it’s neither, Jack claps him on the shoulder and says, “It’s a good day, Jacob. Sam looks happy.”
“You think?” he says with a glance toward his daughter. “She deserves a little happiness.”
“She does,” he agrees, and that’s the honest truth.
From the corner of his eye he can see Daniel ahead of him, smiling and saying what needs to be said to Shanahan. “We’ll catch up later,” Jack promises. “Before you head out.”
Jacob nods again but doesn’t lose the slight expression of unease. “You’re a good man, Jack,” he says, out of the blue. “I’ve always thought that.”
He lifts an eyebrow and puts the unusual outburst down to the new snake. Jacob just looks embarrassed and gestures for him to move on.
He does, bracing himself as Shanahan grabs his hand for the second time that day. “Colonel O’Neill!”
He doesn’t bother to correct him this time, just sticks to the script. “Congratulations, Shanahan. You’re a lucky man.”
“Don’t I know it,” comes the reply, with a warm look at Carter. “Sam’s one in a million.”
One in several billion, Jack thinks, but he says, “You got that right.” And then, letting his grip on the man’s hand tighten just enough to be noticed he says, “Take care of her, okay?”
Shanahan’s eyes widen; Jack can’t deny there’s a hint of menace in his voice. “Uh, of course I will.”
Jack drops his hand, gives him a curt nod. “Make sure you do.”
And then he moves on to the moment he’s been dreading for weeks. Carter turns from Daniel to him and it feels like everything stops.
“Hey,” he says.
“Sir.” Her smile is wobbly and there’s so much emotion in her eyes that he can’t tell what she’s thinking.
Probably no one is watching them, but it feels like all eyes are on him – waiting to see how he’ll react – so he does what’s expected and leans in for the obligatory kiss. His cheek grazes hers, his hand very light on the warm skin of her shoulder, the sensations electric. “You look beautiful,” he murmurs close to her ear, because he’s always thought it and this is the only time he’ll ever be able to tell her.
He’s not expecting the way her hand bites hard into his arm as she says, “Really?”
“Dazzling,” he says, pulling back, surprised at her response.
She laughs, as if embarrassed, but her hand is still clutching his arm. “Thank you for being here,” she says, with a whole weight of meaning that the phrase isn’t used to bearing.
There’s no honest way to answer her, because he’s not glad to be there and he’d have missed it in a heartbeat if he’d had any kind of good excuse, so he says, “Look, you have a great time in...where is it you’re going?”
“It’s a cruise,” she supplies with a slight frown.
“Right. Sun, sea, and...” He swallows the rest of that sentence. “Anyhow, we’ll keep things running smoothly while you’re away so enjoy the cruising and don’t think about work.”
“Don’t leave yet,” she says quietly.
Nonplussed, he stares at her. “What?”
“There are too many important people missing,” she says, full of emotion again, and he guesses she’s thinking about her mom and Fraiser. Cassie too. “Please, sir. Don’t go.”
“I wasn’t—” But he can’t give her the lie, not when she’s looking at him like that. “Hey,” he says instead, “I’m definitely staying for the cake.”
She laughs again but there are tears in her eyes and he’s never seen her so emotional. “Thanks,” she says, and leans in closer so her cheek touches his again. “Thanks for being here for me.”
“Always,” he says, closing his eyes against a sudden stab of pain because he can’t be there for her, not really, not in the way he wants to be.
She squeezes his arm one last time before she pulls back and dabs her fingertips under her eyes in the way women do when they want to stop their makeup from running. It seems like such an odd gesture on Carter, but then she hardly seems herself at all today. He wonders if maybe this is Sam, but he doubts that too.
To their right, Teal’c is still valiantly talking to Shanahan, who is casting increasingly curious glances at his new wife.
“I’m going to get a drink,” Jack tells her at the moment his phone starts to buzz in his pocket. He pulls it out; it’s Harriman, right on cue. “Sorry,” he says as he backs away. “Work.”
She nods, but he can see doubt in her eyes and he realizes she knows exactly what he’s planning and now he’s not sure he can go through with it, not when she’s asked him point-blank to stay.
He turns and puts the phone to his ear, his exit strategy collapsing all around him.
He’s too tightly wound to eat and doesn’t dare have a drink.
He makes some calls in the foyer during the dinner, nothing that couldn’t wait until Monday, but it kills time and gets him away from the party and the speeches. But once the first dance is over he makes his way back to his table with the intention of finding Carter and saying goodbye. He figures he’s done more than his duty.
“I thought you’d left already,” Daniel grumbles as Jack drops down into the seat next to him. Half the table is empty now, people mingling and dancing, and the atmosphere is more relaxed, the lighting lower.
“Just had to deal with a minor crisis,” Jack says, which isn’t a lie if you consider a snafu with the requisitioning of 10,000 rolls of toilet paper to be a crisis. It had passed the time though, even if Harriman, bemused by the general’s interest, had tried several times to politely tell him to butt out. Still, it was amusing how fast contractors jumped, even on a weekend, when a Brigadier General got on the phone.
There are a few couples on the dance floor, swaying to the music provided by a band in the corner, and Carter and Shanahan are among them. Jack looks away, but not fast enough to avoid feeling a sharp barb of jealousy.
“Is it just me,” Daniel says, “or does this whole thing feel a little surreal?”
“You haven’t been eating those special brownies again, have you?”
Daniel favors him with a dark look and swallows a mouthful of wine. “They’re going on a cruise,” he says, as if that proves something.
Jack slides lower in the chair, stretching out his legs and loosening his tie. “Thousands of people go on cruises.”
“My point exactly.”
“Which is what?”
“That Sam — I don’t know, I just never thought she’d be into all that. Or all this,” he says, waving a hand around the room.
“Daniel,” Jack says, weary of this conversation. “Carter’s a grown-up. She can make her own decisions, and this is what she’s decided.”
“Oh come on,” Daniel presses, because he never quite knows when to walk away. “Don’t tell me you can imagine Sam lying by the pool for two weeks? She’ll be bored stiff.”
In fact, Jack can imagine Carter lying by the pool. He shouldn’t, but he can imagine it all too vividly. However, he takes Daniel’s point about the boredom and he can’t help thinking that, if it had been him, he’d have taken her up to the cabin and just closed the door on the world for a couple of weeks – a little hiking, a little swimming, a little stargazing from the back of his boat. Perfect.
“I said she’ll be bored stiff.”
He grunts, shaking the dangerous imaginings away, and says “I guess two weeks on the International Space Station wasn’t an option.”
“You know what I mean,” Daniel says, lowering his voice. “All this – don’t you think all of this is coming from Pete? None of this feels like Sam to me.”
Jack can feel his temper rise, not because Daniel’s wrong but because he’s right – that’s exactly what it feels like and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. “Carter chose this,” he reminds them both, suddenly wishing he had a drink. “This is what she wants.”
Pete is what she wants. And that hurts just as much as it did the first time she showed him the ring.
“But did she choose it?” Daniel persists. “I just think—”
“Colonel Carter,” Teal’c says loudly, getting to his feet. “Please join us.”
She’s heading toward them, flushed and beautiful from dancing, and Daniel gets to his feet and kisses her. “Sam,” he says, as if he hadn’t just been questioning her choices, “having fun?”
“Of course,” she says with a smile. “Mind if I sit down? My feet are killing me in these stupid shoes.”
Jack hasn’t stood up, but he sits up straighter when she takes Daniel’s seat next to him. “Wine?” he offers, examining the half-empty bottles on the table as Carter kicks off her shoes. “Numbs the pain.”
“No,” she waves away the offer. “I’ve had plenty.”
With her sitting right there next to him he thinks he could use a little anesthetic himself and, despite his good intentions, pours a large glass. “To you,” he says and takes a long swallow.
She’s watching him through heavy lashes that don’t quite look real and her expression is unreadable. “Dance with me?” she says after a moment.
His mouth goes dry, his stomach plummeting. He gazes into the bottom of his glass, swirling the wine like it’s a fine brandy. “I’m a terrible dancer, Carter. I’ll tread on your toes.”
“I trust you,” she says and there’s something in her voice that makes him look up.
Past the dress and the hair, the extra-long lashes and the makeup, he can still see Carter and she looks like she needs him. He can’t explain why, but he can’t resist either. Suppressing a sigh he drains his glass – Dutch courage – and stands up, offering her his hand. “On your toes be it,” he warns her.
She laughs – he likes that she still laughs at his stupid jokes – and takes his hand as she stands up. She leaves the shoes behind.
Jack throws Daniel a quick glance and catches the serious expression in his eyes as he leads Carter to the dance floor. If Daniel thinks he’s making a mistake, he might be right. But what can he do?
People make way for Carter, of course, and they soon find themselves at the center of the crowd. That suits him because he feels somewhat hidden there. Not that they’re inconspicuous, him in his dress uniform and her every inch the bride. It reminds him of his own wedding, ironically. He’d worn his blues then, too; Sara had asked him to.
There’s a little awkward shuffle as they decide where to put their hands. They’ve slept sardined in a tent more times than he can count, he knows how she breathes when she’s dreaming, what she looks like as she wakes. They’ve lived together, died together, but they’ve never danced together. Odd, he thinks, that they’re doing it for the first time now – at her wedding.
“I thought you’d left.” She looks at him with serious eyes as her fingers close around his hand. “I couldn’t see you anywhere.”
“No cake yet,” he reminds her.
She gives a slight smile and draws closer. He tries not to wish he could stay like this forever, his hand on the small of her back and their bodies moving together to the music.
“We’ll always be friends, won’t we, sir?”
He can’t help a wry lift of an eyebrow at her persistence. “Sir?”
One elegantly polished fingernail taps the stars on his shoulder. “That’s how it is.”
And isn’t that exactly why he’s wearing the uniform, as a reminder that that’s how it is? He surrenders to the inevitable. “Yeah, we’ll always be friends, Carter.”
Her eyes fix on his as if she’s searching for something. “And I’ll always be here for you,” she says at last. “I want you to know that, sir. I’ll always have your back.”
A knot of emotion constricts his throat and he can only nod, pulling her close so she can’t see every inappropriate emotion he’s feeling. They’re not dancing now, he’s just holding her and he knows – he knows – he has to let go, step back. But he can’t, he can’t let her go.
Over her shoulder he’s suddenly aware of Shanahan coming toward them, working his way through the crowd with a fixed smile and a clear purpose. Jack feels a rush of atavistic anger, a shocking desire to deck the guy right there and to hell with the consequences. If he’d had more to drink, he thinks he might just have done it.
Instead he forces himself back under control, takes a steadying breath and loosens his hold on Carter so that when Shanahan takes her arm he’s already letting go. It doesn’t feel quite so much like she’s being torn out of his arms that way, but the loss of her still winds him like a punch.
“Excuse me, Colonel,” Shanahan says jovially, “I’ll take my wife back, if you don’t mind.”
Carter looks embarrassed as Jack backs off. “All yours,” he says, hands raised in surrender.
“Pete,” Carter objects, “we were dancing.”
“Oh, he doesn’t mind, Sam. It’s our wedding!” Shanahan pulls her into his arms with a grin that leaves Jack breathless with envy. “Isn’t that right, Colonel?”
“Go right ahead,” Jack says, amazed he sounds so normal. “I need to make a call anyway.”
“It’s General O’Neill,” Carter’s saying, sounding confused and uncomfortable.
But Jack doesn’t hear Shanahan’s reply. Seeing him touch her like that, possess her like that, is too much and he’s already leaving. There’s a single malt with his name on it at home and his sorrows are begging to be drowned. But halfway to the door he catches sight of Hammond and Jacob propping up the bar and in a sudden, unexpected rush of relief he knows exactly what he wants to do.
“Jack,” Hammond says, smiling as he approaches.
“I won’t interrupt you, sir,” Jack says with a nod to Jacob. “I’m heading home but I just wanted to tell you that I’ve made my decision.”
Hammond flicks a glance at Jacob who does a passable job of not responding. “Have you, son?”
Jack eyes them both and thinks he probably should have felt his ears burning all evening. Not that it matters now because he’s about to put this whole mess behind him once and for all. “Yes sir,” he says, almost coming to attention. “I’d like to accept the job at Homeworld Security.”
Daniel doesn’t seem surprised when Jack tells him he’s leaving.
They go out for steak and beer and get ridiculously drunk. They talk a lot about the old days, about how it all began, and how astonishing and awful it was all at the same time.
Daniel talks about Sam and Teal’c, how they should be there with them. But Teal’c’s off rebuilding the government of his people and Sam’s floating around the Caribbean with Pete – and that’s her choice, Jack reminds him.
Daniel says it feels like everything’s changing.
Jack tells him everything is.
Later, when they’re sprawled in Jack’s backyard and staring up at the stars, Daniel says “Does she know how you feel?”
“Who?” he says, being deliberately obtuse because he doesn’t want to talk about Carter.
Daniel sighs. “Hathor. Who else?”
“Hey, Hathor was into you,” Jack says watching the stars revolve far, far above. Or maybe it’s him who’s revolving? “Also, dead.”
“I’m talking about Sam,” Daniel says, not playing along.
Jack doesn’t take his eyes off the sky. “What does it matter?”
“You never told her?”
He sighs and closes his eyes, because the world won’t stop spinning and Daniel won’t stop talking. “She knows.”
After a silence, Daniel says, “For what it’s worth, I think Pete’s an ass.”
Jack laughs and it feels good, it feels like a respite from the darkness. “Total fucking ass,” he agrees.
More silence and he can hear Daniel sigh again. “I’m gonna miss you, Jack. Crazy as that sounds.”
“Nah,” Jack says, trying not to think about how much he’ll miss Daniel, and Teal’c — everyone. “Come visit. DC’s full of museums, you’ll love it.”
“Unless I go to Atlantis.”
“Yeah. Never gonna happen, buddy.”
Daniel sits up and Jack opens an eye to look at him. He’s rubbing his hands over his face, straightening his glasses. “I need another beer,” he says. “Or a bed.”
“Couch is all yours.”
He grunts and gets to his feet, wobbling slightly. “Coming in?”
“Later,” Jack says.
Daniel nods and heads toward the house at a jaunty angle. But he stops when he reaches the deck, holding onto the rail as he turns back around. “Is she why you’re leaving?” he says, as if the thought just crossed his mind. “Are you leaving because of Sam?”
Jack stares up at the stars they used to roam together, back in those vital, exhilarating days where every step was a step into the unknown and the only certainty was his team at his back.
He’s earthbound now and she’s moving on without him, leaving him behind as she blazes a bright new trail. He sighs and says, “What else did you think?”
Carter is surprised when he tells her. She’s so surprised and so angry that she gives him nothing but ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir’ for a full week, at the end of which he finds her acceptance of the R&D post at Groom Lake on his desk.
She leaves a week before he transfers to DC.
Her command farewell party is at a bar off-base so that Shanahan can gatecrash, and Jack’s surprised Carter agreed to it because it means no one on-duty can drop in to say goodbye and the conversation is restricted by everything that can’t be said in public. But they’re newlyweds, he figures, which explains the lack of boundaries.
Jack doesn’t stay for long, although as base commander he’s forced to make the speech and this time Thor’s not there to pull his ass out of the fire. Luckily he’s preaching to the choir and everyone’s already had a few beers, so they cheer on everything he says about Carter’s genius, her warmth, her bravery and the prospects for her stratospheric career beyond the SGC.
Shanahan manages to somehow look both proud and envious at the same time, as if he hasn’t yet figured out that the woman he’s married is quite literally exceptional and will outclass anything he can ever achieve in his own little life.
Occasionally Jack catches her gaze turned toward him but she always looks away quickly and her eyes haven’t lost their angry glitter. It irritates him, her anger, and he welcomes the sensation – anything to cut the intense sense of loss these last few months have brought. He’s never blamed her for falling in love with another man, so he doesn’t see why she gets to blame him for moving on in his own way.
With duty done Jack decides to go home, because who can really let their hair down with a general sitting at the table? Besides, Carter’s hip-to-hip with Shanahan and he can live without seeing any more of that.
Grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair he says his good nights. Daniel asks if he wants company, but he doesn’t – he wants peace and quiet. He glances toward Carter and she’s saying something to Shanahan as she stands up. There’s a kind of indecision in the way she moves until she catches his eye. Her lips tighten and by unspoken agreement he heads around the table and she walks toward the door, where they meet.
He feels like she’s been accusing him of that a lot, lately. Although he thinks, with schoolyard pettiness, that she started it. “Too old for all this merriment,” he says, and he’s only half joking. “I’ve got an early start.”
“So I guess this is it, then.” There’s belligerence in her eyes but he knows it’s masking the same ache he’s feeling. Whatever else they’ve been to each other, they’ve always been friends.
“It’s not like we won’t see each other,” he says, trying to convince himself as much as her. “And I believe there’s some kind of electronic mail people are using these days, and telephones without wires.”
She tries to glare but he can see her lips twist briefly toward a smile before they wobble and she swipes her hands across her eyes. “Damn it,” she mutters. “I swore I wouldn’t cry.”
His familiar protective urge is so strong he would have hugged her if Shanahan hadn’t been watching them from his seat at the table. He lifts a hand to wave; Jack ignores him and turns back to Carter. In lieu of a hug, he gives her a gentle punch on the shoulder. “Knock ‘em dead, Colonel,” he says. “Those geeks in Nevada won’t know what hit them.”
“You too, sir,” she says, folding her arms across her chest and sniffing. “Give ‘em hell in DC.”
“You can count on it.”
He blows out a breath, because this is it – this is the end – and he’s not sure how he’ll walk out the door. But he can’t dawdle any longer, not with Shanahan and the whole base watching. “Keep in touch,” he says, and he can’t quite believe that this is how it’s ending between them after everything they’ve shared. Keep in touch?
She nods, lips pressed tight, and she’s blinking back tears but there’s nothing he can do and he’s afraid that if he doesn’t go he might not hold it together either. So he just squeezes her arm, once, and leaves the bar.
Outside the door he stops, takes a few steadying breaths in a vain attempt to ease the knot in his chest. They don’t really help. Walking away from her is hard, physically hard, like there’s a gravitational pull that’s working against him. His boots scuff the gravel, his whole body is leaden, and he’s only made it halfway across the parking lot when the bar door flies open, spilling out noise and light, and Carter’s voice chases after him.
He turns and she’s running toward him and doesn’t stop until she flings her arms around him and hugs him really, really tight. “I’m so mad at you,” she hisses into his ear. “I’m so mad you’re leaving.”
“I know,” he says and he can’t help the way his arms wrap around her, the way he buries his face against her neck for the very last time.
Behind her, the door opens again. “Sam?” It’s Shanahan. “Everything okay?”
She hugs him tighter and he can’t help pressing a kiss against the warm skin just below her ear. She makes a sound, a breath of surprise, and then he’s letting her go and she’s turning back to her husband and Jack knows, without a doubt, that his decision to leave the program was absolutely right.