Chapter 11

Jack's heart froze in his chest for several painful beats when she said that. Her fears had sounded so ludicrous, almost hysterical, when she'd mentioned them earlier. But the minute she made that comment, Jack had to concede that she really did have a point, no matter how ludicrous it sounded. In fact, the more ludicrous, the better - they were talking about a Goa'uld, after all.

Jack gazed at her unseeingly as he internalized what she had said. And so it was that he found the first hitch in her 'invasion' theory. “But Ba'al's main aim with the first clone was to get to me, through you. His goal has always been to get to me. If your idea is right, how is he getting to me when so many people are clones? That just doesn't...”

“He had such a...” Carter had to swallow so hard that it looked like she'd harmed herself in order to go on, “... such a success the first time... why shouldn't he try again, with a bigger goal this time?” She met his gaze, trepidation fully entrenched in hers. “Maybe you're not the target this time - we all are.”

Jack stared at her, again pondering the validity of her idea. At long last he couldn't help but to teasingly say, “Come on! That just sounds so...”

Carter went from 'trepidation' to 'spitting mad' in an instant. “It's easier to think that I'm nuts! That this idea is so stupid that..!” She cut herself off to send him a look of disappointed fury. “I thought you would be different! That you would believe in what I think no matter how dumb it sounds, or at least give me the benefit of the doubt. I should have known better,” she bitterly acknowledged, and made to jerkily leave again.

But as before, Jack's hand snaked out to halt her attempt at an acrimonious withdrawal. “Carter! Don't you dare run away now! This isn't about you!”

She gasped, “I know that! This is about a possible invasio..!”

“Then why did you just accuse me of not believing in you, listening to you? You know that I'll always give you the benefit of the doubt, always...”

“It's always 'always' with you, isn't it?” she was practically crying in anger now. “But you 'always' disappear! I'm not sure your definition of 'always' is the same as...”

“When I say 'always,' that's what I mean!”

“'Forever,' Jack!” Carter insisted bitingly. “It means 'forever!'”

And in the space of one painful beat of his heart and the next, he finally understood that she wasn't talking about possible invasion scenarios anymore, or the time that clones might be on Earth, and it didn't matter what was Ba'al's goal this time. Instead, she was referring to the reason she had recently gotten hooked up with Shanahan, the way she'd moved on from 'them' seemingly without a second thought to...

Seeing red now, Jack was too angry to keep such a tight lid on his mouth. “I'm not the one who gave up the first chance I got!”

“You gave up long before I did!” Her eyes sparked with her own pain.

Jack was the one gaping now. “I never gave up!” he insisted. “I still haven't!”

“You could have fooled me!” Carter blurted. “I gave you so many chances to tell me what you think, and you ignored all of them to...” She halted her angry tirade to glare daggers at him. “What was I supposed to do?”

Jack glared back at her. “You sure weren't supposed to shack up with the first guy to come..!”

She was immediately so furious that she was barely able to form her reply. “He was the only one who showed any interest!”

“I showed interest!” Jack protested, forgetting to keep his voice down, forgetting that he would rather be slowly tortured over the course of centuries than reveal anything so personal, forgetting that he owed more than his life to this woman, and therefore should be as respectful as possible to her. In what was a weak moment, he just wanted to hurt her back for hurting him.

Carter all but snorted in derision at him. “Do you mean the looks, the touches, the..?”

“You know that's what I mean!”

Carter's sneer was more pronounced because he had never expected to see that expression aimed at him. “You must mean the avoidance, the pretending that nothing exists, the 'let's leave it in the room!'” Her derision rose another level. “If that was 'interest' you were showing over those long years, I must have blinked and missed it!”

A furious Jack was a less guarded one - he was bringing up forbidden topics like discussing them was second nature. “It was your idea to leave it in the room, and you know it! I just agreed! What's so awful about that, since you were once again getting what you wanted!”

Carter now sadly shook her head. “You don't get it,” she stated in a flat tone of voice that rattled Jack to his center.

Nothing could have deflated his anger faster than that particular tone coming from her. It was the voice of defeat. He would rather let Ba'al capture him again than hear that tone come from her. It was as if she had already given up on them.

And he thought in vindication: hadn't her engagement to Shanahan proved that?

Then suddenly an entirely new thought accosted him: was the engagement proof that she had given up on them, or was it a result of the fact that she thought he had given up?

The thought barely had time to register in his brain before she was going on in a mournful whisper, “This isn't about me. It's not about you, either. It's about us.” She gestured halfheartedly between them. “If we can't move from you being my CO, and me being your subordinate, then there's nothing left to talk about.” She looked sad beyond belief as she backed up a foot. There, she cautiously regarded him from under her thatch of bangs. “We obviously can't move away from Air Force rank. We fight if we even try.” She didn't look at him now, as if she was saddened just by the sight of him. “Let's just let this die with dignity, and move on.” She started to back away from him again in a symbolic move to end 'them,' but for the third time, Jack's good arm jerked out as he stopped her.

“Maybe you can turn this off like it's just some leaky pipes, but I can't, Carter. And I never will.”

What Carter did next surprised him again. She leaned forward and without missing a beat, asked in a husky, emotional voice, “Do you trust me, Jack?”

The question took him aback. Did he trust her? After all this time, she had to ask..? “You know I do, with my life!”

Her stare was unflinching. “But do you trust me with your heart?”

Jack reared back for a second time. How could she possibly ask such a thing? He felt a million feelings in the space of the next heartbeat: fear, truth, trust, not trust, love, hurt, hate, all right there in his eyes for her to see.

“That's what I thought,” she whispered when he didn't... or couldn't... tell her the admittance that she so clearly wanted to hear.

Her sense of utter desolation stopped Jack in his tracks. He had never seen her so despondent before! It sucked the breath out of him. At the very least, it made him reconsider his actions before he knew what he was doing:

Is she right? he screamed at himself. Had she finally shed light onto the real crux of the issue that had always been paramount between them? Was he really able to love her, but not able to fully give his heart to her?

But this was insane! He had given his heart to her years ago! She knew that! So why the need to ask this question now? She was nuts, no doubt about it!

But even as he mentally railed against her, another wisp of her idea uncoiled in the corners of his mind, swirled around his neurons, and embedded itself into his soul. Suddenly he was filled with images of Charlie, of Sara, of not wanting to go through what losing them had done to him ever again, of doing whatever it took to make sure that losing his whole heart a second time never happened again.

But this was Sam he was talking to and he knew it was already too late - he'd given his heart to her ages ago... hadn't he? She held his very existence in her hands, and had ever since the day he'd met her in the Briefing Room at the SGC. He trusted her with that heart of his... fully and completely... didn't he? All it would take... all it would have ever taken... was for her to say the word, to give him any indication that... and he was hers as absolutely as she was his... forever and ever and ever...

But...

There was that wisp again, that annoying, aggravating, irritating wisp of doubt, casting shadows, causing him to falter. Before he knew it, he was going over their every encounter from the past several years, testing, analyzing. What he discovered didn't make him appear as automatically pristine as he expected.

Hadn't she been right about giving him plenty of opportunities to spill his guts, to confess, to give her a reason to stay by his side, even if they weren't together in the typical sense of the word?

Yes... according to his way of thinking.

Yet... Was his way of thinking automatically her way of thinking?

On this second look, he began to see how she might have interpreted his actions the way she had.

As Jack considered his response to those openings she'd given him that he had seemingly callously ignored, he winced. From her perspective, it looked... There was no nice way to put this - he had run. Every single time. In all those times, he hadn't physically left her, but he might as well have. And when the shit had really hit the fan, he hadn't questioned why she was doing what she was doing, but had instantly disappeared... this last time, for months, leaving her to fend for herself... always alone.

Geez, no wonder she thought he couldn't give his entire heart to her.

Jack blinked like he didn't want to see things from her perspective, like he didn't know where here was, as if he was waking up from weeks of being unconscious, or as if he'd been trapped in a coma. Anything that might move away from the uncomfortable place his thoughts were now taking him. But he couldn't completely divorce himself from his new ideas as much as he would like to. Because now his thoughts had moved from She might be right to She's right, as usual.

Jack looked up at her, appalled.

“I've always trusted you with mine,” she whispered in a heartwrenching confession. “You're the reason I fought for so many years, you and Teal'c and Daniel,” she told him, then added, “But it was mainly for you. To give you the chance to finally...” Her voice choked off, and trailed to more silence, but when she tried again a moment later, her voice was sincere, genuine, and much steadier. “When I did... you always shut me down.”

'I know.' The memory of another time when he'd shut her down came to him in loud insistence. The remembered thrum of the ship's engine room and the sparkle of crystals winking at him from a crystal drawer filled his mind. So did the timid presence of this woman, trying with all that was in her to defy her own terror and open up to him, to tell him what he meant to her... and he'd refused to let her speak. 'I know,' he'd said instead, as if those words voiced everything that she wanted to say, saving her from uttering words that could potentially harm her. He was keeping her safe.

Wasn't he? Now he second guessed what he'd always told himself about that incident. Had he really been keeping her safe... or was he afraid to let her actually say the words? As if by speaking, she would make real what he could still deny if he had to as long as nothing was spoken between them? That way he wouldn't have to deal with it, really deal with it, and with her.

As he thought, Jack was filled with another solid insight: he had run, either literally or figuratively, then conveniently blamed her for his subsequent unhappiness when in truth, his unhappiness had been entirely his own doing. His, and no one else's.

Jack's thoughts swiftly pressed him into the back of his chair. She hadn't wanted to speak, as she'd said, and when she did want to finally talk, he hadn't let her. Ever.

It was like he'd told himself earlier - no wonder she had hooked up with Shanahan like she had.

It was then that he did something that he'd never done before. With the accusation she had just made still reverberating in the air, followed by her own numbing admittance, he whispered the only thing he could say to her at this point.

“I'm sorry.”

Jack was so intent on just her that he missed anything else that was currently going on around them. He missed the way the other residents had stopped enjoying the outdoors and turned to watch them instead, due to the noise they had been making. He missed the way he and Carter had suddenly become the drama of the moment, and had caught the attention of the ever-present nurse/bouncer patrolling the yard. That nurse had turned towards them, obviously intent on intervening in what looked like a quickly escalating incident.

But before the nurse/bouncer had taken more than two steps in their direction, and before the eyes of anyone who was outside that day in the nursing home's front yard, the incredible happened. Carter felt steely fingers dig harshly into her shoulder at the exact same instant a beam of white light enveloped anything of human biology in the gazebo, whisking it all away.

A second later, all that biological matter rematerialized in the familiar surroundings of an indeterminate Asgard ship. As Jack and Sam had both been seated at the time of their transport, they fell the rest of the way to the silver deck beneath them, crashing hard onto their butts on the floor. Rubbing their behinds in eerie synchronicity, they both studied their surroundings.

The 'indeterminate' part of of the 'Asgard ship' equation was due to the fact that, in spite of their many adventures with Thor and his fellow Asgard, one Asgard vessel greatly resembled another, especially from the inside. Only the fact that Thor was now looking out at them from a dais let them know that they had any company at all.

And apparently Thor wasn't the only company they had.

His bulbous eyes bulbing even more than usual, Thor's sonorous voice washed over them, “O'Neill, Major Carter, is this a new member of your team?” And he gestured to the third person standing behind them.

Sam turned her head to abruptly become aware of the fingers still firmly clamped around her shoulder, even though her shoulder was now a good deal lower than it had been at the nursing home. Those fingers that now tightened in alarm were firmly connected to... Pete Shanahan.

She said the first word that came to her mind. “Crap.”


Chapter 12

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