Disclaimer: They're certainly not mine, and there was no money that changed hands because of this story - if there had been money changing hands, my hand would have been the first in line.

'Engaging' Truths

by Linda Bindner

A/N: an AU... kinda

A/N 2: Thanks to PaulineFitz and Noda for betaing - you guys rock!


Carter's engagement party.

For just a nanosecond, Jack let himself indulge in a wave of blind panic due to the fact that he was even at this event. Just as quickly as it had begun, however, the nanosecond was over, and Jack once again made an effort to hide his emotions under the heavy control that he typically utilized. It wouldn't do at this late point in time to let his true feelings about Carter show in his eyes. He wouldn't do that to himself. More importantly, he wouldn't do that to Carter. Not when they had both sacrificed so much.

His emotional panic wave over and done with, Jack calmly settled his favorite black sports coat straight on his shoulders one last time, took a fortifying breath, then gave a firm wrap on Carter's front door.

Surprisingly, it wasn't Carter who opened the door a moment later. It wasn't even Pete, that slimy... It was Teal'c.

Teal'c! Jack exclaimed. He glanced beyond the bulk of the big guy to the immediate vicinity behind him. What's going on?

O'Neill, the alien greeted, a slight, almost-not-quite-there, only-his-friends-would-ever-notice-it smile gracing his features. ColonelCarter requested that I play the part of doorman for the evening's festivities.

Jack gave a wry twist of his lips. You volunteered, didn't you? he asked in a swift moment of understanding.

Teal'c didn't try to deny his friend's guess. So I did. I thought that it was the least I could do after the mission that we have just undergone.

Well, that's for sure, Jack thought to himself in another sardonic twist of his lips. One thing Carter didn't need on this, of all nights - besides his unwanted emotions - was having to answer the door for a multitude of visitors. She would have done it, but she didn't need to add the strain of playing doorman to an already overtaxed, underfed, undernourished, under... everything... body that was fighting a plethora of injuries as it was.

But Teal'c was continuing to speak, capturing Jack's attention again. I wish to inform you that the festivities are in the back yard. Proceed around the house to...

Jack knew the way. He gave a nod and a grimace because of the reason for his knowledge. I've been here for enough cookouts, so I know the way. He stopped speaking as a stray thought that this might be the last cookout he was ever invited to at this house rushed through his mind. Before the pain of indecision as to attending this event could again engulf him in the familiar hot stabs of fire, he gave a fake smile that he knew Teal'c saw right through, and pointed with his thumb towards the back. I'll just... He didn't finish, but backed down Carter's front steps, then meandered his way around the house to a yard overflowing with people.

It was an insane sight. There were people whom he didn't know sprawling in lawn chairs, stretched out on borrowed loungers, gathered around several tables, drinking, talking, laughing... Jack slowly wandered into the melee, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that, truly, he didn't know anyone here.

Where is everybody? he wondered. The SGC 'everybody?' he corrected himself. The moment he had that second thought, Walter Harriman bumped into him while carrying a plate piled high with food and engaging in animated conversation with... Was he with Sergeant Siler?

Dark shades, a sunhat, and a green and purple Hawaiian shirt was the perfect disguise for Siler. Hello, Sir. It's Sergeant...

Siler, Jack barked. Is that really you?

Only on good days, the man deadpanned back.

Meanwhile, Walter was struggling with his plate. To his credit, he managed to not spill his food that was piled on the plate. It bobbled once, then he balanced the plate again in his hands. He breathed a sigh and gave a smile when he was able to stop it from plowing into his or Jack's chest. Sorry about bumping you, Sir! Walter said with a smile sent directly to him. I didn't see you! His skin blushed a raging scarlet color. I mean, of course, I don't mean to say that I think you're invisible! He blushed again. I mean, of course you're not invisible, I'm just glad...

Jack cut him off. Walter. His low growl gave a hint as to how hard it already was for him to even be present at this little shindig of Carter's. He couldn't handle dealing with too much deference on top of such emotional upheaval. I know what you're thinking.

Walter spluttered a laugh. With all due respect, Sir, no, you don't.

Jack sent him an acerbic look that said he probably didn't know the man's thoughts, but he wasn't going to get into it with him just now. He had other things on his mind. Walter! he instead called in warning.

Walter looked as innocent as he'd ever looked. Damn him. Yes Sir?

Even if he didn't know what the other man was thinking, Jack could guess. He chose to ignore that innocent look of Walter's instead, and shot another glance across the sea of unfamiliar bodies currently transforming Carter's backyard into a night club. Do you know where Carter is in all this..? He was going to say 'mess,' but changed his mind at the last minute, and said 'crowd' instead. Chicken! he heard Daniel say in his mind. Aloud, he went on, I want to offer my congratulations to her again, now that it's official.

Um, yes, Sir, Walter replied as if he didn't understand how hard it was for his boss to admit to that. We just saw her on the deck, near the bar.

They had a bar? Jack internally protested to himself, But Carter doesn't drink... except for beer... and that doesn't count. Jack wanted to protest out loud, too, but he only said, I appreciate it, guys.

No problem, Sir, Walter intoned, making moves to head away from the General.

Jack now gave a very unGenerally roll of his eyes. How many times do I have to tell you? He glanced over at Siler, and added, Both of you. They said nothing, so he answered his own rhetorical question. In social situations like this, call me 'Jack!'

The two men actually looked like they were thinking about this 'situation' of Carter's, wondering whether it could be classified under 'social' or not. Siler chose that moment to dryly state, If we did that, Sir, we'd have to court-martial ourselves for insubordination.

Walter spluttered another laugh, and inelegantly attempted to hide his action with a cough. Jack whacked him on his back, then suggested to Siler, Get this guy a drink before he chokes to death. That's an order.

Before any more conversation could be shared between them and the General, Siler followed his 'orders' to the letter, and dragged Walter away as quickly as possible, leaving Jack alone in the sea of unfamiliar people.

Jack's gaze washed over the back yard. Who were these people, anyway? There were men and women gathered in twos and threes, standing around tables, chairs... Carter doesn't own all this stuff, Jack noted. Where the heck did it all come from?

Jack slowly meandered across the yard and up onto the deck. While dodging people on the steps of the deck area, he literally stepped on Carter's sandaled toes before he realized he was even near someone. He turned instantly to apologize, but the sheen of generic politeness left his eyes to be replaced by friendly recognition the second he realized who he was speaking to. Carter! He felt his own face suffuse in red for possibly hurting her more than she was already hurt. Didn't see you - sorry.

Carter tossed a shank of blond bangs out of her eyes. She sent him a conspiratorial grin. That's okay, Sir. I don't think you broke anything, she wryly confided.

The wind once more tossed her hair into her eyes, and annoyed, she pushed it aside with her hand.

A bandaged hand. A bandaged burned hand. Jack carefully cradled the swollen fingers in his. How's the hand doing? he quietly asked.

Carter took her fingers out of his almost as if she didn't want him to touch her skin, as if she were afraid of what that touch might do to her. She answered her General as a way to distract both of them from the almost touch that had almost happened. It's improving by the day, Sir, thanks for asking. She smiled brightly at him.

Too brightly. You don't have to pretend with me, Jack instantly announced. You were burned, Carter, badly, and only a few days ago. He shot another glance at the crowd in her yard. Frankly, I'm amazed that you went ahead with this little shindig you have going here, since...

Carter's smile turned just a touch resigned. I wasn't consulted, Sir, she informed in a voice that would have fooled anybody else, but Jack knew was a peeved one.

His brows rose, but he didn't comment on the situation any more than to say, Well... He recalled the box of beer he was carrying. I brought Guinness, he said, then gave a mischievous grin. The brand of beer sure to chase your troubles away. He held it out, and Carter tried to shift her plate onto her bandaged hand in order to take the carton of beer bottles from him with her left, healthy hand, but the plate tilted dangerously on her bandaged fingers.

Jack caught the plate for her at the same time that he hefted the carton of beer bottles more firmly into his own hand. He held out her plate to her, and she took it again while he suggested, How 'bout I just take this beer up to the cooler on the deck and stuff it in there for you? It looks like eating is about all you can manage right now, anyway.

Carter sent him a grateful look. Thank you, Sir, she said. I'll grab one later, she said, looking pointedly at the beer he was still offering.

Jack gave her a grin that turned affectionate at the last moment. Good, I brought them for both of us, you know, so that we would have at least one drink of something decent tonight. I'll bury a bottle down deep in the ice for you so no one else will take it, he offered.

Her smile grew to encompass her entire face. Thank you, Sir! How did you know that I can't hang on to a drink plus a plate without..?

Translation: How did he know that this party... get-together... manic free-for-all cop show... was already too much for her injured body to take, and she was running on fumes as it was? Beer would help in replenishing her energy, he understood. Jack wasn't sure how he knew about her energy levels, but he knew, without a doubt, and keeping a beer aside for her was the least he could do under the circumstances. My pleasure, he responded before he thought about how suggestive his words might sound to anyone who overheard their conversation. He tried to move past his unintentional vocal mistake with ease and finesse. I'll just... And he threw his head back towards the deck behind them, all the while sarcastically thinking, Finesse my ass.

Thank you for coming, Sir, she said before he had a chance to escape. She dropped her head to stare at her sandals, and clutch at her plate with her unbandaged fingers as if it were a lifeline. It means a lot to me, she whispered into the air.

Despite the clamor of talking and laughing guests, of the usual neighborhood noise ringing in their ears, of the roar of the breeze that was clearly a harbinger of storms to come in the night, Jack heard her whisper. You knew I would, Carter, he said back to her in an equally low voice. He turned away to take his beer offering up to the deck cooler, but turned back almost as quickly. He placed his free hand on her plate, once more practically grazing her fingers, but not quite. And congratulations. Before she could say anything more, he removed his hand, then hurried away up the steps and onto the deck.

From the safety of the wooden deck planks, he watched a hurt look invade Carter's eyes a minute later. Then she visibly gathered herself together, and in the next moment, disappeared into the crowd.

Crap! Jack admonished himself. He wasn't here to cause trouble for Carter. He was here to help her in the only way that he could... by being visible, yet invisible.

What a hard job that was, he ruminated.

Sometimes, life really sucked.

Without allowing himself to dwell on ideas that only led to pain, and more pain, Jack quickly jerked his way over to the ice chest sitting on the floor in the corner of the deck, and unloaded his cargo, burying one bottle of beer deep in the ice for Carter, just as he'd promised. He closed the lid on the cooler after keeping one of the beers for himself. It was then that he heard the sniffle, as if someone was crying, or had been crying.

It turned out to be his second assumption. There sat Cassie right behind him, recovering from the crying spree she had clearly just indulged in, according to the tear streaks still on her face. Now that her tears were spent, she was just as clearly letting the anger that she had often displayed in recent weeks to take over for her previous tears. Why bother, Jack? came her clipped tones, as if she knew exactly why he was doing what he was doing. The frown that she'd been wearing for the last several minutes deepened to contort her features into an angry twist. Doing nice things for Sam now, like burying beer for her to drink later, won't change a damned thing about this whole stupid 'engagement' situation of hers, and you know it.

Cassie went on gazing at him in livid hurt as Jack glanced up at her sitting in the swing made for two that occupied a back corner of the deck. As he gazed at her, she grimaced and answered her own question with the accusation, You bother because you won't do anything else about this... this... awful... situation!

With a start, Jack vaulted to his feet to face Cassie. What's that supposed to mean? he demanded as he stared at her in a sudden fury of his own. However, a second later, Jack decided that he had to at least pretend to act like an adult in this situation with Cassie, for Carter if nothing else, and better collected his feelings that were jiggling around inside him as much as the swing that Cassie was sitting on. He joined the college student in order to hide his jangling emotions.

Cassie tensed at Jack's approach, and made to jump up at his seemingly casual move to join her. As if you don't know what I mean, she retorted in a tight voice. Goodbye, Jack. She began to stand, but Jack's free hand landing on her wrist stopped her. His fingers became steel bands in an instant.

Cassie angrily shook her hand. Let go, Jack! she ordered. I don't sit with..!

Jack gave a tug, and Cassie went sprawling across the swing cushions to land at Jack's side in an undignified heap. His lips close to her ear, he softly, but firmly, announced, Stop it, Cass. One thing I will not let you do is ruin Carter's party with a temper tantrum.

But Cassie's enraged voice shivered in his own ear. What the hell are we celebrating? she sarcastically inquired. I for one am not here to celebrate anything! She glared at him, her eyes shooting flames as her nostrils flared in the cool evening air.

Jack's second tug on her wrist left no doubt as to his own anger, despite the visible calm he had just shown. Do I have to yank you out of here like a two year old having a fit? he asked. 'Cause I will! He was panting by now, a testament to the effort that it took to restrain himself. I'll throw you over my shoulder, and drag you into the house in front of all these people, embarrassing Carter so much that she'll probably open up her stitches again, and bleed all over the food. He warily eyed Cassie with the same look a parent gave a misbehaving toddler. Is that what you want?

Cassie appeared as frightened of Jack's promised retribution as Daniel usually was - meaning, not at all. She glared back at Jack, unimpressed with his promises. You know what I want, Jack! she shot at him. But I forget, you're too chicken to...

Jack yanked on her arm again, pulling her just off balance enough to halt her tongue when she yelped. He blinked once to cover the fury that he knew was sparking in his eyes, and whispered, You do not understand, Cassandra Frasier, and don't you dare presume to..!

Cassie had regained her balance enough to demand, If I don't understand, then tell me!

But he was silent.

She was silent because he was.

After a silent moment had gone by, Cassie shot a murderous look at Jack. That's what I thought, she sneered. Now let me go before I start screaming bloody murder in a yard full of cops, she threatened.

Ignoring her rant, Jack quietly considered Cassie's obvious distress, all the while knowing that he could end it, or at least soothe it a bit, by simply telling her about his recent decisions to stay out of Carter's life. But he continued to waffle for a moment, undecided. Should he tell? Shouldn't he? Would it make any difference? Not to Carter, probably, or to him, but would it explain a few things to Cassie?

The old arguments circled round and round in his head, just like they'd been circling for months, and as always, Jack felt the blanket of desperate despair fall over him when he considered this new 'relationship' of Carter's. For just a microsecond, his despair visibly gleamed in his eyes next to his anger before he managed to shut the feeling down again.

Cassie, listen! Jack spoke in her ear. He put pressure on her hand with fingers that didn't tighten like a band around her wrist this time, but instead only sought to keep her off balance. If I promise to tell you what's going on in my head, do you promise to knock it off, and calm down, and not hurt Carter with this... His lips curled - he couldn't help his reaction. With this juvenile fit? he ended in quiet remonstration. She'll end up forgiving you if you throw a fit, but I promise that you'll never forgive yourself.

Cassie injudiciously curled her own lips. How can you know about forgiveness?

Jack's fingers tightened, and her hand instantly went numb. Don't screw with me, Cass, he warned, his voice low, and dangerous, for he was a dangerous man, and the expression in his eyes told Cassie that it was in her best interest if she didn't forget this bit if information for a second. I care about what happens to Carter... more than you know... and I will NOT let you just say whatever hurtful thing you want, not when I can stop you. His eyes shot daggers at the young woman. She means more to me than that, even if this party doesn't.

The dangerous expression in his eyes finally gave Cassie reason enough to pause in her tirade. She drew in a sharp gasp of air, then held it as she stared at him. At long last, the tension slowly ebbed from her muscles. She continued to lay sprawled across Jack, but no one had noticed their quiet conversation, as volatile as it had been, and the chatter of people pursuing a pleasant celebration again washed over them.

But Jack and Cassie were oblivious. They stared instead at each other, both breathing harder than normal, both angry, yet striving not to look that way, and both sizing up the other with assessing eyes that missed nothing. At long last, Cassie gave a nod that was so small, anyone else watching them wouldn't notice unless they knew both the General and the college student very well.

She sat back to shrewdly stare at him. Okay, Jack, she acquiesced at last. If you're willing to explain, I'm willing to listen. Still, in spite of her words, her eyes narrowed. But don't think that this wipes away any hard feelings between us that you or...

Again, Jack cut her off, Cass... He sounded tired now, and gusted a sigh. Just listen, will ya, and for once, do away with the drama?

Cassie threw him an acerbic glare. I am not dramatic!

Jack rolled his eyes, affection steeling into his gaze for the first time since this altercation with Cassie had begun. You are so dramatic, and don't bother to pretend otherwise, you drama queen! More affection colored his voice.

Cassie tentatively smiled, as if she couldn't help her reaction to his comments. She had always been a sucker for Jack-love. I hate it when you do that to me, she muttered even as she grinned.

Jack smiled back. And I hate it when you do this drama stuff that you do, he reminded. But you wouldn't be my girl if you didn't do it. He released her wrist, and gave her a fast hug. I wouldn't know what to do with an undramatic you any more than I would know what to do with a Carter who wasn't thinking.

At the mention of Carter, Cassie stared at him with a leading gaze. And speaking of Sam... Your promise? she prompted.

Jack gave her another sigh. I was hoping that you would forget about that, he divulged.

Cassie snorted. You wish. Now... tell.

Just as Jack considered telling her a safe fib to blanket the truth about how deeply his connection to Samantha Carter ran, Cassie warned, And I'll know if you're not telling me the truth, Jack. So don't bother telling me another one of your lies... er, stories.

Jack cocked his head at her, growing more desperate now at her astuteness. How will you know that I'm telling you a lie... er, story? he questioned.

You can't fool me, Cassie announced, interrupting him. Now, like you promised, the truth, the whole truth... Out with it. She settled baack on the cushions as Jack released her wrist.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Jack groused as even more of a cover to his emotions. Yet, he paused in order to begin to push himself up out of the swing, still stalling, as if he truly couldn't help stalling. If I'm gonna explain my whole life's story to you, I need another beer to act as my standby. Jack tried to aim for the cooler, hoping that he could escape Cassie from there, and thus, avoid answering her demand. But his 'escape' was superseded.

The moment he made his move, Cassie placed a restraining hand on his arm. No you don't, she growled. You're not escaping from me like that. Now she shrewdly glared at him. Remember, I know you.

Crap, Jack groused. So much for that idea. He resumed his seat beside her on the swing. Maybe if he didn't talk about his feelings, but gave detailed accounts of his other, unemotional, concerns about Carter's new relationship instead, he could avoid this whole 'truth with Cassie' issue?

Trying to make a decision... any decision... Jack gazed thoughtfully at his beer. He slowly instructed, Okay... If I'm gonna talk about this, I'll probably want to get drunk in order to make it... easier. His pleading eyes glanced in her direction. And we both know what'll happen if I get drunk. His gaze didn't waver now that he'd voiced his main fear. So just... don't... don't let me get another beer, or go to the bar. He popped the top off the beer he had already acquired, then took a long drink. He made an appreciative sound in spite of his misgivings. Ah - there's nothing like that first swig of beer!

Cassie called him on his distraction techniques. And there's nothing like trying to change the subject.

Jack peered at her in the growing gloom of a cloudy day that smelled of rain. When did you become so good at reading me? he asked.

Cassie snorted a laugh. Years ago, when you found me, she retorted. Now, talk.

Jack paused for another moment of quiet as he gathered his thoughts, still trying to decide exactly what to tell her.

Stop thinking. She issued her irritated order as if she knew what he was doing. You remind me of Sam with all this thinking.

Jack rolled his eyes after taking a second drink of beer. Yeah, right! he sardonically exclaimed. She's so much better than I am at the thinking bit - there's not even a comparison! he decreed.

Cassie rolled her own eyes. Jack, you're stalling again, she noted.

Jack heaved a sigh once more, then smoothed Cassie's hair that the wind had tossed in her eyes. He looked like he was getting a good look at her for the first time in ages. You're so grown up, he suddenly stated. Pretty... too pretty for the likes of this old and gruff... and did I say that I'm old? An old General.

Who says that you're old? Cassie contradicted with a small hug that was filled with the love for him that her musings a minute earlier opposed.

Jack took another drink. I say that I'm old, he announced. Then he grinned, and ignoring his 'old' comment, decided to focus on how pretty Cassie had turned out to be. That was one thing that I always had, he noted almost as if to himself. My girls have always been completely stunning.

Cassie laughed a light chuckle. Your girls? she derisively said. Since when are we your girls?

Jack sighed, but this sigh was a sound of pure enjoyment. He gave Cassie another hug, and she snuggled in closer to him, fighting the wind that scoured the yard with its colder air. I've always been lucky to have my girls, he dispassionately noted. I've got you, and I had your mom, and once upon a time I was lucky enough to have Carter, too. Yep, he said, but without even a spark of agony in his eyes this time. I'm one of the luckiest guys on the planet.

Cassie laughed a gleeful laugh. The happy sound of her laughter caused Jack to give one of his rare smiles.

He'd made Cassie laugh. Hearing that sound was almost as good as when he used to hear Carter laugh at something he had done or said. So, satisfied, Jack leaned back on the swing.

He casually went on, pleased with himself. Yeah, truly, I've been one of the luckiest of men for years. His smile turned a tad wistful as he stared at the party-goers - their presence told him that his 'luck' had run out. His smile gradually faded away.

His protest, as firm and vigorous as it had been, wasn't enough to convince Cassie of its truth. You mean that you've been lucky up until now, she derisively added her caveat to his assertions. None of us are lucky anymore. She heaved a dramatic gust of air, then settled more firmly into his embrace. I guess that I'm lucky that I still have you, she added, as if she thought that she no longer 'had' anyone else.

Instead of protesting her obvious assumptions, Jack just commented, I'm not surprised that you, of all people, would think that way. He hugged her in a definite display of his affections. But we really both are still sooooo lucky.

Incensed once again at his assertions, Cassie rose up to glare at him. I am not lucky! she argued in a louder voice. How can you even think that I am?

Jack's warning was swift to come. Cassie, you promised that you wouldn't fly off the handle if I told you the truth. Were you lying when you said that?

She stared at him in frustration. And you promised to tell me the truth, which I have yet to hear! She scowled.

Jack settled back again, uncomfortable. She was right. His stall tactics appeared to no longer work with her. Rather than trying yet another stall tactic, he hemmed, Okay, the truth, the truth... He snorted, and frowned his own frustration. Cassie, I know that you've lost a lot... and I know what that feels like...

You don't really know anything! she unwisely retorted.

Jack shot her a fast warning glance that was frightening in its intensity. Don't make me regret doing this, Cass. His frown didn't lift as he continued. You can't put a price on loss - you can only try to understand it, and hope that it doesn't consume you.

His statement stopped Cassie in mid huff, as if he knew from personal experience what he was talking about. She calmly studied his eyes, and specifically, the pain in those eyes.

And suddenly it looked as if she recalled the fact that, yes, Jack really did have personal experience in this area. She appeared to be remembering a previous conversation, probably, he suspected, with her mom about what a mess he had been in the early days of the Program, and why.

At last, she grunted a confirmation to his suspicions. That's right, you do know. Then she settled back against him as if their altercation had never taken place. I'm sorry about your son, you know that, don't you? she timidly asked.

Oddly feeling as if this girl who had lost as much as he had would inherently understand the grief that constantly ate at his gut, he softly stated, And I'm sorry about your mom...s. So sorry. He contemplated the beer label wrapped around the neck of the bottle in his hand before taking another swig. It was as if he was trying to swallow the pain this subject always resurrected.

Beside Jack, Cassie sniffed again, then gave her own depressed comment. Now, thanks to Sam's latest stupid stunt, I've had three moms bite the dust.

Jack gave her a little shake, but didn't get mad. Carter hasn't 'bit the dust,' he argued back to her. She's just taking a... How to describe what Carter was doing? She's taking a breather, he settled on saying.

Cassie raised her head. Taking a 'breather?' she scorned, then added under her breath, Yeah, of the lifelong variety.

Jack interrupted her in warning. Cassie... He heaved another sigh, and reigned in his emotions again, recalling once more that further annoying the young woman wasn't very conducive to his attempts to soften her behavior. I have to have your promise that you'll never say a word about any of this, not to anyone.

Cassie's breath hitched, but she eyed her companion in immediate suspicion.

At that suspicion of hers, Jack reminded himself that Cassie certainly knew him well enough to think that he wouldn't just give in and tell her everything without even putting up a fight.

And right on cue, Cassie spoke. Jack, are you alright? she quickly asked in concern. Is Sam?

Jack winced at the worry in her tone. He didn't want her to worry, so he was quick to say, No need to worry - it's nothing like that. He let his comment stew in her mind for a few minutes, then continued, But I have to have your promise before I can go on. No matter what he planned to tell her, having her vow of silence was a good idea. This way, not even Daniel could nag it out of her... unless she caved, which he didn't think she would - 'tenacity' had become Cassie's middle name over the years. She was uncommonly trustworthy for one so young.

Cassie studied him. Finally she nodded another of her barely present nods. You've got my promise Jack, always, she said with conviction that was much older than her years. Not a word.

But Jack still wasn't entirely convinced. No writing about any of this in your journal, either, if you have a journal. No telling your roommate, your boyfriend...

Cassie rolled her eyes in aggravation. Jaaaaack... Since I dumped Dominic, I don't have a boyfriend anymore to tell. Soooo... The truth? she reiterated.

Jack gazed out at the hubbub going on at the party happening right in front of him. He watched as a man he didn't know retrieved a can of beer with a brand that he didn't recognize from the cooler nearby, and disappear back into the crowd without even seeing them. Just as any one else on the deck didn't pay the two in the swing any attention.

When Jack was certain that it was safe to speak, the magnitude of the bomb that he then proceeded to drop so casually on Cassie was enough to make her break her promise not to say anything about what he had to say. Carter and I were married once.

Cassie's disbelief was high. What!????? she shrieked.

Jack glanced at Cassie with such a benign smile that it made her pause. No saying anything, Cass, you promised.

Incensed again, she glared at him, until she saw the way that many of Sam and Pete's guests had turned at her previous yell to stare at the couple on the swing before going back to their own conversations. When it was safe again to speak, Cassie furiously whispered, How can I keep that to myself?

Cassie... Jack regarded her for a moment of quiet introspection. Finally he told her more details of his and Carter's 'nuptials.' According to the Andarans, Carter and I were married for two years. Two of the best years of my life, he announced before nonchalantly taking another drink of beer.

Astonished, and obviously confused at Jack's personal disclosure, Cassie gaped at him. And now this? she intoned, waving her hand out to take in the party, the engagement... everything... in one gesture that didn't make it necessary for her to explain anything. How can you let this happen after something like that?

Because. Jack sighed, regret dripping from the sound. I'm the one who asked for a divorce. So I don't blame her at all for finding... this.

A horrified expression on her face, Cassie raised her head just enough to stare at him, her mouth gaping again. Jack! How could you?!

Suddenly, Jack gave her a smile that was wholly unexpected. Cassie, I'm yanking your chain, he told her in a flat voice.

But Cassie hardly looked mollified by his assurances. What? What are you..?

Jack hugged Cassie close to him again, then revealed his motivations for telling her what was essentially a fib. I had to give you the best story that I could think of, get you all riled up, to make sure you understand the point I want to make.

Despite his assurances, Cassie was furious. This is no joking matter, Jack!

Serious now, Jack heaved an apologetic sigh. No, it's not, he agreed.

Cassie's snarl was an angry growl of pure animosity. Sam's ruining my life, and you're making jokes!

Jack's expression quickly grew even more serious. She's not ruining your life, he emphatically replied. I don't want to hear something like that come out of your mouth again.

But instead of being cowed by his admonishment, Cassie merely stood up. I don't care what you think or say, Jack. We all know that you'll always come to her...

Jack's eyes darkened with his own repressed anger. And what does it say about you, Cass, that you so instantly believed that Carter would do something so insane as to defy Air Force rules to marry her CO?

Cassie froze, her eyes suddenly becoming assessing pools of liquid rather than ones of nothing but fury. It was true? It wasn't true? Jack was or was not lying to her? Cassie breathed in the stormy air while she hesitated, quietly watching Jack, but it was obvious that she wasn't sure what to believe anymore.

Jack's features grew flat, expressionless, even tight, which meant only one thing; he was in his most serious, dangerous mode. You have my greatest sympathy, always, but stop being so childish. Take a look at how you're behaving. What are you doing to her? The two stared at each other, one in fury, and the young woman now too confused to look anything but numb.

Yet Jack was determined to make Cassie understand. To do that, he knew that he needed to tell a story or two - that he had to do more than simply talk. Being furious because someone purposefully lied to her was a much more memorable occurrence to Cassie than a simple conversation would be. But even as Jack tried hard to convince himself that he was doing what needed to be done for Cassie's sake, he also tried hard to not let the guilt he was feeling at his recent choice overwhelm him.

After a silent moment that sparked with anger from both of them, Cassie started to deny, I'm not doing anything to her that...

Bullshit, Cass, Jack said in a voice that perfectly illustrated the disbelief that he was feeling at her assertion. Do you think she's happy about the way you've been sulking around lately, won't return her calls, the way you won't even speak to her?

Cassie remained mute, simply staring at him in bleak acknowledgment, the first germs of understanding beginning to leak through her expression.

Undeterred when Cassie wouldn't tell him what was on her mind, Jack went on, his voice gentle now, Even if you're upset... because you're upset... maybe you'll remember this... story. His rather obvious hint was colored with hope. Maybe... you'll even talk to her again. He added, Because she really is worried about you, and if I can get you to talk to her, then what I just did might do something good after all.

Cassie shot a look at Jack that was as malicious as it was perplexed. You promised to tell me the truth, Jack, and instead, you ream me with with how I've behaved around Sam! How can I decide what's 'the truth' if you..?

That's my point, Cass, Jack interjected, regret that he'd had to employ such measures with someone he cared about still weighing down his tone. At risk of sounding purely paranoid... though I'm not just paranoid... more like 'supremely cautious'... No one will ever tell you 'the truth,' he definitively stated. You have to decide what's 'the truth' for yourself. If you wait for someone to tell you 'the truth,' you're doomed to be disappointed, and I don't want that for you. He looked at her as if he knew what he was talking about. The disillusionment that you'll probably end up going through waiting to hear 'the truth'... It isn't pretty, that I can tell you.

But still Cassie gaped at him. You... you're, she spluttered. How can I trust you ever again if..?

Cassie, Jack sighed, and uncomfortably shifted in his seat on the swing. He pulled her back down to sit beside him so that he could again speak quietly into her ear. I wish that I could tell you this without having to upset you so much. He gave another regretful sigh. But I know that you won't remember it if I just tell you. And you need to remember it. He looked at her out of sad brown eyes. You'll have a much simpler time of it right from the start if you do.

Cassie was again silent for a moment as she thought over all that Jack had said so far. He'd dramatically demonstrated the two sides of this issue for her, and now she just had to decide if he was in earnest, or still 'yanking her chain.'

Cassie skeptically eyed him - he had basically lied to her, yet at the same time, he had never purposely done anything to hurt her. It was unlikely that he would suddenly start now.

Jack widened his own eyes in question as Cassie clearly continued thinking. As she was thinking, he decided to clear up his own point of confusion. A minute ago, you said something about Carter ruining your life - why do you think that way?

Cassie instantly appeared embarrassed. She glanced down, then peeked at him through her blowing strands of hair. You want to know 'the truth?' she asked, making finger quotes as she spoke.

Jack almost smiled at her attempt at a joke. How can I help you if you don't tell me 'the truth?' he half asked, half teased back. And he did his own finger quoting as he spoke.

Cassie chose to point out, But how will you know it's 'the truth?' By your own words, no one tells the true truth, so asking me to tell it now is rather useless.

Good point, Jack appreciatively told her. You've gotten good at this whole argument thing, he complimented.

Cassie sent him a wan grin, taking his compliment at face value. It must be all the Chess I've played with Sam over the years, she guessed. Pretending to do one thing with the chess pieces when you're actually doing another has started to rub off. She shrugged. I guess that arguing issues isn't so different from that.

I'll say it's rubbed off, he appreciatuvely said. If you're willing to argue with me, the old and crusty General, then...

Cassie sighed in exasperation. You're not old, Jack, she negated.

Alright, alright, Jack said, giving her a squeeze as well as the indication that he couldn't really argue with her opinion about his age anymore, even though he knew that she knew he didn't truly believe what she was claiming, and he never would, no matter how she protested. Stop changing the subject.

You brought up the 'I'm so old' bit, Jack, she reminded him. If you don't want anyone to think that you're old, then...

Cassie, he warned. Remember? You were going to tell me why you think that Carter's ruining your life? Out with it.

Cassie sighed a sad sound that rivaled Jack's sighs, and slumped in the swing. I guess I mean... She paused, but he didn't push her, knowing that she would tell him when she was ready. At last, playing with the hem of the dress that she was wearing, she began in a quiet voice, It's just that... Her fingers continued to worry her hemline. It soon began parting into threads and layers of material as she worked through what was on her mind.

Why are you so angry? Jack finally chose to ask, prodding her to respond.

Cassie slapped down her hem in irritation. It's just that... She stopped again. After awhile, she heaved in air, illustrating how hard this was for her to admit. Sam's never around now, Cassie finally complained in a small voice. And I need her to be... around... ya know? She blinked blurry eyes at Jack. I don't mean to be making demands... Jack shot her a glance that said 'Of course you do.' So she changed her last comment to say, Okay, I guess I do. She started playing with her hem again as a distraction from what she was confessing.

Jack's beer label acted as his own distraction. She deserves a life, he argued.

I know, Cassie agreed with him. And I know that she's been talking about wanting a 'normal' life for awhile. Cassie again lapsed into silence that was fraught with a 'but.' She voiced one before Jack could ask her about it. But what's a 'normal' life, right?

Jack was confused. He had honestly spent very little time contemplating this concept, though he had employed the 'normal life' argument before in his own discussions. Can you be more specific?

Cassie shrugged, indicating that she had more to say in spite of her gesture. I'm not 'normal,' she argued. Sam's job's not 'normal.' Her team's definitely not 'normal.' Then Cassie wrinkled her nose. Why is 'normal' so damned important to her?

Jack hugged her to his side. Cass, everyone deserves for life to be as 'normal' as they can make it.

But you're not part of that 'everyone?' she immediately riposted. You sound like that's what you meant.

Jack sighed. You know that my life is a bit more complicated than...

Bullshit, she said, mimicking the word and tone that Jack had used on her earlier.

Jack grimaced, but had to admire what she was doing. Touché.

So, you gonna tell me 'the truth' about that 'complicated life' of yours any time soon? she requested. Then she added, And I mean, the real truth.

Jack gave a twisted sort of grimace. Now I suppose is a good time for me to say something about the regs, he told her.

And I wouldn't believe you, she immediately noted. Talk about an old, tired excuse.

Jack cocked his head, but nodded his agreement. Yeah, I guess. He sounded bone weary now.

They were silent again, the college student staring at Jack as he stared in pained discomfort at his half empty beer bottle. Can I tell you something I've never told anybody? she timidly asked after a few silent moments.

Jack shrugged a nod. Sure, he affably agreed.

But she added, I'll tell you if you then tell me something about... She waved at the party, indicating the reason behind it with her gesture.

Jack sighed in displeasure - he was automatically reluctant to talk about what Cassie wanted to talk about... But if this was what she needed to open up... Okay, he grumbled at last. You start.

Okay, Cassie repeated. And you can't say anything, either, even when Daniel threatens to nag you about it with his dying breath.

That sounded dire enough. Deal. Jack agreed more readily this time. You first, right?

Yep. Cassie thought for a moment, then stated, I don't like Pete.

Jack gave a start that looked more like a jump. I thought you said that it was going to be something that we didn't already know.

But Cassie was shaking her head. I said that I haven't told anyone else, and I haven't told anybody that. It's not my fault that you know all about it, anyway.

Jack huffed, You haven't exactly been keeping it a secret, Cass.

Mumbling, Cassie admitted her agreement. Alright, alright, you have a point. She huffed, then prompted, Now it's your turn.

But instead of complying with Cassie's demands, Jack quickly insisted, I want to add a new rule - if you tell me something that I already know, then you have to tell me why you feel that way.

Cassie sized him up for making that caveat to the rules. Okay, she finally said. But then, so do you.

Geez. Jack sat back, momentarily defeated. Why is it that my girls drive such hard bargains?

Cassie smiled at that. Sam taught me well, was all she would say. Agreed?

Jack huffed for a moment, but muttered, Agreed.

Cassie smiled in her victory. Okay... I don't like him because... Here she paused. A minute later, her nose wrinkled in distaste. He's such a brown-noser, she said, as if 'brown-noser' was an obnoxious thing to be.

Jack gaped at her in amusement. 'A brown-noser?'

Yeah. Cassie had to grin at her choice of words.

Okay... explain.

Cassie looked as if she'd known that Jack would demand an explanation. He's... nice, she said in derision. And before Jack could demand another explanation, added, Too nice.

But Jack still didn't quite get the point she was trying to make. Meaning?

The hem of Cassie's dress was almost in tatters now. Well... She considered. Sam knows about his stupid background check... and the reason he got shot in the beginning... and she's acting like it's no big deal. Cassie was growing more incensed the more she spoke. And the Sam that I know would never let someone get away with that. She turned to face Jack. You've never done anything like that, I bet - like doing a background check, I mean - something that's so... untrusting... even when you didn't know much about her.

No, I didn't, Jack quietly told her. But what's this got to do with him being too nice?

Cassie grimaced, but gamely explained. Instead of kicking Pete's butt for doing things like that, he manages to talk so nice to her that he sweet-talks her out of doing anything to him at all.

Maybe he really is just a nice guy, Jack pointed out.

Cassie snorted a laugh. Yeah, and you believe that about as much as I do, she retorted. I don't trust him... 'cause he doesn't trust her, she went on. He's always following her, always calling 'to check up on her,' he says, but it's like he doesn't trust her to be where she says she'll be. Jack's brows rose, encouraging Cassie to go on, and she did. When I tell her about this, she just blows me off, as if my opinions don't matter to her anymore, like I don't matter. Her voice had turned petulant again. And I hate it. No one listens to me - like I'm just some stupid kid.

Jack patted her hair down with his hand, righting what the wind was messing up. Carter trusts your ideas, he argued.

You could have fooled me, Cassie grumbled.

Jack sighed, but didn't say anything to refute her opinions. Instead, they watched the party goers for awhile, noting how the SGC people seemed to stick to themselves, and the less familiar police officers stuck to themselves. There were a few groups here and there that were a mix of the SGC and police crowd, but they were few, and didn't last much beyond the 'hi, how are ya?' stage of interaction. It was as if a wall of natural inhibitors had grown between the two camps, and mixing didn't exist because it rarely worked from the outset.

Cassie's soft gurgle sounded in the air, and she pointed the two groups out to Jack. They don't gel any better than Pete and Sam do, but at least they admit it. Her voice was harsh as she spoke. When Jack just blinked at her, and looked as if he wanted to say something that was remonstrative in nature, Cassie just defended her last comment by demanding, What? Her voice again held the hard edge of skepticism. Don't tell me that you don't see the two groups not gelling, either. She waved once more at them. When he didn't respond to her comment, she went on, barking disbelieving laughter at his silence. You can't just sit there in denial about all this. She again stared with incredulity at him when he still remained silent. Finally she gasped a breath that was almost torn from her in a sudden gust of wind. You're not going to comment on the obvious either, are you? She gave another disbelieving snarl, and observed, Talk about denial... God, you're just as much into this denial bit as Sam is.

Jack looked down at his beer bottle, uncomfortable at where this conversation was heading. He looked at Cassie's accusing expression, but still remained silent. He turned his attention back to his beer bottle and the liquid inside of it.

Finally he said to Cassie, denying nothing, Pretending that none of this... and he waved at the party, signifying the engagement they were supposedly celebrating. That none of this matters... matters to me, he specified. I don't do the denial to offend you, he added, his voice apologetic even if he didn't say any words of apology. If it does offend you... It doesn't mean that I'm not aware of what's happening... or that I like it, he confessed, then took a second drink to wash the taste of admittance out of his mouth. I just don't want to do anything that might hurt Carter... one way or another.

Finally Jack leaned back and grumbled to the young woman at his side, You wanted to know something about... this... that I've never told anyone before. Well... now I've told. Happy?

Cassie just stared at him with the look of a lost fish - her mouth open slightly, her breath of incredulity washing over him, though she wasn't responding to what he'd said. Instead of replying, she just looked bowled over by this revolutionary confession that he'd just made.

Jack's unexpected honesty surprised Cassie into revealing he own worries. This... she said, and waved again at the party goers in the yard. I'm worried that Sam will marry that... that... She looked like she was searching her mind as to what to call Pete.

Jack considered what he thought Cassie was considering: was Pete an - an 'usurper?' No, that word inferred that the cop was taking something from someone, and no one 'owned' Sam. He wasn't usurping anything, exactly, but...

Cassie interrupted Jack's idle thoughts. He's an idiot, that's what he is. Cassie looked pleased with herself for tapping into her true thoughts like she had.

The moment, as pleasant as it had been, was quickly over. Cassie went on, If Sam marries him, I'm afraid that I'll never see her again, Cassie's breath hitched as she fought back sudden tears. I'm afraid that he'll take her away, and that he won't have any regard for me one way or the other. She forced back her tears, then quietly added, And I'm afraid that Sam won't stop him from doing it. She audibly gulped, and Jack knew that the motion had hurt. He and I... spoke... a week or so ago, ya know?

No, Jack didn't know. This was all news to him. But then, he should have expected things to be happening that he didn't know about. It wasn't like he had Carter there anymore to tell him what went on in her life.

So he listened as Cassie continued in a tight voice. Actually, Pete caught me when I wasn't prepared, and what I heard sort of blindsided me, I guess. Cassie took another breath of fortifying air, then continued, He'd just bought a house for him and Sam... because they were engaged... I overheard him talking to his Realtor about it one day last week. Cassie blinked, and that tattered hem was back in her hands as her fingers worried it back and forth. When I asked him what the hell he was doing, buying houses... houses that Sam had no say in, for crying out loud... he said that he was going to surprise Sam with it one of these days... that he knew that she wasn't ready for that kind of committment just yet, but... Then I commented that it seemed confusing that it was okay to him that she wasn't ready for a commitment like a shared house, but that she was ready for the kind of committment like being engaged.

Cassie pulled again at her hem, and went on with her story. Pete just looked at me with this sort of blank look... and finally said that Sam soon would be ready for a house. All I had to do was wait and see. Cassie wrinkled her nose. He seemed so... smug... as he said it, like he knew something I didn't. Then Cassie's expression evened out, as if the uncomfortable part of her tale was at an end. But Jack knew that the way she became expressionless showed that the uncomfortable part was just beginning.

When she could speak again, Cassie went on, He wanted buying the house a done deal before the time of Sam's... readiness... happened. That's why he had called the Realtor that day, and didn't hear me coming home from the movie I had gone to see, and I overheard him talking on the phone to her. Cassie blinked away more tears that had invaded her eyes, but she continued on in that same flat, emotionless voice that she'd been utilizing. The minute I heard him say that about the house... and surprising Sam... the first stupid thing out of my stupid mouth wasn't that I was going to tell Sam all about this little house plot of his. No, it was to ask if he intended one of the three bedrooms in the house to be mine, or what. She finally turned to stare at Jack. And you know what he said? she rhetorically asked.

What?

Cassie looked grateful for the prodding. He said that no, saving a bedroom for me wasn't his original intention. That actually, the bedrooms were for him and Sam and their kids... and not for me... but that I was welcome to sleep on the couch when I wasn't at college.

Cassie turned haunted eyes onto Jack, and flatly repeated in an incredulous voice, 'The couch?' Her incredulity increased. Just the couch? In the only place I have left to call 'home?' Her snort of disbelief was explosive. If you ask me, it's like he doesn't expect me to be with Sam hardly at all once I go back to college after their wedding. She paused, but added in definite annoyance, And the way Sam's been acting lately, he doesn't have any reason to think that she'll care much, either, when the time comes. Her haunted eyes turned even more haunted. He's taking Sam from me... or at least her attention... and it's like she doesn't give a damn. Cassie's eyes again misted with tears as she fought for control of her emotions. She contemplated the party before her, subconsciously sneering at it as if it was a thing to be abhorred. And I hate that, she emphatically stated. Being forgotten... Mom wouldn't have forgotten me like that...

It took a moment for Cassie to regain control of her heaving emotions after her last statement, but she eventually faced Jack sitting next to her on the swing, and mournfully said, There, something I've never told anybody. She grimaced again, as if she wasn't glad for the reason why she had such fears in the first place.

Jack looked at her - she looked so lost. His heart ached for her. But at the same time, he felt that Cassie should be proud, however, that she had finally spoken about herfears. She couldn't take any of her stuttered words back, and didn't act as if she really wanted to.

She next encouraged, Your turn.

But Jack wasn't ready for his own confession just yet. Instead, he was still focused on Cassie and the problem she had just voiced. Have you tried to tell Carter that you feel this way? Jack asked, his hand on Cassie's knee in the sympathy that he could give, but not vocalize. I'm pretty sure that she has no idea...

I'm not a narc, Cassie insisted, cutting Jack off. If Sam's as smart as you say she is, then she can do her own research into the guy that she's letting ruin all our lives. Cassie grew angry again as she spoke. She doesn't know about the house yet, but the background check she does know about. It doesn't take a genuis to click the mouse button on the field that's titled 'date of check' to see that a 'Mr. Pete Shanahan' did his 'requesting' way back at the beginning of thier 'relationship,' that he obviously hasn't trusted her from day one, Cassie continued in irritation. Sam doesn't want to know, so Sam pretends there's nothing to know. Cassie now glared at Jack with fire in her eyes.

The fire made him consider a surprising, ironic idea: It was a good thing that Cassie was so angry - he was getting tired of seeing that same dead look in her eyes all the time, as if she were in mourning for someone who had just died. Of course, to Cassie, Carter was dying... Jack inhaled in sudden horror at that thought.

But Cassie was going on, distracting Jack from his macabre idea. Maybe you can understand why Sam's doing this, and excuse her... but... I have only the couch to look forward to, and nothing but knowing that I don't matter enough to her to come out of 'denial land' for five minutes in a row to see what's really going on here. She bit off her words, the wind swallowing them almost as soon as she uttered them. And you want me to not be mad about all this? she next inquired in disbelief. Then she leaned in closer to Jack so that she could lower her voice to just above a whisper, but be sure that he would hear what she was saying. Actually, I'm beyond pissed about all this! she declared. I think that I've shown quite a bit of restraint lately, to be honest. She glowered. I could just let my real feelings shine through, and do what I really would love to do, which is... But at the last minute, she reconsidered what she was about to put voice to. But if I tell you, that will just land me in the loony bin, and I doubt that even you could get me out again, not with a cop on the other end, determined that Sam seems to keep 'forgetting' me - and all of her old life... and I don't doubt that he'd do it, either, she nastily insisted. This is a guy who buys a house just because he got engaged, for crying out loud! They aren't even married yet. She blinked back the tears in her eyes that glistened, but hadn't fallen. I suspect that he just likes to be married, and he'll do what it takes to get what he wants. She turned to face Jack. So if I want to stay in Sam's life... at all... in any capacity... I know that I had better play it cool. Then she looked away, still trying to gather her emotions again before bitingly adding, But I don't have to like it.

A moment later, Cassie invited Jack to continue with what they were doing with another one of her hand waves, as if now that her explanation was over, it was Jack's turn to divulge his true thoughts on the 'Sam engagement' subject. As if it were that easy to confess ideas of this nature - that he could just 'turn it on' because it was 'his turn.'

The concept made Jack take another hasty swallow of beer, but Cassie went on to comment, You know, all this talking and telling is actually kinda cathartic.

Her voice trailed away, leaving them both to again contemplate the beer bottle. Jack wondered what he could possibly say to equal Cassie's recent confession. His concerns seemed so... petty... compared to hers. All he might lose in this situation was Carter... but Cassie was facing losing another mom... not that losing Carter wasn't bad enough...

You're always welcome at my place, he told Cassie instead of embarking on vocally explaining his next fear. You know that, right, Cass? His eyes beseeched hers. I'm not getting married... that I know of... or moving... or house hunting... I'm still you're same old dad-figure... for what that's worth...

Cassie turned her slightly bitter glance on him, but took him up on the offer he was making. Thanks, Jack, I'll remember that... if I need to.

If she ever ended up homeless, she would remember his offer, he translated.

Now... you, Cassie again prompted.

Jack didn't need her prompt. What he needed was a life transplant... an alternate reality... a shift into another timeline... anything to undo what he suspected was going to happen the minute this marriage of Sam's was finalized. He took a deep breath, held it, then blurted, I'm afraid he's going to convince her to give up SG-1. Maybe even give up the Air Force. Spoken, his 'fear' didn't sound so fearful, he admitted to himself. It was more like a... a concern.

That's ridiculous, Cassie scoffed anyway, right on cue to make Jack feel better. Sam would never leave the Air Force. She sounded so certain as she said it, but when she looked at him, the expression in her eyes said 'OhmyGod,tellmethatwon'thappen!' She wouldn't... would she? Cassie finally queried of him. She looked really worried now.

But Jack couldn't soothe Cassie and tell her that she had nothing to worry about. He had seen too many married military members quit the Air Force in the past just because the spouse was a civilian not to be concerned. Now he could only stare at Cassie with a grim look on his face.

Cassie refused to believe what he had said. She protested, But Sam's worked her butt off for SG-1 - she would never give that up!

Jack could only find the energy to gloomily riposte, Don't be too sure. He jiggled the bottle in his hand before explaining a bit more of his 'concerns.' Have you ever seen a military relationship? he asked next, his eyes glued to his bottle. What happens if they really do get married, things are great at first... then Carter gets transferred out of Colorado Springs? he suddenly inquired.

Cassie shrugged at his question. Maybe Sam won't ever get transferred, she finally suggested.

To which Jack just snorted in amusement. Yeah, right, he derisively said. 'Cause the SGC is the only place that could possibly ever need her brain. He sarcastically snorted once more. He switched to a more normal tone when he further explained, She's one hell of a soldier... she's already displaying her leadership skills... she'll get transferred, you watch, to somewhere... else. He lamely ended voicing his concern, thinking of the problems currently besetting the Pegasus Galaxy, but knowing that he couldn't just blurt the word 'Pegasus' aloud. What happens then? he went on to rhetorically inquire. Is Shanahan the trusting bloke that military marriages require in the case that she ever does get transferred? A third snort soured his inquiry. I think not.

Cassie had to agree with him. Yeah, the words 'trusting' and 'Shanahan' don't go together very well.

Jack took a pull from his bottle to cover up his distress over this issue. You wait - he'll ask her to leave the military the minute they're hitched. Shanahan won't even wait until she gets orders to transfer somewhere else. He took another drink. He'll make her choose - him, or the Air Force. I've seen it dozens of times... and if it's not a trusting, giving relationship to begin with, most of the time, the marriage goes sour, and ends in divorce. Jack took another long, irritated pull on his beer. She's worked so hard for the rank she's achieved, put up with so much bullshit over the years, that...

But Cassie cut him off. Sam told you that? She never complains about anything unsavory in the Air Force, she protested now. Sam has always known that if something happens to her, she's part of that bigger Air Force...

Jack finished voicing his original worry. Say what you want, protest... whatever... But he'll make her give it up all up, say it's for 'the good of the marriage,' or some other such crap... you mark my words.

Cassie gazed at Jack in abject concern. And you don't think she'll ever quit?

Jack snorted. Not the Carter that I've known until this year. He snorted again. That Carter won't quit the Air Force until she retires, and they probably won't be able to convince her to quit even then. But now he hunched over his beer bottle in uncertainty. This Carter... He shook his head in utter sorrow. I admit that I don't know what she'll do, and that scares the crap out of me.

His words sounded as stormy and uncertain as the cold outside air. They fell between him and Cassie like lead balloons, and neither of them said anything after his dire prediction.

Really, what more was there to say? Apart from her team, Jack inarguably knew Carter better than anyone else. If even he couldn't tell what she was thinking... What hope was there?

Dark thoughts swiftly overtook both occupants on the swing on Carter's deck. They grew lost in those dire thoughts as they continued to push in tandem against the deck floor, setting the swing into a small motion, even as their thoughts stilled on Jack's unpleasant prediction. The swing squeaked an angry protest to its sudden movement, its noise sounding loud in the windy air.

Neither Jack nor Cassie were conscious of the swing's cry as they went on pushing, back and forth, absently watching the party. Yet they both could now admit to themselves that they definitely didn't feel much like doing any partying anymore.

* * *

Half an hour later, Jack and Cassie had finally been called away from the swing when several more SGC soldiers arrived unexpectedly late to the party. When they told General O'Neill that they wanted to congratulate Lieutenant Colonel Carter on her recent engagement, they complained of not being able to find her, for she had seemingly disappeared from her own shindig.

Jack informed his soldiers, She was here the last time I checked, but that was several minutes ago. Mindful of how she had been kidnapped from a town parking lot in broad daylight several years before, and conscious that the perfect place for a kidnapper to hide would be a party full of unknown guests, he hesitantly stood. His instincts were screaming at him from the second that he'd become aware of Carter's apparent disappearance. He promised, I'll go see if she's somewhere in the house. You people keep checking out here.

Jack left Cassie in the company of Teal'c, who was one of those 'late arrivals,' and disappeared around the house at a clipped pace. Keeping in mind that in case this situation turned sour, and there really were hostiles in the immediate vicinity, he needed to continue to look and act nonchalant in order to continue fooling them into thinking that he didn't know about their existence. To that end, he stopped by his truck parked on the street long enough to heft the second six pack of Guinness brand beer that he had brought with him to the party, then walked with perhaps more caution than necessary up to Carter's front door. He realized that this would probably all come to nothing, and his concern proven fruitless, but he'd rather be cautious now than dead later.

Hence, his extreme caution when he opened the front door. He peered around the empty entry way. Carter? he called. You in here?

Jack resisted reaching for the gun that he always kept in a concealed holster at his right hip, but only just forced his hand to remain at his side. He had no reason yet to think that this was a dangerous situation, and refused to be prodded by his worry and jangling nerves into creating a scene at Carter's party.

Yet... His subconscious argued that Carter would get over his 'scene creation,' but not if she was dead.

Crap! He wished that he could decide what to do. But when push came to shove, Carter was nothing but another soldier under his command now. This engagement of hers thrust their relationship to a whole new level.... a whole new dimension. He conceded that, actually, her engagement with Shanahan had effectively buried anything but the most professional relationship that he and she had previously shared so deep that it was amazing that any feelings of affection for the other had survived at all. At any rate, he was far less familiar with this particular level of personal torture, and it still was enough to throw off his instincts just that little bit to make him feel constantly out of whack.

The silence of the house let in the noise from the party. Jack was startled when a loud laugh made him jump enough so that his right hand automatically tightened around what would typically have been the space taken up by his sidearm. His heart thumped wildly for a second, then he forced himself to calm down. He still had no specific reason to think that this had turned into a bad situation.

Jack silently berated himself for allowing his thoughts to wander so badly. Focused once more, he paced slowly through the living room, noticing that nothing was out of place, and none of the furniture looked to have been disturbed. Heartened by his discoveries so far, Jack proceeded on into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door to place the beer he was still carrying on the highest shelf. He turned the carton so that the post-it note that he had placed on it would be obvious and in front, and read over his message one more time.

Carter,

In case you miss your chance at the party, cheers!

O'Neill

Jack smiled briefly, then slid the beer carton in place. He hoped that leaving beer for her wouldn't be a gift that was misconstrued by anyone. He didn't think it would be, as he and Carter had always drunk a bottle of Guinness every time they got together in the old days. Personally, he didn't see how a party could take place without beer. He only hoped that Carter knew that she shouldn't combine alcohol with the pain killers that she had been given from the Infirmary that day.

Finished with his self appointed task, Jack again took the chance to call, Carter? Where are you? as he closed the fridge door.

His hands clenched again in another attempt to keep his side arm out of his hand in this potentially dangerous situation. But he reminded himself for the tenth time since entering Carter's house that this situation was only 'potentially' dangerous. Again, he had been given no indication so far that anything was amiss... except the feeling that something was amiss. And he'd learned a long time ago to listen to his gut feelings - they weren't always right, or his interpretation of them wasn't always right. But erring on the side of caution had kept him alive long enough to reach the rank of Brigadier General. And he wasn't about to abandon his instincts just because he was no longer a field agent.

Jack carefully walked deeper into the house, noticing how quiet it was, how dead. It didn't feel as if anyone had disturbed the air inside the house in quite awhile. The colder, clammy air clung to his skin as he navigated his way from the living room into the hallway. He passed by the bathroom, then proceeded to Carter's closed bedroom door.

Jack touched the wood near the door knob. It was cool to his touch, not warm, as it would have been if it had recently been in use. He looked further down the corridor, and noticed that the door to Cassie's bedroom was open, unlike Sam's, and her neat room met his gaze, showing that it was empty.

Jack turned back to Carter's door, and, taking a chance at disturbing someone if anyone was in Carter's room... God, not her and that... Jack gulped, and wisely decided to knock lightly on the wood. Carter? he called, praying that he wasn't making a fool of himself. If you're in there, I'm coming in - hope you're decent. With that, he pushed open the door.

There was Carter, alright, curled on the top of her bed, staring at him as he stood in the door.

Geez! Jack instantly said as he met her blue eyed stare. His heart was pounding again, half in fear of how he remembered feeling when he'd first discovered that she had been kidnapped all those years ago, and half in relief that a kidnapping didn't appear to be the reason behind her disappearance this time.

Upon a closer look, however, Jack could see that she had been crying by the tear streaks that still marred her cheeks - he had at last found 'that something that was amiss' that he had been worried about a moment before. Jack instantly wondered what there was for her to be concerned about enough to cry, but he couldn't answer his own question. Had something happened? Then he amended himself - something worse than the engagement?

Whatever had been the cause of her tears before now seemed to have receded, for she was no longer crying, and appeared more like she had just woken up from a very satisfying nap.

Are you all right? Jack inquired as he stood just inside the door.

Carter grunted, then worked herself around so that she could lean back against a pillow that she propped up against the headboard of her bed. Jack would have helped her, but he knew that she would never have allowed him to wait on her. So he watched while she struggled to sit up alone.

When she was situated to her satisfaction, she gazed at him without a shirk of her eyes or bob of her brow. No, I admit that I'm not alright, she responded in an unusual display of honesty, especially for her. But she continued speaking before Jack had the chance to react. I... uh... was standing... beside the house... and overheard your conversation... the one you just had with Cassie.

Jack studied her. But Carter's calm was encouraging to see. So he responded with the truth, that he didn't quite believe that he had missed something like her listening to his and Cassie's entire conversation. Really? he asked in disbelief. He must have been more captivated by his and Cassie's talk than he thought.

Carter did wrinkle her brow this time. Did you see me, Sir? Did Cassie know about me... listening? she gamely finished.

With the way that she was talking? Jack rhetorically inquired of his Colonel. You heard what Cass said... it's my guess that she had no idea. Jack threw a smirk in Carter's general direction. I guess this is a good thing though... that you heard, he corrected himself.

Carter shot him a look of puzzlement. How so? she asked.

Jack shrugged and explained, If Cassie keeps up this not-talking to you stuff, you might never hear what she's thinking any other way than to listen in. Then he gave her one of his grins. So... I'm glad that I could help.

Carter now shot him a marginally acerbic glare that also somehow conveyed her gratitude. I should take this time to thank you, Sir, in showing me that my relationship with Cassie is on such rocky ground. She looked down at the bed, as if she were afraid to meet his gaze. I didn't have the slightest clue that things had gotten so bad. A sigh hissed out of her clenched teeth. But now that I know, I'll... uh... be sure to talk to her, tomorrow probably. Another sigh raked through the quiet in the room. It's time that we had a heart to heart, I guess.

Yeah, Jack agreed with her. You know that I'm glad to help in whatever way I can. Cassie's well-being and happiness is my responsibility, too, ya know.

Carter's brow furrowed even more. She looked half incensed that he had reminded her of their co-guardianship, but instead of insisting on the fact that she didn't need to be reminded of how things stood between them concerning the journalism student, she asked, You don't think she'll really take you up on moving in with you, do you?

Carter was worried that Cassie might - he could tell by her anxious tone of voice. Jack sighed, hating to see this indecisive side of his former 2IC, but again ignoring his own concern in order to be perfectly honest with her. I hope not. At least, it wasn't my intention at the time to take her away from you and this house. He glanced up to the ceiling, taking in her entire house by association. I just wanted her to feel like she has the option to move in with me if things with Shanahan become too... He didn't say it out loud, but he might as well have said it. The words 'too bad' echoed in the quiet room. He had also been going to mention the house the cop had bought, but remembered at the lasst moment that she wasn't supposed to know about that yet, and decided against it.

Still Carter sent him a quirking expression. You can say it, Sir, she grunted in a slightly aggravated tone. You meant to say 'in the house that Pete bought without my knowledge or input.' She sighed again, the sound hissing through her teeth. This isn't the first time that he's tried to 'surprise me,' though I've told him several times that surprises and me don't really go together. The last she added with just a hint of apology.

But as far as Jack was concerned, she had nothing to apologize for, and definitely shouldn't feel that she had to apologize for the actions of that... To cover his thoughts, Jack's smirk was again in evidence. Yeah, you do have the tendency to shoot surprises, and ask questions after they're dead, don't you?

Carter's aggravation had changed to an expression that was more ironic. She didn't disagree with his assessment of her, nor say how spot on his opinion was. That would be evidence that he could predict her actions with alarming accuracy, 'alarming' especially considering that she was engaged to a different man who obviously couldn't predict her at all, not if he was buying houses to 'surprise' her and expected to live to tell about it. Still, I suspect that it won't be the last time he does something like this, no matter how often I tell him not to 'surprise' me.

Jack chose to abruptly change the subject. Why are you in here, Carter? Speaking of... or I should say 'alluding to' your little shindig here... He did a 'Cassie wave' with his hand towards the back area of her house, indicating her party. Are you in pain again, and that's why you're hiding out in here? he inquired next. Do you want me to get a pain killer for you?

Who says that I'm hiding? she instantly asked, and Jack immediately shot her an expression that said, 'I may be a General now, but I'm not dead yet. Don't pretend that I don't know what's going on.' So she rephrased her last remark. I'll take one in a minute. First I want to ask you... She paused to lower her brows, but this time her frown was one of pensive curiosity. Do you really think that... what you said... that military marriages often end in...

Eventual divorce? he finished for her.

Yeah, she said, not meeting his gaze. To the bedspread wrinkled under her left hand, she hesitantly continued, Do you really think that... I'll get transferred someday?

Jack quirked a grimace. It's always a possibility, he eventually conceded. It's the military way, he added, appealing to her basic knowledge of a military life.

And do you really think..? Carter didn't have to finish her question.

Jack sighed this time. Carter, he said as an opener to this discussion. You and I have both seen the scenario a hundred times if we've seen it once. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, knowing that she would read his discomfort in his stance, but that no one else would see his true feelings on the subject. Some marriages are strong enough to last through something like a transfer to... say... another state... or another country... or... His voice trailed away before he could vocalise 'another galaxy.'

Carter knew what he cut off, but she didn't comment on that at all. Instead she argued, Your marriage survived.

Jack's wrinkled nose was her answer. Not really, he thoughtfully responded, then divulged, Mine and Sarah's marriage was over long before we actually admitted it, and split up. He shrugged. There just wasn't a strong enough attachment between us to survive both the long distance thing, and Charlie's... Again, Jack was unable to go on.

When he had once more gathered his emotions back into the fists he had stuffed into the front pockets of his trousers, he went on, Even Dave was telling me that he's having trouble with Angie, he confided.

This comment surprised Carter. Her brows rose again as she inquired, Dave... Dixon? Jack nodded. Huh... I thought that if his marriage could survive four kids at once, it could survive anything.

Don't tell anyone what I just said, he cautioned then. Dave told me that in a certain amount of confidence - he was asking for leave to deal with what he called 'personal problems,' and when I asked for something more specific than that, broke down in tears in my office and blurted out the whole story.

Dave Dixon?! Carter incredulously asked. Crying?!

Jack gave another casual shrug. I guess that you don't have dibs on all the SGC tears.

Reminded of her recent crying spree, Carter didn't bother to pretend that he hadn't noticed the stains on her cheeks. My tears are over something a bit different though, Sir, she quietly argued.

Jack gave her another shrug. The reason's different, and it isn't, he added to her assertion. I know that you were crying over Cassie this time, but you and... Shanahan... It was getting harder and harder to say the man's name each time he mentioned it! At last he only asserted, What I'm saying is that you better be very sure about this, Carter.

Carter still wouldn't meet his gaze. Or? she asked, sounding nervous.

Jack went on after her prompting. Or... He sighed, saddened by his concerns. What if you're posted somewhere... that's not exactly overseas... which is hard enough on a relationship... but what if you're sent to...? His voice had lowered at the end, to the point where it vanished altogether, but no one was listening to either of them anyway as she had been to his earlier conversation. So he went on, Then you might only come home once or twice a year, for maybe a week at a time... That's quite a big separation. Then he waited to go on until she glanced up at the uncharacteristic silence. Do you think Shanahan can handle that kind of a separation?

Carter cringed, giving the indication that this very thing had been the topic of previous conversations, but only carefully replied, I think... we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, Sir.

Which was an answer, but really wasn't an answer. Typical. In true Carter fashion, she was refusing to acknowledge that it was bothering her.

Which was okay with Jack. You thinking of Pegasus? he inquired, not specifically voicing that Pegasus was in another galaxy, and he used a nonchalant tone to hopefully cover the importance of this posting.

Carter lifted her shoulders in a shrug. Or... another site, she admitted, not quite naming the Alpha Site, or the Beta Site, or Area 51, but referring to them anyway.

But Jack knew what she was talking about. Yeah, any of those is a possibility, he noted, still not entirely knowing what to say to give her a better feeling about this. He didn't want to hurt her feelings, after all, or give her the impression that she had only a transfer to look forward to. But he wouldn't lie to her, no matter how much he wanted to.

Silence reigned, and they made no more sounds until Jack couldn't stand the quiet any longer. I'm not saying that this kind of a transfer will ever happen, he insisted. I'm just saying that it's always a possibility, and that you should think about what it will do to your... marriage.

He looked nonchalant to the casual observer, but he was uncomfortable as hell with that thought. The evidence of his discomfort was right there for all to see in the sight of his fists tightening inside his pockets again.

You're right, she conceded, her eyes on his bulging pockets. It bears taking into consideration.

Jack quietly said, I'm just pointing out what I've seen happen so far at my own postings.

That's all you can do, I guess, and I'm grateful for you taking the time to even think about it, she said. Then she glanced down again, timidity taking over her tone. I would be lying if I said that I hadn't already thought of that, too.

Ah-ha - it was as he thought. But instead of crowing at her in an 'I thought so' fashion, Jack only went on, You and I have been in the military too long for this not to be an issue... at a time like this, he lamely ended. As a cover for his lameness, he waved again, vaguely indicating her state of affairs with Shanahan. But he didn't say anything more specific this time.

Uncomfortable at the personal ground this conversation was dealing with... sort of dealing with... Jack gave that same gesture he'd given to Teal'c when he'd first arrived: he pointed his thumb over his shoulder. I'll go collect Cassie for you - you and she really need to talk, and there's no time like the present. I'll come back to grab a painkiller for you. He turned in the door and left without waiting for her agreement.

Jack made his way outdoors, then to Cassie's side to quietly tell her, Carter wants to talk you - she's in her bedroom.

Cassie's brows rose at his quiet declaration. She thanked him instead of commenting, then clearly surprised, disappeared into the house. Jack followed her, intent on getting a pain pill and glass of water for Carter.

Jack was just reaching into the cupboard beside the sink where Carter always kept her temporary medications, like pain relievers, when Shanahan slipped in behind him.

Jack fought back the groan that always wanted to erupt the second he sighted the cop. Maybe Carter had plenty of things to say to the man, but Jack preferred to stay far away from him at all times. He was less likely to hurt the detective if he did.

When Shanahan stayed where he was by the sliding back door and stared at him, Jack felt that he should say something. Paul?

Pete, the cop answered. Pete Shanahan.

Ah, Jack said with a lift of his brows, as if to say 'Pete... that's the name.' I'll get it right one of these days, Jack said instead into the silence that had settled on the kitchen. Just be patient with me, Pa... He shook his head, then acted like he was correcting his line of thought. Pete. Then he explained his name gaff. I have a lot of soldiers under my command, and a lot of names to remember. Then he laughed a fake laugh. I think that the 'name place' in my brain is full up just now... I can't keep anybody's name straight. Then he turned on one of his most charming smiles. Can I do something for you? he asked, making an effort to keep his voice light and easy. Only his friends would hear the strain in the tone.

Pete gestured at the cabinet. Are you looking for something? He nodded at the way Jack was seemingly rummaging around in Sam's cupboards.

Pain pills, Jack said. Because of Carter's hand.

Oh, Pete said. Always trying to be of help, Pete quickly suggested, Why don't I get that for her. Then he gave Jack an almost bashful look. I have to expect that she'll come back from that job of hers injured often enough - I better get used to giving her medication sooner rather than later.

Jack wasn't fooled by the man's demeanor of helpfulness: Pete was 'brown-nosing,' as Cassie had said. But he didn't know what he could do about it. So he withdrew his hand from the cupboard before it closed around the pill bottle that the SGC doctor had given to Carter just that day. Be my guest, he invited, aiming for a light tone, but his voice was still just a touch nasty in spite of his efforts. First shelf.

Jack changed places with the smaller man, and when Pete wasn't able to immediately fulfill his directive, told him, Whenever she has meds, she hides the pill bottle inside the brown coffee mug, so no one will see it, and take her pills when they're not supposed to. Jack watched Pete show his curiosity over the strange directions, but dumped the mug into his hand, and a bottle of pills slid into his waiting palm. Jack went on in the meantime. Carter started that when Cassie was small, and we all just kept up the habit.

Pete opened the bottle and shook one small white pill into his palm after reading the bottle's label. She doesn't need to worry about Cassie much anymore, though, Pete noted as he replaced the lid to the meds.

Jack gave a start at the way Pete was seemly dismissing Cassie, but before he could say anything in defense of his ward, Pete added, Cassie's all grown up now, and I'm sure that she knows better than to take other people's medications. Then he made the motions to carefully replace the lid on the pill bottle, belying his words.

Jack ignored the conversation that Pete was trying to start up with him, and instead waved towards the bottle of pills still in Pete's hand. Jack stated, I'd just leave the lid off, if I were you.

Pete objected, But that's dangerous. He snapped the lid in place.

Jack sighed in irritation that he didn't pretend to hide. That's true, he conceded. But consider the fact that Carter is right handed, that bottle has a child safety lid on it, and with Carter's burned and bandaged right hand, how is she supposed to get the lid off her pills in the future if she needs another pill, and no one is here to get it for her?

I'll be here for her, Pete instantly argued.

Jack sighed again. Tell me, he said, Do you have a job?

Pete shrugged, obviously not knowing where this conversation was going. Yeah, you know I do: every day, at the station.

And what's Carter supposed to do when you're at work? Jack rhetorically asked.

The light of understanding washed over Pete's expression. He then reached back into the mug where he'd just placed Carter's meds, retrieved the bottle, then reopened the lid. He looked assessingly at the pill bottle. What am I supposed to do with it now? he inquired. I don't feel right leaving it open like this so that just anyone can take them.

Was this guy that clueless? Jack sighed, but kept the sound to himself. Put it in a sandwich bag - it should be safe that way, at least from spilling. Then he joked, And I don't think Carter will let just anyone take her pain meds away from her - she'd beat them up first.

Pete just nodded an acknowledgment of the idea, then spent time rifling through two drawers, looking for the sandwich bags. I don't suppose you now where Sam keeps the..?

Inside that cupboard, Jack said, then pointed to the one he meant.

Oh. Pete retrieved a bag from the correct cupboard, then proceeded to dump the pills into the bag.

Include the bottle, for dosage purposes, Jack told the man, and Pete then just dumped the entire thing into the bag.

Wow... Jack was amazed at the way he had to tell the cop everything. He sure hoped that Carter didn't mind living with a dork who clearly had never been injured before. Or at least, not injured as often as the SG team members seemed to be. Now put it back in the mug so we can all find it later, Jack added, feeling as if he were talking to an infant.

Still oblivious, Pete complied, but continued on with the 'conversation' by asking, What do you mean by 'we all? He turned to look at Jack in puzzlement. Who is 'we all?' Do you mean her team?

Jack nodded, but Pete still looked confused. Why? he asked, still sincerely puzzled. They don't need to 'drop by' - I'll be here. Then his eyes narrowed in his confusion. And you're not part of her team, he protested. Do you plan to drop by, too? At Jack's second nod of affirmation, he went on, There's really no need, you know.

Jack was internally stunned. Was that a dismissal that he'd just heard? How could he be expected to NOT check up on Carter, especially after her kidnapping at..?

Ah! The lightbulb went on over Jack's head - all Pete's arguments were because Carter had never told him about her kidnapping. (Wow, her kidnapping seemed like it had happened only yesterday, not years ago.) Jack explained, Carter has a week off to recover from her injuries. One of us will be around at some time or other to check on her, you know, make sure she hasn't been kidnapped this time, he lightly said.

Jack had made the comment on purpose - he wanted to make sure that Pete knew exactly what he was getting into. But the joke was obviously lost on Pete. Kidnapped?! the man blurted. He snorted a laugh. Why do you think that would happen? He closed the cupboard door, and proceeded to get Sam a glass full of water.

At least he knows to do that much, Jack thought wryly to himself, but answered Pete's inquiry. She was taken a few years back, and it was a few days before any of us realized it. Since then, we always check on each other over long periods of time when we're on leave, just to make sure the entire team is okay.

Pete stood at the sink, the glass dripping with water in his hands, his brow creased in puzzlement. But why was she taken? he inquired. She's perfectly safe here.

Meaning 'on Earth.' At least the man hadn't said the words aloud.

Jack didn't want to rejoice too soon at Pete's grasp of the word 'classified,' or to burst the man's bubble, but felt that he 'needed' to explain. Or, more accurately, because he liked causing 'trouble' for 'the happy couple,' and this explanation was sure to cause something of a dustup. Because of the nequedah in her blood, he said, then shrugged a nonchalant shrug, as if that reason was too obvious to need even this much of an explanation. They wanted a piece of her.

Pete laughed again, a short guffaw. Her what? he asked.

And Jack now had the proof that he'd been looking for on this issue: Carter hadn't told Shanahan about her blood, either. Jack quickly grew more closed mouthed. I'll let Carter tell you about that, he said, acting like he didn't want to get involved with something that was between the 'happily engaged couple.'

Pete was clearly befuddled. Wait a minute... I still don't get it. He gave Jack a confused stare, then said, She just has a burned hand... what does that have to do with her blood?

Jack ignored the blood comment to focus on her 'just burned hand.' Carter has a lot more than just a burned hand, Jack told him, slightly incensed that Shanahan would even think that nothing but a burning was her reward for a mission that had failed so spectacularly. The guy was a cop, wasn't he? Wouldn't he at least suspect that something other than a burned hand was plaguing Carter? The guy was planning to marry her, for crying out loud! Shouldn't he already have knowledge of the way that Carter always hid her injuries as much as possible, and be able to anticipate that defense mechanism of hers?

But Jack stopped his thoughts. If Shanahan truly suspected the extent of Carter's 'minor' injuries, would he have gone ahead with this little engagement party instead of letting his fiancé rest? Really?

Jack didn't think so. So... Shanahan didn't know about her other 'minor' injuries. So... Why hadn't Carter told him? Good question.

Not having any reason to lie to the man, Jack told Pete everything. Carter came back the other day with second degree burns on her right hand, a cracked rib, and a four inch diameter bruise on her back, which means that she was probably clubbed with some sort of hard object. (Possibly a staff weapon? But he didn't voice this suspicion of his aloud.) In spite of all that, she managed to get her team out of that fortress they were being held prisoner in and got them home. The pride in his voice was unmistakable.

So of course, Pete missed it entirely. He gaped at Jack's list of Sam's injuries, glossing over her accomplishments. She... she didn't... say anything about being held prisoner, he stuttered. The text message that she sent to me just said something about getting back from a hard mission, that's all! She said she was fine!

Of course she did, Jack thought, but said nothing.

So Pete went on, filling up the silence. She didn't say anything about that other stuff! She would have told me if she wanted people to know! Then he looked alarmed. I don't think you should have told me, either!

Well, don't tell her that I told, Jack dourly suggested. You know Carter... she'll never complain about anything less than her certified death, and probably not even then. Jack was leaning nonchalantly back against the counter by this point in his speech. She has her 'tells,' though, if you know what to look for.

'Tells!' Pete exclaimed in repetition of Jack. This isn't a poker game!

Jack waved the other man's annoyance aside like it was so much unimportant fluff. It's poker according to her, he argued.

Pete huffed angrily. If I'd known about all her injuries, I would have never held this party! he glanced out the back door to the guests milling around his fiancé's yard. I would have insisted that she rest! What the hell is she doing out of your... hospital... thing... anyway?

Jack truly did sigh this time - this was a recent point of contention with him. Carter managed to talk the CMO of the base into releasing her because she knew that she needed to be here for this party. I don't know what the Doc was thinking - she's been at the base long enough that she should know about Carter and her ways by now. Anyway, that doctor's gone. Finito. I transferred her the minute I heard, so it won't happen again, he promised, though why he cared what this... cop... thought of how he ran the SGC was beyond his reasoning.

Pete huffed another angry sigh, but couldn't argue with Jack on how he'd chosen to handle this Infirmary situation as regards his fiancé. He just indicated the pill and water he was still holding by raising his hands. Whatever... You guys deal with your own politics. I'll just take these in to her. And he left the room.

Jack sighed in relief the minute Pete was gone. Why was it that that man seemed to suck the energy right out of a room?

* * *

There was nothing more for Jack to do in the house, now that he knew Carter was safe, so he made plans to rejoin the party, as much as he would rather head home. Maybe Cassie had been right - what was there to celebrate, really? Carter's coming union to her twerp? Jack could hardly celebrate that. Maybe he really should just go home? Had he seriously stayed long enough at the party to get away with disappearing on all the guests now?

But if he left as early as it was, Cassie would never forgive him, even if Carter was planning to... probably already had... ducked out of her own shindig in order to... what? That cop fellow had just taken a pain pill to Carter in her bedroom. When she took that pill, she would be out for hours - Jack knew that those pain pills had a definite sleep aid in them. He'd taken them himself on far too many occasions not to know what they would do to her - put her to sleep indefinitely, and Carter would miss her own party.

However, he at least was going to make certain that he didn't miss this party of Carter's. What if Carter chose to make another appearance later? He didn't want to have disappeared when the party had barely begun. He owed Carter that much, at least. Not to mention, he wouldn't abandon Cassie like that, even if it was unlikely that she would notice such an abandonment now that she was so keyed up all the time.

Decision made, Jack headed down the hall for a bathroom break before going back out to join the guests, as far away from the bar as possible. He didn't plan on getting drunk and playing the part of the star-crossed lover (not that he had ever been Carter's lover... star-crossed, or otherwise) He wouldn't do that - refused to do that! A beer, maybe - he would concede the need for another beer at this point. He might have another run-in with the cop, after all. A second beer might carry him through that mythical encounter. But nothing stronger!

Determination flowing through him, Jack prepared to do one of the hardest things he'd ever done, but also one of the noblest. Damn me and my nobility! Jack morosely thought as he headed for the bathroom first before going back outside.

Carter's bathroom was like the rest of her house - small. There was no space wasted. There was a sink and a bathtub in plain site through the bathroom door from the hall, and the toilet was tucked out of sight in an alcove behind the bathroom door.

Jack didn't even turn the light on - he used the small illumination from a night light that Carter had installed on one wall ti see by. As he shut the door, he decided that he would just get this whole party thing over with faster if he hurried now. So he quickly took care of his business, and was about to wash his hands when the sound of a loud voice greeted his ears. He belatedly realized that he hadn't shut the door tight, like he thought he had. The bathroom door had swung open a few inches, and now stood just slightly ajar. But the opening was wide enough for him to hear such a heated conversation.

Jack heard Cassie's loud and angry voice first. I don't know that I want to do that, Sam, the young woman harshly ground out. Six months ago, without even asking me first - and I happen to be your ward who is completely affected by your life-decisions... But without even asking me what I thought of the issue, you go off and start dating some guy who I didn't know, and who had never heard of me. I wouldn't have even cared, but whenever I asked to meet him, you made excuse after excuse that kept me from ever meeting him; it's like you wanted to keep him a big secret. Then, when I finally do get to meet this guy who was playing a large part in my life whether I liked it or not, he calls me a little girl, and goes so far as to offer to buy me ice cream, she scorned. I can't be bought, Sam.

I know that, Cass, Carter said in her ultra-patient voice, as if she had covered this same point with Cassie many times already. I don't see what's so bad about ice cream. It sounded like Cassie was spoiling for a fight with Carter, but Carter wasn't obliging her by being easily provoked.

Cassie went on again, now sounding tired, and as if Carter was an idiot to not have thought of this herself, Ice cream is fine, Sam, and offering to buy me some is fine, too, except that I'm not twelve years old! I'm a Freshman at Duke University, for crying out loud!

Jack had to smile slightly when he heard Cassie employ one of his favorite phrases. But before he could get lost in his appreciation, Cassie was going on, and he couldn't help but hear her comments - she was talking loudly enough.

And does Detective Shanahan do any detecting by trying to feel me out about the whole Blue Devil mascot crisis that's going on at Duke right now? No, she answered in rhetorical derision. He chooses to talk about some case or other that he's investigating right now, then - oops! - suddenly remembers that he can't tell me about that because... and he gets all quiet as he says the words 'for security reasons' as if I don't already have the highest clearance in the entire country.

Jack felt like a heel - this was a private conversation between Cassie and Carter - he shouldn't be listening to it like he was... not that he could help hearing it - Cassie wasn't doing a particularly good job of keeping her voice down, but that was no excuse.

Jack was on the verge of making his way to the sink, of washing and drying his hands, then returning to the party, but he could see through the crack between the door and its wall hinges that a fourth person had unknowingly joined them recently.

Pete... the cop... came to a stop in the hallway, right outside the bathroom door, clearly listening intently to Cassie's and Carter's words, and not seeming to feel reproach at all at his obvious eavesdropping.

Jack peered through the opening at Pete's back, and gave a growl low in his throat. Where the hell had he come from? Hadn't he left to go to Carter's room before Jack had also left the kitchen? Had the man been waylaid at the front door by a party guest?

Whatever the reason, he had suddenly appeared. If Jack left the bathroom now, Pete would inevitably see him. He would have to deal with that man again, whether he wanted to or not, and Jack had no desire whatsoever to come in contact with the man once more. So Jack couldn't leave the bathroom - doing so now would be sure to draw Pete's attention, and Jack would be forced to deal with him anyway.

Jack gave a grunt of appreciation - it was rather like Cassie's dilemma - he would have to deal with Pete no matter what he wanted.

Or (and there was always an 'or') he could turn on the water to make enough noise to override Cassie's voice? Yeah, that might work!

Jack was aiming in the direction of the sink in order to turn on the water when he couldn't help but hear Carter's voice responding to Cassie's comment about Pete. The peeved sound arrested him, and he was listening again before he knew what he was doing.

Don't frown at me like that, Cass, the Colonel reprimanded. Pete offered to buy you ice cream because he was just trying to be nice.

Nice? Cassie sneered. Then why didn't he do the normal things, like ask what I'm majoring in, which is Journalism, or when do I graduate, which on the accelerated course schedule that I'm on, is in a little over two years. Or maybe closer to home for him, he could bring up the idea of campus police versus real police, and which one is preferable to me. But no, he offers to buy ice cream, when I'm lactose intolerant, and he pulls my hair like I'm some little kid who can be bought with a gift that I'm allergic to. And you told him about my lactose problem - I heard you when I was still in the kitchen that day I met him. So, excuse me if I think he's a little nut case, but...

Carter's sigh was explosively loud. Cass, Pete is simply a nice, genuine guy who cares a great deal for me! I would think that you...

Sam, I think that you don't think much at all about any of this, Cassie broke in to say. In fact, you haven't thought much at all since this guy came into your life, and you certainly haven't thought about me, or about how this kind of life-change that you're doing affects me and my life. It sounded like she had sneered as she said the words, as if she thought that Carter was stupid for not thinking that her decisions affected everybody else in her life. Cass went on, And now you want me to let him insinuate himself into my life, too, just because he's managed to worm his way into yours? NO. FREAKIN. WAY.

Carter expelled her breath in a huge sigh of irritation one more time. You didn't used to talk like this, Cass, all this cursing and anger. If Janet was still alive, she would be ashamed of you for...

Oh, bringing up the Doc was a mistake sure to rile Cassie.

True to Jack's mental prediction, Cassie was quickly veeeery riled. She interrupted, her voice hard. If Mom was alive... it's you she would be ashamed of, and don't go trying to tell me that she would have supported this whole farce that your life has become, either, 'cause I'm not buyin' it anymore. She sounded like she was trying so hard to restrain her anger that her voice cracked. Mom can't do anything about this, not anymore, and neither can I, because you won't let me. But don't expect me to stick around and watch it just because I'm your ward.

Cassie must have turned to go, because Carter called, Cass, wait! in a suddenly desperate voice. She sent one final plea to her ward. Pete loves me. I'm going to marry Pete. Why can't you understand that?

Jack felt himself cringe at Carter's words, but Cassie's response was swift and pointed.

I wonder, why the heck you say 'Pete loves me,' but not 'I love Pete, and Pete loves me?' Are you incapable of even saying it, Sam? Or do you not say it because it's not true? Cassie's voice was so hard it was like the screeching of fingernails over a rock.

Jack did a double take after that particular question. Of course it was true... much to his regret. But then, Jack did a double double take. He'd never thought to question his assumption that Carter loved Pete, but now... she must love Pete... she'd told him 'yes' to his marriage proposal, after all... so, she loved him... obviously... it was true... wasn't it? At least, that's what Jack had always thought... but now that he considered it, he hadn't ever heard the words 'I love Pete' from Carter herself. There had been plenty of similar declarations from Pete, but none from Carter.

How interesting...

Jack quickly squashed the surge of hope that slammed into him. Carter had said nothing except 'yes' to the cop's proposal - what more did she need to say?

But Carter didn't respond at all to Cassie's latest comment, so Jack still wasn't sure about the state of her affections. When she remained silent, a moment later Cassie nastily said, Lie to yourself if you feel the need - but don't lie to me at the same time.

Carter now gave a sad sounding gust of air. Cassie - college has changed you, that's for sure, and not for the better. I used to think that I know you: now I'm not sure that I know you at all.

That's funny, Cassie quickly riposted. I'd have to say that I definitely don't know you anymore. Footsteps sounded as she approached the door, and Pete automatically took several steps back down the hall, but Jack remained motionless behind the door, knowing that sudden movement would be a dead giveaway to his position.

Movement of any kind turned out to be unnecessary, however. Cassie went on speaking instead of fully leaving the room. If the invitation from Jack to live with him is still open, I'm moving in with him. You won't have to bother with me or with my animosity any more. Good-bye, Sam.

Cassie began to move towards the door again, according to her footsteps on the wooden bedroom floor, but didn't get far before Carter once more interrupted her retreat. Cass, wait! You know that's not what I want! I want...

Cassie interjected, You don't know what you want, Sam, and worse, when you do realize what it is you want, you ignore it instead of going after it like the woman I know who stayed with me in that bunker years ago 'cause she cared about me so much. And to top things off, that same woman had to defy the direct order of her CO in order to stay.

In the hall, Pete's nose wrinkled, and Jack guessed that the cop was wondering what the heck Cassie was talking about. The fact that Jack knew exactly what incident she was referring to gave him a minute sense of satisfaction.

But once again Cassie had more to say to Carter, interrupting Jack's satisfaction. I always thought this woman would do the same thing again for me in a heartbeat. There was a slight pause, then Cassie continued in a voice heavy with sarcasm, Well, you know what? That woman I used to know now lives in 'denial land,' because she's too scared to come out and show her shit. Cassie paused, as if she were pondering something. Sometimes I wonder where that woman with so much umph went? Then her voice grew hard again as she answered her own question. I'll tell you where she's gone - she's too busy playing 'let's pretend' to take the time to care one way or another what the hell I do. And if you don't like me cussing, then do something about it. Silence again. Yeah, that's good old Sam Carter for ya. Cassie's exaggerated sigh filled the room and bled out into the hallway and into the bathroom. Well, I can say one thing about you now - at least you're consistent.

Ouch.

Cassie jumped back in to the conversation before Carter had the chance to head her off. I'll move my things out as soon as I have the chance, tonight probably, now preferably. I don't want to bother you, after all. You might have to think, and I wouldn't want to be the cause of harming your brain.

Double ouch. Cassie was certainly not pulling her punches with this conversation.

Cassie marched through the bedroom door, and practically ran into Pete in the hall, still holding the pain pill and glass of water. She shot him a venomous glare, then blurted to him, She's all yours. That should make you happy, Stalker Boy. She made a move to go around his bulk in the hall, aiming for her room, but as she passed him, said under her breath, but clearly enough so that Jack heard every word. And that saying that you never overhear good things about yourself when you do abhorrent things like lurk in doorways to listen to conversations that don't include you? She sneered. Yeah, well, that saying's true, isn't it? Then she smoothly whipped around him and proceeded into her room, which was directly across from the bathroom. She didn't bother to shut the door as she started cleaning out her drawers and her closet with the efficiency of a college student who was used to packing her things in a hurry.

Jack surreptitiously watched her for a moment through the crack of the door, feeling bad for Carter at the things Cassie had said to her, but acknowledging that Cassie had a point with her arguments at the same time. Still, he didn't see anything that he could do for them except take care of Cassie for Carter. (But he somehow didn't think that would make Carter feel much better.)

Personally, he didn't much care who Cassie lived with. But he knew that whatever she decided to do affected Carter, often in a sad way, especially lately. For that he wished that there was something that he could do to convince Cassie to stay where she already was. But Cassie seemed adamant about moving out, if he could judge by the way she was industriously shoving her clothes into the three bags that she pulled from her closet. Next, he saw her retrieve several flattened boxes, and a roll of packing tape from her desk.

Jack was impressed at how fast she was at packing. He had to give Cassie credit - she was one prepared young woman. She was busy wrapping the porcelain container that she usually kept on one shelf of her bookcase with a t-shirt when he decided that he'd been standing there in hiding long enough. What was he doing, anyway? This skulking in the dark, listening in on conversations wouldn't help Carter or Cassie in the long run. It didn't make him any better than the cop!

Which reminded Jack - what was the cop doing now, anyway? Jack let his gaze wander through the hallway - Shanahan must have disappeared into Carter's bedroom, because the hall was now empty. That man couldn't have gone anyplace else, unless he had somehow managed to squeeze into the hall's linen closet for some reason.

As he looked, Jack let his mind wander. He remembered the day that Cassie had come to live with Carter like it had been yesterday, not months ago. That moving day had been tinged with the sadness of Fraiser's death. Though the event had been so terribly sad, it also strangely brought some good memories along with the sadness. The four of them... back when they'd all still undeniably been SG-1... when they had moved Cassie to Carter's house, they had bonded over the death of a friend, a doctor, a mother... It had been a moment that he now oddly cherished; they had all seemed so close then. What had happened to that closeness, Jack wondered.

Shanahan had happened, that's what. Again Jack was reminded about the cop's whereabouts, and he glanced back down the hall to the living room, looking for him, but the sound of the man's voice coming from Carter's room solved this new mystery soon enough.

Hey, Beautiful! Pete called - his voice was so loud, Jack had no trouble hearing every word the man said. He wondered how Carter could stand to be so close to such a loud voice. That boss of yours... what's his name?

General O'Neill, Carter answered in a matter of fact tone.

Carter also sounded slightly annoyed at Pete, probably for never remembering her CO's name. Jack kind of suspected that Pete did the 'never remember the name thing' on purpose as a way to get back at him, who never seemed able to remember his name, either. The fact that Carter had always seemed to think that both men were acting a bit on the juvenile side about the name thing was beside the point.

Carter must have wriggled around, trying to sit up even further on her bed, for the bed springs squeaked, as if someone was trying to move across the covers. A moment later, Jack heard Carter give a hiss and a grunt, as if she'd hurt herself. Jack figured that she was busy trying to let her pain make her forget about the fight she'd just had with Cassie. If she examined her motives more closely, she might have realized that she was doing exactly what Cassie was accusing her of - denying, with a capitol 'D.' But she apparently didn't want to think too deeply about Cassie's motives for saying what she had said, or to concede to anything that was remotely specific, besides the fact that by now, so late in the day, she had to hurt... everywhere.

Jack heard the sound of someone rushing somewhere in the room, and realized that Pete had instantly hurried to be of whatever help he could to Carter, for Jack clearly heard the cop say, Here let me do that for you, in his 'solicitous' voice. Carter sucked in another quick and noisy breath, so Jack assumed that the idiot cop must have whacked her cracked rib while fluffing her pillow for her, but she didn't say anything, so Jack knew that Pete hadn't realized just what he had done. Some Florence Nightingale he was turning out to be!

Take it slow, Babe, Pete next advised, so he must have seen Carter blanch from the pain. The General... O'Neill... was just telling me that you have a cracked rib. You really need to take care of that, and rest. Jack doubted that the cop had received as many cracked ribs as Carter had, or maybe any, to say nothing of the many ribs that she had broken in the past! Pete now went on, Why didn't you tell me about your rib, Babe? You must feel terrible.

Don't remind her, you idiot! Jack thought with a sense of irritation.

Aloud, Carter answered Pete's earlier question, I didn't tell you about my rib because I didn't want to bother you with it.

But she had personally told Jack about her rib. Did that mean she wanted to 'bother' him with it, even if she didn't want to 'bother' Pete with it? If so, then knowing her specific injuries was exactly the way that Jack loved being bothered!

Pete laughed a tiny laugh at what Carter had said. You're no bother, Sam. Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it.

Jack would loooove to tell Pete what he should do - like jump through the 'Gate to Ba'al.

Pete must have then offered Carter the pain pill and glass of water he'd carried to her, for he said, See, I can be a good little nurse - I brought this for you - I thought you might need one by now. He seemed ridiculously pleased with himself for even producing the painkiller, not to mention that he knew where to find it. The fact that it had been Jack himself who had to tell him exactly where to look for that pain pill seemed to be beside the point.

Jack heard a thunk next; Carter must have taken the tiny pill that Pete was offering her, and the glass of water from his hand, and set them both on the table near her bed.

Don't you need it yet? Pete's voice was mournful now, and Jack wondered if he was adding his 'puppy dog' eyes to his words to give her the full effect of his 'sorrow.' Jack rolled his eyes at the image that Pete's words created.

In a minute, Pete, Carter said in her best diplomatic voice. She stubbornly went on as she made her bed squeak once more. First I want to talk to you about... transfers.

'Transfers?' Even Jack was confused at what she was getting at: she wasn't transferring anywhere... that he knew of.

It would probably also have been comical to see Pete's own confusion at that word if Jack... or Carter... had been in the mood to laugh. However, neither of them was, not after that altercation Carter had just had with Cassie. And besides, didn't laughing hurt her rib?

Transfers? Pete inquired, sounding completely confused, just as Jack had predicted. As in, for your job? Of course for her job! Was Pete a total moron? Transfers were the military way of life, and wasn't Carter in the military? Geez!

But Jack wondered, shouldn't they be talking about what had just happened with Cassie instead of transfers? What was up with that? It was almost as if Cassie had been right - that Carter was avoiding again... in denial. She didn't want to deal with the real problem, so she was instead going on about something else entirely. Hmmmm - interesting.

What about transfers? Pete now asked.

Nothing, really, Carter responded quickly enough. I mean, nothing's wrong, as in, I'm not getting new orders to transfer to the North Pole tomorrow, she emphatically stated. She still wasn't discussing the Cassie problem.

Whew! Pete dramatically gasped after her comment about the North Pole. For a minute there, you had me worried!

No, there's nothing to worry about. Carter hesitated, then blurted, But I do want you to know... She hesitated a second time, and listening, Jack wondered if she would finally broach the subject of Cassie, but instead, she just kept on as she had been, and finally managed to blurt, The General said something to me that got me thinking...

Is he bothering you? Pete immediately wanted to know.

Jack shuddered with his attempt to remain quiet when he heard that - was he bothering Carter? When had he ever bothered her? Except in her lab... and when he was really bored...

Unaware of the listening Jack, Pete continued, Is he asking you to work ridiculous hours again?

Jack blinked in surprise - when had he ever asked Carter to work 'ridiculous' hours? He usually had to chase her out of her lab!

Once more, Pete went on, Because I can make sure that he leaves you alone, you know.

And just how was Pete going to 'make sure' that Jack left Carter alone? They worked together, for crying out loud! He was her CO, her commanding General! So... he had to command her! She was the foremost expert on the Stargate... in the entire world! How could he possibly leave that alone? And just what did Shanahan plan to do to Jack considering that work capacity thing that he and Carter shared?

Jack instantly noticed that Pete didn't say how he was planning on making the General 'leave her alone.' But if she noticed it, too, Carter chose not to go into that at the moment. No, it was nothing like that, she insisted. The General and I were just talking about what happens if... She paused right there.

Cassie! Jack's brain was screaming. She was pausing because she was now going to bring up Cassie, right?

But Jack hadn't given enough credit to Carter's stubbornness. It only increased, and she remained silent.

Jack heard rubbing, and the scraping of a bandage, as if Pete was now rubbing her arm, and had gotten too close to her bandaged area. Don't do that! he thought. It'll hurt her!

Pete obviously was doing too much 'soliciting,' for Carter's voice then carried to Jack, That's a bit too much rubbing, thanks, Pete - it's fine. Doctor Powers told me to just leave the bandage alone.

Jack figured that she was just grinning and bearing that detective fella's touch on her burned hand - silently suppressing the pain he was probably giving her, even if it was unintentional pain. The rustle of covers as she must have withdrawn her hand proved this idea.

Carter covered her action by speaking some more. I was wondering...

What? Pete interrupted. What's on your mind?

Carter so rarely talked that Jack wanted to put tape over the cop's mouth so that he would quit interrupting her now that she actually was talking.

Carter sighed, either in irritation at the interruption, or that she was glad for him stalling her 'talking' - Jack wasn't sure. Her sigh was still sad. At last she decided to say, I will admit that the General and I were wondering what happens if I get transferred away from the SGC, from Colorado.

Ah, finally, the point.

Pete sounded confused. You really do mean that you might put in for a transfer? he asked for clarification. Because why would you want to do that? He didn't give her the chance to respond to what he'd just said before he was speaking some more. This is where our friends are, our jobs are, our life is, here in Colorado Springs. Then he paused to say in suspicion, Are you planning on going somewhere?

Yeah, somewhere away from you! Jack wanted her to answer.

But of course, she didn't respond that way. No, she said. I'm not planning on going anywhere anytime soon. Then she added, At least, I'm staying right here... And she must have patted the mattress under her, for Jack heard a thumping noise. At least, I'm staying here for the immediate future, that is. Though she couldn't help but argue, Getting transferred without my input is the military way, however, and that's...

I know all about that, Pete insisted, sounding a trifle testy now. But what are you saying, Sam? Are you sure that you haven't been ordered to some base that's on the other side of the world, like Kuwait?

Carter laughed. This gesture sounded forced, but Jack had to admit to himself that he was biased in this instance - he might not be interpreting what he heard correctly.

Plus, It was a dumb reason for a laugh, if you asked him. Well, I doubt that I'll be sent to Kuwait, Carter replied, still chuckling (geez, it hadn't been that funny!) But that's sort of the idea, she continued. I might not even be able to tell you where I'm going if the transfer is to a classified location.

Good point.

I hadn't thought about classified transfers before. Pete then commented. Mark did warn me about the classified stuff, though.

'Warned him?' Ew! Not good! And not good to bring Mark into this conversation.

A concept that Carter instantly proved. Mark! she exclaimed, sounding really irritated now. What does he have to do with it?

You've done it now, Shanahan! Jack thought, but he was disappointed when the cop was able to quickly think on his feet and cover up his recent allusion to Carter's brother and all the anti-military sentiment that man reputedly harbored.

Pete hurried to protest, Nothing, nothing... I didn't mean anything by it. Mark just used to talk about his childhood, and about how he didn't always know where his Dad was. Pete paused again, then declared, But I have to say that's a lousy thing to do to someone's family, not letting someone tell his own kid where he is! He sounded indignant, as if he had to say something now for the absent Mark. Then he ruined the strong image he was trying to go for by adding, You would never do that, would you, Babe?

'Babe?' Shanahan had called her this before, and it still amazed Jack that Carter let him call her that - without hurting him.

Carter's voice was noticeably tighter when she said, Well... I wouldn't have much of a choice if the Air Force ever wants to send me somewhere classified.

You tell him! Jack thought, then added, Even if you're not telling him to cut that 'Babe' stuff out.

Pete's voice sounded irritated now. You know, he began by saying. I never really did approve of that idea that the military feels like they can send you wherever they want. His indignation had now gone into overdrive.

Carter went on, sounding tired and irritated herself. I'm trying to explain it to you Pete - I'm an airman... a soldier, she added as an easier... more familiar?... concept for this civilian to understand. And as an airman... soldier... I go where my superiors tell me to go, and when they tell me to go - that's the way it is with... with soldiers. It's my job.

You're darn tootin' it was her job. It always had...

Pete growled, cutting into Jack's thoughts. Well, it's a rotten job!

Hey! It wasn't any more rotten than working as a damned cop!

But Pete's whining/complaining about the military continued, I've always wondered what they were thinking, breaking up homes like that? Then another thought must have struck him, for he exclaimed, I've also always wondered about the spouses - like, what about me? Does the Air Force expect me to just sit here while you go traipsing off to who knows where when they want you to go?

'Traipsing...' Ooooh, this wasn't going well. Jack almost laughed at how Carter must look by now - like she'd been sucking on a lemon, he bet!

Carter replied, her voice tighter even than it had been before. That's what it's like for military spouses. She tried for a gentle sound, but missed by a mile, and sounded pissed instead. That's what it was like for the General's first wife.

Uh... excuse me, Jack thought. My first wife? Did I have a second one?

First wife? Pete sounded like, for some reason, he didn't appreciate that concept any more than Jack did. Has there been more than one?

Pete interrupted Jack's thoughts about his wives to declare the minute that Carter didn't answer, Sam, tell me that you're thinking of quitting that job of yours after we get married.

Quit! Carter couldn't quit! Jack would never get to see her then!

Pete went on, sounding desperate now. I don't want you to go off to who knows where overseas! The Army... I mean, Air Force... shouldn't be allowed to...

I can't quit, Pete, Carter softly cut in.

Her comment was blunt enough to stop even one of the famous Shanahan tirades. You can't quit? Or you won't quit? he asked in a harsher voice than he'd used so far.

Oh, here it was - the 'blood' conversation... Jack wondered if he could hide. Crap - he already was hiding.

Can't, Carter finally replied.

This response clearly shocked Pete: when he spoke, his voice was full of puzzlement. You can't? Just what have they got on you, Babe? he asked, befuddled.

'Got on her?' Nothing, you suspicious creep!

Pete, this is a part of my story that you can't tell anyone, Carter plaintively said.

How weird. Carter never begged.

But it seemed like she was begging now, begging the cop to understand. It's...

Classified? Pete finished in derision. Babe, how can you be classified?

Jack imagined Carter wincing here. My blood is the part of me that's classified, she eventually replied in a small voice.

She sounded as if she were ashamed of her blood being classified - which was silly. She'd never been ashamed of her blood before... so Jack suspected. In fact, it had come in very handy over the last years since Teal'c had gone on Tretonin.

But Pete of course didn't know that. And he sounded like he wouldn't have cared even if he had known. Sam, how can blood be classified? He was trying to understand what his fiancé was telling him. Not that it was all that hard. Blood is just blood, after all.

Well... not really.

Yes... and no, Carter reluctantly said.

And just why was she being so reluctant? Didn't she want to tell him about the whole shebang? She would have to, if she and he were going to get married.

Yes and no? Pete echoed her in disbelief.

Ah... the disbelief option...

Sam sighed, but went on, obviously knowing that this had to be said by her, and accepted by him, if she and Pete were ever to have a future together. I was once a... Her voice caught in her throat, and she stopped right there.

But, throat problems or not, she was clearly intending on telling Pete... everything, obviously. Jack was astounded. Carter hated this part of her past, and had always studiously refused to talk about it.

But now she went on in a small voice, I was once a... But her voice caught again.

This sounded like it was really hard for her to talk about. Jack wasn't surprised. He didn't particularly like talking about the time that he had almost been made into a host by Hathor, either. In fact, he had been made into a host when Kaanan blended with him. He had always refused to let anyone, even Doc Fraiser... when she had been alive... to talk about either incident. They both gave him the total creeps even now!

Carter would understand why it was so hard for Jack to talk about this host thing, and vice versa. But Pete wouldn't. Because Pete had never seen a symbiote before, he didn't know what they really did. Sure, he knew about the Stargate, but he still had no real idea what it had uncovered to the human race, or what being a 'host' truly meant.

And he didn't know about how Carter wouldn't be here without that original sacrifice on 'the snake's' part, or that Jolinar had left a piece of herself in Carter's memories, and in her blood.

And Jack finally caught on to Carter's dilemma: just HOW was she supposed to tell Pete about all this, he, who had been kept purposely ignorant as to the finer points of Stargate travel?

Jack felt glad that he wasn't in Carter's shoes... sandals... right now.

Sam, Pete prompted. You were once a... what?

If only he knew.

Carter must be lost in her memories of Jolinar, now that she was obviously thinking about the Tok'ra. In the confusion that Jack knew she always felt after particularly strong surges of emotion and memory, as Jolinar's 'visits' always were, Carter just blurted it all out. I was a host... at one time... to a Tok'ra... a good alien.

'A good alien?' That was her description of the Tok'ra? That didn't really cover things at all! It was a good thing that Jacob wasn't listening to this oversimplified description...

Carter took advantage of the unexpected quiet that followed her inelegant confession to continue rambling, Jolinar was killed when she was still inside me... and I almost died, too. But I didn't. But she left me her memories... and naquedah in my blood.

Dead silence.

Pete cleared his throat, but he still sounded lost when he repeated, 'Inside you?'

Jack's heart plummeted for Carter's sake when he heard the revulsion in Pete's tone.

Carter tried to save the conversation. Sorry - I shouldn't have blurted it out like that. She tried to control her own tone, schooling it to one of lightness, as if this situation that she was discussing didn't really matter. It was five... six years ago. Back when we didn't know much about who we were fighting, and... The team tried to save me... but they couldn't...

Pete gave another disbelieving laugh. What are you talking about? he skeptically asked. They couldn't save you? But you're right here!

He had switched from revulsion to incredulity so fast that it must be adding another burden to Carter's attempt to keep things light between them - as if this could ever be shoved into the 'didn't matter' category. I mean, she went on explaining. The team... the Colonel... Teal'c... nobody knew what to do for me... and I was the first person to ever live through a blending at the time... Teal'c told me.

There was no way that a mere civilian... even Pete, who, as a detective, must have seen plenty of weird shit by now... would possibly know what a 'blending' was.

Pete didn't disappoint Jack on this issue, either. Wait... a blending?

But Carter refused to stop her explanation now. That's what I'm talking about. I was Jolinar, and Jolinar was me.

Yeah... that's what a 'blending' was... sort of...

Pete still didn't quite understand her. Jolinar?

Wow, was this ever hard to explain! Jack had never before considered how hard it would be for Carter to explain her blood. It had always just seemed so... simple... to him up until this moment. But now it was clearly hard for Carter to get all these 'classified' details that she had to deal with on a daily basis to sound common place rather than the 'astonishing' that they really were.

To that end, she continued, 'Jolinar' was the name of my...

'... symbiote' ghosted through Jack's mind.

But obviously not through Pete's mind. His revulsion must have come back full force just then, because Carter quickly assured, But she's totally gone. Has been gone for years and years.

Carter was babbling now - this was bad...

But it wasn't like she had to be ashamed of this, Jack argued with himself.

Still, Carter sounded small and unsure when she added, I... just wanted you... to know why... why I can't quit. She sounded so hesitant... as if she'd done something wrong.

But, obviously, she had to tell the man she was planning on marrying about something so personal as her screwy blood, right? Jack didn't understand why he was taking sides at all in this issue that was clearly none of his business. He just didn't want to see Carter get in trouble for revealing this much classified info that was elemental to her married life.

Pete's confusion was huge now. What does all this blood stuff have to do with you quitting the Air Force? he asked.

Jack was surprised - what did this have to do with it? Just... everything! Couldn't he...?

But Pete went on, Can't you get rid of this... this..? Pete sounded helpless to voice what was in his head. At last he grunted out a plea, Isn't there some kind of antibiotic that you can take for your... blood problem?

Jack gave a sick sort of grin at Pete's mention of an antibiotic. No, there was no 'antibiotic,' not for this.

Carter must have been sort of amused and sort of sick about his antibiotic idea, too. She tiredly explained, There's nothing that I can take for... it's even suspected that a transfusion won't do anything for me. The naquedah is just too strong, too dense.

'Dense?'

Um... It will stay with me... just enough in my system to infuse a new blood supply. And the Stargate is made out of naquedah, too - it's a really strong metal that will...

Pete cut her off. Do you mean that you're literally part of the Stargate?

Carter laughed at that question. No, not literally. But the same metal is inside me. And it's classified. So, so am I, I guess, or my blood is classified, I mean. Pete didn't seem to have anything to say to that. Carter added, I'll always have to be part of the Stargate Program because I'll need clearance just to get something basic, like a flu shot. Pete was still silent. The desperation that she must be feeling by now was coming out in Carter's voice. But that doesn't mean that I have to stay in Colorado Springs.

That was clearly an idea that Pete had never considered before. You mean there's more than one Stargate? He truly sounded bowled over by this idea.

Carter was still keeping her cool in this - Jack was impressed by how well Carter had done in explaining the unexplainable....

No, there's only one 'Gate... that I know of, she insisted. But the Stargate Program has several bases that handle different aspects of the same program, and...

But obviously another thought had struck Pete, for he interrupted her to blurt, What about our kids! He was clearly still stuck on Carter's blood problem, and was it genetic or not, and that this was something that he obviously hadn't thought to consider before. Will they get this... this blood thing? I'd always thought our kids would be... I don't know... normal!

As if Carter wasn't.

Jack immediately reddened at Pete's inference, only his blush was a blush of anger. How dare that upstart whelp infer that his Carter could be anything but normal???

Wait... 'his' Carter?

Didn't the very existence of Shanahan negate the whole concept of 'his' Carter?

But Pete was going on, asking Carter for clarification on something he'd clearly always assumed. You can have kids, can't you?

Huh - kids... Jack had never thought about this potential problem for the 'newly engaged couple.' The concept left him extremely uncomfortable now. The thought of Carter, pregnant with Shanahan's...

But Pete obviously was thinking about it, and thinking fast. He was gasping now, as if his emotions had grown so big, so fast, that it had taken his breath away.

Carter tried to soothe Pete. It's not something that you have to worry about, Pete, I just wanted you to know.

But Pete wouldn't let Carter just soothe away anything about this issue. Sam, be honest with me, he now demanded. Can you or can't you have kids?

Why did that matter, anyway? Jack wondered. Even if Carter couldn't have kids, that wouldn't mean that he wouldn't want her anymore, so why did it matter so much to the cop?

Unless her not being able to have kids really did matter to Shanahan... for some reason... as if Carter was meant to be nothing but a breeder, like livestock from a farm...

As if Carter had thought the same thing herself, but wanted to not think about such unpleasant aspects of married life... at least, aspects of married life with Shanahan... she mournfully responded, I honestly don't know if I can have children, Pete. Then she went on. Janet... my doctor friend... the CMO of the base... before she died... didn't think so, but that was honestly a long time ago, and we have no way to test her theories even now except for me to get pregnant.

Jack winced: a pregnant Carter wasn't something he wanted to contemplate.

Carter's next line was something that Jack had always suspected, but Pete had never suspected anything like it, obviously. Being pregnant's never been something that I wanted to...

That partial statement really shook up Pete! What do you mean, you never wanted kids?

Of course, now was different. Carter had to want kids... didn't she have Cassie now?

But she didn't really even have Cassie anymore, did she?

Carter tried to remain calm... Jack had to give her credit for her calmness in this personal crisis. Of course, not thinking about any of this was difficult in the face of Pete's outrageous accusations. She was at her diplomatic best when she smoothly stated, I didn't say that, Pete, and you have no cause to say that I did. You're not listening. Now calm down, or this conversation will have to be postponed to a time when you can listen.

Way to go, Carter! It was about time that Pete got to see 'ber-confident Soldier Sam.' Internally, Jack cheered.

But this was apparently the first time that this part of Carter was not content with being ignored in this 'new' Carter/Pete relationship. Pete was flummoxed by the sudden presence of 'Soldier Sam.' Uh... Okay, Sam, I'm calm, I'm... Pete's surprise at her abrupt 'uberness' was so great that his voice came out in a stuttering form.

Suddenly, Cassie left her room and entered the hall, carrying a box in her arms. Her room was deserted.

Deserted... as in, Jack wouldn't be seen by Cassie now if he chose to leave the bathroom. Used to the appearance of unexpected opportunities, Jack took the advantage of any chance when it came his way. He washed his hands, then quickly whipped the slightly open door aside, and sauntered into the kitchen to join Cassie, where she was going through her box with Teal'c.

Ten minutes later, after a quick conversation with Cassie about her future plans... and where Teal'c unpacked the box that Cassie had just packed by 'discovering' the box's inner contents... Jack then found himself sauntering back up the hallway to Carter's bedroom door, putting a halt to any more of the 'transfer/blood' conversation that Carter had had with Pete after he'd heard Pete's stuttering response to Carter's news about her blood when children were part of the equation. He now didn't even listen to what the cop was saying to Carter this time; he only wrapped lightly on the door with his knuckles, saying, Knock knock, in order to draw their attention to him. He tried not to look at them too closely (what if they had been kissing? Though the recent conversation hadn't seemed to be warm enough to engender shows of affection, he couldn't be too sure.) To distract him and them, he said, Sorry to intrude, but...

Pete instantly looked worried, as if he were afraid that Jack had heard parts of their last exchange.

Pete didn't know how very much Jack had accidentally heard.

Unlike the suspicion on Cop Boy's face, Carter looked instantly relieved at Jack's intrusion, as if she were very glad to have hers and Pete's conversation interrupted. She hurried to insist, You're not intruding, Sir. What can we do for you? It was as if her entire being was focused on this new arrival... that she definitely didn't want to discuss this idea of her having kids, or whatever she and Pete had been discussing during the time that Jack had been with Cassie. Carter's denial at work again.

Jack quickly spoke so that he wouldn't think about that particular theory of Cassie's about Carter and denial... Uh... Carter? He now sounded hesitant, as if he didn't quite know how to phrase what he had to say. Cassie, he at last grunted. Did you talk to her?

Carter also grunted in response. She spoke at me... or more like 'yelled at me in a controlled voice.' She didn't elaborate what Cassie had said when she had 'yelled,' but quickly went on, It all ended with her saying that she wants to move to your place for awhile. She still looked relieved to even be discussing something besides what she and Pete had been talking about. Ironically, he figured that she had forced them to talk about possible transfers, her blood, and Jolinar, to avoid talking about Cassie. Now she looked relieved to be talking about Cassie - it was truly ironic!

Now Carter asked the General, Won't Cassie moving out just make the situation worse?

Jack grimaced... Carter was engaged to marry a man whom none of her friends liked; Cassie wasn't talking to Carter even if Carter was her guardian... co-guardian; Carter was engaged to marry a man whom Cassie detested; Teal'c was acting like a heavy thug guarding Cassie's stuff in the kitchen; and Daniel had just arrived at his own teammates' party very late....

And Carter thought that this situation could somehow get worse? Trying to downplay what Cassie had set in motion, Jack shrugged as he remained standing in the bedroom doorway. He went on, still hesitantly, Uh... I don't see how Cassie living with me can hurt things even more than they already are in this situation.

Carter was also unsure. Maybe Cassie just needs to get away completely and...

Jack knew what to do with this suggestion - he stood up straighter in the doorway and said, Cassie needs a more stable environment right now, if you ask me, not to get away completely. And no disrespect intended to your personal life, Carter, but it is in a state of flux right now.

Carter's face flamed red at his reference to her personal life. It was almost as if she were embarrassed by it... or by the fact that she even had a personal life... she'd never really had one before...

To cover up the sudden awkwardness that had descended on the room, she continued in as strong a voice as she could muster at the moment, If you think it would be better for Cassie to stay with you for awhile... and if you have the room... and if you don't mind her staying for a week or two...

Jack looked greatly amused by her last caveat. He broke in to say, The way Cassie was just talking, it sounds like she means to stay with me the entire summer, until school starts again in the Fall. Is that a problem?

No, no, Carter quickly assured, even as she appeared surprised. Cassie had always lived with her... ever since Janet had died. It had seemed to Jack that Carter having Cassie with her was like her having a piece of Fraiser with her all the time.

Jack now saw Carter give a painful swallow in panic at his announcement. He could see all that panic on her face before she could cover it up with another expression. Um... Does Cassie plan to move back in with me for breaks, or..?

That I don't know, Jack insisted. The way she was talking, she doesn't seem to have any long-range plans. But as long as she keeps her grades up, I have no problem with her staying with me on breaks. Then he realized how rude that would have sounded to Carter, as if he agreed with Cassie in her quest to not live with Carter... or her fiancée. Unless you..?

Carter sighed, cutting him off, as if she knew what he was going to say. I don't. Have any reasons why Cass shouldn't stay with you, I mean, she added, not that she needed to - Jack could tell what she was referring to just by the light in her eyes. I can't say that I'm very happy about any of this, though I know her being with you is probably a good idea, for the short-term, anyway.

Jack didn't quite know what to do with that kind of honesty... at least, not with Pete being the reason that Cassie wanted to move out, and him being in the room, watching his and Carter's exchange like the cop was actually involved in these events... which he wasn't. The cop hadn't even said anything in the last five minutes!

Jack went on before he could think too hard about the meaning of that silence. Well... Then I'll put her in my guest room? For now? he suggested, giving Carter any leeway that he could in this situation of Cassie's devising. At least, until Cass decides what it is she really wants to do? It came out as a much more timid sounding question than something said by someone who was used to giving orders.

But Carter accepted his hesitancy like it didn't illustrate any temerity on his part. Guest room... okay.

And it was settled. Just like that. Jack conversationally continued, Oh, and Daniel just got here. He was on a... date. He said the word as if it amused him greatly.

Carter reared back as far as she could into the headboard behind her. She looked incredulously amused now. A date? she asked, obvious enjoyment in her tone.

Jack smirked. A date, he repeated with finality. With that Connors woman. Doesn't she work in the lab with Felger?

Carter was beaming now, the first full on smile she'd given all day. She's a civilian, Chloe's cousin... or something... She grinned again. A date! She sounded as if she was having trouble just considering the idea of Daniel... Carter snorted. Daniel... on a... date!?

Jack shrugged once more, but he was also clearly enjoying himself. Apparently, this was one of many, he informed her, glad to see the slight color in her cheeks for the first time since she'd been injured.

Carter giggled. I've got to meet her. Are they..? She looked beyond Jack to the area behind him.

Jack looked askance at the idea of 'that Connors woman' being at Carter's party. Of course she isn't here! Before he lets her meet us, Daniel wants to be more 'secure with his feelings.' And he did the air quotes with his fingers, making Carter burst into laughter again.

If Jack was given to introspection, he would be amazed at how fast they had fallen into the pre-Pete conversational patterns. He went on instead of thinking overly much about what had just happened. At least, that's what Daniel just said he wanted to do before throwing her in with our lot.

Sam! Daniel suddenly called. He appeared beside Jack in the doorway, and threw her an apologetic look while standing near his friend. I heard about Cassie. She's with Teal'c in the kitchen right now, and refused to come talk to you with me. Then he just stopped what he was saying when Jack gave him a curt shake of his head, as if to communicate with the gesture that Daniel needed to shut his mouth.

Daniel continued anyway, but along a different vein of conversation. I just wanted to see how you're doing. Then he scrutinized Carter. How are you doing? He ignored Pete to stare instead at her bandaged hand. Do you need anything?

Daniel's solicitation was gentle, the polar opposite of Pete's more in-your-face caring for Carter had seemed. Uh... she gathered herself together. No, I don't need a thing, she told Jack and Daniel. I'm about to take a pain pill and head to bed. But Carter didn't reach for her pill. Instead, she couldn't help but tease him a little. So, Daniel... How was your... date?

Daniel instantly grew defensive. It wasn't a date! It was...

Daniel! Jack warningly growled from beside him. They had already discussed the subject of his use of attempted defenses while in the kitchen.

Daniel quickly grew sheepish. Oh, okay, so it was a date, he admitted. We...

Teal'c's voice called from the kitchen. DanielJackson! I require your assistance! Then they heard the thud of a box, and the tinkle of glass as it hit the linoleum floor.

Cassie yelled, Hey, Daniel... never mind!

But Daniel's alarm grew with each second. You're okay, then, Sam? And he backed out of the doorway as he spoke. As long as you're alright... I better save Cassie's stuff from Teal'c. And he was gone.

Jack turned to Carter, and stage whispered, I'll keep you informed!

Carter giggled, like they were sharing a private joke. Just like it had always been between them. How he had missed this feeling! He hadn't even realized it...

Okay, Sir, Carter now conspiratorially agreed.

I'll just... And Jack gestured over his shoulder again with his thumb. Go. And he followed Daniel back to the kitchen.

* * *

Jack entered the kitchen to find the controlled chaos that always seemed to surround SG-1 when Carter was absent - he'd previously heard that when he'd been part of SG-1, it had been him who was the glue for the group, the guy who held the team to the single purpose of beating the Goa'uld, of sticking it to them where it counted the most - it was his team who had lost the most to the Goa'uld, after all, so it was his team who ended up triumphing the most over the evil aliens.

If Jack was the glue for SG-1, Carter had always been the heart and soul of the group. She shared the position of 'brains' with Daniel, and Teal'c was undeniably the 'brawn,' but it was Carter alone who engendered the heart of the group.

But it was a group whose 'heart' had gone. Carter's engagement party that purported to celebrate her coming union with another man - a man who was undeniably not a part of SG-1 no matter what clearance had formerly been granted to him - split the group with as much finality as the way she had always acted as its heart in the past. It was as if what Cassie said about the Carter/Pete affair was true - Carter wasn't thinking, and hadn't been thinking, since this whole thing began. And when Carter wasn't thinking, she lost much of her soul - her heart. And when she personally lost her heart, the group suffered as well.

Hence, the chaos that Jack experienced the second he entered the kitchen. Teal'c was sprawled on the floor, unpacking Cassie's treasures one by one; Cassie was trying to stop Teal'c from going through her stuff, unpacking her box in the process; and Daniel was trying to make coffee in a person's kitchen who had always offered Daniel his own coffee maker, even though Carter was not a coffee drinker herself. But her drip coffee maker 'a la Daniel' was missing from its spot on the counter. In the meantime, the thunder from the gathering storm was mixing with the growing noise of the people gathered in Carter's back yard to 'celebrate' the nuptials that were clearly as stormy as the sky above the party.

A few minutes later, when Pete entered the kitchen, smiled blankly at the four of them, then returned to the party, but didn't end the party, typified the brewing storm of his and Carter's relationship.

But Pete, Jack noticed, seemed oblivious of the fact that he was celebrating his engagement to a woman who was just as obviously absent from her own party. She must have finally taken that pain pill that Pete had brought her, and escaped.

Now why did he think of what she was doing as 'escaping?'

His eyes on the back of the cop that he could still see through Carter's sliding glass door that led to her back yard, Jack murmured in a vague voice, And so it begins.

Daniel stopped his search for the coffee maker that Carter had always kept just for him. What's that, Jack? he asked. Did you say something? He pulled open a cupboard door above the counter and peered into its shadowed depths. Does anyone know what Sam did with her coffee maker?

I was not aware that she drank coffee, DanielJackson, Teal'c responded. So I do not know where she keeps her maker of coffee. He continued to rifle through Cassie's box of goods.

Cassie caught her award that he waas holding before he dropped the sharp edged metal medallion that was sure to permanently mar Carter's otherwise immaculate linoleum kitchen floor. At the same time, she replied to Daniel's query, Pete did his dirty deeds in here, too - one day he 'cleaned' in here, and put the coffee maker under the skink, way in the back.

Daniel whipped open the sink cupboard and peered into the darkness. He had to pull out several items before he could reach the coffee maker. Why did Pete do that? Daniel asked in a peeved voice. Jack could tell that he hadn't had coffee on his date, as he sounded so aggravated now. Coffee always calmed Daniel enough to affect his vocal tone.

Cassie answered Daniel's second question as she rescued another of her awards from Teal'c. He told me that since Sam never drinks coffee, there was just no point in it taking up space on the counter.

She doesn't drink coffee - I do! Daniel answered in his growing aggravation. She was keeping that out for me, not for her. Doesn't Pete know that? He pulled out the well-used coffee maker, then set it up on the counter where it used to reside.

I told him that, Cassie replied. But as usual, he just ignored me. Cassie's sigh filled the room. He always ignores me, like he wants me to just go away, to disappear like I'm a character in the 'Harry Potter' books. She glanced up at them. You know, if I were, then he could just wave his hand at me and yell 'Disapparate!' or something like that, and I would disappear. Cassie shook her head. And with the way things have been going around here, Sam wouldn't even notice if he did send me away like I'd vanished into thin air.

Daniel filled the coffee maker with water, then turned it on as he thought to ask, Uh, Jack, did you say something before Cassie..? And he gestured to the girl sitting on the floor beside Teal'c. Before she said..? He didn't finish his question.

But, he didn't have to. They all knew that Cassie was very unhappy with the way things had turned out between her and Sam, and had even elected to move to her co-guardian's house just to get away from... the cop.

That co-guardian was now staring fixedly out the glass door and into Carter's back yard, the yard that was still teeming with people in spite of the clearly coming storm and the absence of one of the guests of honor. I said, Jack repeated himself, 'And so it begins.'

Cassie looked up at Jack's enigmatic words. What do you mean? What begins?

Jack made a gesture at the door, encompassing Carter's back yard, and the party in it, with one Cassie wave. I mean the party, the 'engagement,' this whole relationship of hers... Again he quoted the air. You're moving in with me because of Pete, Daniel is searching for his coffee thing... because of Pete. And here we all are, avoiding this party... Carter included... because of Pete - he's the one who gave her her sleep aid/pain pills...

Daniel gave an uncharacteristic snort. It's a wonder he even knew where to find them in order to give them to her.

He didn't, Jack then informed. I had to tell him where to find them.

Again came Daniel's snort, softer this time, but definitely audible. Figures, he stated.

My point, Jack continued, is that he's out there... with his cop friends... and Carter... part of the reason for this party... is in here, in pain, riddled with injuries, both obvious and hidden... and... why doesn't he just... just...

'Call the whole thing off,' Cassie sang in a surprisingly steady alto voice. In her normal speaking voice, she added, Sorry - that's a line from... I don't remember now what movie it's from... something to do with Fred Astaire... that Sam made me and mom watch one girl's night... I might be quoting it wrong... Anyway, Jack's point is... the point that he's not saying very well...

Hey! Jack called in protest across the kitchen.

Cassie smiled. Just teasing, Jack, she assured. Anyway... why doesn't Pete just... put an end to this... this party? she questioned, putting voice to Jack's query. Sam is out for the count... so why keep up the pretense? Who does he care for more? Sam? Or this party?

Jack snapped his fingers. That's what I was trying to say.

Cassie's smile was indulgent this time. Yes, I know.

Teal'c abruptly broke into the conversation to announce, I do not like this PeteShanahan.

Jack squatted down to help Cassie and Teal'c put her things back in the box. Why is that, T?

In his flat tones, Teal'c responded, He does not trust us. He does not trust ColonelCarter. I did nothing to engender such distrust, nor did ColonelCarter, yet his feelings of distrust persist.

Therefore..? Jack prompted.

Teal'c looked up from his perusal of Cassie's things to say, Therefore, I do not trust him. The way he said the statement made the issue seem obvious to all those who heard him.

Teal'c's right... but the problem is, Cassie said before anyone else could make a comment. ... convincing Sam of all this.

Jack peered thoughtfully at the young woman beside him on the floor, and silently agreed with her. Getting Carter to believe that Pete wasn't the best thing for her (if he ever managed to convince Carter of that, that is) was going to be a lot harder than he thought.

Not knowing what to do about that yet, Jack gave a grunt as he moved to a standing position. He said to Cassie, Well, let's get your boxes moved to my truck first, if you're determined to head out of here.

I am, Cassie immediately said.

Jack went on, Then... Come on, guys, let's go.

* * *

Cassie moved in with Jack on that very Friday night. By Saturday, Jack knew exactly what it meant to become Cassie's live-in guardian.

It started out so normally. On Friday night, his house was a normal house. Before he had left for the mountain at 0800 Saturday morning, he had lost his guest room to about a hundred droopy flounces, all in different colors, hanging over the bed, as well as Cassie's other 'paraphernalia' scattered throughout the room. Then, by the time he came home from the Mountain, he had lost his office/second guest room as well. This formerly boring room had somehow morphed into a kind of Oriental/Middle Eastern blend of a room that was festooned with colorful swaths or material and partitioned into an area that was mostly Cassie's, complete with a small sofa, a notebook on a refurbished computer desk, and an easy chair covered with a blue cloth of some kind of swirled material. It was all cordoned off by a fourteen inch LCD TV and a five CD changer sound system that made Jack's formerly state-of-the-art portable stereo look like a reject from an earlier Neanderthal time period. The only piece of furniture that he owned in the entire room was an old desktop computer sitting on the floor near the door, and an HP Printer that Teal'c had found for him on eBay.

Jack barely recognized his own house anymore. When Cassie told him that she wanted to 'update' his living room/den area, he called a moratorium on further changes to 'improve' his house. He figured that he'd better put an end to Cassie's creative streak before he ended up with a five room International Gallery, a kitchen, and his master bedroom, which he also refused to allow Cassie to 'decorate.' As it was, because Cassie had already commandeered his den for study purposes, his bedroom was the only place left where he could truly relax after the typically crisis-laden day at the SGC. He honestly didn't know how Carter had escaped this fate when she had still been Cassie's main guardian. He supposed that the only reason she had missed out on this was because Cassie's Freshman year at Duke had only just that week come to an end when she had decided to move out of Carter's house. The Duke student had previously not had time to indulge her creative side while she had been permanently attached to Carter and her house. Now Jack was paying the price of an East coast education. Or at least his house was.

That was how Cassie spent her first Saturday of her summer break. By Sunday night, Cassie had acquired a new boyfriend by the name of Brad.

Or maybe she had been dating Brad for awhile, and simply ran into him on her first weekend with Jack? Keeping all this 'Cassie information' straight was a definite strain on Jack's brain.

So, one more time, Jack said to Cassie over their Sunday supper of Chinese takeout. You like Japanese food, have an Indian friend named Kooshoo who's studying law at Duke, and you met this Brad character this afternoon at the public library? He glanced at Cassie, hopeful that he had guessed right. Or you already knew this Brad guy, and met him at the library to work on some school project together? Jack's hopeful look slid away when he couldn't support it any longer. He tiredly stared at Cassie now, feeling just like he had ever since he first walked through the door that evening - like a zombie on cocaine after his 'typical day fighting the bad guys at the SGC.'

Cassie rolled her eyes, truly exasperated with Jack, but in an affectionate way. Close, but no cigar, she told Jack. I like Indian food, my friend Koshoo is Japanese from Kyoto, studying business, not law, and I met Brad at the park after discovering that the library is only open until 1600 on Sundays, and it was already 1730. So I went to the park because it was such a nice day out that I thought I could sit in the sun to study for my history of Journalism course that I'm doing Independent study for this summer with Professor McIntyre just as well as I could if I were sitting at the library. Only I got too hot sitting in the sun, and I was...

Hold on, Jack said, confused by Cassie's verbal monologue and showing it when he held his hands upraised in desperation. You lost me somewhere between the library and wherever the hell else you went to study whatnot in the sun. Take pity on your old father figure - his brain turned to mush around 1800 today.

Your brain's just fine, Jack, and you know it, Cassie protested with a twinkle in her eyes. The whole bit about Jack being an 'old man' had already devolved into a running joke between the two - only one that she accepted as a joke if she told it. Jack really believed it. But I really did meet Brad when I took off my sweatshirt to just wear the t-shirt I had on underneath because I was too hot in the sun, Cassie finished telling him.

Jack puckered his brow in a thoughtful pose of puzzlement. Is that when he yelled..? Getting Cassie's story details correct, and eating at the same time was becoming more and more difficult for Jack. He searched his brain, but was too tired to come up with the correct answer to his own query. He said...

Cassie took pity on her 'old' guardian. He yelled 'I love it when a girl strips naked right in front of me.' Then she shook her head in disbelief. You must be tired if you can't even remember something I told you just ten minutes ago.

Jack again searched his recent memory, knowing that the altercation hadn't ended that way. Didn't you say something back to him, put him in his place, just like that? And he snapped his fingers, reminding him of Daniel, who often made that motion, and that Jack had promised to call the Spacemonkey that night to report on his first weekend with Cassie.

The person in question grunted. I yelled back that I liked seeing men strip, too, but I was always disappointed when they did. She laughed. And the next thing I knew, I had a date to do dinner and a movie with him on Friday night.

Friday's not good for me, Jack quickly negated. I'm not sure that I can be available in case...

Again Cassie rolled her eyes. He has a date with me, not you, Jack. Do you think that I'd let you come with us or something?

Abashed, Jack looked at his plate, his shoes, the floor, anywhere but at her. Of course not, Cass, he said in a voice that didn't even convince him of his sincerity. It's just that that's the day that Jacob's stopping by to meet.. He didn't say the name of Carter's fiancée, but implied it by his silence. He cleared his throat with an uncomfortable grunt. I just might not be available to come to your rescue if you need me to...

Cassie made a gurgle in the back of her throat. I am a big girl now, Jack, she impatiently reminded. I don't need you to swoop to my rescue anymore - Teal'c trained me well. She eyed him meaningfully. I can slay my own dragons now.

I know, I know, Jack said, sounding just as impatient as Cassie had sounded. It's just, I don't know anything about this guy, and...

What? Cassie sarcastically demanded then. Do I look like a damsel in distress to you? She shoved the remains of the fortune cookie that she had taken into her mouth. Chewing and swallowing first, she at last dusted off her fingers over her plate. I'll just tell him I'll give him an alien blood disease if he tries anything, she cockily said.

Cassie! Jack looked truly alarmed now. That's classified! he protested. You might as well tell him that you come from another planet, and really freak him out!

But Cassie was lost in peels of laughter as Jack made noises more akin to hyperventilating. Jack, I'm yanking your chain! she exclaimed.

Jack looked relieved, as well as chagrined. Okay, okay - have pity on an old man!

Yep! Cassie cheekily said, and gathered the plates together prior to taking them to the kitchen. An old man, that's what you are...

Jack rose to begin boxing up the remaining food. But Cassie stopped him on her return trip. I've got it, Jack. You go lie down. You look asleep on your feet. She finished with the food, and piled it as efficiently as oddly shaped takeout cartons could be piled, and proceeded to stow them in the kitchen fridge.

Jack followed her to the other room. I always knew that I let you live with me for a reason - aliens make good maids. And he would have guffawed at his own joke if he hadn't been so tired.

Cassie gasped a laugh of incredulity. Let me live with you - I don't remember any letting going on at the time, old man!

But Jack ignored her jibe to say, And speaking of you coming to live with me - I saw Carter very briefly today at her house...

Cassie's voice instantly grew hard. Not ready to talk about her yet, she said, a sense of finality to her tone.

Looking regretful of the way that Cassie had cut him off, Jack sighed, then said, She was asleep, but I was told that she asked about how you were making out here. If you...

She knows what she needs to do to get me to talk to her again! Cassie remarked a set expression on her face. Till then, I'm the invisible girl - she might as well forget I exist.

Jack gave another regretful sigh. It doesn't have to be a choice for her between you and him, you know.

Tell her that! Cassie angrily said. As for me, I'm done with trying to get her to listen to reason!

Jack gusted a third sigh, but let the subject of Sam Carter rest. Okay, okay - later. For now, I think I'll just go to bed. Thanks for cleaning up.

Don't worry, Cassie quipped as Jack moved off in the direction of his one safe haven left in the house, otherwise known as his bedroom. It's your turn to clean up next time.

Looking forward to it, Jack replied, then shut the door.

* * *

For the rest of the week, Jack left Cassie alone to ponder what he had said about the way her decision to move in with him had turned this situation from a usual guardian/ward squabble into a forced choice for Carter between her ward and Pete. Jack figured that leaving Cass alone was the best thing that he could do for either her or Carter at this uncomfortable point.

And so it went. Jack went to work. Cassie stayed at Jack's house. And Carter slept. Every time that any of the team went by Carte's house for a visit, Carter was asleep. She said that she was in pain again, Pete said every time, as if he needed to make excuses for her, as if her team members, both old and new, wouldn't understand that she might want to avoid the pain brought about by her many injuries.

But her team knew what she was doing. When Jack asked to speak 'unofficially' with Teal'c and Daniel on Thursday at the SGC, away from Shanahan's presence, he wasn't surprised by the reports that he got from them.

Have either of you seen Carter recently? Jack asked them the minute the three of them were alone.

Sure we have, Jack, Daniel informed him, more interested in the picture of a temple that he was studying than in Jack's question. You sound worried... don't be, he cautioned, studying his photo. We go by her house at least every other day. She's still there... not kidnapped again.

But Jack's hand pushing the picture aside surprised even Daniel. No, Jack patiently said. I mean, have either of you actually spoken to Carter when you saw her?

Stunned for a moment, Daniel looked to Teal'c. Well.... now that you mention it... I haven't. Has she spoken with you, Teal'c?

The Jaffa peered at them before saying in the flat tones that Jack and Daniel were so accustomed to hearing, She has not.

Jack frowned when he heard this report.

But Daniel was more diplomatic. Do you think we should be worried about this, though, Jack? He carefully placed the picture of the temple on a pile of similar photos on his desk. Isn't it too early to become..?

But Jack interrupted him to grimly say, No, Daniel, I don't think it's too early to get worried. He paused to allow his frown to deepen. I bet that she's using these pain pills to make her sleep so that she can avoid thinking about Cassie and the situation with her, and the way Cassie thinks about Pete - Cass has a valid point, if you ask me - which Carter isn't, because Carter is always asleep.

Daniel snorted when he heard Jack's concerns. Surely, when Pete isn't there, she has to stay awake to... But his voice trailed off when he registered the concern that Jack was exuding.

Have you ever seen her when Pete isn't there? Jack next inquired, his voice a warning rumble.

Again Teal'c and Daniel looked at each other before either responded. I have not, Teal'c noted.

Daniel shook his head. No, Jack.

Jack sighed a disgruntled sigh. That's what I thought.

But Daniel didn't understand. You thought... what?

Jack lifted his head to level a glare at the archaeologist. The cop took off work to stay with Sam 'in her time of need' as he would put it. Jack did the air finger quote thing again as he said it. His voice was disdainful. It's the only explanation for this. He grimaced. The cop is smothering her to death.

Now Daniel was incredulous. 'Smothering her?' he repeated, sounding as if he thought that Jack was nuts. How is it so bad that Pete took off work to look after her? he asked.

Jack's glare intensified. Because, Daniel, if you would take the time to think about this... what's the first thing that the Carter we know would do in the kind of an emotional situation like this one is with Cassie?

Daniel thought for a moment, then without answering Jack's question, blanched, and said, Oh, God, you're right, Jack.

Jack looked vindicated, but that the vindication didn't please him. She's using those pills to sleep so that she can avoid thinking about any of this, or discussing any of this...

The way that ColonelCarter is avoiding dealing with all that has happened is exactly what CassandraFraiser claims, Teal'c said, cutting Jack off, though he rarely interrupted anyone, now displaying a rare look of concern for his teammate.

Daniel narrowed his eyes. But wouldn't those pills have to be addictive if she was using them like this - to avoid dealing with everything? Are those pills addictive?

Jack drummed his fingertips on Daniel's desk. I already checked with the doctor CMO fella - those pills aren't addictive, at least not that they know of. It's why those particular pills are prescribed for pain in the first place. Then he grimaced again. But Doc Powers says that a patient can become addicted to using the sleep that they bring about to avoid 'pressing issues that need to be addressed.' And he made the air finger quote sign again, indicating that he was using the exact words the doctor had used half an hour before. I would think that... the cop... would know that Carter behaves in this way, and limit her intake of pain pills.

Daniel refused to get drawn into hearing a dissertation given on what Pete should and shouldn't know - Jack style - and instead asked, Does the doctor think we should be worried about this yet?

Jack straightened, then said, I asked him that, too, and he said not to be worried yet, but if this situation persists through the weekend, that we should tell him.

Daniel's forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. But what will telling him do for Sam?

Jack shrugged. I don't know what he plans to do - he didn't say. But you can be sure that Carter won't want to have anything to do with any suggestion that he makes.

So what are we supposed to do now? Daniel next inquired, still confused.

Jack sighed. Nothing, I guess.

That surprised Daniel. Nothing? he asked, flabbergasted.

I guess, Jack repeated. At least, not yet.

Daniel treated Jack and Teal'c to his best 'settling in for suffering through extreme stupidity' expression, and rocked back on his heels. So we just let her sleep?

Jack's fists were balled up tight as he stuffed them into his pockets. It's not our place to step in and do something, Daniel. That cop has the right, not us, he reminded, but sounded dry, like that thought left a bad taste in his mouth. But I want you both to be aware of what I think she's doing, and to keep me informed of anything different that transpires.

Daniel ascertained, You, and not Doctor Powers?

Jack gave a tilt of his head, as if it should be obvious that he didn't entirely trust this new CMO of the SGC just yet. Me, Daniel. I'm at least gonna stay on base for the duration of this thing. His comment was a way of saying, without really saying a word, that this new CMO might possibly have very temporary SGC status. I want to know the minute something new happens.

Sure thing, Jack. Just making sure, Daniel ascertained.

Jack just nodded before leaving Daniel's office to return to work.

* * *

But Jack's fears were put to rest... sort of... the very next day. As Cassie was at home, getting ready all afternoon for the big date that she had that night with the man-who-liked-seeing-girls-strip (Just as long as you don't do any stripping for him! Jack had loudly proclaimed to her that morning), Jack found himself heading for Carter's lab, where she was (uncharacteristically as of late) awake, and talking with her dad and that cop.

Jack sauntered down the familiar corridors of level 19, and when he was still quite a ways from the lab, heard Pete say, So, Dad...

Jacob interrupted him, Call me 'Jacob,' - you can only call me 'Dad' after the wedding.

Pete's amused-strangled voice flowed out into the corridor, Sorry - Jacob, when he began a second time. It was such a loud comment that Jack barely had a choice in hearing it as he drew closer to the lab.

Pete began again, Jacob, Sam was telling me about... someone named 'Mar,' or something like that, who belonged to the Tok... to your people, he lamely ended, as if he couldn't even remember the simple name 'Tok'ra.' Did you know... 'Mar?'

'Jolinar,' Jacob was saying to Pete in a tight, 'I'm trying to be understanding, but it's hard' tone of voice.

'Jolinar' Pete corrected, then gave a nervous laugh. I'm trying to keep all these weird names straight.

'Weird...' as in, Tok'ra names 'weird?' As in, 'Selmak' weird? Neither Jacob nor Carter said anything to Pete's comment, but their dual silence said quite a lot.

Jack chose that moment to saunter into the lab, and caught the 'Oh-my-God!' expression of horror on Carter's face as she stood just behind Pete. She quickly wiped the look away, but she had to know that Jack had seen her making it nonetheless.

Jack did his best to ignore Carter for the moment and focus on Jacob. Dad! he exclaimed. So sorry that I couldn't welcome you when you got here earlier.

Jacob ignored the 'Dad' coming from Jack, even though he had told Pete not to call him that just a few seconds before. That's alright, Jack, said the Tok'ra as he reached out to the younger General for a quick handshake. Sam was there, and she did a fine job of giving a welcome to the old girl and me.

And how is Selmak? Jack asked in a jovial voice. After quickly shaking Jacob's hand, he placed his own hands on the lab worktable before him, giving the indication that he planned to settle in for a long chat. His eyes gave just a hint of a mischievous twinkle, one that he couldn't hide - he was fairly certain that Carter knew what he was doing.

And right on cue, Jacob's eyes lit up as he bowed his head a bit, and the next thing they all knew, Pete's face had gone completely green, Carter looked like she was ready to beat Jack bloody with Siler's wrench for what he'd just done, despite the fact that Jack was her CO (she would never hurt a superior officer, so he knew that he was safe), and Selmak was reaching out Jacob's hand for another shake of Jack's fingers. The action cemented the fact that there were two individuals inside Jacob's body, and Jack had the satisfaction of watching Pete's face go even more ashen. He noticed that Selmak saw the same thing out of the corners of Jacob's eyes, and realized that the snake (the only one Jack liked in the whole Universe) was helping his cause along to give Pete a 'real' tour of the SGC.

I am very well, O'Neill, Selmak said in the hollow tones of the Tok'ra. I am hoping that Jacob and I can come by your house tonight for a visit... and, I admit, some of that marvelous chocolate cake that you always seem to have when we come to Earth.

Jack's smile was big enough for Thor to fly his ship through. This conversation was going along just wonderfully, if Jack could judge by the continued paleness of Pete's face. And Selmak was doing a great job of helping the situation along without looking like she was helping the situation along. This couldn't possibly go better!

Jack's smile just kept growing. You better be coming over tonight - I've already bought a whole cake that I hope you'll help me devour.

Jack then saw something that he'd never seen before - Selmak actually smiled. It will be our pleasure, O'Neill. Will Cassandra also be joining us? Then Selmak took on a confused expression as Jack shot Carter a knowing look. Did Samantha not just tell us that Cassie is spending the summer with you?

She is, Jack said in a rush, his voice still jovial to cover up the real reason why Cassie had chosen to 'spend the summer with him.' He saw Carter blanch a bit from her place behind Pete, but refused to fully glance her way, and give away to Selmak that something other than simply trading guardians for the summer was on Cassie's agenda. Although Cassie has a 'hot date' tonight... she may or may not join us before it gets too late for you to stay... it depends on how things go with this guy she met at the park on Sunday.

Ah, Selmak said in response. Then we will be forced to eat the entire cake that you bought ourselves.

Jack blew out a breath, patting his stomach with a hand - it was noticeably thinner and more muscular than Pete's, but he didn't want to actually say anything about that fact. He slyly suggested, Perhaps we should just skip the 'supper' part of the evening, and go straight to the cake.

Selmak seemed to like that idea, even if she didn't exactly smile this time. Jacob will be most pleased to do that. Thank you, O'Neill, we look forward to it. Then she bowed Jacob's head and the eyes flashed a second time (which Jack suspected wasn't necessary, but it was just so much fun to watch Pete go green every time that the retired General did that). The next thing Jack knew, Jacob was speaking again.

Chocolate cake sounds great, Jack, as long as you get it from...

Guilty Pleasures... have no fear, Jacob, I wouldn't feed you anything from anywhere else, Jack interrupted. You're my favorite Tok'ra, after all!

Jacob sent him an exasperated look a second later. Favorite Tok'ra... I know just what that means coming from you, Jack.

Recovered from her previous lack of equilibrium, Carter giggled, barely making a sound in the quiet laboratory, but Jack heard it. Delighted to hear that Carter was still able to laugh at anything at this point, with her hand bandaged, her rib probably hurting, and her not being cleared for duty yet, he turned in her direction. No offense to you and Selmak, though, Jacob, but I really came down here to see Carter... now that I've caught her while she's awake for once.

Carter gave a minute straightening of her spine, 'snapping to attention' Carter-style. He doubted that Jacob had seen it, though Jack knew her well enough to have predicted the action a split second before it happened. Pete obviously never even suspected the movement, as he was still too taken with being ashen at the back and forth Selmak and Jacob were treating him to.

Now Carter had Jack's entire attention. What can I do for you, Sir? she asked, choosing to ignore the mentions that he'd made, either about Cassie's date or about the way she was never awake to see him these last few days. Work matters had as much pull with a Carter who was 'living in denial' as pain pills did, apparently.

Jack chose to follow her lead, and not mention either Cassie, or Carter's recent sleep issues, and instead focused on what he had to tell her. I just got off the phone with Senator McCain - that's why I wasn't in the 'Gate Room when you got here, Jacob - and now that Kinsey is... And Jack made a slashing hand across his throat to indicate that Kinsey's days as Vice-President of the US had just ended.

Trying to combat his clearly still churning stomach, Pete gave a sick sort of smile, and said, Kinsey, as in, the VP?

Kinsey, as in the former VP, Jack corrected him, then he went on as if the Detective hadn't spoken. McCain took over Appropriations after Kinsey... you know... and (I can't believe I'm saying this about a politician)... He's doing a very thorough job in his new... uh... job, and he wants to hear first hand how... and more importantly, why... SG-1's last mission went so far South, and how it was that you got so injured, Carter. He's willing to have the Air Force fly us out to DC - we leave Peterson tomorrow morning at 0800.

You too, Sir? Carter asked, ascertaining the correct details of the impromptu flight.

Of course I'm going with you - I am your CO, Jack said, kicking himself the minute he said it - Carter didn't need a reminder of his status just now. Heck, he didn't need to hear a reminder of that... ever!

Jack would never let it show how much it, once again, pained him to be reminded about the fact that Carter and he were never going to be able to have anything but a professional relationship while complying with Air Force regulations and being stationed at the SGC at the same time.

The mental sound of wedding bells peeled across Jack's mind, as if he might need another reminder of Carter's engagement to another man, and he hurried to cover the sound of the peeling bells with the sound of his voice. The Senator doesn't wish to take up too much of our time, but... And he shrugged. What can I say to the man who holds the purse strings? he rhetorically inquired. We leave for Washington at 0800, which means that me and SG-1 leave here at 0730, which means that we all meet at 0700 for a quick Briefing to get our stories straight before going to Peterson to meet the plane. Jack shrugged again, as if to say that the early meetings didn't bother him enough to have asked the Senator to make his meeting with SG-1 later - they wouldn't get to DC until early afternoon as it was. I'm off to tell Teal'c and Daniel right now, but I knew that you were going to be here, Carter, and I wanted to give you the news myself rather than have to make another phone call to your house. He rushed on again, turning back to Jacob, trying to cover up the 'another phone call' that had slipped out of his mouth before he could stop it. He needed a distraction to keep Jacob from asking why Jack had been calling his daughter - more than once, apparently - and he needed one fast!

Jacob, I hope this little DC trip doesn't cut into your 'Carter time' too much? Jack apologetically said. I tried to reschedule, but... And he shrugged again.

Jacob looked too much like he knew how these political Air Force things worked to have spent much time noticing the phone call comment from before. Not at all - Selmak and I are only here for a day to meet... And he waved in Pete's general direction, but didn't say anything.

Jack saw Carter shoot her dad a sour expression, but Jacob either didn't know about her feelings, was playing dumb about them on purpose, or was ignoring them entirely to say, ... and to have supper with you. You're not crimping our style at all, Jack... especially if we can take the cake leftovers back home - if there are any leftovers. His voice sounded hopeful now.

Jack was glad that his distraction seemed to have worked... glad for Carter's sake, that is. Consider it already done, Jack said, his jovial voice back again. He turned. See you at 0700, Carter.

Yes, Sir, she replied, as if she had never even considered the idea of asking that this early meeting be put off until the long flight from Colorado to DC. She turned back to Pete and her dad, and met her fiancée's eyes.

From the corner of his eyes, Jack saw Pete solicitously take Carter's left hand in his. A flash of annoyance crossed her eyes, and was immediately hidden by a much more general expression of emptiness. Jack could tell that even Jacob knew this time that Carter didn't like being babied, but his caution was overridden when Pete asked, Doesn't a 7:00 meeting mean that you have to get up awfully early, though, Sam? What about the pain pills that you've been taking before we go to bed - they make you pretty sleepy.

She shrugged, then replied, I guess I won't take them tonight.

Pete went on, still in that annoying, clingy, overly cautious tone that he'd been using, But won't that leave you in pain all night?

The murderous flash in her eyes told both men that Carter could have happily slugged Pete for even bringing this subject up - she was clearly aware of what trouble Jack had gone through to keep this from her dad. Pete had obviously been too busy being green to have noticed.

What's this about pain pills, Sam? Jacob asked, trying to keep the conversation light with the tone of his voice. But even a light voice couldn't completely hide his concern.

Carter gave a grimace-smile. It's nothing, Dad, just that my hand has been hurting...

Pete interjected, And your rib, and...

Sam couldn't hide her displeasure this time - she growled, We get the picture, thank you, Pete. Then, obviously hoping that Jacob wouldn't catch on to how Pete had casually referred with his 'we go to bed' comment that they were living together, she quickly made plans for them to all meet up again in ten minutes in the Commissary where she would explain the situation of her last mission to her Dad while they all had a meal...

They all walked out of the lab together, and Jack continued on down the hall by himself as the others turned in the opposite direction to go to the Commissary. Jack whistled in the following silence, his hands in his pockets, a slight smile of satisfaction on his face. Pete's bungling had done it again... Carter was really pissed this time, if he could judge by the sound of her last statement.

Yep, his position was a real downer when he thought of it, but there were some perks, if he just waited long enough and let the cop piss off Carter one more time.

Just seeing the cop turn green was enough to make it a day for the memory books!

* * *

At precisely 1900 hours, Jack opened his door to a resounding knock on the wood.

Jacob! Jack exclaimed, his delight at seeing the retired Air Force General clear in his voice, even though he had invited him. Right on time, as I knew you would be.

Of course I'm on time, Jacob noted as he followed the welcoming gesture that Jack made with his arm and walked into the house. There's cake at stake with this visit - I wouldn't miss it for the world. Jacob glanced into the kitchen behind Jack, then the dining room, then what he could see of the living room. Is that galaxy class granddaughter that I have still around to say 'hi' to an old man, or has she already left for her date?

Jack's face took on as much of an apologetic look as it ever showed. I'm afraid that Cass left with that guy... and besides, I'm the 'old man' in this scenario, not you. He didn't explain, but gestured Jacob even further into his house. I'll get the cake, and then we can eat!

Jacob rubbed his hands together, indicating that he was really looking forward to this. But he asked, The 'old man' bit is a joke, I take it?

Yeah, Jack called back to Jacob from the kitchen. Between me and Cass. There was the clinking of cutlery as Jack gathered together the appropriate cake items and returned to the living room. I say I'm old, Cass says the hell I am, and we never agree.

Jacob made a grab for the cake that Jack held balanced on one hand. You're only as old as you feel, Jack, he needlessly reminded. He put the cake on the coffee table between them, and immediately sank a knife into it to cut it.

Jack responded to Jacob's advice, Then I must be as old as Selmak, he quipped, and handed the plates to Jacob.

The other man took Jack's offering even as he snorted. That Pete guy said something along those lines just this morning - that I must be a Spring Chicken compared to Selmak. I thought Sam was going to blow a gasket right there in the Commissary. He handed a piece of cake to Jack.

Jack laughed as he took the plate. I would have liked to have seen that! he exclaimed, and took a bite of chocolate cake. It seemed to melt in his mouth in a way that he always associated with Jacob and his visits. If I just wait long enough, that cop friend of Carter's always hangs himself in the end. And he was again reminded of what a good day it had been.

But Jacob wasn't acting like it had been a particularly good day at all. He seemed hesitant now.

Jack noticed. Jacob? he questioned.

Jacob glanced again around the house, as if to ascertain for himself that it really was empty. In a much lower voice, he asked, What do you make of this detective character, Jack?

Don't like him, Jack instantly declared around a bite of cake in his mouth.

Jacob seemed nonplussed by the declaration. And you don't like him because..?

Jack swallowed before answering the Tok'ra. He's as trustworthy as a snake, that's why. He didn't elaborate. Then he realized how his last comment must have sounded to Selmak, and said, No offense, Selmak.

Obviously hoping for more information, Jacob pierced Jack with his sharp gaze instead of letting Selmak assure that no offense had been taken for Jack's previous comment. And why do you say that?

Jack snorted. The guy's a cop, Jacob, and knows what stakeouts are like, what 'chasing down the bad guys' is like. But he still had the audacity to follow Carter right up to one of our on-planet ops, contact her while SG-1 was right in the middle of that op, then proceed to screw the thing up so bad that he got shot in the process. Jack took another bite of cake in order to give himself time to calm down - this story always incensed him, most notably because he just had never understood the blasé attitude that Carter had taken towards the entire thing.

When Jack was calmer, he went on. Carter had to disclose the whole program to Shanahan not long after - he had unfortunately seen Osiris in all her creepy-ass, glowy-eyed glory, and...

Don't say it, Jacob interrupted. After that, he had about a million questions, I bet. Jacob gave a snort and took a bite of cake. That man's curiosity is going to get him killed someday. He spoke as if he already had experienced Pete's brand of 'curiosity,' and in particular, how he typically handled that emotion - by going in 'guns blazing,' and 'damn the consequences.'

Yeah, well, Jack responded around the bite of cake in his mouth - perhaps he and Jacob should be discussing something else? It seemed as if this cake wasn't really as tasty this time as he remembered. In spite of his misgivings, he continued, Shanahan's curiosity is pushing him closer to the edge than you might think. At Jacob's questioning look shot his way, Jack went on, A few days after his famous 'Infirmary disclosure,' we found out that he'd already run some kind of a check into Carter's professional background, and had moved on to Daniel when we put a stop on any more checks made on the team.

Jacob gave an appreciative whistle. Did he find out anything important?

Jack wiped his mouth with a napkin he'd brought in from the kitchen. Just that doing unauthorized background checks of Carter's team will give you squat information about Carter or her teammates. Jack shook his head. It was all General Hammond could do at the time to convince the Joint Chiefs not to bring Shanahan in for further questioning. I, for one, wouldn't have minded a little torture thrown in with that questioning, but Hammond wouldn't go for it. He sounded regretful now as he went back to his cake. Torture would be too good for that guy.

Jacob began to thoughtfully say, But from what Daniel was telling me when he drove me over here...

Jack's head jerked up. What? Daniel was here and didn't stay?

Jacob grinned. He said something about having to get ready for a date.

Again? Jack demanded, a scowl on his face. Does everybody have a social life except me?

Jacob gave a hearty laugh at Jack's self-deprecation.

Just then, the front door burst open, and before the two men could even react, a bedraggled Cassie clambered through the opening.

Cassie! At the sight of her, Jack instantly jumped to his feet, dropping his fork to the floor in the process. What the hell are you doing home? He eyed the ripped shirt the college student was wearing, and anger quickly clouded his eyes. Did that jerk try to..?

Calm down, Jack, and I'll tell you everything, Cassie promised as she came into the living room. But first I want some of that cake - I haven't had much to eat for hours, and that cake looks darned good. Suddenly Cassie beamed at who was with Jack. Hey, it's a Tok'ra house call! She walked deeper into the room to give Jacob a hug. Jack said something about you being in town, but I figured that you'd be spending all your time with... She didn't finish her comment, but patted Jacob on the back as she hugged. Well, you know, Sam and her... thing.

Uh-oh, Jacob intoned as soon as Cassie spoke. You don't like him either, huh?

Cassie took Jack's plate right out of his hand, grabbed his fork from where it rested near her foot, then shoved some cake in her mouth without waiting for her own piece.

Just then, Jack grabbed hold of Cassie's chin and eyed the red mark covering her left cheek. Cassie! You've been hit!

Cassie rolled her eyes, but looked slightly chagrined. Don't flip a big one, Jack, I said that I'd tell you...

He didn't... did he? Jack couldn't even vocalize what he was thinking about just then. It was his biggest fear every time Carter stepped through the 'Gate, and now it seemed that her ward had to face the same problem from her dates. Out with it! he ordered.

Should I kill this guy for you? Jacob asked as he also inspected the spot on Cassie's face. Or do you think that just flashing my eyes until he runs away screaming that the aliens are taking over the planet is enough to keep this situation from ever repeating itself again?

Cassie rolled her eyes a second time. Guys, guys! No, you don't have to kill him, Grandpa Jake! He's already in jail, and if I'm not mistaken, will be there for a long time to come.

This information clearly stunned both men so much that neither spoke, and Cassie was finally able to fill them in on her eventful evening. Okay - here's the story: Brad picked me up, just like we agreed, and took me out to a nice dinner... well, it was a sorta nice restaurant. A bit...

Cassie! both men bellowed at the same time in an attempt to force her back on track for her tale.

Which set Cassie off into peels of laughter. I'd hate to run into you guys in a dark alley!

Jack growled. Cassie - the story - or there's no more cake for you. And he snatched his plate full of cake back just as Cassie was preparing to take another bite.

The girl shrugged at Jack's actions. Okay. And just as casually, she reached down to the cake on the table, and delicately pulled a bite-sized piece of cake off with her fingers. She popped it in her mouth. Oh! She sighed in ecstasy. I just love chocolate!

Cassie! both men simultaneously growled again.

Cassie grinned. Impatient lot, aren't you? Jack just glared at her, so Cassie relented. Okay - where was I?

Supper, Jacob succinctly reminded her.

Oh, yeah, supper... Then, after supper, while I thought we were heading out to that movie theater on the edge of town, Brad turned the opposite direction from what I thought he should take at an intersection. So naturally, I asked where we were going.

'Naturally,' Jacob quoted her.

Cassie went on. Brad said not to worry, he'd forgotten something at his house...

Uh-oh, Jack instantly commented, his voice full of the sound of gloom and doom.

Cassie looked grim for the first time since she'd launched into her tale. I thought the same thing. Well, we got to his house... or at least we got to a house... and Brad invited me in -

This time it was Jacob who couldn't keep quiet. This just keeps getting worse and worse.

Cassie ignored him to continue, We got in, and lo and behold, there's a 'friend' there who Brad calls his roommate...

What an old trick, Jack derisively stated.

Yeah, that's what I thought, Cassie agreed. To make a long story short, Brad then gave me the 'evil' speech, tried to scare me to death, hit me for good measure... She smiled then, an incongruous gesture to go along with the story that she was telling. And when my back was to both of them - because when Brad hit me, I made sure to spin around and face the other direction - that's when I pulled the nail clippers out of my pocket.

Jacob's brows rose to his nonexistent hairline. You threatened them with nail clippers?

Cassie appeared as if she didn't understand the problem with this scenario she was painting. Yeah, she nonchalantly remarked. The nail file inside the nail clippers is a legal weapon that you should never be without, she recited, as if she'd heard this very lesson a million times before in her life... from Jack, to be specific.

Jack grinned. I taught you well.

But Jacob just looked confused. Wait - what's this about a weapon? And what did this big lug teach you? He indicated Jack, then eyed Cassie in exasperation. Are you getting into trouble when you..?

Cassie rolled her eyes at his obvious overprotective streak. Selmak, control him, please, she said in an equally as exasperated voice.

Sel! Jacob yelled in a tone that said he would take no arguments. Don't you dare!

With Jacob otherwise occupied, Cassie was able to continue. I pulled out the nail file - which I had already levered open, but mostly kept closed so I wouldn't accidentally poke myself - then I tripped Brad, who was clearly not expecting me to fight back, then jabbed the nail file right up to his eye... you know, the file has a pointy end. I stopped just short of sticking him with it, and told him to make a move, please, and if he did, I would be happy to ram his eye into his brain.

Jack grinned again. That's my girl!

Cassie ignored him to continue, Then I told his friend that one wrong move, and I would feel no remorse in shoving the nail file all the way through his friend to New York City, then had the friend pull the shoestrings out of Brad's shoes, and tie him up. Then I told him to yank his own shoe strings out - all the time I held my nail file right up to Brad's eye - and for the friend to tie his own feet. Then I shoved the nail file right through the air, and it looked like I had stabbed Brad right in his eye, but I really just stabbed right beside his head... Teal'c taught me the benefit of that trick... and I swear, the friend passed out cold, and Brad was whimpering, and finally wet his pants...

Jacob and Jack were laughing so hard by this time it was a miracle that they didn't wet their pants!

Cassie shrugged. Then I tied up the friend's hands behind his back, called the police on my cell phone, and they took me to the emergency room after I told them what had happened, and they believed my story when Brad confessed the whole thing when the police promised not to let me near him again. The friend was still unconscious, but finally woke up enough to mumble his own confession. And afterwards, the police were laughing so hard about all of it... I guess they're in sore need of some amusement... and the ER doctor guy was cute, and his name is Mike, and I have a date with him for next Tuesday night, and the nursing staff all...

But Jack groaned, covering up the sound of Cassie's voice. Another date... I'm getting too old for this.

Cassie once again ignored his comment to carve another bite off the cake with her fingers, then to ask as she sank down into a leather chair, What did I miss here? You were talking about something when I came in. Her expression went from one of curiosity to one of wicked interest. Were you talking about how you plan to throw Stalker Boy through the 'Gate to Anubis? Or maybe to that Replicator Sam person? She giggled. Watching his confusion over that one would be priceless! But even as she exuberantly finished her story, she was busy delicately probing her cheek with the ends of her cake free fingers. When those fingers didn't turn up anything worse than the bruise she already knew about, she stopped to watch the two men, then to stare at her adopted grandpa when he shook his head in puzzlement.

Jacob appeared even more confused. Wait a minute... Replicator Sam person? He whipped around to give Jack the benefit of his death glare. What's she talking about? His look of thoughtful befuddlement deepened. And 'Stalker Boy'? His glare deepened even more with his words, and he propped his hands on his hips in Tok'ra outrage. Jack!

Jack winced, but instead of answering Jacob, sent his own glare in Cassie's direction. Now I'll have to tell him everything - thank you so much, Cass!

Cassie was about to tell Jack that it was her pleasure to uncover the more seamy side of the Sam/Pete affair, but Jacob cut in to exclaim, I already know everything! Or at least some of it!

Jack was doubtful when he heard this. How much do you really know when you say that? he asked in suspicion.

Jacob huffed a breath. I know that Cassie's living here, with you and not Sam, and not just for her health, either! So out with it! To give either Jack or Cassie a little 'encouragement' in finally telling him more details, he passed his plate with his half slice of cake left to Cassie on his way out to the kitchen to grab another plate for himself.

Cassie took the plate of cake from him in delight. Thanks, Grandpa Jake! she exclaimed, then dug in with no need for further invitation.

Jack sighed, and relinquished his plate full of cake to the coffee table. Only his relinquishment was for other reasons than Jacob's earlier decision to feed Cassie with his cake portions. His second sigh filled the room with the sound of regret.

Jack? Jacob prompted by saying when he had returned from the kitchen and was carving out another piece of cake just for him. Now he straightened, plate full of a slice of cake in hand, and gazed at Jack in anxiety. I know that sound - I'm starting to get even more worried than I already am.

Jack gave an impatient swipe with his hand. He should have known that simply informing Dad of his distrust of Pete wasn't going to be enough to satisfy the Tok'ra - the race with the biggest sense of curiosity next to Carter's cop that he'd ever met. Alright, alright! Let me get settled... But despite what he had just said, he remained standing, his head hanging down as he studied the floor, indicating that what he had to report made him uncomfortable.

Cassie chimed in to add, I know that look, Jack - now I'm getting nervous. Should I get my nail file out again?

Jack gusted a sigh of reluctant impatience. For crying out loud, this is Carter's life, not a soap opera on Lifetime! I don't want to make a mess of this, so I'm doing my best to organize what I wanna say.

Cassie spluttered a laugh, not quite able to contain her sense of amusement at his remark. You... organized? Remember, Jack, I've seen your house on bad days... which is most days... not to mention the state of your SGC desk...

Jack sent Cassie a dark look. Careful, Cass, or I'll send you back to where you came from, he mock threatened.

To which Cassie immediately threatened back with her own retort, Like hell I'll go back there... you can send me, and I'll call Daniel to come rescue me with his archaeology whip.

Jacob grimaced around the cake in his mouth. Daniel has a whip?

Cassie's face lightened at his query. Yeah, I always thought it made him look kinda like Indiana...

Hey! Jack bellowed, refocusing their attention on him and his talking dilemma. He'd never been very good at the talking bit, so he didn't quite comprehend why he wanted their undivided attentions now, but he did. To that end, a bellow was the least he wanted to do. I only want to say this once, and if you miss out on it..!

Okay, Jacob promised in an instant attempt to appease Jack. We're listening - aren't we, Cass? So give us the real dirt on this Shanahan guy.

Cassie rolled her eyes. I will never understand how that guy became a cop, and a detective cop at that. He's about as observant as your typical fence post, and...

Cassie! Jack scowled at her now. He's not great, but he's not a fence post, either!

Cake forgotten, Cassie shot Jack another acerbic look. You haven't been forced to live with him... Sam and I have! Don't tell me he's not like a typical..!

Jacob broke in to ask, Sam's living with this guy?

That shut both Jack and Cassie up. Ssssssort of, Cassie at last admitted. It was more like, he asked her to marry him, and moved in when she said 'yes,' all without asking her what she thought about it. Cassie took another bite of cake. Or asking me what I thought about it, come to think of it. I was focusing more on the fact that Sam didn't stop him, and didn't bother to find out what I thought of the matter, either. She sent Jacob an apologetic glance. Sorry, Grandpa Jake - I guess that was a little self-absorbed of me.

Had Jack heard Cassie correctly? She thought she'd been a little self-absorbed at the time? You were more than 'a little self-absorbed' Cass! Jack firmly admonished.

Cassie's expression had turned murderous now. You know what I was thinking at the time, Jack! She shoved the last large bite of cake into her mouth as a relatively childish way of saying 'in your face' to him without really saying anything aloud. She chewed for a moment, swallowed, then turned to Jacob. Jack's been some kind of saint through this whole thing, if you ask me!

Jacob spluttered a laugh this time. And the idea of Jack being a 'saint' about anything is a scary prospect!

Jack had heard enough. Okay, stop goading me! I got enough of that from the Goa'uld! You wanna hear what I'm really thinking? The truth... okay... There, he predictably paused, like the steam had gone of his sails.

Cassie eyed her guardian. What's this about 'truth,' Jack? I thought you said that no one would ever tell me the truth, and I expected that to include you - why this sudden turnaround in your own life-philosophy? Her voice was simultaneously part persuasive, and part accusatory outrage. The mix made for an oddly encouraging tone.

Encouraged, Jack told the truth for once. The real deal... He sighed, like he was having his teeth pulled, one by one, but he couldn't stop the extraction. Years ago, I happened to overhear Carter talking to Daniel about Hansen...

That guy she was engaged to once? Cassie asked while taking more cake.

It was Jacob who nodded instead of Jack, though Jack knew all about the time in Carter's life that Jacob was referring to. His name was Jonas Hansen. He was Sam's fiancée for awhile... until she broke the engagement.

Cassie looked interested, in spite of the cake she was hiding behind. Oh? She broke it? Why was that?

Jacob tilted his head in thought. He was...

'Charming, ' Jack told them, using the same word that Carter had used at the time he was referring to. She said that she had a 'soft spot' for the 'lunatic fringe,' kinda like us guys who once did black ops. Then he shrugged when Cassie pointed to him and raised her brows in question, as if to ask since he had done black ops, too, if he was 'lunatic' enough for Carter as well. Yeah, I've thought of that, Cass, whether I'm part of 'the fringe' or not, and if I am, does that make me a 'lunatic' like Hansen turned out to be?

Cassie sent him a pensive expression. This must have happened before SG-1 found me... I don't remember Mom telling me anything about any of this, and I was so interested in everything that Sam did back then - I can't imagine that I would have not asked a million questions about... Her voice trailed off as she thought some more. So, what was up with this Hansen guy?

Jack gave another nonchalant shrug. If I remember it right, he thought he was some kind of a God...

Jacob gave a bark of laughter. Yep, that sounds like Hansen, alright. But I still don't understand what all this has to do with Shanahan. After all, Hansen happened before you guys even met, and this Pete character is happening right now. The rise of his shoulders again asked, 'What gives?'

Jack sighed once more. My point, Jacob, he emphasized, is that: Carter years ago said that she goes for the strange guys, the damaged guys, the 'lunatic' guys... Am I right about this, Jacob?

Jacob considered. Yeah, I would say that's a fair assessment of Sam's love life to this point. He quirked a smile. 'The damaged guys...' So, what's she doing with this Pete fella? He didn't seem 'damaged' so much as 'green.'

Jack threw his hands out, as if to give thanks for what Jacob had just pointed out. That's my point exactly, Dad! he exclaimed excitedly.

That Pete was green?

You lost me, Cassie instantly objected. What does one have to do with the other?

Jack tried to be patient. It's important, Cassie, because Pete is not like Jonas Hansen. The idea of Pete thinking he was a God - or even trying to pull off the God thing in any believable way - is totally laughable! I mean, Jack sputtered, sounding like Daniel in his 'I'm an excited archaeologist' mode. Who ever heard of a God who needs to lose about fifty pounds? Jack stared at them, as if daring either Jacob or Cassie to answer him. Even the many Goa'uld that I've had the misfortune to meet over the years have been mighty fine to look at.

What Jack is saying... in his blundering way, Jacob interrupted to tell Cassie, is that he thinks this Pete guy is not 'lunatic' enough for Sam. Then he turned to Jack. Is that right, Jack? he asked.

That about sums it up, Jack commented. And who says that I have 'blundering' ways? He shot Jacob a dirty look. I don't...

Don't stay on topic too well, you mean, Jacob threw back, amusement on his face. There's not a thing that's 'blundering' about that.

Jack's look grew even dirtier. Sounds like you should know.

Cassie's loud call of, Let's not lose track of the subject! came as the proverbial slap to their faces. Remember? Sam... 'lunatic'?

Oh, yeah, Jack said, glad that Cassie had the tenacity to force them to stay on the course of the conversation. I was saying - Jacob just summed it up: I've always had to wonder if this Shanahan guy is a charming distraction for Carter, or the real deal. He doesn't seem quite 'lunatic' enough to me to attract someone like Carter. And he shrugged one more time.

Not 'lunatic' enough? Cassie snorted. The guy likes to stalk people. He likes to follow them all over creation. He likes to make huge life decisions without consulting Sam, even though those life decisions play a huge part in her life. Is that 'lunatic' enough for you? When Jack didn't respond, because he was still thinking about what Cassie had just pointed out, she continued, It's like Sam's content to just sit back and let him take control, and boy, is he ever taking that 'control' for a spin!

Jacob sent a puzzled glance at Cassie. Sam's letting him make decisions for her? he asked in a disbelieving voice.

You bet she is! Cassie answered with gusto. She even lets him make decisions for me - without asking me first, either. It's as if he's infected her with some kind of disease that...

He wouldn't do something like that... would he? Jack inquired, not sure what to think now. Infect her, I mean.

Cassie snorted. I wouldn't put it past him, she muttered, but didn't give Jack a definitive 'yes' or 'no.'

Jack's brow now drew down in suspicion. And just how do you know about the fact that he follows her... except that either I or Doc must have told you about that Osiris thing where he stumbled on Carter 'because he happened to be in the area.' His fingers quoted the air. Like I've ever believed that! he scornfully added.

Because, Cassie told them in her firm 'I'm gonna tell you what's going on, so listen up,' tone. Pete followed Sam to see what was what with her, and I followed Pete.

Jack gave a huff of annoyance, but didn't comment on Cassie's own stalking skills to instead say, My point, Jacob, is that, like you said, Pete isn't 'lunatic' enough for Carter, in spite of his stalker ways. He's boring. She's been asleep this whole week because she's really bored to death with this guy, but has already agreed to marry him, and doesn't want to think about having to either be bored to death for the rest of her life with this control-freak Jonas Hansen clone, or break up with him before she says 'I do.' He eyed them both knowingly. That's my opinion... for what it's worth.

Jacob shrugged once more. You may have something, he thoughtfully said, looking like he was mulling over what Jack had said. Finally, he stopped mulling to heave a sigh. Guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens.

Cassie deflated in her leather chair. You don't have any influence with her, Grandpa Jake? she asked. You know, maybe hurry her up in 'waking.' Her voice was so plaintive that she was almost whining.

Jacob actually laughed at Cassie's question. What influence I once had with Sam left when she was about ten years old. He shrugged, sounding like he wanted to be positive for Cassie's sake, but refused to lie to her at the same time. It's up to Sam. All we can do now is wait.

Cassie gave a thoroughly dissatisfied grunt. It's this waiting that I hate.

Jack had never been particularly patient, either. If Carter's thinking about getting rid of the cop, what the heck is she waiting for, that's what I want to know. He gave them all a dark scowl of disapproval.

Cassie responded. I guess this could mean one of two things: 1) she actually plans on marrying this Stalker Boy, and doesn't want to 'get rid of him;' or 2) she wants to get rid of him, has even tried, but he won't go away, and now she doesn't know how to handle this 'relationship' on her own. So she's sleeping so she doesn't have to deal with it - you know - pretend there's no 'problem' and the 'problem' magically goes away.

Jacob's expression brightened. If I know Sam, the second possibility is the most logical one. That sounds exactly like something she would do.

Cassie quirked an eyebrow. It does, doesn't it? She gave another snort. And I bet that Stalker Boy doesn't have a clue. She turned to Jack. And what do you think, Jack?

The question jerked Jack out of his thoughts. Uh... yeah, you're right. That's soooo like her!

Cassie and Jacob then went back to talking to each other as they ate cake, not paying attention to the fact that Jack suddenly wasn't taking part in this half of the conversation.

Jack, on the other hand, was only too aware of what he was doing. He felt like he'd just been hit by a truck... or a new idea, more to the point. He didn't show it, but he thought Cassie's ideas definitely had merit. She knew Carter as well as he did, better where her personal life was concerned. Jack continued to ignore Cassie and Jacob's chatter to instead think through Cassie's suggestions. And though thinking was hardly one of Jack's strongest assets, he couldn't get these opposing ideas out of his mind.

* * *

Whether Cassie was right in her ideas about Carter or not didn't matter in the end. An hour into the flight to Washington DC the next day, Carter took one look at the sandwich Daniel had grabbed before they left, and was shoving into his mouth as they quietly discussed 'the mission gone bad' that had just taken place, and the next thing any of them knew, she had thrown up three times, and was fighting the draw of unconsciousness as the three SGC men did their best to deal with this new 'crisis.' They pulled her from the tiny airplane rest-room, carried her to the cargo area of the plane, where they could stretch her out, and were in the process of demanding answers from her as to questions of what had really gone on the last week that was so bad that it could lead to retching and passing out at 20,000 feet. But she clearly was unable to focus at that point. The three men continued to avoid panic as they elected one of them to inform the pilot of what had happened, and to order her to land the plane wherever they were for a medical emergency. Sam passed out just as they hit the runway at McConnel Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas.

* * *

So, as quick as a blink, the lives of those connected to the SGC had gone haywire again, and they could either adjust, or be left behind.

Adjust, adjust, was the one word that kept running through Jack's brain as four hours later, he was still trying not to panic as he hastily spoke to Daniel and Teal'c in the hospital corridor outside Carter's new room. This hospital in Wichita, Kansas smelled antiseptic and too clean for Jack's taste, and he unconsciously wrinkled his nose as he spoke. You two go on to DC to see Senator McCain - he wants to hear about SG-1's last mission, and you guys were there, not me. I'm just window dressing to you guys right now.

Daniel lowered his own brows in a frown. Are you sure, Jack? I don't feel right about leaving Sam like this, in a strange hospital in a strange town. Teal'c and I want to stay.

Jack heaved a sigh, as if they had recently been over this same ground only moments before. She won't be alone - I'm going to be here, for a few more days at least. She'll be awake by then... I think... and I can explain to her that you both went to see the Senator while we stay here in Wichita. If she's still not awake when I have to leave, I'll call you. The doctors said that she just has a case of dehydration, and was malnourished. It won't take long at all before she's back at work, spewing enough technobabble to drive us all nuts. Trust me. Jack then recalled the alarm on the face of one of the doctors who had been assigned to Sam's case when looking over her patient's chart in the hospital's ER. Carter's case of malnourishment and dehydration must be fairly severe to garner such a response from a medical professional. Despite the misgivings that had been caused by this incidence, he insisted, She'll be fine, and we'll probably beat you back to the SGC. Go on - give your personal testimony... it'll be fine.

But once again, that's not what happened. True, Sam did wake up just after Daniel and Teal'c left for McConnel AFB to continue their journey from Wichita to Washington DC, but Jack's prediction ended there. Sam awoke, and her case of dehydration/malnutrition was quickly dealt with through the IV that had been started the minute she entered the ambulance to travel to the hospital in Wichita.

But now that she was awake, she refused to say anything, and that left Jack completely flummoxed. No matter how hard he tried, if he ordered her to speak, or encouraged her to speak, or simply begged for her to tell him what was on her mind so that the lost look of sorrow would leave her eyes, Carter remained mute, staring at the wall for hours on end, doing nothing more than muttering to herself about some battle she'd been in, interspersed with long periods of complete voluntary paralysis, lying unmoving in her hospital bed.

Jack couldn't pretend any longer that Carter was anything but thoroughly depressed. He was instantly reminded of how she had been after Jolinar had invaded her body, except this time there was no Cassie to pull her out of the funk she had fallen into. He doubted that Cassie would take his phone call to bring her to Wichita to talk to Carter even if he knew how to find her.

Jack remembered with a clarity that he wished he could dilute what Cassie had said to him the night of the cake party, after Jacob had returned to base. That was the night that she had left his house, for good, he anticipated. But the late evening after Jacob's departure had started off deceptively calm.

With the two of them alone, the house had quickly grown much quieter without its 'Carter influence.' To end the uncomfortable silence that had mysteriously fallen on Jack's house not long after Jacob's disappearance, he had simply commented, Now that I'm full of sugar, and sick to my stomach, I'm going to bed - good night, Cass. And he walked sedately to the kitchen to leave his plate in the dishwasher, and to drink some water before heading to his bedroom.

Cassie followed him, carrying cake plates as well. She seemed to thoughtfully consider the remains of the cake, as if it held the secrets of the Universe, then abruptly asked, Do you really think Sam will come around, Jack? That she's just... like I said... sleeping through the worst of this situation so she won't have to deal, so that she can deny that anything's wrong? And that Pete isn't 'lunatic' enough for her, like you said, so she'll eventually get rid of him if I just wait long enough?

Jack had heaved a sigh of resignation. I wish I knew, Cass. I have to agree that sleeping so that she won't have to deal with what's happening with you, with Pete, with her weird blood, with the whole transfer possibility... That's very like Carter. At least, the Carter I know.

He didn't say 'know and love,' almost as if he wanted to make sure that he didn't say it, even though he definitely wanted to. It was as if he'd swallowed the words, making him cast his mouth in a slightly grim line of disgust.

Jack went on. But, I just can't say for sure what's going through her mind right now.

Surprisingly enough, the rejoinder that Cassie made following Jack's remark was just slightly tinged with a bitter anger. And I suppose that you'll die before simply ASKing her what's on her mind, too.

Jack did a double take. Huh. Cassie surprisingly sounded... mad... at him... as if he'd done something heinously wrong.

Jack gaped at the young woman, while Cassie acted like what she had said about Jack not talking to Carter was a given. But Jack remembered how he had been stung by the aggravated, resigned tone that she had used. It pushed him to harshly inquire, What do you mean that I won't talk to Carter? I talk to her, he insisted. Every day, we talk about the...

And Cassie had given another of her frustrated sighs full of irritation, and clarified, I don't mean 'talk about work things,' Jack. I mean talk as in 'talk' about what the hell is going on with her dating Stalker Boy while obviously still having feelings for you.

Again Jack could only gape at her. No one had so openly mentioned the feelings he and Carter harbored, and had always harbored, for each other before Cassie did just that without a second thought. He wasn't up on dealing with such openness, thus he didn't quite know how to handle the things that Cassie was saying. When he didn't know how to react to something, he usually got angry, and he could feel the beginnings of his anger even now. I...

But Cassie wasn't done. She gazed at him in obvious reproach. Why you're just taking all this like you don't really give a shit about what she does is...

Jack's lowered brows of puzzlement now lowered even further to show his own growing anger. What gave you the idea that I 'don't give a shit' about what Carter does?

Cassie stared at him blankly, still holding the two plates full of sugary cake crumbs. Well, you don't, do you? At least, I'm pretty sure that's what she thinks.

Given the way he always wanted to adhere to Air Force regulations, and not hurt Carter's career in any way, Jack couldn't even contradict Cassie's assessment of his past romantic situations.

When he didn't say anything, Cassie went on again, It's not like you've ever told Sam anything about... well, anything about the way you feel. At least she was able to tell me that much when she and I were still speaking to each other.

Cassie obviously hadn't heard about Jack's and Sam's Zatarc confessions, or she would have mentioned them, even if these confessions were four years old. The way that Cassie now claimed that he'd never spoken of his feelings to Carter... she was downright condescending when she mentioned it.

Which inflamed Jack's anger even more. He shoved his plate into the dishwasher tray, and in a tight voice, suggested, Perhaps you have an idea of what I should do about all this, huh, Cass?

He'd expected Cassie to draw the usual blanks that he drew when contemplating how he should handle his 'Carter situation,' but she surprised him again. Sure I know what you should do, Cass said in a casual voice. You should get the hell out of the military.

Which aggravated Jack even further - the solution to his problem wasn't nearly as simple as Cassie was portraying it. The military is what I do, Cass, Jack said in irritation. It's what she does. She won't like it if I quit. I won't like it if she quits. How can you expect either of us to..?

Cassie's face went from 'casual' to 'livid' in a heartbeat. That's what you've been saying for years, Jack! And it's a piss-poor excuse for 'passing the buck,' if you ask me!

Jack's anger was reaching scary levels by this point. I haven't been 'passing the buck,' if you want to know!

Cassie thunked her own plates down on the counter so that she could regard him in unencumbered fury. Then what do you call all the dancing around that you two have done for... for as long as I've known you? she firmly yelled. What have you both been doing? And before Jack could answer, continued, I'll tell you what you were doing - you both have your heads so far up your butts that neither of you...

That sounded on awful lot like criticism, and Jack had never reacted well to criticism, especially of Carter. Don't you dare talk about..!

Cassie didn't sound like she cared much about Jack's reaction to criticism one way or another. Of course I dare, Jack, because you sure as hell won't! she heedlessly shot back at him. You know what? I had to sit there and watch Mom and Daniel mooning over each other for years, and when they finally got their acts together long enough to make a date, Mom goes off and gets herself killed before it can happen. When Jack's astonishment only grew the more she disclosed, Cassie amazed him further by rhetorically asking, Why do you think she was so happy the days before she died, you moron? Because they had finally chosen to do something about liking each other. Unlike you, who just uses that same old dumb excuse that...

But... Daniel never said a word, Jack breathed, dumbfounded.

Cassie sneered, Of course he didn't! He was too afraid of what you might say... or do! And Mom didn't want to say anything until after there was something to tell. Only neither of them got the chance - don't you get it?! Mom died before there was anything to tell! She propped her hands on her hips to more openly glare at Jack. And here you and Sam are, perfectly alive, when I'm well aware that neither of you should be - Mom talked about all your injuries often enough - it's amazing that you're even here, to say nothing of the fact that...

Cass, wait! Jack was so confused by what she was saying that he felt dizzy. And he didn't like feeling so out of control that he was dizzy, not by a long-shot. Daniel... and your mom?!

Yes, Jack, you'd have seen it if only you'd opened your eyes once in awhile! Cassie's glare increased. My point is that they didn't get a chance to be together before one of them died - you and Sam aren't dead yet, so you do have that chance. Except that you're not taking it! Once again you're just sitting on your butt and not doing anything, and so is she! It's enough to make me want to... Cassie paused, then lamely burst out with, It makes me want to pull my hair out in frustration!

Jack was so far gone in his amazed anger by now that he had thrown all caution aside to say the first thing that came to his mind. Cass, whether or not you're frustrated is beside the point. I can't say anything to her, and she can't say anything to me or we'll get court...

Then retire! Cassie screeched. Let her retire! Transfer! Let her transfer! Sneak out your bedroom windows and go behind people's backs - do whatever it takes... but don't just sit there and hand over everything to this stalker fella like he deserves it, 'cause he doesn't! Do something, for once in your life!

Cassie, don't push me! Jack yelled, too angry now to lower his voice, not caring if the neighbors heard them fighting or not. He was well beyond the caring stage. You...

Don't push you?? Cassie sarcastically jeered back, cutting him off to say it. If you ask me, it's high time someone actually did some pushing, and if Sam won't do it, then I will!

Jack had become incensed at this point, taking Cassie's commentary as the second time she mentioned a critique about Carter. I'm beginning to see why Carter was so fed up with you! You...

You know what? Cassie loudly interrupted. I can't watch this damned drama a minute longer. You and Sam... it's like you two want to be unhappy - you get your kicks that way. But I'm sick of watching it. First Sam, then you. Count me out.

But Jack roughly caught her arm in his hand when she went to stomp passed him. She ground to a halt, but didn't remove the scowl from her face, or her arm from his hand. If anything, her features grew more thunderous, and her arm more tense.

Teeth clenched, she shot daggers straight at him with her unflinching gaze. I used to be angry at Sam for her trying to find a 'normal 'life, for getting engaged to Stalker Boy and not consulting me first, for not seeming to notice all his faults... and he has some doozies. Her gaze became even more piercing. But now I can see where she was coming from, and I think that I owe her an apology. At least I understand why she did what she did - how she lived through seven and a half years of your 'I won't talk about it' bullshit is amazing. I only lasted a week.

Jack's eyes had grown more haunted the more she spoke, and his voice rasped out of him in anger mixed with supreme frustration at this situation with Cassie, with Carter, with the Air Force, with the whole world... You don't understand, Cass, was as much as she allowed him to say before she was again interrupting.

Oh, I think I do understand, Jack! she ground out, her teeth still clamped tightly together. You wouldn't make a decision about her, you would rather moon over her, and do nothing... for years. So she found someone who would do something... and I don't blame her!

How could she say that?! It was Jack's worst fear, verbalized with startling clarity by a woman only nineteen years old. He reacted reflexively to her words: he yanked her closer to him so that he could see right into her eyes.

Cassie regarded him in tight lipped fury. Therefore, the quiet calm of her voice seemed at odds to the vehemence in her eyes. Jack, I've already had a very shitty evening - are you going to make it even worse?

A challenge - it was one of the few things that might break through the haze that had taken up residence in Jack's brain and allow him to think more clearly about what he was doing. He was shocked to admit to himself that he had been going to threaten his own ward, probably use his weight to physically push her against the kitchen counter and trap her there so that he could talk 'sense' into her, though he certainly didn't know what brand of 'sense' he had in mind to refer to. His own sense had deserted him ages ago, proven by the fact that threatening Cassie was the best course of action that he could think of at this point.

Cassie immediately took advantage of his hesitancy, as he had taught her years before, and yanked her arm out of his grasp. She would never have been able to best him at a physical altercation if his attention had been more focused, but now she narrowed her eyes to glare even more. I can't stay here, she announced. I'm leaving. She then marched past him to her room, where she slammed the door shut. She didn't do anything to soften the noises of her obvious packing that reached his ears. He could even hear her over the gasps of his own ragged breathing.

Now, in the quiet calm of Carter's Wichita hospital room, Jack recalled with alarming distinctness that noisy scene between himself and Cassie, and how at odds it was to the silent treatment that Carter gave to everybody around her now. He would do anything to transfer some of that noise, even the yelling, to this scene confronting him. But Carter stayed as eerily quiet as Cassie had been vociferously angry that night. He would almost prefer that Carter was also yelling the same things at him that Cassie had yelled. But instead, she was so quiet, so calm... it was unreal.

The unbidden arrival of Pete halfway through the second day did nothing to facilitate discussion with Carter, either. The second the cop appeared, Carter, who should have been pleased to see him, seemed to withdraw into herself even more. Again Jack had to wonder if Cassie's theory about the way Carter had used her pain pills as an avoidance tactic wasn't spot on.

All this silence gave Jack plenty of time to think. He was beginning to see that Cassie was right about a great many things as well as Carter's propensity for denial. When he seriously considered everything that he had done over the years regarding Carter, he better understood Cassie's viewpoint that night she had yelled at him. From where she sat, looking in at them, it seemed exactly as if he had specifically chosen not to deal with Carter, or the way he felt about her. And now that Stalker Boy was in the picture... it was basically too late for him to do anything.

Wasn't it?

* * *

She has PTSD, Carter's main doctor was saying to Jack and Pete out in the large waiting room set aside for the hospital staff to talk to a patient's relatives.

Jack was ready to explosively say that no way was Carter suffering from PTSD after all that they'd been through as a team.

But before Jack could even open his mouth to argue, the cop was there, ready to ask his questions. What's PTSD?

Jack answered faster than Doctor Mehab could force the correct words out of his own mouth. Stands for 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.' It means that Doc here thinks Carter's gone nuts, loony, around the bend, up the river without a paddle.

Pete went predictably ashen as the doctor gave them both an aggravated expression. That's not what I said at all, he argued. As a combat soldier...

Airman, Jack quickly corrected.

Doctor Mehab rolled his eyes. Whatever. As a combat Airman, Miss Carter is forced to deal with horrors of vast proportions on an almost daily basis. How she's managed to go this long without succumbing to something traumatic is beyond me.

That's my point, Doc, Jack jumped into the conversation to argue. If she was gonna get PTSD, it would have showed up by now. She...

Doctor Mehab interrupted Jack this time. Miss Carter could very well have been showing Post Traumatic symptoms before now, and no one recognized them for the shout for help that she was making.

Jack rolled his own eyes now. 'Shout for help' my ass! he exclaimed, and would have said more in the same faintly jeering tone that he was using, but Shanahan spoke to Doctor Mehab before Jack could say any more.

Are you saying that Sam might need... help? He had to swallow before he could go on. She might need to be in a.... mental place? The way he said it, one would think that anything of a mental nature was seriously distasteful.

No, she doesn't! Jack instantly growled.

But Doctor Mehab ignored him to respond to Pete's question. It would help her in ways that we just aren't equipped to help her here at Wesley Medical Center.

Pete looked alarmed at this news. So you want to send her somewhere else? he inquired.

The doctor sighed in satisfaction, as if he had just been waiting for this particular question. Yes, as a matter of fact, there's a hospital in Arkansas that I know about that specializes in cases like Miss Carter's...

She ain't going to Arkansas! Jack again growled.

Doctor Mehab sighed at this show of opposition from the unknown military man. Excuse me, he finally asked. But, how are you related to Miss Carter?

Jack was forced to answer, I'm not related... but neither is he. He pointed at Pete. He simply couldn't stomach that slightly smug look in Shanahan's eyes, and he was only too happy to help in getting rid of it. I'm her CO... her Commanding Officer... have been for eight years at this point. And I know Carter like the back of my own hand.

And you are? Doctor Mehab regarded Pete.

I'm her fiancé, Pete replied, sounding as if he instinctively knew that a fiancé was going to have more pull in a situation like this than a simple CO.

To which Jack quickly clarified, Shanahan's only known Carter for six months. He eyed the younger man with obvious distaste. And they've only been engaged for two weeks. His lip curled just slightly. So, pardon me, but doesn't someone who's known Carter for longer than a measly half a year have a little say in this matter of if she should be transferred?

The doctor instantly clammed up. If neither of you are outright relatives of my patient, then by law, I'm not allowed to further discuss this case with...

For cryin out loud! Jack huffed in exasperation. This doctor was just as aggravating as Cassie had always been, but wasn't nearly as good to look at. You guys decide what's what, then let me know. I'll be in with Carter... who is far more sane than you bozos give her credit for!

With that, Jack quickly returned to Carter's room, where he surprisingly caught her sitting up in bed. She hadn't moved beyond blinking for two days, and now she was sitting up as if the position was normal. He got so excited to see her doing this that he was about to call Doctor Mehab in to witness this amazing activity when he realized exactly what Carter was doing.

She was waving at him in an urgent manner, trying her best to get his attention at the same time that she asked with frantic arm movements that he remain quiet. He swallowed his cry for Dr. Mehab at the last moment, choosing instead to gaze at her in puzzlement. Carter? he whispered, trying not to sound equally as frantic as she looked. What's up?

Carter placed the reddened fingers of her recently unbandaged right hand up to her mouth, trying to quickly indicate the need for silence, even if her burn-roughened fingers refused to straighten out when placed next to her lips. When she was certain that he would remain silent, she beckoned him over with another hasty gesture of her arm.

Confused, Jack crossed to the side of her bed. They want to send you to a mental hospital, Carter. For PTSD. I told them it was a ridiculous idea, and...

She interrupted him with just a look of fear out of huge eyes. She grabbed his hand with the tips of her right fingers, turned his hand palm up, then pressed a tightly folded piece of paper into his palm, and closed his fingers around it. Then she made that same gesture of 'quiet' with her reddened hand, now free of the bandages that she had worn for over a week, but not free of the burn ravaged scars left behind.

Seeing that hand of hers turned Jack's stomach, not because it grossed him out, but because he knew that she had several months worth of hard PT ahead of her at best, and it would be a miracle if she were ever able to curl her fingers enough to fire a weapon again.

But he didn't say that. He didn't say anything. He especially refused to think about the fact that her being diagnosed with a case of PTSD might not do good things for her further career in the Air Force, either. He could only force himself to sympathetically respond to the beseeching desperation in her eyes, and to hide the paper away as quickly as she had given it to him. He didn't even take the time to read it. He just stuffed it in the pocket of his uniform coat, then helped to straighten the blankets around her once again as she dove under their protective cover when the door to her hospital room opened to admit Pete and Doctor Mehab. The two men were of course oblivious that Carter had made a 'miracle recovery,' and gazed instead at Carter's wickedly staring eyes. She was once again facing the wall and talking gibberish quietly to herself while the two men studied her. She didn't move, or even blink the whole time that she was under scrutiny. Jack wondered how she could be so still on purpose. He would have fidgeted long ago, and given the game up for what it was.

Rather than saying anything right sway, Jack determinedly opposed the diagnosis of PTSD. I still say that with some rehab, Carter will be as good as new!

Doctor Mehab wasn't as convinced. She'll receive the best of care in Little Rock, he assured, as if it were a foregone conclusion that Carter would be going to this 'mental place' where he wanted to send her.

Little Rock? Pete ascertained. That's where you want to transfer her to?

Mehab gave a sage nod. To The North Mental Facility in Little Rock, Arkansas, yes. It has the highest trained personnel, I assure you, he added, now sounding academic, reminding Jack of Daniel. They'll take good care of her there.

Transferred, Pete was saying with abstract distaste in his voice. To a mental place.

Jack rerouted his attention to look more closely at the cop. The man's ashen facial features stood out in complete relief when juxtaposed with the red jacket he was wearing.

Stood out a lot. As if Petey-boy had some problem not only with Carter transferring, but transferring to some place with a 'mental' background.

As if Pete automatically did not like having a 'mental' fiancé.

Huh. Not that Carter was mental... But again Jack didn't do anything other than to protest this proposed transfer, to which Shanahan reminded him of who was the nearest relative to Carter in this scenario; despite his ashen face, he was able to point out that a fiancé had much higher credentials than a CO who was just a friend. Jack glared, but looked as if he had to give in on this point. Pete was definitely smug... ashenly smug... as Jack left the room, direly threatening to call the Joint Chiefs over this, the President if he had to...

Jack didn't stay in the room long enough to see the two men share a quizzical glance at him calling The President over a case of PTSD, but he didn't explain. He simply disappeared into the hall, and made his way for the nearest nurse's station, where he knew that Doctor Mehab would stop to go through Carter's medical chart one last time before returning it to the nurses so that they could file it. He didn't want to wait outside the door of Carter's room in case Shanahan made another appearance in the corridor: if the cop did abruptly appear, Jack didn't know that he could think fast enough on his feet and come up with a viable excuse for his presence there, and he preferred not to find out if he was that much into improvisation. So he waited further down the hall, lounging near the public phones, just in case.

Sure enough, five minutes later, Doctor Mehab made his appearance at the nurse's desk near where Jack had stationed himself, and Shanahan was not present. Before the cop could show up unexpectedly, Jack made a beeline for Mehab and grabbed him by the arm.

Before Mehab could protest the unexpected treatment, Jack rushed to say, Doc, I got something to show you... can we go somewhere private?

Mehab didn't know what hit him. He was, after all, a doctor, and not well versed on how to handle Jack O'Neill flying at him at warp speed. But Jack refused to let himself feel too guilty for manipulating the doctor this way - Carter's life could very well be in the balance of persuading Mehab that she was perfectly sane. Jack remembered what had happened to Daniel when entrusted to psychologists, after all, and didn't want the same fate for Carter.

Doc! Jack urgently said as soon as they were alone in a well lit office. You gotta listen! Not ten minutes ago, I went into Carter's room, and saw her sitting up in bed! Then he thought to add, On purpose!

What? Mehab asked in incredulity. But that's impossible! That kind of purposeful..!

Jack then drew out the tiny square of paper from his pocket. She gave me this! And he brandished the paper. She wants us to read it - I think.

Holding his breath, Jack smoothed out the paper. It was a letter, written in a scrawling hand that Jack would never have recognized as Carter's if he hadn't witnessed her give this letter to him himself. It was written in all capital letters, written very hastily in pen, but legibly enough, and addressed to both Jack and Doctor Mehab.

Sir (Jack) and Dr. Mehab,

Sorry for the bad writing - I didn't have time to practice being ambidextrous.

'Ambi' what? Jack grunted, hating that feeling of not knowing something. But then he read a line more, and the puzzling word was explained to his satisfaction.

It means 'writing with either hand,' Sir.

Oh. Jack grunted again, then read on.

I know you guys think I have PTSD - that's what I want you to think. I'm faking it! It was just the only thing that I could think of that would convince you to get me away from Pete! I need time to myself to think, but he won't go away! He follows me everywhere! I even tried locking myself in the bathroom last week - he picked the lock and got in that way. If you're going to send me to some mental place because you think I have PTSD, please don't tell him where I'm going, and only tell him that there's no contact allowed with patients for a week or so... he won't leave me alone, and I NEED to think, somewhere without him hovering around me all the time! I'm trusting you, Jack, to make certain that I'm not sent to a true nut farm, like Daniel was that one time. But no matter where you send me, Pete can't know where I'm going! I need time to think if this wedding thing is the right thing for me, and I can't do that if he's ALWAYS THERE!!!!! I hereby give General Jack O'Neill power of attorney, or power of estate, or whatever it's called so that he can be in charge of what happens to me from now until I'm released from the medical facility where you two decide to send me. Just please help!

Samantha Jane Carter, June, 2005

In all of Jack's dealings with Carter, she had never asked for help before, no matter how bad things got. Which meant that things with Shanahan must have gotten pretty bad indeed for her to be asking for help now.

Well. And Jack was almost as smug as Shanahan had been moments before. As I'm General Jack O'Neill, according to this letter, I have the final say in what happens to Carter. And it's obvious that she's asking for help. And I order you... well, I can't order you... you're not military... I'm asking you to follow Carter's directions, and not tell either me or Shanahan where she's going, but I want you to transfer her out of here ASAP.

Looking shell shocked, Doctor Mehab paused for a moment, read the letter again, looked at Jack, then shrugged. I'll start the paperwork right away, he promised.

Jack patted the man on the back. Good. he smiled an almost evil smile. And not a word to Shanahan. The smug fiancé, he added for good measure. He didn't say how smug it made him feel to now have control of things, however. Besting Pete at his own game was just too... cool!

* * *

Jack returned alone to the SGC. The minute that Daniel and Teal'c also returned to the SGC from their time in Washington DC, where they had to talk to Senator McCain, then also to the whole JC senior staff, Daniel burst into Jack's office like he was being thrust ahead by a powerful engine that he couldn't resist. How's Sam?

Jack paused in the paperwork he was doing, and regarded the archaeologist. Finally, he decided on saying, She's fine, but 'officially' has PTSD. They sent her to some kind of physical and mental institution for a month or two for rehabilitation.

Daniel was instantly confused. I don't understand. I thought she was just dehydrated.

She is... was, Jack responded. She gave me power of attorney, and said that she wanted help in getting away from Shanahan, so I sent her to... some mental and physical therapy place that's so far undisclosed.

Daniel looked purely horrified. Jack!? he exclaimed in incredulity. You had her committed?

Jack gave a nonchalant shrug, hardly the reaction that he suspected the linguist was looking for. Not committed, exactly - just sent somewhere else. At Daniel's continued look of accusation, Jack explained. It's what she wanted.

But Daniel was not appeased. How can you tell? he screeched in horror. She doesn't talk, she's unconscious!

Jack reached behind him to pull the letter from Carter that he had copied for his own use, then filed in a safe place in his office. He gave it to Daniel. That's how I know, you doubter. Daniel snatched the letter from Jack and quickly read its contents. Then he dropped the paper to the desk, but now had other concerns that he voiced. But how do we know she's being treated well at this... we don't even know where this doctor person sent her! He gasped a breath. She could be suffering from an overdose of medication even as we speak! Remember what happened to me when I was in a mental ward!

Jack waved dismissively. You were under the care of MacKenzie, and MacKenzie's an idiot. This Doctor Mehab seemed to be a guy who has his head on straight.

But Daniel still looked alarmed. There were those that thought the same thing about MacKenzie! he bellowed. Sam could be in a straight jacket even now! This is awful, Jack! How could you do this to her?

Jack stood up to stare at his former teammate. Calm down, Daniel, he ordered. If you're worried about Carter, then send someone in to check on her.

Incensed, Daniel sarcastically asked, How can we do that if we don't know where she is?

Jack held up a finger for silence from Daniel. We don't know where she is, but we know exactly where Doctor Mehab is, and he knows where she is. I'll call him right now, and you can think about going in... as, say, an Inspector from The Department of Health, doing an impromptu health inspection. Or you're taking a patient survey... that way, you can talk directly to Carter and make sure that she's being treated okay. But Daniel still looked far too alarmed for Jack's liking. He soothed, It'll be fine, Daniel!

Daniel glared at Jack. You keep saying that, and then things like this happen! Things are NOT fine!

But Jack really wasn't listening to his friend's ranting. He had produced Mehab's telephone number. Here's the doctor-guy's phone number. I'll give him a call. When he got the hospital in Wichita, he said, Doctor Mehab, please.

* * *

It turned out that Jack and Daniel spoke to Carter directly in the end, in spite of the one-week-no-contact rule that she was currently under. It's fine, Daniel, Carter said, sounding exasperated, but affectionately so. This is really more of a rehabilitation hospital than a mental facility. I'm in physical therapy for my hand while I'm also doing some physiological work that would make the General throw up.

This phone call is on speaker phone, Carter, and I heard that, Jack playfully interjected.

She actually laughed, her first show of amusement since this entire thing began. I'll be sure to send you a bed pan, Sir - you can throw up all you want in that.

It was turning into a strange conversation - things with Carter were so stress free that it was almost like their conversations before the arrival of Pete.

And on the topic of Stalker Boy... I hate to ask, Carter, but have you heard from your cop yet, or were we successful in doing what you asked, and he doesn't know where you are?

Both Jack and Daniel heard Carter's sigh turn to one of resignation. She continued, Doctor Mehab, as well as the nurses here, have been fielding Pete's calls - and those calls have been hourly.

Daniel piped up. Except that we're talking to you right now. What gives with that?

Carter sighed again. I just don't want you guys to worry. I know that after today, you won't keep bugging me, trying to find me before it's time. Unlike Pete... whose stalker tendencies are becoming too obvious to miss. But I know that you'll both be patient... or as patient as the General ever gets.

Hey! Jack immediately said in a mock hurt voice. I resemble that!

Again came Carter's chuckle, sounding lighter than she had sounded in months. I'll let you know how to find me as soon as I'm finished thinking, I promise. That just doesn't seem to be enough for Pete, but I'm not going to cave to his whims on this issue - I need some more time, that's all. Please, just be patient with me.

Know that we miss you, Sam, Daniel hurried to say. And I'll be there... wherever you are... the minute your week is up - that's my own promise.

A giggle came through the line, and this time, Jack wasn't able to cover up his amazement. Was this woman he was talking to really the high-strung Carter he was used to dealing with? This relaxed woman who could not only laugh at his bad jokes, but make ones of her own?

Jack quickly collected his scattered wits to insist, We don't want to keep you, Carter. Daniel was just worried that they have you stuffed into a straight jacket 24/7, and he wouldn't be satisfied until he spoke directly to you. Don't want to bother you.

You're no bother, Carter lightly insisted. And no, I haven't seen a single straight jacket since I came here. But I can pick one up in the gift shop if it's important to you, Daniel.

Daniel grinned. That's okay - it'll just give me bad memories, anyway. As long as you're okay...

Couldn't be better, guys, and thanks for calling. I look forward to seeing you in exactly five days from now. She sounded like that thought was as relaxing to her as exciting.

Jack got in one last parting comment before they all hung up. Have fun thinking - will be glad to see you, too.

Can't wait, she cheerfully said. Bye.

Bye.

The dial tone was the only sound in the office as Jack studied Daniel after she disconnected. Feel better now, Spacemonkey? Jack shut off the speaker system on his phone, and hung up.

Daniel grimaced when he heard that particularly hated monicker. I'd tell you again how I hate that name, but I know that it won't do any good, so I won't bother. But yes, I feel much better about this now.

Jack steepled his fingers together, just as he'd seen General Hammond do countless times in the past when he was aiming for patience. Did you notice how...?

Relaxed? Daniel filled in for him.

Jack perked up. Yeah. I barely recognized her voice, she was so relaxed.

Makes you hardly know what to think, doesn't it? Daniel admitted, then crossed his arms over his chest in befuddlement. A relaxed Sam, he said in a thoughtful voice. Wow.

* * *

Two days after Jack had spoken with Daniel in his office, he got another phone call, though this one wasn't from Carter.

General, Sir, a nervous sounding male voice said into the receiver. This is one of the guards at the main gate - we have something of a situation brewing here that requires your attention... Sir.

The guard's voice cracked at the very end of his statement, and Jack had to wonder how old the young soldier was he was speaking to. But he didn't give in to his curiosity and ask that particular question. Instead he inquired about an issue that was a lot more pertinent. Does this situation that's 'brewing' need me to have a squad of SFs standing ready nearby?

The guard breathed out a relieved gush of air. SFs would be a very good thing to have on your six right now, Sir!

That comment made Jack perk up straighter in his chair. Just what kind of a situation... uh... who is this?

Cadet Brown, Sir.

Jack wrinkled his forehead in confusion. Cadet? What the hell was a cadet doing guarding the main gate?

You know, for the Experience Exchange Program with The Academy. The young man's anxiety rose another notch. You and General Kerrigan both signed the form last month, and got the details...

Oh, right, right, Jack said, though he had only vague recollections of sharing emails with Kerrigan about doing some trading for further experience for the cadets. He hoped that the only thing that someone as young as this Cadet Brown seemed to be was doing nothing more 'hands on' than guarding the front gate. But there was no way that he was going to admit to having little memory of a program that Brown seemed to expect him to know all about.

Anyway, Brown said again. The situation - I really think that you should get up here, Sir.

Brown sounded scared... as if he either didn't know how to handle this 'situation'... which more than likely dealt with demanding civilians (many of the 'situations' at Cheyenne Mountain were about civilians) or he was afraid that...

Alarmed, Jack abruptly asked, You haven't shot anyone, have you, Cadet?

There was a rather telling pause, and then finally Brown replied with an enigmatic, Not yet, Sir.

The fact that Jack had even received a phone call meant that the cadet was closer to shooting someone than he would admit. That would be the cause of more paperwork than Jack ever wanted to have to handle! I'll be topside ASAP, he promised and hung up the phone before the guard could respond, then headed at a clip that was close to and all-out run for the surface.

What met Jack and the squad of SFs that he had brought with him were five trucks and SUVs, all sitting outside the main gate on the road leading from town. The vehicles weren't moving either onto the base, or away from the main gate. The were too busy blocking the only entrance into the mountain. And about twenty cars were backed up behind them, all honking their horns, irate drivers climbing out of cars even as Jack arrived.

The five trucks and SUVs all had the words Colorado Springs PD stenciled on the side doors. The Police? Jack questioned silently to himself. What do they want? We haven't done anything... lately.

Jack approached the guardhouse on is own. He carefully looked over what he could see of the trucks' occupants that he was facing as he walked. To the last person in the last truck, the individuals from the CSPD were grim and unsmiling. The sight of so much obvious animosity made his heart pound adrenaline through his body, and he welcomed the feeling of imminent danger - it reminded him of his field days when he'd felt more useful to the program as a whole than he did now, though he was currently in charge of the whole shebang. He tried not to look as edgy as he felt when he stepped across the asphalt road, then came to a stop outside the guardhouse. Several of the the SUV drivers were making certain that no one entered or left the mountain by blocking the road, but for the life of him, he couldn't figure out what the people in the vehicles were after.

I'm General O'Neill, from NORAD, Jack loudly said in his most congenial voice. Is there something I can do for you folks?

No one replied at all, and the people staring at Jack through the truck windshields could give Teal'c a run for his money in the 'stoic' department. But now that someone official had spoken, the crux of this situation was quick enough to step forth. Of the five vehicles formed into a small semicircle around the main gate, Pete Shanahan climbed out of the middle most SUV while the form of a man, probably Pete's partner, sat still in the passenger seat, but looked tense enough even from here to be prepared to jump out at a moment's notice.

Jack tried to swallow the automatic groan that he couldn't quite suppress the minute the annoying Shanahan came into sight. Pete swung around the end of his SUV to confront Jack. I'll say there's something you can do, he belligerently stated. You've got Sam in there, and we came to get her out. How that 'getting out' happens is up to you.

Jack finally understood - this was indeed a 'situation.' Though where Shanahan got his information was beyond him. It was all Jack could do not to laugh at the man's contentious demand. You're joking, right? he asked in a voice that was just shy of a true laugh. It was perhaps not the most diplomatic that he had ever been in his life as a base commander.

Jack's tone and words clearly incensed the detective. Look, O'Neill, Pete began in a combative tone. I know you must have Sam - she's not at home, not listed as a patient any longer at the Wichita hospital, no one's heard of her at The North Mental Facility in Little Rock, Mehab won't tell me where she is because I'm not a true relative yet, and she's not answering her cell phone - that means she must be here to...

Jack again forced himself not to laugh, but it was hard. The logic that you're using is a little underwhelming, Detective Shanahan.

Oh, you remember my name! Pete sneered at Jack, his 'faulty' logic quickly giving way to anger. These friends and I... 'and our guns' he implied as he gestured to the surrounding vehicles. We're here to see that Sam gets out of this junk joint.

Just then, at some prearranged signal, ten other people, all wearing black jackets with CSPD emblazoned on the back climbed from the trucks and SUVs. They didn't raise weapons, or do anything more threatening than simply stand behind the passenger doors with lowered windows, but even that small move was intimidating enough.

The urge to laugh left Jack in a rush. The resolute expression on the Detective's face let him know that Shanahan was absolutely certain that he was holding Sam against her will inside the Mountain, and had brought along plenty of 'friends' to add some muscle to his claims.

Jack sighed an exasperated sigh as he realized the full extent of this 'situation.' He had earlier told Cassie that the real 'truth' was something that no one would ever tell her, that she would have to figure it out for herself. But now he was beginning to understand that even that little 'life lesson' wasn't all there was to it: not only was no one ever likely to tell the 'truth,' it really didn't matter what the 'real truth' of any situation was - the only 'truth' that mattered was the 'truth' that the general public believed - in particular, what Shanahan now believed. As Jack pondered this new moral tidbit, he also comprehended that he would have to handle this situation with a deal more finesse than he'd first anticipated if he wanted to avoid any altercations.

But in spite of what he believed he should do, he opened the conversation with words that were seriously lacking in 'finesse.' Well, Shanahan, your 'logic' needs a lot more research to back it up - Carter's not here, hasn't been here for days, and even though you may not know exactly where she is, you should know that she isn't here.

Pete's sneer was back again in full force. What do you mean that I may not know 'exactly' where she is? he bellowed in puzzlement. Jack could hear the man's panting breaths all the way over by the guard house. Shanahan went on, I only know that Sam should be in Little Rock, Arkansas, but isn't listed as a patient there - I checked. Since I found that out, I've been trying to contact Sam, but she doesn't answer...

Jack interrupted, Of course she doesn't answer - she's on a doctor's no-contact order.

What the hell? Pete looked shocked to hear this news, as if he'd never considered a no-contact order.

Jack told him in a firm voice. Carter's getting physical therapy for her burned hand at the same time she's getting some help for the... How did Jack phrase this? Though he didn't believe in Mehab's initial diagnosis of PTSD, and never had, there was no doubt in his mind that Carter had... other mental issues... that she needed to deal with in her own way. But he didn't want to blurt the news about a mental Carter out for everyone to hear - she had colleagues in the cars that were blocked from entering the mountain.

Jack finally diplomatically said, She's doing some heavy thinking about her future.

Shanahan continued to gaze in utter befuddlement. And how do you know all this, O'Neill? he eventually spit out.

No matter what was really going on, Jack realized that Shanahan was totally angry. He wondered if he was dealing with a man who'd had a few beers too many? But Shanahan didn't appear drunk, or was weaving like he was too drugged out to know what he was doing. The ten cop 'friends' didn't seem to think the guy was crazy, either - they were too busy staring at the SGC General with shades covering their eyes.

'The shade trick' was meant to intimidate him, Jack knew. He had used the trick himself several times when he'd needed to do some intimidating in his special forces days. He was less impressed to have the same tactic used for his benefit, though. He felt not so much 'intimidated' as 'irritated.'

Holding onto his temper with a firm hand, Jack continued to try the diplomatic approach to the growing tension of the 'situation' that had met him on the surface. Daniel would have been proud of his restraint.

And speaking of Daniel... Jack turned to the guard nearest him, a young twenty something holding a rifle that looked as big as him. He muttered into the 'man's' ear, Call down and ask for Doctor Jackson to bring the letter that Colonel Carter wrote to me while we were in Wichita - he'll find it in the file cabinet behind my desk in a file folder marked 'Mehab.' Tell him to bring that letter topside ASAP.

Yes, Sir, the soldier said, saluting crisply before turning back to the guard house and its phone.

Saluting soldiers don't mean a thing to us, O'Neill, Shanahan said, reminding Jack of the civilian side of this 'situation,' in case he had forgotten. If we don't see Sam in...

It'll be rather difficult to 'see' Carter doing anything, as she isn't here, Jack told Pete, once again emphasizing the Colonel's absence.

And just as quickly, Shanahan shot back at Jack, That's what you want us to believe, O'Neill! But there's no way that I'll ever believe that this is anything but a hostage situation!

That claim made even Jack balk. Hostage..? He did laugh this time - he couldn't help it. Shanahan, you've been drinking Drano, he quoted a movie he'd once seen. For the last time, Carter isn't here! This is no 'hostage situation!' If you don't believe me, then maybe you'll believe the letter that she wrote, and that I have a copy of in my office, and that Doctor Jackson is hopefully bringing up here for you to take a look at in just a few minutes.

Shanahan's face visibly darkened. What letter? I never knew her to write a letter! He went on, barely leaving breath between his statements. And how could she write a letter - her hand was bandaged! She couldn't even hold a pen!

Ever heard of someone being ambi..? Jack couldn't recall the proper word that Carter had used, so he instead said, That bit about writing with your other hand?

Pete just curled his lips back in a snarl, as if to say 'Of course I've heard of it, but I know that Sam is not ambidextrous!'

Well, Jack went on in as conversational a tone as he could muster given the tenseness of the circumstances. She wrote it all with her left hand, not her right, in spite of her not having time to practice much as a leftie. You'll see as soon as you... see the letter, he lamely ended. Though his lameness did little for his 'I'm the tough General' image, it did great things for his 'I'm the approachable General' image. All we have to do is wait for Daniel to bring the letter that I asked him to find.

And so, they waited. Five minutes went by. Then it was ten. Jack could see that Pete's 'friends,' who were still standing behind the doors to their vehicles, were beginning to get antsy. When fifteen minutes came and went, Pete gave a loud, irritated sounding sigh. We gave you the benefit of the doubt, O'Neill. I don't think you have a letter from Sam, and that you never had one! You're just trying to make us look like idiot cops again! His anger was mounting. You have five more minutes! Then-

But Pete's pseudo threat was halted as Daniel suddenly appeared outside the entrance to the mountain tunnel, holding a sheaf of paper in one hand.

Just as suddenly, the holstered handguns of those ten 'friends' of Pete's were jerked up to point through the lowered car windows directly at this new player in this 'situation' who was quickly approaching them.

And just as suddenly, the ten rifles of the ten SFs that Jack had brought topside with him were leveled at the 'friends' who just as suddenly weren't looking so friendly anymore.

Daniel came to a sudden halt. His hands shot up in the 'I surrender' attitude.

The second the 'friends' made their hostile move, three of the guards jumped with no warning in front of Jack, nearly knocking him over in their hurry to protect him as best they could. Their enthusiasm was as admirable as it was almost useless, as they immediately crowded Jack into losing his balance, where he wouldn't be able to utilize his prodigious experience in handling 'situations' just like this one.

Jack put up his hands, at first in a motion that let him grab onto the cadets' uniforms, helping him catch his lost balance, then as a calming gesture. Let's all just put the guns down, he commented in his softest, most cajoling tones. Daniel?

Jack looked behind him to find Daniel still a good thirty yards away, his hands thrust into the air and waving helplessly. The paper still dangled from his fingers, though, and it wrinkled even more as he gripped it tighter as if his life depended on it. Cautiously, the archaeologist stepped slowly up to Jack, calling, I'm gonna go see the General now! followed by the directive, I'm gonna hand him this letter now! Don't shoot!

Daniel, Jack began in a voice that was still so diplomatic that it would have made most politicians weep. That's close enough. Just hold up Carter's letter and let Shanahan read it. But don't let him have it.

Pete jerkily came forward, glaring at Jack. Why not give it to me, if this is from Sam? If anyone deserves to have it, I do! he nastily retorted. Or are you scared I still don't believe this is the real thing - which I don't!

No, Jack responded, his voice still soft in his 'defuse an explosive situation' tone. This is just my only copy, and I don't want to lose it.

Daniel held up the letter in his hand so that Shanahan could read what was written on it.

Pete read over Carter's squiggly writing, his face going predictably ashen when he read any part of the message that was particularly blunt or honest. When the cop reached the part where Carter mentioned giving power of attorney to Jack, he bellowed, I don't believe it! How can she give you power? You're nothing to her! I'm gonna marry her!

Over my dead body was the comment that ghosted through Jack's mind, but he didn't say the words aloud. With his luck, they just might come true.

But that didn't help to explain what was really going on in this 'situation.' Shanahan wasn't crazy... that Jack knew of. His 'friends' in the police force certainly didn't think he was nuts. So..? He wasn't drunk, wasn't drugged out, wasn't nuts... So what gives?

But though Jack already suspected this 'situation' was a case of 'I believe a certain thing is the 'truth' whether it is or not,' he didn't have time right now to uncover what was truly the reason for this occurrence. He distrustfully eyed the ten or so guns still trained his way, but responded readily enough to Shanahan's 'threats.' We were in the hospital in Wichita when she wrote this. Doctor Mehab was right there after she gave it to me - you can ask him if you don't believe me.

Shanahan's suspicions kept growing. It says here that this power thing ends when she's discharged from the medical facility - and according to you, she left the Wichita hospital days ago. So where the hell she, O'Neill, if not here?

Jack gave a sigh - did this man try to be dense on purpose? Carter was transferred out of the Wichita Hospital to a medical facility of indeterminate location. I don't know where she is. I've spoken to her once on the phone, but I haven't seen her in several days. Then he gave an 'in your face' smile, and indicated the stars on his collar. More importantly, these stars mean... what? He turned to Brown, who was still standing before him in a defensive posture.

You're the General, Sir! The cadet's voice cracked like a whip across the area, escalating the already high tension.

Er - yes, Jack said, Though you might want to rethink the volume you're using, Cadet.

Still as loud as before, Brown barked, Sir, yes, Sir!

Jack blinked at the noise. This isn't Basic, Cadet. At ease.

The order was instantly followed by a cadet who moved to the 'at ease' position with a bit too much enthusiasm for Jack's natural sense of nonchalance.

Jack then pointed to his name badge pinned to his uniform, and asked the guard standing beside Brown to read it to him.

It says 'O'Neill,' Sir! this guard barked as well.

Gads, this man was as bad as Brown. Thank you... Marly. He read the man's own nametag. And as I am the General, and as I am also 'Jack O'Neill,' Carter gave power to me. It's all right here. And he gestured to the letter. Anyone who wants to read it can read it. He gave a shrug. I'm not hiding anything, not playing some game with you all. It's just that Shanahan is completely wrong in this instance, and this letter will prove it.

The 'friends' turned minutely towards Shanahan, all of them frowning, and throwing him unreadable looks, as their eyes were hidden by sunglasses. You never said anything about any of this, Jack heard one man say under his breath to Shanahan. The man didn't let the cop respond, but went on to push his way to the front of the line winding towards Daniel so that he too could read the letter. All the 'friends' then shot a look at Jack, scrutinizing his nametag with efficient wariness.

In turn, Jack had never felt so successfully intimidated by 'the shade trick' before. But then, he'd never had ten shades simultaneously turned towards his chest, either.

One by one, the 'friends' gave a grunt, followed by the lowering of their handguns. The police officers reluctantly returned their weapons to their protective holsters. It was almost as if they were disappointed that nothing had come of the 'hostage' situation that Shanahan had surely promised them.

In reaction to this 'friendly' gesture, the SFs lowered their weapons one by one, too.

Daniel was the last to lower his hands. He vigorously shook his fingers. My hands were going to sleep, he murmured.

Jack pretended that Daniel hadn't said a thing. Instead he focused on the cops before him. Now, I suggest that we all go home before something truly terrible happens. You can open up the road to let these people through.

Grumbling that Shanahan hadn't told them about the transfer thing, or the 'letter' thing, or anything, really, the 'friends' climbed back into their trucks and SUVs... and Jack saw more than a few red faces through those opened windows... and even Shanahan just shot Jack a dirty look that said 'I'll get you for this!' before turning his truck around to follow his colleagues back down the Cheyenne Mountain road.

The minute they all disappeared from sight, Jack breathed just a little easier, realizing that he was sweating under his BDUs. But he couldn't let the cadets know that. Good job, Cadets, he complimented. Way to keep your wits about you.

Sir, thank you, Sir! the cadets all hollered into his ear as soon as the situation had definitely been defused.

Jack sighed - he would suggest that they temper their enthusiastic yelling, but knew that it wouldn't do any good. So he just turned and, with Daniel, headed back into the SGC.

The peaceful way the 'situation' had ended, though, still didn't enlighten Jack as to what had caused this 'situation' in the first place. Just then, a theory that Cassie had mentioned came suddenly to his mind: it was her suggestion that Pete was just a guy who liked to be married, and that was why he had proposed as early in his and Carter's relationship as he had - was he perhaps also a man who liked being engaged to the point that he would convince himself of the 'truth' of this 'situation' so that he could 'play the hero' for once?

That's nuts, O'Neill! Jack admonished himself. Now you're the one who's been drinking Drano! Yet, the thought wouldn't quite leave him, no matter how he ordered himself to forget this new idea.

But then, Jack suspected that he would never truly know what had caused the excitement today. He could just double the guards at the main gate so that 'situations' like this didn't happen when Academy Cadets were the only soldiers on guard duty. And he would hope like hell that Shanahan would never do anything as hairbrained as this again.

* * *

Several more days went by with no more unannounced visits from Detective Shanahan and gang. Jack didn't know if the cop had somehow contacted Carter, or was waiting for the 'no-contact' week to expire, same as he was.

Not that it mattered when the week really did expire. It wasn't like he could pluck up the courage to see Carter, even when the entire SGC discovered that she was a patient in a holistic rehab facility in Chicago. Jack was uncomfortably aware that by not immediately traveling to see her, he was fulfilling Cassie's insights into his personality with alarming success.

Three days after that found Jack still in his office, still lacking the courage to visit Carter, and again doing paperwork, still hating it, but unwilling to retire right now when Carter, SG-1, and the base personnel as a whole seemed to need him (or at least his expertise) so much. But what his expertise on alien cultures had to do with what color to paint all the VIP quarters was beyond him.

Daniel's sudden appearance interrupted Jack's perusal of the VIP wall color bid, making Jack drop the Air Force form with a start. He thought, Thank God for Spacemonkey's bad timing, as he looked up to contemplate his friend. Well? I take it everything's okay from when you visited Carter?

Daniel briskly nodded his head. We just got back, and...

Jack's brows puckered. We? he asked in mild interest.

Jack's 'mildly interested' sounding voice didn't fool Daniel, however, who shot Jack a look of exasperation in response to his question. Yes, if you must know, Mel went with me to meet Sam.

Jack leaned back, still doing his 'mildly interested' interpretation. And who is 'Mel?'

Daniel still wasn't fooled. Jack... come on. I've known you for too many years not to know how intrigued you are by the fact that I really do have a social life now, so I know that you know all about her. He leaned a bit forward onto the desk and grinned a lazy grin that also didn't fool Jack: Daniel loved having the upper hand this one time. Mel Connors, you know, the woman from...

The light of understanding seemed to blaze through Jack's eyes, and he smirked. Oh right... your girlfriend.

Jack's amused tone didn't faze the archaeologist one bit. If you keep sounding like that, Jack, I won't tell you about Sam, he threatened in as mild a voice as Jack had used earlier.

Spoilsport, Jack instantly said, but he conceded to Daniel. Alright.... Tell me... How is she?

Daniel sighed, and seemed to savor Jack's capitulation for several seconds. But at last he pointed towards Jack's computer. See for yourself... we sent pictures to you on email.

Jack quickly dug through the paperwork covering his desk, and found his laptop computer. He booted it up, clicked on his email program, then clicked on the new mail he'd recently received from Carter. He hadn't checked his email for at least a day, or he would have seen this mail sooner, he supposed. Thinking that he needed to check his email more often, at least his mail from Carter, he opened her first letter to him using the laptop and email account he'd had Daniel give to her. He instantly read the letter that she'd sent before opening up the picture attachments.

Jack... General... Sir,

Daniel gave me the letter that you sent with this new computer. I miss you, too. I was surprised to see you say that in your own letter, but it was exactly what I was thinking at that very moment. Therapy is going fine, so far, but I don't have the mobility in my fingers that my OT (the hand person who you forgot what they're called - an Occupational Therapist)(that's so hard to type with one and a half hands!) my OT would like to see. Plus, I just found out that my nerves are almost limber enough to soon have surgery on my hand. My doctors were waiting for the nerves to... not relax more... to 'feel' more.... That's all I can think of to say to describe it.

Sorry this letter is so short - my hand is cramping up, so need to stop. Daniel will tell you more... I like Mel. She's nice, even if she works with Felger...

More later,

Sam... Carter

Jack was quite surprised that she'd sent an email letter already, to say nothing of him thinking it was short... short my ass, he thought instead, impressed that it was so long. Had he been the one in Carter's position, he would have been too depressed to write even a one-line email, to say nothing of the letter that Carter had sent.

However, one thing he did know for sure was that he could easily predict whatever Samantha Carter wanted to do. And already he realized that she could be sending letters to him that were pages long, but that was after she'd had this surgery that she had mentioned.

Did she say anything about when this surgery she talks about is supposed to take place? Jack immediately inquired.

Daniel smiled. She said that you would ask about that. It's a reconstructive surgery, and she wasn't sure, which is why she wasn't more specific, but she thinks it will be sometime in the next week. He took a seat in one of the chairs facing Jack's desk now that he'd directed Jack to look at the email that Sam had sent instead of grilling him about his visit. I took one of the base digital cameras along so that we could take pictures. He gestured towards Jack's computer with a generic wave of his hand. She should have sent them to you by now.

Thrilled beyond reasoning that Daniel had had so much foresight as to take along a camera, Jack still thought to mention that he hadn't approved the use of governmental items for the personal use of one of its employees. You shouldn't use base stuff like this, Daniel, Jack said even as he scrolled through the pictures that Carter had thought to attach.

Daniel sent Jack a truly sour expression. Well, don't tell the base commander about it.

Jack puckered his brows. I am the base commander, he argued while looking at the same time.

Daniel's sour expression turned even more sour. I was explaining about taking photos to my friend, Jack, not the base commander.

One and the same, Jack absently told him as he glanced through shots of Carter sitting on a couch in what looked like a lounge; Carter sitting with Daniel in the same lounge; Carter sitting with Daniel and some woman who looked vaguely familiar in that lounge; a picture of Carter standing with a doctor-person dressed in a white coat and leaning against a wall; another shot of just Carter leaning against the same wall, her red, burned hand prominently standing out when juxtaposed with the tan paint behind her...

Good, Jack thought, she's not hiding her hand. Though he had known that hiding such a 'weakness' as a burned and useless hand was very like the Carter he had known, he also had to concede that he didn't think of her hand as 'weak' or 'useless,' but an extension of this new Carter who was gazing into the camera with a look on her face that Jack had never seen before, but immediately liked.

Carter was dressed in civies, but her jeans were frayed and had a definite hand-me-down appearance to them. They looked comfortable. She looked comfortable. Carter appeared to be more relaxed in those pictures with Daniel than Jack had ever seen her.

Sam looks great, don't you think? Daniel's soft voice interrupted Jack's avid scanning of the pictures that she'd sent. She seemed so relaxed. Almost as if this whole Goa'uld-save-the-world crap had never taken place. Like her fight with Cassie had happened to someone else, like...

Jack cut Daniel off. Her fight with Cassie did happen to someone else, he reminded, then just as quickly wished that he hadn't spoken about Cassie. He couldn't help thinking about all that she had said to him on that awful night a few weeks ago.

Jack hadn't heard from Cassie since she'd left his house in a packed car, heading for Daniel's place for as long as it took for her to decide on her next course of action. She hadn't phoned him, either, leaving those horrible truths that she'd pointed out to fester in his heart.

Jack had told Cassie that no one would ever tell her the truth, and she might as well get used to it, and learn to decide what she thought about a situation on her own. If she didn't, she would just be disappointed in the humans surrounding her. Remembering those comments now galled Jack to no end. Cassie didn't need anyone to tell her the truth, the partial truth, or an outright lie for her to figure out what was really going on. She was perfectly capable of doing that all on her own, as she had so nicely illustrated when she told him that she wasn't surprised that Carter had struck up a relationship with 'Stalker Boy' in the first place. What truly surprised her was that Carter hadn't done this before now.

And that thought truly twisted Jack's gut into a pretzel. The idea that it had been him and his actions... or lack of actions... that had driven Carter to choose to act as she had was withering in the extreme. Jack had never felt so small and stupid as he did when he thought about the way that Carter had held onto her dream of him... of them... for as long as she could, longer than most anyone else would have. But in the end, it had been what he'd not done that had finally forced the woman he was in love with to look elsewhere for her personal fulfillment. All because he was too much of a chickenshit to give her what he'd always known she deserved - a 'normal' life.

And on top off that was the fact that this was all his fault. He'd had the gall to behave like a child whose best friend had deserted him even though he'd loudly said that he refused to play with that best friend. From Carter's perspective, it was like he was saying that he didn't want her, but he didn't want anyone else to have her, either.

Jack groaned as he glanced through the pictures. He was more ashamed of himself than he wanted to admit, and certainly more ashamed than he wanted Daniel to pick up on.

But Daniel was better at reading people than Jack had ever given him credit for. She asked about you, the archaeologist said in that same soft voice he had used before. She wants you to know that she's really looking forward to you visiting her... if you ever do.

Defensive, Jack glanced around at the work piled high on his desk. Just when am I ever going to get to visit her when I'm chained to this damned... the way I am? He glared, as if his current position was Daniel's fault. I seem to recall a certain archaeologist of my acquaintance saying that I could do anything I wanted if I just took this job. He remained silent as he stared in accusation at Daniel. But 'anything I want' is really 'everything the base wants from me,' which is my whole life. He slumped into his chair in dejection. I'm never going to get to see Carter, and she'll hate me because I can't go visit her because I have all this paperwork weighing me down like a ton of naquadah, and...

Stop with the pity, please, Daniel interrupted to say, rolling his eyes. Is that the only thing you can ever do, Jack? Nothing? Maybe Cassie was right about you after all.

Cassie? Jack's head jerked up, for the first time not looking at Carter's pictures to give his full attention to his male friend. I thought Cassie was just staying at your place for awhile. Is she still there? What does Cassie say now?

Daniel heaved a sigh that said he wished that he hadn't even mentioned Cassie to Jack. But now that he had, he replied, No, I haven't seen Cassie since she came to my house in the middle of the night after having a fight with you. He stared at Jack in something like disgust. And I can't say that I blame her for doing and saying what she did when she explained the situation to me. He looked at Jack in his own sense of accusation. Cassie said that she was going to stay with friends, or find her own place, depending on the price of rent and what she could find... He sighed again. So I really have no idea where she is or what she's doing. He then stood up to closely regard his friend. And if you're worried about the Air Force not letting you get free to visit Sam, then create a way to see her that's in an official capacity. You're not paraplegic, Jack. If you want to go see her at the rehab place in Chicago, then go. No one's holding you back but yourself.

Stunned, first that someone so mild mannered as Daniel would tell him off, and second, the thought that Daniel claimed he was again dictating his own life around his own unhappiness was... so amazing that it was revolutionary. First Cassie, now Daniel.

Uh... Jack was able to stutter in his confusion at being so successfully set down - and by Daniel - he couldn't even speak.

Daniel just rolled his eyes again. Think about it, Jack. He turned to leave the office, but turned back instead of heading out the door. He added, And don't disappoint me... or Sam... this time. Then he smiled very wickedly. Or we'll turn Pete loose on you... I know where you live. Then he left the office.

Speechless, Jack watched him go.

* * *

A week went by while Jack was busy running the base, sending out teams, welcoming them back, briefing and debriefing them, and in his free time, was busy taking Daniel's advice, and doing his best to 'create an official reason' for visiting Carter. In that time, he got another excited email from the woman in question.

Jack,

You'll never guess who came to visit me this weekend - Murray and Jonas! Jonas from Kelowna... I mean Langarra... I mean... I don't know what they're calling that place these days. They change its name so often that I can't keep up anymore.

Anyway, they called their visit 'the alien incursion,' meaning the way they both were here in Chicago at the same time, I suppose. But whatever the reason is, it was great to see them!

And I suppose that you had to knew all about it, didn't you? There's no way that Murray could contact Jonas and ask him to come home for a trip to see me without you knowing about it. Without you setting the whole thing up, actually. And you didn't tell me! I would have washed my hair if I knew they were coming...

We didn't do anything specific... just talked... and when I was in my psych therapy (which they can't come to) they toured around Chicago. Jonas said that he'd always wanted to see Chicago when he was in Colorado, but there was always so much else to do.

As you probably know by now, the doctors have postponed the reconstructive surgery on my hand for another week while I practice typing on the computer that you sent (thank you for sending it!) so that I can limber the muscles even more in my fingers before they operate and have to bandage up my hand again for a few days. A bandage will make typing a bit too challenging, even for me.

Ask Murray for more of a report on things here. He'll probably just raise his eyebrow at you, and say 'Indeed,' but it's worth a shot. As for me, I'm going to take a nap... with no pain pills, honest!

Carter

PS I keep forgetting to tell you that I have my cell phone with me now, with a new number - Pete's too busy calling the old one for me to keep it - the nurses asked me to get a new number when my phone kept ringing (they were keeping it safe for me) while I was in my 'no contact' time.

Here it is:

(543)441-9820

Please guard it with your life (just kidding!)(sort of)

* * *

When Carter woke from the hand surgery that had been postponed for several days, Jack was sitting in a chair at her bedside, doing his ever-present paperwork (the unclassified paperwork). He grimaced at the form he was reading, then glanced up to see her half hooded eyes staring at him.

Jack immediately brightened, though he tried his best to dampen his reaction. Hi, there, sleepyhead! I didn't think that you would ever wake up.

Carter rolled her head, and gave a groan that reminded Jack that she must have that horrible 'anesthesia aftertaste' in her mouth. Rrmamff, she muttered in an irritated voice.

Jack smiled in soft affection, purely unable to cover his reactions now. He couldn't help it - he'd been worried about how long it had taken for her to awaken, though the nurses all assured him that it was normal for patients to take so long to grow alert again after surgeries of this kind. I have no idea what you just said, he now assured Carter, though she looked too sleepy yet to feel very assured about anything, or to care about anything. Jack kept that it mind when he told her, This means that you need more sleep - go back to sleep - I'll still be here when you wake up.

Dn sav dwurl wioume, Carter next mumbled as her eyes slid closed.

Whatever you say, Carter, Jack promised the sleeping lady in the bed in the otherwise empty room. Whatever you say. He went back to his paperwork as if the exchange had never happened.

* * *

Two hours later, Carter woke again, only this time it was to the smell of chicken con carne and beans in butter sauce. Her stomach grumbled - loudly - before she could even say anything.

True to his word, Jack was still seated at her bedside, reading a National Geographic this time.

I couldn't help myself, he softly said when she opened her eyes for the second time. I ate your roll - I hope you don't mind. Then Jack stopped reading his magazine long enough to lower it to his lap and give her a huge smile. If you do mind, I could give it back to you, but it'll be full of stomach acid by now, and I've heard that consuming stomach acid isn't so good for the digestion, especially right after surgery.

Carter looked more alert this time, and she gave him a tiny smile. Her stomach gave another grumble in response to his joke.

Hungry? he guessed in a mild tone.

Carefully, as if she had to pay particular attention to forming her mouth around the letters, Carter answered, Even Commissary food sounds good right now.

Jack wrinkled his nose. Ew! You are hungry. He shut his magazine with a final slap against his leg, tossed it onto a small table beside him that also contained her tray of lunch, and leaned in close to her. Tell you what - I'll pass food to you, if you'll let me have a bite for every one of yours.

Still tired, but too hungry to protest right now, Carter agreed with a nod of her head. Deal.

She didn't add her typical 'Sir' honorific to her statement, nor did she add a 'General,' but neither did she call him 'Jack.' He didn't care what she called him, as long as it didn't have to do with military respect and acquiescence to orders.

And considering that this hadn't been an order... Okay. He removed the food covers to reveal chicken fingers instead of chicken con carne, as he'd originally thought. Well... Chicken fingers would be much easier for Carter to eat one-handed. That was thoughtful of the rehab hospital's kitchen staff. (Though he wondered about Carter eating solid food so soon after surgery. But he figured that the hospital staff knew what they were doing.)

Jack grabbed one chicken finger for her, then one for him. He was debating whether he should hold the food above her reach when she growled Don't you dare. You put it too far for away for me to get, and I won't be held responsible for my actions.

Jack chuckled. Hand surgery sure hasn't affected your tongue, I see.

My food? she prompted instead of giving in to his goading.

Which made him laugh even harder. Will you promise to pat my head for fetching and carrying for you if I give it to you?

Carter looked purely annoyed. Is there a reason why you're here? she acerbically demanded.

Wow - Carter sure could be touchy after surgery. He'd never noticed that before, but he'd also never spoken to her directly after a surgery - she usually had at least several moments to recover her faculties somewhat before he saw her - that wasn't the case this time. He would remember her tendency towards touchiness, he promised himself. Actually, yes, Jack cheerfully replied. Reminded of his personal mission in visiting her, he popped the chicken finger in his left hand into his mouth, handed Carter the one in his right, then after wiping his fingers on the napkin on her lunch tray, rifled through the pile of military odds and ends that he had brought with him. He swallowed his food, then said, I couldn't bring classified stuff into a public facility, naturally.

Naturally, she echoed around the bite of chicken finger still in her mouth.

Then Jack went on, Well, he conceded. I couldn't exactly bring classified material in.

She gave a confused stare. 'Exactly?' she repeated.

Um... yeah. By then, Jack had found what he was looking for in the pile of paper that he had brought with him, and cleared his throat as he set a small black box in his lap.

It was a move that immediately caught Carter's attention. I recognize one of those, she remarked, and looked pointedly at the black box.

I thought you would, Jack said. And without further comment, popped the lid on the box to reveal...

It was an Air Force medal... or at least it was some kind of an award. The similarities to other Air Force awards stopped there. For one thing, this one was bright purple, and most AF awards were made in material of more muted shades. The purple of this award would make it stand out and attract attention.

At last, her curiosity could be contained no longer, if he could judge by the way she was currently twisting her sheets. What is that for... if I might ask?

Again the 'Sir' was missing - interesting.

Yet, Jack was too busy taking the medal out of its cushioning box to spare much thought to her mode of address. It's a brand new medal - you're the first to receive one. He shot a sheepish expression at her. There's not exactly an award made for... for what you did, he lamely ended.

Carter rolled her eyes. There are those that would say that what I did was a touch stupid - I must have still been under the influence of the torture.

Jack winced at her casual mention of the word 'torture.' He tried not to visualize what she must have gone through, but it was hard. In order to distract himself, he continued explaining things to her. Influenced or not, you still saved the lives of your team members by sticking your hand in that burning panel to shut off the force field to their cell, to say nothing of getting them out of that fortress - alive and still kicking... burned hand notwithstanding. His gaze gentled even more, and he leaned closer again. I'm still not entirely sure how you did that in spite of the debrief. But I am pretty sure that I don't want to hear all the gory details. It would probably give me nightmares for a month.

Without any segue into the topic, Carter gazed at her once-again-bandaged hand and informed him, Before my surgery, the doctors were saying that my mobility is pretty good, but I'll always have scars from that particular mission.

It was a comment that made Jack wonder if she had been given some grief about the scars she would always carry with her. He made a noise that told her that it didn't matter. War wounds, he said, naming her scars. I've got plenty of them myself.

Carter's gaze was still drawn to study her hand. But not ones that you can see so well, she argued.

Perhaps, he semi-agreed with her. Instead of arguing, however, he simply straightened just slightly and said, Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter, you have voluntarily risked your... limb... in the interest of your team members, and shown courage that goes above and beyond the regular concept of duty to those you command. You've placed the lives of others before your own life, and shown your leadership skills to be exemplary. The Air Force only wishes it had more officers like you. He reached for the corner of the pocket on the left side of the after-surgery scrubs that she wore, and gently raised the corner to pin the medal to her chest. This is, of course, a classified award, which is why it was made in such a prominent color, he sarcastically added, as if she hadn't already guessed the reason for the choice of that particular shade of purple.

Of course. Her voice again tended towards being too dry for the solemnity of the occasion. I have to be able to see it easily in order to conceal it, after all. And she grinned.

But Jack's hand had stilled. He suddenly grew aware of just what part of her body was under his hands that pinned the award to her chest. Her left breast pressed against his fingers with each of her heartbeats. Due to the surgery, she still wasn't wearing a bra, he was pretty sure: he felt something suspiciously like her hardened nipple graze his palm through the scrubs material.

What wearing articles of clothing like underwear had to do with hand surgery was beyond him, but surgery always seemed to bare a person down to minimal coverage. Now was obviously no different, since body parts were literally in his hand.

The second that he figured out exactly what he was touching - whether on purpose, or accidentally - red suffused his face, and he broke out in an instant sweat. He quickly covered the dawning horror at his new knowledge that showed in his eyes, but was fairly certain that he hadn't been fast enough for Carter's keen detection skills, even if those skills were currently dulled by post-surgery anesthesia.

He clearly wasn't fast enough - Carter's eyes instantly widened in acknowledgment. But rather than ignore all that had transpired in the last second, she cocked her head as she studied him. Are you alright? she asked in abrupt concern.

Jack would normally have pegged her anxiety as forced, but he was busy with controlling his own facial features. Oh, yeah, sure, it's... I... um... Jack entertained some vague thought about telling her that an eyelash had fallen into his eye to give him an excuse for some cover. But he abandoned that idea the second he had it. One look in the blue of her eyes, juxtaposed to the purple of her new award, was all that it took to make him suddenly wish he hadn't eaten that chicken finger. But with the way that Carter's eyes looked suddenly more enticing than they ever had before... his history of noninterference was in severe danger of coming to an end.

Carter's voice, when it came, was timid, hesitant, small, neervous... he had never heard her like that before. It gave him heart to know that she had noticed how close he was to her, and was as affected by that closeness as he was by hers. Because of her engagement to someone else, he'd thought that she was long over such a reaction. Now he wasn't so sure.

Carter blinked and stuttered, You... you're... She was silent again, her voice trailing off to nothingness. She simply gazed at him like he was the answer to her everything.

Mesmerized, Jack leaned just a little bit closer to her. His heart thudded in his chest. He was sweating buckets by now. He was still staring into her eyes as if he were a zombie.

Jack suddenly blinked away the miasma that had fallen over his eyes. Like a ton of bricks had fallen on top of him, he drew a shuddering breath, and reality reasserted itself with a vengeance. What did he think he was doing? This was the closest that he had gotten to Carter in... months... years... since he couldn't remember when. This was the point where they usually got interrupted by some well-meaning individual, usually Daniel, on a personal quest that was typically questionable. Something had always kept them from going any further, stopped him from screwing things up so badly...

But this time, Daniel wasn't there. Neither was the rest of the SGC...

There was nothing to stop them. No alien incursions. No attacks, either Earthly or from off-world. No strange mind-altering diseases.

So it was up to him to put a stop to this. He hated it when things were 'up to him.' It meant that he was going to hurt her, once again... she wouldn't understand what he was thinking, he wouldn't tell her (that thought simply terrified him), and she herself would hardly be thinking straight - she had just woken from reconstructive surgery on her hand, for crying out loud!

No matter how this scenario was proving the words that Cassie had once yelled at him in his kitchen, Jack let his natural sense of nobility win out once again as he ignored Cassie's voice in his mind. He quickly drew back from Carter so that he wasn't so obviously overpowered by her nearness. The fact that he wanted to kiss her stupid was beside the point. What he wanted...

Abruptly, Jack stood. 'What he wanted ' didn't matter. He couldn't fight his own feelings much longer, but to give into them meant... so many awful things for Carter. So he had to get out of there, and fast!

Without a word of explanation, or even a 'congratulations on your award, Colonel,' he gathered his papers together, and like the chickenshit that Cassie accused him of being, quickly left the room.

* * *

Jack was in agony by the time he returned to the SGC. He was hurting Carter, hurting 'them' (not that there had ever been a 'them,' really, but...) Plus, what he had done was probably causing Carter so much confusion... and he didn't want to be the cause of unwanted emotions happening to Carter. Wasn't that how this whole thing had begun? How could he have been so stupid as to do what he'd sworn that he wouldn't ever do?

Jack couldn't pretend any longer - he had definite feelings for Carter - and now that she'd decided to move on, was he supportive of that decision of hers? Had he managed to keep his feelings bottled up tight where she wouldn't have to deal with them - ever? No! He'd been so stupid, dumb, blockheaded, asinine... Honestly, just thinking about that scene in her hospital room made him utterly sick at himself.

A week passed. Jack didn't hear from Carter, and he didn't expect to hear from her. Though, he could admit to himself, he sorely missed the emails she had sent to him when he'd first loaned that computer to her. But, this avoiding each other was for the best, he told himself, this was what would save her career down the road, this was what... what he had to do - it was that simple... and that complicated.

And it was killing him, slowly but surely. But (he reminded himself on a daily basis) this was the way things had to be.

Another week passed. Jack still didn't hear from Carter, and he didn't write to her, though he began many email letters addressed to her that he never sent. His mood simply deteriorated a little more each day. He hated himself for what had almost happened in her hospital room, hated that he didn't have more control over his emotions than that, hated that...

Crap. He hated that, for whatever reason, he could never give in to his feelings about her, not when he and she still worked so closely together. He had never meant to show her his feelings, to say nothing about how his feelings for her had grown so deep in recent years. She was not to ever have known. But now she did - all because he was a weak, aggravating... She must surely hate him by now, as evidenced by the recent lack of emails from her that he had received.

But none of that really mattered to Jack's heart in the long run - that silly heart of his - it was just sooooo determined to keep loving her... even when she so obviously didn't want to have anything to do with him... and he didn't blame her.

For all Jack knew, by now Carter had gone home from the rehab hospital, and gotten all cozy with Shanahan again. He wouldn't blame her if that's what she had done. Or maybe, she'd undergone more reconstructive surgeries on her hand, and he hadn't been there to support her. That idea was especially galling to him. Or maybe for all he knew, Cassie was back to talking to Carter, and would be only too happy to trash his memory along with Carter because she understood only too well how awful he truly was. And unlike Carter, who had to at least show some respect for a superior officer (even if she hated him), Cassie wasn't under such an odious obligation. She would happily commiserate with Carter about what an ass he was.

When he reached the point of thinking along those depressing lines, he couldn't stand to be at the SGC any longer without some time off. He studiously ignored the fact that the base personnel seemed to think he needed the same thing, to get away from his crummy mood, if anything. Walter was downright ecstatic when Jack mentioned taking Wednesday afternoon off.

Predictably, Daniel came to visit him not long after he arrived home that afternoon, though he had to give some credit to the archaeologist, who'd been wise enough to choose to come to him while he was at his house rather than in his office in the SGC. There, wisdom seemed to completely abandon Daniel.

But Daniel didn't seem to care. Though Daniel had always been someone who Jack considered a friend, he had to wonder at that assessment when he opened his front door to find a very calculating and determined 'friend' on his doorstep.

The following altercation was both explosive and short. The second the door opened on him, Daniel punched Jack in the jaw with what Jack suspected was all his might. And though many still considered Daniel to be a 'pasty academic' (aka 'weak') 'all his might' was quite enough to raise Daniel impressively fast from the 'weak' category - Daniel had clearly been busy building his arm muscles when Jack was looking the other way over the years.

Jack managed to turn his head just a bit to the side when he saw Daniel's fist coming unexpectedly closer to his jaw, but he still took the brunt of that blow on his face before he could get out of the way. Daniel's punch sent Jack flying several feet backwards, where he slammed into the wall directly behind him.

Jack landed in an undignified heap on the floor. He lay there, stunned for a moment, then gave a vigorous shake of his head, and shot a look of astonishment at his friend still standing in the door. What the hell was that for?!

Instead of breathing hard in emotional exertion, or angrily stomping away without giving an explanation for his behavior, Daniel was oddly grinning.

Wow - that felt good! Daniel happily declared.

As a comment, it only incensed Jack more than he was already incensed. He may have been punched, but he was hardly down for the count. He was in the process of doing his best to restrain his instinctive reaction to jump up and punch Daniel back. I ask again, what the hell was that for?! Jack blurted while struggling to bring his more base emotions under control.

Rubbing the bruised knuckles of the hand that Jack had just gotten familiar with, Daniel's grin slid from his face, to be replaced by an expression of utter exasperation. Hopefully, I knocked some sense into that thick head of yours. Sam's getting medically discharged from the Air Force - no regs anymore - so here's another chance, Jack - don't screw this up again... or I'll be soooooo disappointed in you. Daniel then marched back to his car parked on the driveway, got in, and drove off.

Jack sat on the floor of his entryway, feeling stunned and speechless, and could do nothing more than watch Daniel go.

Jack's head quickly jerked up as he suddenly grew aware of what Daniel had said.

Carter was getting discharged? When had that happened?

* * *

But when Jack rushed back to the SGC to check the paperwork that he hadn't gotten to doing yet, there it was, in a black and white form in his 'to do' pile on his desk - Carter's discharge orders. Without even considering the time, Jack grabbed up the phone receiver and dialed General Hammond the second he saw that form.

Fortunately, it was still earlier in the day than Jack's usual crises occurred, and Hammond was still in his office to take the younger General's phone call. Hammond.

George, Jack growled without introducing himself or greeting his old time friend. Do you know anything about Carter getting discharged? His tone was a bark by this point.

General Hammond gave a pause, then a sigh. I knew that you wouldn't like that when you found out.

Jack's anger increased. I haven't 'found out' anything yet, 'cause no one's told me.

Calm down, Jack, Hammond ordered. I'll tell it all to you, but...

Being uncharacteristically demanding when speaking to Hammond, Jack said, I'll be calm, but only if you tell me right now what this is all about.

Hammond sighed once again, and said, Okay Son, here it is - nothing covert... exactly...

'Exactly?' Jack echoed in derision. Then why didn't I know ab..?

Calm down, Jack! Hammond ordered in a firm voice.

Jack instantly grew quieter. Okay, I'm calm again - tell me.

True to his word, Hammond immediately continued. The doctors from the SGC visited the doctors in Chicago - you know that.

I do, Jack mumbled. But I was gone this afternoon when they got back, and they debriefed with Reynolds - if they decided anything drastic, I still don't know about it yet, because I haven't seen the paperwork... because. I. didn't. think. that. anything. would. come. of. it, he emphasized in severe aggravation. Was I wrong?

Hammond replied with a sigh, then explained, The doctors had to do an honest assessment, Jack, on whether or not keeping Colonel Carter in the Air Force was even a viable option at this point.

Of course it's an option! Jack barked, sounding as mean and thunderous as he was feeling, and in spite of his recent promise to Hammond. It's..!

Hammond interrupted him to spurt, Jack, she doesn't have enough strength in her fingers to pull the trigger of a gun anymore.

She can use her other hand! Jack instantly argued. She..!

But Hammond cut him off a second time. What happens if Colonel Carter breaks her left arm on a mission, Jack? What's she supposed to do then? You out of everyone know how fast even simple missions can become the stuff of nightmares.

But she just got command of SG-1, Jack continued to point out in even more aggravation. She saved the lives of her team members on her last mission, and this is how the Air Force wants to repay her? By discharging..?

Son, Hammond interjected. She requested a discharge.

Requested..? What? Jack was incensed at this news.

Hammond hurried on to explain, In a conference just yesterday, her doctors there met with McKenzie and Brightman from the SGC, and they all decided...

Jack was livid when he heard this. I KNOW, he affirmed through teeth clenched against his fury. But how can shrinks and docs decide something as big as Carter continuing in the Air Force without Carter even being there?!

Hammond's voice was a quiet contrast to Jack's. She was there, Jack.

For the second time that day, Jack was stunned into speechlessness. He managed a flabbergasted grunt, but that was all.

Hammond's sigh again filled the phone line. Jack, this is an honorable, medical discharge. You had to know that with her hand the way it is, it would more than likely come to this before long. Colonel Carter has known this is what would likely happen the minute she decided to put her hand through an open blaze in a Goa'uld fortress to turn off the force shield in order to save her teammates from being burned alive. When Jack didn't say anything for several minutes of silence, Hammond continued in a much gentler voice, This is what she wants, Jack.

For a moment, Jack didn't - couldn't - say anything. His ideas were moving too fast for him to speak. What she wants? But a discharge, honorable or not, would mean the end of her going through the 'Gate, the end of her always dealing with alien doohickeys for the AF, the end of her lab, of him visiting her in her lab...

The end of 'them...' the Air Force 'them.'

Jack wondered again if he was going to get sick.

Finally he was collected enough to grunt, Uh... is she going to be rehired as a civilian?

It's already in the works, Hammond confided to Jack. I'm surprised you haven't seen some of the preliminary paperwork for it.

Jack continued searching through his pile of 'to do' papers, admitting that he had stopped his frantic search through the forms when he'd come to the bid for Carter's discharge. Yeah, here it is, Jack mumbled, drawing the correct form that was near the bottom of the pile up to study. A civilian, huh?

Hammond gave a short sound that could have been interpreted as a chuckle. Dr. Carter, head of Scientific Study of Alien Devices, and of the Stargate. She'll be in charge of all the scientists, both military and civilian. She'll still be at the SGC, Jack, just in a different capacity than before. She won't be an SG team leader, true, but with her hand the way it is now...

Yeah, Jack muttered, feeling the tendril of depression curling around his heart. I guess that 'Head Egghead' is a pretty good job for someone in her position.

Hammond gave another sigh. Jack, this is the point in these proceedings that I think you and she need to talk, together, about her options.

It doesn't seem like she has any options, Jack despondently said.

Hammond remained silent after Jack's mournful statement, but it was more a thoughtful silence than a despondent one. Jack... he brokenly said at last. I can't say anything officially, of course... I have my own career to think about...

Jack's brow turned from thunderous despondency to a frown of puzzlement. What are you talking about?

Hammond's sigh again filled the line. I mean, Son, that I shouldn't have to spell this out for you: Colonel Carter may have ended her military career options, but other options are now wide open for her... and you. And with that said, he hung up the phone.

Leaving Jack standing like a log in his office, once again too stunned to move.

* * *

Fifteen minutes later, a much more collected Jack called Daniel's lab to see if Daniel had returned to work after 'knocking some sense into him.' Jack knew that he had guessed the correct location when his friend answered his phone. Daniel Jackson, he said.

Jack didn't bother to greet this man, either. Daniel, has Carter been ousted from her rehab place and sent home yet?

Daniel sounded as if he didn't know how to take that question. Uh...

Which peeved Jack. He was in a hurry here, and didn't have time to waste on slow archaeologists. 'Yes' or 'no,' Daniel.

Sufficient prodding was what Daniel needed. Uh... she was cleared to come home yesterday, and arrived this morning.

Is she at her home in Colorado Springs?

Uh... she should be - I talked to her at her home when she got in.

Jack had to know... as much as it pained him. Did she and that cop..?

Daniel told him, She sent the ring back in the mail since Pete didn't seem to want to show up at the rehab to visit her where she could give it back to him... but that was weeks ago. He gave another grunt. Where have you been, Jack?

Jack gave a sardonic snort of his own. With my head up my ass, as usual. Hey, thanks, Daniel, thanks for everything. He hung up before Daniel could say more.

* * *

After his conversation with Daniel, Jack then talked again to General Hammond. Twenty minutes after they'd hung up from their second conversation of the day, Jack called him back a third time. This time, they spoke for well over an hour, trying to hammer out the future of the SGC.

Change was running rampant for the military base. There must have been something in the water.

* * *

Two hours later, Jack's heart was pounding in his chest when he drew his truck up to Carter's house. He was intent on talking to her, finally, but he couldn't ignore his rapid heartbeat. It seemed like lately, everything made his heart pound. He'd be worried about that rapid heart rate of his, thinking that a heart attack was imminent, but knew that his personal life was soon to join with his professional life, and that merging certainly frightened him enough to make his heart race.

When he knocked on the door, he thought he was going to have that heart attack, he was so frightened. But, in an anticlimax to his palpitations, no one came to the door. So he knocked again as his heart calmed. Again no one answered his knocks. Then a noise came to him from around the back of the small house. It had arrested his attention, and it sounded strangely like... the squeak of a porch swing...

So Jack walked along the right side of the house, following the squeaking sound to the back yard. Yep, there was Carter, an e-book reader in her hand, but resting in her lap, forgotten. Her eyes instead trained straight ahead to the sinking sun behind her house, as if she were watching the light show, but Jack knew her too well - she was probably thinking about some doohickey or other.

Jack didn't blame her for being so transfixed by her thoughts. Idle thought was how she solved most of the problems that had ever beset the base in the past, is what had saved the butts of those on SG-1 over and over again throughout the years. He owed his life to random idleness.

Carter, Jack said, his soft grunt filling the air, but not shattering it. Hi.

Carter gave an immediate twist. The minute she caught sight of him, her whole face lit up. Jack! she exclaimed, then scooted on the swing to face him more fully. Hi!

Jack didn't quite know how to respond to such enthusiasm as hers. He had expected disdain, coldness, maybe even anger from her at the way he had so suddenly disappeared the last time they had seen each other. But he certainly didn't expect this... joy.

Hi, he said again, uncomfortable, prepared to argue his case, but unprepared to respond to such acceptance.

Carter smiled a huge smile that blazed out of her face. You already said that. When he didn't respond to her comment, said, It's been... awhile.

Yeah... well... Jack shuffled his feet on the grass of her yard.

It's been two weeks and five days, she informed, a matter-of-fact sound to her voice. I've been waiting to hear from you.

I thought... I was... Jack's stuttering increased while his comfort level decreased.

Carter took advantage of the silence his stuttering created. I was going to give you until three full weeks had gone by, then I was going to... come see you... myself.

Still vastly uncomfortable, but trying vainly not to look it, Jack blurted, I came to make sure about giving back that... power of attorney thing... though I probably need a lawyer for that. Then he added in a hurried voice, wanting to say something, but not sure what he could get away with mentioning, And I want to talk about a few... other... things.

Carter gave a grimace of her own. I want... to talk.. about some things... too. Then she added as an honest addendum, Though I don't know quite what... I might... say.

Spoken honesty? From Carter? This was new. But then, she probably thought the same thing about any honesty she was hearing now as coming from him. Carter? Jack asked a few seconds later after they simply stared at each other. Can I..? His voice gave out on the end of his request. At her look of confusion, Jack gave a small wave of his hand to the swing she was sitting on. Join you? he asked with a hopeful raise of his brows.

Oh, Carter exclaimed. This idea seemed to please her, for that huge smile of hers was back again. She patted the swing beside her as she invited, Please do.

Timidly Jack walked up the steps leading onto her back deck. The deck was empty of the plethora of odds and ends that it had been cluttered with the last time he'd sat here, so he had a straight line to the swing. He walked slowly toward her, still not sure what her apparent happiness at seeing him again truly meant. Before he could think about what he was doing, he sat down beside her with a grateful sigh to be sitting anywhere. God, he was getting old!

Pretty sky, Jack noted a minute later after neither of them had said anything.

Yes, it is, Carter answered him, but in a voice tinged with just a hint of exasperation. However, remarking over a pretty sky isn't why you're here, is it, Jack?

His eyes still glued to the sky, Jack casually stated, Nope, that's not why I'm here.

Another silent moment passed. Eventually she guessed, Does it have something to do with..? She swallowed noisily. With..? Again her voice faded away.

It gave Jack heart to know that she wasn't as unaffected by this scene between them as she would have him believe.

But he was done with being 'a chickenshit,' as Cassie called him. With his new determination in mind, a determination to do something for once, he swallowed nervously, but forced himself to go on. With what? he prompted her, his voice still nonchalant, and barely squeaking his fear.

Carter stared down at her lap in discomfort, but continued. With... how we... with what happened... last time.

With what had happened? That time he wanted so desperately to get lost in her eyes, to kiss her stupid? Yeah, Jack admitted at last. That time. He didn't say anything more for a moment, and neither did she. Finally, he went on. I want to... But it was no good. He gave up trying to vocalize what was on his mind, and instead faced her to blurt, How come you want that discharge, Carter? When she didn't respond right away, he went on, You have your whole career ahead of you - even if you have to take a desk job, what with your hand. After another pensive moment, he pointed out, That desk of yours can still be a command desk.

Carter snorted, and after another silent moment, started speaking in a soft voice. You know, my doctors... psychologists... in Chicago... told me that I need to stay... stay in touch with my true feelings... at all times... in order to stay grounded. Another silent moment went by while they each acknowledged what that truly meant for her.

Honesty... about admitting her feelings... to others as well as to herself. That's what it meant for her.

Wow. Could she possibly have tried anything harder?

Jack's heartbeat nearly tripled when she said that. What's she doing, trying to kill me?! he thought to himself.

But still she somehow found the will to go on, So, in fear of not staying grounded... Carter glanced up at him, a strange light twinkling in her eyes. Then she lowered her head again, but bravely forged onward the second that she didn't have to look into his eyes. Truthfully... wherever you are is the only place I want to work. And you already have that command desk, she dryly noted. Taking a discharge instead of a command means that... She hesitated, and Jack expected her to trail off into silence before voicing anything that might be construed as... something permanent... between them. So far, he was very impressed with her ability to divulge her 'truths,' but at last her bravery had run out, and she had gone into hiding. This type of hiding was something that they had both done so many times before.

But Carter surprised him when she went on after faltering only a little. It means that... I can... you can... She again looked at him so that she could stare into his eyes in assessment. She must have found him to seem more amenable than he previously had shown to what she was talking about, for she said more. We can... be a... 'we,' she finally managed to force out, her voice nearly strangled by now.

A 'we?' As in, the finger quote 'we' kind? Jack didn't understand, though that stupid heart of his was pounding in triple time again.

When he spoke, his voice was very hesitant. How can we... ever be a... 'we?' Jack snuck a glance at her out of the corner of his eyes - he was too terrified to do more. Only the fact that she looked as terrified as he felt gave him enough courage to add, You were engaged... that cop... But his inelegant sputtering sounded like a weak protest, even to his ears.

Carter snorted again. Yeah, that's what I thought you thought.

She didn't explain, either her reasons for the Shanahan situation existing in the first place, or for why she suddenly wanted to call it quits with Pete in order to take up with him. And Jack had to assume that she meant to 'take up with him' - why else would she have made that earlier comment of hers about a 'we?'

Jack, being Jack, still didn't understand. And when he didn't understand something, especially something emotional, he inevitably grew uncomfortable enough to instantly bring up a distraction.

Which is exactly what he did. And speaking of... He couldn't mention the name, even as a distraction. I had... an 'issue'... with him... a few weeks back. Maybe his choice of 'distraction' hadn't been the best one...

Carter gave a tiny smile, as if she knew what he was doing, but going along with him... for now, at least. Yes, she said, and heaved a sigh that was either grateful for the change in subject, or irritated that he'd felt he needed one. Daniel told me a little about what happened. She turned to look more fully at him. I'm sorry if he caused anything that was...

It irritated Jack that she felt she needed to apologize for that twerp's actions, and Jack's features lowered into a frown before he could stop them. Yet he was able to assure, It didn't cause anything. You don't have to feel like you should...

Jack had been going to say 'apologize' but she interrupted him, I heard that you showed him my letter.

That statement halted Jack's ramblings with no problem. Did Daniel tell you that? he inelegantly blurted.

Carter again managed to somehow look him straight in the eye. He did - Is that a problem?

No, no, Jack insisted. It didn't cause any... This was a pointless conversation if he didn't say anything more specific. He heaved a sigh. It might have been a... good thing...

There was nothing hesitant now about the snort that exploded from Carter. Yeah, it must have been a great thing. When I wrote that note, I had no thought that he was going to see it, or I might have been... nicer.

Jack again glanced her way. She was staring towards the sun, seeming to not be paying attention to him at all. Was she caught up in some kind of self recrimination? Jack didn't know, and couldn't tell just by one quick glance her way. Not being able to immediately discern her thoughts scared him.

But then, Jack had never been able to figure out her mind on the issue of 'Stalker Boy.' And he wasn't about to ask her to tell him her thoughts, either. I thought... in the letter... you were... not exactly nice, but... honest.

I should have been less honest, Carter immediately announced.

Should you have? Jack then pointedly asked her. Would that have solved anything?

Carter winced, but didn't meet his questioning eyes. How would you like to see a letter like that?

Again the 'Sir' was missing. Huh.

Jack tried his best to see the situation from Pete's point of view. Well, I admit that I wouldn't like it much... or like that my friends read it too. Jack saw Carter give another wince at the mention of 'friends,' so trying to soothe, he went on, Still, you were honest, forthright... honest...

Carter's grin broke momentarily through her look of dread. Yes, I was honest... perhaps the most honest I've ever been.

Jack's glance at her lasted longer. Maybe it was time that you were honest, he suggested.

Carter took a long time with her answer, and when she spoke, she only said, Maybe, in a thoughtful voice.

Now that they had broached the subject of being honest in relationships... sort of... Jack didn't feel so odd saying, It's time for some... honesty... maybe... indicating that it was time to be honest about... them.

Her answer, when it came, was just a touch sarcastic. Ya think?

Which, in true Carter style, was an answer that didn't answer anything. Frustration began growing in Jack. He did his best to immediately deflate it, before it got a good hold on his emotions. You mentioned a... 'we'... He had to swallow before he could even say that word. But not going on wasn't really an option right now, either, because he refused to let it be. But as far as I know, there's... no... 'we.'

Carter was now blunt, almost as if she wanted to point out that life mistake that she had earlier made. I was engaged to someone else, Jack - you can say it... Again her voice trailed away as she spoke.

By now, Jack was feeling his frustration mount into a stirring anger, and he didn't want to get angry at her. But he felt the familiar helplessness that the situation with Pete always brought on, and no matter now much control he tried to muster, his voice still sounded... not so much 'angry' as... 'brusque.' So now, he gave her a very brusque inquiry of, Why?

Carter sighed a gust of air that seemed to be filled with what sounded like all the sadness housed in the galaxy at one time. 'Why?' she repeated him.

Why for any of it, Jack told her. For all of it. His growing frustration made him sound clipped and short. I just want to understand.

Carter continued to watch the sun - it was almost touching the horizon now. 'Why,' she muttered, echoing him. That's a damned good question. But she lapsed into silence again, and still didn't explain.

And as much as he wanted to know... everything... Jack expected her not to explain at all - that would be so like Carter.

Once more, she surprised him by speaking when she would have habitually been silent. I had... convinced myself... that you didn't... didn't care... anymore. She spoke with a flat voice, and in a halting way. That... was why... I... and Pete. Her voice sounded so strained by the end of that confession, as broken and hesitant as it had been, that it was like someone was pulling her teeth with every word she uttered.

Jack was the quiet one this time, absorbing what she had told him while pushing in tandem with her on the deck floor to set the swing in motion just as he'd done with Cassie weeks before. Their movements were jerky and nervous, but at least they were nervous together.

They spent some moments trying to stay in sync with each other, in spite of their moods. At last Jack was able to protest, But... you never asked me... what I...

You didn't ask me, either, she noted with a casual manner that was decidedly lacking in accusation.

But her accusation came off loud and ringing in the surrounding air. As a response to that emotion, Jack gently chided her, Even if neither of us said anything... You had to know... about me... and how I felt... deep down, I mean.

Carter cocked her head to the side in admittance. Maybe, she said again, accompanied by another wince. But I didn't want... to look that deep... at the time, she excused. Then she blushed a raging red. That's really no excuse. I'm sorry, Jack. I wish I had never... started this... I was so dumb.

Jack had a confession of his own on the tip of his tongue. That may not seem like a good excuse... to you... but you were only doing what I... I had said that you should do - find a life. He took a deep breath, and went on, confessing again. Only... only I guess... that I meant that you should find... that life... with me.

Carter's head snapped around so that she could gaze at him. How was I supposed to know the difference? she inquired. You... and me...

Is this what you've been talking about in your psych therapy for the last two months? Jack next blurted, not giving her time to finish voicing her own observations.

Carter shyly glanced down at the reader in her lap once again. I wanted to talk so much that I... I had to request... extra sessions, she told him at last. I was so... confused.

Extra sessions? Confused? But Jack went on to his next question so that he could put off that particular discussion for another moment - at this point, he would take anything over talking about 'them.' Again, why a discharge, Carter?

Carter sighed one more time. She slowly admitted, I knew it was coming. Plus, I knew that if I c... can't change the regs... and I tried... more than once... then getting rid of the second... second best reason for you... for not changing... anything about... She gave a painfully hard swallow, but resolutely forced herself to go on, ... about... us... it might be enough. She fearfully shot a glance at him from the corner of her eyes. If I had no career anymore for you to worry about, then... She heaved a sigh, giving the impression that asking for a discharge hadn't been an easy decision for her to make, but understood the consequences if she didn't make it. I guess I knew what it might mean... to not have the regs to deal with... not if I was medically discharged, she at last admitted all in one breath of rushed air. And if I chose to stay in the Air Force... I knew you were already... already... in... in the only place I might want... to be posted... if I got a command position.

Jack chose that quiet moment to drop his own news into her waiting lap. I retired, Carter.

Carter's head snapped around again so that she could look at him. You... No! Her distress at that news was clearly evident with one look at her expression.

Jack met the accusing glare of her blue eyes with the soothing of his brown. I don't want to be there... part of the AF... without you also part of it... of the Air Force, he haltingly said. So I gave it up.

Carter's voice appeared as quickly as her own hesitancy had disappeared. But I'm being hired back as a civilian! she protested.

So am I, Jack told her.

That calmed her protests. You... Her stuttering was back. A civilian?

Jack smiled his first smile of this encounter with her. I spent a long time on the phone with Hammond this afternoon. We came to an agreement that he plans to put to the Joint Chiefs tomorrow - If they take him up on our plan, I'll be the new 'Alien Incursion' go-to-guy for the base.

Carter was taken aback by his new title. 'Alien Incursion guy?'

His smile turned even more tender. I got that phrase from you, you know.

But... Her protest was so weak, it was barely there. But... A repetition hadn't made it any stronger. What..?

Jack interrupted her again to finally ask the question that was burning a hole in his brain, What happened with Shanahan, Carter? He had to gather his courage again before going on. Daniel told me that... you gave his ring back... weeks ago?

Carter seemed to do a double take at this change of subject, but gamely attempted to keep up with him. Still, she had to swallow again before telling him, Yeah... I couldn't... Her voice trailed away.

Jack cleared his throat in anxiety as to his next question. Did you decide to do that before... or after... we... in your room?

Before, she decisively answered, cutting off his strangled attempts at questioning her. Pete called... all the time... I told you that, she spluttered. But... after Cassie told me...

You saw Cassie? This genuinely did surprise him. When was that?

Carter gave a half smile with one side of her mouth. The gesture made her look wry. Cassie came to visit me about a week and a half ago. She looked towards Jack, noting his surprise. I was as shocked as you are. Once again she studied the glowing sky. After last time, I never expected her to speak to me again.

Choosing his words carefully, not wanting to let her in on the fact that he had inadvertently heard hers and Cassie's 'last' conversation, Jack asked, What did she say to you... this time, I mean?

Carter raised her brows in self-deprecation. She asked about Pete... was quite interested in what I thought about him... now that I had started thinking. She blushed again, this time in embarrassment. She must have been embarrassed then, too, and that mood had pushed her into seeing... and speaking... more of the truth than she ever had before. I told Cass that If I couldn't have you... then I wasn't really going to be satisfied... with anybody else in your place.

Jack was quite surprised to hear that Carter had been so honest, even with Cassie, no matter what the psych docs had told her. But once again, she was saying more.

I also told her that... that I wanted to give Pete's ring back to him... had wanted to for awhile... but that he hadn't come... to see me so I could give it back... though he had made a total pain in the mikta of himself by calling all the time. She stopped to push her longer hair out of her eyes. Cassie then said that if Pete wanted so badly to see me... as his many phone calls indicated... then why had he not gotten the address of the rehab hospital... from Dr. Mehab? She gazed in honest assessment at Jack. Cassie got Mehab's name from Daniel... and Mehab told her how to find me... and she showed up in Chicago the very next weekend. Carter's eyes slid back to her contemplation of the sky. And if she could do that... why couldn't Pete? Why hadn't he come yet, if he was sooooo worried about me? Her following silence told him that she had come to a sort of decision at that point. That's when I realized that Pete wasn't going to come to see me... at all. He must have a... thing.... about mental... things... and rehab... Carter gave a wry twist of her lips, then went on, Eventually, I figured out that he wouldn't come in spite of his many phone calls to me. Carter sighed again, and sat back more firmly into the swing cushions. So I mailed his ring back to him. Carter looked positively satisfied when she told Jack this part of the story. I don't know if he got it back - nobody has told me he has... and nobody has told me that he hasn't.

Jack gave an appreciative grunt. So what Daniel had told him earlier was true - the relationship with Shanahan was over? Jack felt pure satisfaction shoot through him as Carter told him this story.

He got even more satisfaction when very suddenly, Pete himself appeared in the yard on the left side of Carter's house.

Jack's satisfaction peaked when Pete stopped, still in the yard, and stared first at Carter, then sent a sour look his way. The fact that Carter's unscathed left hand shot out to keep him seated beside her on the swing the minute they saw Pete was what thoroughly satisfied Jack.

Obviously feeling awkward, Pete stuffed his hands into his jeans pockets in what had to be the universal action of discomfort. Sam - hi, he said in greeting.

Carter's initial shock at seeing her former fiancé gave way to a surprised cry of his name. Pete!

He didn't give a greeting to Jack, but began by saying to him, Can I talk to Sam - alone? he asked again, emphasizing his last word. The clipped tone of his voice showed that he fully expected Jack to cooperate with his plans.

Jack felt the comfort of Carter's fingers wrapping more firmly around his hand rather than releasing him. So he felt quite confident when he said, No.

The first thing that happened after Jack's retort was that Pete's expression of slight disdain turned to one of much more open dislike.

Which in turn sent even more satisfaction coursing through Jack.

But rather than seem to be satisfied, Carter looked uncomfortable for a moment, especially when Pete's gaze kept darting to the man beside her. But she didn't let her own level of discomfort either encourage her to send Jack away, or stop her from speaking out to Pete. It was the first time Jack had ever witnessed Carter being so vocal about anything that was as emotionally charged as the Pete issue was to her. I thought we were already both quite obvious in the way we felt... specifically, in the way you didn't visit the rehab facility, or in the way I chose to return your ring. She didn't even flinch when she alluded to the manner in which she'd acted with his ring. Some might describe what she'd done as a necessary action, and applaud her bravery in doing it. Others would say that what she had done had been cold and severely callous. It was clear that Pete fell into the later category.

Shanahan didn't do more to acknowledge the awkwardness of this situation other than to shoot hurt glances at her, and murderous glances in Jack's direction. Yet, he spoke exclusively to Carter. I was hoping that we could talk about the way you... He halted his conversation, and tried again. I mean, the way you... we... Finally he stopped altogether to glare openly at Jack, but still talked to Carter. Does he really have to be here for this? I want to talk to you alone.

Carter instantly replied, I'd prefer it if Jack stays... but it's his choice, of course. She turned to regard Jack beside her, allowing him to decide for himself whether to go or to stay, but her hand remained on his the entire time.

In spite of what Shanahan said that he wanted, Jack was NOT going to leave Carter alone with this guy - the cop had been just this side of nuts during the last encounter they'd shared, after all!

Rather than saying anything, Jack just let his lips curl into a small smile, and settled even more firmly onto the swing's cushions. He was yet more satisfied when the cop's face grew a shade darker, but ignored what the man's look implied as Carter continued speaking.

I have nothing to say to you that I haven't already said in the note that I sent back with your ring - is there something that you want to add? Her voice sounded puzzled now as much as cold - she was doing her best to keep her emotions under tight control and keep this scene shrouded in vagueness. She stared in complete puzzlement at the man she had been planning to marry. Jack was impressed at her discipline in this unpleasant situation.

Pete was less impressed. He shot yet another dark look Jack's way, but had his gaze firmly locked back onto Carter when he noted, I had hoped that you didn't mean what you said... in your note... and in your letter... I mean, you said something about needing time to think... in both of them... His anxiety grew each time that he repeated the phrase 'I mean.'

At his words, another puzzled look shot through Carter's eyes. Why would I want to change my mind? She sounded very confused now. I waited for months for you to come visit me. You never did.

Pete instantly argued, I had a case, Sam... in fact, more than one... you knew that might happen. I had to stay and sort them all out - why didn't you wait for me to do that before... He didn't finish his question, but hefted his hand aloft, the engagement ring sparkling in the late afternoon sun that bathed his palm. This. His forlorn voice rang out into the warm air.

Instead of showing culpability, as Jack expected, Carter's own face darkened. Really? She sounded disbelieving. Then why didn't you answer your cell phone when I tried to call you, since you were dealing with so many cases at once, and needed those details that could be relayed by your cell phone? I tried to call - many times.

Pete's sorrowful expression grew slightly more frightened for just a second, then the sorrow returned. My partner and I were acting under cover. If anybody understands what the whole 'classified' thing is like, Sam, it's you. I thought that you would...

Clearly you thought wrong, Carter responded, interrupting.

Internally, Jack cheered. Before the whole rehab fiasco, Carter would have swallowed such a reason from Shanahan without question. Now, she was much more skeptical about his stories.

As proof of her skepticism, she continued, I called you at work, at home, on your cell, on your land line, in the morning, in the afternoon, in the middle of the night - I never got an answer.

Yet Pete was relentless in sticking to his proposed story. I was on a long term assignment - you know how those can be.

Carter sighed in sadness at his insistence. Then why did Kevin tell me that you had taken extended personal leave when I called him at the station a month ago? she inquired. What was your own partner doing there if you were both supposed to be 'on a long term assignment?'

Delight shot straight through Jack when she made air quotes with her fingers as she spoke her last words. The index finger of her right hand didn't quite behave as it should have, but again, she didn't let that stop her from making the action.

Pete wisely chose not to say anything to answer her questions, and a beat went by as they stared at each other, Carter with her brows raised in query, and Pete with a sullen look on his face. Finally she simply suggested, Why don't you stop with all the stories, and tell me why you're really here?

Pete seemed momentarily taken aback by such bluntness as Carter's, and even Jack had to admit that it was unexpected. This was a new Carter speaking so firmly about a personal issue. Typically, she was anything but confident about problems of a personal nature - Jack knew. It was much more common for Carter to run from personal subjects than to attack them head-on in this manner. Obviously, he could no longer depend on the 'typical' Carter - rehab, whether physical, mental, or both, had done wonders for her confidence levels.

Pete gave a hint of a wince when she made her last suggestion, and quickly answered, Come on, Sam, you have to admit that what we last talked about - that blood thing of yours... it's pretty weird.

Carter's eyes narrowed. 'Weird?' she repeated.

Shanahan was quick to assure, But I'm willing to overlook that if you want to try again.

Oops! Wrong thing to say! Or, wrong way to say it!

Carter responded exactly as Jack predicted that she would. Unforgiving anger snapped in her blue eyes. You're 'willing to overlook it?' she brusquely echoed. Pete nodded, not predicting the storm that Jack could also see brewing in those cloudy eyes of hers. Carter's loud snort blasted into the air. I can't just 'overlook' something that's a part of who I am! The eye snapping increased in intensity. And frankly, I'm shocked that you'd even suggest it! She huffed a breath. I'm not ashamed of what Jolinar did to me, or what she left me. If you are, then that's your problem, not mine. Good-bye, Pete.

Woohoo! Go Carter!

But Pete instantly diffused the tense situation by becoming immediatelly contrite and apologetic. Okay, look, I'm sorry, Sam. I didn't say that the right way at all. I'm not ashamed of anything about you. His chagrined expression turned more persuasive. Come on, Sam, give me another chance... please?

It was the begging nature of the man that really pissed Jack off. He hoped that Carter wouldn't fall for a line like Pete was dishing out to her. But even he had to acknowledge that she had given in to just this type of persuasion many times in the past.

But Carter surprised Jack, not to mention Pete, again. Her voice not quite hard, but harder than she had used in this kind of past situation, she abruptly changed the subject by not answering his question, but asking one of her own. Pete, why did you propose so early the way you did?

That question clearly caught Shanahan off guard. Huh?

Carter went on to explain, We'd only known each other a few months when all of a sudden you were ready to marry me. But our conversation the night of the engagement party showed that you really didn't know me. Pete remained silent, so Carter went on, Cassie - when she was still talking to me - made the comment that you obviously just like being married, and that's why you proposed as soon as you did, and transferred first, without even discussing it with me.' She cocked her head to the side, pensive. Were you hoping to pressure me into saying 'yes?' She cocked her head to the other side, her pose still thoughtful. When Cassie first suggested that, it just made me mad that she seemed to think that someone wouldn't want to honestly propose to me...

I want to! Jack screamed to himself, once again astonishing him at the extent of his secret passion for Carter. But he remained silent, just as Cassie claimed he always did.

Carter went on with her commentary to Pete, I told Cassie that there was no way that you would need to transfer first to get me to answer the way that you wanted me to. She took a deep breath. But I've had a lot of time to think about all this, which is why I went to Chicago in the first place. The more I think about it now, I realize that maybe Cassie had a point. She righted her head to stare straight at him. So which of us was right?

Pete didn't answer Carter's question, but responded instead to her casual comment, as if her mind was already made up. Sam, be reasonable. How can you..?

It was the wrong thing to say... again. Carter's anger snapped from her eyes. I am being reasonable, for maybe the first time. If you can't handle that, it's not my fault.

Pete retorted, If you're implying that this is all my fault, I remind you that...

Carter patiently interrupted him once more. It's no one's fault, Pete. If someone has to take some blame for this, then it's your fault for proposing too soon, and my fault for accepting when I shouldn't have. I should have known better - in fact, I probably did. And it's my fault for not admitting it, not even to myself. But accepting blame is not the right grounds on which to build a marriage.

Ah, Jack thought, the true 'truth' comes out - finally. His relief at hearing that 'truth' was intense. He half suspected to hear Carter apologize to him that she was changing her mind again and going along with Shanahan's suggestion - it was very like the indecisiveness that the Carter of the last few months had shown. But this new Carter's determination was admittedly always surprising him.

She continued now in an apologetic, yet firm, tone. You above all people should know about what it takes to make a marriage work, Pete. You've been married, after all, and already understand about relationships. She gave a pause, then added. Or, you should know about all of this already. She sighed one more time. I certainly never meant to hurt your feelings in any way, but... It's not enough, and it never was, and I needed to admit that to myself. And now I'm admitting it to you. Please accept my decision.

Yet, Pete didn't look at all accepting about this 'truth.' There's nothing to admit, Sam, and you should know that!

The minute that Shanahan didn't immediately agree with her suggestion, Carter turned to Jack with a look of apology on her face. Jack's heart froze for just a second, but Carter's next comment squashed his fears. Excuse me, Jack, while I throw out some old trash that's starting to clutter my life. I'll be back in a minute.

Carter gracefully rose from the swing and walked down to the yard with a new confidence to her footsteps. The soft feminine style of her outfit of pink sweater set paired with worn jeans didn't diminish her studliness a bit.

Pete comprehended what her approaching form meant, and suddenly flipped his tactics again. His persuasion was in force once more. Now Sam, we're both adults - surely we can sit down to talk...

But Carter was implacable. I'm done talking. There's nothing more that either of us can say to change my mind, so please go. She gestured towards the front of the house.

Sam, don't you..?

Carter interrupted to demand, What about 'no' don't you get? Do you want a slug on the nose, is that was I have to do to finally get you to go?

Pete balked at Carter's sure tone. No, of course not! I had hoped that we could...

We don't want anything even remotely similar! Carter insisted. Now you will leave. I will finish my conversation with Jack.

A petulant look invaded Shanahan's eyes. In a plaintive voice, he asked, But don't you want there to be an us?

Carter glared at him. There is no 'us.' She spoke in such certain tones that there were no doubts as to what she thought on this issue. If you can't understand that, my left fist is only too happy to knock some sense into you.

Wait... had she been speaking to Daniel?

Carter further ordered, Now go!

Pete couldn't possibly ignore her commanding tone. He held up his hands, turned, and started for her front yard. Okay, okay, I'm going.

They walked away, leaving Jack alone on the swing. An unbroken quiet descended on her back yard once they disappeared. Birds broke through the quiet with trilling whistles, and the breeze creaked through the upper branches of her neighbor's trees. A dog barked once. Silence again descended.

Suddenly...

God, you pushed me! came the amazed holler from the front of Carter's house. Jack instantly jumped up to render assistance at the sound of that forceful male voice, but paused in his rescuing bid. He remembered how Cassie had capably handled her recent male situation without his help, so he wisely waited to see what would happen next.

Jack was glad that he'd waited. He heard a very competent Carter yell, Yes, I did push you - you weren't moving fast enough! Pushing seems to be the only language you understand! A second later she added, And I will push you again if you don't do as I ask, and leave!

A more muffled sound floated back to Jack this time. Damn, I think you broke my arm!

Carter loudly sighed in resignation. Of course I didn't! You'd know if it was broken by the intense pain. Then she added, But I'll be happy to break it for you if you want me to. Then she growled, But whatever you do, leave, now!

The angry voice broke off, startling Jack, but before he could decide to definitely interfere in this scene, Carter appeared again, strolling around her house. She casually climbed the stairs, looking no worse for wear. Jack suspiciously eyed her.

She insisted, Pete just needed to be persuaded to leave. She gave a lopsided grin, and reclaimed her seat. He won't interrupt us again.

Jack gave a start at her sense of nonchalance, tried to gauge her thoughts by the expression of intense satisfaction on her face, then, when he didn't find anything obviously wrong, relaxed enough to join her once more on the swing.

Well, that was the end... he hoped. The demise of Pete Shanahan, Jack sardonically thought as he settled down beside her. He couldn't help it - he grinned. I'd say that I'm sorry he's gone... but I'm not.

Carter chuckled. I somehow thought that you wouldn't be.

Jack basked in the moment.

The moment was broken when she asked, Now, what were we talking about?

Jack heaved a sigh of discontent; he was glad that they were resuming their earlier discussion, but sad to see the moment of Pete's demise vanish so quickly - he wanted to bask some more. He figured that a month of basking might be enough.

But he gamely responded, I think we were talking about Cassie. He cast his thoughts back to the moments before Pete's arrival. Yep... Cassie, he said in finality, and grew more serious as he became more sure of the subject. He glanced again at the woman beside him, and grimaced. Thoughts of Cassie were always sure to dampen his spirits lately. She doesn't think too highly of me right now.

Carter gave a loud sigh that was heavily laced with sadness. Yes, Cass told me as much. She moved her e-book reader from the side of the swing to the floor, then refocused her attention back to him now that Pete was gone. Cassie didn't give me the details, but I got the main idea from what she didn't tell me.

Jack gave a dry wince. You mean that Cassie didn't say that she thinks I've been an idiot... for years? His next expression was a grimace. That it's almost like I like being unhappy? That I like you being unhappy? The way she looked at him, part surprised, part guilty, and part honest admittance, he knew that she had heard this exact same assessment of his past behavior before now. So Cass did discuss me with you, he murmured in some satisfaction..

Cassie was very vocal, Carter admitted at last. She wanted to say all sorts of critical things about you... and I wouldn't let her.

Jack was astonished at Carter yet again. You wouldn't let her? he ascertained. But she was right - I've been an ass - for years!

Carter gave a sound like a grunt. She neither agreed with him, nor entirely disagreed. Maybe, she muttered at last, And maybe not, she added. You really did the only thing you could have done.

But Jack didn't agree with her. Cassie was right! he insisted. I've been a pigheaded lout!

Carter tilted her head in a semblance of agreement with his last statement. Okay, she finally conceded. But you were a lout for a good cause, she argued. Before he could argue back with her, she gave a soft smile and added, And because I wouldn't let you do anything else.

Was Carter ever going to stop amazing him in this discussion? No way! he hotly contested. I'm not letting you take the blame this time! He scowled at her. I was a lout - end of story!

Carter tilted her head again, considering, and said at last, Okay - Let's say that we were both to blame, that it was both our fault that neither of us ever said anything.

Jack again wouldn't hear of her sacrificing for him. That's not exactly how...

She turned on him then, a fierce glint in her eyes. Don't you dare say that it wasn't my decisions that kept us from ever exploring.... us. She lapsed into silence after her outburst.

Jack let the silence fill the air for several minutes, then quietly negated, You might have made the initial decision not to explore an... us... but I didn't ever do anything to try to change your mind.

No. Carter slowly admitted, and gave a dry half grin. You're far too noble for that.

A comment to which Jack gave a loud snort of disagreement. Noble... yeah, I'm real noble, he sarcastically noted. Do you know how many times I dreamed of not being so 'noble?'

Carter's wry grin had turned into a softer smile by the time she fully regarded him. But you never did, did you? No matter how often you dreamt of doing it. And that's the definition of nobility in my book.

But Jack looked like he still wanted to argue with her. Carter... he protested, then thought to ask, Do you mind if I call you that, by the way?

A thoughtful silence followed his inquiry as she carefully considered his question. The fate of the world wasn't on what she decided to do in this scenario, but it might as well have been, according to her grave look. No, it doesn't bother me, she at last gave a timid reply. At least... Not really, she said, then explained, You're the only one who does it, so it's sort of become a part of everything about who you are... and it means that you're dealing specifically with me. She stared at him assessingly. So no, I don't mind. Then she smiled... sort of. I kind of like it. And she blinked, her assessment growing more internal. Finally, she inquired, Do you mind if I call you 'Sir?'

Jack had to consider that. Yeah, I guess I do mind, but only because I've always equated that name to the military, to everyone in it, I mean. Not just to you. Then he gave her a wicked smile. Though no one says it quite the way you do, with a sort of lilt that makes you sound like... His voice trailed off as he looked at her in a very happily assessing way.

Carter's curiosity went up another notch when he didn't finish his comment. What did I sound like?

Suddenly Jack grinned his own version of the 'wicked smile.' Like you had other things on your mind besides being the completely respectful subordinate.

Carter chuckled at the image that suddenly popped into her mind. You mean that I sounded like I wanted to undress you every time I said it?

Jack gazed at her with a look of semi-horror on his face. Carter! Though even he had to admit that he had mentally undressed her... a time or two... hundred... over the years. Is there anything else that you want to tell me to shock me socks off? Or does that about do it? Though he figured that nothing could top her mentally-undressing-him comment.

Carter gave a wicked smile of her own. I once thought about jumping you... in the Control Room.

Jack laughed a full belly laugh at her confession. I never would have expected that! He laughed again. You're usually so proper.

Carter grinned evilly. Proper... but with a 'proper' wicked streak!

Jack laughed for a third time. She was truly wonderful! That's what I love about you, Carter, he exclaimed. He gathered her into his arms for an appreciative hug. You're full of surprises.

She hugged him back, hard, as if she thought that letting him go now would make him vanish. I love you too, Jack, she lightly admitted.

Well, it's about time, a new female voice dryly intruded onto the evening air.

Both Jack and Carter turned to stare in astonishment into Carter's yard that was opposite to where Pete had stood. There stood Cassie beside a tree that still cast a thick sunset shadow onto the yard, a hardcover textbook in her hands. She hefted the book for them to see. I left my History of Journalism book out here when I studied this afternoon. I came back to get it - I hope you don't mind, Sam.

No, Carter blurted, now sounding as surprised as Jack had earlier sounded. Of course I don't mind.

Cassie's expression then turned knowing. I found my book, no problem, but... I have to admit that when I heard you guys mention my name... Now was when anyone else would have been embarrassed to make her next admittance, but Cassie just lifted her chin even higher, as if daring them to be too aggravated with her. I admit that I listened to your conversation, she went on. I couldn't help it - you two weren't exactly being quiet.

Jack sent her a firm 'look of death.' I've heard you yourself say that listening in on conversations never leads to hearing anything good about yourself.

The fact that Cassie seemed to know exactly where Jack had heard that comment of hers, too, surprised Jack all over again. I said that to Pete, didn't I? she nonchalantly asked. And you heard every word of it.

Jack's heartbeat again increased. To cover the sound from Carter hearing, he blurted the first thing to come to mind. Prove it.

Cassie shot Jack a sardonic look. Simple logic, she announced.

Jack continued to glare at her. Then you won't mind filling us simpletons in, he next said.

Cassie glared at him in suspicion, as if she thought he was demanding that she reveal her private source. But she eventually nodded her head in agreement. Okay... I had my fight with Sam that day of the engagement party. I came out into the hall. I found Pete in the hall bright as day...

He was in the hall? Carter asked, sounding slightly sick now. Was he... doing... anything?

Cassie didn't even bother to glance at her. Yeah, he was listening. But her eyes were still on Jack. I told him off, called him Stalker Boy... didn't I, Jack?

Jack had the presence of mind to sputter. How would I know what you..?

Because you happened to be in the bathroom, Cassie announced. With the door closed... but not all the way... and you heard every bit of Sam and Pete's conversation about transfers, and Jolinar, and blood... didn't you?

Jack was quick to riposte, If I did, it was a complete accident, and since you know exactly what the topics of discussion were that day, you heard every word they said, too.

Cassie nodded her head once to show that Jack was correct. You're right... but in my defense, I wasn't listening to them through a door, and they were hardly keeping quiet, were they?

Jack then turned to see if Carter was outraged... though she looked more befuddled than outraged. You did a great job with that discussion, by the way, Carter. I'd never thought before that moment that making the things that we take for granted sound commonplace would be such a challenge - but you made it sound easy.

Er... Carter clearly didn't seem to know what to make of this compliment. Thanks... I think.

Before Carter could add more to her statement, like to ask just what he had been thinking, doing something so reprehensible as listening at doors, Jack turned back to Cassie to make a statement of his own. Cassie hasn't yet told us how she figured out that I was where she says I was... though it's 'simple logic,' he quoted. Remember?

Cassie gave a definitely smug smile. I noticed that the bathroom door was mostly closed when I talked to Stalker Boy in the hall. Then later, the bathroom door was still closed, but I went into the kitchen to talk to Teal'c. Then Daniel came in. You showed up in the kitchen right after Daniel did... and you hadn't come in from the back yard, where the 'party' was, or come in through the front door, or come in from the lounge - we would have seen you if you had. So, that leaves either my room, Sam's room, or the bathroom. And I've already said that I heard Sam and Pete talking... not Sam and Jack... though it would have thrilled the pants off of me if I had...

Cassie, Carter now said in a slightly reprimanding tone. How can you even think to listen in on...

Give it up while you're ahead, Sam, Cassie advised, cutting in on Carter's speech in order to address her. I know that you did your own 'listening in' on mine and Jack's conversation that night of the party when we were sitting there in that swing. At Carter's and Jack's twin looks of astonishment, Cassie went on to explain, Remember... journalism student? she asked with a 'duh' sound to her voice. I'm training to notice things that lead to the truth of a situation.

Carter continued to gaze at her in incomprehension, and Cassie rolled her eyes, then admitted, Alright, I saw your reflection in the side of Jack's beer bottle when he wasn't drinking out of it. Don't be angry at him, though... you should really think about dying your blonde hair if you plan to go around listening to people in the future.

Jack burst out laughing again when he heard that, thinking that Cassie had just put words to a thought of his own. Good eye, Cass! he exclaimed, enjoying this scene a bit too much for Carter's comfort, according to the harrumph that she breathed out into the evening air.

Cassie seemed pleased that Jack had so thoughtlessly complimented her... like a true father figure would compliment so casually. At least, she smiled as she said, Thank you, Jack, that means a lot coming from the chess champion of the world.

Carter bristled. And what am I if he's the chess champion? The lowly pawn of all this intrigue?

Cassie smiled even more. No, she said with finality in her voice. You're the co-champion.

Jack more completely wrapped his arms around Carter from where he still sat behind her as they both faced Cassie. Cass, go on into the house and order us some supper... while I sit out here and kiss my co-champion... like I have wanted to do for weeks.

Years, Carter corrected as she contentedly leaned back into him. I don't know about you, but I've wanted to kiss you for years... to say nothing about wanting to undress you... and...

Cassie then clapped her hands over her ears. Young impressionable person here! she reminded them. This is too much information for me to hear!

Both Jack and Sam chuckled, making Cassie twist her face into a dismayed expression.

Since you're so impressionable, go on in, Jack told her when he had calmed. We wouldn't want you to witness anything that might make you 'uncomfortable,' would we?

Grumbling good-naturedly, Cassie disappeared into the house, just as Jack requested.

Leaving Jack and Carter most decidedly alone. Ah, yes! Jack softly exclaimed. This is the way that I like you... alone!

Shut up and kiss me, Carter ordered as she twisted back around to face him. She took his face in her hands (even her scarred one) and drew closer to him.

Jack couldn't help but grin just as their noses touched in a soft rub. Yes Ma'am.

With no hesitation, almost as if they had been doing this for years and years... and despite all the heartache they had caused each other in the past... they joined their lips together like they'd been doing just that very thing since the beginning of time.

At last Jack got the full benefit of kissing Carter stupid.

'Stupid' was a great place to be!

The End


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