Disclaimer: Still not mine, though I let them play in my sandbox quite often. It's a good thing I have such a big sandbox!

'Endgame's Endgame, Part II

by Linda Bindner

A/N: I always intended to write a Part II sequel to 'Endgame's Endgame', especially as the first part of that story got to be so long on its own that it needed one to fully finish the story. But now I tell myself that readers didn't know this - they can't read my mind, for crying out loud. I'm not surprised that many readers felt gypped or left hanging after the first part of this story. I would have felt the same way. So this 2nd part of the story is dedicated to anyone who was at all put out for slogging through ''Endgame's Endgame' only to find no resolution - this one... as well as Part III... is for you.

Prologue

Numb, Sam sat alone on her couch and watched the images continuing to flash across the TV screen. The jingle from the used car commercial that followed the Human Interest segment of the news program filled her ear, but little of it entered her mind. That mind of hers was too busy being stunned by the expression on the General's face that the TV camera had immortalized just before he'd been led away by the security detachment at Bolling after the court-martial. She had been talking in distressed whispers to Daniel and Teal'c at the time, and had been completely oblivious of the thoroughly satisfied, definitely warm, affectionate, almost loving expression he had shot first SG-1's way, then specifically her way, just prior to the bend in the corridor swallowing him up.

Had it not been for her recording of the news program, she would still be oblivious about such a look from the General - Jack. She guessed that he was 'Jack' now, as he was no longer part of the Air Force like she was, and she no longer had to treat him with the automatic deference that an airman should show a superior officer. Like Daniel had done from day one, she could now call him 'Jack' and no one would think anything of it. He was no longer the person who would order her into battle, order her to fix what was currently wrong with the 'Gate, order her to write that report on the latest doohickey that had come through the Stargate - he wouldn't issue orders to her ever again - he was no longer her CO.

Misery encompassed her as that thought took root in her mind. The commercials were still blaring distractingly on the TV, but all she could think about was that Jack O'Neill was no longer her CO. He was no longer a part of the SGC. He would never again stroll with unconcern into her lab and ask 'Carter, whatchadoin'?' He would no longer joke with SG-1 in the Commissary. He would no longer be the biggest pain in the butt in the Infirmary. He was no longer her CO.

Sam's mind was just beginning to thaw another notch so that that thought could entrench itself more firmly into her subconscious when she heard a sudden sound behind her. She abruptly swiveled on the sofa, ready to let her training take over if her interruption turned out to be a hostile one in nature. Instead of some enemy bent on kidnapping her again, or some Goa'uld bent on wanting to use her in some twisted scheme of galactic domination, she found herself staring into Pete's intense brown eyes.

Pete. When had he come in? She hadn't even heard him enter her house, she was so caught up in her thoughts. Without warning, a visceral sense of guilt shot straight through her. Since she had left for Bolling Air Force Base in DC with Teal'c and Daniel, she had not once thought of Pete. Her mind had been utterly focused on General O'Neill, on his court-martial and its possible outcomes, on doing her best as a character witness for the General, on the charges against him, - focused on him - too focused until this very minute on Jack to give even a second thought to Pete.

Not so now. Pete's solid form in her living room was hard to ignore. “Sam,” he said as a way of greeting her after not seeing her for several days. It seemed even to her to be a lukewarm greeting between two people who intended to marry, but she followed the mood that Pete set with his own words and didn't rise from the couch to run and greet him now.

“You're back,” he unnecessarily announced, as if he hadn't thought she would come back.

“Of course I'm back,” she said, negating what his gloomy tone inferred. “We got in just a little while ago, and my car was on base, so I had to go there to get it before coming home.” She flopped around to again stare at the noisy television set. With one swift click of her finger, she let the remote stop the tape, then turn the TV off. “Did you hear?” she asked next, her emotions sounding loud in her voice. “About how the court-martial ended?”

“Oh, I heard,” Pete said in a cold voice that Sam had never heard him use before. “I even watched the whole thing on TV, just a few days ago; you, him, your reunion... everything.”

The way he said the word 'reunion' turned that simple word into a sneer. Surprised out of her melancholia, Sam turned to him again, confusion on her face. “Pete? What's..?”

The detective cut her off. “I saw it all, Sam, all that 'The food's not as good as it is when you bring it' stuff!” His voice moved from coldly sneering towards definite anger.

Sam's confusion mounted. “Pete, what..?”

But Pete was going on in that same disdainful tone. “I come home from work, expecting to see my fiancé on TV, defending a friend, and instead got a good dose of my girl, outrageously flirting with her old codger of a boss on public TV in front of millions! I was almost too humiliated to step outside the house!”

Flirting? When had she flirted, and with Jack? Sam shook her head. “I don't know what you're talking about,” she firmly said. “I went to DC with Daniel and Teal'c to be a witness for the General. That's all. I barely saw him.”

Pete threw down the jacket he was holding with force onto the top of an easy chair near the sofa. “You saw him enough,” he said, the accusation resounding in his voice. “You saw him plenty long enough for the entire country to get the idea that there's a hell of a lot more than just friendship going on between you two, no matter what this bogus of a court-martial was all about!”

More than friendship? Where on Earth had he got that idea? Sam jerked to a standing position, the couch still acting as a barrier between her and Pete. “I don't know where you got an idea like that, but..!”

“It wasn't just me who got it!” Pete yelled back at her, raising his voice for the first time since this altercation began. “Everyone at work got it, too, and every one of them was askin' me what's up with this old military commando guy, and my girl!”

His girl? Since when was she simply his girl?

Incensed at Pete's ridiculous choice of words, Sam had her response to this absurd belief of Pete's on the tip of her tongue when the phone suddenly rang, cutting her off in mid breath.

Sam snatched at the phone and barked “Carter!” before she could think better of it.

“Um...” It was Daniel. “Sam? What's up?”

Sam instantly reined in her anger. She wasn't angry at Daniel, after all - there was no reason to bark at him. “Sorry about that, Daniel - I was just running to the phone from the...” From where? Outside? The bedroom? No - there was a phone in there - she would have just answered that extension. So, what would he believe? “From... the bathroom!” she lied “I didn't mean to speak in such a sharp voice. What's up?”

Daniel went on explaining as if he fully bought her excuse, even though she knew he didn't believe her bathroom tale any more than he'd ever bought her excuses. But he let it slide. “Oh,” he said. “I have Jack on the other line, and he's back in Colorado Springs on temporary leave while the Air Force pushes his discharge paperwork through the...” He took a breath, as if someone had barked 'Daniel!' in his ear, reminding him of the job he was supposed to be accomplishing. “Anyway, he wants to know about us coming over to his place this weekend for some pizza and talk.”

“Talk?” she dumbly parroted, her mind still too chaotic for her to respond in a more intelligent manner. Jack never wants to talk, she internally protested.

“Yeah,” Daniel assured, unaware of what she was thinking. “He said that he has some things to go over with us in particular. I already phoned Teal'c, and he's free this Saturday night, and so is Jack. And so am I. So...”

“Am I free on Saturday night as well?” she asked, finishing Daniel's question for him.

“Yeah, that's what he and I were thinking, I admit.” Daniel waited, and when Sam didn't immediately respond, prompted, “Sam?”

The vocal nudge was what she needed to get her scattered mind to calm down enough for her to reply, “Uh... sure! Saturday's good for me! Tell Jack that I'll be there. What time?”

“1700, and when we're all there, we'll order pizza so he can 'talk' while we eat. That's all I wanted, Sam. You can go back to your... bathroom... now.” Sam thought she heard a laugh muffled by a cough when he hung up, but she couldn't be certain, because Pete was already talking even as she hung up her phone.

“'Jack?' You call him 'Jack' already? Geez Sam, can you..?”

Sam glared at him. “What do you want me to call him?” she huffed.

“You called him 'the General' a minute ago,” Pete's accusations continued. “That's what you always used to call him - what's different now?”

Sam growled a sound full of frustration. “Sure I called him 'General,' but I was talking about a time when he was still my superior officer! He isn't that anymore, he's just...” God, there was that idea of 'he's not my anything anymore!' ringing in her mind. She did her best to ignore that clamoring thought, though it was too insistent to entirely discount. “He's just 'Jack' now,” she said in morose finality.

“'Jack' calls, and you go running - is that it?” Pete demanded to know. “Saturday night, we already have plans - or had you forgotten?”

Oh, crap - that party... the one she didn't really want to go to. “That's right - the barbecue.”

“That's right,” Pete went on snottily. “The one my friend has had to postpone three times already! If you don't show up at that thing with me because you have some SG-1 thing with Jack, I'll never be able to show my face at work again!” Pete paused. “After all,” he added. “You're my girl, not his - you're coming with me!”

Hearing his imperious tone, Sam instantly saw red. “I am no one's 'girl!'” she sharply insisted. “And I don't need your permission to go anywhere! I have some unfinished business with Jack and the rest of SG-1, and if you don't want me to take care of it, then tough!” Her eyes blazed. “I'm going! You'll have to give my excuses at the barbecue.”

“No,” Pete said in petulance. “If you're determined to go to this SG-1 thing Saturday night, then I'm going with you.”

“You can't come,” Sam hurriedly stated. “We're going to be talking classified stuff, and you don't have clearance.” Actually, Sam had no idea what Jack wanted to discuss, but 'it's classified' was the first excuse that had come to her addled brain in order to keep Pete away. She didn't know why it was important to keep Pete out of this, but the idea of Pete and Jack in the same house was too much for her take right now. “I have to do this one alone.”

“'It's classified!'” Pete echoed. “That's just an excuse, Sam, and you know it!”

“It is not an excuse!” popped out of Sam's mouth before she had the chance to come up with a more viable argument. “You don't have clearance - there's no excuse in that!”

Pete glared at her, his hands belligerently propped on the back of the couch. “I have so got clearance, and you know it!”

“Yeah, conditional clearance that's too 'conditional' for this!” Sam hotly remarked. “What do you think we're going to be doing Saturday night that you have to 'save' me from - strip poker?”

“How do I know?” Pete shot back. “You could be doing a foursome and I would have no idea - which is the point, isn't it?”

Mystified, Sam could only stare at him. “Pete, what's gotten into you today? I've done nothing to warrant this distrust, this...”

“You've done plenty,” Pete angrily remarked. “And you're going to do more,” he went on accusingly. “I'm not sure I want a girl like that wearing any ring of mine. Give it back.” And he held out his hand in her direction after making his snap decision.

Now Sam was more surprised than mystified. “What?” she asked, her befuddled mind trying to grasp onto the words he had just spoken. Had he truly asked for his engagement ring back? “You can't...”

“I can,” Pete jumped in. “And I did. I want it back. No girl like that is waltzing around with my...”

Sam balked. “'Like that?' Like what? I'm not some bimbo on some street corner in DC! You sound like...”

Pete sighed, sounding tired and aggravated now. “I don't care what you are - some call girl on Earth, on some planet far away - I still want my ring.”

This was really happening! All because she refused to 'obey.' “Crap, but you sound just like Jonas!” is what burst out of her mouth. “Here!” She snatched at the ring she was fortunately wearing on her finger. She rarely wore it, as it was too big to wear at work, and she was always at work. But today she had stopped by her lab long enough before leaving the SGC to grab the ring, then stuff it on her finger. She hadn't examined the fact that she was glad that Jack was no longer there to see her actions. But now she exclaimed, “I don't want it if you can't trust me along with it.”

Pete took the ring back so fast it was as if her hand burned him when he touched the tips of her fingers as she held out his ring to him. “I trust you,” he negated. “I just don't trust that old fart.”

Calling Jack such a horrible name was just... stupid! “'That old fart' gave up his career in order to save me!” she spat. “I'm only alive because of him! You've lost friends at work before now - I would think you of all people would understand what his sacrifice means!”

Pete's hand clenched at the ring until he'd made a fist with his fingers. “I ain't competing with an old guy for you, Sam, and those looks you gave each other on national TV...”

Sam drew in a deep breath for calm. “There were no 'looks!' We were seeing each other for the first time in two months - that's all you saw.”

Pete roughly grabbed his jacket from where he'd thrown it. “You tell yourself that if you want to - you were always good at the lying thing.”

Sam saw red for the second time that day. “I've never lied to you before, and I'm not now when I say I've had enough - get out!”

“My pleasure.” The door slammed shut behind Pete as he walked out of her house - and, she assumed, out of her life. The squeal of the tires of his truck drifted in through the front windows, even though they were closed. Sam watched him drive away through the sheer curtains covering those windows.

The numbness settled into her bones for the second time that day. She'd just lost two men in her life. Wryly she had to admit to herself that it was a tossup as to which one was the most important.

The Pete Part of the story (I'll make this as painless as possible)

Chapter 1

Three days later:

Saturday afternoon was warm and sunny, giving the impression that Spring really had sprung on the snow-beleaguered town of Colorado Springs. The grass was even beginning to turn green. The birds were singing. People were out and about in droves, all enjoying the warmer weather while it lasted, sure that arctic blasts would come back to haunt them sooner than expected.

That Spring weather came right after the breakup. No matter what Pete had claimed at the time of that breakup, his anger quickly dissolved, and before he knew it, he was missing Sam like crazy. But by then it was too late - Sam was gone - and it was all his fault. Pete tried to accept those facts, as dismal as they made life for him, but he almost instantly found that he couldn't. Hence, it only took days before he was moping around his house, barely doing his job, simply existing. Everyone assumed it was because of his breakup with Sam, and he didn't deny it. He only expressed, over and over again to anybody who would listen that he desperately wanted to get back together with her. He tried to call her at her house. No answer. He tried to call her on her cell phone. All he ever got was voice mail. He left twenty-one messages in the first three days after the breakup. She never responded.

He guessed he couldn't blame her. He'd said some pretty awful things that day when they'd broken their engagement. Well, they hadn't exactly done anything. He had broken the engagement. But now he couldn't even say why he'd done it.

It was his turn at a month of desk duty at work, but he could barely concentrate - Pete only said... over and over again... that it gave him far too much time to think about Sam.

Ironically enough, that was the biggest trouble of all. Pete was still thinking, even now as he drove the familiar streets on his way to the nearest hardware store in order to pick up a bag of charcoal while on his way to his friend Royce's house for his barbecue. He wasn't exactly in the mood for a party, but their mutual friend Steven had told him just yesterday that if he didn't see Shanahan at the party, he would personally come to his apartment and beat the daylights out of him before dragging him by his receding hairline to the party himself. As Pete didn't want any broken bones while attending Royce's little get-together, he figured that he would make an appearance, eat a hot-dog, then depart for his home where he could mope in solitude. He'd heard a vague rumor that Steven planned to get him too drunk to leave the party early, but he was pretty sure that was just a story.

So it was quite a surprise to find Sam's General... ex-General... getting ice at the hardware store's corner ice freezer at the same time he was grabbing a bag of charcoal briquettes stacked right next to the ice chest.

The General... ex-General... was having trouble holding the door of the freezer aside while hauling out the top ice bag at the same time. The bag had frozen to the bag below it and would take two hands to break it loose. But the General's... ex General's... left hand was busy holding back the spring loaded door so that he could remove the ice. This was a job for a three handed alien, not a two handed Human.

Without even thinking, Pete reached for the door. He didn't say anything, but met the older man's eyes when he glanced around in surprise that someone was helping him. Pete grudgingly held back the door, leaving the General two hands to break apart the bags of ice and pull one from the ice chest. “Thanks,” he grunted, his gruff voice sounding squeaky, like he had seldom used it lately.

Of course he rarely used his voice - who did he have to talk to now that he had been forced to retire? For a split second, Pete felt the relief wash through him that the Captain hadn't had reason to force him to retire.

But his lack of a forced retirement didn't say anything about the other man's forced retirement. And the entire country knew about that 'forcing,' thanks to James Harriman and his news show.

So Pete felt moved to say, “Hey, man, I saw on TV about what happened to you in that court-martial - tough break.”

“Yeah,” the ex military man said, grunting again.

“You're O'Neill, right?” Pete ascertained. “General O'Neill?” He knew it wasn't 'General' anymore, but... This man was sort of the reason behind his and Sam's breakup. Pete maybe... or definitely... wanted to rub that forced retirement of his in a little. The best way that he'd found to soothe his suffering, even a little, a way that was alcohol free, was to have company during his misery.

The ex-military man sighed as he dropped the bag of ice that he'd popped out of the ice freezer onto the neat pile of charcoal briquettes. “Yep, that would be me, Jack O'Neill in the flesh. But you already know what the hell I look like. You knew before that damned TV stint. What do you want, Shanahan?” He leaned against the charcoal in an offhand manner, shrewdly regarding him.

Pete shrugged. “I don't want nothin.'” he insisted. “I'm just here to pick up some charcoal for a barbecue I'm going to tonight. I didn't expect to run into you, here of all places.” He took in the store with a glance.

O'Neill gave a start of surprise, ignoring Pete's glance thrown around the store. “You're going to a barbecue, and Carter is coming to my place for pizza?” His shrewdness sharpened. “Two different places - how is that going to work out for the happy couple?”

Pete felt his face go a shade of red. “Um... the couple isn't so much a couple anymore, so I guess that really doesn't matter,” he stated. God, he hated explaining Sam's sudden absence.

O'Neill wasn't quite able to hide the light that slid through his eyes. He was clearly intrigued in a nano second. “You don't say?” He continued to lean on the briquette pile, but there was a sense of interest in his leaning. “You and Carter...”

“We had a fight,” Pete rushed to say before O'Neill could say something like they had 'called it quits.' He didn't think he could handle it just now if he heard 'Sam' and 'quit' in the same sentence. “A big fight.”

A gesture resembling a very brief, very small smile flashed across O'Neill's face, then was gone. “She didn't slug you one, did she?” The way he said it gave the impression that he thought Pete deserved a good slugging from his former second.

“Slug me?!” Pete yelped. “Hell no - I ain't gonna be hit by no girl!”

O'Neill snorted, not quite the reaction that Pete expected from someone so military. Weren't all those guys real macho dudes anyway? They didn't quite agree with the whole GI Jane thing, did they? But Pete had to admit to himself that he wasn't sure - he didn't know this General... ex-General... very well.

“She is quite a hand fighter,” O'Neill told him, a note of pride in his voice. “I don't think she would suddenly have the urge to show you just what she knows, but then, I wasn't there - I guess I don't know what kind of fight it was.”

“Not that kind of a fight,” Pete firmly informed him. Just why he was troubling himself to keep this General up to date was a mystery.

“Not a drag-out bar brawl, huh?” O'Neill chuckled a tiny laugh. “I guess she saves those skills for work.”

“Sam's not that kind of a girl anyway,” Pete said. “She's not a hit 'em, then leave 'em kind of girl.”

“I know,” O'Neill abruptly informed, his voice not so casual now, more matter of fact than it had been so far in this encounter.

Which threw Pete a little, but he recovered enough to ask, “Then why did you say that..?”

O'Neill was quick enough to cut him off. “To see what you thought she would do.” He smirked now. “You were her fiancé, after all. You would know.” A 'wouldn't you?' was implied by his voice, even if he didn't actually say it.

But Pete had only latched on to one word the other man had said. “'Were' being the important word in that sentence,” he mumbled, momentarily overwhelmed by that state of affairs.

O'Neill leaned back even more, and crossed his arms as if he was settling in for a long chat. “And why is that? I thought you two were the match made in heaven, remember?”

Pete winced a bit when O'Neill mentioned the heaven part. Pete himself had once told Dr. Jackson that he and Sam were 'a match made in heaven' at one of Sam's get-togethers for the team that Sam had once insisted on throwing. Dr. Jackson must have told O'Neill. It wasn't so nice having his own words repeated to him now.

“Yeah, well, I might have spoken a bit out of turn at the time,” Pete softly admitted.

“'Out of turn,'” O'Neill echoed, and Pete expected the man to throw his words back in his face. It was no secret that the two men barely tolerated each other, and had done so on the few occasions that they'd met merely for Sam's sake.

But Sam wasn't here. Which was most of Pete's problem.

Pete looked at O'Neill in curiosity when the man didn't twist his words to his own benefit, but chose to remain quiet. “Why are you here?” he suddenly asked. “Besides to get ice?”

O'Neill continued to lean as if he were talking to an old friend rather than a detested acquaintance. “I came to get ice so that Carter can have something to put in her glass of diet soda when Teal'c dumps all my ice cubes into the sink to give the ice trays a quick once over again tonight.” And he thumped the bag of ice right beside him with his fist. “I thought I still had a bag in the freezer in the garage, but couldn't find one there when I stopped to look over my extra lumber this morning - I looked for the ice, too. So...” He shrugged. “Here I am, buying boards and ice.” He smirked again. “You could say that I'm buying frozen boards.” And he chuckled at his own joke.

Pete didn't laugh. He didn't even understand the man's humor! What had Sam seen in the guy?! Instead Pete focused on one of the pieces of information O'Neill had unwittingly given, if he could judge by the man's expression of ease. “I didn't know that Sam drinks diet soda.”

“No?” And O'Neill's eyebrows rose to his silver-gray hair. “Yeah, well...” Then his eyebrows lowered in puzzlement. “Isn't that something a fiancé would know?”

Which begged the question of why had O'Neill known something intimate like that about Sam when Pete hadn't? “I thought she only drank beer,” Pete deadpanned back to him.

O'Neill crossed his arms, but his posture lacked belligerence - as if he knew something, and was pretty sure that Pete didn't know anything. “She usually does,” he explained. “Except with pizza and steak. With those, she drinks soda.”

She did? “She does? I didn't know,” Pete said. “We always had wine with our dinners.”

That information seemed to shock O'Neill right out of his casual demeanor. “And she actually drank it?” he blustered.

Well... no. But Pete wasn't going to tell him that. Instead he intoned, “She always drank whatever we were having.”

O'Neill looked at Pete again almost like he could tell that the younger man was lying. But he didn't push it, and merely said a vague, “I see.”

“Anyway,” Pete reminded. “You haven't told me what you're planning on doing with the lumber - you got a project that's going on or something?” he inquired, trying to show some type of polite interest in the other man's presence even if he didn't like him - Sam would appreciate that.

O'Neill stood upright. “Uh... not yet. I've been thinking about adding onto my deck, but I never had the time... until now.” He gave a rueful twist of his lips, but didn't even allude to why he had time now, though Pete knew why. The entire nation knew why. “And that reminds me... they promised to have my lumber order ready to go in fifteen minutes, and we've been talking about twenty...” Grabbing the bag of ice from the top of the charcoal pile, he said, “It's been...”

Pete interrupted him. “No it hasn't.”

O'Neill dropped the ice bag back down with a thunk. “Huh?” He looked perplexed, though Pete had the distinct impression that the other man wasn't perplexed about anything at all, and knew exactly what he was referring to.

“You were gonna say 'nice,'” Pete informed him. He examined the big hole of depression in his soul that threatened to swallow him up, every minute of every day. There it was, shimmering just at the edge of his conscience. “Not much is 'nice' these days,” he admitted in a soft voice.

“It isn't?” O'Neill rumbled, sounding surprised, but not looking it. “Um... I'm the one who was forced to retire,” he reminded.

True, but... “Me and Sam broke up,” Pete reminded, as if he needed to remind. “She won't even take my calls. She won't answer at her house, won't speak to me at all.” Pete told himself that he was whining, and to stop it. But if only Sam would talk to him! He knew he could get her to listen to reason, and get back together with him then. It was what he wanted more than anything right now. He wanted it so bad that he even found himself willing to talk to her old boss, whom he didn't even like, in a local hardware store!

Hey, but that's right - this man had worked with Sam for seven years. He should know all about her - he even knew her drink preferences! He would know the perfect thing to get her to talk to him. He forgot his claim that Sam had flirted with this man behind his back to ask his approval now. “Maybe I should get her flowers, ya think?” he suggested. “Roses maybe?” He blinked, hopeful at that idea. “She would like that, wouldn't she.” He blinked, ignoring the light that again flashed ever so briefly in O'Neill's eyes.

O'Neill gave the smallest of shudders. But the gesture, as well as that shaft of interest that had shot through him a moment before, were made so quickly that Pete wasn't sure he had seen either of them, or completely made them both up. All O'Neill said, though, was “Maybe she would...” in a hesitant voice, as if he knew her drink preference, but had no idea what kind of flowers Sam liked. And she had always accepted the roses Pete had given to her in the past.

Pete went on with the fantasy that he was creating in his mind. “She likes roses - or, I think she does.” He looked at O'Neill, the present expert on Sam Carter. “She'll listen to me if I do that. Then we'll get back together.”

O'Neill had the strangest look on his face. But again, all he said was, “If you say so.”

It sounded like he didn't believe Pete's idea would work. “You don't think it's a good idea?”

O'Neill gave a shrug. “You were her fiancé,” he reminded. “You would know.”

That's right - he would know. He knew Sam like the back of his hand.

Just then over the loudspeaker came, “Paging Jack O'Neill - your order is ready.”

O'Neill grabbed at the ice bag a second time. “That's me - gotta load up the truck.” He began to walk away, lugging the bag of ice. He nodded once in a form of a goodbye, a terse movement of his head that had Pete again wondering what Sam had ever seen in this guy besides pure unfriendliness. “Shanahan,” he mumbled in a weird accompaniment to the nod.

“General,” Pete returned in kind as O'Neill sauntered away. He was so caught up in the idea of giving Sam roses that he had forgotten again that O'Neill was just O'Neill now, and not 'the General.' Oh well. 'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'

Jack, Take 2

Chapter 2

That afternoon, Jack answered the knock on his door, thinking that it couldn't be one of the guys or Carter arriving for their 'talk' already - it was too early yet for any of them to arrive. Which meant that he had an unexpected visitor. God, he hoped it wasn't that Shanahan person again! He didn't think he could stomach seeing him twice in one day. So it was with some trepidation that he opened the door for his visitor.

“Carter!” he yelped, showing his astonishment. “You're early! You're not supposed to be here for at least another...” He looked at his watch to judge the time. “Another two hours.”

Sam nodded, and ducked her head in a semblance of embarrassment. “I know that, Sir.” She paused in her explanation, playing with the edge of her coat with her fingers. Those fingers showed her insecurities - obviously she was feeling unsure about showing up so soon in the day.

Being adept in 'Carter Speak,' Jack settled back onto his heals for the long chat that he knew was forthcoming. Carter's worrying fingers illustrated the biggest uncertainty of all her gestures - she was fidgeting, which meant that she was nervous, which meant that she would talk almost nonstop for a long time. Whether she said anything of any import while she talked, on the other hand...

But Jack ignored his doubts. Instead, he focused on her continuing fidgets. In fact, now that he thought of it, her fidgeting reminded him of him. But he didn't say that. He didn't say anything, knowing that he didn't have to do more than give an encouraging nod a time or two as Carter tried her best to speak.

And Carter tried immediately. “I was in my lab,” she gurgled, and he nodded encouragingly to prompt her to continue. “I've... I've been there for days, actually.” She didn't say why she had been in her lab, or what she had been doing, but again he gave an encouraging nod. “And I... I was hoping... that... maybe... you would save me.”

At this comment, Jack's brows rose in astonishment. It had always been his opinion that Carter didn't need much saving - she was the one who did the saving.

The second she saw his brows go up his forehead, and read his mood, she quickly backpedaled. “I mean, save me from doing more senseless simulations.” She winced a second time, but went on, obviously uncertain that what she had decided to do would be taken as any simulation saving. “Um... I was hoping to hang out here... But maybe this wasn't such a good...”

“Nonsense, Carter!” Jack argued the moment he perceived that she was on the verge of talking herself out of appearing two hours early. “You just surprised me, that's all. Come in, come in.” And he moved aside to give her room to enter his house. “I was just out the back deck, working on my addition, or I would be more presentable.”

“I didn't mean to interrupt anything!” According to the light suddenly in Carter's eyes, she more than thought that Jack was fully presentable enough already, in spite of the sweaty t-shirt he was wearing with holey jeans, and the sawdust caught in his hair. She tossed her thumb back over her shoulder even as she walked through his front door. “I can go if...”

Jack sent her a long-suffering look. “Will you stop? I can use your help, actually. I'm glad you got here early.”

Carter dropped her pack onto the floor just inside the door, then straightened to stare at him. “What can I do for you, Sir?” she eagerly asked. Her change of mood from hesitancy to enthusiasm showed the magnitude of her relief at the fact that he had chosen to 'save her.'

Thinking that he would 'save her' from anything, real or imagined, Jack didn't waste any time trying to cover his possibly unwanted thoughts by quickly leading her through the deck door in his living room out to his yard. He spoke as they went. “You can stop calling me 'Sir' for starters,” he suggested. “I'm not your 'Sir' anymore. Or anyone's 'Sir,'” he pensively added.

She was silent for a moment, and looked as if she was thinking about the fact that he wasn't her CO anymore, and not calling him 'Sir' was going to be a lot harder than he thought it would be for her. Yet, she didn't elaborate on just why it would be so much harder. Finally she softly agreed, saying, “Okay - I can do that.”

So Jack went on in his attempt to continue to distract her... and him. “Plus, you can hold this screw for me - it's hard to hold it still with my big hands, what with it being in the corner it's in, and screw it in at the same time.”

Sam held the offending screw steady in a corner of the deck scaffold that he was building, but she again looked like she was filled with doubt. “Is this the angle you're looking for, S... Jack?”

“Yeah, just like that.” Jack correctly positioned his electric drill, wondering why this specific tool didn't come with automatic size adjusters, but saw her cringe when he did. He couldn't help but jokingly add, “And when I accidentally screw your finger...” In horror, he heard what he'd just said, and fast, tried to fix his mistake. “I mean, when I hit your finger when I screw it... I mean, screw it in...” This was just moving from bad to worse! He thought about just shutting up, but continued to babble anyway. “I mean in... into the wood.” He added, “You can give Siler a run for his money in time spent in the Infirmary for me doing stupid things... to you.” A comment that sounded... stupid.

The comment also made Sam chuckle slightly, though she was obviously still thinking about not moving the screw as Jack concentrated. He let his relief flood trough him when she laughed. At least she didn't think he was being totally stupid. “I have to admit, the thought crossed my mind - the Infirmary thing,” she clarified. “Not the Siler thing.” She didn't say anything about the 'stupid' thing.

Jack ignored the 'stupid' thing just like she did - 'least said, soonest mended' and all that. He then had to ignore his thoughts about dumb sounding clichés. “The Sergeant had a broken arm a few months back,” Jack reminded her as he gave her another screw to hold steady for him in another awkward part of the deck scaffold. “I missed how all that ended for him - how's he managing? Is it still bothering him?”

“I can't believe that you remember that!” Carter breathed in awe.

Jack took a second to look at her. “Yeah, didn't he slip on something and fall down in the parking lot?” he reminded.

Carter gave a nod of her head. “Something like that. I would have figured you to be too busy doing General things to even have heard about that.”

Jack cracked a smile at her 'General things' comment. “I was buried in paperwork, Carter, not really buried... I heard the odd thing or two every now and then.”

Carter snorted. “Right.” She must have realized how disbelieving her own voice sounded, for her ears turned pink. In her own embarrassment, she quickly explained, “I heard Dr. Brightman say that you asked for an Infirmary report every few days so that you could keep up on who was hurt if they weren't on an SG team.”

Jack winced. “Crap - my secret is out.”

Sam's laughter tinkled across Jack's back yard.

“You're laughing,” Jack commented. “Haven't heard that sound in awhile.”

Carter's face turned red this time as well as her ears. “Guess that I haven't had any reason to laugh lately.”

Jack grabbed another board and instructed her to hold it at an angle while he screwed in more screws. As they worked together, he noted. “Didn't that fella of yours make you laugh?” He stopped working to gaze at her. “I'm pretty sure I once heard you say something about him making you laugh.”

Carter hesitated for the slightest moment. “I suppose he did, at one time,” she confessed.

When she didn't add anything more to her comment, Jack decided to draw her out. He casually stated, “I ran into your...” He didn't say anything specific, but they both knew who he was referring to. “Anyway, I ran into him at the hardware store this afternoon.” Carter looked guilty, though Jack couldn't fathom why she suddenly felt guilty about the simple act of him running into Pete. Internally shrugging, Jack went on, still trying to give that comment that would drag more information from her. Though he'd already gotten the lowdown from Shenanigans, he wanted to see if she would tell him anything. “He said something about you two ending things... or something.” Jack's gaze now throbbed towards her as his interest skyrocketed.

Sam's face reddened even more, to Jack's utter delight. (He loved it when she blushed, especially since she did it so rarely.) “I... we...” She paused to take a deep breath. This was clearly a hard confession for her to give, even... or especially... to him.

Why it was so important that she comment herself about her recent break with her fiancé was beyond him, but Jack couldn't deny his interest in this topic. It was a fairly sick interest, he admitted to himself, but it was much more alive than he thought it ought to be - he had recently thought that any interest that he had in Samantha Carter was purely professional. But he clearly couldn't use the 'it's just professional' angle any longer.

Sam finished drawing in her breath, then blurted, “We had a big fight, then he broke up with me.”

"He broke up with you?” The surprise he was feeling showed on his face. “I got the impression that it was more your doing than his.”

Sam grimaced. “I guess you could say that it was a mutual thing, S...”

“Carter!” Jack immediately chastised, strangely irritated that he had to remind her not to call him 'Sir' anymore.

Carter must have realized exactly what she had done, and exactly how he felt about it, for she instantly changed what she was going to call him. Her tone was contrite, but not entirely subservient. “Jack.”

The 'Jack' in this scenario didn't want her to be subservient to him, anyway. “Mutual, huh?” Jack repeated now, ignoring the reason for his previous chastisement. “I thought it was more because of you than him.”

Sam looked like she couldn't decide if she should unload on him, or keep her burdens to herself, especially considering who she was talking to, and what they were talking about. It was more like her to remain quiet, thus Jack was doubly shocked when she admitted, “The fight... He basically didn't trust me, I guess, and that really irritated me.”

Jack sat back on his heals. “Not trust you?” he half laughed, half snorted, as if to impart the fact that he found that to be completely incomprehensible. “Why would he not trust you?”

Carter again looked as if this conversation had reached the realm of severe embarrassment. “Um... because...”

Jack instantly turned back to his job. “You don't have to tell me anything, Carter. It's none of my business.”

He heard Sam huff another breath, then blurt, “Actually, it is, Sir... Jack,” she corrected herself once again, though this correction sounded more like it was already becoming second nature to her to call him 'Jack.' “The fight we had was about you, so in a roundabout way, it is your business.”

This information surprised Jack enough to make him pause in his work. “Me? I was busy being court-martialed... what did I do?”

Carter's face went red a third time... or it might have just stayed red from a moment before - Jack couldn't be sure. No matter the length of her blush, she now stayed quiet for so long that Jack thought she wasn't going to answer at all. But at last she whispered, “He said that we... you and I... flirted... on TV... and then he called me 'his' girl...”

It was a statement that made Jack give a second indelicate snort. “You're nobody's 'girl,” he decisively announced.

Carter shot him a fierce stare. “I never thought I was.”

Jack gave another snort, quieter this time, but still a snort. “Well, apparently he did, huh? And what was it that you said before? That we were..?”

“Flirting - yeah,” Carter winced, as if being caught flirting with her CO was more awful than she could bear. Her face reddened another shade, but she went on in a strangled voice, “Pretty silly of him, huh?”

But Jack didn't think it was so silly. “I have to admit that I've heard that before.” It was his turn to wince at the memory of General Hammond reaming him out on the topic a few minutes after it had happened. “Besides, that's not how I meant what I said... that day on TV... not exactly,” Jack hedged, determinedly not looking at her as he said it.

“Not... exactly?” Carter stammered an echo. “You mean that you did... mean to flirt?”

Jack shrugged. “Not in so many... words,” he grunted, letting his job act as a cover for his current emotions, which were suddenly writhing like a snake in his mind, and thus had to be shining in his eyes as well. He snuck a glance up at her through his lashes. “Did you? Mean to... flirt... I mean.”

“Um...” A flabbergasted Carter didn't seem to know how to respond.

“'Um..?'” Jack prompted.

So Carter simply repeated what he'd just said. “Not in so many words.”

“Don't do that, Carter,” Jack instantly scolded in a disapproving voice.

Carter looked mystified as to what he meant. “Do what?”

“Hide behind a repetition,” Jack quickly told her, as if he was afraid that if he didn't say it now, he never would. “You do that all the time, ya know,” he casually commented, as if his need to keep this casual meant that it wasn't as important to him as it really was.

For just a moment, she looked like she was going to argue with his perceptions of her past actions, but instead calmly announced, “So do you.”

That immediately stopped Jack. What could she mean by saying that? And how should he reply? Should he agree, disagree, pretend to misunderstand? “Um... you noticed?” is what came flying out of Jack's mouth before he could think better of it.

Carter didn't waste any time now that she had broached this problem. She grimaced, then looked determined, and bluntly stated, “Oh yeah.”

Jack continued to gaze at her while standing in his sun-splashed yard, covered in dirt, sawdust, and holey clothes, but content to be doing it all in this woman's company. She looked so natural while doing something so normal as helping him on his deck that it made him give a nervous choke. He was half terrified and half amazed at the way this conversation with her had so quickly moved into the personal realm this first time they'd met since the discharge. He opened his mouth to cautiously bring up what had become another forbidden topic during the last few months, but was interrupted.

“Hey Jack! You back there?”

Daniel - of course. The one man with the worst timing in the whole galaxy.

Jack's gaze had never left Carter's, and now her eyes drilled holes right through the emotional armor he tried to erect at this late minute. She burrowed through his walls so fast that he knew there was no hope for him defending himself against her gaze if she could squash his defenses so quickly.

To cover his sudden awkward feelings at being so exposed before her, he focused on the new arrival. “We're back here, Daniel.”

Daniel and Teal'c walked around the corner of his house. “Thought we heard voices,” Daniel remarked, his gaze flying over Jack's presence, his team leader's presence, the unfinished deck addition... His glance said that he instantly noticed everything, but was loathe to mention anything. “Hey Jack! How's retirement going?” he at last inquired instead of asking what was going on.

Jack shook his head to force his attention to crawl away from the suddenly appealing form of a fiancé-less Carter long enough to reply. “It's going fine, as you can see, and you're early.”

Daniel did another quick once over of his team leader standing in Jack's yard, where it would have looked like she had been assisting him, except for the odd expressions of guilty hopefulness on each of their faces. “Oh.... I can see that we're not so very early,” he noted.

Jack wasn't sure that he liked what Daniel was insinuating. There was certainly nothing more nefarious going on between him and Carter besides building a deck together! Or, at least, that's what he told himself. “Carter came by early too, and I conscripted her smaller fingers to help me with my deck addition.”

Teal'c's gaze roamed over the present deck, then the framing that Jack was adding. “You plan to build this deck yourself, O'Neill?”

“Well, I have the time now,” Jack flippantly commented, and tossed an extra screw into the air before adroitly catching it.

“I didn't know that you knew woodworking,” Daniel added, his tone an impressed one.

“Built a deck onto the cabin last year,” Jack told them in a casual manner. “Though I didn't have such convenient help at the time.” And he shot a glance at Carter. Or such pretty help, he thought, but kept that last part to himself.

“Again, I'm impressed,” Daniel appreciatively said.

“Yeah, well,” Jack casually noted. “What else am I going to do now except take care of those projects that have been shelved for the last eight years?”

Daniel's glance now turned assessing. “Is it that bad, Jack? Are you going nuts?”

Jack tossed the screw into a bucket resting on top of a pile of scrap lumber. “Nope,” he firmly told them. “This is exactly what I thought would happen, and I had months to get used to the idea.” He groaned softly as he climbed to his feet. “I've had this deck project planned for years, but like I said, I never had the time to do it until now.”

Once more, Daniel appeared awed. “You never said anything.”

“No?” Jack was proud of how astonished his tone sounded. “I could have sworn that I told you about this... way back at the beginning.”

“You told me,” Carter surprisingly announced. “Remember? We were... somewhere... and you had just woken me up for last watch when you mentioned it.”

Jack looked at her quizzically. “I did?” For the life of him, he didn't recall any of this.

Carter nodded. “Right before I talked you out of waking Daniel up early by dumping coffee on his head.”

Jack snorted just as Daniel retorted, “I hope it was cold coffee!”

“That sounds like me,” Jack agreed. “Especially back when we were first together as SG-1.” Jack glanced at his three friends, recalling those years he was referring to with fondness.

Daniel glanced once at Jack, stunned at the amount of emotion that was leaking out of the older man's eyes. Carter's face mirrored Daniel's in its shock, and even Teal'c looked taken aback for a moment.

It was up to Jack to break them out of the moment. “Okay, before we get all nostalgic and stuff...” He swiped his hands together, wiped them on his pants, then led the way up his finished deck stairs and into his house. “I'm going to take a quick shower. You all decide what kind of pizza you might...”

Teal'c interrupted him to say, “I want the usual, O'Neill.”

It was a surprise how fast and firm Teal'c's voice sounded. “Okaaaay.” He glanced at Daniel and Carter. “How 'bout you guys?”

Daniel hesitated, looked at Carter, then nodded. “Works for me.”

“Yeah, me too,” Carter seconded.

Jack shrugged. “Okay.” But he paused on his way to the bathroom. There was something else going on here. He could almost smell it. His gaze grew shrewder yet as he stared.

It was Daniel who spoke for all of them. “What's this really all about, Jack?”

Carter was the second one to jump into the conversation. “You say that you want to 'talk?'” She emphatically shook her head. “You never want to talk.”

Daniel spoke again before Jack had the chance to reply to Carter's comment. “You're going to tell us that you have some fatal disease and have only six weeks to live, aren't you?” the archaeologist guessed.

Jack laughed. “No!”

“You don't have a fatal disease?” Daniel next guessed. “Instead, you were offered a job mowing yards? In DC?”

Jack rolled his eyes. “You never did have any patience, Daniel,” he said. “I'll tell ya, promise, just keep your pants on.” And he continued walking towards the kitchen to first order the pizza, then shower the sawdust from his hair. Daniel, much to his distress, would have to wait.

Chapter 3

“Pizza's here!” Carter called out to the others just as Jack sauntered back into the living room after his shower and a quick change of clothes. He looked much more presentable now in a shirt distinctly lacking in the sweat department, and jeans without the added effect of holes. Jack thought he detected a brief flash of disappointment in Carter's eyes when he met her at the door, three pizza boxes in hand, but he wasn't completely certain about her expression - he admitted that he could have imagined seeing the entire thing. He tried his best to once again strangle the sense of hope that had been building inside of him ever since court-martial had loomed in his immediate future, and especially since he had learned of hers and Pete's breakup. However, even he admitted that he was a hopeless hopeful, and that no matter how many times he had been disappointed in the past (and disappointed by her especially), he couldn't quite squash all that hope that now clamored annoyingly in his chest. He would be hopeful of a time when he and Carter could be together no matter how impossible he told himself it was. Now wasn't any different.

Jack took the pizza boxes from her, so that she could carry the drinks that he had ordered. “In case all my ice cubes are now decorating my kitchen sink, there's more ice in the garage freezer,” he told her in a quiet voice.

Surprisingly, she answered his assertion, though it was more like her not to say anything, just give a nod. This time, she actually said, “Thanks... Jack.” The use of his name was added in a firm tone that gave the idea she was busy being determined not to slip back to the dreaded 'Sir.'

Carter left to find a glass and fill it full of ice while Jack continued on into the living room where Teal'c and Daniel patiently (in Daniel's case, not-so-patiently) waited for the arrival of the food. Now that Jack was here, all they had to do was wait for Carter to return, and Daniel would finally have his curiosity allayed as to what Jack had on his mind.

“Alright,” Jack began as soon as Carter had emerged from the garage with a glass full of ice, and drinks for the three men dangled in her fingers. After the drinks, the pizza had been passed around to them all, and Jack continued. “There's really no itty-bitty way to break this, and it's really no big deal when you think about it, and there's no good reason that I haven't...”

“Jack!” Daniel growled into the quiet room. “You have SamandDaniel-itis: you're rambling! Get on with it!”

Jack was almost proud of the younger man's impatient tone. He was also irritated by it. “Keep your pants on, Daniel!” Jack remonstrated. “I'm getting to the point!”

Teal'c calmly announced, “It appears that being on National television has softened your brain, O'Neill - you are indeed rambling.”

Jack shot a dirty look in Teal'c's direction. “Not you, too!”

“Guys, stop!” Carter yelled into the foray. “Let Jack talk!”

Jack looked at Carter, surprised again that she had chosen to intervene in a typical SG-1-type spat. Usually she tried to stay out of any SG-1 argument that ever sprang up, especially the childish ones like this one. “Thanks, Carter,” he said, his tone showing his amazement.

Carter gave a dismissive shrug. “I only meant that you usually don't want to talk, yet here we are, all gathered together, eating pizza just so that you can talk.” She grinned around the food in her mouth. “This may never happen again.”

Jack scowled. He might have known - encouraged only because of happenstance. Again he firmly reined in his hope that she would have changed simply because of his different Air Force status.

Jack scowled externally, but hoped internally. “Okay, Miss Smarty Pants, I'll just lay it all out for ya!”

“We look forward to it,” Carter saucily added, using a flirtatious tone that she never would have used when he was still her CO.

Jack's flutter of hope grew to the size of a watermelon in no time.

He grimaced to cover any evidence of his inner ramblings. “Okay - flat out.” He turned to take in all of SG-1 with his gaze. “In case you're... concerned... which in Carter's case, I'm sure she isn't...”

“I'm always concerned about you, Jack,” was the reply that she casually inserted.

Jack did his best not to respond in any way and to bring his abruptly hammering heart into a healthy rhythm at the same time. “I'll tell, if some people stop interrupting me!” Jack faked the anger in his voice. He was fairly certain that Carter knew of his subterfuge, but all she did was gesture him on with a wave of her hand. Jack continued. “If you're even remotely concerned about...”

“About what, Jack?” The interruption came from Daniel this time. “I'm on pins and needles h...”

“My financial situation, Daniel!” Jack growled, sounding mad and dangerous now. He had envisioned the telling of this little tidbit to be much less antagonistic somehow. But nothing went as planned when dealing with SG-1: he knew enough about them to have better predicted this scene.

Daniel narrowed his eyes in puzzlement. “Your finances? Um... what about your finances?”

Jack nearly lost what patience he had left. “That's what I'm trying to tell you guys, Daniel! My finances - even with being booted out of the Air Force and only getting half my pension... In case you're wondering, I'm fine!” The glare on his face said that he was anything but fine. “I have plenty of money put away for just this type of thing - so you don't have to worry about me begging for loans! I just wanted you to know that!” This had seemed like such a good idea when he thought of it earlier. He should have just let them offer to loan him money, and kept his mouth shut.

At least, he assumed they would offer to loan him money. That's what friends did. And that's what this whole thing was about - them being friends.

At least, he thought it was. Now he wasn't so sure.

Carter looked abashed at his blithe mention of money, and he kicked himself. He hadn't intended to embarrass her. “How... how much do you have... Jack?”

This surprised Jack anew. She actually wanted to know? “Uh... I'm not sure...” His voice trailed away as he fiddled with his pizza slice.

“You mean that you don't know?” Carter asked, a sense of timidity that he'd never heard before in her voice. She really must not like talking about such intimate things like money!

Jack replied as nonchalantly as he could in order to set her again at ease. “Well... I know that I have enough.” His shrug nearly made him lose his grip on his pizza. “What more is there to know?”

Carter blinked when he said that. “You should always know... Jack.” She blinked again, then went on, “I have a program...”

“Of course you do,” Jack deadpanned back to her. “You have a program for everything.”

A baffled expression shot across Carter's eyes. She clearly wasn't sure if she should take that as criticism or a compliment.

She went on before she had the chance to decide. “But what kinds of accounts do you have? Savings? Checking? It's important to know, especially now, when what you expected to bring in isn't there anymore.”

She meant his paycheck, the one that was now gone, finito, oughta here...

“Yeah,” Daniel seconded before Jack had the chance to reply to Carter's assertions. “This isn't the time for guesswork. Since you brought up the subject of money, I say we figure this out before we set you loose on the world. Otherwise, you could slip through all you've saved in a year!”

“Oh ye of little faith in my abilities!” Jack responded back. “I think I've got a handle on this, Daniel, without your help!”

“ColonelCarter is waiting for your reply, O'Neill,” Teal'c reminded. “As am I.”

“Nosy bunch, aren't you?” Jack should have known that he couldn't just tell them that he was financially viable, even with the discharge. He would have to give them specifics. He should have been prepared for that, but wasn't.

“I'm not sure how much there is,” Jack vaguely replied. “There's some stocks, some bonds, some IRAs, a 401K... I've read articles that tell you not to stick all your assets in one basket, and that was good advice.”

Two expressions of utter astonishment met his gaze. Teal'c looked mildly intrigued - which for him was very intrigued.

“What?” Jack asked as he reached for another piece of pizza.

Carter's hesitant voice spoke for them all. “You... you read... financial articles?”

He met her blue gaze. “And books,” he confessed. He leaned over to softly confide in them, “I'm not sure if that Bernanke fella really knows as much as he claims to know.”

Daniel's face went ashen. “Bernanke...”

“As in Ben,” Jack finished for him. Hadn't these guys heard of him? Jack hadn't thought of that possibility.

Carter gaped at him, wide-eyed. “What else... do you think?”

Jack firmly replied, “I sometimes wonder why people think finances are so confusing. The trick to playing the market is to invest your capital, then leave it alone. Playing with it too much is just askin' for trouble.” Again came the nonchalant shrug. “It's all legalized gambling, anyway. Treat it like gambling, make sure that your stake doesn't go under a certain amount, and you can't go wrong. Easy.”

Again Daniel's features blanched. “And you have no idea how much you have?” His tone inferred that he thought this state of Jack affairs was so typical.

Jack tried to ignore Daniel's tone long enough to recall what his last financial statement had said. “Ball-park...” He narrowed his eyes and grimaced as he tried to remember. “A few, I guess.”

“A few... thousand?” Carter asked.

“Million,” Jack nonchalantly announced.

Daniel choked. “You're... you're...” He choked again. “A... a... millionaire?” When Jack didn't deny or agree with his assertions, he went on in an equally as flabbergasted tone. “We never knew.” Then his glance landed on their dinner of choice. “You're a millionaire... and you're eating pizza?"

Jack scowled again. “I happen to like pizza!” Crap! He knew he should have just not mentioned this at all.

“But...” Carter's brain was working at supralight speed again. That's one of the things he loved about Carter - you could actually see her thinking. “What about Sara... the divorce..?”

This truly mystified Jack. “What about Sara?”

“Didn't she... well, didn't you..?” Carter blanched, then stuttered her query. “Shouldn't she have gotten half?” she finally blustered. “Jack?”

“Oh.” This was going to get slightly sticky. One thing he had never talked about - besides his finances - was his divorce. “Um... I started this... it was after...” Finally, Jack gave up. “I split Charlie's college fund with her, and that's what I invested at first, okay?” Geez! Did they have to dig up all his dirt? “Then came all that hazard pay... for seven years.” They must get hazard pay, too. Honestly, what did they do with it all?

Daniel remarked, “I thought you were still paying off your truck.”

“I am,” Jack remarked back.

Carter's eyes bugged out even further. “You... you're still paying... even the interest?”

“Sure,” Jack told them, his tone again saying that he still considered this all to be no big deal. He didn't understand why they thought it was so monumental. “It helps improve my credit rating.”

Daniel rolled his eyes, disgust clear on his face. “I can't believe you, Jack!”

This strange comment boggled Jack again. “What did I do this time?”

Daniel huffed. “Here you are, practically an expert on finances... or at least, as expert as the SGC gets... and we haven't heard a word about this in seven years!”

Daniel's criticism was a bit too personal for Jack. “We don't all spend every last penny we get on museum pieces to add to our collection, oh Dr I-can't-save-my-money-for-anything Jackson!”

“Alright, Jack - what was it for, then?” Daniel's voice now rang with challenge. “Why do you think that way if you never bothered to help me save that money you thought was so important?”

Jack glared at him. “I didn't bother advising because you wouldn't have listened!”

“Well... true!” Daniel conceded. “That still doesn't explain why you kept this to yourself! You could have helped!”

Jack glared with brows raised now. “You didn't ask!”

Teal'c interjected before Jack's and Daniel's disagreement could snowball out of control faster than a locomotive steaming towards an unfinished bridge over a large gulch. “O'Neill, DanielJackson, what you both say is true. Now is the time for change, not to find more troubled waters.”

For once, none of the Earthers could figure out what the alien was referring to. But his advice was sound. “He's right.” Jack was the first to speak.

“Yeah, you're right, Teal'c.” Daniel's glare at Jack only intensified. “That doesn't mean that I'm not pissed as hell at you, Jack!”

Jack still wasn't sure what he'd done that so infuriated Daniel, but let it slide in the cause of good future relations. This wasn't something to stay out of sorts over. “Okay,” Jack grudgingly acknowledged. He paused and played with what was left of his pizza slice. “Does this mean your askin' for advice?”

Daniel rolled his eyes again. “I'm askin' if you're tellin.'”

Jack looked at him like he fully didn't believe him. “You going to listen to me this time?”

That surprised Daniel so much that he gaped. “This time? You mean there have been other times?”

Jack shrugged. “Couple of years ago - I tried - you didn't listen then, so I figure why would you listen now?”

Daniel groaned. “With the mess my finances are in right now, I'll listen,” he said with another groan. “Or I'll be the first intergalactic explorer who's broke. Broker than broke.”

Jack considered his friend. “You're in that bad a shape?”

Carter glanced at Daniel, at Jack, then piped up, “I have a program...”

Jack threw his arm around Carter's shoulders in what he'd meant as a purely platonic gesture, but platonic thoughts were not what immediately barraged his mind. He endeavored to ignore where his thoughts instantly led him to instead joke, “She's the programmer of this financial outfit - I'm just the adviser.”

“Advise - please!” Daniel begged.

Jack sent one swift glance Carter's way. She glanced back. “I'm game if you are,” he said without properly considering just what he was promising.

Carter's eyes met his. He noticed that she too was aware of the instant sparkage in their respective gazes, but also endeavored to ignore it - for the time being. “I'm in. We can't let SG-1 become known as SG-none.”

“'The Fancy Financials,' that's us,” Jack stated back, again without thinking. “And Daniel can be our first client.”

“Oh boy,” Carter mumbled under her breath. “His mess could be a deal breaker - this partnership may be finished before it even gets started.”

Jack couldn't help but grin at what she was inferring. 'Partnership' she'd said. He was all for being any 'partner' of Sam Carter's!

In spite of his warnings to himself not to get too excited - this was a business deal they were entering into, after all - Jack could feel his blood thumping through his veins. Still, he reminded himself that there was absolutely nothing to get excited about. Nothing dirty going' on here at all. Nothing intimate, either.

Yeah, right.

One look at Carter beside him, and he knew just how much trouble he had volunteered for.

Chapter 4

'The Fancy Financials' hit the SGC like a fast blow to the head, thanks to Daniel. Daniel couldn't keep a secret unless his life depended on it. (Fortunately, his life really did depend on his keeping the SGC a secret, or Jack was sure the Stargate would be common knowledge by now.) Their first client was Daniel, and Jack and Carter had barely finished cleaning up his financial mess when suddenly Colonel Reynolds was speaking to Carter on her way home from work one day about his own financial matters. He had heard through the grapevine that she and General O'Neill were doing some kind of advising outside of work - helping with finances, or something like that - and could they look over his portfolio?

Then came Dave Dixon knocking on Jack's door with the embarrassed announcement that his wife was nagging at him to see if they could invest the kid's college funds for a better return, and did either Colonel Carter or General O'Neill have any ideas for him?

Next came Teal'c, who had the hair-brained scheme to use his salary not for his personal benefit, but to buy much-needed supplies for the Free Jaffa. Jack felt kind of funny supplying aid to a bunch of Jaffa, but Carter kept reminding him that these people were bent on filling the holes in their new government, not filling him with holes from their staff weapons. Still, it gave Jack pause to find himself actually working for the Jaffa. Life was full of surprises, he reminded himself.

Then things really went haywire. They had barely got a handle on the Jaffa accounts before Sergeant Harriman was after them to give him the benefits of their financial acumen, then after him came a whole slew of new clients: Siler, Lieutenant Rush from the Infirmary, Collins from the Commissary staff, Worciewski in Motor Pool, Baltic from the Armory staff, three SFs, two of the doctors whom Jack didn't even know, and Daniel again, who had already messed up his financial matters so badly that all he could do was scratch his head in wonder, and let the Jack and Sam do their magic.

At that point, Carter's new CO, General Evans, stepped in to put a stop to this 'squandering of work time' or to put Carter on report for a regulations infraction, whichever came first.

Which made Carter hit the roof. Jack was just glad that it was his roof that she hit instead of the one in her CO's office.

“It's not like I'm doing anything wrong!” Carter expostulated, wildly waving her arms after she had hit the roofline with her fist in his telescope hideaway. Now that the deck was full of redecorating tools and supplies, Jack spent even more time than he ever had before up on his roof, where Carter often joined him.

At this time, Jack was worried that she would lose her balance, and fall all the way to the ground before he could pull her back to safety. As she was currently standing close to the roof's edge near his telescope, this was a bigger possibility than he liked. He let her continue to rant, but edged closer to her when her back was turned. “It's not like we're doing any of this advising during work hours! We're not even accepting any money for this!” she continued. “It's all so unfair to you!” Her arguments went on, her voice full of a wailing sound that was new to him, as it came from Carter.

Despite the fact that her emotional outburst surprised him, Jack still kept one eye firmly fixed on her while his fingers just as firmly protected his telescope from those waving hands of hers. Besides these small efforts on his part, he let her handle her frustrations just as she wanted to. So far, her frustrations had taken the form of nothing but words, and that one thump of her fist to his roof, but he had worked with her long enough to know that when she got this angry, excited, or both, he needed to lock up any fragile equipment.

Yet so far, she had maintained her balance on Jack's roof and stayed away from his telescope. And though Jack had great respect for her natural sense of balance, who knew how long that state would last?

“I don't mind not getting p...” Jack began to say when she again cut him off.

“You're doing nothing less than financial advising, and for free! The entire SGC is beginning to benefit from you, even though the Air Force saw fit to...”

His state in the Air Force was one thing that Jack didn't want to talk about right now. “These people are much more to me than just colleagues,” he said, cementing the idea in her mind. “How can I just..?”

“How can you be expected not to?” Carter asked, her voice full of rancor. “It's not like you should just hand over your... And Thor!” She slapped a hand over her eyes in mortification. “The way General Evans treated him!” She whipped the hand aside to stare straight into Jack's eyes. “He asked for you, you know.”

Jack shook his head, completely befuddled. Thor? Thor had visited the SGC? When? He hadn't been informed.

But then, of course he hadn't. He wasn't part of the SGC any longer. How could he have forgotten, even for a moment? He'd had enough reminders of his military status lately... or lack of status, as the case may be.

But Carter was already going on. “I tried to smooth things over for General Evans - he was seeing his first real alien after all... besides Teal'c... but the General wasn't very appreciative! Then Thor..! Then Daniel..!” She groaned, and actually hit her head with her open hands. Jack quickly grabbed at her hands before she had the chance to damage herself. “And General Evans insulted him!” She said it like she thought Evans had committed a particularly visceral crime. “You wouldn't believe it! The entire Asgard community!”

“Thor knows an idiot when he sees one,” Jack assured, then thought to add, “I hope.” He continued to hold Carter's hands while he surreptitiously pulled her back from the nearing roof edge. “Thor can take care of himself.” Then he gave a shrug. “And if he gets mad enough, he'll just blast the whole SGC to smithereens.” Carter did not look comforted by this prediction. But Jack went on before she could start her dire reports again. “Look, Carter, this 'Fancy Financials' stuff was never meant to get you into trouble. If it's causing you some grief, maybe you'd be better off if we let it go for awhile. You know, like lay low - this whole thing will blow over before you can say 'Anubis.'”

But that just set her off again. “And Anubis! Wait till you hear what he..!”

“Carter!” Jack barked into the late afternoon air. The sharp sound surprised her into swallowing her words. His voice took on a serious quality. “I can't help you with Anubis!” This was so much harder than he'd thought it would be. His breathing was fast, loud pants echoing in their ears. “You know that I would do anything to be there right now to watch your back, but I'm not there! And nothing you or I do is ever gonna change that!” Darn it all.

Carter's blue-eyed gaze washed over Jack, and it seemed like she crumpled right there on his roof. “God, Jack, I'm so sorry - I never thought..! I mean, this must be awful..!”

He cut her off, not liking the guilty look that was taking over her face. “It's not that bad, Carter,” he assured, lying through his teeth. “But that doesn't mean I want to have it all thrown around again. Daniel's bad enough, talkin' about Replicators and System Lords every other time he visits.” He hadn't meant to make her feel so bad, yet the look of complete remorse in her eyes illustrated better than words how she was bothered by this subject. And he would do anything to banish that blanket of sorrow from her eyes. “Just...” And he loosened his grip on her hands so that he could gently shake them, shaking his own in the process. “Just...” But he didn't know what he could say to make her feel better in this instance. Finally, he settled on, “Don't worry about me. I'm fine. Worry about yourself instead.” His expression had softened with his increased anxiety. “This isn't worth you getting into trouble over.”

The look on her face now reminded him exactly of how she had looked on Apophis's ship. And he'd sworn to himself that he would never revisit that memory if he could help it. Therefor, he reminded himself of the time spent on that snakehead's ship at least once a week.

But now, for perhaps the first time in history, he didn't try to slough off the reminder. Now he simply gazed at her in warm understanding. “I know how important the regulations are to you.”

Carter silently gazed at him, seeming to assess through his expression alone what exactly he was saying. At last, she made her own remark. “Maybe they should become less important to me,” she noted.

Jack couldn't believe he'd heard her say that! If only she'd said the same thing several years ago! But now he focused on her, not the regulations. “If you disregarded the rules, you wouldn't be the Carter we know, the one we all rely on to save our asses on a daily basis.”

Carter snorted a chuckle at this statement, but at least she was smiling.

“Believe it or not if you want to,” Jack argued. “But you're more important than any side thing we get into. Play it cool with this new CO - it's not a good time to sacrifice your career in the name of 'regulation infraction.'” His comment brought them uncomfortably close to his own infraction.

Carter huffed a breath, then dared to quietly inform, “That's basically what you did, though.”

Jack immediately argued, “I'm replaceable - you're not.”

It was a statement that set Carter off again, though at a far lower volume. “I'm not nearly so important as you think I...”

“Carter.” Jack heaved a sigh into the cooling air of late afternoon. “You're the 'Gate expert. You make guys like Evans look good. You made me look good every minute of every day. I'm glad that I was able to save you.” He didn't add 'you three' on purpose, even as his heart hammered in his throat.

Carter, however, looked incensed. It was almost as if she was afraid of what she might do if she took his last comment at face value. So instead of doing or saying anything that responded to his assertion, she doggedly said, “You never needed me to...”

“Remember - you're a National Treasure,” Jack interrupted to reminded her. “You mean more to me than... than... than...” This was fast reaching scary personal realms, but Jack was determined to find the courage to enter them.

Carter shot him a wary glance. “It's still strange to see you so open like this, so...” Her voice trailed away as she continued to look.

That look of hers made Jack uncomfortable again, but his determination only grew. “Yeah, well, why hide it? I haven't got much left to lose now, do I?”

Carter's voice was a whisper on the air. “You have us, Jack. We'll always be there for you.”

Us? Not her? That was a disappointing direction for this conversation to go, but he would take whatever part of her that he could get. “And I'm always gonna watch your six,” Jack told her as he pierced her with his gaze. “But you know that. So... let me watch it,” he entreated, thinking too late how what he'd said had sounded. But he refused to add an apology to his comment.

Carter simply gave a nod, as if she wasn't aware of the double meaning in his words, though he knew that she must be aware - Carter was more than smart enough to pick up on that. But she didn't say anything, so Jack went on, “Now, if you're calmer, you should probably go home for supper... unless you want to eat supper here and keep an old timer company.”

Carter gave a half grin. “I'd rather stay...”

Jack had a sudden bad feeling about this. “But?”

She went on explaining, “But I promised to meet Simmons at 1800 for coffee at the Java Hut.”

Simmons? As in Graham Simmons? Was he still in the area? And did he still have a crush on Carter enough to want to have a date with her? Jack knew that the young man wasn't at the SGC any longer. And why was this the first that he had heard about this... this uh.... date? Clearly Daniel needed to do less complaining about his finances and more gossiping about things Jack actually cared about, like Carter... or who liked Carter.

Jack's disappointment at her news was practically palpable, though he did his best to strangle any reaction he might have from that emotion. She caught his slight reactions anyway - she always had been quicker on the uptake than anyone he'd known. And he'd never been able to hide much of anything from Carter if she wanted to figure him out. Suddenly, Jack felt like he was one of her puzzles on her lab doohickeys. He hated being this exposed.

But before he could completely shutter his emotions, she was asking him, “Is something wrong, Jack? Did you hear something, or..?”

Her voice trailed away as he considered what to tell her. Finally, he just opted for the truth - she would hear about it all sooner or later, anyway... might as well get it over with. “I... uh... got the paperwork... about my... discharge... today,” he brokenly informed her. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, as if this revelation was of the 'no big deal' variety instead of being firmly in the 'Oh my God, it's real!' category. “It was something of a...”

Jack was going to say 'shock,' though why it should be a shock to him, he didn't know. He'd been expecting this to happen ever since his court-martial, and had even told Daniel that it didn't bother him... and it didn't... except that it did...

His whole career - gone, just like that. He tried hard not to let the cold prickles that wanted to erupt all over his body take hold. “That's why I don't quite feel up to going out just now.” He tried to make his voice come out light and uncaring again. He didn't want Carter to feel bad about any of this, or...

But of course Carter instantly felt bad. “I'm so sorry! I'll stay and...” She bit her bottom lip in a thoughtful way. “If only I hadn't promised Graham...” She seemed to come to a fast decision then, for her face swooped into lines of steely determination. He recognized that expression - it was the same one she got when she was about to kick some major Goa'uld butt. “I'll call Graham and tell him that something's come up and...”

Oh God, was she feeling sorry for him, or... “No, no, Carter, I'm fine!” Jack quickly assured her, not wanting her to break her plans because of him. “You go and... drink coffee,” he said, then added, “I mean, drink good tasting coffee.” He smiled what he hoped was a winning smile. “I mean, coffee that isn't made in the Commissary, or by Daniel. So it has to be good. Right?” That made him think about Daniel again, and how the man obviously wasn't fulfilling his gossip mandate if something as revolutionary as a dating Carter was happening in the SGC. Daniel hadn't said a thing.

Of course, what Daniel could really say was that every man on base liked Carter in one way or another. Half the people/aliens in the entire Universe were in love with Carter. Jack himself was just one of those people who loved her. It was no wonder she had a date.

Carter grinned a sick sort of grin. “If you're sure you're okay with this...” She sounded hesitant.

Jack forced as much firmness into his voice as possible. “What would I do if I didn't get the lowdown from you on your newly acquired life?” he joked. “It's not like I haven't spent years trying to force you out of that lab of yours.” Jack really didn't want to discuss the recent developments in her 'life outside the SGC.' He unfortunately knew where that life could head - knew intimately.

Obviously, Carter knew, too. But she didn't say anything. She just sent him another smile, this one undoubtedly apologetic. “I'll drink a latte for you,” she quietly promised, giving in to his unspoken commentary that he was okay with all of this.

Jack tried hard to act like her new information didn't affect him in the least, but as it really was unexpected news, and it had come today of all days, he wasn't certain how well he succeeded. “You do that - have fun,” he managed to get out.

Carter wanly smiled at him, seeming to forget about her earlier rants now that she had a new diversion for her thoughts. “I'll do that, Jack. And if you care to hear about it, I'll tell you how everything goes tonight... I'll even bring back a coffee for you!”

So she would have to stop by later on that night? To give him his coffee... and her life update? That didn't sound so bad. Or at least, coffee didn't sound so bad. He would listen to her life update only because she would be telling it. He would listen to anything so long as it came from her. “I definitely care!” was what popped out of Jack's mouth before he could stop it. He hurried to add something - anything - more to cover his previous confession, not quite feeling up to continuing this discussion right now. “You still planning on running tomorrow morning, like you said?”

“Yeah,” Carter answered as she swung onto the ladder that led to the ground. “At 0730.”

Jack was able to give her a mock look of horror, pretending that he didn't have a care in the world... and he didn't, as long as he had her to look at. “So late?! Carter - what are you doing - trying to prove to all us lugs that this is your beauty sleep secret?”

Carter paused on the ladder long enough to laugh at him. “Sleeping in for half an hour longer on Sundays hardly adds to my overall beauty, Jack!”

She continued on her way down, but paused again on the ladder just long enough to give him the impression that she'd finally understood his words. He had just called her 'beautiful' in a roundabout way, after all. Had it been before the court-martial, he would have backpedaled, as he had so many times in the past, and tried to explain away the vocal gaffe he had just made. But this time was different. He stubbornly remained silent, and she gave a sigh of what sounded suspiciously like satisfaction before continuing her descent.

Chapter 5

At 0729 the next morning, Jack reached for his cell phone that he kept in his pocket while on a run, and swiftly dialed Carter's number.

“Carter.”

Jack grinned. “Glad I caught you before you left.”

“I'm ready to step out the door right this minute - is there something I can do for you?... dressed in my running clothes the way that I am?” she joked.

Jack fervently wanted to tell her that he would gladly help her out of those running clothes, but he ignored his inner cravings to instead say, “I was running myself this morning, on one of the trails, and found something that I think you'll like - I'm wondering if you mind if I swing by your place to pick you up, then we can run on the trail, and I can show you... what I have to show you,” he lamely ended.

However, in spite of his lameness, Carter's smile came loud and clear through her voice. “I'll like it, huh? Is it some kind of doohickey?”

Jack laughed at the sound of her enthusiasm. “No, Miss Workaholic, it's not a doohickey. But it will be worth your time.”

“A secret worth my time that even gives me exercise - how can I turn that down?” Carter gushed, still smiling by the sound of it. “You're on.”

“Just give me a few minutes to drive over,” Jack said as he climbed into his truck and started the engine. “My sweaty self is on my way, galloping to your rescue.”

Carter laughed aloud a second time. “I'll be waiting...”

Jack hung up, then swung the truck out of the trail head parking lot, aiming for Carter's.

* * *

Five minutes later, Jack pulled up next to the curb in front of Carter's house, and concentrated on acting nonchalant before climbing out of his truck. He had seen Shanahan's vehicle parked a bit further down the street, and viciously wondered What the hell is he doing here? And so early in the morning, too? He didn't even want to consider the idea that the roses that the cop had wanted to send to Carter a few weeks ago had actually worked in persuading her to give him another chance.

Then he remembered how Carter had been planning to meet Graham Simmons for coffee the evening before. She would hardly be meeting other men for dates... or even coffee... if she were involved with Pete-the-cop so far as to having him spend the night, which would explain his early morning presence. Jack would never have thought that he'd be even the slightest bit grateful for the puppy-type crush on Carter of guys like Graham Simmons! The irony of that idea swamped Jack in enough amusement to make him grin as he emerged from his truck.

Carter was standing at her open door, dressed for a run, but had a coffee from one of the local coffee shops in hand. She had clearly been speaking to an eager Pete Shanahan when Jack had pulled up. He didn't care who she had been talking to, though, only that she was so obviously ready to go running, and with him.

“Ready for your surprise, Carter?” he casually called to her across her yard as he approached the two standing at her door.

“Um...” Carter stared at the coffee still in her hand, and for one wild moment, Jack thought that she was going to change her mind about going with him, staying to talk to the dreaded cop instead. Just as he was thinking that she would ask if he minded running back home instead of with her, surprise or no, and he was gearing himself up to reply that yes, oddly enough, he did mind - she surprised him first.

“Actually, Pete, I already have plans to go running with Jack this morning - he has something to show me. How 'bout I put this coffee in the fridge, then microwave it later? Or would you like it back? Maybe there's someone else you think would like it right now.”

Pete seemed slightly bamboozled by the way that events were going this morning, as they obviously were not going to his specifications, but he quickly recovered and assured, “No, that's okay, Sam, you keep the coffee. I brought it for you, after all, but didn't think to call ahead...” He evilly eyed Jack behind him where Sam couldn't see his gesture. “Guess I should have.” To Jack, he called, “What are you doing here so early?” Pete ground out the yell through his tightly clenched teeth, barely being polite after nodding hello.

Jack couldn't resist explaining, “I'm showing something to Carter - like she said. I just called - I must have got through to her two or three minutes before you showed up.”

“Lucky you,” Pete flatly commented as Carter went back into her house to refrigerate her coffee treat.

She appeared again at the still open door, keys and cell phone in hand. She locked the door behind her as she spoke, “It's so warm here - will I need a sweatshirt on our run?”

“You're fine the way you are,” Jack jocularly replied, eyeing her t-shirt and running shorts, while thinking Oh, you are definitely fine! He reached out a hand to pull her down the front steps. “Later,” he called to Pete as they crossed to his truck.

Jack watched the younger man stuff his hands in his pockets, then wander slowly back to his own SUV. He would say the other man had a dejected slope to his shoulders, but he wasn't sure that he cared. In fact, he was sure that he didn't. Carter had opted to go with him this morning - and that fact thrilled him to his toes! He shot a sunny grin at Carter in his passenger seat. “You prepared for a feast to the eyes?” he asked as he pulled the truck out into the traffic.

“Feast for the eyes, huh?” She sarcastically eyed him. “I admit that you've got my curiosity up, Jack.”

“Good,” he said, and grinned at her. “That's just where I like it.”

* * *

“Here we are,” Jack said forty-five minutes later when he jogged with her out of the trees surrounding the trail from the parking lot that he and Carter had set out from. The meadow he had earlier discovered gently slanted down from the trail and led into another copse of trees before even the trees thinned down until they reached a stream that ran across the natural bottom of the tiny valley. His eyes followed the meadow to the trees, and the trees to the stream that he could barely see through the waving branches. But he was far more interested in the meadow, which was a waving field of blooming Daisies. Daisies happened to be Carter's favorite flower. There happened to be an entire field of them that he'd discovered on his morning run. He happened to catch Carter right before her own run so that he could show his to discovery to her in particular. In essence, Jack had 'given' Carter an entire field of Daisies.

From the moment they saw it from the trail, Carter had slowly stopped, coming to a standstill already surrounded by nodding Daisy heads. Her mouth was wide open in a silent 'oh' of wonder. She had the same expression on her face that Jack had seen a thousand times over the years whenever she got a new doohickey to play with in her lab.

The minute Jack saw her features slide into that expression of incredulous joy, he knew that he had done the right thing by dragging her here to show her this meadow. He had dithered about calling her this morning, not wanting to be a nuisance or to bother her (plus not wanting to appear too eager) and had almost missed her as a result. Now that he knew she took her cell phone with her on her morning jogs, he realized that he could just call her cell, but he'd been reluctant, as he knew she mostly reserved her cell phone for SGC emergencies. At any rate, he was very glad that he had reached her before she took off for her run, and also that he'd showed her this field. (He was already very glad that he'd done that!)

Slowly it occurred to him that giving her an entire field of Daisies was so much better than simply handing her the roses that he knew Shanahan had given to her, roses being far from her favorite flower. Roses were so cliché, he'd heard Carter say often enough while on missions off world. Daisies were so much more unique!

* * *

In the end, Carter opted to leave the meadow exactly as they had found it, unspoiled and untouched. She didn't take out the pocketknife that he knew she carried with her, even while jogging, and take home a bunch of illegally cutoff Daisies. “This way, my bouquet will always be fresh in my mind - these flowers will never die.” Which made Jack wonder if she'd had to deal with wilted and/or dead flowers recently, but he didn't ask.

She sniffed a Daisy one last time, fingered the ones nearest her, then turned to lead Jack out of the meadow and back towards town. Jack followed, and found himself amiably chattering as she picked up the pace again to another jog. Trees had already swallowed up the meadow behind them by the time he got out his question. “So, Carter, you never told me how it went last night with that Graham Simmons - how'd it go?”

To Jack's surprise, Carter laughed in a voice of wicked glee. He hadn't expected this particular reaction from her concerning what was basically a date.

When she had calmed, she explained. “I'm sorry, Jack, but I can't help it! I know that I should feel more guilty for what I did... but I admit I don't!”

That statement alarmed Jack. “What did you do?” he warily asked her, recalling the many times that Carter had got up her wicked streak - he knew that she had quite an imagination.

Carter chuckled. “I actually bored him to death, and I did it on purpose,” she reported with a twinkle of satisfaction in her voice.

On purpose? Jack knew she had an imagination, but he'd never heard of her turning it on when men she didn't want to talk to insisted on speaking with her anyway. “How did you do that?” he asked next, his wariness rising another notch.

Carter grinned. “I talked about every scrap of my recent work, and used as many big words as I could think of with as much technobabble as possible in order to describe them.” Again came her laugh of glee. “Poor Graham's eyes were so glazed over with boredom that his little crush has to have ended long before we left the coffee shop. I highly doubt that I'll ever hear from him again - which is good - he needs to get on with his life and stop putting me on some damned pedestal.”

Jack couldn't help but give an appreciative laugh of his own when he heard this. Graham Simmons - down for the count in one date. “I know just how dirty that pedestal of yours is, anyway,” he dryly commented. At the same time, he thought with satisfaction that he had lived through seven and a half years of Carter's technobabble, and he wasn't 'down for the count.'

Yep - one Daisy-filled meadow, and one less boy in the Carter-dating realm - life was good!

The Sam Part of the Story

Chapter 6

Sam jogged down the trail next to Jack, just brushing his arm with her shoulder every few steps. The contact gave her a jolt every time she touched him. She wondered if it was flipping his stomach the same way it was hers?

She still couldn't quite believe it - he had given her an entire meadow of flowers! And not just any flower, but her favorite flower! That Daisy carpeted meadow made the roses that Pete kept leaving on her doorstep look like cheap knockoff flowers grown in a hot house - which was probably what they were. She couldn't help thinking of stupid Valentine clichés every time he left them for her.

The part of herself that appreciated the irony of things noticed that he never gave her the opportunity to return the flowers to their giver - he always left them when she was out running errands, or gone to the cleaners, or was behind her house for just a few minutes and missed the ringing of her doorbell. It was like he knew her schedule, which was... eerie! The way he insisted on denying her the opportunity to refuse his flowery gifts had been aggravating at first - it was fast approaching maddening now.

This morning when he'd brought coffee to her door was the first time she'd even seen him in weeks. And wouldn't it figure that the minute he showed up after a long absence was the same time that Jack would be there. She most definitely didn't want Jack to think she was hooking up with Pete again. Pete was a nice enough guy... but compared to Jack... If Pete had designs on keeping her from going anywhere with Jack, 'he had another think coming,' as her mom used to say.

But the way he continually popped up so unexpectedly was quickly becoming irritating. It was almost as if he'd been following Jack - or had his cell phone bugged - or had her phone bugged. But Jack hadn't mentioned anything about being followed lately, and she liked to think that Jack would say something to her if he ever noticed something as monumental as being followed. She had no doubt that Pete would tail him if he thought it would serve some purpose, but Jack hadn't said anything. All of SG-1 - former and present - had far too many enemies not to mention something as monumental as being followed.

“So,” Jack said, distracting her. He jogged ahead of her at a narrowing of the trail, then moved back to her side the second it opened wide again. “What's up with the cop guy bringing you coffee this morning? You've never said that this has happened before.”

Was that a hint of... jealousy... in his voice? Sam instantly shivered to hear it, but endeavored out of habit to cover her emotions as quickly as they came. She didn't think Jack had noticed. “That's because it never has happened before.” She spoke while still feeling the vibrations of his slight jealousy ring through the air. She wanted to tell Jack that he had nothing to be jealous about concerning Pete - she and Pete were finished, and she knew it, and he should, too, but he seemed to be slow on the uptake about it... probably on purpose.

Jack was going on. “You said before that spewing out your techno talk doesn't work so well with him - why is that?”

Sam waffled in answering him - should she tell him? Should she unburden her mind? Should she be bothering him with this, a discussion of another man? Sam looked at him, hesitation written all over her face. “Do you really want to know, or are you being polite?”

“Oh, polite, definitely polite,” Jack joked, and Sam smiled at his flippant honesty. “Of course, I also want to know what's going on in that million watt brain of yours, too, but don't let that influence you away from my politeness.”

Now Sam smiled even more - he was such a kid sometimes! An open, honest kid now, and that was so hard to get used to. It was as if he was even more of a kid the more honest he was. The whole thing left her feeling a bit unnerved. She didn't always know what to expect from him anymore. She liked that, and at the same time, felt as if her anchor in life had deserted her. “I'll tell you... politely,” she joshed as they jogged on down the trail passed trees and rocks embedded in the dirt. “I can't figure him out,” she admitted as they jogged. “There seems to be nothing that he's bored with... nothing that I can see, at least.”

“You said something about him not trusting you?” Jack said the last as if he couldn't fathom anyone not trusting her.

Sam recalled the harshness of Pete's voice as he confronted her that day of the breakup. “He called you 'an old fart.'”

Jack busted out laughing. “I am an old fart compared to him,” he at last conceded. “But you're avoiding answering the question by changing the subject - I know, as I do it myself all the time.”

Sam knew that she shouldn't encourage this type of subversive behavior in him... but he was so cute admitting he had used the same tactic that she had successfully used many times over the years! “I am avoiding answering,” she happily confessed when he called her on her behavior. “I learned from the best.”

“Oh, touché, Colonel, touché,” he said to cover the unfriendly growl that quietly issued from him.

For a second, Sam got the impression that he was angry with her, but when she looked at him more closely, she saw that the very ends of his lips were turned up in a smile. Her next thought was that he'd sounded slightly put out on purpose just to give her a reason to look so closely at his mouth. Sam knew she should be angry herself at such a manipulation, but found that she couldn't be angry at Jack O'Neill for anything. The man had given her a field of Daisies, after all!

Sam went on talking after they had jogged a few more steps. “It's almost like Pete just won't give up, no matter how awful I am to him.”

Jack turned his head to regard her. “You weren't being awful when I saw you two this morning,” he pointed out, half accusing.

The snort that exploded out of Sam's mouth was full of cynicism. “That's because we had a witness - I'm not sure I want you to know about my dark side just yet.”

“Carter,” Jack remonstrated. “I know all about you, the good, the bad, and the rocky spots in between - you haven't got a 'dark side.'”

“Tell that to Mark,” she muttered.

“Your brother? Why?”

Sam grimaced. “He can tell you all about the time I reworked his bicycle to go backwards every time he pedaled forwards. He slammed right through the garage door and into the back of the car - broke his arm and gave him a concussion that lasted two days.”

Again Jack busted out laughing, a huge belly roll that started in his guts and resounded in the air. Sam reveled in the sound of such a laugh, especially one coming from the man who used to be the sour General O'Neill.

“You don't sound like a man who's been dishonorably discharged from the military,” she casually remarked. “You sound pretty satisfied with life, actually.”

Jack gave another growl low in his throat, then remained silent as he continued to jog beside her, glowering. At last he sighed a huge burst of disgruntled air, and said, “Look, Carter, about that discharge thing...” Then he was silent again, the sound of their footsteps on the trail their only companions as their run continued.

Finally Sam said something, just to fill the suddenly awkward quiet. “I don't think any less of you for it.” A scowl heightened her features for a moment. “Just because the brass had their heads up their butts for a collective moment...”

Jack burst out laughing for a third time. “That's quite an image!” he exclaimed. “As I recall, it was only one head up one very judicial butt that was the problem.”

“Why did you choose it to be that way, Jack?” Sam asked, slowing. “You might have gotten off with a jury instead of one judge to hear your case.”

Jack slowed with her, but looked as if he wanted nothing more right at the moment than to keep running in an attempt to outrun this issue.

But he must have decided that he would have to face it sometime, and now was as good as any other. They were alone here on the trail, with no pesky security cameras to record their every move, no irritating Daniel clones to hear their every word, no recorders to tape them for posterity... This was as good as it got, as far as confessions went. Jack still belligerently propped his hands on his hips, and stared off into the distance so that he couldn't meet her eyes, she supposed.

After a few more minutes of staring, he heaved a sigh, then turned towards her, his face marred by the most serious expression she'd seen him wear since he'd been in charge of the SGC. “That court-martial thing... I was guilty... you know that... and I wouldn't change that for anything, especially right now.”

Right now? What was so special about right now? Besides the obvious that he was free to jog with her now on a trail in the middle of nowhere? Sam's face crinkled with the confusion she was feeling. “Jack, I never did understand why you thought all that was such a big...”

“Because you're here, Sam,” he softly said. The use of her first name encouraged her to shut up and listen to him - he was going to say something important, and she didn't want to miss a thing.

She wasn't disappointed. “I'm certainly thrilled that I saved all of SG-1, but... you in particular.” His confession was so soft that she almost had to lean in close to him to hear it. The natural sounds of bird calls and wildlife in the woods was almost too loud - they practically swallowed the sound of his words.

In the meantime, Jack looked even more impossibly uncomfortable. She expected him to run ahead at any moment. His muscles were tensed to run, too, but all he did was look into the distance again, and sigh, as if he were involved in an internal battle right at the moment. But even after standing silent like this for an interminable amount of time, he wasn't running. Which shocked the hell out of her.

At last Jack solemnly regarded her. Then he looked away. Then back at her. Then at his shoes. With his head to the ground, he quietly continued, “You just promise... to keep coming back... I'm not there anymore to watch your six... Teal'c said he'd keep all two of his eyes on you and Daniel... and I trust Teal'c's word...”

Even though she thought about reminding him that she could look after herself, she realized that he already knew that, and reminding him of it would be a useless gesture. Besides, she was fairly sure that he wasn't talking about her 'look after herself' abilities, anyway. He was simply referring to her physically coming back alive every time she stepped through the 'Gate. Again, she was surprised by how open his admission was, but she also understood the worry behind his words. “You know we'll be careful,” she assured. “You taught us everything we know.”

That comment made Jack look up into her eyes. “I know I did,” he agreed with her. “And I know how good you all are. It's not that.” His reluctance transferred to his hands, which started to fidget with the tail of his t-shirt.

Sam's hand automatically shot out to still his fingers. “Then what?”

Jack sighed again, looked away, then returned his fierce glare on her. “This Evans character...”

“I can handle him,” Sam argued. “He's nothing worse than what I've seen a thousand times before.”

“Yeah,” Jack instantly agreed. “But all those other guys weren't supposed to be watching your six, either. There's so much to guard against at the SGC.”

“And we all know exactly what to look out for,” Sam replied, her voice soft now to match his. “Every soul in the SGC - we're all looking out for each other.”

Jack sighed one last time. “I feel like I've left you with this slug... that I should be there... that it's all my fault...”

“You fatalist,” Sam remarked, still in a quiet voice. “How is it your fault that we got saddled with a General who doesn't know an Asgard from a System Lord?”

“The fact that he doesn't seem to care about that, either, is what's really bugging me,” Jack added. “If I'd just waited a little while longer to...”

Sam had had enough. “To what?” she said harshly, though her voice was still subdued. “You lost your entire career!” She glared at him, willing him to be silent a bit longer. “You say you were guilty... and maybe you were. Maybe I don't think saving our lives was worth all that you've given up.”

He reacted instantly. “Your lives are sooooo worth it!” Jack grabbed her arm after his assertion. “Don't you get it, Sam? If I hadn't done what I did, and you had died, true, I would still have my career... but with you three gone, I wouldn't want that career anymore.” His breathing had quickened, and his pulse pounded an erratic cadence in his neck. “What happened to me was the fairest outcome that I could have wished for. It's just that I'm worried now that this Evans guy will ruin in months what took us years to accomplish, and the worst thing is, he's playing loose with your lives... and I can't stop him!” His sense of powerlessness blazed out of him. “And those lives are so important to me! I can't even think...” He gazed at her, his heart uncharacteristically in his eyes, his inner agony displayed on his twisted features for her to see. “It's a lot harder than I ever thought it would be!”

Sam was too stunned after such a confession to respond right away. She was numb again, but for a different reason this time. “Do you trust me, Jack?” she at last was able to make her mouth ask for her.

At least Jack's answer was fast. “You know I do, but...”

“Jack,” she said, stopping him in mid sentence. “You trust me. You trust us all - you say you do.”

Jack growled, clearly frustrated. “You, I trust. Those at the SGC, I trust. This yahoo guy...”

Sam would give anything to wipe that doubt from his eyes. “You know that we won't let anything awful happen. I promise.”

“Sure,” Jack protested. “When you're here...” He trailed away before he could voice 'on-world.'

Sam was quick to assure, “When we're on missions, there's other people to watch out for...”

“Promise me something,” he said in all seriousness. “There's times when you are the only one who can handle certain crises - if you're... someplace else... always appoint someone to go after you and bring you back if it's at all possible!”

Sam wasn't as convinced of her importance to the SGC as Jack was, but he was so deadly earnest that she could only give a dumb nod.

“I mean it, Sam!” he insisted. “I won't feel completely better if you're... here... but at least I'll be more sure that Evans can't trash the... country... if I know that you're on base, watching our backs like I can't anymore.”

Sam felt she had to argue, “I'm not any more capable of doing what you ask than...”

But Jack was already making shushing noises at her. “Ah! Just... just... do as I ask, Sam.”

An order, like his many orders to her before now. Except, this wasn't like all those other times at all. It was the unfamiliar use of her first name that told her how important this was to him. How could she deny what he was asking? “Okay, I promise,” she said. “Just don't do anything rash!”

Jack grinned now that he had her vow. “Rash? Me?”

“Yes, you - I know you - you'll do something... something that you shouldn't,” she lamely ended, more aware than most that she was still speaking to a General, even an ex General, and she couldn't quite relinquish all her training to actually speak her mind, even now.

The grin was almost creeping her out, it was so cocky. “You have my word as an excellent heater of frozen ice,” he joked, poking fun at one of their shared jokes from their time spent in Antarctica early on in the program. “Nothing rash.”

Sam lost many of her misgivings when he mentioned heating frozen ice. She grinned, but said, “If I recall, your frozen ice was only lukewarm.”

Jack shrugged. “Can I help it if the sterno would only do so much? The ice was melted - what more could you ask at the time?”

Sam sighed, reluctant to completely let go of their earlier serious topic of conversation, but willing to let him bring in some levity if it would only banish the helpless cast to his eyes. “What about the time you forgot dinner and melted all our MREs?”

Jack shrugged again. “I'm good at melting things, what can I say?”

He seemed glad for the lightheartedness that he'd introduced into their discussion, and she continued it for his sake. “That's one thing at least that you didn't teach me.”

He looked dubiously at her. “How to melt things?”

“How to cook,” she corrected. “I'm already pretty good at melting things.”

He waved his hand, as if to wave off this new idea like it was nothing more than an annoying bug. “Anybody can cook - you just make it too hard,” he told her.

Sam eyed him askance. “Are you saying that even I can learn to cook?” she joked. “I'm the brain of the SGC, not of the kitchen!”

“Cooking's nothing!” he again insisted. “I can teach you to cook in a weekend.”

She shrewdly stared at him. “Do I detect a bit of challenge in your voice?”

“I can do it,” he insisted. “Just as long as you don't blow up my kitchen.”

Sam couldn't help but chuckle at the image of her in his smoking kitchen, everything singed around the edges. “Promise,” she said.

At light speed, he turned back to the earlier topic. “And remember, Sam...”

“Yep.” She did. The sparkle of agony was back in his eyes, if only briefly.

Jack momentarily hesitated. “I... I already lost... Charlie...”

He'd never mentioned Charlie to her before! Not once! This was definitely a red letter day in the life of Jack O'Neill. “What happened to Charlie will never happen to SG-1 - we're too well prepared,” she assured in order to cut him off - she certainly didn't want him to link what happened to Charlie as a possible future for SG-1.

Jack stared into her eyes, obviously looking for cracks in her beliefs. She redoubled her efforts in firming up those beliefs, so that she could assure him, too. He must have been satisfied with what he saw, for he finally said, “I trust you to see that you stay as invincible as SG-1 always has been... Sam.”

He'd called her 'Sam!' Again! But this time it wasn't because of a professional reason... exactly. The way he'd said that, at the end... It seemed personal to her - very personal! The thrill was back - to stay this time in the form of shakes and shivers in her stomach, and flutters of her heart. Blood pulsed through her temples for a moment, and throbbed in her ears. She could do nothing but stare at him just as he stared at her. But this stare was ten times more meaningful than it ever had been before. And it was for such a simple reason.

He'd called her 'Sam!'

Chapter 7

“I've heard him call you Sam before,” Daniel protested the next day when Sam talked to him in his office, familiarly surrounded by half dusty ancient tomes piled on his desk and workspace. “Why did it surprise you so much this time?”

Sam played with one of the artifacts that were also strewn across Daniel's desk as she considered what to tell him, now that she was finally talking about Jack, and what he meant to her... meaning what she felt for him now.

These feelings of hers were new, and not new. They were direct products of the court-martial, yet she had been marginally aware of their existence for years. (Sometimes she had been not-so-marginally aware of them, too, she admitted to herself with a grudging self-satisfied smile.) Perhaps now that the regulations had disappeared the minute Jack was discharged from the Air Force, she simply felt free enough to express them?

Sam didn't know. All she knew for sure was that she was having the time of her life for the first time in her life. And she wouldn't change a thing about that for... anything!

While allowing her mind to roam freely over these revolutionary ideas, Daniel waited for her to reply. He gave her his 'look' expressing both patience peppered with his usual 'it-has-to-be-right-now!' enthusiasm. Thus prompted, Sam hesitantly said, “Maybe...”

Daniel's brows shot up as his enthusiasm only grew with her comment. “Maybe..?” he prompted again.

Sam fished in her mind for something to tell him. Why was she really so thrilled that Jack had used her first name on the trail back from the meadow? Daniel was right in that he had used her first name before now... though that use typically heralded a time of extreme danger to life and limb, and often sent chills down her spine rather than shivers through her heart.

But now... a moment of near death just wasn't causing this reaction in her. She felt as calm about Jack as she had ever felt about him. After all, Jack was discharged now. His chance of getting into a near death situation was nominal. And though they had been discussing a serious topic at the time... it just wasn't the same. Sam wasn't sure how she would describe the difference, but she knew this time was... different!

Daniel finally grew tired of waiting, and answered his own question. “You know what I think?” he rhetorically inquired. “I think...” He paused to stare at her in a piercing assessment. “You say that the two of you shopped for cooking utensils after he 'gave' you the flowers?”

She nodded, wondering where he was going with information she had already told him. “Jack promised to teach me how to cook.”

Daniel choked a laugh. “You - cook?” he incredulously reminded her. When she shot him a look of disgust, but nodded, he went on. “Either Jack has forgotten what you're really like, or he's the bravest man in the Universe.”

Sam's disgust ratcheted up another notch, but she obligingly explained, “He said that my main problem was having cooking utensils that I had inherited from my mom, who though well-meaning, wasn't exactly a modern cook. He's sure that I can do better now that I have the right tools for the job.” Though she still had her doubts, to be honest, but she trusted Jack...

Daniel gave another snort. “A kitchen facelift is all you needed?” He sounded like he believed that she needed a lot more than that.

Sam nodded again, though her confidence in this project was a bit riddled with holes by now. “Jack told me to look on this as another time where I can tinker all I want, but that I had to have the best tools... though I'm beginning to think that the tools may not matter much in the long run.”

Daniel gave a look that said he really wanted to agree with her, but realized that he had again gotten off topic. He endeavored to move the conversation back on track. “Regardless, you and Jack in effect spent the entire day together?”

“Sure.” Sam nodded. She could at least attest to that. “We had fun... which is odd, considering what we were doing.” It was no secret that Sam couldn't cook, hence Daniel's questions. It wasn't that she hated spending time in the kitchen. It's just that everything she tried to make ended up coming out burnt, or underdone. She had never understood what she was doing wrong.

And Jack had called her 'Sam' the entire day. He'd said that something like buying kitchen implements wasn't something that he ever hoped to see Colonel Carter doing, but he was more than willing to help Sam purchase an entire new room to her house if it only kept that smile gracing her face.

So the day's events really hadn't been about cooking after all... at least, not exactly....

The entire thing still made Sam grin, even now.

As Sam grinned, Daniel continued. “Besides the cooking, he also lets you complain to him on his roof?”

“When we're not building his deck,” Sam felt the need to correct him. “The deck's really coming along now that the two of us are working on it. We should be able to have a team barbecue to christen the addition by the end of the month.”

Daniel wasn't as impressed with this tidbit of information as she thought he would be. Instead of commenting on the coming SG-1 party, he remained strangely on topic as he also ascertained, “And he's promised to teach you how to cook... and he gave you flowers?”

Sam smiled happily. “Yeah - Daisies - my favorite.”

Daniel sent a piercing glare her way. “Don't you see what's going on here?” he asked in a suddenly exasperated tone.

Sam was puzzled as to what he was talking about. “Uh... what?”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “You're completely clueless about people, aren't you?”

Sam didn't know what her team mate was getting at, but she didn't like his hints, either. “What am I supposed to see, Oh Wise One?” she joked.

Daniel's eyes rolled again for good measure. “Jack doing all this stuff... making sure that you spend time with him... calling you 'Sam'... giving you a whole field of flowers...”

This recap of recent events did nothing but ruffle the blonde Colonel. “What is it you're saying, Daniel?” she ground out, as irritated now as he was.

Daniel stared straight into Sam's blue eyes and slowly said, enunciating every word, just in case she still didn't get it. “He's courting you.”

Courting? What? “That's ridiculous, Daniel!” Sam instantly negated in an explosively loud voice.

“Is it?” Daniel asked in a challenging way. “If this was anybody else but yourself, you'd see that what I say is true. But you've always had trouble seeing about yourself what's obvious to everyone else.”

The more he spoke such unpleasant truths about her, the more irritated she became. “Daniel, that's nuts. A relationship between us of any kind that isn't professional is against the rules.”

Daniel instantly blurted, “No it's not.”

Oh... that's right... This thought stunned Sam anew, and she looked it.

“A relationship,” Daniel further explained. “Between you and Jack,” he specified. “It's not against regs anymore,” he said out loud, lest she argue against his 'new' idea... again.

Then Daniel's eyes narrowed. “But you already know that, don't you?” He growled his frustration. “Honestly, Sam, you're a dream with a naquedah generator in your hands, but give you the guy of your dreams...”

Now completely put out, Sam jumped to her feet. “You're seeing things, Daniel!” she exclaimed.

Daniel simply gave a benign smile. “No I'm not.”

“You are!”

“Not.”

“Are!”

“Not... you just don't want to admit it.”

Sam growled. “There's nothing to admit, Daniel! You're just being obtuse!”

Daniel gave a satisfied grin. “If I'm so obtuse, then why don't you ask him yourself, and prove me wrong?”

Before Sam could really think what she was agreeing to, she had already agreed. “Fine! I'll do that!”

The grin on Daniel's face kept getting more annoying. “Good. Tell him 'hi' for me.”

Sam just growled a second time low in her throat as she vaguely wondered how Daniel would look with mud in his eye? Actually, come to think of it, she already knew how he looked with mud in his eye.

Maybe she could smear that mud around the rest of his face? There was no way that Jack was courting her!

Right?

A small tickle nudged the back of Sam's mind as she tried to see all this from Daniel's point of view. The tickle became an itch in seconds. Maybe... Daniel had something? Maybe Jack... was? Courting her?

Trying not to react to this scarily nifty idea until she had more time to think about it, Sam quickly turned away from Daniel and headed back to her own lab. Yet according to the thumping of her heart, that idea wasn't so scary... or so unwanted. But she would never admit it!

* * *

The next weekend was the first 'Cooking With Jack' date. Sam let Jack into her house on Friday evening, and he didn't leave until 1000 Sunday morning, after they had cooked several simple meals, then jogged around the neighborhood many times, laughing about her cooking skills - or lack thereof.

He said that her cooking was so bad that he had better sleep in Cassie's room on Friday and Saturday nights in order to keep an eye on her house, just to make sure she didn't burn it down.

Come Monday morning, Daniel smirked at her over their morning coffee in the Commissary.

“Courting,” Daniel sang to her in a soft voice, looking satisfied that he was right.

“Where's Teal'c this morning?” Sam asked, studiously ignoring him.

“He's off-world delivering his supplies to the Free Jaffa, which you well know.” Daniel's smirk widened - Jack would be proud. “Now what's this about cooking?” he needled with a smile.

Before Sam had a chance to respond, Daniel burst into chuckles as he laughed into his coffee. “You should have called his cooking lessons 'Courting 101 by Jack O'Neill.'”

“Shut up, Daniel,” Sam simply said, annoyed, but hopeful that he was right, making her smile into her own coffee. But she would die before letting Daniel see it!

* * *

Two missions, and one SGC trauma later, Sam reported to Daniel that her cooking lessons had progressed to Jack's better stocked kitchen since she had proven herself two weeks ago by not burning her house down.

Daniel gaped at her over the tablet he was currently translating. “You mean he trusts you enough to let you use his oven? In his house?” He was momentarily stunned. “He won't even let me warm up pizza in his oven!” His protest sounded loud in the unprecedented quiet of an SGC at noon.

Sam gave an irritated huff. “Jack says that my cooking is already improving.”

Daniel gave a snort. “It would have to improve before I'd let you into my own kitchen.” He shook his head in amazement, and went back to translating his tablet. “Jack must like you a lot.”

Sam had to resist a sudden, childish urge to stick her tongue out at her team mate, lest he get too smug at the possibility that he might be right.

* * *

Sam burst into Daniel's office several days later. “Daniel! General Evans has been promoted, and transferred, and he's leaving! I just heard the news from Sergeant Siler. Can you believe it?!”

Daniel glanced up from the study he was conducting on his computer. “Who's replacing him?” he wondered. “Surely it isn't Jack.”

“God, I hope not - the regs would..!” was the beginning of the statement that burst out of Sam's mouth before she could think to stop herself.

Daniel instantly grinned at what she'd said, despite her halting attempt. “I bet you'd hate that,” he slyly commented.

Sam's eyes narrowed as she peered at him. “What's that supposed to mean?” she inquired.

Daniel just smirked his annoying smirk again. Sam could swear that he'd taken personal smirking lessons from one Jack O'Neill. “How's the cooking going?” Daniel inanely asked, grinning all the while.

“I graduated to making macaroni and cheese myself instead of in the microwave,” Sam readily replied. “Jack helped me.”

Daniel's grin widened. “Ah, the cooking sounds like it's progressing.” He grinned his most devilish grin. “And so is the courtship.”

“Daniel!” Sam exclaimed in exasperation.

Daniel laughed.

* * *

A short week later, General MJ Linderhofer greeted all the SG teams gathered in the 'Gate Room. Her short blonde hair swung across her shoulders at the enthusiastic welcome the SGC personnel gave her (Enthusiastic, but quiet, as everyone simply stood at attention). “I hope this bodes well for our continued success here at Stargate Command,” she said to them all in a loud, ringing voice. “It may take some time for me to get up to speed at this 'alien domination' thing - if you see me about to screw up the Galaxy, stop me,” she added on a show of slight amusement, and the gathered personnel laughed - silently. She went on, “I hope your previous Commander can give me a few pointers before he leaves for his next posting.”

Colonel Reynolds diplomatically cleared his throat. “If it's pointers you're looking for, Sir,” She stared at him, a blank look in her eyes, and he hurried to change his comment to, “Ma'am?” The blank look deepened. “General?” he guessed at last, and the smile she then sent his way encouraged him to continue. “I'd skip listening to anything General Evans tells you, if I were you, and call up General O'Neill to ask for his expertise. General,” he rushed to add.

“Jack O'Neill?” Linderhofer questioned, a serious expression on her face. She looked like she was trying hard to recall who that was, and why she'd previously heard of him. It turned out she didn't have to recall anything, just decide how much to tell them. “He's a friend of mine, from... someplace that's highly classified.” The look on her face gave the impression of dire consequences to anyone with enough temerity to repeat her recent words. “Didn't he retire or something?” she asked, then her eyes brightened as she finally remembered. “That's right - he was on TV!”

“Yes Sir - General,” Reynolds corrected. “The court-martial.”

Linderhofer gave a nod. “Ah - What's he up to these days?”

“Cooking,” burst out of Daniel's mouth before Sam could stop him.

“Indeed,” Teal'c firmly intoned beside him. Sam grimaced again, but no one could miss the gleam of anticipation in her eyes.

* * *

Jack bounced through Sam's lab's door with a spring in his step that no one had seen in the SGC since his promotion. “Howdy, Campers! Miss me?” Jack exclaimed the second he breached the opening.

Well, clearly, General Linderhofer had taken Colonel Reynolds advice about Jack. How Jack had managed to keep this visit a secret from Sam was beyond her. She herself told him just about everything these days.

Daniel rose from where he had been going through several file folders at Sam's desk, his coffee cup gripped in his fist. “Sam missed you,” he said as he passed his former team leader on his way out the door.

Puzzled, Jack watched him go with a furrowed brow. “Okaaaay,” he said to Sam. “I come in to give a hand to an old friend, and Daniel chooses this moment to completely flip out - what's up with him?”

Sam gave an artful shrug, simply glad that Jack was back where she thought he belonged, in spite of the civilian clothing and visitor's badge he wore. “Daniel's just jealous,” she announced, stunning Jack with her words.

“Jealous?” Jack burst out. “Of me? Why?”

Sam sighed, straightening up from the doohickey she had been studying to nonchalantly say, “He thinks you're courting me. Ridiculous, huh?”

Jack turned to stab Sam with his intense stare. Fear clouded his brown eyes, but he gently replied, “No.”

Sam's face went momentarily slack in surprise. “Oh.” Daniel was right - and had been all along. Well, uh... Vaguely Sam figured that there was a first time for everything.

Jack grew quickly timid, a look that was unusual for him. “Is... that okay?” he softly inquired.

Was it okay that he court her? As in, be her... boyfriend?

Despite how silly that word sounded (Sam felt she was too old for a 'boyfriend'), Sam fully faced him, and her smile blossomed across her face in spite of her thoughts. “I was hoping you would say that.” It was the most honest she'd ever been with Jack O'Neill.

Jack's responding smile was in a similar magnitude to hers. “Good,” he simply stated.

She could now attest that honesty was definitely the best policy!

* * *

Two hours later, Sam was staring at Daniel over the tray of food he had collected for his supper. “Hmmm,” he hummed. “Tastes like chicken. Too bad it's chicken.”

Teal'c sent his almost-grin Daniel's way. “Perhaps ColonelCarter cooked it - you are right to be suspicious, DanielJackson.”

Sam growled in the Jaffa's direction. “Jack says that my cooking isn't that bad.”

“Of course he did, Sam,” Daniel quietly remarked around the bite of chicken in his mouth. “You're you.”

Sam gave an angry huff, but before she answered, Teal'c again jumped into the conversation to inquire, “When is your next scheduled cooking lesson, ColonelCarter?”

Sam grinned, happy at any mention of Jack, even a peripheral one. “This weekend. He says that if I do well this Saturday, I might get to cook for you guys on our next mission.”

Daniel glanced in alarm at Teal'c. “Couldn't you accidentally shoot me, Teal'c, so that we have to scrub the next mission? With a Zat, maybe?”

Irritated, Sam shook her head at Daniel. “Ha ha, Daniel. Too bad - you're going on that mission if I have to drag you out of your Infirmary bed myself!”

“Darn,” Daniel deadpanned back in perfect timing. “And I was so looking forward to more MREs.” He experimentally poked at his chicken with his fork. “I don't trust this not to explode,” he explained to his team mates.

Teal'c chimed in, “Yes, we must remember that ColonelCarter might have cooked this meal.”

Daniel snorted while Sam looked truly affronted. “I'll have you know that I cook better than this - Jack says!”

Daniel snorted again. “What does he know? He's courting you - he'd say anything in praise of you.”

“Even to the point of complimenting your cooking abilities,” Teal'c mischievously seconded.

Sam tried hard to glare, but was too pleased at the prospect of being courted by Jack to successfully pull off the gesture.

* * *

They walked down the 'Gate ramp after their mission to PRX-767 to be greeted by General Linderhofer, a visiting Jack O'Neill at her side.

“Welcome back, SG-1,” Linderhofer said to them.

Jack rolled onto his heels, his hands casually fisted in his pockets. It was a familiar posture for him to take when an SG team arrived back in the SGC, and the members of SG-1 felt like it was almost old home week when they saw him do that.

Sam especially felt that way when he immediately regaled them with a question asked in the tone that was indicative of that special O'Neill brand of sarcasm that she was so familiar with. “Did ya bring me a t-shirt?” he jocularly asked.

Daniel cheerfully piped up, “No, but you can have my vest if you'd like.”

They all heard Daniel, but Jack had eyes only for Sam, who had eyes only for him. She couldn't help but stare at him, a smile slowly creeping across her face. It went from 'creep' to 'blow wide open' when he said, “Smart-ass,” with a good amount of affection now coloring his tone.

Daniel's resigned sigh reverberated around the 'Gate Room, as if he were watching his current and former team leaders watch each other, and all that watching was making him queasy. “You taught me well, Jack,” was all he said, though a second sigh gave the impression that he wanted to say more.

Teal'c quietly followed Daniel the rest of the way down the ramp. “DanielJackson and myself are well, General.” He joined Daniel in peering at his two friends openly staring at each other, grinning. “As is ColonelCarter.”

“Yes, she is,” Jack's grin blazed through the 'Gate Room.

And as SG-1 slipped passed the two Generals to shower and get their post mission physicals in the Infirmary, Daniel leaned in to Sam's ear. “Told ya - he's courting you.”

Sam gave a sigh of satisfaction, but grumbled to Daniel, “I hate it when you're right.”

TBC in Part III


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