Disclaimer: Don't own them. Don't know if this would even really happen. But gave them back like I always promise when I finished the story. That counts for something, right?


by Linda Bindner

General Jack O'Neill stared at the report in his hands and squinted at it, trying to force it to make sense. But it wasn't working. He couldn't tell if the Tralens were good guys or bad guys, who the Calomic people were, what they wanted to do with... he looked again... with their Alteric Staffs, and who they wanted to give them to. Heck, for all he could figure out, they wanted to give someone staff infection and commit genocide. Completely frustrated, he reached for the phone before he had a chance to think better of the idea, and had called Carter's lab in an instant.

*Carter,* came the vague reply.

Jack got the distinct impression just from the sound of her voice that her mind was on something as far away from the report of SG-1's latest mission as it could possibly get. He stopped her anyway with a, Hey, Carter, you got a minute?

The absent minded reply came to him in her tiny, distracted tones. *Not really, Sir, I...*

Jack interrupted, I was looking over your report for... He looked again. ...PRX-999, and I have some questions... For instance, I can't figure out if...

She interrupted him back. *I'm sorry, Sir, but I'm really in a rush... I have an appointment for a dress thing, and I'm late already.*

How 'bout if I meet you there, instead, and we can go over this dumb... uh, your report? Jack asked suddenly. The request showed that he still wasn't thinking very well about any of his actions, and he vaguely realized that he would have to quit doing that, but he was too busy listening to her answer to pay attention to his own mental warning.

*All right,* Carter reluctantly agreed. *I'll be in the Higgins mall, in a store called 'Tracey's.' I'll see you there, and I promise I'll be more with it then... But I've been putting this dress thing off for two weeks, and I really need to get it done, so...*

Say no more, Jack said in an understanding voice. He stood. We can go over the report there, and then I can type up my own report and mail it in, and then I will finally be done with this.

*I wouldn't want to keep you from your reports,* she managed to joke.

I'll see you in half an hour, Jack said, smiling as he said it. How was it possible, he wondered, that he could be tired enough to want to fall into bed and sleep for a week, and she could still make him smile in spite of his fatigue?

*I'll be there,* Carter promised, then the line went dead.

Jack sighed, then gathered together the report lying on his desk, stored the pieces of paper in a manila file folder, then headed for the door, still without taking the time to think about what he was doing. He was just too tired to think...

* * *

Twenty-five minutes later, Jack stood in front of a mall map of stores, scanning the plastic design for a place called 'Tracey's.' He finally found the listing, found the location of the store in a wing marked in pink, and he started off, clutching the file folder in his fingers. He had been stopped by no less than five extremely aggravated personnel in the SGC with problems that seemed almost insurmountable, but he had managed to solve the troubles, or delegate the people with the troubles, and get out of the base in record time, using his meeting with Carter as an excuse to leave. As it was, it had still taken him longer than it should have to reach the road and its mall just outside the city limits of Colorado Springs. Now, he hurried to meet Carter by the time limit she had set. They both probably had so many things that needed to still be done that evening that they each would be up till the wee hours of the morning in order to accomplish them all.

Jack was taking glances down at the words of the report bouncing before his eyes when he spotted 'Tracey's' and wove his way through all the mall customers and over to the store. He would really have to stop trying to read and walk at the same time, he told himself, but as with all good intentions, he also ignored his own advice with the ease of long practice and habit.

So, he was making a third attempt at reading the unfamiliar words swimming in front of his eyes when he entered the store. Still trying to interpret the strange names of the alien races, but noticing Sam's form out of the corner of his eyes, he said, Hey, Carter, I don't suppose that you could tell me... Then he made the mistake of looking up.

There stood Sam Carter, all right, but it was where she was standing, and, in particular, what she was wearing, that had stopped him in his tracks. She stood on a slightly raised pedestal, before a semicircle of three mirrors, wearing a white wedding dress that was reflected, and reflected again, in the glass surrounding her. Another woman paused at her side, pins in her mouth as she critically examined her latest efforts at adjusting the fabric in her hands. Now, how does that feel? she was saying when Jack had brusquely walked in and interrupted the fitting session.

Without his permission, and still without thought, Jack's brown eyes met Carter's blue ones, boring into hers in what was a suddenly single-minded, intense perusal of emotion that hadn't been planned, and certainly wasn't on purpose. The surprised look on his face was quickly taken over by something much softer, and he felt supremely vulnerable and exposed as, unbidden, the words, God, she's beautiful, came full force to his mind.

The words 'wedding... Sam... getting married... Pete what'shisname... wrong man...' scrambled together in his mind. The words tumbled in a kaleidoscope of sensations. He tried to stem his feelings, but knew right away that it was a losing battle. Pure affection strobed out of his eyes right at her. But, he shouldn't be thinking these things, he reminded himself, shouldn't be looking at her this way, he told his mind. His heart thudded in his ears; he needed to go, now!

Uh.., he stuttered. I'm... I'm going to wait outside, I think... These... He drew a deep breath, and made a huge effort to gather his faculties. But, he couldn't, not when they were so scattered. Unable to pretend anything, he just turned and headed out into the mall hallway and the bench that he had seen on his way into the store, and that he knew was waiting to catch him when he fell into it.

Crap! Jack set aside the file folder he was carrying and let his head fall into his hands. Geez! Could he be more obvious than he'd been? Carter was getting married, and to a guy who was not him... He just had to accept that someday and simply be happy that she was able to move on in her life, finally, after all this time, and...

Oh, who the hell was he kidding? He asked himself the question in sudden despair. It had practically killed him to catch her in her wedding dress. He never would have walked into such a situation if he had known or thought about it... But she had just said 'dress,' not 'wedding dress' on the phone, and it had never occurred to him that she would be trying on her...

Jack squeezed his eyes together as hard as his heart clenched around the sudden pain that bloomed in his chest. Seeing her in her wedding dress was such a shocking surprise that he didn't even try to control the ache that stole over him, that simply rolled right through him until he felt the sting of tears in his eyes. This is such a shit life, he thought, and let his head fall foreword to thread his fingers through his gray hair, trying his best to hold onto his grief while he rode out the inevitable feelings.

He was still there, gasping for any breath he could draw, when he saw her sit down beside him on the bench, and weave her fingers together between her knees. She once again wore her normal attire from the SGC, but he would have recognized her anywhere, no matter what she was wearing at the time. However, it was a good hint to him that the person next to him was wearing the greenish-browns of BDUs, and he could just make out the color of her trousers from the corners of his eye. Beyond that, Jack was still incapable of making any movement or intelligent conversation, so she simply sat beside him and waited.

Then, so lightly that he almost missed it, he felt her tiny hand on his back in a show of support and comfort. But he didn't raise his eyes to her or give any acknowledgment that he could feel her overture at all. He simply stared at the floor, clutching his head, as still as if he were a statue.

Jack, she whispered, and bent down until she could see into his face. He was so off balance that he didn't even notice that she had just used his first name instead of using his more habitual title. I'm so sorry.

Jack tried to tell her that it was no big deal, that he hardly noticed what she had been doing, that she didn't owe him an explanation, but the sound of his attempt at brushing her activity aside came out more like a grunt of pain that he just couldn't control.

So she just sat beside him then, not saying anything, but rubbing her hand up and down his back in a pattern of... something that was meant to console the inconsolable emotions still heaving and choking him. To his eternal embarrassment, more tears stung his eyes and fell onto his cheeks.

Several minutes went by, when Carter again felt the need to speak. Jack, I don't want to get married. Then, she laughed a low, guttural laugh. That's what this 'dress thing' has taught me, at least, she announced flatly as if she said the same thing every day of her life.

Her words crept through his anguish and registered in his tired brain. He lifted his head a fraction so that he could see her through his fingers. Don't, was all he could force out between his lips. Don't think that... But that was all he could say.

I'm serious, she whispered. There's no use lying to myself anymore. I was never very good at it, anyway. You can just ask my dad about it... He wasn't around very often, but he at least knows that much.

Again, her words struck a chord of recognition in Jack's frozen mind. He lethargically raised his head another fraction of an inch, and tried to take a breath so that he could speak. But even the air caught in his throat, and he had to try again. Sam, you don't have to take pity on...

But once more, she stopped him. Is that what you think this is? Pity? It's not. Her voice had grown hard at the end of her speech. She paused while she turned her head to look forward and gaze out at the happenings in the mall. I can't lie to myself anymore, is all, and I'm sick and tired of trying.

But he had to make another attempt, to stop her from saying something that she would later regret. Sam, please, don't try to... But his voice trailed off to silence.

Sam snorted a laugh. 'Don't' what? She took a breath, and then sighed. Don't say any more? she guessed in a sad tone. Don't say something that I can't? Then she went on, Don't tell the truth?

That statement caught his attention, and he lifted his hands from his face to stare at her. The truth? he asked in a shaky voice barely controlling his emotions. The truth is that...

The truth is that we each have feelings for the other that the rules of our organization never counted on, she noted. The truth is that for nine years we've been hiding, lying, avoiding, doing anything that we had to in order to pretend that our own emotions don't exist. Sam looked straight at him, then, and her naked expression of utter affection blazed out of her own wet eyes. God, Jack, I can't hurt you like that any more. Then she wiped at her eyes with a determined swipe. And I won't. Not for a dumb policy written by someone else who has no idea what he's done to us.

Sam, Jack protested, feeling more coherent with each word she spoke. You can't, or...

For a third time, she broke him off. Or what? I'll lose my job? You'll lose yours? She sighed again. I've always only had half a life anyway, whether I loved my job or not, she confided. It hasn't been the same without you on the team, and it's only a matter of time before you either retire or are reassigned... Again came the sad sigh. I couldn't stand that, and I know it. It's time I listened to myself before you're gone and it's too late.

Silence wrapped around them, then, as Jack sat and thought on all that she had said, about her courage in the saying of that confession, about his own need to expound on those same feelings, about his knowledge that he would do big things in order to halt those same declarations. Habit was very difficult to break.

But he had to do something, though, didn't he? So he reached down, and very tentatively, took her tiny hand in both of his. He had to clear his throat before he could speak. I never intended this to happen, you know.

Briefly, she smiled. I know.

I... He glanced up at her eyes, and just that much contact with her emotions made his own swell inside his heart once again. Sam, he choked. I... You... He inhaled a thready breath, and exploded, I am so in love with you, Sam. I know I'm not supposed to be...

Sam smiled a genuine smile at that comment, then squeezed his hand. She whispered, Jack, I... She had to swallow first. I wasn't quite honest when I said that I didn't want to get married... She went on, squeezing his hand again as she did, Oh, Jack, I... She tried again, Jack... Then her own head fell into her hands. I want to marry you, she blurted.

Her words spoken in a twist of distress just barely registered through his own misery. Sam, he said, a note of wonder in his voice, but she cut him off once again.

Her own tones were muffled by her fingers over her face. I know, I know! That's so stupid, but I can't help it, I've been thinking about for months, and..!

Sam! Jack's cry stopped her desperate words, and she looked up at him through the web of her fingers. He bent closer to her, his hand unconsciously on her own back this time. He peered at her, and, for a moment, seemed as if he were going to say something, but held his silence in the end and just stared at her. When he couldn't bear the silence mixed with the explosion of emotion in her eyes a second longer, he wrapped her up in a tight embrace and pulled her close to his chest. I won't let anything happen to you, he whispered. Though the words didn't necessarily make any sense, he went on anyway, I swear it.

Sam was crying in earnest now as her arms stole around his neck. She clung to him as if he was nothing but a dream, and, thus, threatened to disappear at any instant. God, Jack, please... Her grip tightened on him. Just hold me. Don't let go... don't ever let go.

Never, he promised, and closed his eyes, and cherished every inch of her in his arms. I'll never let go, he whispered into her ear, as the people in the mall continued to stream around them, completely oblivious of the revelations that was going on among them, ignoring that which even the two involved couldn't control forever. Never, Jack whispered again, so soft that the sound drifted away in the noise surrounding them, but there was no mistake in the contraction in his arms, or the strength of his firm, unending, embrace. Never.

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