After the interrogations, or briefings as the General called them, Carter was finally able to go see about the Colonel. He'd been in surgery most of the day anyway she learned from one of the General's aides. It was late that night when she arrived at the ICU.

Despite her own familiarity with the SGC infirmary, it was still a shock to see the room full of machinery with blinking lights and soft pulsating noises. It made him look so small. She sighed at the site of the ventilator. It wasn't surprising he'd have to be on one after all the trauma to his chest.

He was uncovered above the waist and the right side of his chest was plastered with bandages and tape, some to secure the chest tube and the rest no doubt covering a large surgical incision.

One of the nurses came in and fiddled with the IV tubing. She noticed Carter was sitting there quiet as a mouse. "You know, you can talk to him, he's already been awake several times."

Carter was surprised. "I thought he'd be kept sedated, on the ventilator and all."

"Oh, hon. Sorry, I thought you knew, we're not keeping him under, just relaxed enough to not fight the tube; and we're giving him some pain meds although he insists he doesn't need anything. The machine is only set to monitor. He's been breathing on his own since he got here, already griped about wanting the endotracheal tube out, but the Doctor says not until morning." She grinned and held up a clipboard. Scrawled on it in the Colonel's handwriting were the words 'tube out now' with the word 'now' underlined several times. "Was he ever in a bad car accident or something? He acts like all this is old hat to him."

Carter smiled and replied, "Yeah. Something like that."

The nurse completed her chores and left, pulling a curtain partway across the large glass opening giving them a little privacy. Carter got up and walked to the bedside.

"Colonel? Are you awake?" There was no response at first but she thought she saw a small twitch at the corner of his mouth.

She leaned in closer to look. "You *are* awake aren't you?"

His eyelids flicked once then opened with a bit of effort. She noted he really was used to the ICU routine. He didn't struggle against the tube or try to talk, just relaxed and breathed. His only movement was to extend one hand in her direction.

She clasped it tightly in both of hers and told him, "Jack, I'm so glad you're okay."

His eyebrows rose and he turned his head toward her to see her face. No way was he sedated enough to let that slide. He couldn't remember Carter *ever* calling him by his first name. Not without some alien influence anyway. Now he *did* want to talk. He pointed to the clipboard and motioned with his fingers for her to give it to him.

The first thing he wrote was totally expected. 'My team? The children?'

"Everyone is Okay, except you. We are all here and safe. The women and children are at the refugee center."

He nodded, though a shadow crossed his eyes at the mention of the refugee center. He understood it was a necessity though. Next he asked about the rescue. 'You rescue how?'

She cleared her throat and gave him a much-abbreviated version of her meeting with Hastings and the events that rapidly followed.

He thought about her answer for a few minutes then wrote, 'not authorized?'

She bit her lower lip. "Uh, no."

He looked into her eyes and then wrote a longer note this time, 'you always seem to be saving my butt. Sorry to put you in that position. Now and all the other times.'

She read it and shook her head, "No don't even think of it like that. We're a team, and if there's one thing I've learned from you it's that no one gets left behind. You'd do it for me in a heartbeat."

'Thanks SAM.' He wrote her name larger than the rest of the words. He wanted to see if she'd react.

When she read it she blushed. Yep, he'd noticed all right. She decided to push the envelope. "You're welcome, Jack."

Twice in one day! That had to be a record. It was enough to elicit a coughing fit and when it was over he looked exhausted. Carter squeezed his hand, "You really should get some sleep."

He nodded just slightly and let his eyes drift shut. Coming to terms with this *new* Carter would have to wait. She stayed just a little while until she was sure he was asleep then left. Her day had been every bit as tiring as his and her eyes were feeling heavy too.
At 0600 the Physician's Assistant came and removed the ET tube and by the time Carter arrived at 0830 O'Neill was verbally abusing the nurses. Of course they weren't about to let him have his way without a fight.

"Colonel! You can't do that! If you pull that tube out, you will answer to the Doctor yourself!"

"Fine! I will! I just want to sit up a while. I thought you people were always gung-ho about getting patients up and moving. So why not me?"

"Sir, *most* of our patients stay put until they're told they can get up and *most* of them weren't *shot* and then had major surgery less than twelve hours ago. Do you realize what they had to do to put you back together?"

"Spare me the gruesome details. I've got a pretty good idea."

Carter stood at the door and giggled. O'Neill was halfway between the bed and chair clad only in hospital issue pajama pants with the nurse behind him, pushing the IV pole and dragging a large plastic box; the sealed suction system attached, at least for the moment, to the chest tube. He settled himself in the chair and allowed the nurse to tuck a blanket around his shoulders. She turned to leave and caught Carter's eye, "Stubborn Irishman."

O'Neill heard it and snorted, "Power-monger."

Carter slipped into the room and sat in a chair beside the Colonel. "So, the nurses giving you everything you need?"

"Hmmph. Ice chips, infomercials and-" As he waved his arm the monitor suddenly made a high -pitched squeal then went back to it's quiet beeping. "And no peace and quiet whatsoever."

"I see you managed to get pajama bottoms as well."

Why not? There's nothing wrong with my bottom that any nurse needs to be concerned about and that flapping in the breeze stuff isn't my style."

Carter lost it, she laughed so hard she almost snorted. "Jack, you're a nurse's worst nightmare!"

He looked at her, suddenly deadly serious. "Carter, what are you doing?"

She swallowed her laughter long enough to say "Nothin'."

He had the oddest sensation one of those 'time-loop' thingies had happened again, only this time Carter was the one who knew what was going on. She looked way to smug to be innocent.

This time he spoke in full command mode. "Carter. Something is going on and you are going to tell me what it is. Right now."

Her Air Force persona kicked in and she snapped her head up at his tone. Somehow she managed to keep her mouth shut, but a moment later he leaned forward and raised his eyebrows at her. "Samantha?"

Okay, she was blushing now. She could feel her neck getting hot. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh, I think you do. You haven't called me 'Sir' yet."

"I just got here! And it's not like you're on active duty right now."

"Major, like I can't tell when you're dodging. You didn't yesterday either. So, why are you calling me Jack?"

She frowned. No getting past the direct approach. "Oh. Well. Um." Her knuckles suddenly became interesting. She glanced back up at him and saw he was still waiting for an answer. Crap. "I guess it's the war. I've had to re-evaluate how I think about some things. And. Maybe I need to change how I do some things."

"We've been through worse before. Why now?" His eyes were soft; she could see he wasn't pushing; he just really wanted to know. If he only knew how hard it was to deal with him when he was being so gentle toward her.

"If it bothers you I'll stop-"

He reached across and took her hand. "No. I don't mind. Just not used to it." He decided to give up the inquiry; it was obvious she either didn't want to say or hadn't really thought about it enough to be able to answer. He let go and leaned back in the chair, pulling the blanket a little closer around his shoulders. "So, you said everyone got out Okay? Now that I'm more awake tell me again how you procured those Apaches."

The rest of the morning they spent in quiet conversation. He didn't realize how much he'd missed her. It was great just to sit and talk. Since she hadn't been working on any technological marvels lately her conversation wasn't peppered with five and six-syllable words.

Over the next several days she came to visit often. With the war winding down she was on downtime quite a bit. The doctors wanted to transfer O'Neill to the Air Force Hospital in Germany, but he absolutely refused. He insisted he wasn't hurt that badly and the space should be saved for the POW's they'd be rescuing in the next few days.

As it turned out he was right. Before the week was over several Americans were brought out of Iraq, most of them in fairly bad shape. He remembered what it was like just several weeks before when he was rescued from imprisonment. If it wasn't for Jacob, he might have had to retire on a medical discharge. These folks didn't have a Tok'ra Fairy-Godfather watching out for them and would have to rely solely on human medicine to restore them.

The end of the week brought more good news for O'Neill. The doctors decided he was more than ready to have the chest tube removed and though it was yet another painful experience, he was thrilled to have his last yoke of medical bondage removed. He celebrated by going outside and getting some sun.

It was just after 1300 and he considered going back inside; it was getting a little warm and the bandages covering the right side of his chest were a little itchy. Before he moved to get up he was surprised to hear a child's laughter coming from the building behind him. He turned to see Carter with a wriggling bundle in her arms, followed by two Iraqi women and a young boy.

"Azir! Come here boy! What are you doing here?" Every eye in the vicinity turned to O'Neill as he broke into the Arabic dialect.

The youngster smiled a grin that threatened to touch his ears and ran to him. "Colonel Jack! I did not know we would be seeing you!" He noticed the stark white bandages peeking out from O'Neill's open shirt and touched it with his hand. "You are hurt. Are you going to die?"

Carter noted the worry exhibited by such a young child when he saw the large bandage on her CO, but didn't understand the words. O'Neill scooped him up into his lap and ruffled his hair. "No. No one's dying anymore. We're all safe."

The boy responded by suddenly becoming shy and leaning his head against O'Neill's chest. His hand stayed on the bandage, fingering it thoughtfully. O'Neill hugged him and addressed the other visitors.

"Mama, Ramah, you look well." He said as he reached one hand out to them. The women hurried over to him and touched him, it seemed all over, running their hands up his arms and shoulders and patting his head, as if verifying it was really him. Mama came to stand in front of him and cradled his cheeks in her hands. Carter gasped and could barely hold back a giggle when the old woman bent over to soundly kiss him on the mouth. It didn't faze O'Neill in the least; he was grinning so much it was almost painful.

The women sat in the other chairs at the table and began to converse rapidly in their native tongue, far too fast for O'Neill. He had to get them to slow down but eventually was able to speak back and forth with both of them. After a few minutes he waved to Carter to come closer and join them.

She handed off the child she was still holding to Ramah and said to O'Neill, "It's okay, I can't understand anything you're saying anyway."

"Come on, Carter. Mama insists. I'll translate as we go. Pull up another chair."

When she was seated he touched her arm for a moment, "I don't know how you pulled this off, but thanks, this is great!" He squeezed Azir a little tighter, making him protest but he settled right down when O'Neill handed him the glass of lemonade from the table.

The next hour was spent in a lively conversation as the women related their experiences at the refugee camp and their treatment, which they considered to be well above what was expected. Azir had been introduced to several elements of American culture including pizza, potato chips and fish sticks. Apparently O'Neill's team had taken a personal interest in the welfare of the group they'd brought back and at least one of them visited daily, usually bearing a gift, and more often than not, it was some kind of food.

Finally O'Neill was beginning to look tired, most likely from all the laughing he was doing, and his side was getting really sore. Mama noticed it before the others and told him it was time for them to leave. He protested the visit was too short, but she promised to return when Major Carter could make the arrangements again.

Before she stood to leave she scooted forward in her seat and told Azir to get down. She took O'Neill's hands in hers and spoke softly and very seriously to him. Carter didn't think anything of it until she noticed him glancing in her direction. Mama was talking about her; she just knew it.

He rose to walk out with them but was unable to hide the pain and a passing nurse scolded him and called for an orderly to take him back to his room in a wheelchair. After saying his goodbyes to the women and Azir, O'Neill spoke to Carter. "We'll talk, later. Thanks again for the surprise."
Things began to happen on the war front very quickly over the next several days and Carter was called back to work curtailing the time she could spend with O'Neill and the others. Less than a week later all eyes were glued to every available television set as Coalition forces entered Baghdad and set up a Command Post in the heart of the city. Cheers went up from Americans and liberated Iraqis alike as murals were defaced and a huge statue of Hussein was dragged off its pedestal. There would still be much to be done but the back of the beast had been broken for all to see.

Several prisons were opened to the Coalition soldiers and hundreds of political dissidents were set free in the days that followed. Lists of names began to come in to the refugee camp of men who had been released. The most badly injured were transported to Kuwait for treatment but most would have to wait to be reunited with their loved ones who had already left the country.

O'Neill was allowed to leave the hospital for short excursions provided he let them know exactly where he was going and not stay away for more than a few hours at a time. He was healing well but still showed some signs of infection and they'd put him back on a course of IV antibiotics. He was warned that missing one or two doses could set him back.

So after assuring the nurses he could not live without them and would never consider trying to, he met Major Corbin at the door for a drive out to the refugee camp.

As they drove up there was near pandemonium at the front gate. Apparently a new list was released and the names were being given out by an Army spokesman. It took a while to get through the crowd but finally O'Neill and Corbin made it to the bunker where their friends were assigned. Mama and several others were inside, quietly praying and hoping for a good report from the two women who went to the gathering.

When O'Neill entered Mama called his name and patted the cot beside her. When he sat she hugged him and quickly explained already two of the women had news of their husbands. Both were alive and only had minimal injuries. They were free to go to their homes and as soon as the city was secure and things settled down, the women would be escorted back home by American soldiers. Word had already been sent back to the men as to the whereabouts and safety of their wives and children.

Now Mama was praying to hear of her son. She really didn't expect to hear his name among the others; he'd been more vocal than some and she believed he'd been executed a long time ago. Still an old woman can hope, she told O'Neill.

Ramah and another woman entered the bunker and gave out the names they'd heard. As the list went on, occasionally a woman would stand and shout that she knew of the man, or was related in some way. Three of them were husbands and one was a nephew.

When the list was done and Mama's son was not mentioned O'Neill clasped her hand tightly and said, "There will be more names. Don't stop praying yet." While the celebrations began throughout the camp O'Neill stayed beside the old woman and allowed her to cry on his chest. There was nothing he could do to console her.

When he returned to the hospital he placed a call to Carter. He hadn't seen her in a few days but his intent wasn't to chat; he'd collected the names of several men who had not been heard from and wanted to see if she could do anything to help.

She was intrigued by his request and immediately set Ian to work on the problem. She promised to get back with him before the end of the day with at least an idea of what they would be able to do. Late that evening she showed up at the hospital and slipped into his room.

She found him dozing with the sound of an aria coming from a CD player beside the bed. She never pegged him as an opera fan but somehow it fit the O'Neill persona and made her smile. She recognized a familiar interlude and turned up the volume slightly.

"Love or hate?"

"What?" She spun around to find him awake and looking at her.

"There's no middle ground with opera. You either love it or hate it from the moment you first hear it. So, love or hate?"

"I'm not sure." She stumbled. "I never really listened."

"Okay. Listen now. There's a great part coming up in just a minute." He patted the bed beside him. "Come on, listen with me."

She cautiously approached the bedside and sat just on the very edge. He smiled at her discomfort but ignored it and leaned back with his hands behind his head. "Ah, here it comes." He closed his eyes to listen.

The room was filled with the most beautiful music she'd ever heard. A deep male voice rose and fell within the tones of the music as much a part of it as any instrument in the orchestra. She found herself caught up in the emotion of the melody closed her eyes to more fully experience it.

When it was over and she opened her eyes she had to blink back tears that had formed there. As she wiped under one eye she saw O'Neill staring at her and flushed. "Sorry."

He broke from the stare and smiled, "Don't be. That music has stirred the souls of kings and rulers for over a hundred years. I think a war was fought over it once."

She looked at him in shock. A cultured Colonel? Who knew? She'd have to chalk up another 'O'Neill's a lot smarter than he lets on' item to the things she knew about him.

"I believe you're in love."

The statement made her eyes widen more. "What?"

"Opera. You either love it or hate it. I think you're in love. Unless you've got something in your eye, that is."

She grinned and blushed. "Oh, yeah, it was great. Yeah, I loved it."

His head cocked at her odd reaction but he let it go. "So, any success today?"

Brought back to her reason for coming she got over her embarrassment. "Yes. Actually. We located a few of the men." She handed over a list of names with almost half of them checked off. The first name on the list was Mama's son, with a checkmark beside it.

He grinned, "We have got to get these men back together with their families as soon as possible."

"Usual channels are full up right now with all the changes over the past few weeks, I don't think you should get your hopes up for a quick way to do this."

He leaned back and read over the list several times. "There's got to be a way." After several minutes he set the paper down and asked, "What's Hastings doing lately?"
After two days they had a plan. Carter used her influence and Ian's skills to make contacts within Iraq and set up meeting times and locations, Hastings got approval for a humanitarian flight into Baghdad and O'Neill went to work on the nurses, Physician Assistants and Doctors to release him. He finally convinced them with a minimum of threats after agreeing to diligently take the oral antibiotics as prescribed and have a trained medic check the incision and listen to his lungs at least a couple of times a day.

Carter picked him up at the hospital front entrance in a Jeep and they set off immediately to the Helicopter hangars at Al-Salem. In the back of the Jeep she'd stowed two large gear bags, one for herself and one for O'Neill containing extra clothing, med kits and other items they might want. Hopefully they would not be staying long in Baghdad and not need the supplies but it was best to go in fully geared up.

Hastings was to enlist crewmen for the Helicopter and O'Neill was pleased to find Corbin and Tuck among them. He clasped the men's hands and greeted them warmly.

The flight out was made in midday and all the effects of the war were in full display under the bright sun. The further they went into Baghdad the more destruction was evident. Not only were there still fires burning and many obviously bombed buildings, but there were pockets of people milling about, some lost, perhaps homeless, but at least now free.

O'Neill felt an odd sensation flying over the city in broad daylight and being so exposed. Only a few weeks before and they'd have been shot down in a minute. He couldn't shake the dread and the memories but was determined to complete this self-appointed mission no matter what the personal cost.

When they reached the first contact point they were waved to the ground by a group of regular citizens who pointed to the large Red Cross and American flag on the side of the Helicopter and cheered. O'Neill and the others were greeted like heroes and as the non-Arabic speaking members of the team passed out packets of food, O'Neill and Corbin mingled with the people and asked questions. They soon located two of the men on the list and ushered them aboard.

Within the hour they were aloft again and on their way to the second contact. When they arrived the area was crowded with such a throng of people they thought it would be impossible to locate the one they'd come for. Fortunately their contact was waiting atop a building, waving an American flag. Hastings brought the Helicopter to just a few feet above the rooftop and they hauled him aboard.

The final leg of their journey took them past the ruins of one of Saddam's palaces and to one of the largest prisons in the country. Here they were to pick up three men, one of who was Mama's son, Muhamar.

As they circled the prison so Hastings could locate an acceptable site to set down, the dread returned to O'Neill with force. His stomach turned at the sight of the heavy black bars on the windows and the courtyards with row after row of black boxes. They seemed just barely large enough to contain a man and Carter leaned over and asked him if they were coffins.

He shuddered as an ice-cold chill ran down his spine. That word was almost appropriate. He'd spent part of that lost four months inside one of those boxes, all but forgotten by the guards. For all intention he was buried alive, completely cut off from any human contact and left to rot, he just wasn't underground. The Iraqis used the boxes as a form of torture and sometimes left prisoners in them until they died of hunger or thirst or neglect. O'Neill had been fortunate to not be one of them, his time was cut short when his name was added to a POW exchange list. Whatever angels there were had to work overtime on that one he was sure.

His hard breathing made his side begin to ache and his color paled. Corbin was seated directly across from him and watched his CO closely. Something was affecting the man, and he was all too sure what it was. He knew O'Neill had been imprisoned twice in Iraq, once recently when he'd undergone extreme torture and once a long time ago. He didn't know the details of that instance but it certainly was no more pleasant than the last time

Carter noticed Corbin's scrutiny and scooted a little closer to O'Neill. She didn't push him to answer her question but only set her hand on the bench between them so her hand was touching his thigh. He looked down at her hand and then up to her face without raising his head and nodded just slightly, giving her a silent thank you for the support she offered.

Hastings chose a spot and brought the helicopter down.

They needed for someone to go in and given that O'Neill and Corbin were the only ones fluent enough in Arabic, it would have to be one of them. Corbin insisted he go since O'Neill was injured but was out ranked. After a short discussion and much protesting by everyone else, O'Neill compromised. They'd both go.

The large courtyard led to a somewhat smaller one that served as a sort of vestibule. The first thing O'Neill noted was the long row of black boxes they'd seen from the air. He hesitantly walked along them and seeing that every padlock was either open or missing; he knew the boxes should be empty. His nose told him otherwise. At least some of the boxes were occupied, although what remained inside was far beyond any help at this point.

Corbin fell in step beside O'Neill and touched his shoulder. "Sir, we really should go. We can't help anyone here."

He was met with a rather glazed-eyed look from his CO, but then O'Neill nodded and turned to the large double doors at the far end of the enclosure. They weren't here for him to reminisce after all.

They crept along the hallway unsure why they hadn't seen any people as yet. Perhaps this part of the penal complex was still held by guards loyal to Saddam. If so they'd most likely be walking into a trap.

Neither man spoke as they moved along keeping to the shadows and hugging the walls. They came to another hall and passed an interrogation room. The door was ajar and O'Neill pressed his hand against it to widen the opening so he could peer inside. The sight of chains hanging from the ceiling jerked his mind away from the present and back to a time he'd been in a room just like this one.

Corbin double-timed it to his side when he saw O'Neill wasn't moving. "Shit." He cursed under his breath. For the first time since he'd known the man, he allowed himself to think of O'Neill as a washed-up and broken old soldier.

He was wrong. As he crept over to what he thought would be 'shake' O'Neill out of it, he found himself with a machine-gun barrel in his face. Flashbacks notwithstanding O'Neill's reflexes were in perfect working order.

"Corbin!" O'Neill whispered harshly. "What are you doing?" He lowered the weapon immediately.

"I thought you needed help." The Major admitted somewhat sheepishly.

O'Neill knew what it must have looked like and he had to admit he'd been acting overly nostalgic lately. He put his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I know what you're thinking, and I don't blame you. But I'm not about to freak out on you here. It's just; there are a lot of memories. I'm Okay, Tom. Trust me."

Corbin nodded quickly and glanced at O'Neill's weapon. "Oh, yeah, Sir. Not a doubt in my mind."

O'Neill chuckled. "You really are a bad liar. You've gotta work on that. Come on."

The pair continued to the end of the section and heard voices ahead of them. From their hiding place they could see no guards, only a few small groups of men talking quietly. O'Neill decided it was time to find out whether they were friend or foe and stood and openly approached the nearest group.

Corbin held back preparing to give cover fire if needed. After a few moments of conversation O'Neill motioned for the Major to come forward. Indeed this part of the prison was no longer under the regimes control.

As they walked down the hallway they passed several more men and by the time they were at the end word had already spread that Americans were in the facility, There was a large room full of men and they began to cheer when O'Neill and Corbin entered. They were ushered forward through the crowd, all the while being patted on their shoulders and heads. It seemed the men all wanted to touch them. If either of them had been claustrophobic it would have been a horrid experience; there was barely room to move at all yet hands propelled them through the room. Any man who wanted to do them harm would have had ample opportunity.

Corbin tried to get some information but there were so many speaking at once he couldn't understand them. O'Neill was having more difficulty dealing with this than he wanted to admit; he cringed back into himself and avoided eye contact with anyone but Corbin.

Eventually the forward motion stopped and they found themselves face to face with two very elderly men who introduced themselves as the unofficial leaders of the group. O'Neill explained quickly why they'd come and was answered with a rousing applause from everyone in the room, then they all started to speak at once again.

Corbin was able to get bits and pieces of conversation from all around them. The wanted to know the names of the men the Americans sought and were more than willing to help track them down.

As it turned out one of the men was there in the room, so they only had two to locate.

One of the old men and several of the younger ones led the way out and down to a lower level of cells. Once again O'Neill felt the depressive atmosphere of the place closing in on him. It was not silent in the hallways as he remembered it though. Back then even quiet talking would have made a prisoner into a target for the guard's amusement. He recalled more than once earning a beating for nothing more than offering kind words to another inmate. Now the cell doors were all swung wide open and men were chatting quietly here in there in small groups.

It seemed less than ten percent of the prisoners were incarcerated for what would be considered a true crime; everyone else was a political dissident and treated more severely than thieves and murderers. Now they were all free, just a very few were still in cells but were permitted to speak and given the same food and water available to the others.

Even here as O'Neill walked by hands reached out to touch him and he recognized prayers of thanks being offered for the 'American Liberators.'

The entourage stopped near the middle of the row in front of a cell with three men having a discussion. The old man pointed to one of them who surprisingly showed no fear of being singled out from the others. After an explanation was given the young man broke into a grin and with much excitement gathered his meager belongings and joined them.

O'Neill took a moment to check in by radio as the man gathered his things.

"Colonel? Where are you?" Hastings called back.

"Not sure, Joe. One of the lower cellblocks. We've got two of our friends. You wouldn't believe how they're treating us!"

Carters voice came over the radio, "Yeah, we would. They're up here, too, There's gonna be a big party and we're apparently the guests of honor."

O'Neill silently swore at himself for leaving them without someone who could speak Arabic. "Sorry, Carter. I don't think they'll hurt you. Just don't let them get too close to the chopper. We'll check back in thirty, okay?"

"Yes, Sir. We'll be all right. Carter out."
Back on the main floor the old man led them out through another courtyard where the black boxes had been hacked to pieces and heaped in a great pile. They now served only as fodder for a raging bonfire. The section just beyond was where the old man told them they must go.

This time only the younger men moved forward. There were many guards still loyal to Saddam in this part of the structure and it may become dangerous. They were armed with weapons taken from guards and whatever other sticks or knives they'd been able to find. They seemed a bit too rag-tag for O'Neill and he tried to convince them to let he and Corbin go it alone. At least they were Special Forces; they'd have a much better chance even if outgunned and outnumbered.

With some indignation one of the young men answered O'Neill. "We may not be *American*, but we are well trained. All of us here served as soldiers for Saddam. We are trained to shoot well and obey orders. We know the location where your friend is sure to be. You lead, give us orders and we will fight for you."

It almost made O'Neill shed tears to be the object of such loyalty from these total strangers. He clasped the young man on the shoulder and nodded. Like an old man once told him back on Abydos, give hope to the lost and they will rise up in astounding ways.

The young man's name was Saadhi. He drew a crude map in the dirt and showed O'Neill where he believed the Republican guards were likely to be and the entrances to the wing beyond where Muhamar would be found.

The plan was set and O'Neill and Corbin led the way. The first thing they needed to do was quietly take out two sentries. With much protest the Iraqi soldiers relented and held back while O'Neill and Corbin put their training to use. Within a few minutes both lookouts were taken down and their equipment and weapons confiscated. The young men rejoiced when presented with the additional weapons and O'Neill had to remind them to be quiet.

They moved on to their primary goal, weaving their way through passageways and abandoned cellblocks to the far end where the next wing began. Here they could relax a bit before moving on. The man they sought would be here somewhere in the lower level of cells, most likely still incarcerated. Saadhi believed the guards intended to use the prisoners for human shields if the need arose when the Coalition forces showed up to subdue them.

Only two more guards were in the cell area and were taken out quietly by two of O'Neill's new team. They took the padlock keys and headed to the row of cells. The prisoners were watchful and aware of the incursion and were all standing at the bars trying to see who was coming. O'Neill and Saadhi started opening cells as Corbin and the others went ahead to encourage the ones further down the row to be quiet. Their turn would come soon. No one would be left behind.

Third from the end Corbin found Muhamar and was telling him of his mother when O'Neill arrived with the key. The man was about O'Neill's age but looked much older; he'd spent too much time out in the desert and too much time in prison. When O'Neill turned the key in the padlock he saw tears streaming down the man's face and passed the key on to Corbin to free the rest. He wanted the honor of releasing this man himself.

Muhamar stood still for a moment with the door to his cell open wide and stared at the American. He only came forth when O'Neill stretched out his hand and encouraged him. The Iraqi clutched that hand like it was a lifeline and allowed himself to be led out from behind the iron bars.

When the doors were all open fourteen men walked out without fear for the first time in months. They gathered together in the center of the hallway and crouched down, listening as the escape plan was outlined. They'd go back the way they came in, this time with O'Neill and Corbin at the rear. It was imperative for them to remain as silent as possible; it was only a matter of time before the sentries were discovered to be missing and once that happened the going would be much more dangerous. For now they still had the defense of being undetected.

They were well out of the cellblock and passing the sentries' location when shouts were heard from an elevated position above them. The sentries' bodies had been found. It was time to hasten their move.

Corbin went on ahead and joined the men at the front to lead the prisoners out. O'Neill stayed at the rear with Saadhi and crouched against a wall, preparing to give cover fire if needed as the others crawled single file along a low wall. The men moved forward slowly on their bellies, matching Corbin movement for movement. Once on the other side Corbin motioned for O'Neill to come ahead.

Before they could move machine-gun fire began to echo through the hallways, the bullets flying only inches over their heads. Pinned down for the moment, O'Neill signaled the others to stay low as he lobbed a grenade in the direction of the firing.

After the explosion more gunfire erupted; the guards may have been surprised but were not too injured to continue their assault. This time it was met with a tremendous response from the freed prisoners. Every one of them who had a weapon was firing it.

O'Neill and Corbin barely had to fire their own weapons at all there was such a barrage from around them. When it was over, O'Neill turned to Saadhi and said in English, "I take it you've never heard the term overkill?"

Saadhi grinned back at him. "Sure. Overkill. It's what they have done to us for many years."

O'Neill was stunned; he never considered some of these people might speak English. He'd been struggling with his broken Arabic to make himself understood to all of them. He wagged a finger at the young man. "You're good. That's really funny." He shook his head and rolled up to his knees to survey the scene.

He quietly moved on toward the area where they'd concentrated their fire and found several dead men, but there were not nearly enough bodies to have gotten them all. Before O'Neill could discuss this with Corbin, machine gun fire echoed out of the cellblock area. They all dropped and covered again.
O'Neill received a frantic call from Carter on his radio. "Colonel! This is Carter. We're hearing gunfire. Are you all right?"

Still ducking he thumbed the switch and spoke. "We're Okay. Just met a little resistance. Hold your position."

Carter wasn't placated that easily. "Sir. We've got a loaded 30 mm gun here. Hastings can take off and provide air cover."

O'Neill thought for a moment then replied, "All right Major. We're in the hallway between the main building and the south cellblock. Hostile fire is currently coming from the south wing. All you have to do is keep them busy so we can get out."

Hastings answered, "Roger, Sir. We've got your six."

In minutes the helicopter was hovering over the citadel and firing bursts of shells into the lower cellblock. O'Neill and Saadhi joined the others and quickly ran through a series of hallways to the courtyard where the bonfire was still burning. Once there they were home free.

With the fire in sight O'Neill called to Hastings to cease-fire and return to the pick up point. As he concluded the transmission he stopped and leaned against the wall heavily. He still wasn't up to par physically and the day's events were finally catching up with him big-time.

Muhamar was at the rear of the group and saw the American stop. When O'Neill did not move again, he went to see if something was wrong. "Friend O'Neill, we must go."

"I will, Mu. I just need a minute." The look of pain was in his eyes.

The Iraqi waited a moment then reached to touch O'Neill's side; he could see he was guarding it. O'Neill groaned and pushed the man's hand away, using his elbow and forearm to support his ribs; he was finding it harder and harder to breathe. Muhamar saw the distress and acted quickly. He pulled O'Neill's arm over his shoulder and wrapped his left arm around his waist so he could carry much of O'Neill's weight. "We go together."

The pain grew worse and O'Neill nodded, grateful for the assist. He managed only a weak smile at the man he'd come to save who was now saving him.

All the way to rendezvous with the helicopter the situation was as before with everyone wanting to touch the Americans and offering thanks. O'Neill and Muhamar were the last to arrive and when they did the air of celebration faltered. O'Neill looked pale as a ghost and though the pain had lessened, his breathing was increasingly labored.

He was hauled aboard and preparations were made for a hasty departure. Before they left one of the elder men requested an audience with O'Neill. He was brought on board the aircraft and to O'Neill's side where he presented the American with a gift. Something wrapped in a leather pouch that the others did not see. The old man bent low and spoke quietly only to O'Neill. When he left Carter came to check that her CO was strapped in and ready for lift off.

She was almost to him when she suddenly stopped herself and stayed back. He was lying on the bench with his eyes closed and clutching a small leather bag. Even in the dim light she could see obvious streams of tears flowing freely down from his eyes. She couldn't bring herself to interrupt and passed on a go-ahead to depart to Hastings. The entire trip back she tried to determine what had happened to him. All she could come up with was that he'd been forced to relive some terrible memories from his time as a POW and it was taking its toll on him. She could have cried herself if it would have given him some comfort.
Back at Al-Salem the helicopter touched down and the six rescued Iraqis were put on a truck for the trip to the refugee camp to meet their families. O'Neill's condition had not improved but he insisted on going along. Carter, Hastings and Corbin of course followed suit.

Word of their arrival reached the camp ahead of them and the gate was clogged with people. The truck moved on in and continued slowly through the throng of people not stopping until it came to the barracks O'Neill pointed out. The noise and commotion caused several women to emerge from the building and just as Mama appeared at the doorway Muhamar stepped down off the truck. Their eyes met immediately and the old woman began to scream with joy. Muhamar pushed his way through to her and swept her up in his arms weeping as loudly as she was.

Unseen by them O'Neill watched from the back of the truck. A small smile was on his lips as the pain and lack of breath finally overtook him and he collapsed unconscious to the floor.
O'Neill awoke to bright overhead lights and the sounds of rhythmically beeping machinery. He cursed to himself internally; he was in a hospital room again. How the hell did this happen? He moved his mouth and licked his lips and was pleased to find no damn tube stuck down his throat this time.

The light was too bright and he turned his head to the side and saw yellow. Yellow hair. Carter. He cleared his throat and croaked out the name. "Carter?"

The head lifted immediately and the bright blue eyes locked with his. "Sir. You're awake! How do you feel?"

"Oh, great. Peachy. What happened?" He grimaced as he took a breath and felt something jabbing in his side.

"Your lung collapsed again. They said it was too much exertion too soon. The doctors had to put the tube back in your chest to re-expand it."

"Right." He closed his eyes and thought for a few minutes, trying to remember what had happened. "Muhamar? He made it to his mother, right?"

"Yes, Sir. All of the men we brought back are reunited with their families. I've never seen such a celebration."

"Good. That's good." His eyes looked heavy and Carter moved across the room to dim the lights then returned to his side.

"You should rest." She laid her hand lightly on his and gave it a squeeze. "I'll be right here."

He nodded and closed his eyes then drifted off to sleep in the now dark room; lulled by the monitor softly beeping in time with his own heartbeat.
Several days later O'Neill was discharged from the hospital with strict instructions to refrain from any physical stress and orders transferring him back to Cheyenne Mountain. It seemed Iraq had finally had enough of one Jack O'Neill.

Major Carter met him at the door with a Jeep and an ice chest in the back seat. This was her last day in Kuwait as well. In the morning they'd be on the same flight back to the USA; but today they were still here and had a few loose ends to tie up before going. It was a wonderfully balmy morning with just enough of a breeze to keep the heat at bay.

She drove and he relaxed back in the seat not bothered at all by the bumpy ride. He was feeling more himself than he had in a long time. A very long time. His side was a little stiff but that was expected; he hardly noticed it.

At the end of the road Carter turned the Jeep into a wide gate and flashed her ID to the guard. He saluted and let them pass without even coming to a complete stop. The Jeep trundled on until they were in front of the familiar barracks and Azir came running out squealing. Before he knew it, O'Neill was being dragged out by both hands and pulled into the cool interior of the building. Carter fell in step behind the pair, now lugging the cooler by a strap over her shoulder. As they crossed in through the doorway she slid off her shades and set them up on her head. She looked around wistfully as she walked. Soon this building would be vacant. Families were being reunited all over Iraq and returned to their homes. The rebuilding of a nation had begun.

At the assigned quarters she stopped and set down her load as the Colonel greeted his friends. Mama, Muhamar, Ramah, little Terrin and his mother were all waiting for him. Several other women and a host of children came running up as well, all calling him by name, 'Colonel Jack.' Carter wondered how that got started anyway.

Once the greetings were made O'Neill opened the gift they'd brought. The chest was full of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream; packed in dry ice and still frozen solid. They all dug in and chatted and laughed. Carter still couldn't understand what was being said but it didn't matter. She held Terrin on her lap and fed him spoonfuls of 'Peanut Butter Me Up' and watched her CO grinning and laughing as he played with every one of the children; getting himself covered in ice cream in the process.

The only somber moment was just before they left when O'Neill moved off away from the group with Muhamar and his mother. He pulled a small bag out of his pocket and showed them the contents and spoke quietly with them, then put it away and hugged them both fiercely. The old woman bid him goodbye with sobs and a river of tears streaming down her face.

Back in the Jeep and headed back to the base to pack, O'Neill was quiet and pensive. Just as the gate was in sight he asked Carter to stop the vehicle. He looked straight ahead and spoke to her, "You want to know what it is." He said it as a statement, not a question.

She frowned. Had she been that obvious? If it was too personal, after all, she had no right to pry.

She could see his eyes were closed behind his shades. He reached down and slid the pouch out of his pocket and held it for a moment rubbing his thumb over the worn leather before unwrapping it, then held it out, uncovered, revealing a simple rusty, broken padlock.

She shook her head, at first she didn't understand, then she suddenly remembered seeing padlocks just like this in the prison. Every one of those black boxes had one. She shivered at the thought of what it must have symbolized to him.

He took one of her hands and held it against the cool metal. "You see it's broken. The man who gave this to me said they all were. Every single one. They'd never be used again."

She looked from where he was still holding her hand and then to his face and saw a single tear glint on his cheek. She understood. He wasn't being tortured by the horrible memories; he was being healed of them. Years of pain were being swept away all because he chose to walk back into the pit and face his demons. It must have taken every ounce of his courage to step off that helicopter at the prison with the stark reminders of his past everywhere he looked. When they touched down it was uncertain even if the prison was still held by Saddam's men.

She blinked back her own tears as he put the pouch away. She realized he had just shared something deeply personal with her. She'd never be able to look at him quite the same way again.

Before starting the engine she said quietly, "Thank you, Colonel... Jack." He glanced back at her with the beginnings of a lopsided grin, then leaned back against the seat and allowed the grin to spread to his whole face. He was glad the 'new Carter' had chosen to hang around. It would be interesting to see what else she might do. Funny, he never expected being in Iraq to change him again so profoundly, and here it had changed both of them.
Epilogue

The flight back would take many hours and Carter took the opportunity to reacquaint herself with current projects at the SGC. As she waited for the files to load up on her laptop she glanced at her traveling companion and smiled. O'Neill was still recuperating and decided the best use of his time would be to sleep, especially since a certain Major was intent on immersing herself in Naquadah equations once again and wasn't paying any attention to him. He was now snoring softly with his head turned in her direction. He was leaning slightly but not quite enough to touch her shoulder. If he did she wouldn't have minded.

After a while she tired of reading and switched to her journal and began to type.

Maj. S. Carter
E-Journal
4-20-03

These past several weeks have been amazing. I never thought I'd like this place. Iraq. Until now it was just a desert full of people who wanted only to see America destroyed. I knew Saddam lied to and subjugated the people but he always seemed to have their full support. I had no idea how many were just waiting for a chance to be rid of him.

Even though I never learned more than just a few words in Arabic, I feel I've made friends there. Ramah is a true Middle-Eastern beauty, she's just about my age and with that long black hair she'd turn every man's head if she were back in the USA. I've only gotten a glimpse of it; the women keep their heads covered whenever there's even a chance a man will come around. She has a seven year-old son named Azir who is a handful. I've only seen him be still once, when he saw Jack was hurt.
She paused with her fingers still on the keys and looked at the last few words. Unconsciously she moved the cursor back to the 'k' and let one finger just barely rest on the backspace key.

She was still staring at the screen when something moved her hand away from the keyboard. "Leave it. Who's gonna be reading your journal anyway?"

She turned to him and said, "Apparently *you* are."

"Yeah, but I don't count. I already know."

"Do you?"

He looked back at her and his eyebrows flicked as if a thought occurred to him. He leaned down and opened his briefcase and pulled out a worn and somewhat tattered book. As he opened it and flipped through the pages she could see the originally blank sheets were now crammed full of handwritten notes.

He found the passage he was looking for and handed it to her, pointing at where to begin to read.
Col. J. O'Neill
Field Journal

We are currently hiding out in the basement of some Mosque. We're not really pinned down, but it will take quite a bit of luck to avoid patrols if we need to relocate again. I really wish we'd been able to get a confirmation of our last message back from Command. Just knowing they are aware of our circumstances makes it feel like we have some backup even if they're hundreds of miles away. Right now I'm feeling pretty far from everywhere. It's hard to believe Cheyenne Mountain is just on the other side of the planet and not off in some other galaxy.

God, I never thought I'd miss the place like I do. Wonder how Hammond's making out; I assume the missions are still on hold. And there's Teal'c, the big guy would fit in just fine out here sans the tattoo. Ironically the one I miss most is the one person who's here in Iraq. I doubt Carter realizes what an anchor she's been for me. It's a shame, the way things have to be, but the connection hasn't changed, for me at least. I swear when this is all over, I'm gonna talk to her.
She closed the cover and looked at him with a soft smile. Maybe there was an *upside* to long flights after all.