TITLE: KALEIDOSCOPE – Part 4 Warnings, disclaimer, etc in part one

****** SUMMER

******

Jack was humming to himself as he washed up the breakfast things in his cabin's tiny kitchen. 'Breakfast', he mused. It was a bit late for that. In only one week, the pair of them were adopting terrible habits. Up late, over eating, *resting*. He grinned to himself as he watched Sam through the open window. She was picking wild flowers down by the pond. She looked so at peace, plodding through the grass, her hair gilded by the late morning sun. He had to admit, she was definitely getting better. She was finally gaining weight, some of her strength was returning, her ankle loosened up, and she told him that her 'undercarriage' was much less painful. She told him *that*. She trusted him again.

They even talked a little about the baby. She used words like: 'empty', 'cheated' and 'grieving'. He was surprised at her depth of feeling for the lost child, since she had only known she was expecting for such a short time. However, he could relate her feelings to Charlie's death, and they talked about him, and Sara as well.

When Sam couldn't talk anymore, he left it at that and let her work through her period of mourning with quiet support. When she wouldn't talk about Joe, he didn't press her. He hoped it was the right thing to do, and he thought it might be, because there was Carter, grinning, as she puffed off dandelion heads. She looked up toward the window, as if sensing his scrutiny.

He waved back to acknowledge her cheery smile. He was happy that she was happy.

"Are you sure it isn't illegal to pick wildflowers here?" she called, waving a small bunch of flowers at him.

"Who gives a damn, Carter, it's my land, pick whatever the hell you want!" he yelled back, and laughed when she stuck her tongue out him. He acknowledged that this isolated existence couldn't last forever, and that real life was still waiting for them. Although there were no declarations or demonstrations of love between them, Jack knew something was changed. They were once again connected as close friends, but there was more. For now, it was enough for him; he wasn't going to push Sam any further. As for what the future held, he had no idea.

He sighed contentedly as he pulled the plug from the drain and watched the dirty dishwater bleed away. Damn, his cell phone was ringing from his bedroom; he thought it was switched off. He let the voice mail pick it up, but then felt guilty, and lumbered through to check the unanswered call.

He thumbed through the phone's menu options, trying to remember how the damn thing worked.

It was General Hammond's private office line.

Crap.

Jack had rung the General only yesterday to update him on Sam's progress. It must be something urgent if he was ringing Jack back so soon. He pressed 'callback'.

Ten minutes later, he slammed his cell phone shut and felt his happiness dissolve into his sneakers. Samantha Carter's life was about to be turned upside down again.

They had lived seven days of 'Jack and Sam', now it was back to the seven years of 'Colonel' and 'Major'.

********

Sam was sitting on the dock with her feet dangling in the cool water and saw Jack striding towards her. She raised her arm only for the wave to be stilled, stopped by the grim expression on Jack's face as he approached.

He hunkered down next to her, crossing his legs carefully.

"Sam, I'm sorry, we've – I've – been recalled. I've just received a call from Hammond. He couldn't give me details and he used code, but we're needed at Area 51. Something's going down. They need 'Prometheus' operational. They need us. They need you." He looked up, his face a mixture of determination and regret. He screwed his eyes up against the sun.

Sam swallowed slowly and stared at two avocets paddling around the edge of the lake.

"I have to rendezvous with a transport just outside Chisholm, off state highway 73. I think a Chinook from Reserve Command is taking me to Ellsworth across the state line. But Sam, you don't have to do this, I can- "

"It's okay," she spluttered out. She could feel her pulse racing and wrestled with her composure.

"No, Sam, listen to me, there must be something about the AF contravening the Dept. of Labor's Heath and Safety regulations by recalling personnel on medical leave. You could stay here as long as you want, or take a flight back to Denver."

She smiled wryly. There was no way Hammond would have asked for her if it wasn't *major*. Her curiosity was overtaking the emotions that were ruling her thoughts lately. This was something she had to do; they needed her. She had something to prove.

"When do we leave?" she asked firmly.

********

They need you.

Her mind seemed stuck on those words as she clambered out of the CH-47 onto the tarmac of Ellsworth, with Jack holding steadily to her arm. The downdraft from the tandem rotor blades whipped her hair about, stinging her eyes and reminding her that her current hairstyle was most definitely *non*- regulation.

A hurrying figure emerged from the terminal building, smacking his hat on as he jogged toward them through the afternoon heat haze. Major Paul Davis came to a terse halt. "Colonel O'Neill, sir!" He raised his arm to render a rushed salute, but caught himself in time.

Sam saw the Colonel raise an eyebrow; why was Davis so rattled that he nearly saluted an in-civvies officer? Paul turned to her and, smiling warmly, he shook her hand tightly.

"Major! I'm very pleased to see you looking so well." He was watching her carefully.

Sam nodded. So he knew. Well, he practically 'devoured' every report that came out of Cheyenne Mountain, so of course he knew. Major Davis coughed and indicated the gleaming Learjet on the taxi pan before them.

Jack squinted at the tail designation in the afternoon sunshine. Pulling out his sunglasses he remarked dryly, "You *didn't* bring Air Force One?"

Davis grinned and shook his head as he turned to march toward the aircraft steps. "I think CNN might have noticed, sir. This was the fastest jet at Dulles, and it *is* a planetary-wide emergency," he added.

"Well, now *that's* a shocker," grumbled the Colonel as he stomped toward the plane, but his expression was serious, and his gait determined, as he bounded up the aircraft steps three at a time.

Sam followed her superior officer with her thoughts in turmoil. A dark hammerhead cloud was forming to the south. She was surprised to find herself short of breath as she buckled herself into the comfortable seat. It wasn't the encroaching storm that was bothering her, however.

"Very plush. Our tax dollars at work," muttered the Colonel, as he secured himself next to her. "Ya think we could get a couple for the SGC, eh, Carter?"

Sam smiled thinly as the Pratt & Whitney engines propelled them westwards to Nevada at 520 miles an hour.

********

Even before the jet leveled off, Davis began to pull charts and satellite photographs from his valise and deposited them on the table between them.

He made a fist and coughed into it before addressing Sam.

"Major Faxon, I have some bad news, please prepare yourself," he began.

"Okay, and its still 'Carter', Major." Sam was taken aback. Was it her dad?

Davis straightened in his chair before continuing. "Ambassador Faxon was abducted from your house last night. It looks like the Aschen."

"What!" Sam exclaimed. "The *Aschen*? How?" She felt her stomach freefalling, and tried to concentrate on Davis' explanation.

"That has not yet been determined. Your house was being monitored by the NID. The Ambassador has been under surveillance since he got back from the Aschen home world. They have reason to believe he underwent some sort of mind control there."

Sam gaped. "Wha? What?" she stuttered, but was conscious of the curious stare from the Colonel on her left. "Please continue," she said, keeping her voice even.

"Apparently, the maid went to retrieve something from Mr. Faxon's study, only to find a scene of disarray. When she was unable to find the Ambassador, she called the local police. Because the phone line was being monitored, the NID were on the scene within minutes, having established an observation base along the block. The NID contacted the CMC to confirm if an alien ship was detectable in the area. At first, they could find nothing, until an unusual energy reading was distinguished from the background electrical noise. It matched the energy signature of the Aschen harvester taken three years ago on P3A-194. By you, in fact." Davis paused and looked between Colonel O'Neill and Major Carter.

Sam was conscious the Colonel was staring at her again. When she spoke, she was deliberately careful.

"Major, you are implying that my husband was compromised by an enemy before and during our marriage? And the NID knew about this?" Rain was beginning to trace jagged streaks across the jet's windows, snaking its way east.

"Yes." Davis reply was succinct.

Sam kept her face stony. "Am I under suspicion?"

"Not to my knowledge. You were recalled because of your work on the X-303. It seems like the Aschen have made some sort of alliance with the system lords, and-"

Sam was first with the question; "What makes you say that, Major?"

Davis pointed to one of the charts. "NORAD tracked the Aschen energy trail to here," he drew a line with his finger from Earth to the planet of Pluto, "Well, to be precise, to the moon of Pluto; the dark side of Charon."

Jack's eyebrows rose. "The 'Dark Side'? Does Teal'c know?"

Davis pulled his chin back, his brow furrowed. He pulled out printouts of long-range radio telemetry data and some blurred photographs. "This was taken by the Deep Space Tracking Network at AF Satcom before they moved behind the moon," he continued warily.

The Colonel scooted one of the photos closer. It was of an alien ship, sporting a macabre 'crown of thorns' construction array. Part of an Aschen- design ship could just be seen behind it. "That looks like one of those 'Death Star' planet buster ships that Anubis had." He looked at Davis for confirmation. "I don't understand what the Aschen will want with an Earth that Anubis will have blown to hell."

"Yes, sir," was Davis' clipped reply. "We are guessing they are amassing prior to an attack, but they've made no move as yet."

"*Any* indication of their intentions?" The Colonel was sounding irritated.

The Major smiled a small, apologetic smile. "That's all we really know, Colonel. The plan is to ready the X-303, like yesterday, and blow them all to hell."

Jack pursed his lips. "Ironic, considering Charon was the mythical ferryman to the Underworld," he mused to himself, studying the Satcom images.

There was a lengthy silence. The rain continued to blatter the windows.

At last the Colonel looked up and spoke again: "Is that the plan?"

Davis nodded. "Unless you can think of something better, sir?"

Jack gave out a hollow laugh. "Me? You must be desperate." He turned to Sam. "Carter? Your take on this?"

Sam cleared her throat. Her mental box stuffed with emotions was threatening to burst open. She felt completely confused by the revelations concerning her brainwashed husband. She also felt betrayed, not only by him, but also by one of the security agencies that were supposed to protect the citizens of their country. They had tapped her phone line, for God's sake! She acknowledged that she was concerned for Joe, but she could not feel distressed for him, not even knowing what she knew now. Sam took a small breath before answering. "Since the X-303 was recovered from Tangrea, little progress has been made on repairing the hyperdrive due to the imposed budgetary constraints. There's a lot of work to do."

Davis nodded. "From what I understand, Major, it has already been started. You will be joining the existing team as soon as we touch down." He rose from his seat. "If you'll excuse me, I'll just check on the current situation." He nodded towards the Colonel and went forward to the cockpit.

Jack pursed his lips. "Sam, are you okay with this?" He turned in his seat to fully appraise her.

Sam took a sip of the complimentary Evian, cool against her dry throat. She ran her fingers over the plastic, swirling around the drops of condensation. "I don't really have a choice, do I? The Aschen must want access to Earth's resources badly. Do you realize Joe was...compromised when we..."

"I know." He paused. "Sam, this seems to be the usual hopeless situation. Are you up to it?"

A lot would depend on what she said next. "Yes, sir, I am." She picked at the label on the water bottle.

"I can stop this here and now." He was still in protective Colonel mode.

She looked up to see his forceful gaze searching for a sign. She held her freefall back, her resolve concrete. "No. I'm up to it."

He was still assessing her. "Very good, Major." He broke the stare and looked out of the window. "Best buckle up again; I can smell the clean, sweet air of Area 51 from here," he muttered sarcastically.

"Yes, sir." She threaded the strap through the buckle and tightened it as far as it would go. As the aircraft began its descent, she felt the strap cutting in, but didn't adjust it.

The pain was reminding her she was still alive.

********

Jack beamed at the first person to meet them on the runway at Nellis.

"T! You dog! Fancy meeting you here!" He looked closer at the hat that Teal'c was using to obscure his gold tattoo. "Is that *my* beanie?"

Teal'c raised his eyebrow and following Major Davis' retreating back, he opened his mouth to answer, but it was Sam that he turned to. "MajorCarter, it is a great pleasure to see you," he exclaimed and bent down to grace Sam with a spontaneous hug. He pulled back slightly and said so quietly that Jack strained to hear him, "Are you sufficiently recovered, Samantha?"

Sam smiled warmly and nodded. "I'm doing okay. The Colonel has been looking after me."

"Of that, I have no doubt," replied the big warrior, bowing slightly to Jack.

Sam linked an arm through her friend's as they walked toward the inconspicuous entrance to the underground cavern where 'Prometheus' was dry- docked. "It's good to see you, Teal'c. Were you recalled, or were you on Earth when all this kicked off?" she asked.

"It was a fortunate happenstance that I returned to the SGC to advise General Hammond of the latest developments regarding the system lords. It was, however, a surprise to learn of their apparent alliance with the Aschen." Teal'c released Sam's arm to open the door to the subterranean facility, and gestured her through.

"Yeah, slippery little suckers, aren't they?" Jack piped up from behind, feeling distinctly left out of the conversation.

"They are most certainly a nefarious and untrustworthy race, O'Neill," agreed Teal'c. "I was also taken aback and concerned to hear that your husband appears to have been collaborating with them, MajorCarter," continued Teal'c as they entered the elevator that would take them 500 feet underground.

Sam paused before answering. "Yes, so was I."

Teal'c looked at her askance. "I am certain that your integrity has not been called into question."

As the elevator doors closed, Jack heard her softly say: "Yet."

When the doors opened, Jack groaned inwardly at the sight of the people waiting for them. Lt. Colonel Samuels and Dr. Rodney McKay. Add Kinsey and they would have the full set of dick-

"Sir!" Samuels snapped his head up. "If you'll come this way, General Vidrine and Colonel Ronson wish to speak with you immediately!" He indicated to Jack one of the portakabins located off to one side of the dark, cavernous space.

Jack pulled his chin back, "Best not keep the General waiting, then, eh, Sparky?" He sauntered off with deliberation, enjoying the thunderous look that shadowed Samuels' face. He glanced back briefly, to see Carter, Teal'c and McKay heading toward the gargantuan X-303 that dominated the underground complex. He was feeling an unexpected urge to turn, grab Sam Carter and get her the hell out.

But he didn't.

Duty before self.

********

The briefing was over before it really began, as it was clear to Jack that neither the three star General nor Ronson knew much more than he did. In fact, they were hoping that he could provide some intel having had experience of planet-busting motherships. They seemed a little pissed when he could add nothing to the detailed reports that SG-1 provided following the destruction of Abydos.

Jack was mulling this over and shaking his head with frustration when he headed back to the X-303. As he crossed the gantry with Samuels sniping at his heels, technicians were busing to and fro carrying technical paraphernalia. He stopped a couple of times to give way to the number of Air Force personnel that were milling about. A small figure carrying a large reel of thick wiring accidentally bumped into him, and an earnest young face peeked out over the top.

"Hailey? That you?" asked Jack, squinting around the load.

Lieutenant Jennifer Hailey's eyes widened as she realized just whom she had collided with. "Sir! My apologies, I-"

Jack cut her off, mid-excuse, "Oh, for crying out loud, Hailey, give that to me, it's nearly as big as you are." He reached out to relieve the diminutive officer of her load.

Hailey held fast. "No, I'm fine, sir, really. I've got it." She beetled off along the gangplank, leaving Jack with a curious sense of abandonment. Samuels caught up and overheard the exchange. Jack nodded towards Hailey who was by now disappearing into the bowels of the ship. "What is it with women these days?"

"They are part of a fighting force; there's no room for individuality," was Samuels' stilted reply.

Jack nodded, "Oh, you mean like a genius female second in command, a civilian intellectual and a couple of enemy aliens?" He once again enjoyed the non-plussed look on Samuels' face before following Hailey across the gantry. That asshole would never beat him.

As soon as they crossed the threshold of the immense craft, Samuels made his excuses and turned to the elevator that would take him to the bridge. As the doors closed, Jack called out, "Bye! Love you!" Samuels glared at him through the closing elevator doors, so Jack blew a kiss for good measure. He turned happily and wandered towards the engine room to find Carter.

Odds on, she was there.

And indeed she was, bending over a bank of panels in the confined space. Or more accurately, he could only see her tush; the three shitloads of wiring she was trying to MacGyver obscured the rest. She was now wearing a standard issue boiler suit that she must have acquired from somewhere. As she raised her head to accept a tool from Teal'c, he was amused to see her longer hair pulled into a ponytail with an elastic band. Carter with a ponytail! A 'girly Carter' was definitely a contradiction of terms.

"Hey, Carter, 'T', how goes it?"

Sam nodded forcefully as she wiped her hands on her suit. "The cluster module governing the hyperdrive is not communicating with these PCI fiber channel host adapters."

Jack peered into the hole illuminated by a portable inspection lamp. "I thought this thing uses crystal technology?" he asked.

Sam leaned over the hole and angled the lamp over the wiring. "Actually, sir, you are correct.. again."

Jack leaned around to grin at Teal'c, who responded with a raise of his left eyebrow.

"But," Sam continued, "only the key systems use the alien crystals. These modules use conventional wires and chips."

"Oh," said Jack, a little deflated. "Well, have you tried WD-40?"

A voice commented behind him. "Colonel! I wasn't aware that you had graduated with a degree in Applied Astrophysical Engineering." Rodney McKay's voice was graced with its usual sarcastic tone.

Jack grimaced as he straightened, and slowly turned. "Doctor, how nice to see you again, we've missed you *so* much at Cheyenne."

McKay gave Jack an un-amused smirk as he handed Sam a Styrofoam cup of coffee. "I thought you might have."

"Well, can you hot-wire this thing, or not?" Despite the gravity of the situation, Jack was enjoying this banter. He cast a quick glance over at Carter, who was grinning a little, wiping her slightly grubby hands on a paper towel.

McKay raised his eyebrows. "Watch and learn, Colonel, watch and learn."

Jack turned to Carter with his own eyebrows uplifted in query.

"By 1900 hours, sir," she smiled.

He tried not to lock her gaze, but he did. Her hands stilled around the towel. Instead of opening his mouth to say something stupid, he settled for a curt nod.

"Very good, Major, carry on." With that, he turned abruptly on his heel and left them to it.

********

The Prometheus was not ready at 1900; it was ready for launch at 1841 hours. Sam was surprised at McKay's resourcefulness. He definitely knew the ship inside and out - much better than she did. Sam admitted she was grateful for his presence, annoying though he was at times. He seemed quite chipper, excited to be playing at 'saving the world' again. Sam didn't have the heart to tell him that if his knowledge weren't needed on the voyage, he would probably be left behind in Nevada along with all the other non-essential personnel. The modified Naquadria engines would be able to run only on one-quarter power. They couldn't risk any more within the confines of the Solar System.

Sam's head snapped up from the conduit she was battening down to hear Major Gant's voice over the ship wide PA.

"Standby by for launch, T minus three minutes. All personnel not required are to disembark immediately."

Following the standard repeat, the general quarters alarm began to sound as Sam felt the pre-ignition sequence of the engines commencing. A loose nut resting on the conduit cover began to rattle almost imperceptibly and she watched as the resonating frequency of the vibration forced the small piece of metal to the edge of the panel. She held out her hand under the nut as it was jogged over the precipice and deftly caught it. Her hand closed over the metal as McKay waved another cup of coffee under her nose.

"Nice catch," he commented. He peeled the lid off his own drink and took a sip.

Sam smiled her thanks for the drink and settled back on the bulkhead to do the same. She considered her next words. "You know, McKay, you really don't have to stay on board. You are a civilian, after all."

McKay nodded a little too forcefully, slopping some of the hot drink onto his hand. He sucked at his fist. "I know. But, well, zoom off into outer space; beat up a few bad guys, and all that while getting to work with you. I wouldn't miss it. No, uh-uh. Not in a million." His boyish grin couldn't help but make Sam laugh.

She sobered for a moment and fiddled with the nut before putting it in a pocket. "We might not be coming back. No-one would think less of you if you got off now."

McKay gave out a sarcastic snort. "Is that because you military types think we civilians are some sort of lower life form anyway?"

Sam slowly shook her head. "No." She paused before continuing. "It's because life has to go on. Someone has to survive to make our sacrifice worthwhile."

McKay looked at her for a long moment. "I know, but I've got no family. I'm in. But, Major, are you okay? One of the bridge officers said the reason that you weren't here when all this kicked off, was that you were on medical leave."

"Not really." Sam took a small sip of her drink and picked at a hardened glue spot on her borrowed boiler suit. "But I will be."

McKay fingered the edge of his cup and chewed his lip. "What does your husband think of all this?"

Sam glanced around, sharply. "Don't you know? He's been brainwashed and kidnapped by the Aschen. He's probably on their ship that is waiting to destroy us." She was amazed at herself that she kept her voice from shaking. Did she have no love left for her husband at all?

McKay balked. "I...I'm sorry, I had no idea. Geez, does anyone tell me anything that is going on around here?"

The sound of the launch klaxon made them both jump.

"'Need to know', McKay, and, I guess I'm okay, thanks for asking." Sam drained her coffee, tossed the cup into the onboard macerator and went to stand at an observation window on the starboard side. She could see the access gangway being retracted as the sound of the engines increased in volume. A wan light suddenly illuminated the cavern and as Sam craned her neck, she could see the enormous roof of the complex sliding back. She felt a subtle change in the ship's internal atmosphere as the inertial dampeners and artificial gravity were brought on line. Loud metallic clangs indicated the docking clamps were being released. Sam reached up to fiddle with her Mother's necklace and as she peered out to see more, she spotted the tiny, but unmistakable figure of General Vidrine standing at one of the portakabin windows. It suddenly occurred to her that she hadn't spoken with her father, and felt a curious pang of regret. Every occasion that she said goodbye to him on the 'gate ramp, she wondered if it would be the last time.

But this was different.

She wanted one last moment with him. To say thank you. To say it was an honor and a privilege.

To say that she loved him.

********

Jack stood to the starboard side of the 'Prometheus' bridge as the ship rose slowly out of its dark lair. "The Leviathan awakes," he muttered under his breath, as the lateral thrusters steadied the ascent.

Teal'c coughed behind him. "I believe you are confusing your Greek mythology, O'Neill."

The large wall mounted screen flooded the bridge with blood-red light from the setting sun.

"Wise guy," Jack retorted.

Colonel William Ronson turned to fix the two men with a pointed glare that had: 'Shut up,' stamped all over it.

Teal'c turned back to Jack with a questioning look, as the Nevada landscape became a diminishing reality.

"Time of the month," whispered Jack. He saw Erin Gant's shoulders shaking slightly and as she turned her blonde head to activate the navigator's Plexiglas panel, he could see she was smirking.

The light subtly altered as the ship exited Earth's atmosphere. The ascent had taken less than thirty seconds.

Gant leaned to activate another Plexiscreen. "Attention, attention! Stand by for broadcast! All hands, prepare for hyperspace. All hands, prepare for hyperspace!"

The sound of the engines was changing, gaining in volume and intensity. There was a brilliant flash of mottled white light and a slight dragging feeling as the ship was thrust through the sublight hyperspace window.

Pluto was only two hours away.

********

Just as the 'Prometheus' was exiting sublight, a sudden lurch sent Sam sprawling into the arms of McKay as he stood over an open crystal panel. A deafening collision alert alarm began to sound right above them. "Sorry, Major!" he yelled helplessly, as he struggled to disentangle himself.

Sam attempted to regain her footing on the deck grating. "That's okay! You can get OFF me, now." She pushed hard against his arms, only to fall back into them when the ship pitched again.

"What the hell is going *on* out there?" Half-staggering to the porthole and peered out, followed by McKay. They were in the middle of a debris field. Gargantuan rocks were buffeting the side of the ship and as Sam held tight, another bashed into the middle decks, like some bizarre game of cosmic curling.

McKay craned his neck up. "What *is* this? A meteor storm?"

Sam braced herself as the ship took another hit. "There's none charted out here. We should be seeing Charon." Another enormous piece of space debris impacted on the side of the vessel.

McKay staggered back from the window, "That's no meteor storm! The reason why we can't see Charon is because that *is* Charon!" He pointed to the space rocks.

Sam craned her neck out and up to follow McKay's outstretched arm – damn! He was *so* right. The collision was suddenly silenced as Gant's voice could be heard issuing orders over the PA. An abrupt change in the atmosphere indicated the artificial gravity was operating in overdrive as the ship banked sharply, presumably attempting to exit the debris field. The straining engines added to the stomach churning noise.

"Debris inertia!" yelled McKay, as he was forced onto the deck.

"I know, I know!" Sam shouted back. Grasping onto the walls, she felt resistance as she tried to reach the intercom. It was like walking through water! She braced herself against the bulkhead to punch in the code for the bridge. "Gant! Are you receiving me?"

The young major's voice could just about be heard over the engines.

"Pull power from the hyperdrive for the shields, we can't do it from down here!" Sam overheard a hubbub of background conversations on the bridge. "And cut the collision alert – we can't hear ourselves think!"

Abruptly, there was silence. No engines, no klaxons, no impact noise, nothing except her own ragged panting.

"Thank you," she said over the intercom as she watched McKay get to his feet and start checking himself for broken ribs. It would be funny if it weren't so serious. Sam risked a look out of the porthole. She could see fewer space rocks in her limited view. The enhanced shields were vaporizing those that were still close to the ship.

Gant's intercom-thin voice broke through the silence. "Major Carter, Colonel Ronson requests your immediate presence on the bridge." She sounded nervous, but in control.

"Copy that. On my way," confirmed Sam and trotted off to the elevators, with McKay tailing her heels.

She stopped and could hear McKay pull up sharply to avoid cannoning into her back. She turned and sighed. Sam had a vision of a faithful puppy dog. "McKay, they asked for *me*."

"Well, yes, but I thought you might need-"McKay began, earnestly.

"You'll be the first I'll call, Rodney, I promise." Sam turned on what she knew was her best blinding smile and marched purposefully to the elevator just across the deck. As she entered and punched the button for the bridge, she noticed Mckay was staring at her forlornly. Now he was a *lost* puppy dog.

"I promise," she repeated, as the doors closed. And so help her, she meant it.

********

Jack was relieved to see Carter step out from the elevator. Ronson's people made him nervous for some reason. Nothing against them; they just hadn't had a lot of time to bond as a team.

Sam marched straight past him and stopped beside the center seat. "Colonel Ronson. Major Samantha Carter, reporting for duty, sir!" She snapped to attention with a smart salute. Jack smiled to himself. Well done, Carter, a few protocol reg. Brownie points there.

Colonel Ronson turned from studying the view screen. "Welcome aboard, Major. Okay, I've diverted power from a vital primary system with two enemy ships off my starboard bow, now what?"

Sam cleared her throat. "With all due respect, sir, the impact power of the debris due to spatial inertia would have undoubtedly resulted in a hull breach."

"It seemed like bugs on a windshield to us." Ronson was quick, but not very good at playing the hard man.

"Not from my vantage point, sir." Sam would not back down. Go Carter!

Ronson eyed her warily. "Very well, Major. The situation is this: two enemy vessels, here and here." He indicated the monitor, where a graphical interface was displaying two red blips orbiting Pluto. "This one," he indicated the larger point, "is the Ha'tak. So far, there's no reaction to our presence from either of them. They could have attacked when we exited in the debris, but nothing. Any ideas?"

Jack edged forward. He could see Ronson shoot him a look, but he said nothing.

"They're after something, sir. Why else would they wait here? Why aren't they attacking Earth?" Sam narrowed her eyes as she appraised the enemy vessels' positions.

Ronson nodded. "That's what we thought, but what?" He shrugged and frowned at the screen.

He turned back again "And why blast Charon?"

Jack's cough broke the silence. "Target practice."

"*Target* practice," repeated Ronson, his voice testy.

"Sure, target practice. They need to know their weapons are operational and accurate; compensating for planetary atmosphere *before* they blow us all to hell." Jack crossed his arms over the black regulation T-shirt, and BDU jacket 'borrowed' from clothing stores. "They're *Goa'uld*, Ronson. They *like* blowing things up."

He could see Sam dip her head slightly to bite back a small grin.

"Demonstration, show of power?" mused Ronson.

Jack shrugged. "Maybe."

"Okay, what-"began Ronson.

"Sir!" Gant's young voice interrupted. "Receiving a visual transmission from the hostile ship."

"Loudspeakers, monitor," commanded Ronson, as Sam immediately went to assist the officer manning the master communications console on the starboard side.

A Jaffa-like figure filled the bridge monitor. Gold Mercedes emblem; first prime.

"Reduce percentage view," requested Ronson, never taking his eyes off the alien. "I am Colonel William Ronson of the Earth ship 'Prometheus'. You have entered our Solar System without permission, and you are not welcome here, please leave immediately."

Jack muttered under his breath. "Yeah, like *that'll* work." He could see Ronson's jaw clench. 'Okay, Jack, shutting up now,' he pledged.

The Jaffa actually bowed a little. "We will comply with your request, but my master has come to collect what is rightfully his." He paused, as if receiving instructions off stage left. "The Lord Ba'al has come to reclaim his property." Jack peered at the transmitted image. Another monitor could be seen behind the Jaffa's shoulders, showing the Aschen ship. What was going on here?

Ronson sat up straighter. "And what would that be?" he asked, levelly.

The Jaffa's reply was succinct. "The human you call 'O'Neill'." He pointed via the view screen at Jack. "Him."

Jack smiled slowly. This was turning out to be an interesting day. He could see Ronson swallow as he considered his response. "Our humanitarian beliefs hold kidnapping to be to an immoral assault, and we do not respond to threats. We will not comply with this request. Please leave our Solar System immediately, or we will be forced to take action."

The Jaffa hesitated. A richly clad arm came into view and pushed the Jaffa out of the way. The 'man' turned. Dark eyes. Dark widows peak hair. Dark goatee beard. Ba'al. His eyes skittered over the scene, analyzing his own view screen. He sneered. "Is that the best humans could produce to defeat *me*." Mocking, superior, evil. Yup, that was Ba'al all right.

"What pathetic standards an alliance with the Asgard brings." Ba'al continued in a scathing tone.

Ronson dived in. "The protected planets treaty still stands. We have contacted them for assistance." He rubbed his hand against his suit leg.

Jack groaned inwardly.

Ba'al smiled again. "My dear Colonel, I have broken no treaty. I merely wish to reclaim my property. O'Neill is mine by forfeit. I wish you to release him now or I *will* be forced to destroy you. I witnessed your little problem with the remnants of this planet's moon. I do not wish to waste my time here."

"Stall him!" hissed Jack. He could see the Colonel's head half turn.

"I will need to consult my superiors," blustered Ronson.

Ba'al smiled. Jack's stomach clenched as he pictured his own service knife being driven again and again into the bastard's face.

"Very well. You have five of your Earth minutes to comply." Ba'al sneered and then bowed his head a little, a gesture that Teal'c sometimes adopted. To see that familiar, welcoming movement being employed by such a monster ate into Jack's tightly controlled rage. The Goa'uld made to step away from the teleball device that was transmitting his image. "Ah," he said, as if forgetting something. "I also require a 'Major Carter', for my friends that are off your stern."

The screen went blank.

Sam's head snapped up at the sound of her name. She made to step further onto the bridge, only to be stopped by Teal'c, who was standing nearby. He blocked her intention with a strong arm and pointed to the scanners; she couldn't be seen within the teleball's range.

"End transmission," confirmed Gant into the silence that followed.

Ronson stood up, his face set to stone, his gaze unwavering from the view screen. He seemed to snap out of it, and turned, expressionless, to Jack. "Colonel O'Neill, I need to see you and Major Carter in my ready room, now." He turned toward the communications station. "Locate Colonel Samuels and tell him to report here, on the double." He marched off towards his office, just off the bridge.

Jack and Sam exchanged looks. As Jack proffered his hand out in a 'before you' gesture, Sam broke her gaze quickly and followed Ronson. Carter was chewing her lip and her usually pale skin was now almost blue, Jack noted. Stepping in behind her, he nodded to Teal'c, who followed behind him. With Carter doing her best, but still below par, it was reassuring to have the presence of the warrior around.

No sooner was the office door closed, the Colonel turned. He did a double take when he saw that Teal'c was also present, but recovered himself and demanded: "Ideas, people. I need everything you've got on this hostile."

"Well?" said Ronson into the silence. "I can't believe this whole mess is some sort of revenge mission by this Goa'uld. Surely they would only adopt a revenge based strategy if there was something in it for them?"

Jack stuck his hands in his pockets. "You haven't met Ba'al. He's just had his ass kicked by Yu, and I think his boss is pissed at him, Anubis, that is. That *might* have been our - *my* - fault. It could well be revenge." Jack grimaced. "As for the Aschen wanting Carter..." his voice tailed off as he turned to look at Sam. She was standing to attention in front of Ronson. Although still pale, two bright red spots of color appeared on her cheeks.

He continued. "Revenge may be a factor here also. Carter managed to thwart a sabotage attempt by the Aschen three years ago, with the assistance of Ambassador Faxon. It effectively cut off the Aschen's desire to raid Earth's resources. They seem civilized enough, but underneath, they're just as bad as the Goa'uld. 'We come, we see, we conquer your planet' sorta thing. In fact, I think they're worse, because they're so damn *sneaky* about it."

Ronson nodded. "That was my assessment as well." Ignoring Teal'c clearing his throat, he persisted. "So, if this *is* all about revenge, what now?"

Jack shrugged. "Hold them off until the Asgard get here."

Ronson countered. "We have no idea how long that will be. What about a pre-emptive strike?"

"Our current fire power is no match for them, sirs." Sam supplied.

The two men turned to look at her. Her return stare did not falter.

"Surely the Naquadah tipped warheads?" Ronson queried.

Sam nodded. "With all due respect, sir, we would need a delivery system capable of by-passing the mothership's shields. We haven't quite got that at the moment. And we have little information about Aschen space craft, so I can't comment on that."

Ronson let out an exasperated breath.

"Carter," began Jack gently, "what do you mean 'We haven't quite got that at the moment'?"

Sam paused. She fished in her pocket and brought out a small nut. Holding it between her thumb and her index finger, she regarded it for a moment. "Do you remember when you were a kid and you got to play the electric bass guitar at school? You would spend all your time trying to find the right noise to make the music stands vibrate?"

Jack could see Ronson grinding his teeth. "Go on," he probed.

"Well, before...before I was on leave, I was communicating with Area 51 and running experiments on utilizing sound frequencies to disrupt Mothership shield harmonics. It wouldn't take down an entire shield spread, but we found weak spots in the interference pattern-"

"-That you can punch a hole through?" Jack finished.

"Exactly!" confirmed Sam. The unguarded smile she gave him made his heart flip over.

Ronson broke in. "How far has this research gotten?"

"Not far," admitted Sam. "We have very little data on Mothership shield frequencies."

Ronson nodded, his interest piqued. "Can you rig something on board? Take anyone you need."

Sam nodded. "Right away, sir. I'll take McKay, Teal'c and a couple of the techs-"

The ship was rocked violently as the dull sound of an explosion could be heard. The scramble for the door was crazy, with Teal'c beating everyone.

"Report!" yelled Ronson as he rounded on Samuels who was sitting rigidly in the center seat.

"The Goa'uld ship has commenced firing!" Samuels' voice betrayed his panic.

"Raise them on the comm.!" yelled Ronson, as the ship was rocked by another explosion. "Ready the weapons!" he called to the weapons-defense station.

"More incoming!"" barked Gant from the nav. consul. The monitor changed to show a tactical display. A pulsating red blip was heading straight toward them. Jack saw Teal'c grab onto a bulkhead and draw Sam into his chest. The deck pitched wildly as Ronson staggered over to stand behind the young lieutenant manning the weapons station. "Away torpedoes!" he yelled.

Jack was transfixed by the view screen - a much larger blip was following the smaller one. Hail-Mary-Mother-of-God.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sam wrench herself free of Teal'c and fly over to the communication station. She activated a panel and her voice reverberated around the deck.

"ALL HANDS, BRACE FOR IMPACT! I REPEAT, ALLHANDSBRACEFORIMPACT!"

She spun her head around and caught his stare. He returned her gaze with a slow smile as chaos erupted around them. The sound of the explosion was deafening, much more so than the previous shots and the space rocks which had hit them earlier. The ship pitched and yawed as every master alarm sounded. Jack was dimly aware of Gant being thrown forward, her body smashing into the panel. He moved toward her. As he held fast to her seat, the lights dimmed, followed by two loud explosions on the deck. Jack immediately covered Gant's prone form with his own to protect her from the flying pieces of space ship that was raining down upon them. He turned his head to the side to see Teal'c was again shielding Carter, holding her face into his neck. An enormous explosion caused him to wince by instinct.

The ship finally stopped jerking. Jack cautiously raised his head, aware of the cacophony of chaos.

Black smoke was everywhere and the overhead lighting was out, but a flickering from the port side illuminated the bridge with flames.

The weapons console was already a charred wreck, and the operating lieutenant had collapsed onto the panel and was on fire. Jack scrambled toward the station. Someone grabbed an extinguisher and was tackling the blaze. Jack hitched his jacket over his fists and diving towards the burning man, he yanked his body back.

Sightless eyes gazed up at him from a ruined bloodied face, a deep, jagged gash in his neck revealing the spine.

O'Neill's heart lurched as he looked about for Ronson.

"Under here, sir!" shouted another young officer; it was Hailey. She was tugging frantically at a piece of bulkhead. Suddenly, strong black arms came around her as Teal'c lifted up the jagged metal.

Ronson was lying face up on the deck. His eyes were also open, but his face was untouched. A cleaver of metal was sticking out from his chest. Two breaths, and it was over.

********

Sam could hardly get the words out over the sound of the extraction filters coming from the bridge. "Sir! You can't go! This plan is madness - he'll kill you!"

The Colonel folded his arms and at the same time shrugged his shoulders. "Don't be a 'Miss-glass-half-empty', Carter. Besides, we don't really have a choice."

Samuels coughed. The filters were still working overtime to clear the smoke that had seeped into Ronson's ready room, however Teal'c seemed unaffected.

"Sir, he will subject you to torture, kill you anyway, then destroy us. It's suicide." Sam was keeping her voice controlled, but her heart was hammering.

Jack sighed and twisted his face into the familiar grimace that meant: I'm doing this. Her heart stopped thumping and started sinking.

"Carter, if I go, I may buy you some time to get this bucket moving. If I stay, the next shot will finish us. We're sitting ducks. There is no debate about this, and it's time I went." The Colonel uncrossed his arms and straightened his back. He nodded towards Samuels. "Time for plan E." The two men locked eyes as Jack breezed past him onto the bridge.

Sam let her head shake and followed with resignation. Pushing aside her burbling dread, she mentally pushed up her sleeves. There was still a lot of work to do. The crew was clearing the worst of the debris to one side as Ronson was being lifted into a body bag. The young lieutenant's body had already been removed. His name was David.

The final explosion had overloaded and blown out the crystal relays. Currently, the propulsion systems were off line. McKay was coughing under a panel, clutching a flashlight. With a quick look at the Colonel's retreating back, she turned her attention to the immediate problems: weapons, defense and propulsion. Hit back and run like hell. She hunkered down beside McKay.

"These relays are shot," McKay pointed to the burnt out components. "But we can link these CDC's through the cluster modules into that sub section." He nodded to the pilot's station.

"How long?" asked Sam, noting that a white-faced Gant was back at her station with a dressing over her nose. "How can I help?"

"Ten minutes for propulsion and you can help by getting *me* a cup of coffee. This is easy-peasy." McKay was already pulling out the carbonized apparatus.

"Weapons?" queried Sam, picking over some of the debris.

"Nope," he puffed, tugging on a stubborn motherboard.

"No weapons?" Did they have nothing with which to defend themselves? The main view screen was operational again and the Ha'tak was looming now off the port bow, and a smaller view inset displayed the Aschen ship that was blocking their rear.

McKay sighed pointedly. "Yeah, like our torpedoes would do *so* well against our pissed-off buddies out there."

Through the organized chaos of staff busying to and fro, Sam dimly heard Gant clearing the F302 for launch. He was going to do it. She shook her head in an attempt to rid herself of her anxiety. "What about the warheads? You were working on the mothership shield resonating frequencies three months ago; how far did you get?"

McKay sat back on his heels. "Pretty well, thanks for asking. But, Sam, that's irrelevant when they can be flown in by a glider when their shields are down."

Sam pulled her head back. "What?"

McKay nodded toward the view screen. The Colonel's glider was executing a graceful and controlled arc towards the Ha'tak.

"What?!" Sam repeated; realization was dawning. She opened her mouth again, but nothing would come out.

Finally she croaked out: "Colonel O'Neill is flying in a booby-trapped glider?"

McKay cocked an eyebrow at her. "Didn't you know? We kitted it out before you arrived. O'Neill knew it would probably come to this."

McKay's words were barely registering.

The Colonel was flying to his death, and he knew it, but didn't tell her. Did all the men in her life betray her? Well, this one wasn't going to get away with it again.

"McKay, when you're finished with propulsion, I need your help in glider bay two A-SAP," she said, and strode towards the exit.

******

'Jack O'Neill, this is the dumbest idea you have ever had.' Nope, Didn't work. 'Jack O'Neill, you're an ass.' Well, Daniel would like that one. What about: 'class A, could win prizes, all out *jerk*?' Yup. That one would do. Jack seemed to recall saying that to himself right before Sam's wedding. He didn't tell her how he really felt then either.

Completing his approach alignment, he silenced the shield proximity alarm and prayed he wouldn't be vaporized before the whole damn thing was blown up. Jack maneuvered the F-302 carefully toward the yawning maw of the Ha'tak's glider bay; his concentration interrupted by a disembodied metallic voice that said the human ship was on the correct approach vector. "No flags or flowers?" he grinned to himself as he settled the hybrid craft on the deck to await the welcoming committee. He took a moment to familiarize himself with his surroundings in case of a close-quarter retreat. Well, it couldn't hurt, could it?

The hanger was ten times the size of the 'gate room, spartanly decorated in Goa'uld gray. The F-302 was the only craft in sight, which Jack thought was decidedly odd; this space could take several death gliders – where were they? The utilitarian entrance door in front of him slid back revealing two serpent guards and six servant Jaffa. "Hello, boys," Jack waved. As he climbed out the cockpit, he feigned some difficulty and managed to reach in and activate a concealed timer and set the stopwatch on his Omega. 500 Naquadah enhanced megatons shielded with Asgard technology. 60 Minutes. Tick tock.

He climbed carefully down from the F-302, only to be pushed forward towards the door by the head guard, whom he recognized from the earlier transmission. "Take me to your leader thing, yeah?" That earned him a sharp dig in the back. "Love what you've done with the place," Jack continued. The guard thrust his hand forward. "March?" he smirked. "Sure. This way?" He endured another jab into the small of his back. "I'm marching, I'm marching." With one last look at the SGC's equivalent of a Trojan Horse he complied with the guard's instructions, noting the route they took.

Well, it couldn't hurt, could it?

******

McKay groaned for what seemed like the hundredth time. "This is not gonna work, Sam," he complained, hovering under the F-302's wing base.

"Can it, Rodney and pass me that laptop, it's got the shield frequency modulation data on it," she gestured frantically to the deck behind him. "And hurry, for God's sake, before Samuels twigs what's happening." Her heart was pounding again as she accepted the computer and began to connect up the rear USB ports. She pushed her hair back from her sweating forehead.

"Sam, please. If you get hurt, Jack's gonna kill me." Rodney was whining again. "And then he'll bring me back to life, only to kill me over and over."

Sam's hands stilled and she stared at McKay. Did he know? How could he? She turned her gaze to Teal'c, standing by the wheelbase. He nodded. Ba'al would do this to Jack if he had the chance.

McKay was now pacing, wringing his hands. "But O'Neill will have set the timer, we've only got an hour to get the hell out of this space before the Big Bang."

Sam hastily tucked the wires back into the cockpit and checked her hand weapons before climbing carefully onto the wing. Teal'c raised his arms to lift her tenderly down to the deck.

"Well then, better go and tell Sparky he's got his thrusters back so he can run away," Sam spat bitterly. "I'm not leaving the Colonel on that ship if there is any chance he will survive. You don't know what Ba'al did to him the last time. Have you got a pair of scissors?" she demanded.

"Well, why can't Teal'c go? And why scissors?" McKay's eyes were bulging as he fiddled in his pockets. He produced a large Swiss army knife and began to pull out various tools. The intercom was requesting 'Major Carter's immediate presence on the bridge'.

"You know why; Teal'c isn't familiar with the frequency modulation technology, I am. You know the technology, but you can't fly the glider. I can do both. QED." She snatched the army knife out of McKay's hands and bent over at the waist. Pulling her hair into her fist and twirling, she began to cut through her tangled blonde tresses at the twist. "Just keep Samuels out of the way, that's all I ask." Sam straightened up and thrust the knife and her amputated ponytail into McKay's astonished fingers.

Shaking her butchered tresses out, she nodded to Teal'c. They locked gazes. A myriad of unspoken dignities passed between them. "Time to go," whispered Sam.

"Good luck, MajorCarter," said the warrior, and with a grace that surprised her, lifted her as though she weighed nothing onto the glider wing. "Success in our endeavor."

Sam reached down to touch her friend's cheek and smiled. "Indeed."

Teal'c and McKay stepped back into the pressurized control room as she quickly donned her helmet, clambered into the front seat and readied the F- 302 for launch. Through the observation window, she could see Teal'c operating the internal forcefields and watched with relief as the hanger bay doors drew back. As she elevated the ship from the deck, she spied Samuels bursting through the control room doorway and waving his arms about.

"My career is over. Again," Sam mused, as the glider shot away from the bay doors into space.

******

Jack clenched his jaw and concentrated on keeping his breathing even. In and out. Out and in. He could do this. All he had to do was keep him chatting until *boom*.

He was standing in a small room off the Pel'tac of the ship, just him and Ba'al, and two serpent guards. Cosy. In and out. Out and in.

Ba'al was circling, smirking and silent. He stopped in front of Jack and stared straight into his eyes. He was so close, Jack could almost feel his breath and he fought the urge to retch. Cold slits of obsidian were dominating his range of vision, so he focused on the deep crease above the bastard's nose. It was unusually defined, and there was a small flaw under the skin... concentrate... tick tock.

"I am glad to meet you again, Colonel. We have some unfinished business." Ba'al smirked.

Bowie knife. In and out. Out and in.

"Come, now, Colonel. No banal expressions of pleasure? No platitudes of gratitude? Tsk, tsk. Humans are so dull, and have no dress sense whatsoever." Ba'al reached behind him and withdrew a dagger, evidently hidden in his waistband. He sighed slowly and turned the blade of the weapon to catch the flickering torches that illuminated the room.

Jack's heart began to beat a lot faster. There were three notches along the blade and the hilt was striated – it must be part of the same set from before. Those daggers had haunted his nightmares for months, no matter how hard he had tried to forget. He had checked to see if the magnetic gate was present as soon as he walked in the room and it hadn't. What was he planning?

Okay. Keep him talking. "Say, buddy, what's with the 'I' pronoun? I thought you Goa'uld use the Royal 'we'? I mean, that's *so* pretentious, don't you think? Are you one of those progressive Goa'ulds that like to get closer to their subjects, to-"

Fuck. The bastard could move fast. The knife was pointing three inches away from his eye. Jack swallowed carefully.

Ba'al smiled again and twisted the knife hilt in his outstretched fist, causing slivers of light to slither up and down the blade. "Do not be impudent, O'Neill. I have patience, as you know, but it is not unlimited."

Jack shifted his head back a fraction. "Okay. But can I ask a question?"

Ba'al didn't move. "I do not know, can you?" The arm abruptly lowered, and Jack released a breath slowly through his teeth.

Ignore him, ignore...tick tock. "Why am I here?"

"Why do you think?" Ba'al smirked.

"You want to stick a nasty bug inside me to get loads of stuff about Earth's defenses?" It was worth a try, but judging by the non-plussed expression that briefly appeared on Ba'al's sneering face and then was masked, he was hitting wide of the mark. "Just checking."

Okay, okay, one down. "Revenge for Shalan?" Jack hazarded a guess.

The knife was scraped along the black tunic, mimicking the action of a kitchen knife against a whetstone. "A mere female – a slave of no consequence."

Hmm. His nonchalance wasn't that good. All this for a woman? He couldn't let this die. "You had no intention of destroying Earth, did you? This is all one big play to get *me*. Did you plan the hit on PX-thing, Amzawee, to get at me? That's why you've got no death gliders on board-"

"SILENCE!" Ba'al yelled. It was the first time in their lengthy 'sessions' together that Jack had ever heard Ba'al raise his voice.

If this was all some sort of case of misplaced revenge, the leaders of Earth could be still be duped into thinking an all-out attack was imminent. After the earlier light show, they might agree to anything without the protection of the Asgard. In for a penny. "What the hell is all this with the Aschen? Why are they involved?"

The blade flashed and the knife was at his throat. "I repeat; silence," hissed Ba'al.

He gestured sharply to the attendant guards. They strode over in tandem, as if part of some bizarre dance troupe. Grabbing Jack's arms, they began to drag him away. Jack yelled over his shoulder "You've got nothing, have you? You had no intention of attacking Earth! Jesus! All this for revenge!" He twisted his neck to get a better view of the bastard Goa'uld. He was staring after Jack with a thunderous look.

He had to warn Earth! He had to get a message to the 'Prometheus'!

Jack jerked his arms downwards, and incredibly, he was free. Losing no time, he made off down the corridor back toward the glider bay, cursing his knees.

He thought he heard a metallic clang behind him, and ducking behind a bulkhead was the last thing he remembered before the world went black.

********

Sam still couldn't believe she wasn't floating in a zillion pieces by now. Why wasn't she being fired upon? Completing a pass around the stern of the Goa'uld ship, she snapped on the autopilot and quickly typed some figures from the external sensors into the laptop. The monitor dissolved into a shield frequency modulation simulation.

Damn! Why wasn't it working? She peered closely at the interference pattern displayed. Virtual Red stress lines pulsated around virtual white centers, like the magnetic lines between planetary poles. Sam upped the frequency of the sound harmonic generator and fired the boosted signal towards the Ha'tak again. The undulations spread outwards like ripples on a pond, but as fast as Sam was positioning the F-302 to fly in, the pattern was settling.

She stared at the screen. Something looked familiar.. so familiar! It pricked at the back of her mind as she re-ran the analysis.

"Ripples on a pond!" She blurted out loud. The memory of the lake near the Colonel's cabin swam into her head. She reset some co-ordinates, babbling as she did so. "Just plunk it in and the waves die. You have to skip the stones to set the whole pond off. Thank you, Colonel!"

Her fingers skimmed over the keys, making the adjustments to the harmonics program. Her forefinger hesitated for a second over the 'enter' key. Click. She watched the laptop as the undulating patterns grew stronger and more erratic – green spots were appearing – the shield tactical was pockmarked with holes! It would work! Angling an offset approach vector towards the glider bay she had seen the Colonel fly into, she ground her teeth and changed the view to 'heads up' as the ship shot towards the nearest green blip she could see. If she misjudged by a few meters, the shielding could possibly rip off the wings. Bye, bye, Sam. Thanks for all the dialing programs. The green blip on the heads up display view began to shrink, but there was no way she was slowing her velocity; she was *so* doing this! And...she was through! She was through on the other side of the Ha'tak shield, going too damn fast. Sam's hands were white on the helm as the F-302's angle finally softened and she begin flying parallel to the enemy vessel, instead of perpendicular to it.

Five minutes later, she landed the glider next to Colonel O'Neill's in a deserted hanger.

Where was everybody?

*******

Oh. My. God.

Jack lay still for a moment. He knew the drill with a shock grenade; lie still and his head wouldn't hurt *too* much and the eyesight would come back. At least he wasn't dead. Yet.

He moved onto his right side to determine his situation.. and groaned. Oh, this was the worse it had ever been. His head was pounding and the only visual thing he could detect were some dull patches of light above him. Probably those fire torches the Goa'ulds *loved* to decorate their ships with. Damn stupid idea...

"Jack."

Jack's head snapped to the sound, even though he couldn't see a thing. The voice sounded slightly familiar, if a bit strange. Only one way to find out. "Hi," he replied.

The answer was just a grunt, a kinda sick-sounding grunt.

A man grunt. Younger than him. "Jesus! Is that you, Joe?" Jack demanded. This was too weird.

"Yeah." Definitely ill.

Jack stretched out with his left arm and waved it in the air. "Well, give us a hand up and report your situation. Why aren't you on the Aschen ship? And what the hell do you want with Sam?" He could still only see residuals.

Nothing.

"Come on, Joe, stop being a prick and get me up, I can get you out of here." He waved his arm wildly and suddenly came into contact with a fabric covered leg. It was like touching a corpse. "Joe?"

The voice gasped a breath before responding. "I can't help you. I think my spine is severed. I'm paralyzed. I was hit with the blunt end of a staff weapon as I tried to escape - I can't move my arms or my legs." The breathing became more labored. Crap.

Jack pulled up his own protesting legs and half rolled on top of them. He managed to move on all fours to where he thought Joe's head was. "What happened with the Aschen?"

"Mind control," the voice rasped. "At least, I think so. Mowlem wanted Sam; they have this revenge subculture, and they used me. They've been putting things in my head – it hurts!" There was more wheezing before: "After P3A-194, Mowlem was ostracized. He hooked up with Ba'al to get to Earth and the SGC. Then they sent me here. Jack!"

"I'm here, I'm here," confirmed Jack. "But where the hell are you?"

"Here."

"I know that." It was like talking to Daniel!

"Is Sam safe?" The voice sounded genuinely concerned.

What should he say? "She's not here, if that's what you mean. But why the fuck do you care? You nearly destroyed her, you bastard."

He heard a sob. "I know. Will you tell Sam that I love her? Tell her that she's a good person, and I never *ever* wanted to hurt her."

Jack couldn't stop himself. "Well, you did." Memories of Sam crying her eyes out invaded his thoughts. "Believe me, you did."

"I know." Now the tone was regretful and filled with pain. "I remember most of what I did."

Jack heard more sobbing. Oh, man. He could hear the other man gasping as he continued. "I could never compete with you."

Enough – tick tock. "Listen, Joe – Ambassador – I can get you out of here, I could probably carry you, but you'll have to tell me where I'm going, a shock grenade has blown my light fuse." Wait. They'd left him with his wristwatch. Hadn't these guys ever *seen* James Bond? "Ambassador, can you see my watch?" He hitched his arm in what he hoped was the correct position for Faxon's eye line. "What does it say? Huh? Can you read it?"

He could hear swallowing. "13:03"

Shit! Thirteen minutes left before the Big Bang. He felt around for Faxon's arm. "Okay, Ambassador, time to go."

"Leave me. I'll slow you down. I think the main hanger is left out of here, and I can't see any guards. I think the door is locked anyway." Now all Jack could hear was defeat. He was pretty certain that Joe still felt something for Sam. If that was the case, she might still love him. She must have done once, to marry the guy. Jack ruefully reasoned he had no right to Samantha Carter anyway. The decision was made.

He hitched Faxon's right arm around his left shoulder. "Well, considering I don't even know where *here* is, I kinda need you to look at the lock. Besides, I can't leave you to die, it keeps happening, and you wouldn't believe the paperwork."

With a supreme effort, Jack hoisted the dead weight onto his shoulders...and fell flat on his face with Faxon pinning him down.

Round one.

********

Sam was pacing the corridors as rapidly as she dared. She had encountered no one. Absolutely NO ONE. What was going on? The Ha'tak should have been teeming with Jaffa, Goa'uld hangers on, slaves, and all and sundry. The ship was deserted, as far as she could tell. Furthermore, as she traversed the corridors, it was evident that the craft was barely out of the construction dock. Large sections of the bulkheads were mere shells, devoid of the rich decoration that customarily adored Goa'uld vessels and building debris littered the floors.

She consulted the handheld homing device that McKay had given to her just before launch. It was his idea to fit beacons into the Colonel's shoes and wristwatch, so unless the Jaffa had stripped Jack completely, he was very close by, as the signal was strong and steady.

Jack. She had done it again. *Not* Jack. COLONEL. *Not* Jack. Minnesota was just a dream, a memory. It was business as usual and if she didn't keep her mind on the job, she would be dog food over the Ha'tak's walls. She gripped her Zat harder and checked the devise. 20 meters aft. Conscious that time could be critical, she risking running the remainder of the way down the corridor – and rounded on one of the bizarrest scenes she had ever encountered, and she had encountered a few.

Her estranged husband was lying on top of her friend and commander. She couldn't help it; she gaped. Finding her voice, she choked out: "Sir! Joe!" Yeah, Sam, dead eloquent. After checking the corridor in both directions, she fired the Zat at close quarters to the paneled door lock. Horrified at the noise, she was relieved when the activation light dimmed. She was across the threshold, abandoned the homing devise and risked laying her weapon on the floor to assess the men's conditions. Checking for Joe's pulse, it was erratic and it was obvious something was wrong with his neck; it was badly bruised and not quite straight. A sting of fear shivered down her spine as she briefly wondered if he was implanted with a symbiote, but she couldn't detect any traces of Naquadah.

"Carter?" The Colonel's voice was muffled.

"Yes, sir. Hold still while I move.. the Ambassador." She chanced moving Joe, as it was obvious he had been turned repositioned already. Hooking her arms under his, she kept his head as straight as she could while gently shifting him off Colonel O'Neill and onto the floor, taking care to keep his face downwards.

He groaned. Although the noise wasn't familiar to her, the tone was. "Joe?" she asked tentatively. The next sound sent her heart racing even faster, if that were possible.

"Sam?"

Oh dear God, give me the strength. "Yes, it's me, lie still, you've got a neck injury." He was still wearing his suit pants and dress shirt from home.

His head twisted awkwardly. "I know; I'm paralyzed. Help Colonel O'Neill."

"I'll help you both, but lay still, please." Her hands were already running down the Colonel's spine. His arm curled out from where it was trapped beneath him.

"Carter, get me the hell up. Your husband's injured and I'm blinded by a shock grenade." Sam gritted her teeth and cautiously helped him to sit up, curling her arm around his back. Suddenly, his left arm was thrust out under her nose. "What time does it say?"

Sam's dismay at the men's injuries was put aside as she studied the watch stop clock. "11:45," she stated.

The Colonel nodded. An odd gesture as there was no eye contact with her. "My hand, sir," she offered, grasping his wrists. He was on his feet quickly, his hands on her shoulders.

"I want to have a serious talk with you as to just what you are doing here, but we have eleven minutes to get a message to the 'Prometheus', did you fly in?" The Colonel was all business.

"Yes, sir." She could do business.

He dropped his right arm. "Where did you park?"

Her mouth twitched up into a grin. "Next to you." She began to shrug off her jacket and roll it tightly lengthwise.

"You need to get back and send Intel off to say Ba'al's plans to destroy Earth are a total phony. He's got no intention of attacking us, and it looks like the Aschen are just along for-"

"Sir!" Sam interjected. "I know that already, but there's no time! I would have to take off to send a message, and there isn't enough time to get back here - the Ha'tak shield prevents signals getting through; I tried that earlier." She began to wrap the jacket carefully around her husband's neck, taking care not to move it too much.

"So don't come back." Jack's face was a mask.

Sam snapped her head back. "What?"

"Don't-"

Sam interrupted again – he would *so* have her ass for this. "Don't even go there! That's why I'm here, and we're standing here arguing while the clock is ticking. Now are you gonna help me, *sir*?" She grabbed his hands and pulled them downwards to the floor where Joe was lying. "Can you feel that shoulder? You take his left, and I'll get the other side; you're both coming with me."

The Colonel wasted no time; once he had made a decision, he went for it; so much like her Dad. Joe's arms were hoisted around carrying shoulders.

Jack grunted with the effort. They took a few shuffling steps with Joe slumped between them.

"Sir, can you manage?" Sam huffed out. Joe's head lolled alarmingly onto her shoulder. "I think he's passed out."

The Colonel grunted. "Just keep going, Carter."

"Yes, sir," confirmed Sam through gritted teeth. "Two way seat?" she hissed, wondering if that would be easier.

Jack grumbled again. "Keep going."

They made slow progress up the corridor. It was obvious the Colonel was still suffering the after effects of the shock grenade, and Sam already knew her muscles were too soft from sitting on her ass so much. Joe was a complete dead weight between them. The tips of his Brookes Bros. shoes made a scrapping noise on the floor and the height difference between his carriers ensured that his body was jogged about rather roughly. Twisting her head over Joe's arm, she could actually see the Colonel's wristwatch readout clearly - 10:37. Swinging around a bend, her peripheral vision caught two Jaffa raising a staff weapon and a Zat respectively. She frantically retreated back around the corner, nearly pulling the Colonel over in the process.

"Enemy at one o'clock, sir!" she yelled over the exploding weapons fire, as she offloaded her husband as gently as she could onto the floor.

"I gathered that Major!" yelled the Colonel, crouching down as Joe was lowered. "Situation report?!"

Sam grabbed his T-shirt and pulled him down further over the prone figure as a staff blast caught the edge of a bulkhead corner. She held onto his head as she assessed the situation.

"Sitrep?" Jack repeated over more weapons fire.

"Two enemy, three o'clock, blocking our retreat. We're right opposite an open access crawlspace and we're above the hanger." She released and primed her Zat, and let off a volley to keep the Jaffa busy. The only other weapons she was carrying were a standard issue 9mm and two grenades 'borrowed' from the armory aboard the 'Prometheus'. Crap, this wouldn't last long.

The Colonel cocked his head listening for sounds of the approaching enemy. With him still kneeling on all fours, Sam wildly mused he resembled a faithful puppy.

"That does it, Carter, get to the crawlspace, I'll cover you. Give me the Zat-"his words were cut off by another staff blast above their heads.

Sam shook the debris from her hair. "Not without you, sir!" she yelled, returning fire. An alarm began to sound; a persistent bone crunching wail.

The Colonel was scrunching up his eyes and feeling forward. "Our position's been made; you are the only one capable of retreat, so DO IT! That's an order! I'll stay with the Ambassador, give me the Zat!" he repeated.

A groan from between them made them both look down, even though it was obvious the Colonel's vision was still bad. "Leave me," croaked out Joe.

Jack grimaced. "We've had this convo, sir. No can do. Carter, what the hell are you waiting for?"

Sam looked at him; he was blinded and essentially helpless. Then at her husband, pathetic and weak. The only two men she had ever really loved as men. She couldn't leave them. So help her, she would rather die with them, orders be damned; Sam Carter had followed them too damn long anyway. She fired another Zat volley.

"Carter?" His questioning voice came from behind her.

"She won't go, Jack, you know that." Joe's voice.

"What's the time?" Jack's voice, slightly desperate.

"8:27." Joe, resigned. She fired off another volley as one of the Jaffa made a move to advance. He cowered back.

"Make her go."

"She's *your* wife! You make her!"

This was so funny. Her CO and her husband arguing over her. Weird shit. More weapons fire. Damn, she could be across the gap in two strides and down to safety in minutes. Then Joe spoke again.

"Samantha, I love you."

Her hand stilled on the Zat trigger for a second. Please, Joe, not this.

"Don't die for me, I'm sure as hell not worth it." His voice was steadier that time.

Sam risked turning her head around. Her husband's soft brown eyes locked onto hers and in an instant, she saw pain and fear and longing there. And something else. Resolution. It was over. It was all over.

She swallowed. "I have two grenades," she said simply, and fired an aimless shot to keep the Jaffa busy. Joe nodded clumsily and looked toward the Colonel who was crouching next to her. She understood. Firing another volley she yelled to Jack above the noise. "Colonel, we need to advance two meters, twelve o'clock from where you're facing, and then climb downwards on rungs. No arguments, on three, got that?"

"The Ambassador?" Jack began feeling about.

"No arguments!" she repeated. Her heart was pounding in her ears, and she was not looking in her husband's eyes.

Jack's brows creased, but he nodded and felt his way up the wall to a partially standing position. Sam pulled out the first grenade and balanced it between her knees as she crouched. Pulling out the second, she could see Joe watching her every move. She pulled the pin out with her teeth; she knew there was a reason she had watched all those WW2 movies as a kid.

"One.."

The Colonel braced himself as she fired the Zat and threw the grenade down the corridor toward the enemy.

"Two.."

Sam pulled out the other pin and dropped into her husband's unresponsive palm. He smiled at her.

"THREE!"

Grabbing the Colonel and dragging him over Joe, she pelted for the opening and reached it just as the first grenade exploded, scattering more debris about them. Grasping Jack's hands, she slapped his fingers onto the rungs and mercifully, he got the idea and began to climb rapidly downwards. She followed as closely as she dared, hand under hand. Where was the second explosion? She could hear the shouts of a Jaffa; at least one must have survived. They were sitting ducks in this hole!

Then it happened. The noise was deafening, channeled into the chamber and more Ha'tak was raining on them. "I loved you too, Joe," she breathed as suddenly, her feet hit bottom. Jack reached out for her.

"I can see your shape!" He coughed dust, his silvery hair almost white with powder.

"Great!" snarked Sam and yanked up his left arm. 5:15. Tick tock. "Five minutes, sir! Hang on!" She snatched up his hand and pulled him as she began to sprint across the deck. No enemy interception? Definitely weird. By the time they reached her F-302, Jack was leading her; it was obvious his vision was returning. He scrambled gracelessly up onto the fighter wing, aided by Sam's punt on his ass and immediately stretched down towards her. She awkwardly placed the Colonel into the navigator's seat before climbing into the pilot's position, flicking the flight controls as she did so. Perhaps they might make it out alive. Just as the overhead canopy slid home, a staff blast shot by her head. Or perhaps not.

As the shielding came on line, she eyed the aircraft's twin sitting next to them in the hanger. Tick tock. She was airborne, maneuvering the craft about as it elevated from the deck and away from the enemy.

"SITREP?!" yelled the Colonel from behind her.

As she headed towards the hanger doors, she replied, "With all due respect, sir, SHUT UP!" Sam could swear she heard chuckling coming from behind her. The maw was closing! She banked the glider sharply to port and heard the Colonel suck in a breath. The walls of the hanger became a blur as the craft streaked towards freedom. Stray staff blasts were pelting the wall and impacting on the closing exit in front of her. She applied more thrust and momentarily narrowed her eyes, assessing the gap. She was banking too hard and adjusted the angle, trying not to over-compensate...

...the light patterns shifted – the craft was flying outside the Ha'tak. She blinked as a buzzing noise confirmed they were now passing through the Goa'uld shielding. Snapping the internal view screen onto the reverse angle, she pumped the glider for all it was worth. What the hell was the time? Surely the detonation mark had been reached? A flicker of light in the viewer caught her eye; they were being fired upon! She dropped the glider as severely as she could and felt the seat begin to rattle underneath her.

"Carter!" the Colonel choked out from behind her.

"Incoming!" yelled Sam as she tried to steady the craft. "Can you reach your restraints?" She turned into a steep incline and she could almost *feel* the inertial dampeners straining to compensate as the G-forces pushed her further back into the seat.

Odd - there was light coming from somewhere. She risked a glance at the rear-angle. A surreal red and orange flower was growing from the center of the Ha'tak, blossoming with deadly intent.

The shock wave hit them four seconds later, and for a moment Sam thought it was finished. She wasn't flying the ship any longer; more like hanging on for dear life as it spun helplessly across space. Debris from the Ha'tak buffeted the fuselage and the master alarms were deafening.

Her mind began to spin as the Universe lazily pitched and yawed. It was kind of fun, like a fairground ride. Her eyes drifted shut, and she could feel something warm trickling down her forehead and down into her right eyebrow. Thinking it might be blood, she remembered to keep her eyes closed. Then she became aware of warm fingers on the right side of her neck and realized that the fingers were feeling for a pulse.

"S'okay, Sir, I'm okay" she said, although to her ears it was more of a mumble. "You okay?" she asked, trying to turn to see the Colonel, still sitting in the navigator's position behind her.

"Yeah, hold still; I can feel you've got a scalp wound. What have I told you about buckling up?"

He drifted into darkness. She felt his hand on her shoulder. "Sam?"

With a start, she jolted upright and fought to regain control of her senses as well as the bucking ship. Becoming alert and assessing the situation, she could see the debris spreading exponentially from the blast site.

"Thrusters at station keeping, sir. The Ha'tak appears to be completely destroyed. I think it helped that it wasn't fully constructed."

Sam could almost see the Colonel smile. "Good. What about the Aschen?" He said it 'ashen' in true Jack-style; it always made her grin with his total disregard for proper pronunciation of the enemy names. She screwed her neck around to watch the long Aschen craft disappear into hyperspace and an Asgard ship just coming into view off their port bow.

"Gone. And Thor's here." She was tired now. Thoughts of Joe were surfacing. No, she thought, not yet.

She heard him breathing quite close to her right ear. "Come on, Carter, there's no place like home."

Smiling thinly, Sam angled the craft towards the 'Prometheus'. "Yes, sir."

********

The journey back to Earth was uneventful. They docked with the 'Prometheus' to be met by a stony-faced Samuels, a jubilant McKay and a happily stoic Teal'c. Sam's head wound wasn't serious and she spent the return voyage directing orders concerning the remainder of the bridge repairs with McKay. Jack assumed command being the most senior officer on board, and checked in on her progress. Judging by the detailed summaries she was giving him, she was fine. When he overheard her arguing with McKay over something called a 'duplex spanning tree', he knew it for sure.

Jack ensured that everyone was kept busy so they had no time to dwell on their dead colleagues; there was an air of quiet respect, but also the satisfaction of a job well done. The Ha'tak threat, minimal though it turned out, was gone, and the Aschen obviously understood they had bitten off more than they could chew when they saw the Asgard. Perhaps they wouldn't be so quick to throw their lot in with the Goa'uld. For the time being, anyway.

Lt.Col. Samuels wisely maintained his distance (Teal'c had told Jack that Sam disobeyed orders) and spent most of the time at the communications station, relaying information back to the SGC and Nevada Control. Much to Jack's amusement, Teal'c spent quite a bit of time in close proximity to 'Sparky', just to royally piss him off.

The pre-disembarkation de-brief was mercifully short, actually thanks to Samuels' comms. Jack, Sam and Teal'c ended up being the last of the mission personnel to leave the 'Prometheus' hanger. When they stepped out into the bright Nevada sunshine, Sam was thrilled to be met by her father. Jacob had been contacted by General Hammond regarding the latest scrape his daughter had gotten into, and upon his arrival at the SGC, both men had decided an 'assessment exercise' to Area 51 was in order.

Jack let Sam have her time with her Dad, but he knew she was going to have to deal with a number of issues in the coming weeks. Although she seemed to be the old happy Sam again, so much had happened over the last year, he wasn't sure if she would be able to soak it up as in the past.

She would need good friends.

He would be one of them.

********

Party music from the room filtered out to the verandah as Sam sipped slowly at her beer. The view from General Hammond's rear patio was absolutely lovely, especially in the warm of a summers evening, as now. She glanced up at the moon, waxing onto its third quarter, cool and at peace. Somewhat like herself, she smiled. It had been two months since Ba'al's threat to Earth had been crushed. Two months since her husband's death.

His betrayal had been glossed over, of course. The spin-doctors had ensured that Ambassador Faxon's death was portrayed in the most heroic light and there was no official mention of his duplicity concerning the Aschen. Her conduct had been naturally investigated. It meant a trip to Washington and a few hours of questioning, but she was completely exonerated. Of course, that might have had something to do with the three dress blues-suited AF Generals sitting protectively in a row behind her in the hearing room.

Yeah. Three. Colonel O'Neill was a Colonel no longer. 'General' O'Neill was now in command of the off-world Beta site in preparation against a Goa'uld attack, and was spending much of his time there. Plans were also being drawn up for the establishment of an Epsilon site – a long-term settlement off-world. She smiled at the memory of Jack's gawping face when General Hammond announced his promotion in the middle of a top brass reception. And he had looked damn handsome in his new uniform when he played 'minder' on her de-briefing at the Pentagon. Not only was she was cleared of any involvement with the Aschen, she was also highly commended for her actions – apparently, Samuels had 'ordered' her to extract Colonel O'Neill from the Ha'tak. Major Carter was also a Major no longer – her promotion to Lt.Col. came through, and she was now in complete control of the science command at both the SGC and Area 51. General Hammond privately explained that TBTB couldn't afford to lose her off-world again; she was effectively Earth-bound. Not that she minded at the moment while she was still trying to get her life straight. There would be time to fight later.

Sam rested her forearms on the flat wooden railing encircling the deck and gazed over the nearby lake, circling the beer bottle between her fingers. The waters lapped serenely in the silvery moonlight, curiously reminding her of her husband's funeral ceremony. Her small smile faded as she recalled Joe's parent's place in the mountains. It was quiet and refined, overlooking a still high-level lake. Although she was snubbed by her mother-in-law, Frances, her father-in-law had been quite kind toward her. Joe's house was sold, and since he had not changed his will, the proceeds were Sam's. Of course, she neither wanted, nor really needed the money, so she was now living back in her father's old house and most of the estate had been split between UNICEF and the local children's hospital that specialized in neo-natal care. It was the right thing to do; she knew it was. Frances Faxon stopped her sniping when she found that out. Closure.

Sam gazed down at her wedding ring. She hadn't taken it off yet, but she was nearly ready to do so. Nearly. Of course, her engagement ring was lying at the bottom of a pond in Minnesota. The thought made her giggle as she took a swig of beer.

"Hey, Carter, what's so funny?" O'Neill's voice came from behind her.

"Nothing," she smiled as she tossed her head to face him. He looked tanned and quite relaxed in a dark navy shirt and chinos.

"Well, whatchadoin'?" Jack was grinning as he asked, his dark eyes glittering in the subdued lighting.

Her answering soft laugh made him smile even wider. Another sound of raucous laughter made them both peer within. "Drs. Jackson are kissing *again*," noted Jack, taking a swallow of beer. He stepped closer and rested his lean arms over the railings to the left of her.

Sam swirled the dregs of her own beer about. "They're newly-weds, cut them some slack," she admonished lightly. "They won't have time when the baby comes." She watched Daniel place his arm around Janet as he was telling a story to Jonas and Becky in an animated fashion, then lean down and pat Janet's growing baby bump. It was pleasant surprise for everyone to learn that Daniel and Janet returned from San Francisco *married*, and then for Janet to blushingly admit that yes, she was pregnant and yes, she had gotten pregnant *before* they were married.

"You okay?" She was being stared at. He was doing that a lot. Being there, checking on her. But in a non-suffocating way, thank God.

She turned away from the happy scene, feeling a little guilty for people- watching so openly. "I'm fine, I'm very, *very* delighted for them."

Jack nodded and finished the last of his beer. "Me too. Want another?" he asked, indicating her bottle.

"No thanks." Yes, he was there for her; a comforting yet unassuming presence. He had waited outside McKenzie's office during her psych. sessions and dealt with the aftermath. He had been sworn at, cried over and on one occasion, she lashed out at him. He took it all, never once retaliating and never over stepping the mark; the perfect gentleman, defending a woman's honor. *This* woman's honor. Her Dad stayed around for a bit and watched all this with his usual quiet intensity. Then, suddenly, he announced his decision return to Nemtesh. When she asked him why his departure was so abrupt, he shrugged, smiled, and said simply: "You don't need me, kiddo; you've got him."

Him being Jack. Not her 'Colonel' Jack. Someone else's 'General' Jack. No frat. regs.

"Penny for them?" He was smiling at her again, but then frowned as she snickered. "I've told you, no sniggering." He shot her one of his serious looks. "I've been meaning to ask you."

"Yeee-ssss?" she said slowly, in a 'this-better-be-good' voice.

He gestured wildly with his bottle. "Back on the 'Prometheus', where the hell did you learn a phrase like 'All hands brace for impact' anyway? That's a naval term, I think."

Here we go. "Star Trek."

He spluttered. "Star Trek?! You've gotta be kiddin' me - mini skirts and big hair?"

"Star Trek." Sam shrugged nonchalantly and relaxed against the railings.

It was Jack's turn to snigger. "I never had you down as a Trekkie, Carter," he teased.

"Nah, I just fancied the guy who played the Commander in the '80's." She smiled then, suddenly embarrassed. Perhaps she should return to the party.

Jack furrowed his brows. "What? The bald Brit. that does Shakespeare on the side?"

"Err, no, the tall guy with the beard, always looked worried." She shifted her feet.

He straightened up. "Oh, tall eh? 'Bout 6''3'? Do you think I'd look good in a beard?" Jack held his chin first to one side and then the other for her perusal.

"Only with 'Just for Men - mid brown'," she burst out, collapsing into giggles, and he followed her, both chuckling like 3rd graders.

As their laughter subsided, a hush came over the kitchen. The partygoers were heading into the front room; Hammond must be going to give one of his speeches. "Do you think we should go in?" Sam asked, feeling a little awkward, alone on the balcony on a warm, moonlit - romantic - evening.

Jack pursed his lips. "Leave it. We've heard it before, anyway."

She nodded. "Yeah."

"Your hair looks nice." He gestured to her now properly cropped hair.

She smiled and reached up to smooth down a few stray strands. "Thanks." If McKay told the story about how she cut her own hair with a Swiss army knife one more time, she would drop-kick him out of existence.

Jack seemed to be debating something in his head. "Carter, can I ask you something else?"

"I know of no way of stopping you, sir," she had the words out before she realized.

Jack smirked. "Cute. I've taught you well." He paused to look out over the tranquil vista. "Why did you come back for me?"

The evening suddenly seemed cooler, and the emerging stars that much brighter. This was the time for telling the truth; she couldn't believe that he had waited so long to ask her. "It was Ba'al. I wouldn't leave you there after what he did to you the last time." She began to scrape at the beer label with her fingernail.

"No one gets left behind?" he asked gently, reaching over and taking the bottle from her hands and putting both empties on the table behind him.

She nodded, and clasped her hands over the railing, not trusting herself to say any more.

"Was there another reason?" He was pushing, but she was strong. "Carter?" She wasn't sure if she was ready for this. "Sam?"

"You know why." Actually, she wasn't ready for this, but what the hell.

"No, I don't." Typical Jack.

She nodded again, averting her gaze. "Yes, you do."

He leaned closer. "No, I don-"

"I love you." There. She said it. At last.

She could see him out of the corner of her eye as she stared at the lake. He wasn't reacting. He was standing with his left hand on the railing, looking down on it. He moved nearer, sliding his hand slowly along the wood until the tips of his fingers met hers. His palm lifted from the narrow platform and he spread his fingers wide. She understood and turned to face him, carefully interlacing his fingers with her own. Perhaps she had said too much? Perhaps it was too soon? Jack took a deep breath and released it slowly. He was staring at their clasped hands. He reached up to touch her Mother's cross and chain that was around her neck – she always wore it off duty now.

"Hvor Finner vel Hjertet sin Sagligste Ro?" He said it more as a statement. ~ Where does the heart find its most blessed peace? ~

"With you," she shuddered the answer out as a shaky breath, her emotions reeling. To her astonishment she saw his eyes glaze over and his mouth turn down. Never in all the time she had known him had she seen him cry. He had been angry, even raging, menacing, drunk, but never crying with emotion. She tightened her fingers around his.

"Marry me?" he said simply, and raised his deep gaze to hers.

She gaped. They hadn't even kissed. "Jack, if we do this, the rumor mill will explode on contact."

He nodded. "I know that. We haven't done anything wrong. Let them talk."

She paused. They were strong enough to cope with gossip, and their consciences were clear. "I'm not sure what sex will be like for me now, and I've had surgery." Time for the truth, indeed.

"I guessed." He would help her; she knew *that*.

Sam twisted the ring on her left hand. "I spent several months in another man's bed. Doesn't that bother you?"

"A bit, but now I understand your longing for companionship." He was steadfast.

Reason had now packed its bags and was heading south for the winter. "I would want to try for children, but I'm not sure if I can have them." Her heart was hammering and she was feeling very warm now.

"Me too." He didn't take his eyes away.

She was trembling and her breathing was uneven. So much for all the promises she had made to herself about not getting married again. She glanced away and back at him; he was waiting for an answer. "Okay, then."

"Thank God for that!" He was smiling at her. An enigmatic, all encompassing smile she had only ever seen once before. His right hand was coming up to her face. His left hand had broken away from Sam's death-grip and was holding her waist. He leaned in and paused, his eyes searching. She smiled back and encircled his neck with her own hands and pulled him closer. His lips brushed lightly over hers, warm and soft, as seven years of Naquadah-enhanced emotional walls came crashing down.

As the kiss intensified, the world was lost to them.

********

There were tears only twice.

The first was on their wedding day during a quiet and private ceremony held on the mountain with only their closest friends for company. Sam started to cry just before the opening address and didn't stop until it was all over. Jack crushed her fiercely to his chest during the vows, ignoring the bemused looks from the base Chaplain. It didn't matter, because as Jack glanced up, he could see that most of their friends were crying too.

The second was Jack's turn, almost a year later. Sam came home early, and taking his hands in hers, she gently placed them on her stomach, and with shining eyes told him he was to be a father again, and that everything was fine. He cried in her arms then, his face buried in her shoulder, an outpouring of the grief and emotion building since Charlie's death nearly ten years before. As Sam rocked and quieted her husband, her gaze wandered through the open windows to the trees moving in the warm breeze. It was summer now and their child was to be born in the spring. In the spring. It seemed appropriate somehow; a new life, a new beginning. Sam knew the future would hold many more problems for them all, but she felt that life's twisting kaleidoscope would leave them alone for a while.

For now, Sam was content that it be so.

The End

********

Copyright © Audrey Menzies Richardson, 2004

"Vulgo enim dicitur: lucundi acti labores" (Cicero)