AUTHOR'S NOTES: Some of you may recognise the opening vignette of this story from the 'Women of Stargate' contest - it was then named 'Everything She Had' and finished after Sam resigns from the Air Force in Hammond's office.

This was plotted out and co-written by Denise and myself. I'm posting the first half of the story on my page here at , she's posting the second half on her page at - there'll be a link at the end of the fic. Hope you enjoy!

Fragile Balance

Part One

Sometimes it was kinder to be cruel.

Sam Carter knew that. That was the meaning of 'discipline' after all.

And the Asgard trusted her. They trusted that she wasn't involved in the technology theft. They trusted that she could do this 'favour' for them. They trusted that she could carry this off.

If they'd gotten the Colonel back sooner, then maybe he would have been the one sitting in the locker room pondering what was about to be done.

"You realise, Major, that there can be no turning back. Are you sure you want to do this?"

The General had given her the choice. He could have ordered her, but he didn't.

Sam wasn't unaware of the compliment he paid her in presenting this mission as a request and not a command, and because he had asked instead of ordering, she had done it.

"Yes, sir. I'm sure." Sam didn't like it. But she'd been trained as a soldier: emotions had to come second to the mission at hand.

She met Hammond's steady, measuring gaze, feeling the squirm in her stomach. She didn't want to do this - she was a soldier, not an actress! But her wants came second to Earth's needs. And Earth needed the Asgard and the Tollan more than they needed Sam's sensibilities.

There wasn't even a guarantee that she'd get out of it alive. If things went pear-shaped on this mission, then she was as good as buried.

It wasn't a nice thought.

A worse thought was that the thin threads of trust between her and her team-mates might not survive. Over the last few months, her relationships with Teal'c and Daniel had been stretched to breaking-point, and come back to comfortable levels. Still, Sam was only too aware that just a little more pressure might snap some things that couldn't be fixed - especially since the Colonel had returned from Edora. And things were more fragile between her and the Colonel than they had ever been before.

Sam carefully steered away from that thought and the nausea that inevitably followed. Instead, she put her head in her hands and raked her fingers through her hair.

A week before the particle accelerator was finished, she'd been called into Hammond's office and the proposition was put before her. Initial attempts to cry off because of her work on the particle accelerator had been gently put aside.

"Major, you've done a mighty work in creating that particle accelerator, but the fact is that I've come under some pretty heavy criticism for allowing such a large portion of research and resources to be diverted towards getting back a man who may or may not be dead anyway."

"The Edorans--"

"Are easily relocated," he said. "That's the opinion of the strategists in the Pentagon, not my own, Major. This matter of the technology smuggling is urgent - we have less than a month to clear it up before the Asgard and the Tollan sever diplomatic ties - including the Protected Planets Treaty we signed eight months ago."

The General didn't need to tell her how important the Protected Planets Treaty was to Earth. Without it, it was only a matter of time before the Goa'uld came in to dominate or destroy Earth and her population.

So Sam Carter made a choice. It might condemn the Colonel to several more weeks off Earth, but better be late bringing him home than making a decision which might mean there wouldn't be a home for him to return to.

"How long do I have to finish the accelerator before the Tollan and the Asgard start putting pressure on us to do something?"

Hammond looked grim. "A week."

She'd done it in a week. Incredibly. Unbelievably.

Painfully.

The particle accelerator broke through the crust over the Stargate, the wormhole made it through to Edora, Teal'c reached the surface in time, they returned the Edoran refugees home and went to bring the Colonel home...

Only to find that he'd made Edora his home.

Now the nausea struck like a storm at sea, tossing her about in its throes. She swallowed hard and concentrated on making it go away. She couldn't afford personal emotions and distractions right now. She had a part to play and an audience to convince.

And what a tough audience.

Sam was desperately afraid that she wouldn't be able to do what it required, afraid she wouldn't be able to carry it off, and she desperately wanted the job to be handed to someone else. Except for the small problem that there was nobody else to do it.

Oh, the Colonel probably could have gone undercover, but the Asgard had asked for her help in his absence, and while they trusted that Colonel O'Neill wasn't involved, the less people who knew about this the better.

There had been concerns that she wouldn't be able to carry it off - among them, her own. She wasn't the loosest cannon in the SGC, after all, but once the Asgard and Tollan had fixed on her, they refused to hear of any alternatives.

Stubborn, headstrong aliens. No wonder they liked the Colonel.

With a deep sigh, Sam stood up and opened her locker to get her dress uniform out. Her misgivings about this were strong, but the longer she hesitated, the worse the fear would get and the more likely she would freeze when she needed to act.

The diplomatic mission to the Tollan was due to leave in two hours. It would be her second time in command of SG-1, so any nervousness on her part would be put down to that - or so she hoped. She wasn't all that fond of remembering the first time she'd commanded SG-1. Talking to tribal spirits? Letting aliens into the base? Planning to steal trinium from local tribes?

That mission had turned out badly.

And this one - well, she knew this one wasn't going to go down well.

Stealing from your friends never went down well.

General Hammond had said her actions would be attributed to the stress of the last three months. She'd withdrawn from Teal'c and Daniel since the General had assigned her to this mission, so she didn't need to worry too much about them cottoning on to her sudden, unusual behaviour. As far as she could tell, they'd assumed her behaviour was due to the completion of the particle accelerator and just let it pass by rather than confront it.

The trickiest bit would be convincing the people who only had her apparently perfect record by which to judge her behaviour.

She hung the uniform on the locker handle and stepped back, letting her fingers run over the heavy weave of the material. The guys would shortly arrive, Colonel O'Neill and Teal'c all sweaty after their morning sparring. They'd head directly for the showers, and she'd be left with a few precious minutes to change into her dress blues.

The Colonel wouldn't be going today. Officially, he was still being checked over from his three months on Edora. Unofficially, Hammond had made sure that Janet would keep him around today for more tests to ensure that Colonel O'Neill couldn't go to Tollana.

The Colonel's presence would wreck their carefully laid plans.

So Lieutenant Rumlow was temporarily assigned to SG-1 for this diplomatic mission to bring their numbers up to the standard four members for a Stargating team. The Lieutenant had been on SG-11 for nearly two years now, so he'd seen more than his fair share of diplomacy. He'd been working with Daniel to put together the presentation to the Tollan.

Daniel would be late, of course. He hadn't been sleeping well for a while now - even six months after her death, he was still dreaming - or having nightmares - about Sha're. He'd been the one to deal with the Edoran people and their relocation to another planet while Sam worked on the particle accelerator. He'd done his fair share of ideas-bouncing for her, moral support when Teal'c needed kel no reem and could no longer keep an eye on her as she worked herself into the ground. And he'd been the person she went to that first night after Colonel O'Neill came home, where she'd found that his sense of betrayal by the Colonel's low expectations was as strong as her own.

Her heart sunk. If she got through this alive...when she got through this alive, the Colonel would probably forgive her - or at least understand why she'd done it. Teal'c should. Those two might be a bit miffed, but they'd survive.

However, Daniel...

She put that thought away as she shut her locker door and heard the voices and footsteps down the corridor that indicated that her team-mates were approaching and her solitude was at an end. There was no point in fretting over the outcome of her actions today - she might not even make it through the whole charade.

Part of her hoped she wouldn't - at least then she wouldn't have to pick up the pieces afterwards.

Positive thoughts, Sam.

There was a knock at the door, "Carter?"

"Sir." Her voice was calm and cool, no tremors to betray her nervousness at the part she was about to play.

"Are you decent?"

"Yes, sir."

"We're coming in." A moment later, the Colonel's greying head stuck around the door. "Up bright and early and ready to hit your head against some thick Tollan skull, Carter?"

In spite of the roiling feelings in her stomach, Sam managed a smile. "Something like that, sir. How are you today, Teal'c?"

"I am well, Major Carter." Teal'c appreciated the formalities - even if the Colonel didn't usually observe them. "And yourself?"

"I'm good." Sam hoped her body language was consonant with her words. Between Teal'c and the Colonel - both of whom had years of experience training men and women and reading their body language - and Daniel, whose speciality in linguistics had led him to study the things people didn't say with their mouths, she could easily get caught on an iceberg she never saw coming until it was too late.

She hoped not. If she could fool them, she could fool anyone.

"Nervous about commanding again?"

Thank God for reasonable excuses. "A little, sir."

"Don't be. You'll do fine." He patted her on the shoulder, apparently unaware of how she stiffened under the well-intentioned touch of his hand. "Well, Teal'c and I are gonna shower before we stink up your dress blues, and we'll catch you in the briefing in thirty." He grabbed a towel and ducked into the stalls beyond, Teal'c following him with considerably less haste and more dignity.

Sam began unbuttoning her shirt.

Showtime.

----

It had been easier than she'd expected. And they were falling for it, hook, line and sinker.

Maybe she should have gone in for an acting career instead of the Air Force. Samantha Carter, actress - bratty officers a specialty.

"Major, do you realise exactly what kind of a situation you have placed us in?"

"Sir," she said with the forceful coolness she'd decided to adopt; close enough to her usual demeanour so it wasn't completely out of her ballpark, but changed enough to let them know that something had snapped. "I realise the situation. I also realise the kind of situation they've placed us in! We're nothing more than vassals to their technological superiority. Allies who aren't willing to share their knowledge with us or even give us the most basic of defence technologies."

"Your actions were out of order, Major!" The General wasn't half a bad actor himself - he was doing an excellent show of bewildered anger at the outrageous behaviour of one of his 'exemplary' officers.

"My actions were in line with the core mission of this base, sir. With all due respect, we are called upon to go through the gate and find technologies that will be useful in the defence of Earth against Goa'uld incursion."

"By stealing it from our friends?" Colonel O'Neill had been stiffly angry from the moment he'd realised that the technology she placed on the briefing table was not the peace offering between Tollan and Terran that he'd immediately assumed it was.

The looks he kept shooting her way indicated that he at least felt she'd taken leave of her senses. Sam didn't dare look at Teal'c or Daniel. Or at poor Lieutenant Rumlow, sitting bewildered and frozen in his chair.

She turned on the Colonel, "Sir, not one hour ago, we were wasting our time on the Tollan. They weren't going to give us the technology we wanted."

"That didn't give you leave to just take it, Carter!"

"No, sir. But I have, on occasion, been congratulated for my initiative." She let dry irony seep into her voice. Excuses were excuses when all was said and done.

"Not this time, Major." General Hammond told her. "You are relieved of your duties, effective immediately, and are to report to the infirmary until I send for you."

Her brows arched in deliberately mocking expression, "What? No base arrest?"

The alert started up for an incoming traveller a split-second later. The Tollan would be coming to Earth in their role of indignant victims at the theft Sam had committed.

Hammond glanced over at the red light flashing then back at her. "If you continue in this vein, Major, that will be next. Dismissed. Teal'c, please escort Major Carter to the infirmary."

The Colonel gave her a long look before he followed Hammond down the stairs. Daniel stood up from his chair, about to ask what was up with her, so Sam turned her back on him and walked away, refusing to engage him in conversation. She heard Teal'c's steady, measured footsteps behind her - could hear them behind her as she headed for the elevator.

His disapproval of her actions, though silent, stung.

It forced her silence all the way up to the infirmary, although once Janet walked out of her office, Sam knew she was facing what would probably be her toughest audience. The boys were more used to seeing Major Sam Carter, although they occasionally got to see 'just Sam'. Janet, however, had seen a lot more of Sam in the full array of her moods - not just as a military officer.

"I've been told to do a full set of tests on you," Janet said, eyeing her.

Sam shrugged. "Well, let's get it over with." She walked past Janet and hopped up on one of the beds.

Sam wasn't meant to catch Janet's bewildered glance at Teal'c, but she did. And Teal'c looked no less puzzled than the doctor.

They ran tests. Lots of tests. Janet asked when was the last time she'd had her period (a week ago) and when was the last time she had sex (too long ago). They ruled out PMT and pregnancy. Then there were blood tests and hormone tests, a CAT scan and a PET scan, an EEG and an MRI, and they took Sam's blood pressure.

It was a waste of Janet's time, although only Sam and General Hammond knew that. As Janet kept up a running commentary with Sam about things large and small, personal and work-related, Sam responded in her usual manner - but allowing herself a slightly looser rein. The only thing she had right now was a bad case of undercover agent nervousness. And there wasn't much that could take that away except the completion of her mission.

"Well, there's nothing wrong with you so far," Janet finished off as Sam swung her legs over the side of the infirmary bed. "It'll be a while before I get the hormone and blood tests back but...you're all fine."

Except for the sudden kleptomania, Sam thought dryly.

On cue, the infirmary phone rang and Janet went to answer it. "Fraiser. Yes, sir? Yes, she's here, I'll send her up." The phone was hung up, and a moment later Janet came back to the bedside. "General Hammond wants to see you in his office."

With a jaunty grin, Sam hopped off the bed. "Thanks, Janet. It's always a pleasure to have needles stuck into me." And she walked out, knowing that Janet was standing behind her with a surprised look on her face.

Teal'c faithfully shadowed her back down to the elevators, but didn't say anything until she'd pressed the button and was waiting for the lift. "I do not understand your behaviour, Major Carter."

She quirked a smile at him, "Oh, come on, Teal'c. Haven't you ever really wanted to cut loose before?" The elevator doors opened and she stepped in, her companion one step behind her. "Just to say what you really want to say and rules be damned?" There were moments when she'd wanted to scream, shout, cry, or laugh - and had been required to hold it under the mask of a good officer. Now, she had to behave as if she didn't care whether or not someone in authority perceived her as a good officer or not - all the while really caring that they would.

"I have not, Major Carter." Teal'c sounded, if not exactly distressed, then bewildered. Sam suspected that for him - as for her - the habits of self-control were so ingrained that 'letting loose' was more effort than being self-contained. Her behaviour would be incomprehensible to him until he knew the reasons why she'd behaved so oddly.

A shrug. Sam suspected she'd do a lot of nonchalant shrugging in the next couple of days. "Your loss, Teal'c."

The doors slid open at level 27. Sam strode out, heading for the Gate room and two corridors later found herself confronted by Daniel.

He put his hands up - partly to stop them from crashing into each other, partly to make sure that she didn't just walk by him. And she very nearly did. Today had been one confrontation after another with no respite - and the worst was yet to come.

He studied her through his glasses. "Sam, are you okay?"

"Sure, Daniel. Why wouldn't I be okay?"

Her question put him on the mark, forcing him to face what she'd done. "Well, your actions haven't exactly...it's not your usual behaviour."

"Daniel, you only ever see me when I'm on duty." Sam walked around him. "You don't know what my usual behaviour is." The dismissal was as abrupt as she could bear to make it - enough to sting him but hopefully not enough to really hurt him. She'd have to become adept at that in the next few days. And even more adept at making up in the weeks afterwards.

Assuming there were weeks afterwards.

It appeared the Tollan representatives were already gone - which was a relief. She didn't have to put on the act towards them for Teal'c's benefit. Even then, Sam wasn't sure that any such display would have been an act either. The position she was in was impossible: stuck between what Earth needed her to be and what she wanted to be.

Hammond had assured her that her actions during this mission would have no consequences on her career. Easy words to say before Sam did the irrevocable and said things for which there might be no forgiveness. The guys were stubborn. She'd find herself pressing every button to keep them away, severing all ties of respect and friendship to be sure their hands stayed clean - and that they stayed clear of what she had to do.

It was her only option.

She reminded herself of that as she strolled into Hammond's office to take her dressing down. There was no quailing under his stern gaze, nor under the Colonel's close and sharp scrutiny. And there would be no escaping this axe.

The door was surprisingly heavy to close - or maybe Sam's arms were suddenly weak. She closed it, though, shooting Teal'c a brilliant smile as he waited outside the door - a silent, solid guardian. Then, she sat down in the chair and regarded the General.

He came straight to the point. "Major Carter, you've crossed the line here. The Tollan have demanded the return of their technology and require that you are appropriately dealt with."

Sam interrupted, knowing what she was in for. They'd discussed this when the matter of her assignment first came up. What needed to happen, what would happen, and how it would happen. "By 'appropriately dealt with', are we talking the death sentence, sir, or merely a slap on the wrist, 'give it back'?" Light voice, easy tone, casual pose - she had it all down pat. At least, she hoped she didn't look like she was tense as a strung wire.

"We're talking about a court martial, Major. I have to press charges."

It took all her strength not to flinch from the words. Court martial. An officer's nightmare. Humiliation, separation from those you'd served with, black marks all over your record - and even if you were exonerated, at best they'd be scrubbed off to grey. If you faced court martial over anything, you were better off out of the armed forces since there would be very few who'd trust you again. Doubly so if you were a woman in the armed forces.

But they were waiting on her answer.

"Sir, you have your prerogatives and I have mine. You'll do what you have to as I did what I felt needed to be done." Her chin lifted and she met her gaze squarely. Indeed, she'd done what needed to be done - and hated every second of it.

The Colonel leaned forward in his chair, "Carter," he said. There was a sadness in his voice as he spoke and Sam kept her expression politely neutral as she turned to regard him. "There is another option other than court-martial. Discharge. Voluntary retirement. If you take it, then we hand back the tech, you resign and it's over."

Such final words.

Over.

Finished. Done with. Ended. Concluded.

Sam hated the Tollan and the Asgard more at that moment than she'd ever hated anyone or anything before in her life. Because this might be Earth's future, but it was her life - and they were asking her to give it up: not only all the work she'd done in the past but any hopes of a future.

Colonel O'Neill looked back at her with a very intent gaze, watching her, judging her - condemning her?

Sam transferred her gaze to the General. She met his gaze and saw that he understood the weight of the burden pressing down on her and all the hopes and dreams she would be giving up with this task.

She looked beyond him to the golden eagle, soaring on unfelt winds, representing the freedom that the USA and her armed forces strove to maintain.

Freedom and hope and a future, yes; but also responsibility and duty and sacrifice. You couldn't have the first without the second - and sometimes the individual desire had to be made subordinate to the greater good. Even the USA, as individualistic a society as it was, understood that in the requests it made of its armed forces.

"Major?"

She let a smile cross her face and a shrug lift her shoulders as she met General Hammond's eyes again. "I guess I'm taking a voluntary retirement, Uncle George." The childhood name seemed strange on her lips - and yet also fitting: a fond nickname and a familiar appellation. The personal in the midst of the impersonal, the uncertainty of a child in a strange and foreign place, and the silent fear of a soldier who knew how much rested on her shoulders and wasn't sure she could walk the path.

But she'd give it everything she had.

Because if she didn't give it everything she had, when the smoke cleared she wouldn't have anything at all.

----