Title: "The Lesson"

Author: silver, a.k.a. The Sap Monster, a.k.a. The Walking Cliche

Written: May 6th, 2005 – May 12th, 2005

Takes Place: In very late season 4.

Summary: S/J romance and angst, heavy on the angst. Jack and Sam haven't wasted the three years they've been cut off from Earth…and though the price is high, they manage to teach that lesson to another couple who badly needed to learn it.

Rating: PG-ish

Disclaimer: Still not mine.

Author's note: I was about to start on the sequel to "Character", but then this idea just sort of rebelliously jumped out of my head and into my Word document all by itself. And since it's much shorter, and was already pretty much fully formed, I decided to go ahead and write this one first. I'm sure variations of it have been done before, but…you fellow authors know what it's like to try and not write a story that wants to be written ;) WARNING, high sap alert! Seriously, I'm talking homemade bottles of maple syrup, here.

The endless sky was a violent, vivid orange haze streaked with varying shades of eye-popping pinks, purples and blues. An electric, iridescent panorama of cotton candy, it was the world's most amazing sunset. Only it was midday, and this wasn't their world.

The sky of PX3-989 always looked like this, stretching across O'Neill's field of vision from one edge of the planet to the other before vanishing beyond the curve of the horizon. Beneath the riotous heavens lay the blackened landscape; wretched, twisted and lifeless. The contrast between the sky and terrain was jarring, as always, and the former Air Force Colonel reminded himself that even the beauty before him was a product of the poison in the atmosphere.

If he were so inclined, he was sure that Carter would be more than willing to provide him with a rundown of the deadly gasses that permeated the planet they now resided upon, but since he knew that the words "lethal mixture", "percentage ratio" and "radiation" were likely to be included somewhere in her explanation – along with a bunch of other words he couldn't even begin to guess at, but was certain would cause his eyes to glaze over – he refrained.

Instead, he leaned one hip against a mammoth outcrop of upthrust bedrock and regarded his 2IC silently for several long minutes. She was at an angle to him; all but the lobe of her right ear was hidden beneath the ends of her hair. He couldn't see anything of her face but the curve of her cheek, but he knew that her eyes would be impossibly wide as she tried to take in the entire view at once. She sat in her usual spot near the edge of the cliff, feet together, knees pulled up to her chest supporting crossed arms upon which her chin was rested. She was leaning back against one of the smaller boulders behind her.

That was about the only thing left on the surface of this planet…big-ass rocks. After they'd been here for awhile, and after Carter had confirmed that short trips of limited exposure to the surface wouldn't injure them, Daniel had flitted from one rock to another with his pack of instruments, examining textures, composition, sedimentary layers, and occasionally chipping off pieces to take back with him to their base underground for further study. He had "hmm'd" and pressed his nose right up against them and looked fascinated as only Daniel could by slabs of stone. Then, of course, he'd had to share his theories on the formation and destruction of the planet and, well, once again O'Neill had found himself in the position of having his eyes glaze over as the younger man went on about crusts, mantles, acid rain residues and tectonic plate activity.

More than once – as O'Neill and Teal'c "helped" by lugging ridiculously heavy samples back to their teammate's makeshift lab, the Colonel had grumbled about the evident switch in Daniel's career from archaeology to geology. Teal'c's observation that the two were inevitably linked went unappreciated.

It could have been worse, he admitted. He could have been stuck on this godforsaken planet alone. As nuts as it made him sometimes when his two scientists got all…technical on him, he knew that he'd have gone insane without them and Teal'c. At least he could interact with them. Make bad jokes. Exchange stories and ideas.

Fall in love.

Okay, to be honest, it wasn't as if he hadn't already had some feelings for his second-in-command when they'd arrived here. But they were both military, through and through, and he'd never even acknowledged them to himself, much less her. That just would have been completely out of line.

But after being stranded on this rock for months on end, with absolutely no hope of ever going home, he'd realized that the situation had changed.

And now…things were different. Everything was different. And sometimes, usually late at night when he was holding her in the dark, he was pretty sure that he wouldn't trade his current existence for his old one, even if given the opportunity.

The thought seemed wrong, somehow. It seemed as if he should want to jump at the chance to reclaim his previous life. But the truth was that he didn't. Though there was plenty he missed on Earth, he was overall happier now than he'd been ever since Charlie's death. And as he lay with her cradled in his arms in the night, he wondered if she ever thought about it that way. If she ever balanced the two portions of her life – before and after – and thought about which she would willingly sacrifice for the other.

She probably did, he decided. The woman surely never stopped thinking. But with a vague sense of dread he realized that he didn't want to know which way that scale tipped. He knew she loved him; he had no doubts about that. But she'd been forced to leave a hell of a lot more behind on Earth than he had: a promising career, a father, a brother, and children who called her "Auntie Sam", just to name a few. And what had she been given in exchange? A wasted planet, an underground complex that needed her constant attention for repairs, two teammates just as marooned and bored as she was, and an older, snarky, ex-Air Force Colonel as a lover.

No, he concluded, he really didn't want to know which option she'd favor; he had a feeling her choice would break his heart, even though he'd understand completely.

Of course, the entire question was moot, anyway. There was no going back. And he'd watched as his team slowly went crazy over those first six months. Carter had quickly run out of new and interesting things to do with her doohickeys. Even Daniel had gotten tired of looking at the rocks, eventually. And Teal'c…well, Teal'c had no candles, and that seemed to be his biggest complaint. Ever the pragmatist, the Jaffa had accepted their situation with the least amount of difficulty.

And then O'Neill had thought of it: his brilliant idea. It was his gift to them all, but (he'd admit it) especially to Carter. He'd just wanted so badly to see her blue eyes light up with excitement and intrigue again. And okay, yeah, he'd had to argue with and convince each of them to go through with his idea, but he'd eventually won out. He'd known they wouldn't be able to resist.

And that was the reason why he'd come to track down his wayward Major and bring her back to the base.

O'Neill straightened, leaving the shade of the high, jagged rock and walking over to the woman sitting on the black soil. She looked up at him when he came to stop before her, and her unguarded smile of greeting nearly knocked him down, the way it always did. "Hey," she said, and he felt an answering grin tug at his own mouth. He'd been doing that a lot more over the past two of the three years they'd been here…smiling.

"Hey, yourself," he replied, nodding at the space beside her. "Mind if I join you?"

She shook her head in the negative and scooted over slightly to make room. There was plenty already, but he sat right next to her, thigh to thigh. Without a second thought, he slipped an arm around her and was gratified when she leaned in toward him, resting her head on his shoulder. "I knew you'd be up here," he said after a bit.

"Mmm," she said in vague agreement. "It may be the only thing this planet's got going for it, but it's still more beautiful than any sky I've ever seen."

"Well, that's because you've never been up to my cabin," O'Neill said, earning a chuckle from her.

"Ah, the infamous cabin. It must have been some outstanding place," Carter replied. "Nothing else ever seems to measure up to it."

"It was great," he said with nostalgic fondness. "Lots of fishing, peace and quiet for miles and miles, not another soul in sight..."

At this Carter raised her blonde head and looked at him askance, one eyebrow raised as her eyes darted from side to side as if to indicate the utter silence of the entire planet. "Well yeah," O'Neill said defensively, "but it was a different sort of quiet. With bugs and birds and…planes flying overhead."

Carter laughed softly and her head reassumed its position on his shoulder. Something in her manner told him that she'd been pondering heavy thoughts before his arrival. He nudged her. "Whatcha thinkin'?"

She didn't answer right away; she didn't have to. "About home?" he guessed.

Carter nodded, and by the distance in her eyes he knew her thoughts were thousands of light-years away. "Just wondering how they are, you know? What they're doing. My family. The SGC. I just wish there was some way I could find out."

"Yeah," O'Neill replied, kissing the top of her head. The fact that she couldn't ever find out was understood, so it went unsaid.

A moment later, he was surprised when she giggled. "I was just thinking," she explained, "about the look on General Hammond's face if he ever found out about us, together like this."

O'Neill's expression was torn between a grin and a grimace. "I don't imagine that it'd go over very well."

"Well, it's not like they could blame us!" was her indignant reply. "For crying out loud, it's been three years."

The grin won out at hearing her use his trademark expression. It was kind of funny the way they'd all rubbed off on each other. "Yeah, but we didn't even last that whole first year," he reminded her.

He felt her smile against his shoulder. "That's not the point."

They lapsed into silence again, and O'Neill reflected that sometimes there were definite advantages to their situation. Other than the constant, day-to-day functions necessary for maintaining their existence here, there was no itinerary. No schedule they had to keep. Though he'd come up to the cliff to retrieve her, there was no hurry to get back. He enjoyed the view and the company with no pressing need to be anywhere else.

After awhile she spoke again, apparently continuing their conversation. "Actually," she said almost hesitantly, "sometimes I'm…sort of grateful that this happened."

He couldn't have been more shocked if he'd just been struck by lightning. "What?"

Carter hunched her shoulders defensively, obviously misinterpreting his reaction to mean he thought she was crazy. "Well, it's just…we'd have never gotten together if we hadn't been stranded here. With the regulations and everything…who knows if we'd even have ever developed feelings? Even away from the SGC and Earth, it took us nearly a year to get past the roles we were used to around each other; if you were still officially my commanding officer, you wouldn't look at me the way you do, now."

She looked up at him tentatively, but with a resolute set to her jaw. "I can't be sorry for that."

He hastened to set her straight. "I don't want you to be. I'm just…surprised that you're not, I guess." It was uncanny, the way she was picking up on the thoughts he'd been having only minutes before while watching her.

"Why?" she wanted to know.

"Well," he started, a bit uncomfortable now that they were talking about his feelings. "It's just…you had a whole life, back on earth. A whole future. And now, all you've got is…"

A vague gesture with his free hand took care of the whole planet, their isolation and himself as part of one package.

"Hey," Carter protested, urging him to look at her with a firm grasp on his chin. She searched his eyes, finding his true meaning there. "I wouldn't trade you, Jack."

As the sincerity in her blue eyes – more honest and appealing than anything this planet's sky could produce – washed over him, O'Neill took a deep breath and slowly smiled.

Apparently satisfied by that response, Carter's expression softened. "No, this isn't exactly the future I'd imagined when I joined the Stargate Program. But in some ways, it's so much better."

She kissed him tenderly, testimony to the truth of her words. "This way I can have you. Besides," she continued, her voice lightening, "while this planet's not all that hot, it's not all there is, thanks to your refusal to follow the rules."

"Which reminds me," O'Neill said, standing and pulling her up with him, grateful for the chance to do something and hopefully get rid of the sappy smile on his face. "Daniel says he's found another one; he's sending your M.A.L.P.-wannabe through, now. Ready to go down and gear up?"

Carter nodded, chuckling at O'Neill's inventive description of the ROV she'd built. "But before I have to go be the dutiful Captain again…"

She reached up a hand to lightly trace her fingertips over the scar in his eyebrow, trailing them down the side of his face. It was a re-enactment of the first time she'd worked up the nerve to touch him in an unprofessional way, eight months after they'd been stranded on their new home and two months after they'd unburied the stargate and began going through on unsanctioned missions. She did it often now as a gesture of affection.

O'Neill completed his part of the ritual by trapping her caress against his cheek with his left hand, solidifying the welcome contact as he had that first time. Her eyes were warm and loving, and he couldn't resist leaning down to capture her lips with his own.

Like he'd said, they had no schedule to keep.

The pain was bad. Really bad. The kind that meant you were definitely screwed. Not for the first time, O'Neill wondered why in the hell Harlan had incorporated pain sensors into their bodies, anyway? What was the point in being better, stronger and faster if you could still had to mindlessly hop around in agony when you stubbed your toe?

He almost hadn't noticed it, to begin with. Objective firmly in mind, he'd been shooting Jaffa left and right before the first staff blast hit him. Even then it had barely effected him, only serving to draw his attention to the new target and he raised the nine-millimeter in his other hand to eliminate the threat.

Then another blast had taken him in the knee, and despite the adrenaline coursing through his veins (or whatever it was that functioned as adrenaline in synthetic bodies…he was sure Carter knew), he felt that one pretty acutely.

His leg buckled even as he continued firing and being fired upon, and then there was more gunfire…P90s, as his reinforcements came through the door. The other him, with the other SG-1, and man, wasn't that still four kicks in the head?

He'd never expected to see them again, much less stumble across a world – out of the millions of possibilities – that they'd already visited. He'd figured they were pretty safe from discovery by the SGC. But now, with his Daniel dead, and his Carter and Teal'c being held captive by Cronos, worrying about his broken word to bury the stargate and stay on PX3-989 as ordered felt meaningless.

They left him to carry out their mission and seal off the Pel'tak, and only Darian remained behind. The young man immediately set out to try and administer first aid to O'Neill's wounds, applying pressure here, a tourniquet there.

Lying in a pool of the silvery, milky substance that served as his blood, the body constructed for O'Neill's consciousness laughed darkly, knowing his new friend's efforts were in vain and feeling an awful, hopeless sense of impending doom. Only now, on the verge of death, did he realize just how much he'd loved the life that had been thrust upon him.

"You are a machine," Darian said. "Can you not be mended?"

O'Neill thought about all of Harlan's technology and all of Carter's expertise. But they were a long way from home, and Carter couldn't be in much better shape than he was, as close as they were to the end of their battery life. "Possibly. Darian, I'm running out of energy. I will shut down soon."

Darian's expression firmed. "I promise, you will never be forgotten."

Then there was a disturbance behind him, and though he hadn't heard the sounds of ring transport in a long time, he recognized them immediately. A moment later his other self came into view above him and his first words were to Darian. "Go tell your people Cronos is dead. If they still think he's a God, have 'em come take a look." Darian departed, leaving man and machine alone.

O'Neill was afraid to ask. Afraid he already knew the answer, or else they'd have ringed down with the Colonel. "Carter and Teal'c?"

Beside him, the uninjured O'Neill winced. "Yours…don't look so good. The real ones, they're okay."

The implication that his teammates were somehow false rang through the room, kindling fresh ire at the flesh-and-blood version of himself. He welcomed it. Anger was better than the deeper pain that awaited him. "Dead?"

His double looked down, not meeting his eyes. "Your Carter…hasn't got very long."

Teal'c was gone, then. Grief flared in him, but there was no time to properly mourn his friend. He had to get up. He struggled to rise. "Help me up…take me to her," he ordered.

The human O'Neill didn't argue. He merely stepped closer, hauling him up with one arm as he reached the other up to click on his radio. "Carter," he said.

"Sir?" came the response.

"Ring me back. Now."

In reply the rings came down, encircling both versions of the same man and whisking them away. When they retracted, he saw her face…her eyes looking at him with concern from underneath her BDU cap. But it wasn't Carter. Not his. "Where is she?" he rasped.

He fought to stay upright as she led them away from the console and into the corridor, but had to lean more and more heavily upon the man supporting him. Fortunately, they hadn't far to go. Or unfortunately, depending upon the viewpoint. Because now, looking down at the woman he loved as she lay dying on the floor, he wished he were anywhere else.

He sank down beside her, the strength in his legs giving away as his artificial body began to shut down. Hold on, he thought desperately. Just another minute, God, please.

O'Neill leaned over Carter, only vaguely aware that their organic originals stood above them, watching. He took in her pale face, the circuitry revealed beneath the blasted-away skin on her left cheek, but he didn't really see them. She was more than that. More than flesh or wiring, cells or microchips. Those things meant nothing. She was Carter. His Carter.

"Sam," he said hoarsely.

Her eyelids twitched, flickered and then opened. Sleepy, cerulean blue eyes found him and focused, and a faint smile graced her lips. "Jack."

Tears fell; he couldn't stop them as she slowly reached up and skimmed the tips of her fingers over his eyebrow, then let them fall to his cheek. He pressed her hand there, feeling warmth that would begin to fade within moments, as would she.

"I still…wouldn't trade you," she promised him as her eyes closed once more.

"I love you," he said urgently, frantic that she hear him before it was too late. "Sam, I love you."

Her lips parted again as if to reply, but any words she may have spoken died on her lips as the power pack buried within her chest came to the end of its life.

That was the technical explanation for what happened. She had simply run out of energy as her internal battery became depleted. But it wasn't simple. It wasn't technical. She hadn't just run down. Sam was dead. She was gone forever and had left him alone here.

Grief swooped in and overtook him, crushing him from all sides like a tight-fisted grip around the fragile wings of a butterfly. Something in his chest struggled to break free, struggled to breathe. So much was abruptly over, so many memories now unshared, but all he could think was she's gone, she's gone.

As hot, artificial tears dripped from his chin he inanely recalled a long-forgotten line from one of his favorite movies. "Now I know I have a heart, because it's breaking."

Suddenly there was so little of himself left. He looked with vacant eyes up at the man he would have been, had Harlan not done what he did, and the woman who was the same – yet infinitely different – from the woman he'd just lost. He could see their awareness of each other; their careful distance.

He felt himself slowing down, like a clock that hadn't been wound for a very long time, but there was something…one more thing that he had to say. Something very important.

"Don't," he said sluggishly, and was faintly surprised to hear his voice coming out slow and distorted, like a record switched over to 16-speed. "Don't…waste any more…time."

And with that the cogs stopped turning. His chips stopped firing and the juice stopped flowing. His forehead dropped rather than lowered to rest on Sam's chest, and he was grateful to at least have enough time for one last thought…that she may have been taken away from him, but not for long. Then the black haze that had been hovering around the edges of his vision rolled in and covered his sight as he shut down.

He found her later, outside. Somewhere in the aftermath of the assault Carter had slipped away, silently and with no fuss. But even as he dealt with the issues that inevitably popped up whenever a Goa'uld System Lord got knocked off, he was acutely aware of her absence. As much as he tried to lock away the image of his and Carter's android selves in order to keep it from intruding, he couldn't stop thinking about the love etched on her face when she'd touched him…the way his duplicate had shamelessly wept at her loss, or the final words spoken before his constructed body had shut down. And he knew that if he were obsessing over it all, Carter probably was, too.

And so when the first opportunity to withdraw presented itself, O'Neill had left to seek her out, leaving Daniel and Teal'c in charge. He knew that Daniel would have loads of fun enlightening Darian's people, and Teal'c would be as happy as a clam now that he had a whole new host of Jaffa to convert to freedom.

She hadn't gone far; a short hike along the path through the trees led him to a ledge overlooking the valley below. The sun was setting and his 2IC stood bathed in the orange glow, watching the silent death of the day. She had removed her cap, and for a moment he just watched her, surrounded by the sweet, cloying scent of something that smelled quite a bit like honeysuckle.

Something in her stance warned him that all was not well with his Major; her shoulders were slumped and as he watched, the hand not resting on the P90 slung around her neck came up to swipe once at each cheek. He realized with dismay that she was crying.

An immediate, cowardly impulse to just turn around and walk away flashed through him; she didn't even ever have to know he'd been here. It was the only way he could think of to avoid getting too close…too personal. It was the rational thing to do. Maybe even the right thing to do.

But damnit, she was crying.

He stepped forward, making no effort to be silent, giving her the chance to compose herself as he approached. "Hey, Carter," he greeted her.

She hastily brushed at her cheeks again and cleared her throat before turning her head slightly to the side to greet him with a husky "Sir." She didn't turn around completely, or meet his eyes, clearly not wishing any acknowledgement of her state.

He could give her that. O'Neill kept his eyes off of her, looking out to the horizon. "Was wondering where you'd got off to," he said casually.

She made as if to leave. "I'm sorry, sir…I'll go back and help…"

He waved her back. "No need. Teal'c and Daniel have got it under control. They were…wondering what to do with the other versions of us, though. Any chance they could be repaired and reactivated?"

"Not a chance on Dan…the Daniel one. As for the others…I don't think so, sir. There was too much damage done to all of them. Besides, even if we could get them working again, they wouldn't be the same."

"What do you mean?"

Carter inhaled deeply and he ignored the hitch in it. She released her breath in a steadying sigh, appearing to be trying to switch back over into scientist-mode. "It's all about the power source, sir. You'll remember that Harlan's people built the complex on PX3-989 around the emitter that allowed a constant, uninterrupted power feed into their artificial bodies. According to Harlan, the…other me incorporated portable power packs into all of their chests so they could go offworld, but they needed to be recharged before the forty-eight hour mark. When those power sources became depleted…"

"But they're machines," O'Neill said. "They were programmed."

"No, sir, they weren't. Their bodies were constructed, but the consciousness inside each was ours, transferred over from our living bodies. They were us, sir, and for the last three years they've been living and learning and growing, accumulating information additional to what they began with. As long as their power source remained uninterrupted, they'd retain not only that original consciousness, but everything they'd experienced. But with the power source shut off completely, it's like…" She broke off, casting about for an analogy that would make sense to her commanding officer. He practically saw the light bulb go off over her head when she came up with one. "Like taking the battery out of your cell phone," she continued. "When you put it back in, you have to reset the time because that information was lost."

"Or like losing the high scores when you take the batteries out of a Gameboy," O'Neill said as her meaning became clear. He was surprised at the level of sorrow he felt at the realization. No, he hadn't enjoyed watching their alternates die, but they had represented a security threat, after all. But instead of being relieved by the permanent removal of that nagging worry, something suspiciously like loss moved through him…a mourning for something that could never be recovered.

"It's a little more complicated than that, sir, but basically yes."

"And if you could reactivate them…"

"They would be…" She paused, swallowing, then tried to begin again. "They would be the us from three years ago. The exact same people we…they were when they were first activated."

Carter gulped air, and before she turned away again O'Neill saw the telltale, rapid blinking of her eyes that meant she was holding back tears. "They would have no memories of the past three years, and…even if we could repair them, sir, I don't think I could do it. I don't think I could watch them wake up oblivious of each other, after…they were so…"

A strangled sob escaped her throat, and she broke off. O'Neill wanted to keep staring at the setting sun, where it was safe, but couldn't keep his eyes off of Carter's shaking shoulders. Wrestling with himself, he knew that there had to be a hundred good reasons why he shouldn't go to her. A hundred good reasons why he should stay planted right where he was, or – better yet – retrace his steps back up the path that had led him here.

A hundred good reasons that he helplessly ignored as he stepped up behind her and laid a supportive hand against her back.

The contact seemed to break down the last of her fortifications against emotion as she cried openly. "I'm sorry, sir," she said between gasps for air. "I just…it was just really hard to watch them lose each other like that. They were so in love, so…everything we…"

Everything we can't have. She didn't say it, but he heard it, anyway.

"C'mere," O'Neill said, turning her even as she willingly spun around into his embrace. He wrapped his arms around her, wanting to give her comfort and, far more dangerously, needing to be comforted by her. She wasn't the only one keenly aware of the naked intimacy between their synthetic selves, nor the only one absurdly envious of that ill-fated relationship.

One of his hands smoothed down the ends of her hair, cradling the back of her head so that he felt her neck curve when she turned her face into his throat. "Don't feel sorry for them," he finally said. "I don't think they felt sorry for themselves."

She sniffed. "That's just the thing…they didn't. Did you hear what she said before…even about to die, she wouldn't have given up what they had. They didn't waste the time they had together, and she knew it."

Carter drew back, but only far enough to look into his eyes. Her own were glistening, searching, and he continued to feel irresistibly drawn to her, heady with all of the unspoken meaning shining out at him. "That's what we've been doing, isn't it?" she finally asked him. "Wasting time."

Oh boy. They couldn't have been on more dangerous ground if the earth were to open up and swallow them. Because his own emotions were way too close to the surface at the moment for him to maintain the necessary distance. Because that look, with all of her barriers down, was entirely too tempting.

"Look, Carter…this is so not the right time to be talking about this."

"Then when is the right time?" she wanted to know. She finally stepped back and turned away again, leaving his arms feeling remarkably empty. He looked after her as she returned to the edge of the overlook, the last rays of the sun glinting in her hair even as the shadows around them both darkened and became deeper. "We keep letting it go unsaid, and locking it up in rooms, thinking maybe one day things will be different. And it's probably mostly my fault, because I'm the one who said I was okay with it. And you just let it go because the last thing you'd ever do is pressure me, but…"

"Carter," he said a bit desperately, "You're…upset. I understand. Believe me. But you've got to know that everything you're saying now is pure reaction."

She shook her head in the negative, and for the first time since the deaths of their counterparts, she looked sure of herself. "No. I've been second-guessing myself ever since the zay'tarc testing," she confessed quietly. "Wondering if I made the right decision, afraid I didn't. And then when we were mind-stamped, and we didn't know that we weren't allowed to have feelings for each other…"

She turned around again, piercing him with a sudden, intense gaze. "And we've encountered two alternate realities in which you and I were together. And now this. Another version of ourselves who didn't waste the time they had. When you add all of this up…all of these things," she flung an arm out toward the valley beneath them, "how can I not feel like we're making a huge mistake? Like we're letting everything important slip through our fingers?"

O'Neill watched her intently, having to angle his head down slightly to maintain eye contact as she came to stand right in front of him. Her voice was softer now. "The next time we're separated by an energy barrier, sure that we're going to die, I don't want my biggest regret to be that we never took the chance."

Her wide eyes were earnest, entreating him to believe in what she was saying. "You heard what she said. Death after being together was better than never being together at all. Maybe we can learn something from them."

O'Neill battled down the hope rising in his chest to meet hers. He fought for control over the tide of his emotions. "That's a hell of a chance to take, Carter. Something else about all these other versions of us…they all ended up dead. Not to mention the little problem where anything between us is illegal."

She stepped impossibly closer to him…so close that he could feel her heat and his own body's treacherous reactions to her nearness. He couldn't break their locked gaze; he really didn't want to.

"We take a chance every time we step through the stargate," she said reasonably. "And…we could find a way. We could figure it out, if…if you want to…Jack." She raised her right hand toward his head then paused, tentatively seeking permission with her eyes.

O'Neill said nothing, but then his gaze was drawn to her lips when she nervously moistened them with the tip of her tongue. Something in his expression or the catch in his breath responded to her silent question in place of words, and her fingers continued up to trace over his eyebrow, mimicking the gesture they had seen the synthetic Carter use, in a touch so light he could scarcely feel it.

She never took her eyes from his as her hand gently and painstakingly trailed down over his cheek and, feeling a little shell-shocked, but definitely not wanting the touch to come to an end, he raised his hand to hold hers there.

The Colonel felt something shudder through him…a warm shiver that filled him up and expanded beyond the confines of his body to include Carter, and he felt as though something monumental had just occurred. His heart thudded forcefully in his chest as he allowed himself for the first time to truly believe what was happening.

Still half-afraid that she was going to abruptly do an about-face and use the dreaded "S" word, or something, O'Neill said carefully, "Just…I don't want you to regret this, later. We don't have to decide anything right now. It can wait until we get back."

Her smile in response was a promise in itself. "That's sort of the point," she said. "It can't wait any more."

Carter leaned into him, extinguishing the hair's breadth of space that had remained between them as her body pressed up against his. With little conscious thought, his arms encircled her waist as their lips met and the waiting was over.

- Fin

a/n 2: Okay, so obviously this is a twist on the "Double Jeopardy" episode, but I didn't want to say so in the summary b/c I liked the idea of readers getting involved thinking it was the actual Jack and Sam in the beginning, and I wanted to see how many people would get the clues sprinkled in there that would lead to the realization that this was Harlan's planet (i.e. the planet's designation, the acid rain, the very fact that it's been three years since they got stuck there, and this is season 4, Carter referring to herself as "Captain", etc). There are a few assumptions one has to make in order for this fic to believable, and hopefully I pulled those off okay. Like…Harlan told SG-1 (in "Tin Man") that they couldn't survive on the surface due to the radiation. I assumed that they'd still be able to travel up there in short intervals and be okay. I also just sort of pretended that Android Sam didn't quite die right away after pulling those crystals, and after that it's wildly AU.

Anyhoo, thanks for reading! Now I'm going to go try and work on that sequel to "Character", again. Hopefully this time I can proceed without getting ambushed by another ficlet. ;)