Xanadu by Spiletta42
Disclaimer: MGM owns such cool toys that my sticky fingers just couldn't resist.
Spoilers: Mild spoilers through season seven. Brief reference to The Light. Set sometime between Grace and Heroes.
A/N: For Jade East, who wanted a little S/J romance. Happy Belated Birthday, Jade! It's plot cliché number twenty-three, super-sized for extra shippiness. Enjoy.
Credits: Beta and vigorous urging by Anne Rose, as per usual. Beta assistance also provided by Lizzy. Thank you also to Q, Lizzy, and Trindajae for providing useful typos, to SevenJetC for research assistance, and to Lorcan for playing the sounding board. Research credits include Biochemistry by Geoffrey Zubay, www.sg1.cz, , Stepping Through The Stargate: Science, Archaeology, and the Military in Stargate SG-1 edited by P.N. Elrod and Roxanne Conrad, American Jurisprudence, Second Edition, Volumes 16, 52, and 54 edited by Oscar C. Sattinger, and Air Force Instruction 36-2909 signed by Maj General William A. Moorman, USAF/JAG.
The moment Major Samantha Carter set foot on P3X-427, with its alleged friendly natives and balmy spring weather, the promised cakewalk of a mission took on the smell of trouble.
It was Dr. Daniel Jackson's cheerful greeting that put Sam on instant alert. Daniel, along with SG-16, had spent the last three days on the planet. With one word, spoken with just a little too much zeal, he communicated volumes to the other three members of SG-1.
"Jack!" Daniel smiled at them all, especially at Colonel O'Neill. "It's so nice to see your lovely wife again."
Only years of military training kept Sam from reacting to that one.
"My lovely wife," Colonel O'Neill nodded. "Yes, I never go anywhere without her. Tell me, Daniel, they have good drinks on this planet?"
"As a matter of fact they do." Daniel stepped close to Sam and kissed her cheek. "Hold Jack's hand. Don't let go."
Sam followed Daniel's whispered suggestion immediately, although doing so meant she had to shift her weapon to her left hand. She shot a glance at Teal'c, who readjusted his grip on his staff weapon in a way that managed to appear both threatening and nonchalant.
"I'd like you to meet Shen." Daniel nodded towards an older man. "Elder among the Xanute. Shen, these are the friends that I was telling you about, Jack O'Neill and his wife, Sam. And of course Teal'c."
Colonel O'Neill glanced at her, and she offered him the slightest of shrugs. If Daniel wanted this man to think they were married, she trusted he had a good reason. Sam doubted the performance would prove particularly difficult. After serving together for seven years, they knew each other pretty well. So why did it feel like she'd swallowed live bats?
Introductions made, they followed Daniel back to the village. Sam forced herself to keep her arm relaxed, and let it swing naturally, as if lacing her fingers through those of her commanding officer was perfectly normal and common behavior. Then she worried just a bit over how natural it did in fact feel -- she was trying to get over those particular feelings, after all -- but the still unknown need for this deception concerned her more. None of the reasons that came to mind -- women treated as property, virgin sacrifices, some goa'uld recruiting for his harem -- seemed particularly appealing.
Jack found it hard to ignore the warmth of Carter's palm against his own, not that circumstances would let him enjoy it. What was Daniel thinking, failing to give a heads up about whatever it was that meant they needed to do this? It wasn't like they were the first SG team through this particular gate; if something needed knowing, they should damn well know about it.
This planet had better prove a significant source of naquada, or heads would roll.
He hated not knowing, and whatever the danger was, it seemed specific to Carter, and he really hated that. But if Daniel's frequent glances were any indication, they weren't facing any immediate physical threat. Daniel seemed more worried about his reaction to the situation than about anything else, which probably ruled out an impending ambush. Or not.
He studied the tree line again, alert for the slightest hint of trouble, and exchanged glances with Teal'c, who had barely said a word since they came through the stargate, as well as with Carter, who looked understandably wary.
The village elder kept Daniel busy with chatter as they walked, and Jack tried to listen, but the discussion of the local foliage and whether or not there might be some squiggly lines on some rocks three klicks away failed to shed any light on the present situation.
When they reached the village, he noticed one thing immediately. The women were all behaving in a manner best described as clingy. They weren't scantily clad, or behaving in an overtly sexual manner, or any B-movie crap like that, but they did all seem to have a firm grip on the nearest man.
And he didn't like it one bit.
"It is lucky that you have arrived in time for the Bonding Ceremony," their host announced. "May this shared event shine a light of good fortune on the relationship between our two peoples."
"Yes," Jack said slowly. "I'm sure that it will."
"I must go and see after the preparations. Please, make yourselves at home." He seemed to wink at Carter. "Perhaps make some new friends, and bring our two peoples into one family."
Jack did not like the sound of that at all.
Almost immediately, a younger man approached, his eyes unmistakably fixed on Carter. He offered his hand. "I am called Qiao, and am delighted to lay eyes upon one so beautiful."
Jack squeezed Carter's hand, preventing her from automatically taking the one offered, and stepped slightly in front of her before she had a chance to speak. "She's taken." He spotted other young men approaching from all directions, and nodded towards an unpopulated crevice between two nearby cottages. Naquada was so not worth this. "Daniel? A word?"
"Listen, Jack --"
"Care to explain what exactly is going on here?"
"Tonight is their bonding ceremony."
"That part I got, and I get the distinct impression that it could lead to trouble."
"Yeah, maybe, but I think that if you just keep acting possessive then everything should be fine."
"So," Carter said. "If I were to let go . . . "
"I wouldn't," Daniel said. "I suspect it would be bad."
"Bad." Carter glanced at the group of men milling around trying to look casual. "Yeah, I gathered that. Look, Daniel, not that I don't enjoy being treated like property --"
"Oh no, it's not like that, you see, Xanute society is actually matriarchal. Women are considered the dominant gender in many ways. In point of fact, it's interesting to note that --"
"Daniel! Just answer this: Is Carter in any danger."
"I don't believe so, no. However, if they think she might be unhappy with you . . . well, suffice it to say that you might find yourself in a little bit of trouble."
"Ah. I see. In that case? Carter, try to smile."
She did, and she did a darn fine job of making it genuine, too, because he felt it in his gut. "I'll try, sir."
"Don't let go of each other," Daniel said, his voice pitched low. "Not until after the ceremony."
"And when is that?"
"That's the thing," Daniel said. "It doesn't really have a set time. They have a gong, or maybe it's a bell, that part isn't really clear. The word is wehast, which in ancient --"
"Right. It doesn't really matter. The point is, whoever's hand you're holding when the gong -- or whatever -- sounds, well, that's who you'll be bonded with, and the men outnumber the women three to one. So if we want to avoid any cultural misunderstandings . . . "
"Charming planet, Daniel. Very quaint. Interesting customs. Now why don't we head back to the stargate and return at a better time."
"You heard Shen. They think that your arrival during this special time is a blessing on the relationship between their people and ours."
"Yeah, well, blessing or not . . . " He glanced at Carter. "I'm not all that keen on risking any cultural misunderstandings." Especially not where Carter's concerned.
"It's fine, sir." She smiled gamely. "We could really use the naquada, and it's not like we're in dire peril. Just remember not to let go."
"Never." Wild horses couldn't drag him from her under these circumstances.
Carter politely deflected half a dozen potential suitors as they moved through the village square.
"Teal'c," Jack said. "Try to look more threatening."
"I will endeavor to do so, O'Neill. However, I suspect that Major Carter will continue to attract attention as long as these men perceive her as potentially available."
"Daniel told them she's married, what more do they need?"
"Perhaps if you demonstrated more affection for one another."
"Now wait just a --"
"He's right, Jack."
"What would you have us do, exactly?"
"I don't know." Daniel shoved his hands in his pockets and muttered. "Act . . . I don't know, in love . . . for once. Shouldn't really be a stretch."
"What was that?"
"Nothing, just, look at each other more. Touch each other or something."
He didn't ask what 'or something' was supposed to mean. He stopped, and Carter turned to face him. "We're okay with this?"
Her eyes met his and he could tell that they shared exactly the same reservations about all of it, but she stepped closer and slid her free hand up to touch his face. "We're okay with this."
All she did was touch his cheek, and he was lost. Her fingers sent an electric jolt through him, and for a moment the fact that he was her commanding officer ceased to register in his mind. He laid his free hand over hers on his cheek, holding it there, his eyes meeting hers as he savored this moment. One of their moments. One of those moments that made him feel alive when he revisited the memory of it.
It seemed only natural to turn his head and kiss her wrist, then her palm. He lifted their joined hands to kiss her fingers, and opened his eyes again to find a charming flush rising in her cheeks.
The urge to kiss her was nothing new. It was an ache he had lived with daily, for seven years now. He was good at ignoring it, as he proved again now. "Good enough, Daniel?"
"Huh, what? Oh. Sorry . . . uh . . . yes. Yes, that's probably good enough. For now, anyway."
"Yes," he agreed, not taking his eyes from Carter's. "For now."
Holy Hannah, just how was she going to get through this without kissing him? The fact that he was her commanding officer may have been the thing that kept her from doing just that time and again under more normal circumstances, but truth be told, she'd stopped seeing Jack O'Neill as only her commanding officer many years ago.
She feared that she lacked the strength to resist kissing him, given an excuse like this, and once she kissed him . . . They couldn't be together. Regs. She knew that. She accepted it, even. The fight against the goa'uld mattered more than her feelings. Yet just these last few minutes had completely erased her recent decision to let him go. She found it impossible to look into his eyes and still believe that getting over him was something she could do, or even should do.
What she read in his eyes right now made her head spin. It wasn't that she ever doubted his feelings, exactly, but her own sanity demanded that she compartmentalize her feelings, and his as well. Facing those emotions directly made her dizzy, and, dangerously enough, a part of her liked it. Liked it rather a lot.
She touched his cheek again, knowing that everything she read in his eyes, he could read in hers as well. That was fine. She wanted him to know, needed him to, in fact, and with an urgency that she didn't quite understand.
"So, Daniel." He squeezed her hand and his eyes never left hers. "They have food at this shindig? You mentioned drinks of some kind?"
They followed Daniel, and she couldn't help but enjoy the warmth of their joined hands. She found herself smiling at him every few minutes, no matter how much she tried to focus on the fact that this was a mission.
Not that it was much of a mission. They were just here to smooth the path for mining negotiations. That meant sharing the blessing of this joining ceremony, and so, for the moment, her only duty was to act head over heels in love with Jack O'Neill.
The only problem with that was the fact that it wasn't really an act.
That smile did things to him. Dangerous things. Carter's smile had always been a particular weakness for him, and under these circumstances he found it downright intoxicating. Good thing they had Teal'c watching their back. Commanding a mission while under the influence of Carter's smile -- not the best idea.
He glanced at Teal'c and read a bit more understanding than he expected in his friend's solemn face. Of course Teal'c knew how he felt about Carter. Teal'c always knew more than he let on, and besides, he'd practically said as much a few weeks back.
The frustration and helplessness of that moment came back to him. He'd do anything for Carter. To know she was out there somewhere, in danger, and he could do nothing . . . he hated that. Always did. Sure, nine times out of ten she was perfectly able to rescue herself, and if they did the math he suspected she'd saved his bacon more often than he'd saved hers, but still . . . he tried to shake off the memory.
The worry in her voice caught his attention, and he realized she was looking up at him. "Sorry, Carter. Just thinking."
"Permission to speak freely, sir?"
He blinked at her and might have laughed, but then she caught her lower lip between her teeth and he noticed how she wasn't quite meeting his gaze. "Carter. You can always speak freely with me."
"Not quite," she said softly, her tone conveying everything that they both never said.
He wanted to pull her into his arms where she belonged, but instead he closed his eyes against the onslaught of emotions and took a steadying breath. When he looked at her again, he could tell that she'd lost her nerve, but she didn't really need to say the words.
It was best if she didn't, anyway.
"Drinks." Daniel handed one to each of them. His face showed that he knew exactly what he'd interrupted. Of course Daniel knew. He obviously knew enough to avoid risking life and limb by claiming the role of Carter's husband himself, or by fake-marrying her off to Teal'c.
"The naquada mines here could make a real difference in the fight against the goa'uld," Daniel said, rather unnecessarily. "Sharing this ceremony will lay a better foundation for a lasting cooperation between their people and ours than anything else we could offer."
Jack suspected that was an exaggeration. He watched Daniel for a minute, then glanced at Carter. She had her glass clutched in her left hand and was staring at the liquid. A fine distraction, he decided. Possibly even a valid one.
"This stuff safe?" Jack asked.
"SG-16 drank gallons of it," Daniel said. "It's not very strong."
Jack sniffed it. It smelled fruity. In his experience, those were the ones you had to watch. If they smelled like lighter fluid at least you knew where you stood. "You sure?"
"Barely alcoholic," Daniel said. "Really. It doesn't hold any specific significance to the ritual, it isn't prepared any differently tonight than on any other night of the year, and even the children have been drinking it."
"Is that so?" He took a sip. "Not bad."
Carter sampled hers as well. "Actually it's pretty good."
As they discussed the flavor in detail, the tension began to ease. Maybe they'd even get through this without --
"The crowd is becoming agitated," Teal'c said.
Jack followed his gaze towards the village square. Several dozen people had started to chant . . . something. "Daniel?"
"I don't know," Daniel said slowly. "They could just be calling for a toast, or something."
"Yeah, well." Jack sighed. "It's the 'something' that worries me."
"You're not alone there," Carter muttered.
As they watched, some kind of scuffle seemed to break out. The chanting formed a rhythm of sorts for a dance routine, with two men clearly vying for the same woman. She engaged in the dance as well, but while it seemed clear that she preferred one partner over the other, her wishes didn't seem to influence the outcome.
The new suitor won the contest, to the whooping and cheering of his supporters, one of whom looked their direction.
Jack swallowed hard and tugged at Carter's hand. "Carter."
"Yes, sir." She stepped closer, allowing him to pull her back against his chest and readjust their joined hands so he could wrap his arms around her waist from behind. "Daniel," she said. "I thought you said that they don't treat women like property?"
"That's it," Jack said. "Back to the gate. We're scrubbing the mission. No amount of naquada is worth --"
Oh crap. That kid -- the one with the name that sounded like cow -- looked like he was heading their way. "Daniel!"
"I don't know, Jack." Daniel shrugged. "Look busy."
Suddenly, the heat from Carter's body became a little harder to ignore. "Busy," he muttered. "How exactly . . . "
Carter tipped her head back against his shoulder to look at him. "I think he means like this, sir."
She twisted in his arms, one of her hands clutching one of his, the other sliding up around his neck, and she kissed his chin.
He gasped. Impossible not to gasp. Major Samantha Carter had just kissed him. Not quite how he usually imagined it, but gasping, yeah, definitely mandatory. And Holy Hannah she was doing it again, turning as much as their joined hands would allow and kissing him softly just below his lips.
If she did that a third time, he was going to lose it and kiss her lips. Not a good idea. Instead, he slid his lips along the line of her jaw to her throat. He didn't miss how that made her shiver, or how it made his own pulse race. Sweet. Their situation sucked. Some part of his brain still knew that. But still . . . sweet.
Every nerve ending in Sam's body tingled enviously as one privileged spot on her neck enjoyed the delicious pleasure of Jack O'Neill's undivided attention. She arched her neck, and recognized that the sigh she heard came from her own lips.
"Are you not planning to participate in the dances? One so beautiful as you will find many willing partners."
Sam opened her eyes to find Qiao staring at her.
"She's taken," Colonel O'Neill said, his breath hot against her ear.
Sam had never been particularly tolerant of possessive men, but under the circumstances she wasn't about to complain. If Qiao had challenged her to some sort of ritual combat, well then she could take care of herself, but that tug-o-war dance with her playing the role of both rope and prize? Jack could be as possessive and overprotective as he pleased, and she'd be glad of it.
"Does she not speak for herself?" Qiao demanded.
"Oh, quite well." O'Neill said. "Big words, too." Then he kissed her neck again, making it a little difficult for her to remember even short words.
"Look," Sam managed. "No offense, I'm sure you're a nice guy, but on a special evening like this, I prefer the company of my husband."
Her 'husband' tightened his arm around her waist. "See," he said. "I told you. Mine."
"No man may make such a claim before the wehast has rung!"
"Well that ship has sailed," Jack said. "Carter rang my wehast years ago."
Qiao looked confused, but reached for Carter anyway.
"Hey!" Jack raised one arm to block the attempt. "Touch her and you'll regret it. She knows kung fu."
The confusion on Qiao's face grew more dangerous. "Are you not here to participate in our sacred ceremony? I demand that you show the proper respect for our customs!"
"Qiao, is it?" Daniel stepped in and laid his hand on Qiao's shoulder, the quiet authority in his voice discouraging any argument. "We are very anxious to get to know your people better, and we feel very honored to share in your bonding ceremony, however we have some customs of our own, and where we come from, when a woman says no, she means it, and it shows her dishonor if you continue to ask."
"Among my people, when someone is shown disrespect, the offender may be challenged to armed combat." Teal'c shifted his staff weapon. "To the death."
"My apologies," Qiao said. "I meant no disrespect. I have only great admiration for . . . "
"Sam," Jack said. "Her name is Sam. Where I come from, it's considered polite to learn a woman's name before hitting on her."
"I meant no disrespect," Qiao repeated. "I have nothing but admiration for one so beautiful."
"Oh, she's beautiful," Jack said. "But there's a lot more than that to admire." He kissed her cheek again, because he could. "This woman is the smartest person on our whole planet. The bravest, too. It's an honor just to know her, and you're missing the whole point if you let her overwhelming hotness distract you from appreciating the whole package."
Qiao finally had the sense to give up, and he mumbled his apology, heading back towards the crowd.
"Thank you." Carter squeezed his hand. "All of you."
"Any time." Jack let out a sigh of relief. "Teal'c, if he so much as looks at Carter again, shoot him."
"Would not the Xanute frown on such a thing, O'Neill?"
Jack shrugged. "Oh, I don't know, I get the feeling it wouldn't come as a total surprise."
"I suspect you're right," Daniel said. "But odds are good he has a mother, and she would probably have the right to demand retribution, and it would turn into a whole thing. So let's not?"
"Yeah," Jack said. "Agreed. But can I at least hit him?"
Shen approached, and gestured at them with a fruity drink. "Come along now! Dance! Share in the joy of this special night!"
Sam stifled a groan and wished they could blend into the growing shadows.
Colonel O'Neill didn't bother to make the same effort, and his sound of displeasure vibrated against her ear. He covered by kissing that spot just below her earlobe, sending a shiver down her spine.
She bit her lip to keep from gasping his name. Her mind wanted to call him Jack, and that was dangerous. Everything they felt for each other had to be put on hold, and whatever happened on this planet, it had to stay here; that meant they couldn't cross many more lines.
"Dancing sounds good," Colonel O'Neill said cautiously. "Just as long as I get my brilliant wife all to myself."
"What Jack means," Daniel said. "Is that --"
"He's a man in love," Shen said. "Any fool can see that. You wish to avoid any challengers?" The old man nodded wisely, and lowered his voice. "The more you enjoy yourselves, the fewer will dare interrupt."
Sam closed her eyes, her throat tightening painfully. This time in Jack's arms -- Colonel O'Neill, not Jack, her military training scolded -- was too much like the sweet torture of that last bite of chocolate before the diet began.
Only chocolate meant nothing to her.
His thumb stroked the back of her hand and his breath tickled her ear. "So we should enjoy ourselves, then."
She couldn't speak; she just nodded and let him lead her towards the other dancers. Several young hopefuls took notice of their approach, and she clutched his hand so tightly that it probably hurt. The two admirers who stood closest seemed to shrink back, and she glanced at Jack's face. "Sir, try to remember that we're on a diplomatic mission."
"Diplomatic mission or not, no one's gonna mess with my girl," he said. "C'mere." He folded their joined hands against his chest and pulled her close.
She tried to copy the movements of those around them, in hopes of blending as much as possible. The music came from a small gathering of older couples with drums and wooden flutes, and the dance steps proved simple enough.
She almost wished the dancing provided more of a challenge; the distraction would have been welcome. Enjoying this was dangerous. But she could feel the warmth of his body against hers, and the play of his muscles as he pulled her closer. His breath tickled her ear.
"Don't look now," he whispered. "But you have an admirer."
She moved closer still, and her knees turned to pudding when he kissed her earlobe. Her breath quickened and she let her hand slide up into his hair. His lips trailed down her neck, each caress making her tremble, and she wasn't sure her legs would support her, if not for his strong arm around her waist.
We're just preventing a cultural misunderstanding, she told herself firmly, arching her neck to allow him better access. We won't break the rules. This wasn't about those feelings. Those still had to wait. This was about naquada. But despite her silent promises to no one in particular, her heart rejected the lie. She was in Jack's arms, and he was kissing her neck, and she just wanted to enjoy it.
"He's gone." Jack held her close, giving her the chance to regain control of her breathing before pulling back. When their eyes met, her heart leapt right back up into her throat at his look of naked longing.
He closed his eyes, and she rested her forehead against his shoulder. His hand stroked her back, and then they were clinging to each other, all pretense of dancing abandoned as they held each other in an almost desperate embrace. This, here in his arms, was where she wanted to be, more than anywhere else in the galaxy, but she had a duty, they both did, and in a day or two they'd walk back through the stargate. Back to the SGC. Back to the status quo.
"Are we still okay with this?"
She met his steady gaze, and had to bite her lip to keep from kissing him. "Of course," she tried to say, but her throat tightened around the words and tears blurred her vision, so she could only nod.
"Hey." He pulled her even closer, until they danced cheek to cheek once again. They completely ignored the music, and the rhythm set by the other dancers. "So," he whispered against her ear. "A string walks into a bar."
A smile tugged at her lips and her hand slid up into his hair. "A string?"
"Yep. A string. And he orders a beer."
Her fingers played with his hair. "The string does?"
"Yep. Only there's a problem. The bartender says they don't serve strings." He pulled back to meet her gaze. "Doesn't seem very fair, does it?"
She was grinning outright now. "Certainly not, sir."
"This string, though, he's a pretty smart cookie." He pulled her close again, his hot breath tickling her ear. "The string ducks out into the alley, tangles himself up a bit, has himself a nice roll in the dirt. Then he tries again."
"And what happens?"
"Well, the bartender eyes him up and down, and says, hey, aren't you a string?" His hand trailed up and down her spine. "Nope, says the string. I'm a frayed knot."
It was an old joke, and not a particularly good one at that, yet it made her laugh out loud, and she wasn't even surprised, because Jack O'Neill could always make her smile.
Their eyes met, and this time the urge to kiss him challenged her sense of duty. She stretched up to slide her lips along the line of his jaw, and heard him catch his breath.
She closed her eyes, grappling with her resolve to not cross any more lines, but then he kissed her forehead and she had to look up into his dark eyes. Again she witnessed all that he felt for her. One little kiss would hardly mean the destruction of Earth, and they deserved as much. Just one kiss, one chance to share how they felt without the words they didn't dare speak.
She stretched up again.
His hand slid into her hair, encouraging her, and their breath mingled as they savored the moment before contact. This is it, she thought, her heart pounding. This is really it.
A gong rang, the loud metallic echo reverberating through the village. Screaming children poured out of the tent where the drinks had been served, wrapping the dancers in long streamers. Fireworks crackled near the fire, adding color to the smoke, and the crowd began to cheer.
Two laughing children bound them together in a tangle of ribbons. The sparkle in Jack's eyes made up for the broken moment.
Sam reached up to stroke his cheek. "I think we just got married."
Jack smiled. "Sweet."
Jack so wanted to kiss Carter. He had almost done just that. Her hand rested against his cheek, and her soft smile was doing all sorts of interesting things to his insides. They'd never get an excuse this good again. "They'd better not skip the part where I get to kiss the bride."
"Oh, I think we can take care of that on our own," she said.
For the second time in as many minutes, he leaned in to finally kiss the woman he loved, only to be interrupted again. The bonfire chose that moment to belch smoke in their direction. He coughed, struggling to bring air into his burning lungs. "Carter? You okay?"
She nodded, still coughing herself. "Fine, sir."
The challenge of breathing kept him too busy to even properly cringe at the word 'sir.' Most of the other couples around them were coughing as well, and some of them were rubbing their eyes, but the smoke itself had cleared.
People started to make their way towards their homes.
"Well that's one way to end a party," Jack said. "Bet no one overstays their welcome here."
The village elder, Shen, hurried in their direction, an older woman with him. "Come," he said. "My wife and I will show you to your lodgings."
"Daniel and Teal'c?"
"Your friends are preparing the negleg, and then they will stand watch for you."
He exchanged a glance with Carter, who shrugged. No doubt Daniel would explain. They followed the older couple to a small house near the edge of the village.
"This will be your home for as long as you remain with our people," Shen said. "May you fill it with many laughing children."
Shen's wife tapped at the door, then pushed it open. "Since you are honored guests, Elder Shen will tie your negleg first."
Shen took a length of colorful rope from Daniel and tied it around Carter's wrist. Oh crap. Sure enough, the other end got tied to his wrist, and a few clever twists of rope later, their wrists were bound together.
"Not too tightly." Shen winked. "Wouldn't want to trip you up."
Jack managed not to groan. When he glanced at Carter he could see she was struggling to hold in a giggle. The moment they were alone, that rope was coming off, and he didn't care if Daniel or anyone else claimed that it was sacred.
"You are now one," Shen said. "May this union bring such joy that you seek each other every time the wehast is rung."
As soon as the older couple left, no doubt to tie other happy couples together in awkward wedded bliss, Jack turned to Daniel and held up his wrist. "Well?"
"Daniel," Carter said, studying the knot. "Would you mind giving me a hand with this?"
"Oh, you can't take that off tonight, the negleg is worn to --"
"Look," Jack said. "I'm sure it symbolizes many fine values, but you can't expect us to stay tethered together all night. We'll put it back on in the morning, and no one will be the wiser."
"Well, there's a problem with that. See, the negleg is treated with an adhesive. The knots are glued to prevent exactly what you're suggesting."
"Oh for crying out loud. Daniel! You couldn't have done something about that?"
"Well, no. I really didn't see the need."
"Didn't see the need?" He held up his arm again. "You didn't think we might find this a tad, oh I don't know, awkward?"
"It stretches, if that helps."
"Look, Jack," Daniel said. "The Xanute have been doing things this way for hundreds of years. I think you'll find that they've thought of everything. See?"
Daniel tugged at the loop of rope between their wrists, and it fell in coils, leaving their wrists tied with about six feet of rope between them. "That should make things . . . less awkward."
Jack glanced at Carter, and noticed that she was resting her hand on his arm. He rather liked that.
"We're okay with this," she said. "Really."
Maybe. He nodded, and tried to find a reason to not check out the bedroom. "What's the deal with this ceremony?"
"It's like the whole town got married," Carter said.
"In a way," Daniel said. "You see, the Xanute don't marry for life, which may seem strange to us, but as a result they eliminate all sorts of social problems. They don't have divorce, for example. If a relationship isn't working, the couple just won't choose each other again at the next Bonding Ceremony. No one loses face."
"That's nuts," Jack said. "They're missing the point. What about commitment?"
"I have to agree," Carter said. "What about children?"
"Xanute society is matriarchal," Daniel answered. "Children do seem to have a relationship with the father, but important matters like inheritance --"
"I wouldn't want to live that way," Carter said. "I'd like to believe that love can last a lifetime."
"You and Jack --" Daniel swallowed and glanced at his shoes. "Or any couple here -- would be free to choose each other again and again; many couples do stay together. Shen told me that he and his wife have rebonded twenty-three times now."
"That's a lot of wedding gifts," Jack said. "Bet they have plenty of woks."
Carter laughed and Daniel made that face he usually made when a joke caught him off guard.
"Do they have wedding gifts?" Jack asked.
"Not as such," Daniel said.
"It is late," Teal'c said. "Perhaps we should continue this discussion in the morning."
"I see you two managed to stay single," Jack said quickly.
"Indeed," Teal'c said. "We were not approached."
"Our participation would have been less than welcome," Daniel said. "The male-female ratio here is off balance."
"Yeah," Jack said. "You mentioned that. Do we know why?"
"I asked about it, but no one seems to know. It seems that the male birth rate is significantly higher, but nothing seems to indicate a cause . . . " Daniel's brow furrowed and he eyed Jack suspiciously. "If you're stalling . . . well, you really have nothing to worry about."
"Maybe we should turn in, sir," Carter said. "We have to hike up to the mine tomorrow, and Daniel mentioned some ruins --"
Her hand still rested on his arm, and when she squeezed softly he lost all ability to think up another question for Daniel.
"Right through here," Daniel said. "You'll find --"
Jack opened the door. "Oh for crying out loud."
Sam had to agree. "The word 'overkill' does come to mind."
"Has the Fire Marshall seen this?" Jack asked. "Carter, if you wanted the chance to blow up another sun, it looks like you've got your wish. This planet seems to have a spare."
"Yeah," Daniel said. "The candles. You see, the Xanute associate fire with strengthening the bond between two hearts. Anyway . . . freshen up through there. The slot in the door is for the rope. Teal'c and I will stand watch. We told Shen that it's a tradition among our people, and he seemed to buy it, so . . . goodnight. Have fun."
Sam hid a smile as Jack glared at Daniel's retreating back. "Well, we might as well get some sleep."
"Yep." Jack looked at her for a moment. "I'll take the floor."
"It's a huge bed, sir, and I'd be a lot more comfortable in it without my arm dangling over the edge."
"We're still fine with this," she said with a pretty convincing simulation of conviction.
She studied his face. "Are you?"
His eyes met hers and the moment stretched between them. "Yeah," he finally said. "Close enough, anyway."
They lay down on top of the quilt, since the room was warm and they were unwilling to take off more than their boots. The candlelight flickered across the ceiling, giving them something to watch as they tried to ignore the almost unbearable three feet between them. She longed for the freedom to reach over and touch him. The memory of their two near kisses made her heart ache. Would it be worse if they hadn't been interrupted? If a memory teased her now, and not a fantasy, could it possibly be more vivid? More tempting?
Her body practically hummed as she recalled the burning caress of his lips on her throat, and the delicious warmth of his body as he held her. The heat in his eyes -- just the memory of it made her breath quicken.
Without making a conscious decision, she rolled onto her side and propped herself up on one elbow to look at him. Her resolve nearly crumbled as she watched the candlelight dance over his features. The black tee shirt hugged his chest, making her fingertips ache to trace every well-toned muscle, and his tantalizing lips tempted her even more, but his eyes were what drew her towards him.
She laid her hand on his stomach, and felt him shudder at the contact. Her heart raced and she actually felt dizzy. Her reaction seemed out of proportion, even given her current emotions. "Sir?"
He swallowed, his dark eyes never leaving her face. They watched each other in the flicker of candlelight, not moving, not speaking, her hand resting on his stomach.
"Sir," she began again. "I think -- I know it might sound strange, but . . . I'm starting to think that fruit drink might have some side effects."
He tensed under her hand and propped himself up on both elbows to study her face. "Do you feel sick?"
"Not exactly." She watched his face, willing him to catch on before she had to spell it out.
"I feel like I really need to . . . to do this." She moved her hand where it rested on his stomach, just a fraction of an inch upward, and watched his reaction.
He groaned, shuddering again, and his hand shot up to grab her wrist.
"See what I mean," she said. "Don't you think our reactions are a little strong?"
"I really don't," he said. "But if you keep that up --"
He looked puzzled. He looked darn sexy when puzzled.
She gave a slight nod in the direction of her own hand, where his fingers had curled around hers. His thumb stroked rhythmically over the back of her hand.
"Oh." His thumb stopped, and he let go.
She closed her eyes, the loss of contact striking like a physical blow. "It's possible that the fruit drink --"
"Carter. You're supposed to be the smart one."
"There are a number of chemicals that mimic --"
"It's not the drink." He caught her hand again, lacing their fingers together.
Sam closed her eyes and concentrated very hard on not kissing him. Sure, she'd almost kissed him twice earlier, but they'd had an excuse, and practical limitations. Here, alone, in bed . . . she had to exercise a little self control.
The warmth of his hand, and the way his thumb stroked hers, challenged her resolve. Her pulse continued to race. She opened her eyes to find him watching her.
He squeezed her hand. "Maybe there's something to your theory." The look in his eyes told her that he didn't believe a word of it, not for a second. "That drink could have some side effects."
"We should investigate. See if we can identify the symptoms."
"Seems prudent." He let go of her hand, and again she felt the loss. Then he rolled onto his side, facing her, close enough that she could feel the heat from his body, and he touched her face.
She shivered and closed her eyes, relishing the feel of his fingertips against her cheek, and gasping when his thumb brushed her lower lip. Her skin felt more alive where he touched her, like the rest of her body was asleep, and only he could awaken her fully.
Jack found himself mesmerized by the look on Carter's face as his thumb stroked her lips. He'd always known that if he gave in to his feelings, he'd be lost, and he needed a compass about now. His thumb slid across her lip again. She had such perfect lips.
"So." He fought the urge to kiss her. "Notice any symptoms?"
She opened her eyes, stealing his breath with her look of passion. "Heightened sensation," she said, her voice soft.
She shook her head.
"Try again?" He stroked her lip, and groaned as her hand slid up his side, snaking around under his arm to grasp his shoulder.
She kissed his thumb, severely testing his resolve to only let things go so far. Kissing was out. It would lead . . . places. He shouldn't be touching her at all, not now, away from the excuse, away from any prying eyes keen on swiping Earth's greatest resource in exchange for a little naquada.
Everything logical said stop, but he just couldn't make himself care. He trailed his fingers along her jaw and down her neck, savoring the way she shivered at his touch. They needed this, he decided. Deserved this. What was the harm? He teased her earlobe with his thumb and felt her fingers dig into his shoulder.
The desire to kiss her breathless nearly overpowered him. With effort, he rolled away onto his back and tried to regain some grasp on common sense before he did just that, and quite probably a whole lot more. Probably best not to think about any of that at all.
"I think you're right, Carter." He stared at the ceiling, then covered his eyes with his forearm, blocking out the dancing candlelight. "That drink has gotten to us."
"The drink," she said, her voice strained.
"Yeah." He could feel the heat from her body. He was aware of her weight on the bed beside him. The sound of her breathing sent his pulse racing. "This is nuts."
She moved closer and settled her head against his shoulder. "Better?"
"Oh yeah." He shifted and wrapped his arm around her, pulling her closer still. "How's that?"
"Much better." She kissed his chest through his tee shirt, which did nothing to still the pounding of his heart. "The drink probably has chemical properties that . . . encourage people to seek one another out. I think the only way we're going to get any rest is if we stay close. That's probably the reason for the rope."
"Makes sense." He found it hard to give a damn about the rope, or the drink, or anything else, with Carter lying against his chest. He kissed the top of her head. It felt good to hold her like this, without -- probably -- the immediate threat of impending death.
Her fingers traced small patterns on his chest. He saw no good reason to put a stop to that. It felt nice. More than nice. He rubbed her back, and she hummed softly in response. Sweet. He was starting to like this planet.
A shame they couldn't stay. Tomorrow, or the next day, they'd leave this insane paradise where he got to hold Carter in his arms. Tomorrow they'd go back to the SGC, back to duty, back to regs. The thought of it hurt, and he knew her mind had gone to the same place, because her fingers stilled and she stiffened in his arms.
"Don't," he said. "Not now." He watched as she propped herself up to look at him, a sheen of moisture in her eyes. She deserved better. He knew that. But he also knew that neither one of them could just move on. Not successfully. The feelings ran too deep.
Her fingers moved again, sliding up to softly stroke his lips. Oh, that was nice. The tingling spread until he was sure he was floating, and he started to worry that even Carter's touch shouldn't feel quite this good.
He closed his eyes and slid his hand up her back once again, trailing his fingers along the collar of her tee shirt before dipping inside to stroke her skin.
"Jack." That one soft word nearly shattered his control. Her hot breath tickled his cheek and she started to move her fingers away from his lips.
Their eyes met, and she drew closer still. He caught her hand, kissing it, because otherwise the enticement of her lips would prove too much. Cross that line, and he was a goner.
Her eyes closed briefly as she acknowledged his resolve, but she said nothing. Maybe he should have kissed her. These near misses would drive them both right off the deep end in no time. But in this moment, duty won out. Mostly.
He yielded to the urge to reach up and touch her face again, marveling again at the way his touch made her shiver. He'd never tire of that. "We should get some sleep."
She nodded, and settled down with her head on his chest. Her fingers went back to tracing those delightful patterns on his chest. "These effects . . . "
When she didn't continue, he squeezed her shoulder. "Carter?"
"These effects. What if we ignore them, and we . . . shouldn't?"
"You know, if -- if we feel this way for a reason."
"Oh there's a reason."
"I meant . . . besides the obvious."
"Ah. Well." He made a half-hearted effort to think about the situation. "You're the scientist. Is that possible?"
"I'm not a biologist, but if the last seven years have taught me anything, it's that anything's possible. I mean, we are on an alien planet. That fruit could have properties we didn't anticipate. Maybe there's a chemical balance we need to . . . restore."
"So we'd have to . . . for our health?"
"That's a little far-fetched, don't you think?"
"Actually, yes." Her fingers continued their dance. "But, I can't seem to stop -- well, you know."
"Yeah," he admitted. "I do."
"Our only option is to wait and see," she said. "If any symptoms manifest --"
She laughed softly, but he could tell that the situation still worried her.
"Whatever happens, we'll deal with it, just like we always do." He stroked her back. "Get some rest. We have a long hike tomorrow."
Sam listened to Jack's heartbeat and tried to ignore the humming of her own blood. She knew when he finally drifted off to sleep, because his hand stilled on her back. Every time his fingers had trailed along her back, her skin had tingled beneath them, and even now her reaction remained strong. Five points of sensation seemed to burn into her shoulder.
The possibility that the fruit drink had somehow affected them continued to nag at her, because regardless of the situation, things seemed out of proportion. She'd slept beside him before. Many times before. Even, on occasion, this close. Usually, she felt comfortable in his presence. Even in those moments when the feelings they shared became an almost tangible thing between them, she still maintained some control of her senses.
This felt different. The urge to wake him with a kiss, to slide her hands up under his shirt, to throw a leg over his body and cross all sorts of lines . . . the fantasy nagged at her, and it refused to quiet. She gave in just enough to press her lips to his chest once again, and felt sure that some of her tension eased, at least for a moment.
If the fruit drink had contributed to her current reactions, then at least she was with Jack, and not some stranger. She knew what they meant to each other. She trusted him. Things wouldn't get out of hand. And if they did get out of hand, then she might have a bit of trouble regretting it, regardless of what the Air Force might have to say on the matter.
Still considering the implications, she sunk into sleep and dreamed of a future where the goa'uld no longer held power in the galaxy.
Jack felt the warm weight against his chest before he woke up fully. Memory fell into place, and he realized that Carter was asleep in his arms. Not a bad way to wake up. Especially since he didn't have any busted ribs to contend with, and they weren't about to freeze to death. The accommodations were a cut above their usual fare, too. This bed beat the heck out of anything in a goa'uld holding cell.
He caught his hand sliding up and down her back, as if by long habit. So the fruit drink hadn't worn off, not that he really bought into the theory. That he felt a need to touch Carter really didn't surprise him. This was Carter. Opportunity was the only inspiration he needed.
She hummed softly and snuggled closer, her breath hot against his neck, stirring up thoughts best ignored. He caught his breath as her hand slid lower, her fingers tracing patterns on his stomach.
Carter tensed and her head shot up from his chest. Their eyes met.
"Good morning." He kept stroking her back and tried his most charming smile. To his relief, it worked.
The alarm faded from her expression and she smiled back. "Good morning."
"So, think we'll get breakfast in bed?"
Breakfast, it turned out, was actually a continuation of the ceremony. The repeated ringing of the wehast drew their attention, and they found Daniel and Teal'c already waiting.
Daniel seemed to smile when he glimpsed their joined hands.
"The rope," Jack said quickly. "It kept tripping us up."
"Of course," Daniel said. "I'd imagine that it would."
They followed a group of villagers back to the central square. Shen hurried up to them and pressed cups of fruit drink into their hands.
Sam glanced at Jack. If this drink did have the effects she hypothesized, another taste was not the best idea.
Jack smiled at her in that way that made her insides liquefy, and downed the whole glass.
She grinned and felt her cheeks grow hot. Maybe it wasn't the smartest thing she'd ever done, but she drank her juice as well.
Shen showed them to their seats. Daniel and Teal'c, as single men, sat on flat wooden benches. The newly married couples, however, were directed to curved wooden seats just shy of being big enough for two.
No one seemed inclined towards complaint.
"Cozy." Jack smiled at her and wrapped his arm around her. Again, the contact seemed necessary, and again it took effort to ignore the urge to kiss him.
The wehast rang once more and Shen stood before the crowd. "Those bonded last night will now partake of the First Meal, giving each other the nourishment they require. May this food sustain them through this day, that this day might sustain them through the coming months."
Children carried platters of fruit and bread, distributing food to the crowd. As they watched, other couples took the bite sized pieces and fed them to each other.
"When in Rome." Jack held up a bright red strawberry.
She swallowed hard, glancing at the fruit, then up into his dark eyes. Bad idea, logic insisted. But logic didn't have dark, compelling eyes and a half-smile that melted her heart. She leaned closer and bit into the strawberry.
Jack lost all ability to think as Carter's lips closed on the strawberry in his hand. Sure, he'd seen some pretty amazing things while exploring alien planets, but none that could compare to that. Then she took the second bite.
He held his breath as her tongue flicked between his fingers, claiming the last half of the fruit and setting his blood on fire.
"Your turn," she said softly.
He stared at the berry in her hand.
"They're delicious." She brought the strawberry up to his lips.
His pulse raced and his awareness narrowed to focus on just this moment. He let her feed him, barely tasting the fruit as he nibbled the juices from her fingertips. The look in her eyes told him that he wasn't alone in his reaction to the situation. Last night had been easy compared to this, and he was sure that he wouldn't last much longer without kissing her. At least out in public like this, a kiss wouldn't lead to other things.
One tantalizing bite at a time, they cleared the plate between them. Each piece drove him further towards the brink, and when the juice from a slice of citrus fruit dribbled down her chin, he leaned forward and kissed it away.
She gasped and slid her arms around him, arching her neck as he kissed his way to her earlobe. Her breath quickened, and he could feel the thundering of her pulse as he tasted her throat.
He drew back and their eyes met. He was so about to kiss Carter. Sweet. He took her face in both hands, his thumbs stroking her cheeks, and leaned closer.
Then that stupid wehast rang, and Carter started to laugh.
"Oh for crying out loud."
Carter grinned and laid her hand against his cheek.
"It is now time for the release of the negleg," Shen was saying. "Hearts have been bound, and the reminder has ceased to be necessary."
"It never was," Jack said softly.
Carter closed her eyes for a moment, then caressed his cheek again.
Other couples were making their way towards Shen, who stood near the fire.
"I guess we should go get rid of this rope."
She nodded and stood up. As they made their way towards the line, she slipped her arm around his waist. He did the same. Right now he felt that they really were one, no matter how much they'd have to ignore it later.
The couples gathered around the fire, and at Shen's instruction, held their bound wrists towards the heat.
"The heat of the flame will now transfer the bond from the negleg to your hearts. As the spirit of the bond grows within you, it will disappear from the negleg."
All around them, knots loosened and fell away as the heat weakened the adhesive. Jack watched their rope fall to the ground, and turned to Carter.
"Now," Shen said. "As the negleg leaves you, seal the bond it has made."
Jack glanced at the couple nearest them. They stood close, and when the rope fell, they turned to face each other and joined hands. Then they lifted their joined hands, and each kissed the other's wrist.
He smiled at Carter, and they copied the ritual. Her lips seemed hot as she pressed them to his wrist, and her gasp as he returned the gesture made his heart race. He pulled her close and buried his face in the crook of her neck. She slid her arms around his neck and held on as if for dear life. He knew how she felt.
"And now," Shen said. "You may celebrate your new bond with a kiss."
Jack lifted his head from Carter's shoulder and smiled. "Excellent."
The love in Jack's eyes liquefied Sam's knees and sent her stomach into a gymnastic routine. He took her face between his hands once more, his gentle touch making her dizzy. Then his lips met hers.
For seven years she'd waited for this moment, when the gentle intensity of this kiss would bring her to life. He kissed her slowly, thoroughly, and she responded, needing him more than she needed oxygen.
Maybe it was the years of anticipation, maybe it was the alien fruit drink, or maybe it was just because she loved Jack O'Neill with every cell in her body, but she'd never felt anything like this kiss.
He started to draw back. She ran her fingers through his hair and pulled his head back down, kissing him again, because she couldn't stand for it to end.
And then it did, and she could only cling to his shoulders and bury her face in his chest as he held her. As her breath returned to normal, she fought against tears and pushed down the lump attempting to rise in her throat.
How could she be so deliriously happy and so utterly miserable at the exact same moment? She drew back to look at Jack, and read the same feelings in his face.
He smiled a little and wiped a tear from her cheek. "These are the best mining negotiations ever."
She smiled back. "Absolutely."
Shen insisted on accompanying them to the mine, and Sam couldn't claim disappointment. If she was completely honest with herself, she had to admit that the excuse to continue the charade was more than welcome.
Their hike more closely resembled a stroll as they headed for the mine. Shen kept stopping to show Daniel interesting rocks and bits of grass.
"This is going to take all day," Jack said.
"Seems that way." She couldn't help but grin.
"Does that tree look suspicious to you?" He nodded in the general direction of some trees just off the path.
"We should check it out," she agreed.
They left Daniel and Teal'c to endure the discussion of this latest rock.
"Are you feeling alright?"
"Yeah, fine. Why?"
"You look a little flushed." He pressed the back of his hand to her forehead.
She gasped at the flash of sensation his innocent touch caused, and stepped closer to him.
"You feel a little warm," he said.
"I am a little warm." The woods seemed to start spinning. Only Jack seemed solid, substantial. She reached for him.
"Carter?" He caught her in his arms, and held her while she rested her forehead against his chest.
"Just a little dizzy, sir." The feeling eased in moments, but she stayed in his arms, savoring the feel of him and fighting the urge to steal another kiss.
His hand slid up and down her spine. "Is this from the fruit drink?"
"Maybe," she said. "I'm okay now." Still she didn't step back.
"Should we head back to the gate?"
"No." She looked up into his eyes. She could get lost in those eyes. "No, I'm fine now."
His hands left her back, and just when she thought she'd die from the loss of contact, he took her face in both hands and covered her mouth with his. She melted into the deep, leisurely kiss, her pulse pounding as she swayed against him.
Daniel's voice brought them back to reality, and they jumped apart guiltily. She had to keep from slipping again, or it would be all the more difficult once they returned to Earth.
Jack stopped trying to keep his hands off Carter. Clearly he couldn't do it. As they walked, their frequent touches turned to hand holding, and they finally wrapped their arms around each other as they ignored Shen's guided tour of the local rocks. Keeping up appearances for Shen, they claimed. Neither cared that the excuse was just plain silly.
She kept smiling at him. He lived for that smile. To his vast relief, her dizziness failed to return, and the acrobatics of his own stomach were strictly of the pleasant variety. He couldn't remember when he'd last felt this happy.
When the others stopped to examine a clump of grass more closely, they ducked off the path again. He took her face between his hands, his thumbs caressing her cheeks, and managed to hold out almost a whole minute before kissing her again.
Kissing Carter was so worth a court martial.
"We have to stop doing this," she said, her finger tracing circles on his chest.
"Yeah, I know." He sighed and played with her hair. "But it's fun, isn't it?"
She flashed that terrific smile again. He could look at that smile all day. Unfortunately, Teal'c was calling, and they had to move on again.
Jack realized he'd lost track of exactly how far they'd traveled. All the stopping must have thrown him off. Yeah, that was it. "Think this mine is much farther?"
Carter grinned at him. "Oh, I hope so."
He tugged her closer. "Maybe they have more mines. We should ask."
"If they do, we should ask Shen if he'll be our guide again."
"I've always liked the way you think."
Shen came to a stop and pointed at a boulder. "This is the place where --"
Before Shen even finished the sentence, Carter dragged Jack off the path and backed him up against a tree. Her kiss drew a groan from him. One kiss melted into another, and when they finally broke apart gasping, foreheads touching, he realized that he heard Daniel's voice.
"Shen says the mine isn't much farther, if you two are ready . . . "
"It's that fruit juice that you claimed was so harmless." Jack glared at Daniel, just daring him to find fault with that theory.
"Yeah," Daniel said slowly. "The fruit juice. Right."
The mine was every bit as impressive as SG-16 had reported, and Sam didn't care one bit. With an effort, she almost managed to care about what Daniel must have seen, but she trusted Daniel implicitly, and bigger issues occupied her mind.
She found herself daydreaming about possibilities that she darn well knew weren't really possible at all. Not now. Duty. Responsibility. The goa'uld threat to Earth. This stolen day was just that. A day. It couldn't be the start of anything. When they left this planet, things would return to the status quo. The sense of rising dread reminded her of just how soon that would happen.
Jack -- Colonel O'Neill she tried without success to insist to herself -- kept squeezing her shoulder and rubbing her back. Having been caught by Daniel obviously didn't worry him enough to bring him back to his senses.
A good thing, too, because whether it was the fruit drink or just the circumstances, she couldn't bear to go cold turkey quite yet.
With each step the stargate grew nearer, even though technically they were heading back to the village first, and Shen had already explained all the rocks on the way to the mine, so they were making rather good time.
"Daniel," Jack said. "Weren't there some carvings you wanted to translate?"
Daniel stopped and turned to face them. "Carvings?"
"I distinctly remember you getting all excited over a picture of a rock with some squiggly lines on it."
"Daniel Jackson does that quite frequently, O'Neill." Teal'c said. "Are you certain you are remembering squiggly lines from this planet?"
"There was one photograph from the UAV that intrigued me," Daniel said. "The markings could have been a derivative of cuneiform. But Shen isn't familiar with it, and the exact position could take a whole day to scout. It's not a very big stone."
"Daniel." Jack's hand slid up her back to curl around her neck, the warmth of his fingers making her skin quiver. "I want you to think about this very carefully. Would you say that this rock could hold significant clues as to -- well, anything, really."
Daniel raised both eyebrows and glanced from Jack to Sam and back again. "I wouldn't rule it out."
"Good enough. Let's go find that rock."
"Daniel, dial us home." Jack's throat closed on that last word. Yeah, Earth was home, but this planet where he'd kissed Carter no less than fourteen times -- well it was pretty special to him now, and he really hated to leave. But Daniel had found his rock, and they couldn't look for more in the dark.
"Sir?" Carter met his gaze through a sparkle of tears.
"Hey." He pulled her impossibly close and she clung to his neck. Just one more minute before they had to pretend none of this had ever happened. Better make it count.
He drew back, and as her grip loosened on his neck , he kissed her one last time, slowly and with passion -- a goodbye kiss. Once more, he held her close, and then they stepped apart to climb the steps to the stargate.
Sam headed straight from the gateroom to her lab and dove into an admittedly unnecessary analysis of the rock samples from the mine. Colonel O'Neill had barely looked at her once they returned to the SGC. She understood. Just a moment of eye contact might have placed her self control in serious peril.
Her hands shook on the keyboard, and despite her best intentions, she found herself replaying the memories of the mission. After the way he'd kissed her, who could be expected to concentrate again in the same . . . well, lifetime, really.
She spun around to find Daniel standing in the doorway with his hands in his pockets. "Oh. Daniel, hi. I was just --"
"How are you holding up?"
She considered lying. She might have even tried it, but Daniel knew her too well.
He crossed the room and laid a hand on her shoulder. "I can only imagine what you must be feeling, and I'm sorry but I have to ask: Is following the rules really worth this?"
"It's not like I have a choice." Her voice broke and she felt Daniel squeeze her shoulder. "You of all people know how important --"
"Is that really the issue here? No one can deny that what we do matters, but no one is trying to. What I'm asking is, given how you feel, why keep denying it? Is that a sacrifice that you really need to make?"
"It is," she said. "We'd be court martialled."
"Really?" Daniel moved to lean on the table facing her. "You've saved the planet a few times. You don't think that might carry some weight?"
"That doesn't mean we're immune to the rules. No one is above the law."
"Well, no, of course not. But I'm not suggesting you try to get away with murder here. This seems like the sort of thing that warrants an exception. Who would you be hurting?"
"Only every other woman in the Air Force, possibly in all branches of the service. It's a dangerous precedent to set. It opens the door for all sorts of sexual harassment -- What?"
"Come on, Sam. You don't honestly believe that?"
"Okay, let's take it from another angle. Let's say someone like Kinsey starts trouble again, and it's only a matter of time, really. We'd be handing him exactly the ammunition he'd need to prove that the Stargate Program is operating above the law, changing the rules to suit its own purposes. And we both know the consequences if the program gets shut down, or turned over to the NID, or --"
"That's a bit of a jump."
"So all that Anubis really needs to destroy Earth is what, a photograph of you and Jack kissing?"
"When you put it like that . . . "
"It sounds pretty ridiculous, doesn't it?"
"Actually, I was going to say scary."
"Well I doubt Anubis is likely to think of it, if that helps."
She smiled a little.
"You and Jack are my closest friends, and I've watched you both struggle with this for years, but I always thought you'd figure it out eventually, so I didn't say anything. But now I feel I have to. Sam, there has to be a solution to this."
"I could quit the Air Force. But I love my job, and I feel that I'm needed here."
"You are, and Jack would never want you to make that sacrifice, but the one you're making now seems pretty cruel. If during the time I'd spent with Sha're, I'd had to keep her at arm's length --"
"My God, Daniel. How can I even think to complain about my sacrifices, compared to what you've lost? I see Ja -- Colonel O'Neill every day and sure, there are certain limitations, but what we share -- it means more to me than anything."
She reached for Daniel's hand and squeezed it. She couldn't even imagine how much it would hurt to lose Jack like Daniel had lost Sha're. The very thought sent a stab of pain through her, a sudden cramping in her stomach doubling her over as her head began to throb.
The room spun madly. She felt Daniel's hand on her arm and heard him calling for a medical team before the confusing blur faded to nothing.
Jack considered ignoring the knock at the door. His head was throbbing and dealing with people was about the last thing he felt like doing. He wanted to sleep. At a second, more insistent knock, he got to his feet and opened the door.
"Major Carter is ill," Teal'c said. "Dr. Fraiser wishes you to return to the base."
Fear flashed through him. "How bad?"
"I am uncertain. She was conscious when I left. Daniel Jackson is with her now."
He remembered flirting with her, pushing her to finish the fruit juice at breakfast despite her reservations. His fault. After all they'd been through . . .
"Yeah, let's go."
Sam's head throbbed and her stomach seemed to be trying to turn itself inside out. She tried to lift her head, but the wave of dizziness pushed her back to the pillow more effectively than the gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Relax, Sam. Don't try to get up."
"Daniel? What happened?"
"We were in your lab, talking, and you fainted."
"Sam?" Janet's voice had that concerned tone. "How are you feeling?"
"Headache," she said. "Dizzy. A little nauseous."
"Did you eat anything unusual on the planet?"
"Fruit juice," she said. "They served it at the ceremony."
"I doubt it's that," Daniel said. "I had several cups of it, and SG-16 had been drinking it for days."
"The same juice? You're certain?"
"I am. I asked about it very specifically. Sometimes ceremonial drinks are a little . . . interesting, but the Xanute were very clear that it wasn't a special drink, just one they rather enjoyed."
"Sam? Can you think of anything else?"
"Strawberries," she said. "Some bread. A few slices of orange."
"I ate the same things," Daniel said. "I feel fine."
"Well there's something in Sam's blood work that isn't showing up in yours. If you think of anything, let me know."
She waited until she guessed Janet was out of earshot. "Daniel?"
"Right here Sam."
"Teal'c went to get him. I'm sure they won't be much longer."
"So I'm the only one that's sick?"
"We don't know yet. Teal'c and I seem to be fine, but Jack left without checking in."
Sam cringed. It wasn't like Jack to ignore protocol, and she suspected that was her fault. He probably hadn't been thinking any clearer than she had been earlier. She never should have let things get so far out of hand.
Jack remembered reaching for his car keys, and now he seemed to be on a gurney being pushed through the corridors of the SGC. "How's Carter?"
No one answered, and he raised his head to look around. Bad idea.
When he woke up a second time the gurney had stopped moving, and Doc Fraiser was shining that annoying little flashlight in his eye. "How's Carter?"
"She's in about the same shape you are, Sir. Do you recall anything that the two of you ate or drank that the others didn't?"
"It's that damn fruit juice, isn't it?"
"I don't think so. Daniel says he had quite a bit of that, and his blood work is normal."
"Of course it is." A nasty thought occurred to him. "Oh crap."
"What is it, Sir?"
"I need to talk to Carter for a minute."
"I'd rather not have you moving around, Sir, you're --"
He sat up anyway, the room tilted hard to the left, and he missed whatever she said next.
Sam tried to stay very still. Every little movement seemed to increase her dizziness. Daniel had left a few minutes ago, promising not to be long, and her mind kept returning to one possible explanation that she didn't particularly care to consider. "Janet?"
When no one answered she opened her eyes just a fraction and spotted a blurry shape that was probably a member of the medical staff near the door.
"Do you need something, Major Carter?"
"I'd like to talk to Dr. Fraiser if I can." She watched the blurry shape hurry off to find the doctor.
Either Janet was getting quicker, or Sam dozed off for a few minutes, because it was only moments before she appeared. "How are you feeling?"
"Is Colonel O'Neill --"
"He's sick too. He's right next door, and pretty worried about you. Is that why you wanted to see me?"
She started to shake her head, and regretted it. "No."
"Sort of. It seems impossible, or at least unlikely, but I had a thought." She paused, unsure how to explain without sounding remarkably foolish, or revealing too much. "Colonel O'Neill and I were pretending to be married. The Xanute were holding a bonding ceremony. We had that fruit drink, and then it was like I couldn't keep from touching him. Like something made the urge too powerful to ignore. So I was thinking, maybe we're sick because we did fight it. We didn't . . . follow through."
"I very seriously doubt that, Sam, the human body simply doesn't work that way. Certain chemicals may affect your hormone levels, and that may increase your urges, but as every junior high school health teacher can tell you, a person can't die from not having sex."
"But if we have elevated hormone levels --"
"I'll check, but if those were fatal, no one would make it out of high school alive."
"Can I see Colonel O'Neill?"
"I'm sorry Sam, but it's really best if you stay in bed. Now, if you'll excuse me, there are a few more tests I'd like to run. Try to get some sleep, it's late and you need your rest."
Sam nodded, again regretting the action, and tried to still her rising anxiety.
"Well hurry up and get permission, then, or I'm going over there without it."
"Jack, I don't think that's a very good idea. You've already passed out twice just trying to sit up."
"But Carter --"
"She'll be fine, Jack, you both will. Janet's doing everything she can, and she's always figured it out before."
"Yeah, I know, but I'll feel better if I can just see for myself. I'm not going to relax until I've seen Carter."
"I'll go check on her for you. Hang in there, okay?"
"Yeah, okay." He wished Fraiser would move them into the same room. He'd feel a hundred times better if he could see Carter. A thousand times better if he could touch her. Being stuck in here alone was making him nuts.
Teal'c had gone back to the planet to fetch a sample of the fruit juice, and Jack hoped that meant they'd have a cure for this thing soon. He couldn't help but feel that this was his fault, and he hated that Carter was suffering for it.
What was taking Daniel so long, anyway? He started to sit up, but the wave of pain forced him back against the pillow. Maybe he would follow Doc Fraiser's advice after all, and stay put.
"Jack!" Daniel rushed back into the room. "Sam's in cardiac arrest."
No physical pain could be as terrible as those words. He forced himself onto his feet, ignored a wave of dizziness, and with Daniel's help, propelled himself into the next room. As he watched, the medical team worked frantically, and Jack felt his own heart seize with dread as Carter's body lurched from the jolt of the paddles.
"Carter! You fight this, that's an order. You hear me?" It was probably best that he couldn't move under his own power, or he probably would have gotten in the way.
"We're getting a pulse," someone said.
"That's right, Carter. Good job." He let himself breathe again, and as soon as he had a clear path, he let go of Daniel and went to her side. Her hand felt small in his, and cold too. He brought it to his lips, kissing the back of her hand before he realized how that might look, and when he did realize it, he hardly cared.
"Sir, you shouldn't be out of bed."
He looked up at Fraiser. "Tell me you have a cure for this thing."
"We're working on it, sir, now please --"
"I'm fine," he said. "Just let me stay with Carter."
"You do seem better," Daniel said. "Jack, this could mean something. Do you really feel better?"
"Yeah, fine, just . . . we almost lost Carter." He clutched her hand to his chest and stroked her hair, ignoring Daniel and Doc Fraiser as they discussed adrenaline and blood pressure. He didn't really need to know why right now, as long as she was alive. His heart leapt as her eyes fluttered. "Carter?"
"Don't ever do that again." He leaned in and kissed her forehead.
"Do what?" She reached up and stroked his cheek, her smile making his heart race.
"It was scary there for a minute," he said. "We almost lost you."
"I'm feeling better, actually. How about you?"
"Fine," he assured her. "Just fine now that I'm here with you."
Sam's headache faded quickly, and her nausea disappeared. Within minutes, she felt just fine, if a bit restless.
Jack brushed off Janet's initial attempts to shoo him back to his own bed and perched on the edge of Sam's until Daniel brought him a chair. He held her hand, not letting go even when Janet checked her blood pressure, and Sam could read the worry in his face.
She squeezed his hand. "I feel fine. Really. I'll be okay if you go get some sleep."
"Do you want me to go?"
"No, it's not that." She smiled softly and pitched her voice lower. "I'm glad you're here."
"I wouldn't be anywhere else, Carter." He brushed a strand of hair from her face, and his hand lingered, stroking her skin. "We almost --" He shook his head. "Just don't ever do that again."
"I'd rather she didn't myself," Janet said as she returned. "How are you feeling now, Sam?"
"Much better, actually."
"That's good. It's possible that whatever's affecting you has worn off, or was neutralized by the adrenaline. Colonel O'Neill, how about you?"
"Ship shape," he said. "My headache's even gone."
"Good," Janet said. "So you won't mind if I take your vitals and send you back to bed, then."
"I'd rather stay with Carter."
His grip on her hand tightened, and she realized that she was holding onto him just as tightly. That didn't make sense, really, because she felt just fine.
"Go ahead, sir, I'll be fine."
His gaze locked with hers, and he stayed put.
"Sir," Janet said. "I'm afraid I might have to make that an order. You both need your rest."
"Yeah, okay." He stood up, his eyes still locked with hers, and squeezed her hand before laying it back on the bed. "I'll be right next door."
Sam nodded, and resisted the urge to call out to him a few minutes later when a fresh wave of dizziness struck. She closed her eyes in an effort to fight it off, and her monitor started beeping.
The next thing she knew, Jack was beside her once more, her hand clutched to his chest.
"I'm not moving from this spot," Jack told Fraiser. "Don't ask again."
"How about I just borrow a little blood from each of you?"
"Yeah, go ahead." He focused on Carter again. She seemed fine now, she was even smiling at him, and rubbing the back of his hand with her thumb, but twice now -- he couldn't lose her. He'd rather die himself.
He wasn't sure when Fraiser left, or for how long, before she made another plea for him to get some rest.
"When you've got a cure, I'll sleep, but I'm not leaving here until that happens."
"How about you just lay down in this cot over here?"
He glanced up at Fraiser, then over at the cot, and then back at Carter.
"I'm okay," Carter said.
He let go of her hand and walked over to the cot. His heart thundered in his chest and the anxiety practically made him dizzy. With a glance back at Carter, he took hold of the bed frame and dragged it, screeching its protest, over to hers.
Fraiser gave him a puzzled look, but she didn't argue, even helping when the chair got in his way. Once the two beds were practically touching, he climbed onto his and reached for Carter's hand again.
"What do you mean, addicted to each other?" General Hammond demanded.
"As near as I can tell, they're addicted to each other's pheromones." Janet glanced at Sam, who sat closer than usual to Jack, although she was making a valiant effort to not actually hold his hand during the briefing. "Any time apart, and withdrawal sets in, so when Colonel O'Neill left the base, they both started experiencing symptoms."
"So the bonding ceremony," Sam said. "It involved literal bonding."
"Yes." Janet nodded. "What still puzzles me is the catalyst. That fruit juice was just that: fruit juice. Something resulted in the chemical reaction between you."
"What about that rope?" Jack asked.
Daniel leaned forward. "The negleg, of course. It was treated with an adhesive. Did you get any of that on your skin?"
"I don't think so," Sam said. "But Shen did say that the fire would transfer the bond to us from the negleg. I didn't take it literally, I figured the heat just weakened the adhesive."
"Shen also told me that fire symbolized the strengthening of the bond between two people." Daniel tapped his pen on the table. "Maybe he was referring to the ceremony with the negleg."
"I could use a sample of this negleg," Janet said. "In the meantime, stay near each other."
"So, we're grounded then." Jack smiled at Sam. "Sweet."
Jack followed Carter back to her lab. He kept his hands shoved in his pockets as they walked down the corridor, because if he didn't, they'd be spotted holding hands on base before he even realized it.
Carter clutched a notebook to her chest as she walked, her knuckles white with the effort. "If the adhesive in the negleg included a type of microorganism that reproduces using meiosis -- yeast for example -- then it's possible that what we're experiencing is due, at least in part, to a pheromone used by that microorganism in its own reproduction."
"Well, then, that clears everything up for me."
She smiled at him in that way that made his insides swim. "The problem is that the heat might have destroyed the organism. We might have to obtain a fresh sample of the adhesive back on the planet."
"There's a hardship." He caught her eye and enjoyed the blush that rose in her cheeks.
"You know that General Hammond might not let us be the ones to go, sir."
"Then we'll just have to convince him, won't we? I can be very persuasive, you know."
She grinned, eyes locked with his, and flipped on the lights as she backed into the lab. The look in her eyes inspired some very inappropriate fantasies, as well as some unkind thoughts towards the security cameras.
He carefully noted their position, looking for any blind spots, because he wasn't going to make it much longer without breaking a few rules.
Carter turned on a computer and then spread something he didn't understand all over a lab table. He watched with great admiration for almost two minutes, and then started fiddling with a calculator.
He carefully entered 0.7734 and slid it over to Carter upsidedown. It worked, and she treated him to that amazing smile that made his insides do such fascinating things. When she slid it back, she'd entered 14, and he flipped it over to read 'hi.' She really was the perfect woman.
"I was thinking," she said.
He didn't understand a single word after that, because she was talking about wormhole physics and something that the gadget on the table might be able to do under just the right circumstances, but the excitement in her voice made his blood sing.
"So what do you think, sir?"
He caught her gaze. "That you're incredibly hot."
She blushed. "Sir --"
"Hey, you asked."
She smiled, but he could read the underlying sadness in her expression, and he shared it. Maybe -- maybe -- they could enjoy themselves for a day or so and get away with it, under the circumstances, but it couldn't last. They still lacked a long term solution.
"So." She climbed onto a stool and made a transparent effort to change the subject. "If I'm right, we could theoretically manipulate matter at the point of origin of an incoming wormhole. Of course, the energy requirements would be enormous, but given the potential implications for defense, that's a small price, really."
He tried to care. He really did. But the science talk gave Carter that special glow, and the half of his brain not rendered completely useless by her intoxicating smile was busy trying to figure out if the security camera could see his left hand if he moved just a little bit closer to the table.
Sam found wormhole physics a little daunting at the moment. She'd wanted a chance just like this to explore this particular theory, but she found the circumstances a tad distracting. Colonel O'Neill stood behind her, close, so close that the heat from his chest warmed her back and his breath tickled her neck.
"How's this gadget work?"
She knew that he didn't care, and if she needed further proof, he provided it almost immediately. He edged around her, closer to the table, and his hand found its way onto her thigh.
A white-hot wave of desire rolled through her. She closed her eyes, fighting to hide her reaction from the security cameras. That felt way too nice.
His fingers trailed up and down her thigh, and she covered his hand with her own. If her intention had been to stop him, she failed miserably, encouraging him instead. She wanted him to keep doing that, quite possibly forever.
"Want to get out of here?" he whispered.
"Oh yes. Do we dare?"
"Maybe Janet's learned something by now," she managed.
"Maybe. Good thing Daniel thought to save that rope."
"No, not really. Remind me to repay him for that little favor."
She laughed and squeezed his hand under the table. "If I'm right about the microorganism, we'll need another sample of the adhesive anyhow."
"Good thing you're always right." He leaned closer still, so his chest just brushed her shoulder and his breath warmed her ear. "They don't have security cameras on Xanadu."
"Hey, it's paradise, isn't it?"
She found it hard to argue with that, although right now, with Jack's hand on her thigh, her lab seemed to fit the definition of paradise surprisingly well.
"Hey guys, lunch?"
Jack yanked his hand away from Carter's thigh and tried to hide his reaction when the back of his hand rather painfully met with the lab table. He saw Daniel wince in sympathy, proving his acting rather futile, but he still resisted the urge to examine his injury.
"If you'd rather eat alone . . . "
"No," Carter said. "Of course not. We were just . . . "
"Working on this gadget here," Jack said. "Carter plans to use it next time she saves the world."
"Yes, well, if you're hungry . . . "
"Oh we're hungry," Jack muttered, earning an elbow in the ribs from Carter and a poorly concealed smirk from Daniel.
When they sat down to eat, Daniel risked his neck by taking the seat next to Carter, forcing Jack to settle for his usual spot across from her. On a normal day, Jack preferred this arrangement. It meant that he could look at Carter while he ate, which he rather enjoyed. But today the width of the table seemed immense.
Carter plucked a cherry tomato from her salad and rolled it between her fingers. She then lifted it towards her lips, pausing to make some comment that Jack was currently in no condition to understand. Her lips finally closed around the red fruit so reminiscent of the breakfast a day earlier on P3X -- Xanadu, definitely Xanadu.
His name, Jack remembered, that meant he should respond. He turned to see who had spoken. "Oh, Teal'c, hi there."
"Don't mind Jack," Daniel said. "He has a few things on his mind today."
"Indeed," Teal'c said. "Does this mean that Doctor Fraiser has yet to find a cure?"
"Not yet," Daniel said. "She's still trying to isolate the --"
Jack lost whatever interest he might have had in the conversation and turned back to Carter, who had just picked up another tomato. He watched, mesmerized, as she brought it to her lips.
He remembered the strawberries at breakfast the day before, and the look in her eyes when he'd leaned in to kiss away the citrus juice that had dribbled down her chin. His pulse raced as this second tomato met its fate, and he caught her gaze just as she swallowed.
It really got to him when she blushed like that.
"You should eat, sir." She leaned forward and snatched a french fry from his plate. "You'll need your strength later, if we go back to P3X-427."
"Right." He tried to focus on his meal, but the way Carter twirled her fork in her fingers between bites was driving him crazy. He kept remembering how she'd traced patterns on his chest that night, and how her fingers had made his lips tingle when she touched them.
He tried to rein in his imagination and listen to Daniel instead.
" . . . so from our etic viewpoint, we assumed that the fire merely weakened the adhesive, and we failed to consider the possibility that the native belief about transferring the bond might in fact have scientific merit. It's a mistake that anthropologists . . . "
Yeah, that couldn't hope to compare to Carter licking a stray bit of something from her upper lip. She smiled at him, and reached for another of his fries.
He moved quickly and caught her hand, not because he had the slightest interest in protecting the fries, but because if he tried to go another minute without touching her, he was sure he'd go nuts.
They stared at each other, breath fast and shallow, hands joined. He let his thumb slide over the back of her hand, delighted when it made her gasp.
"Jack." Daniel used that particular tone of voice that usually meant they were about to die, and so he should probably pay attention.
Jack turned to him and followed his glance first towards the crowded table next to theirs, and then to Carter's hand in his. He let go.
Carter closed her eyes briefly, then turned to Daniel. "Has Janet managed to obtain a sample of the adhesive from the negleg?"
"She was working on that when I last checked," Daniel said. "She said it could take a while."
Jack returned to his meal, focusing his complete attention on the food, and making every effort to not look at Carter.
Something brushed his leg.
It did it again, sliding slowly up his calf, and it felt rather nice. He tried pretty hard to pretend that he didn't realize it was Carter's foot. However, with its strategic location deep under Cheyenne Mountain, the SGC was usually pretty low on stray cats.
The look in Jack's eyes made Sam's pulse thunder in her ears, and she forgot all about keeping up the pretense of conversation with Daniel. Remaining inconspicuous while freeing her foot from her boot had proven no easy task, and loosening the laces had cost her the use of her fork, but it had also proven well worth the effort.
She let her toes wander up along the outside of his calf once again and watched him swallow and shift in his chair. This time she ran her foot up the inside of his calf, all the way to his knee, and he stopped breathing entirely.
"Sam," Daniel said. "Jack. Don't you think we should check in with Janet? Now, perhaps?"
With reluctance, she dropped her foot back to the floor and fished around for her boot.
"Jack?" Daniel repeated.
"Yeah. Yeah, sure. Just give me a minute . . . to finish my lunch."
Sam wiggled back into her boot without unlacing it properly, ignoring the discomfort when the tongue folded in on itself and dug into the top of her foot, and once Jack slowly finished his last french fry, she stood to follow him out of the mess.
Fraiser had yet to make progress analyzing the rope, and Hammond refused to let them leave the base. Jack figured he'd last about four more hours before he went totally nuts. Then Carter announced her intention to take a shower.
"And how in the heck do you expect to accomplish that?" he asked, rather calmly, he thought.
"I think we can manage," she said. "The shower stalls in the locker room aren't that far from the benches."
"I'll peek," he threatened.
She laughed. "I do plan to close the curtain, sir."
Doc Fraiser insisted on chaperoning the event. Just in case something went wrong, she claimed. Just in case Carter's shower lasted long enough for one of them to experience withdrawal symptoms. She even brought her medical bag and a crash cart.
Jack sat on a bench and played with his yo-yo, pretending with all his strength that Carter wasn't five feet behind him, naked, with only a thin plastic curtain between them. He actually found that easier than he might have expected, because Fraiser kept asking if he felt dizzy, and his yo-yo string tangled itself up rather badly.
After his own shower, they headed up to the briefing room, where Daniel met them with a rather impressive pile of papers.
"I've found several references to cultures that associate fire with romantic love," he announced. "It's not surprising that fire plays a prominent role in many mythologies, given its importance to daily life, and of course marriage is essential to basic social structure. A goddess figure associated with marriage and childbirth was quite often also the goddess of the hearth and fire. The most famous example, of course, is Hera in Greek mythology, but she is far from the only --"
"Just get to the point. Did you find something about the ceremony?"
"Not as such," he said. "But I did find quite a bit that might help trace the Xanute to their Earth origins. Case in point, the word 'wehast' may be a derivative of --"
Jack stopped listening. Carter's arm rested at such an angle that he was pretty sure he could touch her elbow without being spotted. He slid his hand off the table and edged it along the armrest. A few more inches and --
Carter's arm moved as she reached for a paper Daniel was holding out.
D'oh! He waited for her to sit back in her chair again. If he adjusted his strategy to match the current position of her arm, he'd lose the ground he had already gained, and odds were good that she'd settle back in her seat any minute.
Yep. Any minute.
He watched the play of her shoulder muscles under her tee shirt. She looked a little tense. Maybe if they escaped the prying lenses of the security cameras he could give her a backrub. He'd enjoy that.
She shifted, flipping the pages in Daniel's report. Jack ignored his copy. Pretending to look at it would mean giving up his strategic position on the armrest. He couldn't afford that. It was about to pay off.
Sam leaned back as Daniel flipped on the projector. The last time she'd had this much trouble paying attention had been during a quilting demonstration in her high school home economics class, just before the science fair.
This time her distraction had nothing to do with whether she could successfully assemble a particle accelerator in the gymnasium. What occupied her mind now was whether she could successfully find a hidden corner in the SGC where she could be alone with Jack.
A shudder ran through her as he ran his finger along her forearm, starting at her elbow. The feather light touch sent her heart into overdrive. It took effort to keep her eyes open, and actually listening to Daniel proved impossible.
He continued, lightly stroking her skin from elbow to wrist, making her bite her lip to keep from gasping. She was sure the others would notice her rapid breathing. She stared at the screen, trying to make some sense out of the image. The rock from P3X-427, with the squiggly lines? Or a different rock entirely? Daniel had probably said, but she couldn't hear him over the thundering of her heart.
"Sam?" Daniel waved a hand in front of her face.
She stared at him. "I'm sorry, Daniel, could you repeat that?"
"I said that about sums it up."
"Oh." She tried to hide her disappointment, but if she moved, Jack would have to stop touching her arm like that, and that was pretty disappointing. Still, they had to leave the briefing room eventually.
"We've set up some VIP quarters for you," Janet said.
Sam turned to her, startled. She'd missed Janet coming in, and wondered if she'd been sitting across from them through Daniel's entire presentation. "VIP quarters?"
"Unless you'd rather spend the night in the infirmary, which I suspect you don't." Janet anticipated their protest. "I'm sorry, but those are the only options. General Hammond doesn't want you leaving the base, and I agree. We still don't have a handle on this thing."
Sam nodded and hoped against all logic that setting up the VIP quarters had included removing the security cameras.
Jack shoved his hands in his pockets for safekeeping as he and Carter followed Doc Fraiser to the VIP quarters. Much more of this and he'd have to choose between resigning and losing his mind.
As soon as they entered the room, his eyes darted to the security camera. Oh crap. It was still there. He glared at it.
Carter glared at it too.
Then he noticed the twin beds. They stood about two feet apart, right in the stupid camera's line of sight.
"We brought up a television," Fraiser said.
Yeah, a television, that made it all better. He exchanged a look with Carter. "I left my yo-yo in the locker room."
"Then let's go get it."
"Not so fast," Fraiser said. "I still need to see you both in the infirmary, and first we need to make sure these beds are close enough."
"They're not," Jack said.
"The colonel's right," Carter said. "The negleg was only six feet long. If we assume for a minute that the Xanute chose that length for a reason, then the maximum safe distance is six feet. With those beds that far apart, there's no guarantee that while we're sleeping, one of us won't roll out of safe range."
He knew he loved her for a reason.
Still, Fraiser looked unconvinced. "Sam, we don't know --"
"We don't know anything," Jack said. "So why take the chance? Why risk our lives? What's the point?"
Fraiser turned to Carter and started to speak.
"It's still separate beds," Carter said quickly. "We'll just push them together like we did in the infirmary."
"Very well," Fraiser said. "I suppose it can't do any harm."
"Excellent," Jack said. "Now can we go find my yo-yo?"
"Now where is it?" Jack made a show of looking under the benches, then scanning the floor. "Ah, there it is."
Sam looked where he pointed. "Where?"
"In there. Look."
He was clearly pointing at a shower drain, but she played along and went in for a closer look. He followed.
"Right there," he said, his voice soft and compelling.
When she turned to face him, Jack slid his arms around her waist and pulled her close.
"So where is it?" she asked, grinning, her own hands sliding up around his shoulders.
"In my pocket." He smiled at her. "There's no camera in here."
She stretched up to kiss him, softly at first, then with more urgency. She felt him tugging loose the back of her shirt, and then his warm hands slid up the bare skin of her back, fueling her desire. This was what she'd wanted all day: to hold him, to touch him, to taste him. To feel his hands on her skin.
"Major! Colonel! Excuse me, I was just -- excuse me."
"I lost my yo-yo," Jack explained, pulling his hands out from beneath Sam's tee shirt.
The young woman backed rapidly towards the door. "I'm sorry, excuse me."
"Lieutenant, wait," Sam said. "It's not what it looks like. We can explain."
"Could we explain later?" Jack muttered. "Maybe after we've had some time to prepare an excuse?"
The blushing lieutenant stared at them.
"There's an explanation," Sam said. "We don't make a habit of this, really."
"Rope. There was this magic alien rope . . . and something about pheromones . . . " Jack sighed. "Look. Just be a sport and don't tell Hammond? Not about the rope. He knows all about the rope. But don't tell him -- about this."
"Are you two . . . involved?"
"No," Sam said, probably too quickly. "We're not. Really."
Jack leaned back against the wall. "Not sure that makes it sound better, Carter."
"It's complicated," Sam said. "Just please, don't say anything?"
"Of course not, Major." The lieutenant made her escape.
"Think we can trust her?" Sam asked.
"Nope." He pulled her close again. "I give it maybe two days before she cracks. Oddly enough, though, that's not my highest priority right now. I'm much more worried about the fact that we have about three more minutes, tops, before Fraiser comes looking for us, and we're wasting it."
"Then let's not."
He kissed her again, deeply, and she melted into him.
"We have to go," Jack said, with great reluctance. He liked it here, away from the cameras, with Carter in his arms. He really liked kissing her. But their stolen moment had run out about five minutes ago.
"One more," she whispered against his lips.
That was hardly a request he'd deny, common sense or not. He kissed her again, savoring the way she sighed and leaned into him.
"Jack!" Daniel's voice, from the direction of the doorway, contained that whispered hint of urgency that he dared not ignore.
"In here." He let go of Carter and dug the yo-yo out of his pocket. "We found it."
Daniel eyed the yo-yo dubiously. "Uh, that's great, Jack. Listen, Janet sent me to remind you that she needs another blood sample."
"As if we could forget," Jack said.
"Sam, you might want to . . . " Daniel nodded at Carter and tugged at his waistband.
Carter tucked in her shirt. "Any progress isolating a catalyst?"
"It doesn't sound promising," Daniel said. "Janet does have one more test she'd like to run."
They headed back to the infirmary, bled a little, and then it was back to the VIP quarters with the dreaded camera.
Jack sat on one bed and fiddled with his yo-yo while Carter flipped listlessly through a book. They were only about two feet apart, but it felt more like a mile. He'd never sleep, but he had to suggest they try.
Even with the lights off, the security lighting bathed the room in a grey glow. Sam readjusted her pillow for the tenth time and tried not to look directly at the security camera that watched from the corner like a disapproving aunt.
At least the thing didn't record sound.
She and Jack watched each other in the semidarkness.
"What are you thinking?"
"Oh . . . things." His gaze trailed slowly down her body, burning into her like a physical caress. His eyes met hers again. "Inappropriate . . . things."
"Yeah." She smiled. "Me too."
"Good to know."
"I wish --"
She closed her eyes. He always did that -- stopped her before she put it all into words. Probably for the best, she realized, and she knew that he really did know.
"Carter," he said.
She met his gaze again. The need to touch him became too much to bear, and she slid her hand along the sheets towards him.
He met her half way, grasping her fingers, and they both let out soft sighs of relief.
"Three's a crowd," Jack said.
"Maybe we could throw a towel over it."
"Don't tempt me." He let go of her hand and his fingers lightly stroked the inside of her wrist.
Her breath caught and she shivered.
One finger slid along the tender skin of her inner arm. "How do you do it, Carter?"
"This." He stroked her arm. "My skin doesn't feel like this."
She caught his hand, turning it over so she could trail her fingers up his arm. She smiled when his breath hitched. "Oh, I don't know about that."
The urge to move into his arms and kiss him practically made her dizzy. She read the same feelings in his eyes. "There's not a camera in the bathroom," she said. "We could --"
The firmness of his reply startled her, even though she knew he was right. The camera might not be able to follow them into the bathroom, but it would certainly note that they'd gone in there together.
"Let's be honest," he said. "Court martials aside, if we go in there together, we both know what will happen, and the first time I'm with you, it's not going down like that."
She nodded and fought down the lump in her throat.
"Hey." He squeezed her hand. "Come over here so we can get some sleep. I think the 'alien influence defense' should buy us at least that much."
Sam scooted across the divide and crawled into the warmth of Jack's arms.
Jack didn't take any chances at breakfast the next morning, claiming the seat next to Carter before Daniel even arrived. He used the pretense of swiping food from her plate to sit close, his thigh brushing hers.
Carter leaned into him as she ate off his plate as well, laughing softly when their hands bumped.
Daniel watched with raised eyebrows, and kept glancing at the nearby tables. "Okay, we have to talk."
"Oh?" Jack asked, distracted by the way Carter pressed against him as she borrowed a forkful of his eggs. "About what?"
"This, Jack. If you two don't tone it down a little, you'll be the talk of the base."
"Yeah, Daniel, about that. It might be too late."
"If you're referring to Lieutenant Casey, I took care of that."
Carter paused, her fork half way to his plate. "That sounds dire."
"Yeah, well, it had to be done."
Jack tried to tear his eyes away from Carter's nimble fingers as she twirled her fork between them. "What exactly did you do?"
"I told her the truth."
"And by that you mean . . . "
Daniel looked directly at Carter. "I mean the truth, right down to your theory about compromising photographs and the apocalypse."
Jack turned to Carter and saw her wince. "What theory?"
"Daniel thinks it's ridiculous, sir."
"Well I do," Daniel said. "But that's not really the point."
Carter went back to eating off her own plate, and Jack glared at Daniel.
"You had a point?" Jack prompted when Daniel didn't continue.
"Talk to Sam," Daniel said. "But first, we'd better get to the briefing."
"It's a rope," Fraiser said. "I'm not finding any traces of anything that could explain their symptoms."
"We'll have to go back for a fresh sample," Carter said. "The heat probably destroyed any catalyst in the adhesive."
"I agree," Fraiser said. "But I'd rather not let you two go offworld until we have some answers."
"Oh come on, Doc," Jack said. "You said we'd be fine if we stayed near each other."
"We don't know that for sure, sir."
"Sure we do, we both feel fine. Right Carter?"
"I feel fine, Janet, really."
Fraiser sighed. "Something we don't understand is affecting your body chemistry. Leaving the base --"
"We have gone offworld under similar circumstances," Carter said. "When we were addicted to the alien device on P4X-347."
"True." Fraiser nodded. "I'm not entirely thrilled with the idea, but I do need a sample of the catalyst before I can make any more progress, and if it's not the adhesive, then we probably shouldn't risk exposing another team to it."
Hammond looked unconvinced. "And what if something, or someone, on that planet separates you?"
"Wild horses couldn't manage it, sir." He laid his hand over Carter's on the table, his gaze locked with Hammond's.
General Hammond sighed. "You have a go."
They stepped through the stargate as twilight fell on P3X-427. Xanadu did fit better, Sam decided.
"Teal'c," Jack said. "Watch our six." He pulled her into his arms and kissed her like a starving man.
Her knees buckled and she had to cling to him for support, not that she found this a particular hardship. She heard Daniel clearing his throat, but ignored him.
"We should have packed a hose," Daniel said.
"So it seems," said Teal'c. "O'Neill, a party of Xanute approaches. You and Major Carter may wish to greet them."
Jack mumbled something against her lips and kissed her again.
A new voice joined the background noise. "Ah, the bonding was successful. How delightful!"
"Greetings, Elder Shen," Daniel said. "That's why we're here, actually. The bonding seems to have affected them in ways we don't understand."
"Who can ever hope to understand the ways of the heart? But darkness approaches, and we should return to the village."
"I'm sure Colonel O'Neill agrees," Daniel said. "Don't you, Jack?"
They followed Shen and the others back to the village. This time, Sam could enjoy the warmth of Jack's palm against her own.
"So," Daniel explained. "Our doctor would like to test a sample of the adhesive used on the negleg."
"We will gladly make you some," Shen replied. "However, the preparation requires several days."
A slow, sexy grin spread across Jack's face. "Excellent."
This was paradise. Jack leaned back in the cozy Xanute chair with Carter in his arms, basking in the warmth of the fire as Daniel questioned Shen about the ritual. For once, he didn't mind vague and cryptic answers. In fact, vague and cryptic answers were just fine with him.
As long as they stayed here, he could kiss Carter pretty much any time he wanted, which just happened to be often. Specific and understandable answers might mean returning to Earth. So he was all for vague and cryptic.
Carter lifted her head from his chest and stretched up for another kiss. Oh yes, vague and cryptic was exactly what he wanted to hear.
Sam kissed Jack again. Without a compelling reason to resist, she found she spent slightly more time kissing Jack than she spent breathing. Kissing Jack was certainly more fulfilling than breathing, and if not for the biological need for oxygen, she might not have bothered to come up for air at all.
His hands trailed up and down her back, and she wished he'd slip them underneath her shirt so she could feel his hands on her skin. She ran her fingers through his hair, and tugged at his clothes.
He pulled back. "Hey, Carter."
She kissed his neck. "Yes?"
"Daniel thinks something's important."
"Does he?" She stroked Jack's cheek, and he bent to kiss her again.
Daniel cleared his throat loudly. "Sam. Jack. They want to put out the fire."
"I'm sure we can manage to stay warm enough," Jack said, his breath hot on her face and his hands sending electric jolts of pleasure through her.
"That means it's time to turn in," Daniel said. "Now. Let's go."
Jack paused to look up at Daniel. "Who's in command here?"
"That's the thing," Daniel said. "I am, if you don't start to demonstrate some basic judgment."
Sam climbed off of Jack's lap and held out her hand to him. "Let's go to bed, sir."
Jack leaned up against the door frame and took Carter's face in both hands, kissing her thoroughly before drawing back to meet her gaze. "What do we do now?"
"I don't know."
He took both her hands in his and studied her face. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, but he also understood the consequences. He didn't want to regret the best night of his life. "Let's go for a walk."
She nodded, and they wrapped their arms around each other as they headed in the direction of the mine. The planet had a big beautiful moon that bathed the landscape in soft light.
"This is great," she said.
"It's a beautiful planet." He stopped and turned her to face him. "But I'd rather look at you."
She smiled and stretched up to kiss him, her fingers digging into his shoulders as she pressed her body against his.
He dropped his hands down to circle her waist, and then he gave in to temptation and slipped his hands underneath her shirt to stroke the bare skin of her back. Her hum of encouragement made him groan out loud.
Her skin amazed him. Soft, smooth, and best of all, not currently off limits. After all these years, after all the things they'd shared, and after all of the rules they'd followed so faithfully, he had an excuse to touch her. He couldn't get enough.
"Jack," she whispered against his lips. She tugged at his shirt, and her fingers danced up his chest, leaving fiery pinpoints of sensation in their wake.
"Okay, that's it." Daniel's voice definitely had an edge to it. What was Daniel's voice doing here, anyway?
"You should know what, Jack. You both should. You're out wandering around in the dark, on an alien planet, without any weapons, or supplies of any kind for that matter."
"My point is, you should both know better. I understand that you're both struggling with this situation, really I do, and I know why you might be feeling a little reluctant to turn in for the night, given the circumstances, but you can't be putting yourselves at risk like this."
Through Daniel's entire speech, Jack was pretty much occupied with the fact that Carter's hand was still under his shirt, pressed against his chest. He made an effort to keep from kissing her while Daniel was talking, but actually listening to him was a bit beyond his abilities at the moment.
"Daniel's right," Carter said.
"We need to go back and go to bed, sir."
"I'm not really crazy about you calling me that right now, Carter." For emphasis, he ran his fingers back up her spine, thrilled when it made her gasp.
"Jack," Daniel said. "Let's go."
"Yeah, okay." He let go of Carter and straightened his clothes. "But next time you want to finish translating an inscription before we run for our lives, I'm bringing this up."
Sam sat on the bed and waited for Jack. She needed to use these three minutes alone to make a decision, or to gather her resolve to stick to a decision that in all honesty she hadn't fully made.
The trouble was that both choices were wrong, although unfortunately not equally so. If only she could convince herself otherwise, then it would be easy. She closed her eyes and forced herself to take a deep breath.
The door creaked and she looked up into Jack's eyes.
"We both know better," he said.
She nodded. The lump in her throat kept her from speaking.
They got into bed, she moved into his arms, and he held her impossibly tight. "I promise you, Carter, this won't be our only chance. We'll find a way to change things."
"I don't know, but we will. You figured out how to blow up a sun once, after all."
"That was physics," she said. "This is a little different."
His fingers ran through her hair. "I suppose."
"The laws of physics are logical," she said. "You just do the math. But the rules we live by, they aren't so black and white, and the consequences aren't as easy to predict."
"True," he said. "But remember the lesson we learned from the string."
She propped herself up to meet his eyes. "The string?"
"There's always a way around the rules, even if you do get a little frayed in the process."
It felt good to laugh, and this time she didn't resist the urge to kiss him.
Waking up with Carter was a pleasure well worth the difficulties it presented. Nothing a cold shower couldn't cure, anyway -- well, mostly.
At some point during the night, his hand had snuck up beneath her tee shirt to press against the hot skin of her stomach. Her breath fanned against his neck, and one of her thighs had come to rest draped over his.
Yep. Difficulties. But very pleasant ones.
She snuggled closer still, which he knew meant that she was about to wake up. He liked knowing that.
He stroked the skin along her ribcage with his thumb and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Good morning, Carter."
She lifted her head to grin at him. "It's certainly off to a good start."
Carter's smile, first thing in the morning. Sweet. "A very good start."
Her hand found his cheek and her smile grew mischievous. "Do we have anything in particular that we need to do today?"
Jack shrugged. "I'd have to ask Daniel."
She laughed again.
He loved the way her eyes sparkled when she laughed.
"So we don't necessarily need to get up, do we?" Her fingers trailed down his chest.
He rather enjoyed that, and no force on this planet or any other was likely to make him put a stop to it by getting up.
"It's too bad we know better." She kissed him.
Oh yeah, knowing better sucked.
Daniel summoned them for breakfast, and Sam had to admit that as much as she didn't appreciate his timing, it really was necessary.
They ate with Shen, his wife, and two young couples who were somehow related, although Sam missed how exactly, because Jack's breath was tickling her ear during the introductions.
One of the young men offered his companion a piece of fruit. She let him feed it to her, and they lost themselves in a kiss. The others laughed.
"It's the fourth morning," the other young woman teased. "You two must have stood too close to the fire."
Sam missed the reply, because Jack held up a succulent red strawberry and flashed his sexiest smile.
"As I remember," he said. "These are delicious."
The preparation of the negleg adhesive began after breakfast. Sam tried to watch, but it seemed very much like making glue, and besides, Jack was standing behind her with his arms around her waist.
Fortunately, Daniel had instructions from Janet, and seemed to know all the right questions.
Once the substance began to soak, Jack lost whatever patience he had with the proceedings, and suggested that they head out to look for some ruins.
"Jack, we --"
"Oh no, Daniel, don't thank me now."
"There aren't any ruins, Jack, and we need to learn more about this adhesive."
Jack made a show of watching the vegetable matter soak. "Are you learning anything from this, Carter?"
She leaned back against him, biting her lip to keep from gasping as his hands shifted against her stomach, his fingers hot against her, even through her shirt. "Not particularly, sir."
"Then let's go see if the UAV missed any ruins. I think Daniel can babysit the glue without us."
Daniel glanced from one to the other, eyebrows raised. "Speaking of babysitters . . . "
Jack sighed. "Teal'c, buddy, how'd you like to go for a walk?"
Jack tried to focus on how the warm alien sun felt against his face, but as pleasant as he found it, it couldn't compare to the warmth of Carter's hand in his, and that kept sending his mind to places that he knew were best left unvisited. For almost five minutes he made a solid effort to regain some sense of propriety, then he gave up, stopped walking, and pulled Carter into his arms for a deep, satisfying kiss.
They swayed against each other, a little breathless as they broke apart. He pressed his forehead against hers and slid his hands down her arms to hold her hands. For a while, neither spoke. Jack had given himself strict orders not to say exactly what he wanted to say, and nothing else came to mind. From the way Carter gripped his hands, he guessed her loss for words had about the same cause.
Eventually they turned back to their completely unnecessary hike. Maybe he'd retire. The SGC could muddle on without him. He wasn't irreplaceable like Carter, Daniel, and Teal'c.
Then he thought about Carter going offworld without him, and about his team -- all three of them -- facing the goa'uld while he went fishing. No, he couldn't do that. He needed to keep doing what he was doing, and besides, being near Carter every day, even in a hands-off sort of way, beat the heck out of weeks alone between brief weekend visits.
He wanted it both ways, and yeah, that pretty much seemed impossible, but that was how he felt. He dreaded the inevitable return to the way things had been before they'd stepped through the stargate onto Xanadu.
Sam tried to think of a way to lighten the mood, but jokes about thirsty strings, if more did indeed exist, escaped her memory, and she didn't trust her delivery of the punchline anyway. She lacked Jack's easy charm, and besides, that lump that kept rising in her throat would make any laughter sound forced.
The hike forced a purpose on the morning, but one that didn't quite fit. Neither of them believed in the fictitious ruins they'd set out to find, and the ground beneath their feet felt no more real. The only solid thing about the morning was Jack's hand, firmly gripping hers.
Teal'c had taken point, although Sam remembered his presence only when he stopped suddenly. "I believe we should turn back."
Jack let go of her hand and jogged the dozen paces to Teal'c's side, while Sam paused to unholster her sidearm. Jack raised his hand to shield his eyes, and peered towards the horizon. "Yep. We should turn back."
Sam felt a tingle of alarm. "What?"
Teal'c started to speak, but she missed the words beneath a wave of dizziness, and Jack's voice calling her name as darkness took her.
"Carter!" Jack ran to her side, his heart thumping so loudly that he scarcely heard his own voice.
She had a pulse, and to his untrained eye appeared perfectly healthy, except for the fact that she'd fainted.
"Teal'c, get her a --"
"Jack?" She squeezed his hand and blinked.
"Oh thank God." He swallowed hard. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine, for the most part. I think I'm lying on a rock, though."
He helped her to her feet and wrapped an arm around her waist, while Teal'c hovered protectively on her other side.
"I'm fine," she said. "Really. Why are we turning back?"
"What, are you nuts? You passed out, Carter, I think it's best --"
"Before that. What's up ahead?"
"Oh, that. A big herd of . . . somethings. Big cowlike things, hundreds of them. I'm thinking that imaginary ruins aren't worth getting trampled, or even worth walking where big cowlike things have spent some quality time."
"Probably not. You'd think Shen might have mentioned something."
"The creatures are probably migratory, Major Carter. It is unlikely that their whereabouts could have been predicted."
"I'm much more worried about what just happened," Jack said. "We weren't more than fifty feet apart, and only for a few minutes." He tightened his arm around Carter and tried to shut off the frightening images flashing through his mind.
"I'm okay." She looked up at him, her blue eyes meeting his as she spoke with conviction. "Really."
"I won't let it happen again, Carter, I promise."
When they arrived back at the village, Daniel came out to greet them. "Back so soon?"
"Carter passed out," Jack said. "We have to find the cure for this thing."
"We will, Jack." He turned to Carter. "How are you feeling now?"
"Just fine. However this thing works, the effects disappear pretty quickly as soon as we're together again."
"Not that I'm not grateful for that," Jack said. "But the problem is that the effects come on pretty quickly, too, and it could get us into some real trouble."
Sam could feel the tension in Jack's arms as he held her. He'd asked to see Shen, or to speak with one of the Xanute who understood the ceremony, and although only a few minutes had passed, he was already restless with impatience. She stroked his arms. "Sir --"
"Don't call me that, Carter."
She smiled a little at that, and stroked his arms again. "This can't last forever. Daniel said the Xanute don't marry for life. That means this effect must wear off on its own, eventually."
She turned in his arms -- no easy task considering how tightly he held her -- and stretched up for a gentle kiss. "The benefits outweigh the rest."
He smiled, a little sadly, and studied her face for a long minute. Then he pulled her close and buried his face in her shoulder without speaking, and all she could do was hold him.
"You fainted?" The young woman regarded Sam with awe. "Today?"
"Today," Jack confirmed, his arm tightening again.
"How far apart were you?"
Sam looked around and spotted a bench at about the right distance. "About as far as from here to that bench."
"Wow," the young woman said. "You must be very blessed. My husband went to check his fishing lines, and I haven't even felt dizzy." She shook her head and sighed. "Not even a little bit."
"I'm not sure 'blessed' is the word I'd use," Jack said.
"But you must love her very much!"
"I do," Jack said softly, sending a powerful thrill through Sam. "Which is why I don't like seeing her pass out if I make a mistake."
"But it means you'll be together for always!" The young woman practically glowed at the very thought. "Like in the legends. It must be wonderful."
"Legends?" Daniel leaned forward. "Would you mind telling us one?"
"Oh, I cannot," she said. "But if I tell Elder Shen that our guests wish it, he will arrange for the performers to give a storytelling. Do you wish it?"
"We do," Daniel said. "We would be most grateful for the honor."
She grinned and set off to locate the village elder.
"This should answer some questions," Daniel said. "Many deeper truths are buried in ritual storytelling. Among the --"
"You're enjoying this," Jack accused.
Daniel shrugged. "And you're not?"
"I was," he said. "But . . . "
"I'm fine, and I intend to stay that way." Sam gently pried Jack's arms from around her waist and stood up. "Let's go for a walk."
Jack took Carter's hand and let her lead him through the village. He wanted answers, and he had his doubts about finding them in the performance of some legend. Even with Daniel's track record at figuring things out from old stories, he still lacked faith in the whole thing. This wasn't about some artifact that needed deciphering, this was about Carter's life.
"This is perfect," she said. "Sit."
At her gentle urging he took a seat on the soft grass, realizing that they had moved well beyond the village. He reached for her, but she moved behind him, her hands landing on his shoulders. Oh that felt good.
Her nimble fingers worked at loosening the tension in his shoulders. "We've been in much more dangerous situations than this, and we've always found a solution," she said. "I have faith in Daniel, and in Janet, and most of all I trust you."
"Carter -- "
She read his mind. "What happened earlier was not your fault. You know that. We both thought we had a little more leeway than that, and maybe if I hadn't stopped it wouldn't have happened, but we were both reacting automatically to a possible threat. In any case, I'm fine, and we won't let it happen again."
"Damn straight we won't." He tried to ignore the fact that if there had been a threat, his actions could have separated them for too long, and she wouldn't be fine at all. That kind of thinking never helped.
Fortunately, what she was doing right now made any kind of thinking at all pretty much impossible. Her fingers sent ripples of delight through his shoulders, and her hot breath tickled his ear. "Lay down. Let me do this right."
He hesitated. Carter did everything right, and that could lead to trouble.
"Please," she whispered, her body brushing against his back. "I've always wanted to do this."
Her voice was his undoing, and he stretched out on the grass and rested his head on his arms. He groaned out loud when she straddled him, her thighs warm against his hips, and when she slipped her hands up underneath his shirt he thought he'd die.
His blood ran hot and his heart pounded a violent rhythm even as his muscles melted into relaxation. Of course Carter was good at this. She was Carter. The gentle touch of her fingertips dancing across his skin drove him wild, while the firm press of her palms against his muscles forced away all of the tension and worry.
The carefree slow boil continued, escalating until he wondered if maybe she was trying to kill him, although if that was the case he didn't mind. Small price, really. It was even worth the price exacted by the ground beneath him, which was beginning to demonstrate the ways in which hard ground compared unfavorably to a soft mattress.
He tried to hide any evidence of his discomfort, but she must have sensed it, because she pulled her hands out from beneath his shirt and she stretched out beside him, one hand softly stroking his shoulder. "Turn over," she said. "You must be uncomfortable lying on your sidearm like that." Her voice was soft, seductive. "Besides, I really can't go another minute without a kiss."
His own need to touch her tipped the scale against logic. He rolled onto his back, pulling her close as her open mouth met his in a storm of sensation that flashed all the way to his toes.
Sam rolled away from Jack, gulping in air as she mentally recited all of the reasons to gather her self control. Her hand sought his in the small space between them and she felt him squeeze her fingers. Nothing felt solid except for their joined hands. The grass beneath them, the blue sky above them, the sound of the brook just out of sight down the path . . . it all felt as unsubstantial as her own flimsy grasp on the common sense that kept them from crossing that one final line.
If she was completely honest with herself, then she had to admit that the main reason they were still on the Air Force approved side of that line had very little to do with her sense of duty, and rather more to do with the fact that they were outdoors. By Air Force standards, they'd already broken enough rules for a court martial anyway.
She should have cared.
It took effort to focus her attention on anything other than her desire to explore every fantasy she'd ever had of Jack O'Neill, especially those which would swiftly put an end to her career. Her career, in and of itself, could never matter one tenth as much as Jack. She loved her job, but not like she loved Jack. Unfortunately, the price was higher than a career. She had a duty to the SGC, to Earth, and to allies scattered across the galaxy.
In a few hours, or at most a few days, they'd have a cure, and she'd have to find the strength to give him up. She squeezed his hand.
"Hey." Jack rolled up on his side to look down at her, and his thumb stroked away a tear from her cheek.
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to -- "
"It's okay." He kissed her softly and pulled her into his embrace. "I know."
She heard the shudder in his breath, and held him so tightly that the muscles in her arms started to tremble.
"Let's go fishing."
She pulled her head back from his shoulder and met his gaze. "Fishing?"
"Yep. It'll be great." He nodded in the direction of the stream. "Let's go."
"We don't have any fishing poles."
A flash of warm emotion forced Sam to smile. The suggestion was just so Jack that she couldn't resist.
Jack sat beside Carter on the bank of the stream, his thigh brushing hers, and they watched the water.
"You were right," she said. "This is great."
He smiled at her, just to make her smile back. So much about this paradise made his heart ache, because he knew exactly what they couldn't share, but to have these memories with Carter made it all worth it. He held his hands about three feet apart. "I'm gonna catch one this big."
She laughed, a real laugh that made her blue eyes sparkle.
He increased the size of his imaginary fish, and wrapped his arm around her shoulder with exaggerated subtleness, which made Carter laugh again. He'd do anything for that laugh, and that smile. At least he wouldn't have to give those up when they returned to Earth. As long as he had Carter's smile, he had something in his life that made it worth living.
Sam watched the sun glint off the water as it rippled past. She definitely planned to go fishing again, soon if possible. It had been one of the best afternoons of her life, sitting here with Jack, trading stories, sometimes just sitting in comfortable silence. She looked down at his head resting in her lap and ran her fingers through his hair.
He'd drifted off a few minutes ago, and she liked watching him sleep. He looked happy.
She held a finger against her lips, warning Daniel to speak softly. Her eyes darted to the manila folder in his hand. She feared that meant he'd been to the SGC. And that might mean that they knew something that could end this blissful vacation.
"It's not from Janet," Daniel said. "The adhesive isn't even ready yet."
The tension drained away again and she nodded. "What is it?"
"It's Air Force Instruction 36-2909. Have you ever read it?" Daniel didn't wait for an answer. "I hadn't, before this morning."
Her heart started to pound. "And?"
Daniel sat down beside her on the grass. "Legal doublespeak aside, there are a few interesting phrases."
"There aren't any loopholes." She tried to keep the question from her statement, and to ignore the seed of hope within her. She knew better. She knew the document, and it was pretty thorough.
"Not as such," Daniel admitted. "I did learn something, though."
"Reading this document, I see several inconsistencies, and I don't get the impression that it's meant to be strictly enforced. Taken literally, you and I have an unprofessional relationship. So do Jack and I."
Daniel opened the folder. "Listen to this: 'Sharing living accommodations, vacations, transportation, and off-duty interests on a frequent or recurring basis can be, or can reasonably be perceived to be, unprofessional.' It goes on to specifically forbid weekly games of golf or racquetball, gambling, and the solicited sales of cosmetics."
"Daniel -- "
"My point is, the rules regarding romantic relationships are only part of this document, and I can name a dozen violations that get ignored on any given day. The primary function of this document is to prevent lawsuits. Claims of favoritism. Sexual harassment. That kind of thing. If someone complains, the Air Force can just point to this document."
"It's more than that," Sam said. "The rules are meant to be followed. The integrity --"
"Within reason." Daniel tipped the open folder at her and read aloud in his customary rapid manner. "'While personal relationships between Air Force members are normally matters of individual choice and judgment, they become matters of official concern when they adversely affect or have the reasonable potential to adversely affect the Air Force by eroding morale, good order, discipline, respect for authority, unit cohesion or mission accomplishment.' It goes on to say that 'the rules regarding personal relationships must be somewhat elastic,' and also 'No fact, standing alone, necessarily warrants referral of charges to a court-martial.'
"Anyway, my point is this: If you and Jack were to be questioned regarding your relationship, I think there's enough here to build an argument in your favor."
"I'd like to believe that." Her throat tightened. "But Jack's my CO. The regs are pretty clear about that."
"Only because of the possible adverse effects within our unit. In my opinion, SG-1 is too small, and too closely knit, to be adversely affected. In fact, the only adverse effect I can foresee is if the two of you keep making this sacrifice. It's too much."
"Hammond would turn a blind eye," Jack said, proving he'd heard at least part of the discussion. "But there are others that wouldn't, and the stakes are too high." He sat up. "Look, Daniel, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but let's not do this. Especially now."
Sam met his gaze, her eyes drawn to his by the pain in his soft voice. There was nothing she could say that would make this better.
"Whatever happens," Daniel said. "Whatever you decide, you'll both always have my full support."
"I know," Sam said. "Thank you."
As they walked back to the village, Jack fought the urge to ask Daniel about his little research project. If there was a way to bend the rules, he wanted -- needed -- to know, but he felt reluctant to discuss it in front of Carter. It was too painful, and besides, when he told her -- really told her -- that he loved her, he didn't want it to be part of a discussion on military protocol.
He wanted romance. Carter deserved romance. When he said it, when he spoke the word itself, he wanted to say it freely, after all the obstacles had been cleared away. Of course, he could say it in other ways in the meantime. He reached out and slipped his arm around her waist as they walked. He liked doing that.
Daniel kept going on about the evening's planned storytelling, but Jack couldn't really bring himself to care. Life was very simple right now. He had an excuse to be close to Carter. Everything else -- especially the regs -- could wait.
Shen hurried forward to greet them as they approached the village square. "Please, as honored guests, take the seats nearest the circle. We are honored by your interest in our legends."
"Oh, I just love a good legend," Jack said.
He and Carter settled into one of the cozy chairs. One of these would be perfect at his cabin. This thing beat the heck out of lawn chairs.
Teal'c and Daniel took the seats flanking them, and Carter laughed softly. "As if knowing better wasn't bad enough, now we have chaperones."
"Think they'll buy us popcorn?"
She smiled, and he had to kiss her. That activity occupied his full attention until Daniel leaned over and tugged at his arm.
"They're starting," Daniel whispered. "Pay attention."
Jack glared at him, but he had to admit that he was right. He liked these people. Offending them wasn't a good idea.
A young woman drifted across the area cleared as a stage and took a seat on small bench. She began to brush her hair.
Two young men materialized out of the audience, and watched her from across the stage. "She is like the moon," the first one lamented. "I could never touch the moon."
They melted back into the crowd, the first young man still looking wistfully over his shoulder at the woman across the stage.
The woman continued to brush her hair.
Jack lost interest. He found Carter's hair much more interesting, especially the way it was currently tickling his cheek as she rested her head on his shoulder.
A voice came booming out of the darkness. "And so Mingmei sat alone, because while Dewei possessed the courage to face a charging moutend, he lacked the courage to approach the beloved of his heart."
The young woman on stage put down her hairbrush and wrung her hands in despair. "I must forget about him. Whenever he sees me, he runs away. When we were children, we talked for hours, but now he runs. It will never be."
"All the village knew of Dewei's love for Mingmei, except Mingmei herself. And all the village knew of Mingmei's love for Dewei, except Dewei himself. Something had to be done."
A dozen dancing couples whirled out of the audience and onto the stage.
"And so," the voice explained. "The elders arranged a great feast."
The dancers swept Mingmei into their midst, and when she came to a stop in front of Dewei, everyone on stage froze. The two reached for each other, slowly joining hands as they gazed into each others eyes.
The wehast rang and children raced towards the young couple with streamers.
"And so the elders rang the wehast, signaling the waiting children, and the couple was bound together. Their closest friends had prepared a negleg, and the elder tied them with it. Now Dewei could not run from his beloved."
The crowd herded the couple from the stage.
"All night they talked, and did other things that lovers often do."
The audience laughed, and Carter stretched up to kiss Jack softly.
"When morning came, their bond was transferred from the negleg and into themselves, and for many days they were happy."
The couple certainly looked happy. Of course they were happy. They got to do all the things that lovers often did.
A group of young men approached the pair. "Come, Dewei, it is time for the hunt."
The scene progressed, with the other men trying increasingly desperate measures to lure Dewei away from his girl, but Dewei seemed to know he had a good thing. Jack's attention drifted, because Carter's hand had landed on his thigh, and he rather liked the way her fingers were tracing circles just above his knee.
"Eventually Dewei gave in, and went with the other hunters. Mingmei pined for him. Her distress over his absence became so severe that she fell ill. The healers could find no cure."
Jack's heart pounded as he recalled how close he'd come to losing Carter back at the SGC, and he found that even though it was only a performance, he cared about what happened to the young woman on stage.
"As Mingmei approached death, she begged for Dewei to come to her, so she could hold his hand one last time. But the hunters had not yet returned, and darkness was falling."
Voices called out from the audience, and then the party of hunters came into the circle, carrying Dewei on a travois. They brought him to Mingmei's side.
"The young lovers shared a tearful goodbye, but then a strange thing happened. They each recovered fully, showing not a trace of sickness only a few minutes after their reunion.
"The elders realized that Dewei and Mingmei now shared a heart, and could not be parted. If Dewei hunted, Mingmei must also hunt. If Mingmei took laundry to the river, Dewei had to go to the river as well. They had to share all duties equally, if everything was to get done.
"As time went by, Dewei and Mingmei learned the great value of cooperation and compromise. They became the leaders of their people, and the Bonding Ceremony was repeated each season. Through the heart-bonds forged in fire, all Xanute find their partnerships, and follow in the path set long ago by Dewei and Mingmei."
Sam half-listened to Daniel's enthusiastic analysis of the legend, but in truth she found it hard to care about which elements of the myth had etic or emic value. Jack's thigh was much more interesting, as was the way he reacted when she ran her fingers up it.
If only they were alone, then she could slide onto his lap and press her body against his. She wanted to feel his hot flesh under her fingertips, and his warm breath on her skin. In her fantasy, they could cross all sorts of lines without worrying about consequence. Yet even now, to her great regret, her common sense reminded her that she did indeed know better.
She stretched up to kiss him anyway.
"They do not seem to care, Daniel Jackson."
"I suppose not."
She sighed and pulled back from Jack just enough to glance at Daniel. "What?"
"Bedtime." He looked like he wanted to say more.
"Right." She got up and pulled Jack after her.
Like the night before, they paused at the door and their eyes met.
"We know better," Jack said. "As much as that totally sucks, we have to keep knowing better."
Sam nodded and reached up to touch his face. "I wish I disagreed."
He kissed her, his lips barely touching hers, but lingering in a way that made her whole body tingle. His hands floated up her back, his touch equally light, and her legs ceased to be useful.
"Wow," she whispered. "I don't think I know better any more."
Again he kissed her, deeply this time, and he pulled her so close that it felt like his heart was beating directly against her own. His kiss had the power to make her dizzy, and she knew it had nothing to do with any alien influence, it was just him.
He drew back, and she opened her eyes to find him studying her face. Everything he felt for her showed in his eyes, and she felt tears begin to gather, because Jack made her happier than she'd ever felt in her life, and yet at the same time, her heart ached with misery.
She tightened her grip on his shoulders, and would have buried her face against him to hide her tears, but he tipped her chin up and kissed her softly again.
"Whatever happens," he said. "We'll always have Xanadu."
She laughed and hugged him.
Jack liked the breakfasts on Xanadu. He liked the fresh fruit and bite-sized breads, and he especially liked the Xanute tradition of curling up together in a big cozy chair and feeding each other strawberries.
The two young couples who were somehow related to Shen joined them again, although Shen and his wife had left early to check the location of the moutend herd. The young woman named Yan served as hostess, fluttering nervously back and forth as she worried over whether the others had enough to eat and drink.
Yan noticed the moment that Daniel finished his juice, and exploded into a flurry of activity. As she returned with the drink, Daniel reached to take it, and she jerked her hand back from his, spilling the juice.
"I'm sorry," Daniel said. "Let me help you."
"No!" She shied away from him a second time.
"I apologize," Daniel said. "I didn't mean to offend you."
"Oh, you haven't, it's not you, I'm sorry. It's too soon in the bonding to risk touching another."
"If you touch someone else while the bonding is still fresh, it can make you sick," the other woman explained. "Did Father not tell you?"
"Nope," Jack said. "Father missed that little detail. It's good --"
Carter gasped. "That's it."
"Back at the SGC, right before I got sick, I touched Daniel."
"You both became ill," Teal'c said.
"Carter was sicker," Jack said. The memory sent a shudder through him. "Much sicker. And she was sick first."
"I touched Daniel's hand," Carter said. "And there was this flash of pain. The next thing I knew, I was in the infirmary."
"I touched you again," Daniel said. "Right before -- my God, Sam, I could have killed you."
"You didn't know," Carter said.
"You're lucky to live, if he touched you twice! And after that your bond remains unbroken?"
Jack shuddered at the incredulity in the young woman's voice. He could have lost Carter, had almost lost her, and judging by the woman's reaction, he was darn lucky that he hadn't.
"So when Sam's heart stopped, she was in anaphylactic shock resulting from my touch. Why did she improve so rapidly when Jack touched her?"
Yan's eyes went wide again. "You brought her back from the near-death? It must be true, then. You have a love like in the legends, together for always."
Carter laid a hand on his arm. "I certainly can't imagine my life without him."
Jack closed his eyes and pulled her as close as he could. "And I don't want to imagine mine without you."
Sam stared at the container of glue. This enemy she couldn't fight. It possessed a power that even the goa'uld, for all of their evil, lacked. It had her doubting her own resolve, and battling back tears as she faced it.
Jack had his arms around her waist, and his chin rested on her shoulder. He held her tightly, and she could tell from the tension in his arms that he faced the container with equal dread. "We'll have Daniel take it back. We'll wait here for -- we'll wait here."
She had to force herself to remind him. "Janet needs more blood samples."
"Daniel can take those back, too."
Some of her tension drained away as she nodded. She could draw blood, even her own, and they had the supplies to send it back. The short reprieve sent a wave of relief through her, but as she dropped her guard, the tears she'd fought back overwhelmed her and escaped.
Jack turned her in his arms. "I know."
She looked up at him through the tears, but for all the things she wanted to say, she couldn't find the voice.
"I know." He kissed a tear from her cheek and held her close.
Daniel appeared in the doorway. "Ready to go?"
Sam met his sympathetic gaze but words continued to fail her.
"New plan," Jack said. "You're going back. We're staying on until Fraiser finds a cure for this thing."
"Are you sure that's wise? If --"
"The only thing I'm sure of is that the one surefire way to drive me completely nuts is to go back to the land of the cameras before we've found a cure to this thing."
"I'm sorry to ask this, but . . . " Daniel paused and let out a long sigh. "What makes you think that whatever cure Janet finds will make any of this at all easier?"
"Do you have another option?"
The question hung there, and although Sam knew that Jack had meant it rhetorically, she also read an unexpected determination in Daniel's expression. If the answer existed, he'd find it. Unfortunately, she knew it didn't. At least not the way things stood now.
Jack often claimed that he wasn't the smart one, but he rarely missed a thing. "Daniel . . . "
The moment stretched as the two carried out their silent discussion.
"So," Jack said. "Fraiser wants us to bleed again?"
They all accompanied Daniel back to the stargate. Jack wished he dared leave Carter's side for long enough to talk to Daniel alone. He knew he should order him to let well enough alone, but what he really wanted to say was quite different, so maybe silence was best after all.
Teal'c hung back as they headed back towards the village.
"We need to talk," Carter said.
"I suppose you're right."
"If Daniel --"
"He won't," Jack said. "But if he does -- I hope you don't need to ask that."
"Not really." She treated him to a smile and squeezed his hand.
They walked on again, and he could guess at her thoughts. He wanted to say it, but fought the urge.
"Carter, whatever happens, what we share is a heck of a lot more valuable than . . . other things. Not that other things wouldn't be great. Other things, with you, well let's just say I spend a fair amount of time looking forward to that. But it's still just . . . "
"Just other things," she agreed.
"So you know." She stopped, and her hand came to rest on his chest in that delightful way that did such interesting things to his insides. The smile she gave him nearly put him right over the top. "I look forward to other things, too."
"Excellent." He slipped his hands around her waist and lowered his mouth to hers.
Fishing seemed like the ideal way to spend the afternoon, and since they didn't have any fishing poles anyway, it hardly seemed necessary to sit particularly close to the water, either. They settled down on a grassy hill overlooking the stream, while Teal'c scouted the surrounding area for a variety of things that didn't exist.
Jack offered to return the favor of the backrub, and Sam stretched out on the grass. His fingers worked magic. She'd never really understood that tired old cliché before, but now she knew it was a cliché for a reason. The phrase accurately captured the essence of the experience. Her body melted into a delicious low hum of arousal as his hands explored her back.
Other things . . . yes, those would be nice right about now.
He leaned close, his breath tickling her ear. "As I recall, you finished up with a kiss that rocked my world."
She laughed softly and rolled over.
His eyes slid down her body, slowly, and he swallowed. The look in his eyes set her blood on fire, and she realized that her shirt had ridden up, exposing a few inches of her belly to his gaze. His hand trailed up over her hip to rest on the bare skin of her waist, and he leaned in for a kiss. "You just brought to mind some very fond memories of a certain khaki top."
Her soft laugh was cut short by one of those kisses that that shook the very foundations of her soul.
Many minutes later, Sam realized that Teal'c was attempting to get their attention. "O'Neill. Major Carter. Doctor Fraiser wishes to speak with you."
Jack sat up and took the radio that Teal'c held out to him. "O'Neill."
"Good afternoon, Colonel, is Sam with you?"
"Right here, Janet."
"How are you both feeling?"
"Great, actually," Sam said. "Anything new?"
"Well, first of all, if the effects are going to wear off on their own, they haven't yet. I've also done some more tests, based on the new information, and the Xanute seem to be right: You're not just addicted to each other, you're also allergic to Daniel."
"I always knew there was something odd about him," Jack said.
"Funny," Daniel said. "Listen, Jack --"
"Daniel!" Jack said. "You're missing some quality fishing."
"Yeah. Listen, I need you to ask Shen a question. Find out if the Xanute have any legends about fire itself."
"You're not coming back?"
"I think I can accomplish more here," Daniel said.
"You're missing some great fishing," Jack said. "You should have seen the one that got away."
The sun was low on the horizon by the time Jack finally admitted that they needed to get back to the village. As they approached, they noticed a fairly noisy crowd in the central square, and he pulled Carter close. "Teal'c, go find out what's up."
"Worried?" Carter asked.
"Oh, I'd prefer to err on the side of caution," he said. "I'd like to avoid any more ceremonies with side effects, seeing as we're still not over the last one."
She smiled. "I'm finding it hard to complain -- "
"Sam." Qiao stepped into their path and eyed Jack with open hostility. "I hope you will honor me with a dance tonight." Qiao's invitation -- or, more accurately, ambush -- contained more than a hint of challenge, and under the circumstances, Jack feared that this little twerp could prove dangerous.
"You're out of luck." Jack pushed aside the vivid memory of Carter's close call after Daniel touched her hand. "As I've mentioned before, she's with me."
Qiao stepped closer.
Jack pulled Carter back against his chest with one arm, and unholstered his sidearm. "I should probably warn you," he said. "If you so much as think about touching her, you won't live long enough to enjoy it."
"Indeed." Teal'c stepped between them and angled his staff weapon at the young man. "I would suggest that you show Major Carter the respect she is due, or I will be forced to challenge you to combat."
"Trust me," Jack said. "You don't want that."
Qiao glared at them all. "The moutend hunt is tomorrow. Then we'll know who is worthy. And who is not."
Jack watched the kid stalk off towards the crowd. "Can't say I like the sound of that."
"I do not believe that the Xanute will require our participation in the hunt," Teal'c said.
"Probably not," Jack agreed. "But that kid is a time bomb, and I'm not interested in being around when he detonates."
The tension in Jack's arms matched the apprehension in Sam's gut. "I was hoping he'd lost interest. We haven't seen him in days."
"A group of young men left on a hunting trip the morning of the ceremony," Teal'c said. "Qiao was among them."
"A shame they came back," Jack said. "If he -- Carter, when you touched Daniel, how long before you felt sick?"
"I'm not sure," she said. "Maybe a minute. Maybe less."
"Just what sort of touching are we talking about?"
"If you're asking how much contact is necessary for a reaction, I don't know, but I didn't just bump elbows with him. I was holding his hand. And don't forget, I recovered when you touched me."
"With a little help from Fraiser," he said. "Your heart stopped, Carter. That's not a risk I'm prepared to take again. I'm thinking that maybe we should pack it in and head for the gate."
Logically, she knew that the suggestion made perfect sense. Yet it struck her like a physical blow. As irrational as it sounded, she preferred the risk Qiao presented to the limitations inflicted by the security cameras at the SGC. "Sir . . . "
"Don't ask me to risk your life, not like this."
"As risks go --"
"Look, I know that the kid's not even in the same ball park as our usual sparring partners, but right now, all it would take is a touch."
"So we avoid him. I don't want to go back without -- not yet."
"One more night," she said softly. "We'll find Shen and let him know about our concerns. Plus, we need to ask him Daniel's question. We don't need to go anywhere near the crowd, or Qiao."
They turned and skirted around the edge of the village, heading back to the cottage. Jack kept glancing behind them.
"I doubt he'll bother me again before the hunt," Sam said. "He seems to think it'll prove something."
"Maybe." He reached for the door. "Wait here."
"Don't." She caught his hand.
"Let's just make sure he didn't beat us here," Jack said. "I'll stay within six feet."
"It's not that," she said. "I think you're forgetting that I'm not the only one who might be in danger. We have no way of knowing what might happen if someone else touches you."
Jack paused. "Okay. Teal'c, do the honors?"
Jack tensed as Teal'c stepped through the door. His gut told him that he'd regret the decision to stay another night.
A flurry of movement within the dark room sent his heart into his throat. He spun around, using his body to shield Carter from whatever threat came barreling out the door, and he heard laughter from the next cottage.
"Afraid of a baby moutend? You won't keep a woman long!"
Jack ignored the taunt. "Teal'c?"
"I am unharmed, O'Neill. I fear the same cannot be said for this dwelling."
He stuck his head in the door. "Yep. A baby cowlike thing has definitely spent some quality time in there."
Carter winced. "Now what?"
Jack glared at Qiao and his friends, who stood snickering at each other in the doorway of the house kitty corner to their own. "Can I shoot him?"
"That could be frowned upon, sir."
"I believe you should wait to shoot him," Teal'c said. "Elder Shen approaches."
"Do you not wish to partake in the hunting feast?" Shen asked.
"We would," Jack said. "But I think the main course just hightailed it for the hills."
Shen looked from Jack to the open door, and sniffed. "I see our young men were successful in the capture."
"So it seems."
"I apologize for not warning you of the custom," Shen said. "The mess will of course be cleaned up before you retire for the evening."
"Custom?" Jack asked. "You folks do this often?"
"After the bond mates are selected, the remaining single men set off to capture a young moutend. It is meant to keep their minds off of that which they failed to capture. If they are successful, the catch is placed in the home of the woman most admired by the young man who caught it, in hopes that she will remember him at the next bonding."
"Yeah," Jack said. "About that. Qiao's attention is making us a little edgy. Is there anything you can do to . . . encourage him to leave Carter alone?"
Shen eyed Carter. "You are not flattered to be so admired?"
"It's not so much that," Carter said. "I'm just a little worried that he'll touch me, and it'll make me sick."
"Are you still feeling the effects of the bonding?"
She nodded. "Yes, and our doctor thinks we will be for a while longer, so --"
"Why that is extraordinary!"
"So everyone says," Jack said. "But I'm really hoping it doesn't get us killed."
"We will take every precaution," Shen said. "You have my word that no harm will come to either of you."
Sam curled up beside Jack in one of the Xanute loveseats near the fire. They had Shen's word that no one would touch either of them. She hoped it was enough, because she really wanted to enjoy this night. Her heart told her that it very well might be the last one they spent on Xanadu.
Jack held her close, his fingers curled around her waist, but his distraction was pretty hard to miss. His eyes roamed the crowd, and he kept twisting to look behind them.
"Let's dance," she said.
"What, are you nuts? With all those people --"
She shook her head and stood, reaching for his hand. "Forget the crowd. Dance with me, right here."
His lips twitched with the hint of a smile. "That's an offer I can't refuse."
She stepped into his arms, close enough to hear his heartbeat and feel his muscles shift against her body. This time she'd let herself enjoy every detail, because she knew just how much time might pass before she had this opportunity again.
Jack's hands floated up and down her back as they swayed to the distant music, his gentle touch making her dizzy, and she stretched up to press her lips to his. He kissed her in return, slowly, with an intensity that turned every cell in her body to liquid and set her at a slow boil.
He drew back. Their eyes met and locked. She waited, and knew he waited for the same thing -- for one of them to crack and suggest retiring for the night.
"We know better," he said, his voice quiet yet rough with emotion, and he pulled her close for a kiss that said just the opposite.
She leaned into him, her hands in his hair, holding him to her as she returned the hungry kiss.
"The moutend run tomorrow." Qiao's voice cut through the perfect moment.
Sam spun around as Jack's arm wrapped around her waist, and they both reached for a sidearm.
Qiao laughed. "Worried, aren't you? Tomorrow we'll see who deserves a woman, and who does not."
"Qiao!" Shen hurried over and stepped in front of the young man. "That's enough. They are honored guests and they are not used to our ways."
The look in Qiao's eyes did not match the humbleness in his muttered apology. He disappeared back into the crowd.
"I think it's time we call it a night," Jack said.
"I apologize for Qiao," Shen said. "He is used to getting what he desires, and could benefit from a lesson in patience."
"I'd be happy to teach him," Jack muttered. "I just hope I don't need to."
"I'll talk to him," Shen said. "Try not to worry. He'll have other things to think about tomorrow."
Sam traced the tense muscles in Jack's arm with a fingertip. "Let's go to bed."
Jack glanced down at Carter's fingers, slowly meandering up and down his arm. It took a fair bit of effort to stay upset when her fingers were doing that. Besides, the warm press of her body against his chest -- among other things -- was a heck of a lot more interesting than Elder Shen's repeated apologies regarding Qiao.
"Let's go to bed," she said.
"Bed." He nodded. "Good idea."
To his relief, most traces of the baby cowlike thing's stay had been erased from the cottage. They skipped the part where they stood at the door and stared at each other. He sat on the bed and waited while she freshened up, struggling with his resolve to only let things go so far.
He reminded himself of every possible consequence, and nearly forgot them all -- and his own name to boot -- when she opened the door.
"I couldn't face another night in fatigues," she said, a slight blush coloring her cheeks.
He stared. He knew he was staring. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing particularly intelligent came to mind, so the effort ended there. She smiled, and his heart tried to make up for several minutes of inactivity all at once.
The hem of the long cotton shirt flirted around her knees. He'd seen her knees before, but not often enough. He stared some more. Nope, not often enough. Not by a longshot.
She spoke, and he tried to make sense out of the words.
He failed. "What?"
"You should try to get comfortable." She said it casually, like it was even possible with her dressed like that.
He swallowed. "I don't think that's such a good idea."
She reached for his hand and tugged, pulling him to his feet. "We both know the rules, but this could be our last night here. Let's enjoy it."
But then her hands were tugging his tee shirt up and out of the way, and her lips were trailing down his throat to press hotly against his chest, and he was no longer fit to command his own senses. He pulled her close for a kiss that nearly made him blind, and together they sank stumbling onto the bed.
For a brief eternity, his world centered on Samantha Carter, and for a few shaky minutes, he wasn't sure he had the strength to stop. To feel her beneath him, surrounding him, her hands sliding over his skin -- he wanted more. But he knew better, and he couldn't stand the thought of regretting his first night with Carter.
So he stopped, burying his head against her shoulder as he caught his breath, and he held her so tightly that she probably had trouble catching hers.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have --"
"Don't," he said. "No regrets. No apologies." He lifted his head to look down at her flushed face. "Happy memories," he said firmly. "Happy."
She smiled that amazing smile that made him fall in love all over again. "Happy memories." She nodded and reached up to stroke his face. "These past few days have been, well, I want you to know, they've been --"
"The best mining negotiations ever." And he kissed her again, because he couldn't say it, or let her say it, but he sure as heck wanted to show her while he had the chance.
Sam woke up in Jack's arms and snuggled closer, savoring the feeling of being close to him. Over the past few days, they'd shared something that she had barely dared to dream about. Painful as it would be to let go, she was grateful for the experience.
She slid a hand over his heart and listened to the steady rhythm, sighing with contentment when he stroked her back and pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
Neither made a move to get up.
"So," Jack said. "More fishing today?"
"Fishing is great." She propped herself up on one elbow and traced patterns on his chest. "If I had known how much I'd love it, I would have taken it up years ago."
"The fishing here is pretty special. I hope word doesn't get out, or the whole place will turn into a tourist trap."
"We can't have that." She moved closer, kissing him softly. "We'll just have to keep it our little secret."
"Good plan." He pulled her down for another kiss.
Jack was less than pleased by the number of people who showed up at Shen's for breakfast, especially when he spotted Qiao among them. If the kid caused any trouble, they'd have to head back to the gate, because nothing -- not even fishing on Xanadu -- was worth risking Carter's life.
"Eat hearty," Shen said. "Today we hunt moutend!"
The crowd seemed pretty enthusiastic about that prospect. Jack was less so. Qiao's bragging kept echoing in his mind. If the kid hoped to steal Carter by one-upping him in the hunting skills department, which seemed likely, he worried about what might happen when things didn't go as Qiao had imagined. He knew his knee wasn't up for wrestling cattle, and he had no intention of trying it.
He knew he had nothing to prove to Carter, but Qiao seemed unlikely to get that, and with the kid's temper, that could lead to trouble.
His worries faded into the background as Carter teased his lips with a strawberry, and for a few minutes they simply enjoyed their breakfast. He kept Qiao on his radar, but the kid stayed with the other young men and left them alone.
"And now," Shen said. "It is time to assign hunting positions."
The crowd fell silent, and many of the young men leaned forward, tense with anticipation.
"Qiao, following his great success on the capture hunt, shall lead the first group."
Jack relaxed. So that was what Qiao thought would win Carter's heart. And Shen was right, that should keep him busy enough. They'd be long gone --
"It is my right as leader to award positions in the first group. Many of you wish to serve as herapt, but I feel I must choose our honored guest. May he face the moutend with courage."
"Listen," Jack said. "It's not that I'm not greatly honored, but we really need to get going. They're expecting us back home."
As if on cue, the radio crackled.
"See?" Jack held it up. "Excuse us for a moment. O'Neill."
"Good morning, Colonel," Fraiser said. "How are you both feeling today?"
"Can't complain," he said. "Cooked up that cure yet?"
"Actually, no. I haven't found anything in the adhesive that could serve as a catalyst for the reaction you've experienced. In my opinion, the effects must have come from something else. Are you sure you aren't forgetting anything?"
"We're sure," Sam said. "I've gone over it all a dozen times. I was sure it was the glue."
"In any case," Fraiser said. "The good news is that Daniel says the effects wear off on their own among the Xanute. It may just be a matter of waiting it out."
"Yeah, we'll head back --"
"I don't think that's wise, sir. If the effects do wear off on their own among the Xanute, it's likely that there's something in the atmosphere, or in their diet, that helps that process along. You're better off staying put, at least for now."
"Yeah," Jack said. "In that case, we could really use Daniel back here."
"That's not going to be possible, sir. Daniel's in Washington."
"Is there a problem?"
Jack exchanged a look with Sam. "I'm not sure 'problem' is the word I'd choose."
"Sir? I could send a medical team if --"
Sam laid her hand over Jack's on the radio. "It's nothing we can't handle, Janet. What's Daniel doing in Washington?"
"Nothing you need to worry about. I'm sure he'll be back by tonight and he can join you then."
"So," Jack said to Shen. "I suppose I should point out that I've never hunted moutend before. Qiao might want to, oh I don't know, pick someone who has a clue what they're doing?"
"But it is a great honor," Shen said. "I am certain that Qiao wishes to make up for his earlier behavior by bestowing it upon you."
"Yeah." Jack exchanged a look with Carter. "Here's the thing. Our bond isn't showing any signs of wearing off, so --"
"Then you shall hunt together, and I will teach you all that you need to know."
Jack let out a long sigh. "I just hope our inexperience doesn't cost you folks a successful hunt."
Shen seemed to find this amusing. "A couple so blessed always brings good fortune. Our hunt shall be lucky."
For the next two hours, Jack listened to Shen explain the history of the moutend hunt. No doubt Daniel would have been fascinated. Unfortunately, the history lesson lacked the very details that might keep them from being trampled to death by cattle. "So what's our part in all of this?"
"Why, you will serve as the herapt!"
"Your job is to keep the moutend selected by the other hunters from escaping the enclosure."
"Yep," Jack said. "We're gonna get trampled."
The first few hours of the moutend hunt involved repairing a fence about two klicks to the east of the village. To her surprise, Sam found that she enjoyed the activity, mostly because she enjoyed the way Jack's muscles rippled under his tee shirt as he hammered the boards into place.
She bent to retrieve another board, and heard Jack chuckle.
"I really think the Alpha Site could use a fence like this."
She turned, and had to laugh at the way he waggled his eyebrows and made a show of ogling her backside.
"C'mere." He stepped closer and spun her around into his arms for a kiss.
"Big time." He took her face in both hands, his thumbs gently stroking her cheeks. "Daniel's right, you know. Fraiser's never going to find a cure that'll keep me from wanting to do this."
The slow kiss made her dizzy, and she wondered if they'd even be able to tell when the effects of the bonding began to fade.
"You stand here," Qiao said. "When the moutend come your direction, wave your arms."
Jack eyed the gap in the giant corral. "Wouldn't it be easier to build a gate?"
Qiao looked puzzled, and Jack had to make an effort to keep from smirking.
"You run the moutend in through here, and then we swing a piece of fence in behind them. Presto. Trapped moutend."
"Where is the honor in that? Do you fear the moutend?"
"Call it fear if you'd like," Jack said. "I'd prefer to avoid being trampled to death."
The kid looked at Carter, as if he expected her to recoil in horror from his lack of courage.
She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the gap in the fence. "I'm also in favor of not getting trampled," she said. "It would only take another twenty minutes to build a gate."
But even as she said it, Jack could tell they didn't have twenty minutes. A thunder grew in the distance as the moutend approached their doom. "No time. We'd better get out of the way."
Qiao smirked at them, and then went to climb a tree in the center of the corral.
"I suppose that's his idea of brave?" Jack rolled his eyes at Carter. "No chance of getting trampled up there."
"Is this a bad time to mention that I'm still not clear on exactly how this is supposed to work?"
"No, Carter, it's the perfect time. Just tell me you brought a zat."
"Actually, I did."
"Good, because I somehow doubt that these things care about a couple of puny humans waving their arms at them."
The shouts of those chasing the moutend could be heard faintly amid the thunder of pounding hooves.
"Ready?" Carter adjusted her grip on her zat. She always looked so darn hot when they were about to die.
"Ready as I'll ever be," Jack said.
The first of the moutend galloped past, only to slow in confusion as the curve of the fence brought them back the other direction. More moutend poured through the opening, shouting Xanute hunters hot on their tails.
Sam's pounding heart seemed to match the shaking of the ground as the animals rushed past. She didn't see how they'd be able to stop them. She looked around for Shen, or for Teal'c, hoping for backup, but they were alone.
"I think that's all of them," Jack said. "Let's go."
She followed him around the edge of the fence just as the first of the animals made a dash for freedom.
Jack raised his arms and shouted, and the questionable method seemed to work on at least one of the moutend. It turned back.
Sam held the zat ready, just in case. Three more moutend approached, and while two snorted and bolted away, the third ran straight at them. Jack shouted, but it kept coming. Sam fired, but while a shot from a zatn'kitel was enough to knock a human being to the ground, it barely slowed down a charging moutend.
Her second shot made it stumble just as Jack shoved her from the animal's path. She rolled, and turned to fire again if necessary, but the animal was down. And her heart seized as she caught sight of Jack, lying unconscious beside it.
Sam leapt to his side, his name torn from her throat, but before she could even check his pulse, another moutend headed for them. She stood over Jack, waving her arms and shouting, and it brushed her shoulder as it swerved to avoid her. Another animal charged almost immediately, and she stepped towards it, shouting again, physically striking it to gain those precious inches of space between its hooves and Jack's head.
The pattern repeated a dozen times. Moutend charged individually or in small groups, and Sam couldn't afford to back down even a fraction of an inch. A single well placed hoof, and she'd lose Jack, if she hadn't already.
Finally, some of the other hunters joined her efforts, and the moutend seemed at least slightly more resigned to their fate. Sam dropped to her knees and felt for a pulse. "Jack?"
His pulse felt strong beneath her shaking fingers, and she let herself breathe again.
"I'll help you move him."
Sam looked up to see one of the women they'd met in the village. "We can't. He could be seriously injured. Moving him could cause more damage."
"The hunters will release the rest of the herd soon. He can't stay here."
The herd was uncomfortably close, plus the moutend she'd shot with the zat still seemed to be breathing. If it woke up before Jack did, they'd have a problem. She retrieved the zat, and despite a twinge of guilt, fired on the unconscious animal. One problem solved.
"Find Teal'c," she said. "We'll need to fashion a stretcher. And tell Shen and Qiao that the hunters need to hold back the herd just a few more minutes."
"Seems like a lot of trouble."
"Jack!" She dropped back to her knees beside him and caught his hand. "Are you okay?"
"I've felt better," he said. "But I think I'll live. Help me up."
"You could have --"
"Save it," he said. "I'm fine, and as I said before, I'd rather skip being trampled."
She helped him climb to his feet, and didn't miss how heavily he leaned on her for the first few steps. "Jack?"
"Just my knee," he said. "Nothing to worry about."
"Easy for you to say," she said. Then she did something she'd never been able to do after any of their other close calls. She kissed him.
The hike back to the village went slowly. Jack hadn't managed to injure his knee too badly, but it was sore enough, and his head ached a bit as well. He was grateful for Carter's help.
Most of the Xanute were burdened with the spoils of the hunt, and they all seemed to have words of congratulations for Carter.
"That was the bravest thing I've ever seen!" One young woman told them enthusiastically. "I couldn't have done it."
"Carter," Jack said quietly. "Care to fill me in?"
"It was nothing," she said.
He didn't believe that for a second.
When they reached the village, Shen insisted that they take seats of honor at the main table. Jack almost groaned when Qiao approached.
"Your woman possesses more bravery than you," Qiao sneered.
"Yep," Jack agreed, wrapping his arm around her. "She does. Always has."
Qiao lacked a response, apparently, and beat it.
"Okay, Carter. Spill. Just what did you do?"
"I think they're easily impressed," she said. "I just did what I could to keep the moutend from trampling you while you were unconscious. I didn't have much of a choice."
"I suppose not." He hated when she risked her life for his, but it was part of the job. "Thanks. I owe you one."
"Not really," she said. "But I'll collect just the same."
He smiled, happy to comply as she leaned in for a kiss.
Sam watched as dozens of Xanute worked to prepare the feast. Men and women alike seemed to participate in the cooking, but those who had gone on the hunt relaxed, having done their part by providing the main course.
She moved closer to Jack, fighting to keep her thoughts from those terrible minutes earlier. She wouldn't let herself think about how close she'd come to losing him, and with so much still unsaid between them. It wasn't anything new, after all. She would not let what happened serve as an excuse to cross that one final line, no matter how tempting it was to do just that.
Shen stood before the crowd. "The moutend hunt was a great success, and now, we feast! Our bravest hunter shall receive the choicest cut."
Two smiling children presented Sam with a plate of steak.
"Well how about that, Carter," Jack grinned at her. "Now you're the bravest person on two planets."
After the feast, Shen announced that the performers would give a new storytelling. This seemed to cause some excitement.
"Daniel's going to be sorry he missed this," Jack said. "I don't suppose the Xanute have TiVo?"
"Probably not." She chuckled and reached to squeeze his hand.
A couple dressed in what looked very much, but not quite, like Air Force fatigues, crossed the stage hand in hand. The narrator, perched as before on a nearby rooftop, began his tale.
"Sam and Jack came to the Xanute on the night of the Bonding Ceremony. They came from another world, where they had won many great battles to protect their people from a terrible evil. The woman was very beautiful, and all of the young men begged to touch her hand, but she only had eyes for her beloved."
On stage, the woman stared up adoringly at her companion, oblivious to the groveling attention of a dozen young men at her feet.
"Look." Jack's hot breath tickled her ear. "We're famous."
"When the wehast rung, they became of one heart, and formed a forever bond. The people knew this would make them lucky, and so when the moutend ran, Jack was chosen to serve as herapt."
A dozen Xanute draped in furs cavorted about as the man playing Jack's part waved his arms. Then one of the moutend knocked him to the ground, and Sam shuddered at the memory of the real event.
Jack's arm tightened around her.
The Xanute performers continued the replay of her afternoon's ordeal. The woman stood over the prone body representing Jack as the moutend made repeated dashes in their direction.
"Sam knew that a single blow from a moutend hoof would kill her beloved, and so she stood her ground. Her courage was thoroughly tested, and she was not found wanting."
Those representing the moutend repeatedly jostled the woman as the narrator continued to extol her bravery. Each time her counterpart faced a near-collision onstage, Sam felt Jack flinch and squeeze her a little tighter.
He turned to her. "I take it that's pretty much what happened?"
He regarded her silently for a moment, then pressed a kiss to her forehead. "You're amazing, Carter."
Jack was relieved when the performance ended, and they could make their escape. He found himself awed by what Carter had done, and it also pretty much scared the crap out of him. Not that it was the first time he'd found himself in awe of Carter, or had the crap scared out of him, but those things were big, and standing her ground like that -- he was just glad they were both still breathing.
They paused just inside the door, and he pulled her into his arms. "No more moutend hunts for you."
"Jack, I'm fine." She kissed him softly. "We've certainly faced worse."
"Don't remind me."
Her eyes met his, and for a moment the words they never said hung silently in the air between them. She took his face in her hands, and stretched up to press her lips to his.
They backed into the bedroom, slowly, and as one kiss melted into another he started to think that they'd finally passed the limits of their resolve. He tugged the back of her tee shirt loose, desperate to slide his hands up underneath and feel the heat of her skin.
She gasped his name, and let go of him long enough to yank the shirt off over her head.
His brain short-circuited.
Her nimble fingers disposed of his shirt as well, and she slid her hands up over his chest, forcing a groan from him.
All the warning bells clanged away in his head, but he had to kiss her, and touch her. He needed to feel her in his arms. He wanted . . . other things. He slid a little further down the path of temptation, trailing his lips along her throat and pressing a kiss to her collarbone.
Her hand slid into his hair and she gasped his name again.
He drew back to catch his breath, and struggled to find his self control despite the passion in her eyes. "We can't."
"Maybe we should." Her hands danced over his skin. "Maybe that's how it wears off in the Xanute."
"Don't tempt me, Carter. We don't want to do something we'll regret."
"But would we?"
"Things should happen in a certain order." He swallowed hard and tried to keep his eyes from drifting down to that very appealing garment she wore, and all that tempting skin it didn't cover. "I don't want to skip a single step, not with you."
She nodded, and he was glad to see that she understood.
"How about you go slip into something . . . else, and we'll get some sleep."
She nodded again, and as she turned the flickering candlelight gave him a better view of her shoulder.
Sam froze, shivering as Jack stepped close again and touched her arm.
"That's a nasty bruise," he said. "Is it sore?"
"No, it's fine." She glanced at it. "I hadn't even noticed."
His fingers probed gently, and she gasped.
"Did that hurt?"
"Not even a little bit." She turned around and slipped her arms around him once again. "You're the one who got knocked out. How are you feeling?"
His eyes trailed down her body like a hot caress. "Like I really need you to put on some clothes."
She smiled softly, for a moment enjoying the effect she had on him, and with some reluctance turned back towards the bathroom.
The words sent a wave of heat through her, and brought a smile to her lips. She ducked into the bathroom before she gave in to the temptation to put Jack's resolve to the test.
Jack lay awake long into the night. He didn't want to squander these hours by sleeping through them. This time with Carter was limited. There was also the little matter of fighting temptation, which really took a toll on his ability to sleep.
He stroked her hair and once again let his mind toy with the idea of retiring. Yet even with the very tempting possibilities that retirement presented, he knew he couldn't do it. He loved her, but that wouldn't do any of them a bit of good if Anubis destroyed the planet.
No, first they had to defeat the goa'uld, and then they could have a life.
Morning came, and with it, breakfast. Jack liked how Carter's lips tasted like strawberries at breakfast. They lounged in the Xanute comfy chair and shared a plate of fruit. He loved the traditional Xanute custom of sharing a plate of fruit.
"Hey, Teal'c, buddy, what'cha been up to?"
"A great deal," Teal'c said.
Something in his tone made Jack reluctant to hear more, and he could tell that Carter noticed it too, because she tensed in his arms.
"Daniel Jackson asked us to inquire about the place of fire in Xanute traditions," Teal'c said. "I have done so, and the answers I received led me to believe that the catalyst we are here to find comes from the fire itself."
"The smoke," Carter said. "Of course. The first night we were here, right after the wehast rang, the smoke from the fire pretty much ended the evening. The catalyst must be something they throw into the fire."
"Indeed," Teal'c said. "I sent a sample back to Doctor Fraiser."
They spent the day fishing, and Sam knew it would be the last time. Janet would have an antidote any minute, and then they'd go home. Her own rising dread would not slow the inevitable. As the shadows lengthened, and afternoon approached evening, each kiss grew a little more desperate, each one more likely to be the last.
She wanted to say the words that they'd both held back, but she knew that Jack wanted to save them for some distant future when they could speak them freely, and she respected his wish. She hoped for that future, but part of her feared that this had been it, that these days on Xanadu had been their time, and now it was ending.
Her heart ached, and she tried to escape the pain with another kiss.
Jack kept his arm firmly around Carter's waist as they headed back to the cottage, where Fraiser waited with the cure for their condition. Not that cure was the word he'd use. As Daniel had pointed out, no cure would really do the trick.
He barely noticed the needle, or heard a word Fraiser said. His eyes locked with Carter's as medical science did what it could to transform them back into CO and 2IC.
"There you go," Fraiser said. "It's done. The effects should wear off almost immediately."
"Give us a minute, Janet, please." Carter's voice cracked, and he could see her shaking.
Fraiser nodded and left.
Jack watched her turn from him as she fought the tears. He ached in frustration at his own helplessness. It was over, and she was off limits once again. Her tears weren't his to wipe away.
He crossed the room swiftly, touching her back, and she spun around into his arms. They held each other tightly, desperately, both knowing it could never be enough.
"I want more than legends and memories," she said.
He stroked her hair. "I know. I do too."
She drew back slightly, and their eyes met.
Kissing her now, without the alien influence excuse -- he'd deserve the court martial. He did it anyway.
Sam melted against Jack. The sweet intensity of his kiss made her knees wobble as the room spun around her, and she savored every detail of this final moment together. The antidote may have worked already, as Janet claimed, but if anything this kiss affected her more than the others.
This stolen moment was theirs alone, without outside influence. Everything Jack wouldn't say out loud, he said with this kiss, and the bittersweet joy of it left her breathless.
They stood for one last moment in each other's arms, and then joined hands for the hike back to the stargate.
Each step brought them closer to home, and the status quo, but Sam couldn't find the strength to let go of Jack's hand. She clung to this final link between them for as long as she could, even when the stargate came into view and she no longer dared look at him.
Teal'c hesitated at the DHD and turned to Jack.
"Go ahead." His voice sounded tense. "Dial us home."
His hand tightened almost painfully around hers as the gate whooshed to life, then they both let go and headed up the steps alone.
Jack headed down the ramp away from the gate, every effort focused on not looking at Carter. They could get through this, but if he looked at her, he doubted his ability to resist touching her, and they couldn't afford that.
"Welcome home, Colonel." General Hammond smiled at them.
"Good to be back, Sir," he lied.
"Has Daniel Jackson not yet returned?" Teal'c asked.
"His plane has been delayed," Hammond said. "I'm sure he won't be much longer."
Jack tried to care, but found that his heart expressed little interest in the effort. He made his excuses and headed for the showers. He had until the debriefing to get over Carter, and he wasn't half as stupid as he'd need to be to think that was possible.
Sam practically ran to the solitude of her lab. She missed Jack so acutely that it hurt, but she grudgingly acknowledged that this was the regular variety of emotional pain, not a relapse of their condition.
She turned her attention to the schematics of the alien device she'd been studying, but found herself staring blankly at her computer screen. Tonight she'd go home to her empty house, and sleep alone in her cold bed. She found the thought almost unbearable.
One night, sure, she could handle that, but in her mind's eye she saw night after night stretching out endlessly before her, because circumstances wouldn't allow her to sleep in Jack's arms again until far too many conditions were met.
Until perhaps it was too late altogether.
After Xanadu -- P3X-427 -- she could only hope that they managed to maintain the relationship they'd shared in the past.
Before, they were always there for each other in the ways that really and truly mattered, but now that might not be possible. They might not be able to trust themselves to remain professional in those vulnerable moments, after what they'd shared on Xan -- P3X-427. They hadn't physically crossed that all-important line, but they had in their hearts.
"Major Carter." Teal'c appeared in the doorway. "I am sorry to disturb you, but you are needed for the debriefing."
"Of course." The roughness in her own voice caught her by surprise. "Give me a minute?"
She tried to compose herself. Bursting into tears in the middle of the debriefing would not help the situation. Facing Jack might prove difficult. She closed her eyes, biting her lip, and realized that her grip on the lab table was making her fingers numb.
Her professional relationship with Jack was not something she could afford to lose. She had to get a grip.
She nodded, and stood to follow Teal'c to the briefing room.
Jack tried to twiddle his thumbs. That's what he usually did when waiting in the briefing room. Usually it took less effort.
Carter was late.
He picked up a pen and fiddled with it. Carter walked in the door, and his eyes snapped to her face.
She avoided his eyes, and while he didn't blame her one bit, it still stung. She sat down on the other side of the table, next to Teal'c, and focused on the piece of paper in front of her, which appeared to be blank.
The distance couldn't have felt greater if she'd joined the debriefing by speakerphone. This just sucked.
Hammond started the meeting. "This planet --"
Jack flinched at the hollow sound of the designation. He'd told her they'd always have Xanadu, but would they if the planet became P3X whatever once again?
They all let Teal'c carry the bulk of the conversation. Jack kept his own answers short. Single words if possible. He didn't look at Carter.
This really sucked. Carter didn't belong way over there next to Teal'c. She belonged next to him, touching his hand to remind him of a detail he'd forgotten to mention, giving him that special look she used when he caught her off guard, smiling at his jokes.
Not that he had any jokes today.
"In all that time, you only visited the mine once? Just what did you do all day, Colonel?"
"We fished." He stared at the table and tried not to think about the fishing on Xanadu, or how in all probability it meant that he'd never get Carter to join him in Minnesota.
"Well, at least you got the mining treaty signed."
Jack looked at Teal'c, who nodded. "We did, indeed."
"Well, that's good, and since Dr. Jackson doesn't seem to be joining us, we might as well call it a day. I suggest you all catch up on your sleep."
Sleep seemed unlikely, but anything had to be better than this. Jack stood up and started to make his escape.
Daniel blew in the door with an armload of papers, sinking Jack's hope of going home early.
"Daniel Jackson," Teal'c said. "Was your trip successful?"
"It was. I've got everything right here."
Jack bit back a few choice curses. He wanted a beer and some quality time with a certain animated family, not a two hour report on some squiggly lines on a rock. "What? Four hundred pages of alien text?"
Daniel had the nerve to smile. "Better."
"Do we need to do this now?" Jack turned to appeal to Hammond.
"Jack, you'll like this, trust me." Daniel pressed a thick manila folder into his hand.
Jack flipped through it impatiently, but didn't understand a word, not that he'd bothered to read any of them. He handed the folder to Carter and turned back to Daniel. "Care to summarize?"
"In Bolmer versus Edsall, the court found that marriages contracted in foreign countries should be treated no differently than those contracted in sister states . . . "
" . . . in questions of validity, we must look to the law of the marrying country. Furthermore, Norman versus Norman determined that marriage is a natural right which cannot be arbitrarily denied. In short, to be legal, a restraint to marriage must be partial and reasonable . . . "
" . . . Military law does not interrupt the civil courts, and as a part of our body of law, must abide by the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution."
"So, that all means . . . "
"It means you both might want to sign this." Daniel held out a very official looking piece of paper.
Jack stared at it. "Marriage license?"
Daniel nodded. "Marriage license."
"Really?" Jack felt Carter's hand on his back as she came to stand behind him.
"Daniel, I take it all back."
"You take what back?"
"Everything I thought when you walked in the door just now with that giant wad of papers. I take it all back." Jack turned to look at Carter for the first time, and dropped to one knee. Her incredible smile lit up the whole room as she took the pen he offered.
"What do you say, Carter?"
Her smile grew, and she pulled him to his feet so she could treat him to one of those kisses that turned his whole world inside out.
"I think we can take that as a yes," Daniel said.
"I believe you are correct, Daniel Jackson."
Carter signed the paper and handed Jack the pen so he could do the same.
"Daniel." Carter flipped through the endless pages in the folder. "I have to ask. How did you pull all of this together so fast?"
"The tricky part was finding a judge who knew about the stargate program, but as it turns out, that worked to our advantage. You see --"
"I want to hear all about it." Jack slipped an arm around Carter's waist. "Really. But not now. Carter and I have things to do. Important things."
She grinned at him. "It's not 'Carter' any more, Sir."
"Well it's sure as heck not 'sir' any more."
"Actually," Daniel said. "It is, at least on base. According to the --"
"Ah, Daniel!" Jack raised his hand in protest. "I promise we'll read up on all the details in the morning, but right now, important things. General?"
Hammond grinned. "You've got one week, Colonel. Congratulations to you both."
"Thank you, Sir. I think we'll head up to Minnesota, and you'd better wipe all threats to the planet off of the calendar, because unless Thor beams us up, we're staying put." He turned to Carter. Sam. He could call her Sam now. "Ready?"
She returned his grin. "You'd better believe it."
Sam practically ran to the elevator. She knew the grin on her face probably looked ridiculous, and she had to shove her hands in her pockets to keep from touching Jack.
The doors barely slid shut before he had his arms around her.
"Camera," she said as he lowered his lips to hers.
"Marriage license," he answered.
The kiss that followed made all those that came before seem tame by comparison. The heat of his mouth, and the way he held her so close that she could feel every shift of his muscles, set her blood on fire.
"Jack -- "
His hot breath tickled her ear. "Camera."
She nodded, and with effort opened her eyes to meet his gaze as he stepped back and ran his hands down her arms.
"My place is closer." His thumb slid over the back of her hand, sending sparks of sensation through her whole body.
She nodded again, unable to hear herself think over the thundering of her heart. An hour ago she'd been miserable, and now she had everything she wanted most in the world, and with a suddenness that made her head spin.
Jack O'Neill was her husband.
Minnesota had much better fishing than Xanadu, since Jack's pond didn't actually contain any fish. This meant that the catch was the same, regardless of whether they got up at the crack of dawn, or stayed in bed past noon.
Sam enjoyed taking advantage of that fact.
Jack trailed his fingers up and down her arm. "I love you."
He'd said those glorious words a hundred times by now, but she knew she'd never tire of hearing them. She raised her head from his chest and kissed him again. "I love you too."
"I've been thinking," he said. "That string really got the short straw."
"He got himself all twisted into a knot, and what did he get for his trouble, a beer? Doesn't seem like much of an ending."
"What would you suggest?"
"I'd like the story better if the string wasn't alone," he said. "It would make a much better ending if he could share that beer with someone."
"You're probably right." She shifted her thigh where it rested against his, and smiled at his reaction.
"Or," Jack said. "He could skip right over the beer, and take an interest in other things."
"I like that idea." She pressed her lips to his.
"Yep." His hand slid down her back. "Other things make the perfect ending."
epilogue . . .
Jack stared across the table at the new Vice President. His fron hurt. He could not believe that people had actually voted for this fatuus. He directed his response to Dr. Weir instead. "I give orders that put Major Carter in jeopardy all of the time. I have for years."
"She doesn't look dead to me, so I'm guessing we only have your word on that?" Kinsey rolled his eyes and threw his arms in the air. Drama queen. "You can't possibly remain objective!"
"When it comes to the safety of the planet, I do what needs to be done, we all do, and when that means putting Carter's life on the line, I do it. I hate it, but I do it."
"I still say it's highly irregular to let military officers entangle themselves in personal relationships. The safety of the planet is at stake, and I demand -- "
"We know what's at stake. We also know what the job requires, and we do it. "
Kinsey's cheeks flapped as he prepared for another rant. Fortunately for him, Dr. Weir had heard enough. Three more minutes of that windbag, and they would have had a Vice-Presidential stain on the carpet.
"President Hayes put me in charge of the Stargate Program, and until he tells me otherwise, I intend to run it as I see fit. I have no intention of breaking up SG-1, especially in the midst of such a critical situation, and certainly not over such an obviously petty complaint."
Jack leaned back. "Thank you. Now I believe we had a planet to save?"
"You do," Weir said. "Good luck."
Jack smirked at Kinsey, took Sam's hand, and headed for the door. "We'll be back before you can say Praclarush Taonas. Major Carter and I have dinner plans, and if saving the planet makes us late . . . Carter, grab a naquada generator, will'ya. I'd better fetch some snacks."
Stargate™©, Stargate SG-1™©, and related properties are Registered Trademarks of MGM Studios. No copyright infringement intended. No profits made here. © Spiletta42, March 2006.