ACT 5

From where she sat Sam could see the second moon as it rose above the horizon. Both moons were up now, full, both of them, making deep shadows everywhere she looked, now that the skies had cleared and the stars were twinkling overhead.

One of them was probably where Atlantis was. Home. Well. Not really. Home was DC. Or Minnesota. Or Colorado Springs. Basically, it was anywhere Jack was, because for her home had never been so much a place as it had been a feeling. Jack gave her that feeling. He always had, even early on. She'd known it then, if only she'd listened to herself. Well, with age came wisdom.

And at the moment, it did not appear that she was going to have a chance to gather too much more wisdom.

Her tailbone was numb from sitting on the cold stone floor, and she had lost feeling in the one hand that they had tied her to the pillar with. The other hand was incapacitated by the sling. They'd tried to pull it out, but her cry of pain had convinced them that the limb really was quite injured and so they'd left it, tying the free one tightly, at just enough of an angle to keep the blood from properly circulating to it. Even if she did manage to escape she'd have to lay on the ground for a good ten minutes just to get the feeling back in her extremities.

Escape had been what she'd been going for, ever since the Brothers had wrested her away from her comfortable seat aboard the rock and brought her to what she assumed was the new temple. In many ways its layout was not unlike the old temple, but on a much more manageable scale. And instead of a large, functioning Staregate in the center, a much smaller replica was depicted as a mosaic in the floor.

How could people screw something up this badly? It was obvious that they'd had no understanding of the gate or its function apart from it's ability to vaporize things that were in its way. And their take on the Ancients…well, while they didn't worship them as gods, it was pretty obvious that they were the intellectual forbearers. But they had misunderstood and twisted the data so much it was barely discernable as to its origins. Daniel would have a field day, sorting out all the present and past versions of the writings and their interpretations. She wished he were here. With a little help, she might have been able to figure a way out of this. As it was, with one arm literally tied up, she was at an extreme disadvantage. And they were coming back to kill her, very soon.

The Brothers had found her where she had waited. She knew she hardly seemed a threat, and, in spite of the fact that the cowls of their tunics pretty much hid their faces and made them look like casting-call bad guys, they had not mistreated her or even roughed her up. Apart from a bad job of tying her up, that was. They'd walked by pastures of some type of domesticated animals on their way here, and Sam had the distinct impression that the Brothers were far more adept at tying up their livestock than other people. She'd even tried gnawing at the rope, but with no success. She was going nowhere. Very fast.

A slight breeze wafted past her and stirred up some dust on the floor, which danced erratically in the moonbeams. A faint sound rustled from a far corner of the temple. Probably this planet's version of rats. Just what she needed. To be gnawed to death before being disintegrated in the Stargate kawoosh.

The sound again. Closer this time. And something brushed her hand. She leapt back from it, trying to wriggle free, but to no avail. She was bound as tight as tight could be.

She felt it again but this time there was a voice with it. A quiet, whispery voice. One she knew.

"Be still. I do not wish to harm you."

"Arisha! What are you doing here?" she whispered back. She felt something cold press her hand and she knew. Arisha was cutting her free.

Seconds later the rope was left hanging and Sam was happily rubbing her wrist, freed. Arisha then handed her the knife, and Sam knew it was hers, just as the beretta was—the one Jack had given her—and the tac vest, which the girl had somehow managed to quietly drag with her. She looked pleased with herself and Sam felt she had every right to be. She would have hugged her if she could have. She so reminded her of Cassie at that age.

"Thanks!" murmured Sam, as she pulled on the rest of her gear. Arisha helped her ease her arm out of the sling and thread the cast through the arm of the vest. The weight of it was familiar and it felt good. The sling, readjusted, hampered her a little, but in all, it was

not too bad.

"Zetra is waiting outside," Arisha whispered.

Sam shook her head vigorously.

"No! You've done enough. I'll get out of this somehow. I won't have the two of you endangering yourself for me. Get out of here."

Mumbled muted voices echoed from far away within the temple and Sam and Arisha both froze. Footsteps neared them but then drifted away. Arisha jerked he head in the opposite direction than the sounds had come and Sam nodded. Slowly, and without making a sound, they crept away.

Outside the air was chill; Sam was grateful for the added warmth of her vest. She could see her breath in the moonlight and figured there would probably be another frost before morning. She followed Arisha as the girl dodged from shadow to shadow to avoid being seen. Sam was quite impressed; for someone who aspired to be healer and a botanist, Arisha was pretty decent at this special ops type of work. If they were on earth, she'd think about trying to recruit her.

Of course, if they were on earth, no one would be trying to sacrifice her in the ion wash of the wormhole either, so….

A small out-building emerged from the darkness as she followed Arisha's lead. The girl motioned to Sam to hurry, and the two of them slipped in through the doorway and out of the searchlight moons. It took Sam a moment for her eyes to become accustomed to the dark, but her ears were keen enough to tell that they were not alone inside. A third person was breathing raggedly, as if they too had just arrived a tad too quickly. When she could finally see the form in the dark, she knew who it had to be. Zetra.

"Did anyone see you?" Yes. It was Zetra.

"No," came Arisha's reply. "But I don't know how much time we have before they realize she is gone. There were plenty of them at the Temple. They are preparing the altar."

"The altar…as in…"

"Your DHD. They will need to bring it back to the old temple if they wish to activate—what did you call it? The stargate?" explained Zetra.

"Where is it now?" asked Sam. If there was any way they could take it there now, she could dial Atlantis and…oh crap.

"I don't have my GDO," she said aloud. Why hadn't she thought of that before?

"Your what?" asked Zetra. Sam moved over closer to her, so she could see her better.

"It's a small device, about this big." Sam made the dimensions with her hands. "It is black, with small buttons on it. Did you find anything like that with me or lying nearby?"

Zetra looked at Arisha, but the girl shook her head.

"I'm fairly certain that whatever we found we brought back with us. I do not recall seeing such an object."

Sam sighed.

"Without it, my people won't open the…the door on the other side. I won't be able to get through."

"You said the gate goes to many different worlds. Perhaps there is some other place you can go…somewhere where you will be safe, until your people can contact you."

Sam was glad it was dark so they couldn't see the look she was sure was on her face. Back in the Milky Way her brain had logged dozens of gate addresses. It would have been simple to merely pick one and gate there, knowing she'd be able to eventually work her way home.

But here in Pegasus…well, being in charge of the whole damn thing wasn't necessarily the same as knowing every thing. Going off world was something she rarely did anymore—the mission with Sheppard had been sort of a fluke. And since she wasn't the one dialing the gate anymore, she hadn't committed any of the other addresses to memory. And as yet they hadn't been able to establish a new alpha site. So…the only address she knew for certain was Atlantis'. And at the moment that wasn't going to do her a whole heck of a lot of good.

Unless….

Sam fumbled in her vest pocket and pulled out her radio. She'd tried it when they had first given it to her and had gotten only white noise. As long as the battery was charged….

She flipped it on and was greeted by a large burst of squawking static which made her and the other two women jump. A few moments later there was a steady hissing sound emerging from the speaker. Yeah. The battery was good. She snapped the radio off and apologized.

"Sorry. I had to find out if it still worked. I may be able to get through to the other side after all…if we can get the gate open."

"I have been watching. The Brothers store the altar—the DHD—in a large cabinet within the New Temple. They have taken it out and seem to be preparing to transport it to the old temple for the ceremony," Zetra informed her. Sam turned this information over in her mind.

"They must have a way of connecting it to the gate in order to power it up and activate the dialing sequence. I don't know how to steal it and get it all the way there without getting caught, let alone getting it installed once we're there."

"We will help you," Arisha assured her. Sam placed her hand on the girls' shoulder.

"I thank you…and you're very brave—both of you. But I won't let you risk that much for me. Besides. I'm not sure it's even possible. The DHD is made out of the same stuff as the stargate. It's pretty indestructible, and therefore it's pretty darn heavy."

"Then we let the Brothers carry it for us," suggested Zetra.

"How?" asked Sam. Without weapons or some other brute force, there was no way those Brothers were going to willingly transport the DHD back up to the old temple, especially when their prize sacrificial lamb was on the loose and not cooperating.

"You will not like my idea, but it is the only one that will work. You will have to trust me, Samantha. Is that something you can do?"

In the dark Sam could see Zetra's piercing eyes. She didn't hesitate a moment. There wasn't even a thread of suspicion in her.

"Just tell me what I need to do," was all she said in return.

o-o-o-o

Sheppard sat at the head of the table in the briefing room and looked over Major Lorne's search and rescue plan. He'd set up his erstwhile office in here, since he could not bring himself to do much more than step into Carter's office, and that was only when he desperately needed something out of her files that wasn't on the main computer. He'd been in there exactly four times in the past two weeks.

The plan was good. Lorne's team plus the remainder of his. A UAV. A MALP with a range boosted transceiver. A sweep pattern that covered a five mile radius from the stargate by foot and another that covered a two hundred mile radius using a Puddle jumper. Not to mention that the Apollo was en route, with it's sophisticated sensors and it's ability to locate that subcutaneous transmitter that all SG members now had implanted under their skin.

The MALP was being upgraded now and the UAV was being prepped. The Puddle jumper was running its diagnostics and would be on stand-by if it was needed. All Lorne needed was the go-ahead. And a little light. Dawn was still a good hour away, by their estimates.

Sheppard put his signature on the bottom and pushed the paper back toward the Major.

"Find her," was all he said. "Find her and bring her home."

o-o-o-o

From where she sat Sam could see the first moon as it settled onto the rim of the horizon. It looked huge. An illusion, Sam knew, brought about by the angle of the light and the…. No. She didn't think she needed to be giving herself an astronomy lesson at the moment. Although she was struggling to stay awake.

Her tailbone was numb from the extra hours of sitting on the cold stone floor, and she had lost feeling in that one hand tied to the pillar all over again. She was downright cold, but she'd had to surrender her vest or else someone might have noticed that she hadn't been wearing it before. In all it was one of the most miserable nights she'd spent in a long time.

At least this time she had her knife securely hidden inside the arm sling. And Arisha had tied the rope to the pillar in such a way that with one good yank Sam could free herself if she had to. They hadn't tied her when they'd walked her here from the stargate; she had come compliantly after they had refused to listen to her explanation. Not that she had been surprised. They were no different than most of the First Primes of the System Lords or the Priors of the Ori in their rigid adherence to doctrine, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. Perhaps if there was a constant in the universe, it was the inability to see past the end of one's own nose.

She hadn't exactly relished the idea of returning to the temple once she'd escaped, but it had been necessary to assure that both she and the DHD actually arrived at the gate at the same time. And in one piece. Zetra's idea was a good one. Sam just hoped it came off as planned. Taking the Brothers off-guard probably wouldn't be a problem. No one had ever challenged them in this way before. However, keeping them off-guard long enough for her to dial Atlantis and get permission to come through was completely different. If whoever was on the phone at the other end went strictly by protocol, they'd refuse to accept her verbal code. She wouldn't blame them; they were just doing their job. On the other hand, she really didn't want to die coming up against the 'lantean shield

Enough light was starting to ooze into the temple that she could make out the digital read out on her watch. It was coming up on five am local time. Protocol dictated that the sacrifice be made at dawn.

They had better be taking that DHD up there soon, and her along with it. If they didn't, well…Zetra's plan was down the drain.

Even empty, the temple was filled with whispers and movement. But it wasn't the sounds and the shadows that were keeping Sam on edge, it was her own thoughts.

In the commotion that had followed their betrayal by Malana and the arrival of the Brothers, she had been able to push Jack out of her mind. Well, maybe not completely out, but at least to a corner of her mind where she didn't have to deal with him for the moment. But with the hours stretching out until her final break for freedom, her mind had brought Jack back to the forefront and she'd been able to think of little else.

She was sure he would have come to Atlantis. She felt a twinge of guilt over that. She had specifically told him to stay away, if at all possible, while she was posted there. He hadn't liked it, but he'd understood and had managed, up til then, to keep his involvement confined to long distance communications. It wasn't that people didn't know, although it wasn't exactly common knowledge. But at the very least she wanted to keep any impression of improper behavior at bay. There had already been a few wildly unfounded rumors running about. She didn't want to do anything to add fuel to the fire.

But no, he must have come. In his place she would have done the same thing. And they'd probably mounted a search and rescue. McKay would have figured out that the wormhole had jumped and set up some sort of search parameter based on a probability factor of the ratio of the energy hitting the gate to the distance between Atlantis and the planet they were evacuating. Still—that had to be dozens of planets. Maybe even hundreds. They simply didn't have the resources to search them all.

She hoped Jack realized that. And if not, she hoped Sheppard would set him straight. Atlantis was too vulnerable now to be off searching for it's missing CO. Maybe a couple of days, at best, they could afford an all-out search, but hopefully it had been suspended when it became apparent she wasn't nearby.

Knowing Jack, though, he wouldn't have let go so easily. Besides the whole "no one gets left behind" thing, she was his wife, after all. And that would have made it even more difficult, especially when it came time to give the order to stand down. Maybe he hadn't had to do it; maybe it had been Sheppard or Landry.

A commotion of sorts interrupted her mental wanderings. Someone was coming. A whole lot of some ones. Sam swallowed the knot that had formed in her throat. She trusted Arisha's and Zetra's intentions. She just wasn't sure she trusted their capabilities. Her whole life depended on their ability to draw the Brothers attention away long enough. But then, she figured, she really didn't have much of a choice.

o-o-o-o

The route was the same as it had been the night before, only in the early morning light Sam could see the surrounding countryside a little more clearly. Not that she was paying it particular attention. Her eye was on the DHD, which was carefully secured in a small motorized vehicle that chugged up the road ahead of them. During her two weeks with the Sisterhood she had come to recognize that the rest of this world did not live quite the simplistic and rustic life that the Sisterhood did. They had means of electronic communications, weapons which Zetra had told her were not dissimilar to her own, and modes of transportation that were mechanized. With the exception of the small communications radio which Sam had fixed, however, the Sisterhood did without all of these things. Apparently the Brothers did not.

The purpose of this vehicle, however, could not have been fast transportation. Even at top speed Sam doubted it could reach over five miles an hour. It reminded her more of a tractor, or even a lawn-mower, which struck her as ironically benign, considering the purpose for which it was being used.

The DHD was firmly strapped in the bed of the vehicle and jogged along intact. They created quite the procession, with a half dozen Brothers flanking her and another two on her six. They still wore their cowls, which Sam figured probably helped to fend off the very cold morning and wished once again that she'd been able to keep the vest.

She had tried again to reason with them, demanded to see someone in charge and struggled adequately when they'd cut her loose from the pillar. But Zetra had warned her before they had left the small out-building that any efforts like that were bound to be useless.

"They will not speak to you. They will not even acknowledge you. To do so would be to invite an interaction with evil and they would never risk that."

Sam raged inwardly. Not just for herself but for all the children who had been sacrificed for countless generations over a misinterpretation of some ancient scrawl. The more she thought of it, the more she found her emotions over it threatening to overwhelm her, until it occurred to her that maybe it wasn't just for the children of this world that she was mourning.

Yeah. Don't go there, Sam, she scolded herself, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. Deal with that later. Keep the focus on the task at hand.

After a few calming breaths she felt better. Right. Tuck all that extra stuff away. Colonel Carter had to deal with the moment. Samantha O'Neill's problems would have to wait.

The distance to the stargate seemed half of what it had the night before, and before she realized it, they had stopped the vehicle and were off-loading the DHD. A small hand cart appeared and Sam saw why they had required as many Brothers as they had brought. It was no simple task to wend the thing up the walkway through the maze of stones to the center of the old temple. All seven, including the driver, were breathing heavily by the time they got it there, which Sam noted, from a tactical point of view, was a very good thing. If they were winded they'd have a slower response time and maybe she'd have a better shot at success than she'd initially thought.

Then her eyes saw something that made her stop cold in her tracks. Something that hadn't been there the night before but which seemed to have been put in place specifically for her.

A post. Sunk deep into the ground. Right in front of the stargate.

They were going to tie her to that.

Of course. An infant they could merely lay on the ground or place on a small platform, but an adult would need to be secured, especially one who professed to know what her fate was.

Plan A went right out the window.

The only problem was, she had no way of letting either Zetra or Arisha know that.

And they'd never quite made it to a Plan B.

Cold perspiration trickled down Sam's back. She tried to push the fear down but it persisted. Damn it, anyway.

Sure enough, they led her to the post and proceeded to wrap her with rope, securing her body to the post. She felt like Joan of Arc, about to be burned at the stake. She'd seen people die in the kawoosh. It was swift and she was sure painless, but the horror of seeing only smoking feet left on the ground in that little channel where the kawoosh did not reach….

That was her only hope. If she could free herself from the rope and flatten herself on the ground, then she might be low enough for the wormhole to pass over. Yes. Her knife was still hidden in the arm sling, and they had only bound her body, not tied her arms. She'd have to work fast and with stealth so they could not see she was cutting her bonds. It would be a race with the clock.

She fumbled with her left hand and curled her fingers around the knife handle. Sliding it out she began to work on the ropes immediately across her chest and her abdomen. They were thick but thankfully her knife was always pretty sharp. Coil by coil she worked her way down. She heard a kind of chanting behind her and realized that there must be some sort of ritual performed when purging the world of a Castout. Good. Let them chant as long as they wanted to. She needed all the time she could get.

The Brothers seemed reluctant to comply, however. The chanting ended after only another minute and Sam's stomach dropped as she heard that first "ka-chunk" of the symbols being pressed. In front of her the lights danced around the ring of the stargate and locked. She could almost hear Chief Harriman say: Chevron One encoded.

She cut faster.

The second symbol was pressed and the lights danced again.

Chevron Two encoded, she told herself.

Still the ropes were keeping her too tight against the pole to drop to the ground. And now she realized she had a new problem. Once the stargate was activated she would have to shut it down first before she could redial Atlantis. More delay in what was already a too tight schedule for success. She tried to think of a new plan.

Chevron Three encoded.

The knife slid from her sweaty palm but lodged in a coil that was still within her reach. She retrieved it and cursed the fact that it was her right arm that was broken. This would have gone a lot faster if she hadn't been using her left hand.

Chevron Four encoded.

There was a slight give to the rope now. She couldn't cut it completely off yet or they would see the rope slip to the ground and realize she was free. Timing had to be precise. She kept working on the remaining rope.

Chevron Five encoded.

Chevron Six encoded.

Sam heard the last symbol being pressed and the characteristic whine of the energy crystal as the large red center was activated. Her knife caught on the last strand of rope and she gave it vigorous tug. Like a magic trick the coils untightened and slipped to the ground.

Sam slipped with them.

The stargate activated. She willed herself to compress into the ground, turning her face away and closing her eyes. She didn't want to see it coming.

He skin prickled and she felt an icy wind just a hair's breadth above her cheek. A flash she could see even through her closed eyes.

And then it was over.

There was shouting. The Brothers had realized she had survived. Sam looked up and saw that the post she had been tied to was gone. What was now the top was literally millimeters above where her head had rested. It had been too close.

The familiar popping sound of a handgun rose above the ringing in her ears. That would be Zetra, proceeding with the plan. Except that she didn't know that Sam had to shut down the gate and dial again. But Sam's own escape had already alerted the Brothers that something was not right, and only half of them seemed alarmed by the distraction Zetra was making with Jack's revolver. The other half were shouting at Sam and running in her direction.

She scrambled to her feet as best she could, her balance still thrown off by her immobilized arm. She had only a split second to make her decision. Under any other circumstances rushing blindly through the stargate to an unknown address was absolutely the most foolish thing a person could do. But Sam figured it was slightly less foolish than staying where she was and letting the Brothers have another try at her.

Pebbles scattered as her feet scraped to find purchase and she half-threw, half-fell through the blue event horizon, hoping against hope that there wasn't a black hole or some worse fate awaiting her at the other end.

o-o-o-o

"Where's McKay?" Sheppard asked, looking around at the team Lorne had assembled for his search and rescue. They had decided to keep calling it that, instead of a search retrieval. Even Ronan seemed more optimistic once the discovery of Carter's GDO had been made known.

"Here, here, here," Rodney grumbled, pushing past the rest of Lorne's team to come and stand next to Sheppard. Lorne glared at him and Sheppard joined in.

McKay looked back and forth between the two of them.

"What?" he asked irritably "I had a thing…to, you know…finish up before…"

"UNSCHEDULED OFF-WORLD ACTIVATION!"

The announcement cut Rodney off short. Sheppard looked up at the control room.

"How many teams have we got off-world?" he called.

"Two," the controller answered. "And it's not either one. I'm not getting an IDC."

"Replicators?" Rodney's voice was hollow.

"Wait…" the controller called down. "I am getting a radio signal."

Sheppard was up the stairs in two seconds flat.

"Let's hear it."

There was a crackle of static and then the voice came through.

"I repeat…this is Colonel Samantha Carter, authorization code One Niner Six Niner Alpha Alpha Niner, requesting that you lower the shield. I have lost my GDO and am unable to send my IDC. I repeat…"

"Lower the shield," ordered Sheppard, his heart beating a very rapid rhythm.

"But sir," began the controller. Sheppard spared the guy one withering glare.

"Now," he commanded.

The force field around the gate shimmered out of existence. Sheppard held his breath. In fact, the whole gateroom seemed to have frozen for a few moments.

The event horizon wrinkled and out walked a woman. Her long hair hung below her shoulders and she was dressed in an odd-outfit that seemed half peasant dress half uniform. Her arm was in a sling and she was covered in dust from her head to her feet. The SF's on duty cocked their weapons, pointing them at her and she held up her good arm in surrender. Her eyes searched the room and he could see she was taking in the assembled team ready to disembark. Then she spotted him at the top of the stairs.

Sheppard didn't need any further confirmation. If there was anything at all that was distinguishable about Colonel Carter it was her eyes.

"Stand down," he called, hurrying down the steps. "Stand down, everyone. It's her."

o-o-o-o

Jack understood security. Really he did. And if there was any place that needed to be secure, it was the SGC. Still. It didn't prevent him from being irked every time he had to go through the standard screening process to enter the place. Having three stars really should have qualified him to by-pass a step or two along the way, but it just didn't work that way.

He'd been going to phone in this particular meeting, but had decided at the last minute not to. He needed to face up to this and make a formal request to Hank to have Sam's personal effects sent back from Atlantis. And for some reason he preferred to do it face to face, and not over the video conference line.

So he had flown out for the meeting. Which had been mundane and tedious as all meetings with Woolsey were, except this time the already long-faced bureaucrat had pulled an even longer face and told Jack how sorry he was to hear about Colonel Carter. What little diplomacy Jack could muster managed to spit out a "Thank you," even while part of him wanted to punch Woolsey in the face. Sam's transfer to Atlantis really had the guy's fingerprints all over it, whether anyone else wanted to believe it or not. He'd been the one who had long ago reported to Kinsey that he felt there was something inappropriate going on between Jack and Sam, even when there hadn't been. And the fact that they were married now only seemed to bolster his opinion that he had been right all along. Woolsey alone had expressed "serious concerns" about their ability to serve in the same chain of command as husband and wife, and Jack knew he had looked for any opportunity he could to split them up.

Well, it had finally worked.

In more ways than one.

He sat staring at the medals on display in Landry's office. Hank had an idea why he was really here and had asked him to wait until after the meeting. Where Hank was at the moment, though, Jack didn't really know. He had a flight back to Andrews in two hours so there was really no rush, but he had a growing sense of unrest. This place that had been so much like home to him for so many years just wasn't the same. He didn't belong; and he was eager to leave.

Sitting was never his forte. He walked out into the briefing room and looked out at the stargate. How the hell something so simple-looking could have had such a profound affect on his life he didn't know. He wouldn't be here if it weren't for the damn thing. But then again, he wouldn't be here either. And here was not a particularly good place at the moment.

The door behind him opened. Landry at last. But he couldn't take his eyes off the gate. It looked so innocuous just sitting there. Who knew.

Landry came and stood next to him and Jack's eyes focused on their reflection in the window.

Except it wasn't Landry.

His heart stopped for a beat. Two. Three.

A ghostly apparition was standing next to him in the reflection.

Except she wasn't a ghost. She was flesh and blood.

"Oh God! Sam!"

She was in his arms. He vaguely realized she had on a cast, but that didn't stop him from gathering her to him and holding on for dear life.

"Hi Jack," she whispered in his ear. She smelled clean, like she'd just showered. Her hair was still damp even. And down, like he liked it. She was in her green BDUs—the SGC ones, not the Atlantis ones, he noticed. Why he noticed, he had no idea. His mind was popping like flashbulbs going off in his brain. Or fireworks. He never knew joy had so much light associated with it. And color. He squeezed his eyes shut and drank her in.

He stood there holding her for a minute. Or maybe it was an hour. He didn't know. He didn't want to let go. But he had to see her too. Make sure his eyes hadn't deceived him.

He broke his grip and held her back, searching her over. Aside from the arm in the sling she seemed physically fine. Good. That was a start. Not too broken or battered. But two weeks…where had she been? What had she been through? He looked in her eyes. They would tell him.

At the moment, though, they were too filled with tears for him to see anything except how much she loved him. As they spilled down her cheeks he tried wiping them away with his thumb, but suddenly he realized he wasn't seeing so well himself. Her face and the room beyond blurred and there was a burning sensation in his eyes and a dampness on his face. She saw it too and reached up with her one good arm to wipe his face as he had hers.

Then she smiled. Half-laughing, half-sobbing.

She was okay.

He thought he saw—for just a moment—something different in her eyes, but if it was there, it passed. She was his Sam.

He took her face in his hands and kissed her. He'd had no hope of ever doing that again. That he was here now, with her…he'd given up on miracles a long time ago. But maybe he had been just a bit too hasty in that. If ever there was proof…she was standing right here.

"You okay?" he said finally, although he knew she was.

"Yeah." she said quietly. "You?"

He grinned.

"Now I am."

She was sizing him up, trying to guess what he'd been going through, he could tell. After a moment she seemed satisfied he was telling her the truth.

"I had to come back, you know," she said, patting his chest with her free hand.

"Really," he countered, playing along.

"Mmmm. I found out there's a thief in Atlantis."

"A thief? You don't say." He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her next to him. He hoped the cast could come off soon. It was starting to get in his way.

"I do. And can you believe it? While I was gone he came into my quarters and stole something of mine."

"Scandalous," Jack replied, pretending to look shocked. He let his hands drift a little lower. She didn't seem to mind.

"Indeed," she said with a grin.

He freed up one hand…reluctantly…and reached inside his shirt, pulling out a set of dogtags.

"Would this be the missing item?" He dangled it in front of her. She bestowed one of her delicious grins on him and reached up to grab it. He yanked it out of reach.

"Could you describe the item in question, Ma'am," he said, holding it where she couldn't get it.

"Round, gold and it fits on this finger," she replied, doing her best to point at the fourth finger on her left hand with her other hand.

"Well then. Let's see if it fits."

He undid the chain's clasp and slid off the shiny gold ring that had still hung on it. She offered her left hand and he slid it on her finger. A strange lump formed in his throat as he did so and he heard Sam's breath catch as it slipped into place.

They looked at each other.

"Looks like it belongs there, don'tcha think?" he asked her quietly.

She leaned forward and kissed him.

"I do," she replied. And then with a smile that he thought was both slightly sad and happy at the same time added:

"Always."