This wasn't the first time the newly-promoted Captain Samantha Carter had spent a long evening analyzing the specimen in front of her - far from it. She was amazed she had stuck with it for so long, especially considering how negative her first reaction to the specimen had been. She'd nearly abandoned her research, thoroughly disgusted to be wasting her time on nothing more than a frustrating collection of raw, sharp angles, especially when she had better things to do. But for reasons she still wasn't entirely sure about, she'd stuck with her research, and now a series of intriguing curves that she hadn't noticed before had presented themselves, curves that tempted her to carefully trace one of the mathematically-perfect arcs to its terminus with her fingertips.

Not entirely sure what kind of reaction would result from such an intimate examination, she tucked her hands under her arms to suppress the growing impulse to touch. Besides, based on her prior observations, she knew there was an extremely high probability that the owner of all those angles and curves would like that sort of physical examination only too well, and she didn't want to deal with the consequences of that plan of action, not right now, and definitely not without more detailed background information on the owner.

As she leaned her head back against the wall, she slowly widened her field of vision to put the curves and angles back in context to the body of the man she was studying. Thankfully he was ignoring her, his brow deeply furrowed as he studied the pool table full of multi-colored balls spread out like miniature planets in a massive orbit around a white-hot sun.

Watching him stroke a hand over his flat abdominal muscles, Sam squirmed uncomfortably as the first flush of arousal slowly crept up through her body. She decided she definitely needed something else to grip right now besides her own ribs, and she reached out for her beer nestled on a nearby ledge. After taking a long swig, she looked around the room and reconsidered her decision to be there, absentmindedly sliding her thumb and index finger along the thin sheen of condensation clinging to the chilled bottle.

What was she doing here? She should have been back in her bunk prepping for what she hoped would be her next assignment - the Astronaut Candidate Program. But, no, here she was, blowing yet another evening watching this man. She frowned. What made things worse was that he wasn't even her type. Definitely was not her type: abrasive, cocky, hot-headed… in short, for a captain, he was a major pain in the ass.

Sam eyed his ass. Abrasive or not, even from the opposite side of the pool table she could feel the raw sex oozing out of the man's every pore, and she hated how self-conscious it made her feel. She hated his piercing blue eyes, pale as the noontime sky on an early winter day; hated the way that they openly challenged her. Hated his voice, a soft lilting southern drawl; hated how he laid it on ten times thicker when he mocked her middle-of-the-road, been-raised-everywhere-around-the-country-and-then-some accent. Hated his attitude, smug and self-assured; hated the perverse pleasure he seemed to get from trying to provoke her after mission debriefings. And what she really hated the most - the absolute worst - was that deep down, deep in that vulnerable spot she didn't give anyone access to, she actually enjoyed all of this.

Her F-16 wingman, Angel, had warned her earlier against giving the new pilot a second glance. "You fly him, you'll crash and burn," Angel had told her, his normally loud and animated voice muted by his dead-serious warning.

"Yeah, great advice, Angel. But name me one time you ignored your instincts," Sam said, arching a brow and aiming a critical eye at Angel's crotch.

Angel's face contorted while his beer-addled mind struggled to take off with a good comeback. After a few minutes he finally shrugged his shoulders in defeat and his head made a nosedive back down to his bottle. Shaking her head and snorting at him, Sam had picked up her own bottle and had slowly wound her way around the pool tables to the back of the room.

She'd halted just before she'd reached the last table, hanging back to take one more lengthy sip of her beer. While she appreciated how Angel had immediately taken her under his wing when she arrived at Al Dhafra to start her tour in Operation Desert Storm, and while she knew he meant well by his warning, she couldn't help her fascination with the new guy. Something about this dark-haired man intrigued her, exciting her in ways she hadn't expected and sucking her into a vortex of confusing feelings in a way only one other man had ever done up to that point in her life. And she hadn't spent nearly as much time checking the other man out as she had this one.

She was embarrassed to admit that practically all of her downtime time the past two weeks had been spent observing the impulsive young captain in action without getting in his line of fire. And it hadn't hurt her observations that he was easy on the eyes. Way too easy, Sam reflected as she watched Captain Cameron Mitchell lick his lips before he concentrated all of his focus on the pool table's side pocket. She ignored as best she could the firm roundness of the ass he presented to her again as he dipped down closer to the table's soft green surface.

Damn that emergency page that had sent Ferraci racing off to the infirmary halfway through his game with Mitchell. She had literally been doing her best wallflower impersonation, yet Mitchell had zeroed in on her, aiming a lopsided grin at her after Ferraci departed. Why had she allowed him to talk her into finishing off Ferraci's game after she'd grudgingly admitted to knowing a thing or two about the game of eight-ball? She had other research to do, damn it!

Mitchell knocked the eight-ball into the corner pocket and lifted his head just enough to aim an intense look at her. "Will that be cash or credit, Captain Carter?" he asked, the furrowed look of concentration turning into a triumphant smirk.

"Hey - it wasn't all my game," Sam said, acting indignant before grinning at him. "How about an IOU instead?"

"Deal," he answered, pulling the balls back up to the top of the table. "Actually, you're damn good, Carter. Together, we could clean up around here, you know."

Finding it hard to imagine the two of them working together as a team, Sam laughed. "In your dreams," she said. She stopped laughing when she realized he was serious. "You think you're up to it?" she asked, knocking the challenge back into his court.

Mitchell gave her another intense look before reaching down to rack the balls up for another game. "I'm always up to it, Captain."

--------------------

Cameron fidgeted; Carter had been taking her good old time setting up her next shot. Feeling his eyes locked on her from across the table, she looked up and winked at him, shooting him a small, quirky grin before focusing her attention back on the table. He watched as she carefully slid the cue stick back and then forward, knocking the cue ball to the right, putting enough of a spin on it that it made a tight bounce off the rail cushion and then cleanly dropped the orange five-ball into the corner pocket, leaving the other balls that had been crowding it untouched.

She straightened up and reached for the chalk. "Nice, huh?" she asked.

"Very nice," Cameron agreed, nodding as he scanned the room.

"Too quiet?" she asked as she rounded the table for her next shot. He knew she was referring both to the two captains they were playing against and to the room in general.

"Yup," Cameron answered. This early on a Saturday afternoon the bar and the pool tables were deserted. Even Angel hadn't come in yet, and the man had been keeping an eagle eye on him and Carter the past couple weeks. Actually, Cameron was happy that the small, wiry pilot and his glowering looks of dislike weren't there. Angel had made no secret that he'd gladly see to it that Cameron got his ass whipped good if he took even the smallest of steps out of line with Carter.

Cameron slouched back against the stiff couch, his legs splayed apart and arms stretched out along the top of the couch back. Angel didn't have to worry - with the way things were politically and morally around Al Dhafra, he wasn't going to try anything with anybody these days. Those greener pastures he'd wallowed in after joining the Air Force had literally shriveled up and died when he'd landed at Al Dhafra. And the fact that the desert sand still stretched out in front of him for two more too long months was killing him, literally killing him. He extended a fist out as far as he could reach and rubbed hard along the rough material.

He stroked his fist deeper into the padding, and then suddenly stopped, reaching his fingers around to grip the couch back; remembering he wasn't alone and knowing his hand could only go so far to scratch that itch… Maybe he could finally convince Carter to run with him tomorrow morning. Early mornings, before the heat got too blistering, he ran. And ran. And ran and ran; he'd worn out more shoes since his deployment to Al Dhafra than he had in years. A smirk teased the corners of his mouth; little wonder he blew everyone away on the fitness for duty tests these days. And when he wasn't running, he was here, setting up camp at the pool tables. Those last two months just couldn't pass fast enough for him.

Carter knocked the small green ball cleanly into the corner pocket and the two captains they were playing against groaned at her sixth perfect shot in a row. Cameron dropped his fist into his lap, admiring the rearview of Carter that he was now being treated to and smirking at his opponents' stupidity in underestimating Carter. The guys were learning the painful and expensive way that being blonde and female didn't mean being dumb and weak in this particular captain.

And Carter was no helpless wuss - that was for sure. A sly grin spread over his face. He'd heard about some of the crap she'd experienced before he'd been deployed here and about the nose job she'd given to the one jerk that just wouldn't leave well enough alone. Cameron snorted. He was sure that one didn't get reported as "female officer decks male asshole."

"Captain?" Carter called over her shoulder.

"Captain?" Cameron responded.

"You okay?" she asked as she started to walk around the table again, her eyes never leaving its green felt surface or the smooth balls scattered across it.

"Yeah, why?"

"Sounded like you were choking," she said, a bit absently as she sized up the brown seven-ball.

"Nah," he said. "The only chokers are these jokers here," he said, eyeing their opponents.

"Can it, Mitchell," growled the captain with the too-short buzz cut. The more grim-faced of the two captains, he stood at attention near Cameron's couch looking none too happy at Carter's skill or Cameron's quips.

"Double or nothing if you want to go another round," Cameron said, tapping out a quick rhythm to the tune of "We're in the Money" on the cue stick resting in his lap.

The bald captain from the computer support wing groaned loudly from the nearby chair he'd taken refuge on. "No way, Mitch. I don't get paid for another week. You gotta find somebody else if you're that hard up for cash."

"Oh, come on, guys, it's not all about the money," Cameron said. "Would you really want to let this pretty little lady down?" Cameron asked, nodding at Carter. When she shot a warning glare at him, he grudgingly added, "I mean this fine, young officer – really guys, she's still got so much to learn about the game…."

Shaking her head at him, Carter bounced the cue ball off the rail cushion on the far end of the table and dropped the seven-ball into the side pocket and their opponents groaned again.

"What?" Cameron asked. "Was that too much?"

Yep, he figured by the quick widening of Carter's eyes and the mouth twitch that he had finally learned was an unspoken "yes" where she was concerned. "Okay, okay," he said, pushing himself up off the couch to watch her final shot.

Carter nailed it, the cue ball sending the eight-ball rotating down along the rail cushion until it teetered at the edge of the corner pocket and finally twirled down into the hole.

"Yes!" Cameron shouted triumphantly. "Pleasure doing business with you gentlemen," he said, turning towards the sullen-faced captains and rubbing his thumbs over his index fingers. "Cash and bartering accepted; no IOU's please."

--------------------

"You and Carter getting it on?"

Cameron's mouth dropped open. "Uh, come again?" he asked.

"You and Sam getting it on?"

Cameron cast a long sideways glance at the muscular man next to him. Angel was still getting his kicks by threatening Cameron regarding Sam whenever he could, something that had started when Cameron had officially paired up with Sam as a pool-shooting team, but Angel had never asked that particular question before.

Although it wasn't true, Cameron was tempted to shoot back a smug "Hell yeah" just to see what Angel would do, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. It was partly because he didn't want to get beaten to a pulp by the man who had kept most men at Al Dhafra cutting a wide swath around Carter. He was sure, having close to a foot of height over Angel, that he could hold his own with him, but Angel was pure muscle and his one fist alone packed enough wallop to send men larger than Cameron off to the infirmary.

But mainly he respected the guy too much. Both because of what he had done for Carter, watching her six when her head was stuck too far up in the clouds, and because Angel was one of the best damn fighter pilots in the current rotation, even if he was reluctant to admit his skill.

"Hell no," Cameron answered, mustering up as much derision as he could. "Just pool buddies."

"Good. Keep it that way."

"Yes, Sir," Cameron said, responding in the same deferential tone he used whenever Angel threatened him. He knocked back the rest of his bottle and pushed it out in front of him.

"Up for another one, Mitchell?" Angel asked, his words slightly slurred. He eyed Cameron's empty bottle and, not waiting for his answer, nodded at the bartender who reached down to pop the top off another bottle.

Cameron smoothly caught the bottle that the bartender slid towards him and tipped it appreciatively towards Angel. It'd been a hellish day, having nearly experienced a collision in mid-air with one of his own unit, and he was glad to have Angel to drink away the post-mission jitters with. He leaned his head back, emptying half of the new bottle in a single, gulping swallow.

"You know Sam's shipping out a week from now?" Angel asked.

Cameron choked on his drink, spewing amber liquid down the front of his t-shirt and onto the bar. "What?" he asked, coughing hard.

"Y'mean she didn't tell you?"

Cameron shook his head, rubbing a wad of paper napkins onto his shirt and then mashing them onto the puddle on the bar top.

Angel watched him for a moment. "Just thought you should know," he said, turning away and lifting his bottle back up to his lips.

"Thanks, man," Cameron said, trying to sound as nonchalant as he could. "So when'd she get her orders?"

"Oh, 'bout two weeks ago or so."

Cameron hid his snort of surprise in another long, chugging gulp that finished off the new bottle. So when had Carter planned to tell him? The day she flew out? "Man… that's too bad," he said after a few moments. "We still had half of Al Dhafra left to play."

Angel laughed. "That you did," Angel said, crunching on a pretzel. "I know a few guys who can shoot a decent game, if you're looking."

"Not like Carter," Cameron said, shaking his head at the bowl of pretzels Angel offered him.

"True," Angel said, chewing thoughtfully on another handful of pretzels. "You're gonna miss her," he observed.

"Won't be the same," Cameron acknowledged, fiddling with the paper label on his empty bottle. "Might even have to think about retiring," he mumbled.

Angel stopped chewing. "From the Force?" he asked. "Don't be a fool. You don't have enough years yet."

"Duh," Cameron said, snorting and rolling his eyes. "Not the Force, man." He still had too much he wanted to do rather than to leave the Air Force this early. "Sure you haven't had too many drinks already tonight, Angel?" Cameron asked.

"Major Thomas to you," Angel said stiffly.

"Yes, Sir, Major Thomas, Sir!" Cameron said, snapping to attention and giving him a mock salute.

"Shut the hell up," Angel said, lobbing the pretzel bowl hard at Cameron.

"Yes, Sir. Whatever you say, Sir," Cameron said mockingly as he grabbed the bowl before it fell off the bar and ducked backwards before the punch Angel threw at his shoulder connected.

--------------------

From her rooftop vantage point, hidden in the dark shadows created by a nearby building and tucked away on the edge of Al Dhafra, Sam was able to make out the bright lights of Abu Dhabi, ten miles to the north, spilling out over the desert. Their distant glow pulsed over the sand towards the air base, subtly backlighting the profile of the young man who had finally stopped pacing and had settled down next to her.

She studied his profile while she sipped on the now-lukewarm beer that he had smuggled up with them to the Admin building's rooftop. Mitchell wasn't nearly as angry as he had been the evening before when he'd questioned her about her new orders, his obvious drunkenness giving him an edginess that he'd never had towards her before. She'd apologized repeatedly to him, both for not telling him when she'd learned the news herself and for literally not being able to tell him what her new classified assignment was, but she hadn't known what else to say. How could she? She still hadn't gotten over her own anger at the new assignment. A boring Pentagon desk job instead of the space program that she'd been living for and dreaming of for so long? If only he knew, he'd understand.

Why bring everything - the thrills of soaring in flight and the fun she was having after-hours shooting pool with him - to a screeching halt until she absolutely had to? It was only after she had seen that she was getting nowhere apologizing to him and had started to walk away from him that Mitchell had sobered up quickly and changed his tone, curtly apologizing to her and calling in her nearly-forgotten IOU.

But instead of money, he'd insisted on a post-curfew mission to the Admin rooftop. She'd been hesitant to agree to it at first, mainly because she didn't normally break curfew, especially not at Al Dhafra, and then, secondly, because being his pool partner was one thing since they were surrounded by other officers interested in watching them shoot against the easy and not-so-easy marks while they played, but something like this, alone with him… All her instincts had immediately gone on high alert.

She just wasn't sure who it was that she trusted less - him or herself.

Mitchell leaned back on the closed stairwell door, uncharacteristically quiet as he pulled slow swigs on his bottle. After a while he noticed she was watching him and he gave her an approving nod. "Didn't think you'd actually follow through with this, Carter."

"Call me Sam, please."

"Okay… Sam. And would you please stop calling me Mitchell?" he asked, shaking his head. "You sound just like my grandma the way you say it. 'Cam-er-on Mitch-ell!'" he mimicked. "And you," he said, jabbing a finger at her, "most definitely ain't my grandma. Cameron'll be just fine."

He watched her for another long minute, sizing her up. "Like I said, Carter - Sam - you don't seem like the kind of officer who disobeys rules too often," he said, pulling another swig of his beer and wrinkling his nose in distaste at its warmness.

"You don't know me very well then," Sam said, chiding him. He didn't. Until they'd met here in the desert, she hadn't known that he existed, and she assumed the same was true for him about her. He knew nothing about what she liked, about her background, about her dreams... He probably didn't even know that her father, Jacob Carter, was now bucking for the most senior of ranks in the higher echelons of the Air Force. Actually, she hoped he didn't make that connection; she hated it when people connected those dots, automatically treating her differently and trying to impress her, thinking that she'd influence her father, totally clueless that she didn't have her father's ear at all.

Cameron emitted a low chuckle. "Oh, I've heard all about you," he said smugly.

"Heard what?" Sam asked skeptically.

"Things."

Her pool partner shifted next to her, and he hiked his bottle up in the air as if it were a stick of chalk making tick marks on a blackboard. "Like you were top of your class at the Academy. A freakin' physics genius. A damn fine pilot. Probably going to be fast-tracked into the Shuttle program after you leave here."

Except for the Shuttle program which no one except her commanding officer knew the latest about, none of the things he mentioned were the types of things that she went around advertising about herself. Not talking about stuff like that made life as one of the very few female pilots in the large group of overly-competitive male pilots housed at Al Dhafra so much easier. Okay, so he did know more than she'd given him credit for.

"Anything else?" she asked, turning her head to examine his profile and wondering who his sources were.

Cameron nodded. "Plenty of other… stuff."

"Like?" she asked.

Cameron turned toward her, his eyes glinting with the reflected light of the base's streetlights. "Word is you're foolin' around with that Hanson dude," he said after a long pause.

"What?" Sam asked sharply, pulling forward from the concrete wall and setting her bottle down on the sandy rooftop. She'd kept her on and mainly off involvement with Captain Jonas Hanson under tighter wraps than her family connections and educational background. What had Jonas been bragging about now? And to whom - the entire base? Was he Cameron's source?

"He's just a friend," she lied.

Cameron snorted and shook his head before lifting his bottle back up to his mouth. "Right."

"He is," Sam said, instantly regretting her overly-insistent tone. She lifted her bottle to her lips and finished it in one swallow.

"Uh-huh," Cameron said, snorting quietly.

"Okay. If Hanson's just a friend, then why don't you see other men?" Cameron asked her.

"I see you. I see lots of guys," Sam answered.

"You know exactly what I mean," Cameron said pointedly, his lips barely moving.

Sam was glad for the darkness that hid her burning cheeks. Cameron was always just about as blunt as a dull-edged knife, but she'd always been just a spectator when he'd lit into others while they shot pool. She looked away, unsure how to answer him since no one at Al Dhafra had ever asked her something like that, except for the one jerk that she'd finally had to put in his place when he wouldn't take no for an answer to his continued advances.

"What's the matter, Car… uh, Sam? Cat got your tongue?" Cameron asked, sounding supremely amused.

His smugness irritating the hell out of her, Sam finally found her tongue in indignation. "So 'Cam Shaft' - what's it to you?" she retorted, flinging Cameron's call sign back at him in the same derisive tone that she'd heard others use when talking about him behind his back.

Cameron was quiet again. Sam could see him playing with his now-empty bottle, circling the lip carefully with his index finger. She immediately felt bad for the tone she'd used.

"You know there's a whole squadron of guys out there who'd jump at the chance to get to know a certain blonde-haired captain better?" he asked quietly.

Sam laughed inaudibly. Right - a whole squadron. "There is?" she asked snidely.

Cameron nodded.

"You one of them?" she asked in a challenging tone.

Cameron snorted derisively, but didn't answer.

"Well?" she asked. "What's the matter? Cat got your tongue, too, Cameron Mitchell?"

Cameron snorted again, slowly shifting closer to her face, so close that Sam could taste the sweetness of the beer on his breath. "Don't get me wrong, Sam – you are one fine piece of female flesh," he said quietly.

His look of desire intensified, so much so that it seemed as if he was going to move in and take her right then and there on the rooftop, and Sam swallowed hard.

"But no matter how much I want you," he said, his voice deepening considerably, "the time's not right. Not here, not right now."

Sam sighed and, against her better judgment, she lifted her index finger up to slowly trace the curve of his upper lip, her finger lingering in its deep indentation. "How can you be so sure about what I need and when I need it?" she asked him, her voice nearly inaudible.

Cameron's gaze never left hers as he gently removed her finger, breaking her contact with the sweet soft spot she'd found. "You got something, Samantha Carter," he said quietly, shaking his head. "You're going places. I'm not going to mess with that."

Pulling away, Sam knocked her head back against the door and snorted, exasperated. Screw her future. So now Cameron was intimidated by her the way all the other guys on base had been? Didn't he get it? She wasn't all that special. What the hell was he going to mess up? She wanted sex just like the next person. She thought he'd been the type of guy that would understand all that.

"I'm just a pilot who wants to get into space," she finally protested, "…and in the sack!"

Cameron snorted and shook his head. "Don't think so, Sam," he said, standing up and swiping a hand across his sandy backside, and then offering his hand to her.

She ignored it.

"Come on, Doctor Carter," he ordered, emphasizing the word doctor.

Sam squinted up at his dark silhouette. "But it's still early yet," she protested.

"It's after curfew, Sam. Way after curfew on a Sunday night. And you have to fly a sortie first thing in the morning," he said. Cameron grasped the reluctant hand she finally offered him. "As my dear Grannie would say, now's the time for all good girls to get on home and wash their hairs and lay themselves down to say their prayers," he said, thickening the drawl of his accent twice over.

"You and your Grandma," Sam said, snorting as she allowed Cameron to pull her up to a standing position next to him. When he tried to pull his hand away, she tightened her grip on it and pulled him up against her body, feeling more brazen in the darkness and in the knowledge this was the last time they'd probably be alone with each other.

"Sure you won't reconsider?" she whispered, nudging the tip of her nose around the outer folds of his ear. She heard his sharp intake of breath as she moved her head to brush her lips along his cheekbone. She hesitated, her open mouth barely touching the edge of his, when she felt a shock wave run through him and out the hand she was still gripping tightly. His lips had parted in anticipation of meeting hers, but she could see he was holding himself tightly in check now, squeezing his eyes shut as he fought his body for control.

"Sam," he said in a low, clipped tone, "like I… said - you… are one of, no… God help me… you are the hottest… Air Force officer I know." His lips continued to move, speaking inaudible words, and he finally shook his head, pulling away from her and opening his eyes to give her a look burning with need and desire. "Maybe some day," he said, making more of a promise than a statement.

Sam sighed. Men.

"So, just friends?" she asked as she released his hand in order to swipe at the sand coating the back of her legs.

Cameron gave her a sly grin before he turned to grab their empty bottles and to open the stairwell door. "Now that, Carter - that is a sure thing."

--------------------

Cameron was unable to suppress the agonized howl that slid out of his raw and swollen throat as the metal tube whipped down onto his genitals. How many more damn days were they planning to keep this up? He wasn't a POW. There was no damn war. And they damn well weren't going to get any information out of him no matter what the hell they did - there wasn't anything to get. Wait 'til he got out of here – good relations with China his damn foot, or balls as it were.

He heard a female voice call out in Mandarin to the pipe wielder. He'd had the basic "Intro to Standard Mandarin" course right after he'd volunteered for the assignment to fly black ops recons over the Hebei province, mainly as a safety precaution just in case the plane went down. And then, damn it, the damn plane did go down, somewhere on the wrong side of the mountains northwest of Beijing, ejecting him into some backwater area. He'd regained consciousness somewhere near the Gobi desert near as he could tell, not that he'd had long before this crew had picked him up and taken him God-only-knew-where.

The female voice turned terse as the pipe wielder indicated his refusal to leave the room. More than happy to be rid of the Inflictor of the Great Balls of Fire, Cameron tried to make out their conversation as best he could. Something, something, okay, she would take care of the prisoner now, something else he couldn't catch, okay, sure, be back at sunrise, something else in the future possessive tense, something, something, something, special treatment, something sharp-toned, and then he heard a door slam shut.

Special treatment? Blindfolded, naked, and lashed down to the coldest metal examination table he'd ever been on, he didn't like the sound of the word "special." Didn't like that word "treatment" neither. He winced as he felt something being roughly thrust under him.

"Hey! Take it easy there!"

"You will tell what purpose you have, to fly in airspace not your own, when our countries not in wartime?" the female voice asked him in very heavily-accented English.

"No."

"You will tell what part of American military you work for?"

The woman sounded familiar and very perturbed. He wasn't sure if she had been one of his previous interrogators, since the blindfold hadn't been removed since he'd been captured on the edge of the desert. Yu chen ni ceng, he thought, biting on his tongue to keep from answering her in her native language. "Already did," he answered instead in English.

"What purpose you have?" she asked, her tone more demanding this time.

Cameron had to give her credit – she was persistent. Hell, they all were, but sorry, no can do, lady. He locked his mouth into a grim frown, resolutely refusing to answer any more questions.

"Purpose?" she asked again.

Bite me, he thought irritably.

"You tell me soon," she said. Cameron wasn't sure if that was meant as a question or a statement. He heard rustling at the edge of the table and a metallic click. That was so not a good sound, he thought, and he tested the hand restraints again.

Oh hell….

Cameron arched the lower half of his body up, pressing hard against the restraints as a searing pain shot up his spine. No more twenty questions? Oh, come on now - he wanted those twenty questions, damn it! Please ask me another ques--

He involuntarily arched again, feeling the restraints biting deeper into his skin. He needed to get away from this. Really needed… Mind over matter, mind over matter. Oh man… He gritted his teeth. Get your damn mind the hell out of Dodge and think about something good, Mitchell. A good something. Good times.

Good times… aw hell, no, not there….

A soft moan escaped him. Good things, Major Mitchell, think good… things… Cars. That old Mustang he'd had his eye on buying for so long. Motorcycles. Owww… Women. Amy. Oh yeah, Amy Vandenberg. Now there was a good thing. Aaaaaaamy… Oh man, Amy, if only I hadn't gotten the hell out of Kansas, I wouldn't be here right now… Awww no… can they stick things there? Oh man oh man oh maaaaaan… Focus. Focus Mitch, focus on Amy's face. Her soft blonde hair. Her pale blue eyes. That… smile… He focused all of his energy into conjuring her image in his mind.

Good things….

When he lost the image as a burst of the most intense pain shot out to all points from an unspeakable place, he wondered why the hell did Amy Vandenberg look like Sam Carter?

Why…?

------------------------

Sam shut her eyes, warming her hands on the small Styrofoam cup in front of her. One thing they didn't warn you about when you started was how cold the Pentagon was. Not so much a description of the demeanor of most of the top brass, but the reality of the air conditioning system that had been working overtime since she'd arrived. Not that she'd had a chance to visit the Arctic yet, but she swore that it felt like the Arctic tundra in the suite of offices that she was currently working in. Unlike some working on the Stargate project with her, she was happy she had to come to work in dress blues every day – the heavy jacket gave her some warmth. As it was, she'd been holed up nearly night and day the past week in what her colleagues affectionately called the Dungeon, and she was pretty sure she qualified as a human popsicle now. She'd finally had to stop and break for an early lunch to warm up with a steaming hot bowl of soup chased by an equally steaming hot cup of coffee.

She smiled; a quiet room, warm food – all was right with the world at the moment.

She heard the loud conversation of two men heading her way and briefly turned her head around to catch a glimpse of two Army colonels balancing overloaded trays. She listened as they spread out on the small table behind her.

"Yeah, I mean, poor sucker, letting his plane go down over Beijing like that. Who'd be so stupid?" a gravelly-voiced man asked.

"Yeah, well, guess shit happens," the other colonel said, the loud pop and fizz of a soda can being opened punctuating his statement. "Heard from someone I know over at State that the U.S. envoy is taking his good old time about getting the pilot released. Not a high priority apparently since it's not a wartime issue."

"Sounds like they're trying to teach the Air Force a lesson," the gravel-voiced colonel said, snorting. "Betcha the sucker'll probably be dead by the time all the pinheads are done talking."

"Serves him right," the other colonel commented, popping open a bag of chips.

Sam frowned as the two men stopped talking and focused on the food in front of them. Jerks, she thought as she traced with her index finger the crisscross pattern imprinted on her napkin. She stabbed her finger through the napkin. No, they were more like assholes. That was a person out there. A member of the Armed Services, THE Armed Services, was down. The territorialism of service branches didn't mean squat when a man was down. Because in any service, in any country, a POW was POW no matter what. Except they had a point - there was no war with China, so the downed pilot wasn't a POW, just MIA.

Sam looked at her watch. She still had ten minutes before her meeting with her commanding officer concerning the latest unsuccessful test of the Stargate. She took a last sip of her coffee and sent up a quick prayer for the missing pilot. She hoped he did make it back alive. POW, MIA, whatever… soldiers oftentimes didn't return from accidents like that and she hoped this guy beat the odds.

Picking her tray up and purposely avoiding looking at the two colonels, she made her way to the trash can. Good thing those jerks weren't part of the Stargate program - loose lips like theirs ensured that you really did get a one-way ticket straight to MIA hell. Sam loosened her shoulders and took a deep breath. Back to work now.

--------------------

Cameron entered his parents' living room and dropped down onto his father's favorite chair. His mother would kill him for doing that as dirty as his clothes were, but hey, she was in town with his father, picking up a load of cinder blocks and, besides, he'd thrown an old blanket over the chair before sitting down. He sat still for a moment, trying to relax, and then jerked back up. Sitting wasn't good; he needed to be on the move. Sitting gave him too much time to think. He ran his hands up through his hair, ignoring the pain from the sensitive blisters that had erupted on his palms and the joints of his fingers.

Hunched over his knees, the damp, dusky smell from the dirt he'd been shoveling for his mother's new root cellar, now deeply embedded in his jeans and work boots, hit his nose full-force. Coming back inside to get away from the smell hadn't worked. He lifted his head, staring out the living room window at the long gravel driveway.

He remembered that smell well; all morning as he pick-axed and dug his way down through the clay in back of the bank barn, he couldn't stop thinking about the summers that he and his cousins had tore through Grandma Mitchell's huge dirt basement. A pack of wild boys racing each other on Grandma's accumulation of old bikes, trikes, and beat up old metal pedal cars, careening into each other and making wild turns around crusty old steel beams that none of them ever wanted to scrape against; every last one of them trying to outdo the other and to squeeze as much danger and thrill as they could out of the boundaries presented by her ancient basement.

In a way it was kind of what he'd sought in the Air Force - as much of an adrenaline rush as he could get without killing himself or others in the process. At least it had been until recently. Now he wasn't sure what the hell he wanted. He shivered as goose bumps popped up in response to the coolness of the late September air, the sharp rising of his arm hairs almost painful. He rubbed his arms hard, his hands warm and rough from the shoveling, and he pushed himself out of the chair to close the window his mother had left open, thinking to himself that there was such a thing as too much fresh air.

Sitting back down, he thumbed the body of the old rotary telephone on the table next to his father's chair and gave the dial a lazy test spin. His parents were still refusing to allow him to buy them a pair of the new digital phones, and his father, lover of the latest gadgets that he was, had sadly shaken his head at Cameron's last offer, deferring quietly to his wife on the issue.

Cameron looked out the window again, trying to suppress the restlessness in his legs, the restlessness that threatened to carry him off to somewhere far, far away from there. Far away from family. Far away from the military. Far, far away from any adverse decisions that would have to be made again. Far, far away from situations where he'd be the one carrying out those bad decisions that killed innocent people.

Yeah, he could deal with being caught by the enemy and being tortured. Been there and done that – it was just him and the torturer. But killing innocent non-combatants just because someone else couldn't confirm a damn target? There was no friggin' recall button on those missiles. Armed and gone, that was it. And if he killed noncoms because of crappy decisions, what was next? Killing his own, the guys whose side he was on? Friendly fire was an even worse alternative.

Screw those decisions, he thought, shoving the phone angrily away from him. Screw his Air Force career. Screw the Middle East assignment that seemed like it was never going to end for him. Screw the Edwards assignment he knew was in the works; the dream assignment he'd been busting ass to get to be his ticket into the Space Program. A long career as a test pilot didn't look so shiny and desirable any frickin' longer.

He heard the voice of his grandmother in his head. "Talk it out, Cameron Mitchell. Just talk it out. Then sleep on it some, and it won't seem so bad in the morning. Trust me." A small smile played over his lips. That was Grandma Mitchell for you, ever the family optimist. But who would he call? Most people he couldn't call anyway. Most of those he could, he wouldn't.

Sam.

--------------------

He lifted the receiver back off the bulky old telephone. He'd just gotten off the phone with a friend of a friend to get Sam's number. Even though they'd both sworn they'd keep in touch, he'd gotten busy with his next assignment and had lost track of her. Their mutual friend had been surprised that he didn't know where she was at, and grudgingly had shared with him that she'd gone to D.C., doing something at the Pentagon.

"What the hell's in D.C.?" Cameron had asked. Sam had wanted to fly, to get into space. Not be a desk jockey or smothered in the muck of military politics.

"Hell if I know," their friend had said, giving him her unlisted telephone number.

Cameron stared at the receiver, its angry beeping barely registering. He wondered for a moment why was he calling her. The memory of a blackened, burning convoy cut through the thickness permeating his head. Oh yeah, that and those other memories, like that week of torture in the backside of Beijing, still at the forefront of his memory over a year later, even though he'd made a conscious effort to block it out. Amazing how the mind remembered what the body had long ago forgotten.

He pressed the switch hook button to reset the phone, waited for the dial tone, and then started dialing Sam's number. And then he stopped, slamming the receiver back down on the phone and crumpling the paper he'd written her number on, leaving it lying next to the beeping phone as he stormed out of the room.

--------------------

"C'mon, Mitch, there's got to be some old high school flame that you've still got the hots for," Chris Gates said as he kicked back on Cameron's old sofa, his boots adding yet another set of scuff marks to the already beat-up coffee table.

Cameron ignored his friend and continued watching the football game. Yeah, sure – there was always good old Amy V. But word from his mother was that Amy had married and left town a few months after he'd skipped town for college, hyper-focused on getting himself into the Air Force Academy. What was the point in going to your ten-year high school class reunion if the person you most wanted to see wasn't going to show up? Cameron snorted as he reached for the bag of chips and the can of dip that were threatening to slide down the sofa towards Chris – besides, he had a history to keep up. He'd never gone to any of the other reunions that GW High had held, so why start now? His mother would just have to keep on nagging at him – "I keep telling everyone what a big-shot pilot you are now – won't you just come back at least once? Just one time, for me?"

"Earth to Mitch. Hey, Mitch!" Chris waved the TV Guide in front of Cameron's face. "You're zoning out on me again, man. That's not cool."

Cameron blinked. He'd warned Chris that he wouldn't be such a good ballgame-watching buddy this weekend. "Sorry, man," he apologized.

"Yeah, okay," Chris said, waving his fingers at Cameron to pass the chips back to him. "But seriously - there's got to be some girl out there that you'd love to get all hot and bothered with," Chris said, waggling his eyebrows at Cameron in his best imitation of Groucho Marx. "C'mon, Mitch. Fess up. You ain't no saint, man, that's for sure."

"Watch the damn game, Chris," Cameron ordered as he scooped out the last of the dip before putting the chip bag and the empty dip can into Chris's outstretched hand. He stuffed the dip-laden chip into his mouth, savoring the creamy onion coolness as it spread over his tongue. Yeah, true - Saint Cameron he wasn't, especially after he'd gotten back Stateside and had made up for lost time. So who then would he most like to do, if not Amy? Or at least have the opportunity to try to do?

Another tall, long-legged blonde strode into his memory. Sam Carter. Okay, there you go - if not Amy, then Sam. And not just because of what he just knew would be some hot sex. Sam was so much more than that. Not that Chris would ever understand what made Sam special to him.

Cameron wondered what she was up to. Last time he'd actually seen her was in D.C. two years earlier, after he'd finally returned for good from his extended Middle East tour. He had stopped at Andrews Air Force Base for a week-long seminar before heading out to California to join the 415th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards and he'd called her using that number on the crumpled up paper that he'd saved in his wallet for so long.

Sam had picked him up at Andrews that Saturday morning intent on helping him play tourist in the Nation's Capitol. She was a stunner that day - his eyes couldn't drink in enough of the sight of her in those faded jeans and a form-fitting t-shirt and a pair of too-cool sunglasses; she'd been light years away from the BDU's and flight suits that he'd associated with her when they'd served together in Saudi Arabia. He grinned at the memory of her that morning; she'd become even more sexy during those couple years since he'd last seen her and he had, as Chris said, immediately rediscovered the hots for her.

At least he'd felt the hots damn strong until they'd dropped into that little hole-in-the-wall restaurant for lunch. She'd insisted that they stop at that particular restaurant even though he'd had his heart set on one of those foot-long hot dogs from one of the street vendors. Sam had sat across from him in the restaurant and when she'd leaned her chin on her hand while they were talking and waiting for the waitress, he'd finally noticed the ring on her left hand and realized immediately what it meant. Who'd been the lucky shit who'd managed to snag Sam?

As if on cue, a ruddy-faced man came up behind Sam, mumbling something about being late, and leaned down to give her a slow, possessive kiss. Cameron noticed the vaguely familiar man's short reddish hair was peppered with gray. This dude was old. Sam got her kicks with older men? That was an interesting factoid to file away for future use. The ruddy man slid into the booth next to Sam, watching her with a mix of open appreciation and, Cameron noted with unease, of complete and total ownership of her. Cameron squinted at the interloper and frowned. He didn't like what his gut was telling him about this guy.

"Cameron, this is Captain Jonas Hanson," Sam said, pointing between the two men. "Jonas, this is Major Cameron Mitchell."

Jonas turned to Cameron, the warm smile he'd showered over Sam cooling as he turned toward Cameron. "Major Mitchell."

"Captain Hanson," Cameron said, returning the greeting in the same tight tone as he'd received it from Jonas.

--------------------

Cameron set his fork down and chewed slowly on the chunk of apple pie he'd stuffed into his mouth. "You remember us nearly getting thrown out of the place because we were both drunker than skunks?" he asked, his mouth still half-full. He and Sam had even drunk Angel under the table, and that was saying a hell of a lot.

Sam's gaze had been locked on something outside the window. She turned back to him, a thoughtful look in her eyes. "That was the night of our last game, wasn't it?" she asked, a soft smile forming on her lips.

"Yeah, come to think about it, I think it was the day before you shipped out," Cameron said, shooting a look at Sam to let her know that he also remembered a certain clandestine rooftop meeting that had happened at Al Dhafra. He glanced down at his pie and chuckled. "What a way to celebrate, huh?" he asked, looking back up in time to see the megawatt smile that she shot him, making him swallow hard at the remembrance of how it felt to be in her presence.

God, how he'd missed her. He allowed a small smile to creep over his face. And yeah, playing pool and getting seriously bombed while they were at it - what a way to celebrate, he thought, especially since had she been anyone else and they'd been stationed anywhere else, there would have been much between-the-sheets celebrating instead.

Jonas looked back and forth between Cameron and Sam, and then pulled Sam tightly to his side. "Think you've got the wrong person, Mitchell? Sam can't play pool to save her life," Jonas said.

"Oh, I beg to differ," Cameron said, shaking his head. "Al Dhafra was huge, and I never played anyone better while I was stationed there."

Jonas snorted. "Sam, a pool shark… Sure."

Sam turned to Jonas with a confused look. "Why do you say that?"

"Samantha," Jonas said to her, his voice wavering between patronizing and paternal. "How long have I known you? Huh?" He looked at her reproachfully. "And you didn't play worth a damn the last time we shot a game."

Cameron's mouth dropped open to protest, and he could see hurt and anger in Sam's eyes. But she didn't correct Jonas. Cameron wondered why.

"Whatever, Jonas," she said, shrugging off Jonas's jab at her. She glanced at Cameron, the look in her eyes warning him to close his mouth and to not go there. Cameron shoved another bite of pie into his mouth and complied, despite wanting to reach over and throttle the jerk.

"You want to finish the day over at Air and Space's new museum in Chantilly?" Sam asked, swiftly changing the subject. "They've got all the big planes over there now."

Cameron nodded and picked up the napkin to wipe the gooey pie filling from the edges of his mouth before he spoke. But before he could say, "Sure, sounds like a plan," Jonas started talking.

"Uh, Sam, honey," Jonas said, his tone syrupy and sugary-sweet, "I already got tickets to the ball game for this afternoon. Remember?"

"No, I don't. But so? We just go buy another ticket and take Cameron with us," Sam said, looking at Cameron. "You like the Orioles, right?"

Cameron opened his mouth to respond and once again Jonas beat him to the punch. "Sold out, Sam," Jonas said.

Sam looked away and mumbled something under her breath. "Okay, how about a walk down to the war memorials and then back up to the car?" she asked after a few moments, turning back to Cameron.

Jonas looked ready to protest, but then he glanced at his watch and thought better of it. "That's doable. We don't have to be in Baltimore until four." He looked at Cameron who was totally focused on his pie. "You ready to walk, Major?"

Cameron wolfed down the remaining chunk of pie in a large gulp. "Am now," he said through a mouth full of food. Sam shook her head at his manners, and Jonas gave him a wry smile as he reached for his wallet.

Cameron quickly washed down the pie with the last of his soda and shook his head. "Captain Hanson - no. Let me get it."

Jonas closed his wallet and looked up at Cameron. "You sure?"

Sam shook her head. "No, Cameron. Our treat – you're our guest, for goodness sake."

Jonas frowned at Sam. He apparently didn't think so.

Cameron shook his head. "No, really, Sam, let me. My treat. If you all get out to California anytime soon, then you both can treat me."

"Deal," Jonas said.

--------------------

They crossed over 17th Street, heading back up the hill toward the Washington Monument, each immersed deeply in their own thoughts after having left the simple black wall of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial disappearing in the distance and the hulking stainless steel soldiers of the Korean War Memorial trudging solemnly behind them. After they crossed the street Jonas had veered away from them to get in line at one of the vending stands to buy water.

Sam and Cameron walked three-quarters up the hill in silence, and then stopped.

"Guess we should wait for Jonas?" Cameron asked and, without waiting for an answer, he dropped down onto the grass. He took off his sunglasses to rub at his eyes.

"Yeah," Sam agreed, carefully joining him in the thick greenness.

Cameron scoped out the lower valley for signs of Jonas's red head, and, when he couldn't see him, he scooted closer to Sam. "Sam?"

"Cameron?"

"How's he treating you?"

Sam arched an eyebrow at Cameron over her sunglasses. "Blunt as ever, I see."

Cameron lifted his chin defensively. "I prefer to call it necessary directness," he said. He shrugged his shoulder back at 17th Street where they'd left Jonas. "He must be doing something right - you got engaged to him."

Sam looked away from Cameron and down toward the Reflecting Pool. "Yeah, I guess," she said, her voice barely audible.

"What was that?" Cameron asked, a little too loudly. He'd never met this Sam before, except at Al Dhafra during those first days when he realized she was watching him shoot pool when they were off-duty. But that had been different - she'd been tentative, but at the same time, inquisitive, open, and happy. Not holding something back like he got the picture that she was doing now. Sure he could chalk up holding things back to being a few years older and wiser, but that shouldn't make her appear any sadder about it.

Sam removed her sunglasses and hooked them over the V in her t-shirt and squinted into the distance. "I said I guess," she said, a little louder.

"Guess, Sam? You're going to marry the man," Cameron said, looking at her and trying to pierce through her wall of BS with his eyes. But the blank look she gave him meant she wasn't going to let him crash those gates. Damn.

A gentle, but wry smile spread over her face after a moment. "I'm fine," she assured him. "But enough about me and my love life, what's this new assignment in California that you were talking about?"

Cameron literally bit his tongue to keep from asking her "Okay, you're fine, but what about him?" He would let it go out of respect for her wishes. He had no claims on her. She was a friend. One of the few female friends he had and a good one at that. Good enough that he really should be telling that red-headed ass where to get off at, but Sam kept giving him signals not to do it.

Frustrated, Cameron kicked a burst of grass and dirt into the air with his heel. He was glad then, that they wouldn't be together these last few hours he was in town. He'd end up beating the crap out of Jonas and likely would try to shake some sense into Sam if he stayed any longer; it bothered him that much – what he saw she was getting herself into.

He puckered his lips into a deep frown. Special as she was, it was still her life, and he was the one who needed to get over it.

"In a nutshell?" he finally answered, remembering her question. "School at Edwards first, then flying experimental aircraft with the 415th Flight Test Squadron."

"Sounds very cool," Sam said, with more than a touch of wistfulness tingeing her voice.

"What about you?" Cameron asked, playing dumb. "If you're not at Andrews, then what're you doing in D.C.?"

"Pentagon desk job," Sam said.

Cameron's eyebrows lifted and he winced. "Damn, Sam…."

"It really is more interesting than it sounds," she said defensively.

"Uh, yeah, right," he said sarcastically.

Sam nudged him conspiratorially. "Hey, you'd never guess what all I get to do in a million years."

Cameron rolled his eyes. "Do I get a million guesses? But really - I don't wanna guess - not if it involves mountains of paper, and pens, and those proverbial noses smashed against grindstones." He let his head drop back and chuckled at the visual of Sam with her nose mashed to a big stone, her eyes open in surprise. "So," he said, nudging Sam back, "does it?"

Sam laughed and leaned in against Cameron until Jonas's voice cut in and made them both jump apart.

"Getting cozy are we?" Jonas asked. He shot a water bottle at Cameron's chest which Cameron caught easily, giving Jonas a 'what the hell was that for?' look. Jonas ignored the look.

"So you'll be shipping out when?" Jonas asked, twisting off the lid to his water bottle with a loud crack.

"I fly out tomorrow afternoon," Cameron answered.

"Too bad we'll be out of town tomorrow," Jonas said.

Cameron looked at Sam. She'd promised to spend the morning with him before dropping him off at the airport.

Sam looked at Jonas, confused. "We are?" she asked.

Jonas ignored her question and downed half of his bottle in one long chug. "Yes. Remember Sam, I told you about tomorrow every day this past month."

Sam looked around, careful not to glance at Cameron. "But I thought that was still tentative. You kept saying that you weren't sure if you were going to be able to swing the money to get the tickets or not." She looked at Jonas reproachfully. "You didn't tell me you had them." A bit of the old Sam started to return as Cameron watched her stance tighten up. "I thought we were going to be here when Dad came into town tomorrow night."

"You must have misunderstood me," Jonas said, a hint of condescension in his voice.

"I don't think so," Sam said, her voice evening out into a flat, angry monotone.

Jonas only shook his head. "Sam, Sam, Sam. It's okay, you'll get over it, there'll be other times you can see your Dad."

"Bullshit, Jonas. You know how little I see my father."

"Sam, honey, come on, be reasonable…."

Cameron stood up and turned away, shutting his ears to what was being said and trying to be as inconspicuous as he could be. This wasn't a conversation he wanted or needed to be a part of. He started to walk away, trying to put down the twisting of his gut in reaction to what he saw was going on. It made sense now, that all of his other plans with Sam for this week, planned weeks ago, had been slowly picked apart by Jonas. And now, after having given Sam the benefit of the doubt, he knew Jonas had had his hands all over it; a genius like Sam wouldn't have thought up such lame-ass excuses as he'd been given.

When he got back to Andrews he was going for a run. A hell of a long run. He'd done that on his parents' farm, in college, during his Middle Eastern deployment; running to get away from things that bothered him. Running to be somewhere else. Running to exhaust himself to the point that he couldn't give a shit less about what he cared about most.

"Cameron?"

He heard concern in Sam's voice and, as he turned around, he realized how far he'd strode away from the couple. "Yeah?"

"Where're you going?" she asked, jogging up the hill to catch up with him. "Everything okay?"

Cameron's lips remained in a small, firm line until Sam caught up beside him. He shot a cursory glance over his shoulder and saw Jonas huffing his way up the incline. "Yeah, I'm okay. Seemed pretty personal back there, so I figured I'd start back to the car. I need to get back to base anyway. Remembered something I need to do before I leave."

Sam searched his eyes. "Are you sure?" She looked concerned and as if she didn't believe him. "I'm sure we can work something out before you go. Find you a ride too."

Cameron shook his head. It was best just to end it now. "No, I'm sure. It's going to be a long day for both of us, and I can hook up with someone on their way to National, so.…"

"So…?" Sam asked.

"You'll have to give me a call later, when things calm down for both of us and let me know how you're doing," Cameron told her.

"Deal," Sam said, flashing Cameron with a last glimpse of her megawatt smile as Jonas caught up with them.

"Whoa, Mitch, would you get a load of that?! That woman's boobs nearly fell out of that costume of hers. Mitch?"

Cameron flinched in surprise at Chris's outburst. He'd zoned out on his friend again. Cameron rolled his eyes. No sense in worrying about the women of his past. Better to focus on what was in front of him. He leaned forward to focus on the television again. "Aw, hell, Chris, that ain't nothing. You should have seen what happened last week at halftime during the Chargers and Seahawks game."

"What? What was it?!" Chris asked, leaning forward and, in his excitement, crunching the remaining chips under him.

"Nothin'."

Chris's face dropped. "Mitchell, you're a son of a…."

Cameron dropped his head back and burst out with a loud snort. "Chris, I swear, man, you're about as gullible as they come." He reached back behind his chair for a new bag of chips, popped it open, and offered it to Chris as a peace offering. "Okay, you got a minute?"

"For real this time?"

"Yeah, for real."

Chris glanced back at the television set and then nodded at Cameron. "Okay, you got until this commercial's over."

"Okay, then. You see, there was this cheerleader. Layla, I think was her name. And she was about yay big," Cameron said, arcing his hands way out over his chest, "and she was wearing this little nurse's outfit when…."

--------------------

"I said we're going through, Daniel, and so we're going through. Now. I don't care if your risk assessment is different than mine. Move out!" Colonel Jack O'Neill hissed under his breath as he hovered near the doorway.

Dr. Daniel Jackson stood his ground in front of the alien artifact, his arms crossed. He aimed a sullen pout at Jack and when Jack continued to glare at him, Daniel turned to Teal'c for support. Teal'c stood a respectful distance away from small group, his face an emotionless mask as he avoided looking any of his teammates directly in the eye.

Jack rolled his eyes in frustration at Daniel and brushed him off with a wave of his hand as he stalked off through the open doorway, leaving the remaining team behind in the throne room.

"Cam!" Sam called out as she followed on Jack's heels.

"Excuse me?" Jack asked sharply. "Damn what, Carter?"

Sam shook her head. "Nothing, Sir. Sorry, Sir."

Jack shot her a look that told her he thought otherwise. "You okay, Carter?"

"Just fine, Sir. You just reminded me of someone else there for a minute."

"Is that a good thing?" Jack asked, stealing another glance at her.

Sam gave him an indifferent shrug. "Sure." A compliment if you border on being an impulsive ass a little too much. She winced. Good thing none of her teammates had mind-reading abilities. She followed Jack down the corridor, wiping the thought from her mind as she covered her commanding officer's six.

--------------------

"Sam? Samantha Carter?"

Sam skidded to a stop, her dress heels scraping hard against the rough concrete sidewalk. The male voice sounded familiar, but who did she know at Ellsworth Air Force Base who'd call out to her like that? She turned to catch sight of a man in dress blues approaching her.

Sam squinted. Short, spiky brown hair, a swaggering lope to his gait, a squint of his own to match hers… "Cameron!" she said, a smile lighting up her face.

Cameron Mitchell stopped a few feet away from her and he gave her the once-over, a lopsided grin filling his face. "Lookin' good, Sam," he said, reaching out his hand.

Sam shook his hand and gave him a quick squeeze of the shoulder with her other hand. "Not too shabby yourself, Cameron Mitchell." She gave him a puzzled look. "What're you doing here?" she asked. "Weren't you at Edwards?"

Cameron waved her over to a concrete and wood bench nearby and dropped down onto it. "Well, I was, but then this reassignment came up and now I'm helping to…," he said, hesitating for a moment. "Well, damn, Sam! You know I can't talk about it. Classified." He flashed her a challenging look. "What about you? What could possibly bring you up here to Ellsworth? Can't be pleasure - not here, so I take it's business?"

Sam pursed her lips and nodded. "Business."

Cameron waited patiently for more details, arching his eyebrows at her when none were forthcoming.

Sam only smiled sweetly at him in response.

Cameron snickered. "So I take it you can't say either?"

"No comment," Sam said, smirking.

Cameron shook his head and looked around the courtyard. "Okay… How about a question you can answer? Like how long you here for?"

Sam smiled. "I'm flying out tomorrow."

Cameron arched a brow. "Funny thing, so am I." He grinned. "Got dinner plans for tonight?"

Sam shook her head. "No. Have some reports I need to catch up on before I get back to work," she said.

Cameron rolled his eyes. "So, where you at now? Pentagon still? Or did you get back to flying?"

Sam shook her head. "No," she said, "I've been a theoretical astrophysicist at NORAD for a while now."

Cameron grimaced and gave a mock shiver. "And you left flying for… that?"

She could feel the warm feelings and easiness of their earlier friendship coming back, wiping away the time that they'd spent slowly drifting apart from each other when she'd been at the Pentagon, thanks in no small part to Jonas's jealousy regarding her easy friendship with Cameron. She knew as a fellow pilot Cameron knew damn well how bad flying was in her blood and she wished that she could share with him what she was doing – he was one of the few people outside the SGC, or even inside the SGC for that matter, who could appreciate what she did. She had to bite her tongue to keep from sharing with him how big of an adrenaline rush she'd gotten from participating in the Loop of Kon Garat race last week, so she just shrugged in response.

Cameron sighed. "You know all work and no play makes for a boring… Major," he said, peering at the gold oak leaf on Sam's shoulder epaulet. "But I know how to fix that," he said, grinning at her. "There's a great little bar not too far from here. Food's not too bad either," he said, with a hint of wheedling in his voice.

"I don't know…."

"What?" Cameron asked. He gave Sam a long, sideways glance. "You still with Hanson?"

Sam shook her head. "No, I broke it off with Jonas just before I joined the… um, NORAD," she said, stopping and giving him a warning glare. "No, I'm not. It's just that…."

Cameron didn't hear the rest of what she said as he focused on the surge of joy that shot through him. Hallelujah, there was a God! She'd dropped the sucker. He cleared his throat. "I wasn't thinking of drinking the night away, Major," Cameron said in somber tone. He shrugged a shoulder and then leaned in closer to her. "They've got this intimate little pool room, and I thought you might be interested in picking up where we left off a few years ago."

Sam tried to conceal her surprise. Where they'd left off? Their pool challenge or their mutual attraction that he'd put the brakes on at Al Dhafra?

Cameron snorted and leaned back against the bench. "Afraid, Carter?" he asked, a smirk slowly spreading across his lips.

Sam didn't answer beyond a derisive snort.

"You're scared," he said, a noise halfway between a snort and a chuckle escaping him. "Bet you haven't touched a cue stick in years."

Relieved to find he was only talking about pool, Sam turned to face him. "As a matter of fact, I haven't," she lied. "What time?" she asked, allowing a subtle challenge to tinge her voice.

"This afternoon I have to go up to…," Cameron started to explain and then he stopped, shaking his head. "I swear, I forgot how easy it was to talk to you." He looked at the rooftops of the huge hangars a few blocks away. "I should be done around seventeen hundred hours. Nineteen hundred hours then? In front of the Officers' Club."

Sam nodded.

Cameron stood up and buttoned his dress jacket. "Dress for a cool ride," he said, a twinkle in his eye.

Sam grinned. "Why? Finally got that Mustang you'd always been lusting after?"

"Close, but no cigar," Cameron said, smiling. "Just two wheels - a Ninja ZX-11."

Sam's eyes widened, and she gave a low whistle. Performance sport bikes like the Kawasaki Ninja cost close to ten grand brand-new.

Cameron shook his head and waved his hand at her. "I know, I know. I'll be in the poorhouse for a while." He pursed his lips and tilted his head back. "But I'll sure look damn good while I'm in it."

Sam laughed. Typical Cameron Mitchell.

--------------------

Cameron had picked her up fifteen minutes later than he'd promised her, an angry, deep purple scrape wrapping completely around his hand and an equally raw and angry scrape crossing his temple. "Get into a fight?" she'd asked as he'd put his helmet on carefully and winced as it grazed the tender skin on his forehead. He'd only screwed his face up in response to her question and had limped over to his bike, ignoring the additional jabs she threw at him about it affecting his ability to shoot a decent game of pool.

Sam let the wind whip away her questions and had stopped worrying about what happened to him as the Ninja flew them over the forty miles of interstate highway to the little pool hall on the outskirts of Wasta. A huge grin had split her face for nearly the entire ride – if she couldn't be up in the air, then slicing through it like this was the next best thing to flying, especially on a bike that was built solely for speed like his was.

After Cameron had waited an inordinate amount of time to make his next shot, Sam slid off the barstool she'd been sitting on and walked back over to the pool table. This game was going to take all night at the pace Cameron was going. She decided to needle him again to see if she could determine the cause of his injuries.

"So, taking self-defense training?" she inquired, eyeing the remaining balls on the table after Cameron took his shot and missed.

Cameron shook his head.

"Latest girlfriend let you have it?" Sam asked.

"If only there was one," he said, snorting. "Nah, it was just a rough landing. I swear if they don't work on the…," Cameron said, chalking his cue. He stopped and stared at her. "It's a good thing we don't see more of each other. You'd be able to get anything you wanted out of me."

"Anything?" Sam asked, nodding towards the ball and pocket she'd chosen and lifting her elbow back to angle her cue stick higher.

Cameron continued to chalk his cue. "Almost anything."

Sam laughed.

--------------------

Outside the pool hall, in the crisp, still midnight air, Cameron stood a hair's breadth away from Sam, so close that had she not been such good friends with him, it would have been a total invasion of her personal space. As it was, Sam was feeling a bit uncomfortable with him wordlessly staring at her, especially as her body hadn't stopped letting her forget about its reawakened physical attraction for him since they'd finished their game.

With all the years separating her from Al Dhafra, she'd had a long time to forget about how strong Cameron's physical presence was. It was the same kind of forceful presence that had been hard to avoid in Jack when she'd started her assignment at the SGC. She smiled after Cameron finally turned and walked out onto the crumbling asphalt of the parking lot toward his bike. Time had blessed Cameron, she thought. He was a hundred times better-looking than when she'd seen him last in D.C. and definitely better than the first time they'd met. Those sharp, youthful angles she'd enjoyed watching so long ago had softened, firming up into hard muscles, and the deceptively innocent baby face had matured into that of a man entering his prime, tempered with laugh lines and crow's feet and forehead creases that hadn't been there the last time they'd been together.

She finished snapping the bottom of her jacket, smoothed the creases out of her jeans, and looked up. Cameron, hands stuffed in his jacket pockets, was standing quietly in the pale reddish light radiating from the pool hall sign and was giving her a hooded look, surprising in its intensity. She immediately recalled their time on the Al Dhafra rooftop. She met his stare with an equally intense look of her own. She felt like a magnet, attracted to him and ready to snap together, but held apart by the reverse polarity at the same time.

"Too bad you have to leave tomorrow," he said as she approached him. "You know once every couple years is too long."

"But we talk on the phone more often than that," Sam protested. Then she remembered Jonas. "Well, we used to," she said, stopping in front of him.

"Used to," Cameron repeated, looking at Sam with an open longing that shook her.

Sam's eyes widened. Damn, it had been so long….

"That's not the same as being with you, Sam." He slowly bent his head to kiss her, and then stopped, his lips brushing faintly against hers. He hesitated a bit longer, and then pulled his head back.

Sam felt her lips swell in response to his near-kiss, and she gave him a confused look that asked him why he was stopping. She wasn't seeing anyone. Was he?

After a split-second of hesitation during which he looked like he was about to spill his guts to her, Cameron wiped his face of all expression and lifted his helmet over his head, carefully avoiding his forehead injury.

"You do that with all your women?" Sam asked, incredulous.

"What?" he asked, adjusting his chin guard and offering her a guileless look.

"Tease them like that. If you were a woman, Cameron Mitchell, there'd be a name for you," Sam said as she put her helmet on.

With a snort of recognition as to the moniker Sam was referring to, Cameron eased himself onto his bike and knocked the kickstand up. "No, I usually don't, but then you're not other women, Sam."

Sam slid on behind him and sighed as she slipped her hands around his waist. "Do you know how tired I am of hearing that?" she asked.

Cameron revved his engine. "Uh-huh."

--------------------

Cameron entered exit ramp and eased out onto the deserted highway. He felt Sam's knees and thighs grip the back of his own thighs in anticipation of his picking up speed and he smiled, wishing he'd had a bike back at Al Dhafra. But that was then and this was now, and he was damn happy for now and for whatever the hell it was that had brought Sam to Ellsworth.

Whatever it was, it was important, that much Cameron knew. The Pentagon didn't just sit on geniuses like Sam and assign them to "deep space telemetry" as she had called it. No frickin' way. He had a sneaking feeling she wasn't telling him the truth. Space telemetry for NORAD at Cheyenne Mountain? Like hell – he put his money on her being a scientist for the Stargate Program that the fighter wing he'd recently joined was attached to. And he knew she'd never confirm nor deny the truth to him, not even if either one of them were on their death beds. But someday he'd get the whole story.

Someday.

His brows knitted together. If there ever was a someday. He wasn't trying to play games with her outside the pool hall, but there was just too much distance between them to get deeply involved with her right now. His life lately literally was the F-302 Program and Sam was busy with, well, with whatever the hell it was that she was really doing. When he did have free time, he spent it kicking back with his new buddies on base, and he figured the same had to be true for her as well. And just as in the past, regardless of the rare opportunity that he'd just been given with her, he wasn't about to screw up his friendship with her - that unexplainable, sometimes confusing, thing he'd chosen too many times before over having a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'm type of one-night stand with her.

He felt her hands tighten around his waist as he let the throttle out and the bike gave a bit of a kick as it suddenly picked up the pace.

As it was, he could barely believe what path his life had taken lately. He and his best buddy, Bryce Ferguson, had been up for a classified test pilot position at God-only-knew-where and he'd fully expected Fergie to get it - Fergie being the best damn pilot at Edwards, but then shit had happened and Fergie took a hit meant for him. Shrapnel had lodged everywhere in the guy's body and the docs hadn't been able to remove all the pieces out of his head. Cameron had been floored when he'd heard the doc's final decision. No more flight, period, for Fergie. And it could have been him. It should have been him if he hadn't have been so stinking hotheaded that fateful day.

But he hadn't had time to dwell on what had happened because suddenly he'd become the Edwards candidate in Fergie's place. He'd gone from sitting in the surgery waiting area with Fergie's parents to being hustled off to one of those undisclosed locations where he'd found out he was about to be inducted into a flight wing that would be flying the second generation of F-302 experimental planes and, oh man, were these babies like nothing he'd ever flown before! His jaw had literally dropped to the floor when he'd gone out to Area 51 to get a look at the aircraft he'd be flying with the F-302 First Fighter Wing.

The craft was more alien than anything he'd ever seen. Compared to the flat-winged jets he was use to taking screaming through the sky, these reminded him of a stream-lined bird of prey. And they were space-capable – space baby! He didn't even want to think about who or what was behind the creation of the 302. It was Area 51 technology – enough said until they wanted to spill the beans to them.

What had surprised the hell out of him was that he and the group he'd joined weren't going back to Edwards for permanent stationing, since Edwards was "the" place for experimental aircraft, but instead they'd been shipped out to Ellsworth. But the more he'd learned about the F-302's from the original test pilots - the Snakeskinners, as they called themselves - the past few weeks, the more he realized why the Air Force wanted to keep these babies out of the public eye for as long as they could.

And that was fine; he was having the time of his life right now. He was flying the sweetest machines he'd ever flown and he didn't care about the who's, the what's, the why's, the where's - hell, nothing else mattered, nothing. He wasn't going to think about what he'd be doing if he hadn't gotten this chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity.

As he adjusted his grip on the bike's handlebars, he felt a burning sensation radiating from the sore muscles on his forearm. He'd have one powerful bruise there in a few hours. He just hoped the engineering team could fix the stabilization problem that he'd discovered the hard way. He didn't want to have any more landings like the one he'd had this afternoon.

He'd nearly crashed the damn thing; only quick thinking and taut reflexes had kept the craft from tumbling end over end down the field he'd skidded into. The medics had insisted that he spend the night in the infirmary for observation, but there was no way in hell that he was going to screw up his one chance to hang out with Sam again. No way, especially not if he'd have to wait a few more years to do it again. But at least this time he had her new unlisted number – he rechecked his mental inventory of his wallet contents, visualizing the edge of the bar's cardboard coaster that Sam had written her new number on.

He'd really wanted her cell number, but she'd refused to give it to him, cryptically telling him that she was really hard to get a hold of for days at a time and that the home number was the best one to get a message to her at. He could understand it being underground at NORAD, but for days or weeks at a time? Deep space telemetry? However, he knew better than to press her for anything else. Someday. Someday they'd both be able to commiserate freely about their classified jobs.

A smirky grin split his face as he imagined the two of them sitting on the front porch of his parent's place; a couple of grey-headed old farts yelling at each other over the evening chirps of the crickets because their hearing aid batteries had died. Oh yeah, that would so be the day….

--------------------

"Stevenson, my man," Cameron said, reaching a hand out toward the laughing pilot approaching him. Tom Stevenson had been leaving Edwards just as Cameron had been coming in and Chris, knowing Stevenson from his hometown, had introduced them.

"Mitchell!" Stevenson greeted him, clenching Cameron's arm in greeting. "Wondered when you'd finally make it here."

"Yeah, well, took a while to get a new assignment…," Cameron said, shrugging. "You're a hard act to follow Colonel Stevenson."

"Tom means here to Ye Olde House of Stevenson," said a man who had been lounging on the couch next to Stevenson.

"Major Cameron Mitchell, soon to be Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell," Stevenson said, nodding towards Cameron, "the original Snakeskinners," he finished, nodding towards the loose group of men lounging on the chairs and couch in his game room. "Or what's left of them."

Cameron looked around the room at the men who were warily checking him out.

"He's cool," Stevenson vouched. "We were at Edwards together. Plus you all remember Chris Gates?" He waited until most of the men nodded. "Chris was a friend of ours," Stevenson said, nodding back at Cameron. The men nodded respectfully at the mention of Chris's name.

Cameron's face clouded at the mention of his buddy. It had only been six months, if barely even that, since Chris had been involved in a spectacular crash. Cameron had been flying back with the second team when they'd seen a huge fireball shoot up from the opposite side of the mountain Cameron's group had been circling behind in order to catch Chris's group from the front. Finishing their loop around the mountain, they'd flown over a smoldering pile of wreckage. Later he'd found out that one of the new guys in Chris's group had lost control of the test jet he been assigned and had rammed Chris's plane, creaming him in the cockpit so that Chris had never stood a chance. The new guy had ejected, miraculously surviving the collision with just a broken leg. Cameron never saw the new guy again, later learning that the guy had taken a medical discharge.

It'd torn Cameron apart to watch Chris's mother come pick up his stuff. She'd barely been able to talk for all the tears streaming down her face. And neither had Cameron; it was all he could do to return the many hugs Chris's mother kept giving him. Chris had been like a brother to him and he knew it could have just as easily been him in that plane. Could have been any of them.

Seeing Cameron's discomfort, the other men turned away, breaking back into the small groups they'd been in when Stevenson's wife had escorted Cameron into her husband's game room.

Stevenson winced. "Damn, man, I forgot Chris was a buddy of yours."

Cameron nodded. "A good one."

"Sorry," Stevenson said, offering him a plate and waving a hand at the spread of appetizers filling the coffee table.

Cameron helped himself to the nachos and dips and, after finishing a third refill of his plate and starting his second beer, he leaned back to observe how the infamous Snakeskinners relaxed on their off hours. He was careful not to eye the regulation-sized pool table in the corner of the room for too long. He'd let that come in time and, besides, they were here tonight for the football, not the pool ball. He heard a loud guffaw from the two men battling each other to the death in a video game in the corner of the room.

"Yeah right. Samantha Carter flirting with you in your dreams, Plater," the larger pilot snorted. "Does your wife know how you get off when she's not around?"

"Whoa!" Cameron said, spitting his drink out. "Wait a minute!"

The men turned to look at him.

"Problem, Mitch?" Stevenson asked, pausing his flipping of television channels with the remote control.

Cameron shook his head, regaining his "too cool for this" composure. "You all are talking about Major Samantha Carter? At NORAD? Who does deep space telemetry at Cheyenne Mountain?" he asked.

"NORAD?!" The group burst out laughing, clapping, and stomping their feet.

"No, man. Stargate Command. THE Sam Carter of SG-1," Stevenson said, eyeing Cameron. "You did read the stuff we gave you?"

"Started to," Cameron said. They hadn't given him anything for "eyes only" yet and that generic organizational chart embedded in the one handout hadn't named names for the field unit team members. How was he supposed to know someone he knew very well was a member of one of those teams if they didn't think he was in the 'need to know' group yet?

"You know Major Carter?" the larger pilot asked from the beanbag on the floor where he and another pilot were now playing a car racing video game.

"Unless there's another Samantha Carter in the Air Force, then yeah," Cameron answered.

"Far as Fuentes and the rest of us know there isn't," Stevenson said, nodding at the large pilot in the bean bag and walking back over to Cameron with a beach towel to wipe up Cameron's spat beer. "You really know her?" he asked, offering Cameron another bottle.

Cameron nodded. "Served together at Al Dhafra."

"And you didn't know about this?" Stevenson asked, arching his head back at the window in the general direction of the hangars.

Cameron frowned. "More of that 'need to know' stuff, and I didn't need to know," he answered. "So what all does this SG-1 do?"

"What all don't they do?" Stevenson asked, laughing.

"You mean you haven't heard the latest, Stevie?" Fuentes asked.

Stevenson shook his head, shooting the balled-up towel at Fuentes's head.

Deflecting the towel away, Fuentes grinned. "Last week SG-1 found these Amazon women and brought a whole group of 'em to the SGC for some kind of tests. Or you still hung up on Carter piloting and nearly winning that alien spaceship race a few weeks ago?"

Stevenson was silent for a moment. "You've told some wild ones, Fuentes. You're making that one up," Stevenson said. "Amazon women? Come on, Fuentes, you can make up better lies than that."

"No, I swear, man. Pope wouldn't lie to me, man," Fuentes said.

Stevenson case a doubtful eye at Fuentes.

"Pope?" Cameron asked.

"Astrid Pope - Fuentes's former girlfriend - a linguist and archeologist on SG-17," Stevenson explained.

Cameron reached out for a handful of pretzels. "Isn't that intel, like, classified?" he asked.

Stevenson snorted. "What you'll be doing here'll be classified, too," he pointed out. "Besides it's a small world in the Stargate Program. Sooner or later you'll get to know all of the players somehow, someway." He paused. "Although sometimes some of them do disappear pretty quick."

"Disappear?"

"Bite the dust."

"Oh," Cameron said. He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Anyone ever transfer from here to over there?"

Stevenson nodded. "Two. Harvey bit the dust six months ago. But Washington's still on SG-12."

"Damn. How many teams are there?" Cameron asked, sounding slightly incredulous.

"Mitch, finish reading those damn papers I gave you - tonight," Stevenson ordered, shaking his head and turning toward the big screen television, "Okay – game's on. If you still have questions, you'll learn more at tomorrow's briefing," he said, flipping the remote at the screen to turn the volume up.

"Yes, Sir."

--------------------

Cameron turned to Stevenson. "Seriously? Major Carter is coming here?" he asked.

It had been months since he'd seen Sam. He'd left messages for her, but so far none had been returned. He hadn't been worried though, given what he'd picked up from Stevenson and Fuentes about how SG teams went missing for weeks at a time.

Stevenson nodded. "O'Neill use to come out to do the briefings every chance he had to get some flying time," Stevenson said, nodding at the F-302's that they were walking toward, "but we haven't seen him in a while. Word is that Hammond's grooming him for base command." He shrugged. "But what do I know? Odds are against it given all the crap he's pulled in his career."

"So what's up with the big briefing then?" Cameron asked, latching the chin strap of his helmet after the two men stopped near Stevenson's aircraft. Stevenson had wanted to put in some extra hours of flight time himself, but with his usual wing man was out sick with a stomach virus he wasn't going to go until Cameron had jumped at the chance to fly with the head Snakeskinner.

"Some big new alien army is about all I know," Stevenson answered.

"Fuentes?" Cameron asked, musing about the source of Stevenson's intel.

Stevenson laughed. "Yep." He stepped up the ramp to his 302. "Hope they made those programming mods," he called over his back. "Don't want to end up being the latest flavor of the day floating in space."

Cameron laughed. "I hope right you are," Cameron said, doing his best Yoda impression. "May the force be with you, Luke."

Stevenson laughed and shook his head.

Cameron laughed and turned to his own 302. Hot damn! Sam was going to be back at Ellsworth. And she didn't have a clue about him. He laughed again and he slid into his seat and started adjusting the harnesses.

--------------------

Cameron had slid back down into his seat in the back when Sam entered the small auditorium to start the briefing. He'd watched as she took a quick look through the sign-in sheet listing the briefing attendees and had smirked as her eyes registered surprise at seeing his name, her head jerking up as she scanned the room for him. He let her scan the room once more before he'd straightened up so she could see him and he gave his eyebrows a quick arch. She'd given him bright smile in response, the promise of seeing her later being confirmed, and she had shaken her head at him before clicking the remote at the lights and the projector.

Cameron hung back until after the last pilot had finished speaking to her to approach her. "Major Carter," he greeted her with a nod.

"Mitchell," she said. "Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell," she added, with a nod to his epaulet. She waited until the room was empty to reach out and give an affectionate rub to his bicep. "Congratulations, Cam."

He shrugged. "Yeah, well, you stick with it long enough, they got to do something with you."

Sam smiled. "Uh-huh, right." She gathered up her folders and pushed them into her briefcase, snapping the lock into place. "Why didn't you tell me you were assigned to the F-302 Project when I was here last time?"

"Need to know basis," he responded, following her out as she locked up the room and walked down the hall toward the reception area. "And if I recall correctly, you didn't exactly tell me you were on SG-1, either."

"Need to know basis," she said, a small, pursed grin forming on her lips.

Cameron moved in a little closer to her. "Need to know if you're interesting in shooting a little pool this evening," Cameron whispered in her ear.

"That need does seem to be there," Sam said, smiling conspiratorially at Cameron as she handed the remote and room keys back to the facilities clerk. "If you needed to know," she whispered as she moved past him toward the door.

--------------------

Cameron sat on his bike, his back to the handlebars, yanking the zipper pull to his leather jacket quickly up and down. Sam knew he was still disgusted that she'd beaten him three out of four games. He'd gotten rusty since the last time they'd played - probably no downtime anymore. It wasn't like she'd had much time to play either.

Facing him from a few inches away on the back half of seat, Sam rubbed her hands along her thighs to warm them up. They'd been sitting outside the Wasta pool hall for over an hour, catching up and trying to piece together a timeline of who had been where and when. Cameron had asked her what being part of SG-1 was really like. She didn't think she was doing a great job of answering, not being able to tell him very much.

She sighed and started again. "Sometimes it feels like I'm being pulled in a million different directions. Don't get me wrong – it makes me feel great to know I'm needed like that, but sometimes, Cam… it's too much," she said. "Like they expect me to save the world - the universe - every damn day. Like no one else is able to. Do you know how heavy a burden that is?" Sam asked, searching his eyes for understanding.

"No, can't say I can," Cameron said.

She gave him a wistful smile. "I'm not sure I'd want you too. It's not something I'd wish on anyone," she said. She moved her hand off her thigh to touch his hand. "Especially not you."

"Aww, Sam, didn't know you cared so much," Cameron quipped, a wry grin on his face.

"Silly," Sam said, flicking his hand hard with her thumb and middle finger. "I know how much flying means to you. You'd die if you were on a SG team – you'd get to fly nowhere near as much as you do now, believe me."

"Ain't nothing else like flying," Cameron admitted. "But I've heard some stories about SG-1. You all fly."

Sam snorted. "A teltak? A mothership? The occasional booby-trapped glider?" She shook her head. "It's not the same, Cam. Not the same." She turned away, looking back at the now darkened pool hall. "Only Daniel pilots less than I do."

"Dr. Jackson, the archeologist?" Cameron asked.

Sam nodded. So maybe that was an exaggeration, but even Daniel had learned and used basic piloting skills for Goa'uld ships during his time on SG-1. She involuntarily sighed.

"But you love what you do with SG-1 or you wouldn't still be there, right?" Cameron asked, his hand sliding down to touch her knee.

Sam inhaled deeply and slowly released her breath. "Yeah. I do," she finally answered.

"But you still want more flight time," Cameron observed. "Why don't you fly on your off-time? I know some guys who do it."

Sam shook her head. "Because there's never the time."

"No time like the present," Cameron said, bending forward to press his nose up against her ear. "I can help you do it," he whispered softly.

Sam's eyes widened, both at his closeness and at the thought of him sneaking her into an F-302 at this time of night. Ellsworth wasn't Peterson where they expected SGC personnel at all hours.

Cameron leaned in even closer and inhaled her scent deeply as his nose moved down her neck, his hands running hard up her outer thighs.

Sam leaned back away from him, scanning the area to see if anyone was watching them. "Cam!"

Cameron laughed and finished bending his leg in back of him to get off the bike. He whiffed one more long sniff of the base of her neck as he pulled back to swing completely off the bike, holding it steady as Sam sat back up. He grinned as he held out her helmet, and then put on his own.

He snorted. "Aw, Carter, I'm not going to do anything illegal," he said. "Well, civilian illegal maybe," he said patting his bike.

Sam laughed, her concern about what she thought he was about to do to her in a public place disappearing. If he meant tearing down the highway on his Ninja – now that kind of flying she was willing to do tonight. "Just back to base?" she asked, disappointed knowing that base was so close by.

"Not if you don't want to," Cameron answered. He twisted his body around, trying to see her beyond the edge of his helmet. "You want to?" he asked, his voice slightly muffled by the helmet.

"Hell no!" Sam said, leaning forward, her helmet clicking against his.

"Good!" Cameron yelled back, revving the engine and spinning the bike out in an arc, spewing gravel behind them.

--------------------

The ringing phone made Sam jump. She hit the mute button on the television's remote control, and the closed captioning bar popped up across the bottom of the screen of the Motorweek episode she was watching. She was slightly irritated that someone was interrupting her viewing of the vintage Volvo that Pat Goss was tinkering with in his garage. Today was the first quiet day she'd had all to herself in months. She wasn't expecting anyone and in fact had dared Daniel to call her at all the entire weekend. Maybe she'd let the answering machine pick up. But then it could be Jack or General Hammond. She sighed and picked up the receiver.

"Hello?"

"Sam?"

Sam strained to make out the voice over all of the static and crackling of the connection. Male for sure. But Daniel? Teal'c? It sure wasn't Jack.

"Hey, Sam, you there?"

"Cameron?" Sam asked.

"How ya doing? Long time no talk," he said.

It'd been a few weeks since she'd been out to Ellsworth. "Fine and you?" she asked.

The crackling grew louder.

"Cameron? Hello?"

Cameron's voice sounded muffled. "I'm still here. Phone connections here in Kansas are a little spotty since that last round of thunderstorms came through."

"Kansas?" Sam asked. "What's up?"

The crackling static increased and she could barely hear what Cameron was saying. The static slowly lessened. "Visiting the parents for a week of R and R."

"Oh," Sam said, frowning as the Volvo segment ended and the Motorweek logo popped up on screen.

There was another long pause before Cameron started to talk again. "Sam?"

"Cameron?"

"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

Sam sighed and clicked the television set off. "No. Nothing that important." She pushed herself up into a more comfortable position on her couch. "What's up?"

"Ever have one of those days?" Cameron asked, the static dimming to a minor background drone.

Sam snorted softly. As she'd discovered from being a part of SG-1, every day was one of those days. "Sure, don't we all?"

"Not like this one…."

--------------------

"Major Carter?"

"No, son," Cameron answered, peering around the Alpha site nurse who had finished taping the edges of the bandage down onto his arm. "It's Colonel Mitchell."

Cameron squinted at the young man standing in the doorway as the nurse moved away. "Major Carter was here?" he asked. "SG-1 was here?"

The airman nodded his head. "While you were out on maneuvers this afternoon, they gated in."

Cameron quickly rolled the sleeves of his shirt back down and jogged off to the research lab where he knew Sam normally gravitated to during her Alpha Site visits, hoping he'd still find her there. The lone tech who was manning the lab said that Sam had left an hour earlier and wasn't expected back any time soon.

Cameron made a mental note to call Sam when he finally got back Earth-side, to leave her a voice message accusing her of purposely avoiding him. She couldn't just waltz off to the Alpha site while he was here for an extended joint training exercise and not say 'howdy' to him.

--------------------

"Mitchell, you sure about that?" Stevenson asked, laying the duty roster back down on his desk.

Cameron didn't envy his friend and mentor the job he had now, but it wasn't going to keep him from backing down on this issue either. "Yeah, why wouldn't I be?" he asked.

"Because I know how close you are to Carter."

Cameron stared Stevenson down. "Yeah, and so?"

"Before I approve this I want to know you're not going to do anything stupid because of that."

Cameron's face turned sour in anger. "I swear! Would I volunteer for this damn mission if I thought I'd do something stupid to endanger everyone? Maybe a few years ago, Stevenson, but I'm not the same man I used to be, damn it." Cameron stopped, realizing from Stevenson's expression that he'd stepped over the line.

Cameron closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to release the feelings he knew were about ready to spin him out of control and backfire on him. "What I meant to say, Sir," he said on his slow exhale, "was that while, yes, Major Carter is a friend of mine, I still believe my squad is the best one to send on the Antarctic mission. We've been training for exactly this kind of situation for the past two months. Send the other squads as back up, but my people have demonstrated that they deserve the opportunity to play point on this one." Cameron stood at attention, looking at the clock on the wall behind Stevenson. "Seeing how time is of the essence, I hope you will reconsider my request, Sir."

Stevenson tapped his fingers on the duty roster list that covered still hot-off-the-fax directive he'd just received from General Hammond. He scratched the nape of his neck and leaned his head back. "Get the hell out of my office, Mitchell, and get that squad of yours suited up to go in five."

Cameron kept the smile of exhilaration from spreading across his face as he turned toward the door.

"Oh and Mitchell?" Stevenson called out.

Cameron turned around.

"Godspeed."

Cameron nodded respectfully and took off at a dead run for the hangars where the Blue Squadron sat waiting for his response.

--------------------

Sam grimaced as she looked out the window again. Another al'kesh had broken away from the pack and was heading straight for their cargo ship. She hit the communications panel. "Heads up, Blue Leader. This is Carter. We have another bandit incoming."

"I see it, Major."

It was Cameron. Sam was surprised to hear his voice. She hadn't had a moment to think about who was out there piloting the myriad of F-302's swooping all around them, but it made sense that Cameron and his group would be out in the thick of it. She leaned forward onto the navigation board to watch as a 302 swung into view and fired on the approaching al'kesh.

"Fox Two," she heard him say.

She blinked and flinched as the al'kesh exploded not far from the cargo ship, and she heard Cameron's voice again. "Splash, one al'kesh."

"That was close," she said. She watched as Cameron's glider slid back into formation and as she lost sight of him she turned back to Jack, her mind focusing back on their most urgent issue. "The ice should nearly be gone now, Sir."

--------------------

"I see it, Major," Cameron whispered to no one in particular as he slid in and out of consciousness. He barely flinched as he saw another explosion immediately overhead. "Bam!" he said.

Oh man, it was cold here. He saw another burst of flames and black smoke disappear over the next icy ridge. "Splashdown," he said, his voice nearly a croak. Damn. Another one of their squad was gone.

As he gave back into the winking darkness, he decided maybe he had been stupid after all.

--------------------

"We did it! Yeah! We did it!"

Cameron's eyes shot open as he regained consciousness for a second. We did what, he wondered as his mind went numb with pain.

"Targets are being destroyed as we speak! We did it!

The very edge of his mouth, nearly frozen stiff in the frigid air, lifted in an attempt to smile. The cargo ship. Sam. SG-1. Their orders to protect them at all costs. The alien ship. They did it. That meant they'd bought Sam and her team enough time to find something beneath the glacier's icy surface to blast the enemy ships with.

Good. Nothing stupid about that. Just… wish… he hadn't lost so many good… men… that day. Cameron allowed his eyes to close, giving into the merciful darkness.

--------------------

Cameron was young when his father had lost his legs. As a result, Cameron's mother had turned an about face, turning overprotective on him. His father tried to counteract her protectiveness, as had his Grandma Mitchell. Maybe it wasn't just his father's accident to blame for him being treated almost like only child, maybe it was because his baby brother was so much younger than he was?

Case in point – they'd moved out to the farm in the flat lands of Kansas. Flat. Land. Would his mother let him get a dirt bike? Hell no. He had to get his thrills in the summer at Grandma's, racing up and down the slopes and doing wheelies in the coves of the mountains of East Tennessee. What his mother hadn't had knowledge of hadn't killed her, although he'd had a close call or two, or three that had nearly killed him.

Thank the Lord for his Grandma being who she was and letting him off with a good Bible-thumping scolding during the long drive back from the Johnson City Medical Center.

With the specter of his father's serious injury always hanging over him, he'd done his best to avoid all thoughts of losing his mobility for most of his life, including after the dirt bike accidents, his early cycle spin outs, even when he ran his first car up along a guard rail for fifty feet in the ice storm he had no business being out in, and even when he started flying jets and the experimentals at Edwards. And now here he was, laid up in rehab, his legs still intact, but able to use even less of his body than his father had.

The first lucid moments he could remember after the Antarctic mission were of his father crying in his hospital room. Cameron hadn't been able to talk because of the tubes threaded into his nose and throat connecting him to the damn machine that had apparently been breathing for him at the time. He'd thought he was dreaming, and with the drugs and the pain he'd had some wild and crazy ones, and he tried to reach out to touch his father's hair, but the pain had hit him full force and had threatened to swallow him whole. But it had opened his eyes and ears clearly for the first time since the accident.

He could hear his father mumbling something about history repeating itself, but it was hard to tell what he was saying since his father's head was bent down over the bed, his forehead connecting with Cameron's hand. And his father was crying, he could tell that - his father's hot tears felt like they were searing welts deep into Cameron's hand.

Cameron involuntarily howled at the pain; it was too much. And it was real. Oh man, was it for real this time.

"Cam? Son? You there?" his father asked, his head jerking straight up. He stared open-mouthed at Cameron whose eyes had popped wide open at the unbearable pain.

Cameron tried to tell his father he was there and that he was all right, but the damn tubes stopped him, choking him. More pain. Cameron tried again; a convoluted, choking howl rubbed past the tubing. Oh God, get rid of this pain! He struggled to communicate with his father for another moment, grunting and choking, and he just couldn't do it, the pain yanking him back down into the dark visions that had been filling his unconscious mind as his father yelled out for the nurses.

When he finally fought his way back up and clear of darkness that threatened to pull him down permanently, he'd found that he'd been moved to the step-down unit from ICU, and that his father had gone, needing to get back to Auburn to manage the farm and business, the calm, steady presence of his father replaced by his pacing, fretting mother. He'd told her repeatedly that he didn't need her here, that she needed to be back in Kansas looking after his father, but she wouldn't hear of it, at least not until he'd become so belligerent that the doctors had threatened to send him to a psych hospital and he'd explained they needed to send his mother home or he really would go crazy.

She'd slowly learned to be content to visit him weekends and the last time she'd been in, just this morning, she'd rubbed shoulders with General O'Neill in his doorway. She'd been all wide-eyed and impressed with O'Neill's dress blues and his polite and deferential greeting to her and she'd shot a look at Cameron that told him he'd have some explaining to do later about this general gracing his doorway.

O'Neill had made his no-holds-barred offer to him that afternoon. Cameron rubbed his hand along his thigh. If O'Neill thought offering him a place on SG-1 was a safe bet because he'd never walk again, the fool had another thing coming. He looked at his undamaged toes peeking out from under the thin, institutional blanket, and willed them to wiggle.

Nothing.

He glared at them. Nothing.

He gritted his teeth, his face straining into a grimace. Move, damn it! Move!

--------------------

Sam sat across from Jack, nodding occasionally as he rambled on about his last conversation with General Hammond. She smiled as she remembered her own conversations with Hammond when he had confirmed to her that Cameron had indeed been one of the F-302 pilots that had gone down and that he'd been sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She'd immediately sent him flowers and tried calling him later, after he'd come out of the coma the doctor's had induced, but he was so heavily medicated that he didn't know who she was, and the next time he'd thought she was his lover, telling her in no uncertain terms exactly how he planned to make out with her. The last time she'd called, a month or two earlier, Cameron had been a supreme grouch as his meds had started to be reduced in preparation for his starting therapy.

Jack repeated his last statement. "Hammond talked the President into awarding Mitchell the Congressional Medal of Honor."

"Really?" Sam asked.

Jack nodded. "And I've got this little meeting to attend out at Ellsworth. You want to do the honors for me?" Jack asked, picking a small dark blue box out of his drawer and sliding it towards her.

Sam reverently held the small box containing Cameron's Medal of Honor. "Sure, if there's nothing else I can do to help you here." She looked up at Jack a little too eagerly.

He rolled his eyes at his former second in command. "Get yourself out of here, Carter. You know you wanna go. Scoot, vamoose, vayamos, hasta la vista baby, achtung baby…," Jack said, rambling to a stop. He looked at Sam closely. "What're you waiting for?"

"For you to sign the order?" she asked, nodding her chin toward the forms in front of him.

"Oh. Right…."

-----------------

Sam straightened her uniform and gave Cameron a small smile. Nodding one to the Air Force personnel who'd accompanied her, Sam carefully accepted the framed certificate and cleared her throat. She wiped the smile from her face, becoming deadly serious, and began to read:

"The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force that can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States of America. On behalf of the President, Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell is awarded this Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty."

"Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell, United States Air Force, distinguished himself by actions above and beyond the call of duty during action over Antarctica on six September two thousand four, while serving as Team Leader, Blue Squadron, of the First Stargate Fighter Wing, under the Stargate Project of the United States Air Force Special Operations Command. On that day Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell was engaged in the defense and protection of the Ancient Outpost in Antarctica, his fighter squadron providing protection of the base against an alien assault force. During the ensuing battle, overwhelming numbers of enemy attack ships assaulted the ship piloted by SG-1. Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell inflicted an innumerable number of casualties on the attacking force during his battle. Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell's co-pilot was fatally wounded and his aircraft severely damaged, placing him in a most vulnerable position during the most crucial period of the assault."

Sam paused for a moment and shot Cameron a quick glance before continuing. "Before his aircraft crashed, Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell unhesitatingly maneuvered his damaged craft to protect the cargo ship containing SG-1, destroying an al'kesh before it destroyed SG-1's ship and ensuring the successful completion of SG-1's mission. He used his failing aircraft to destroy an undetermined number of attackers until he depleted his ammunition and was seriously injured. Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell's courageous actions helped defeat the enemy attack, and resulted in the successful defense of SG-1's mission as well as the successful defense of the entire planet of Earth. Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell's extraordinary bravery and uncommon valor are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the First Stargate Fighter Wing, and the United States Air Force."

She accepted the dark blue box from the co-presenter and opened the box, slowly approaching Cameron and allowing a smile to grow on her face. "Congratulations, Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell," she said.

Cameron didn't say much, blinking back the tears that were forming in his eyes. He nodded. "Thank you," he said quietly, reaching for the box. He carefully tilted the box to catch the sunlight coming in through the hospital room's large bank of windows. As he disappeared into his own world, Sam turned back to the personnel who'd come with her, thanking them for their service that day and dismissing them for the afternoon.

After the personnel had moved down the hall, Sam took off her blue dress uniform jacket, hitching it over the back of the chair next to Cameron's bed. Sliding the chair up next to the bed, she loosened her collar and cleared her throat. "Cameron Mitchell. Long time no see. Again."

Cameron came out of his reverie and squinted at her, his brows hooding his eyes. "Samantha Carter," he said, eyeing the new silver oak leaves decorating her epaulets, "Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter."

Sam shrugged deferentially. "Like you've said before – if you stick with it long enough…." She smiled and shook her head at him. "You know how surprised I was when I found out it was you out there getting shot at?" she asked.

He nodded. "As soon as Hammond called us up and I found out what was going on, there was no way in hell I wasn't going to be there for you and SG-1," he said, wincing as he shifted his weight around. He crossed his arms. "Now how come you didn't come see me until now? Or call me?"

Sam frowned. "Cam, I did call. Several times. You don't remember?" She caught his questioning look. "Believe me, you were really out of it. And SG-1 has had zero downtime for months now." She shrugged. "And when I did, I was usually caught up in other projects on-base."

Cameron looked doubtfully at her.

She shrugged again. "You know how it is, don't you? And there's never much I can share with anyone else outside my own team or chain of command."

"No, I do know what you're talking about. The only thing my family knows is that I've been flying experimental aircraft like my Dad had before his accident. Since I've been here, Mom's been trying her damnedest to make me swear to never fly those "rat trap-death traps that took your father's legs" again." He grinned at Sam. "Unsuccessfully, I might add."

Sam looked at the casts that kept Cameron immobile. He didn't look like he was going anywhere soon, not for a walk, not for a ride on his Ninja, if he still had it, let alone get near an F-302, but she didn't want to mention it to him. Cameron had been seriously injured – the internal bleeding had been fixed long ago, but the crushed bones in his legs and the more serious damage to his spine remained. Sam was aware that the doctors had told him that his chances of walking again were slim to none. If only they could stick him in a sarcophagus….

Cameron rolled his eyes. "Don't say it, Sam. Don't say it. I know it looks bad, but I'll be out of bed in no time."

Sam's face turned down in pained empathy. "General O'Neill told me how badly you'd been hurt," she said softly.

Cameron turned his eyes toward the window, his face tightening. "It's not that bad."

Sam didn't say anything, instead reaching for his free hand and giving it a warm squeeze.

Cameron turned his head back to her and returned the squeeze, giving her a small smile. "Thanks for coming, Sam."

She smiled. "Wouldn't have missed it for the world."

Cameron chuckled. "So it was the world kept O'Neill from coming?"

"Actually, it was," Sam said, laughing. "His new duties as base commander having been keeping him on a short leash."

Cameron's smile widened. "The general doesn't strike me to be the type who likes being confined to the dog house."

Sam grinned. "You know the General well."

Cameron gave a half-snort, half-laugh, and slowly closed the box lid over his medal. "Not really. He only stopped by once. He did spend most of the day here. Too bad I was half-out of it on pain meds though." Cameron paused as he thought about the promise O'Neill had made to him. "But Dr. Jackson filled me in on him," he added.

"Daniel's been here too?" Sam asked.

Cameron nodded. "New Year's Eve. I told him he was crazy for not being out there on a date with a really hot chick, but he gave me some BS about not having the time to date much anymore and how he'd rather be here thanking me and all that." He looked at Sam. "Doesn't Jackson have a woman somewhere?"

Sam tucked her mouth to the side. "Had. His wife's dead."

Cameron winced and groaned. "Why didn't he tell me that?"

"Need-to-know basis." Sam squinted at Cameron. "You didn't stick your foot in your mouth again, did you?"

"Well, you should have warned me then," Cameron said.

"I didn't know he was coming here," Sam responded. "What'd you want – eyes-only dossiers on everyone?"

"It'd have sure helped," Cameron said petulantly.

Sam shook her head and chuckled. "So what would you like to know now, Cam?"

Cameron became quiet. He knew the stories that Stevenson and the other Snakeskinners spun, and the infamous leaks from Fuentes's former flame, but hell, he might as well shoot for the moon. "Everything," he said.

Sam nodded in response. Jack had authorized her to give a full disclosure if Cameron asked for it. "Okay, but remember - I've only got this afternoon. Have to fly back out late at twenty-one hundred hours."

Cameron grinned. "Then you'd better make it snappy."

--------------------

Later, long after Sam left, Cameron pulled the box back out and, in the dim evening light of the hospital room, he angled the medal around to catch the light on all of its facets. Hearing unauthorized versions of SG-1's exploits that had been circulating at Ellsworth, had made him want to be a part of SG-1 long before O'Neill had made him that no-holds-barred promise. Now he couldn't think of doing anything else. And now he understood why Sam had finally let go of her own dreams of getting into the space program and of having some big scientific research career - she was doing all of that and more at the SGC. So much damn more. He wanted to be part of all that. He had to be a part of all that.

It was going to be his mission to get better - he'd be like the Bionic Man. The doctors had rebuilt him. Now all he had to do was rehab and become the next member of SG-1. Cameron Mitchell would be that new member. Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.

Watch out General Jack O'Neill. You'd better be prepared to make good on that promise, and soon.

--------------------

Cameron eyed the remaining reports he had left to read and lifted up a fist to rub at his eyes. There was one more box left, safely locked in huge footlocker-type container emblazoned with "Lt. Col. C. Mitchell" on the outside of it. O'Neill had made sure that as soon as Cameron was finished one year's worth of reports, the old container disappeared and a new one appeared in its place. Down to the past year, Cameron only had the spring missions left to read.

He'd lost count how many missions SG-1 had gone out on, and he'd been keeping a close count on it at the beginning of his reading. He'd been alternately amused by some of the reports, saddened by others, and shocked by still others. Literally. Shocked. And it took a lot for him to be shocked. Considering all they'd been subjected to, it was amazing that SG-1 had held up so damn well all these years, forget the fact that they were all still around to tell the tales about it.

Without these reports, he would've never have had a clue what O'Neill had experienced commanding SG-1. He let the report he'd been trying to get through drop to his lap. Correction – O'Neill did have that 'my mind has been screwed with one too many times' look. But that'd been something he'd written off as being due to those senior moments O'Neill had to have more of at his age and to the hectic pace he must keep trying to run a base, not due to the medical effects of commanding a team through these kinds of conditions.

But then all of SG-1 should have had that 'been screwed with too many times' look – they'd all suffered. Teal'c. Jackson. Sam.

Sam. Oh, man, even with that afternoon's-worth of stories she'd shared with him about aliens she'd met and battles that she'd been in - he'd still had no clue what all she'd survived while on SG-1. No clue. Little wonder she didn't miss flying or not going to the Shuttle program. Look what all the hell she'd been doing the past eight years.

He shook his head in newfound respect for her and fingered the edge of the sharp-edged manila folder in his lap. Surviving also meant dealing with watching your family - and that's what he got that SG-1 was - deal with the same shit or worse. That'd explain the look in her eyes when she'd dropped in to present him with the medal; different than when he'd ran into her at Ellsworth. Way different than when they'd first met at Al Dhafra. More tired and sad, maybe even a little lost? More guarded and world-weary. More than you'd have just living a normal life and getting older, even in the military. He'd seen all that and more when she'd looked up at him after taking the medal from its keepers, opening the box and handing it to him; allowing him the briefest of moments to peek into her soul.

He had felt like reaching up and pulling her into a tight hug and holding her like there was no tomorrow. But he couldn't. Not back then. His friggin' body wouldn't allow him to do it. Not to mention the medal minders had still been in the room.

The first thing he was going to do when he caught up with Sam was to give her the tightest, biggest bear hug that he could. He wouldn't be able to say anything - he wasn't so great with words most of the time - and what the hell could he say to her after reading all of that? Sorry? Oh wow? Great job? And she'd be his commanding officer - he'd have to cool his heels for a bit and save that hug for when they were alone.

Yeah, right, when they had time alone... He hadn't talked to her but twice since she'd given him the medal, but reading the reports in full, he understood it wasn't bad communication between the two of them – it was just her job. Well, it was only a few weeks now - O'Neill had promised him that at the end of the summer he was going to bring him onto SG-1 to be a part of the team; to observe, to experience, and to learn from the masters. All he had to do now was to pass that final fitness for duty exam.

He reached over and scooped up the reports nearby and dropped them into the container on the floor, kicking the latch shut and jiggling it to make sure it had locked. Time to go out for another run; he didn't have any plans to fail that final exam.

--------------------

"Yeah, it looks like a new SG-1 team is being put together," Dr. Bill Lee told Sam. "You didn't know?"

"I haven't been Earth-side in weeks, Bill," Sam reminded him. Jack had wanted the engine technology upgraded on all of the ships, including all of the latest whistles and bells that Area 51 had recently developed, but especially for the Daedalus. "Make it happen," he'd said. Time had literally flown by for her as she'd become enveloped in the whir of activity that commanding a group of top-notch scientists demanded. As it was, she barely remembered what day of the week it was anymore. She'd been living on the Daedalus non-stop as they tried to get the engines up and ready since the ship would be leaving in less than a week.

"So who made CO?" she asked, turning back to the bank of components that made up the hyperdrive's main controls. She had understood that SG-1 was going to be temporarily disbanded and, given that the Goa'uld threat was gone after eight hard-driving years, she agreed that the team needed a serious break. And break they had - after helping her celebrate her birthday in style after their success in Dakaara, Teal'c had immediately gone back to the Jaffa to try to provide stable leadership while the free Jaffa dealt with the problems of self-determination for the first time in thousands of years. And he probably wouldn't be back. Daniel had been acting as an expert adjunct to all of the field teams who needed him, but he'd lobbied hard for and had received a slot in the next Atlantis-bound mission that she was trying to get the Daedalus prepared for. Sam smiled. She hadn't seen Daniel this excited in years and she was glad for it. After all the bad things that he'd had thrown at him the past eight years, he deserved to do something that gave him that kind of pleasure and satisfaction.

And Jack was off in Washington, doing what he said he'd never be caught dead doing – swimming with the sharks in the Pentagon.

And as for herself – she'd been offered the command position over Area 51's Stargate research division. There was no way she could have or would have turned that down. Forget her career track – she thrived on the challenge and thrill it presented her every morning. She knew Jack had had some involvement in getting her there – both because some personnel ready for retirement decided to jump ship when they saw Jack's promotion to Hammond's Homeworld Security position, figuring it to mean the program was going down the toilet, and because when this and other positions opened up, Jack had been quick to promote from within the ranks that he knew were capable if he was able to. He'd made an offer she couldn't refuse.

But it was interesting, this rumor from Dr. Lee, who'd come up to the Daedalus to assist her for a short stint, about a new team commander taking over SG-1. Although she loved finally being able to devote one hundred percent of her time to scientific pursuits without the constant threat of getting killed in the process, she had never let go of that secret wish to lead SG-1 permanently. She'd gotten the chance for a bit while Jack ran the SGC, but he was always there, still acting as a mentor and being involved more than he should have, even though he sworn that he'd let her make her own decisions. When Jack had mentioned Hammond's Homeworld Security offer to him after Hammond's retirement party, she'd assumed that it meant she'd officially command SG-1 and she'd be able to spread her wings and fly, taking Teal'c and Daniel out to the explore the multitude of gate addresses that remained yet untouched.

"You know, tall guy," Lee continued, waving his hand well above his head. "Dark hair. Always glowering at everybody."

"Name?" Sam asked, running her hands lightly over the control panel, trying to intuitively feel the problem with the circuitry that was keeping the Daedalus's hyperdrive from working.

Lee stood at the end of the bank of panels, tapping his fingers against his forehead. "Marvin? Fells? Fitz?" he wondered aloud. "Uh… oh hell…," Lee said, and then he suddenly snapped his fingers, waving at Sam. "That's it. Mitchell!"

"Mitchell who?" Sam asked absently as she carefully pried a panel out of its compartment, trying to avoid tangling further the already convoluted mess of wires streaming out from behind the motherboard.

"Lieutenant Colonel."

Sam shot an exasperated look at Lee. "Yeah, Mitchell who?"

"That is his last name," Lee explained.

"Lieutenant Colonel?" Sam asked, wiping the hair from her forehead with the back of her hand.

"No. Mitchell is," Lee said. "They say he's some big shot pilot from the Antarctic mission."

Sam shot up to a standing position, flushed and open-mouthed. "Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell?" she asked, unable to keep the incredulous tone from creeping into her voice.

Lee smiled and clapped his hands together and then pointed at her. "Bingo! That's the man!" he said brightly. "You know him?"

Sam wiped the surprised look off her face. "If it's who I think it is, then yes."

Lee examined her face. "I take that's a good thing?" He looked at her more closely. "Or is that not a good thing?"

Sam shrugged and picked the fallen panel back up. Last time she'd see Cameron was when she presented him with the Medal of Honor. She knew he'd been doing some serious rehabbing and had been given full disclosure of the program. She'd thought that Jack had wanted her to give Cameron a full disclosure about the program because he'd earned it by saving the team, and because he was now friends with most of them.

But commanding SG-1?

What the hell was General Landry, the new base commander, thinking? It didn't mean the new base commander wouldn't pull in the cream of the crop from the other teams to fill SG-1. In fact she expected the new base commander to do so – even if there were no known threats on the horizon, there were still hundreds, if not thousands of viable gate addresses and planets still left to explore and make first contact with.

Sam shivered slightly as she realized Jack had to have authorized Cameron's jump from the F-302 program to the SGC field operations program and to commanding SG-1. What would've made him do that? She felt her face flushing.

"Colonel Carter?" Lee asked. "Are you okay?"

Sam blinked and pushed the news out of her mind. She'd have more time to mull over the implications later, in her quarters. Right now her focus was needed on more immediate issues like the damaged circuitry that she held in her hands. She shook her head. "No, I'm fine," she told Lee. "Now let's get this fixed so you can get home tonight," she said, waving the panel at him.

--------------------

Cameron waited for Sergeant Walter Harriman to let him know when the video uplink was ready. He hadn't seen Sam since she'd delivered the medal to him, but the surprise he'd hoped to spring on her face-to-face by getting reassigned had been shot to hell when he arrived to find Sam gone. In fact he'd found out that the whole damn team was gone. Changes like these had to have been in the works for a while. He was not happy at all with the "SG-Me" that this had turned out to be.

He was glad O'Neill was in D.C. Oh man, what he wouldn't tell or do to the guy for doing this to him. What the hell had he struggled so hard for? It was like a punch in the gut.

Sgt. Harriman coughed and nodded toward the monitor. "Uplink enabled. Colonel Carter should be on-screen momentarily."

Cameron smoothed down the front of his jacket and cleared his throat. Thank God that he could roll with the punches along with the best of them. As he saw a blonde head ease into view, nodding to someone off-screen, he allowed himself a small smile. Come hell or high water, he would get 'the band' back together, somehow, some way.

--------------------

"Why didn't you tell me, Sam?" Cameron asked, picking up his fork and swirling it around in the banana slices and peanut butter that topped his waffles. He looked around the nearly empty restaurant. "You could've called me and told me. It wasn't like I was out seeing the world or anything while I was in rehab."

Sam held her coffee mug with both hands and took another sip. "I didn't know what was going to happen until it happened. Everything's been moving too fast. For all of us." She slid the coffee back over to the side of the table and leaned forward. "This is honestly the first free moment I've had in months. But you don't believe me, do you?"

"It's a little hard to understand, yeah," Cameron said. "You know you pick up that thing, amazing, I think it's called a telephone and then you hit those little buttons and then it rings...," he said facetiously, pretending to hold a phone and punch in numbers.

"So start over, Cameron," Sam said, ignoring his jab. "Landry's letting you handpick an entirely new team. Other team commanders would kill for that opportunity," she said. "You led a squad at Ellsworth. So lead a new team here."

"No," Cameron said. "I didn't come here to lead. Besides," he said as he finished icing another piece of waffle with the peanut butter, "it won't be the same."

Sam watched him play with his barely-touched waffles. "True, it won't be. But Cam, we've all moved on with our lives, moved on to other places." Sam shook her head. "Don't you realize you're not going to be able to recapture that?" She stopped. "Even if you're successful in getting us back together, it'll never be exactly the same thing."

"I can sure as hell try to," he said.

Sam shook her head at him. "Come on, Cam," she said softly.

"Okay, I realize it," he said with a frown.

Sam reached over and squeezed his hand. "You really did want to be just part of the team?" she asked.

Cameron looked away from her. "It was all I thought about for a year, Sam. You have no idea what that did for me, having O'Neill promise me a spot on the team. No idea." He turned back to her. "And no idea how I felt finding out the team had been disbanded once I got here."

Sam squeezed his hand again. "I think I do."

Cameron shook his head. "I don't think so, Sam. That was all I focused on. If I hadn't," he said quietly, "I never would've made it out of that bed."

Sam didn't say anything, instead delicately tracing the raised veins in the top of his hand.

Cameron covered her hand with his free one. "So how long will you be assigned to SG-1 for?" he asked.

Sam smiled. "For as long as I'm needed."

Cameron directed the full intensity of his being at her. "What if I need you for a long time?" he asked.

Sam held his gaze for a while, sensing there was a lot more behind his question than just her temporary inclusion on SG-1. "You think the world'll need saved for that long?" she asked.

Cameron shrugged. "It might not, but I might."

Sam shook her head. "You don't need saved."

"Don't be so sure of that," he responded.

--------------------

Cameron fingered with one hand the blood-stained SG-1 patch that he held gingerly between the fingers of his other hand. When he'd undressed in the infirmary, he'd refused to allow Dr. Lam to take it away. He didn't want to forget yet the hard lessons he'd learned from this mission with the Sodan. Sam had smiled knowingly at him and the patch just before Lam had shooed her out of the infirmary.

Now that she'd been back almost two months and had gone out on several missions with him and the newly-reconstituted SG-1, it had hit Cameron what Sam had been missing years before – seasoning, something she had now in spades. Oh sure, she was still that same freaking physics genius that she'd been over ten years ago, but now he saw how the base personnel responded to her, how Landry - though flippant to her face, deeply respected her behind her back, and how she handled herself out in the field. She was totally comfortable in her own skin now, not an ounce of uncertainty there at all. She was like tempered steel, tempered glass, tempered something. If she broke she wouldn't break into a thousand jagged shards; when and if she did, she'd just crumble into a hundred tiny pieces that she'd meld back into something even stronger.

He grinned as he laid the patch near his pillow and sunk his body back into mattress. He wanted to be like Sam Carter when he grew up.

His grin faded. He just hoped that she would stick around long enough for him to grow up. It was only after he'd finally got out of her that she really was fine about her adjunct status to SG-1, that he'd finally decided to stay as team commander and had deleted the reassignment request that he'd had ready to send to Landry. All he'd wanted was to be part of the team and to see the infamous SG-1 in action. To just be a part of it all - not to lead the whole damn premier team.

For the lessons learned from the Sodan, and for her agreement to be there for him, he resolved that he would try to practice patience and to remember that leading SG teams was different than leading flight units. Besides, he'd learned a long time ago that the times that he tried his damnedest to fix things all by himself, they just got more and more screwed up.

--------------------

"They said you checked out fine," Sam told Cameron.

He didn't look convinced. "You're sure I haven't said weird shit? Be honest."

Sam laughed. "No, Cameron, you're fine."

"You're sure?"

"I swear it," Sam said.

Cameron leaned back in the stool he was sitting in, feeling a bit better. He trusted Sam's opinion, even if he still didn't trust himself. The base docs confirmed what the Galarans had said about his mind appearing normal after all of the memory-splicing he'd gone through, but he still wasn't convinced. Appearances could be deceiving he'd learned.

He leaned forward again. "You're sure?"

"Yes!" Sam said, a slightly exasperated tone creeping into her voice. "Why are you so worried? All of the docs cleared you."

Cameron shook his head. "I still can't shake the feeling that I'm going to try to remember something and it's not going to be there. You know – something critical that was accidentally erased by those guys. I don't know. But knowing they were messing around," he said, pointing at his forehead, "making scrambled eggs with my brain cells - it makes me question everything." He paused, sticking his index finger up in the air. "Is it real or is it Memorex?"

"You're fine, Cam," Sam assured him.

"Yeah, says you, who's never been through something like that," Cameron snorted.

Sam leveled an "Excuse me?" look at Cameron. "Uh… says he who's never had his entire consciousness downloaded into a computer made up of a bunch of spare parts, and not by choice. Says he who didn't have to share brain space with a symbiote. Once again, not by choice. Says he who doesn't have to live with the memories of that symbiote…."

"Okay, okay!" he said. "You win."

Cameron took a bite of the chocolate-frosted doughnut that he'd snitched from Teal'c's stash on his way to Sam's lab. "Although, it is too bad they couldn't have accidentally erased a couple other memories while they were at it."

"Got some things you'd rather forget?" Sam asked.

"A few special ones, yeah."

He was quiet for a few minutes as he nibbled his way around the edge of his doughnut, attempting to focus on the chocolate and not the memories he'd rather forget. He looked up to find Sam watching him expectantly. "What? What do you want?"

Sam raised her eyebrows and looked back down at her keyboard, flicking an imaginary piece of dust away. "Well, really, what could be that bad that you'd want to get forget it ever happened?"

Cameron's face clouded over. Plenty. Barely making it out of Beijing alive, for starters. He cleared his throat. "Well, I'd prefer to forget about what happened to me about a year after you left Al Dhafra. Long story short - I was flying special ops, my plane went down, and there was this little incident outside of Beijing. A week of hell - literally. Nearly didn't survive that one."

Sam coughed, spitting onto her keyboard some of the doughnut she'd been eating. She immediately flipped the keyboard over and shook out the crumbs, swiping them off her desk and into the trash can. "Beijing?" she asked. "Your plane went down? Charles Wilson, the State Envoy eventually got you released?"

Cameron's eyes opened wide and his brows arched in surprise. "You knew about it?"

Sam nodded. "Yes. I mean no. But I remember hearing about it when I was at the Pentagon." She turned toward him. "I just didn't know it was you." She looked pained. "I'm sorry."

Cameron shrugged. "Don't be. Besides what's a little torture anyway?" he frowned. "Not the worst thing that ever happened to me."

"No?" Sam asked softly.

The lower half of Cameron's face worked hard, but he didn't say anything. That particular memory the Galarans could have written over a hundred times if they'd liked. Anything, as long as he didn't have to deal with it any longer.

Sam's eyes lit up in recognition. "The memory that the Galarans used as a baseline for their memory splicing. Is that it?" she asked quietly.

Cameron nodded and looked down at the doughnut in his lap, pitching the rest of it down into the trash can in distaste. "I killed them, Sam. Killed them." He looked up at her, unable to keep the hurt that he still felt this many years later from showing in his eyes. "I couldn't stop the missiles. They were already gone by the time they told me to abort. I'd asked them to confirm. I asked them. And they told me it was a go." Cameron's eyes closed and his face tightened as he relived the memory again. "They were just refugees, Sam. A convoy of innocent refugees." He paused. "And I killed them. Just like that."

He heard Sam slide off her chair and felt her arms circle around his shoulders. She squeezed him tightly. "It wasn't your fault, Cam. Wasn't your fault," she kept repeating softly as she rubbed his upper back.

Cameron shook his head. "I saw them die, Sam. I saw them die."

Sam said nothing more, only stood there holding him tight and rubbing his shoulders as he continued to shake his head.

--------------------

Sam set her fork down on the table. This early morning breakfast with Daniel had turned out to be a good idea, especially after the all-nighter she'd just pulled on base with nothing more than coffee and a handful of chips to tide her over through the wee hours of the morning. She nudged her plate away with her elbow and looked at Daniel, who was still a bit groggy and suffering from serious bedhead after being wakened by her two hours ago when she called him to remind him of their date, but the coffee had finally started to work on him.

Shaking his head, Daniel slid his plate full of half-eaten food away from him. "It's not fair, Sam."

"I know," Sam agreed.

"I don't know, Sam," Daniel said. "You don't know how much I wanted to go to Atlan-"

Daniel looked around the half-full diner. "Atlanta. Going to Atlanta would have been the culmination of so much of what I'd been working toward all my life," Daniel said. He heaved a deep sigh and leaned forward onto the counter next to Sam, stirring his cooling coffee. "Vala was like a tornado that just changed, no, was like a hurricane that just screwed up my entire life. Big time."

"I know, Daniel. I really do," Sam said softly, carefully chewing the last bite of her toast. She did. She'd already chosen a new road to explore in her own life and, suddenly, just as she was getting settled – bam! - back at the SGC she'd found herself, part of SG-1 but not quite. Still not quite.

"At least you're still officially part of the team," she offered.

Daniel snorted, sipping on his lukewarm coffee, and then waved the waitress over, pointing at his coffee cup and nodding. He turned to Sam and offered a sympathetic grin. "I guess I wasn't the only one who got a raw deal." He searched her eyes with the probing curiousness of a close friend. "So how are you, Sam? Really?"

Sam shrugged. "Getting along. Same as always."

"Saaaammmm….."

She gave him a long, sideways glance. "Oh, alright." She lifted her chin up and sighed. "Not so great. I know we're going to have a big problem with the Or… with those people from Oregon, and that Landry thinks I'm essential to… dealing with them, but…."

Daniel pulled the largest Danish from under the glass cake top and split it in half. "But…?" he asked.

Sam looked at Daniel and accepted the half that he offered her. "Deep down I still feel… like I should be somewhere else," she said, knowing she could trust Daniel to keep what she told him confidential. "Like I don't belong here. Not here, not right now."

Daniel nodded empathetically. "Your heart's not in it either," he observed. He licked the fruit gel dripping off the ragged edge of his half of the Danish. "Is it just stupidity or are we that anally responsible and duty-bound?" he asked.

Sam shook her head and bit into her half. Before recent events, she'd have said duty. Now, she just wasn't sure. But her heart wasn't in it, not the same as it once had been, that was for certain. She didn't think any of their hearts were in it like before and it didn't bode well if SG-1 had become that indifferent.

Even Cameron, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he usually was, was now having similar feelings. He'd sounded depressed when he'd called in to mope about having another enforced week of R and R away from base. The aftereffects of Galaran memory splicing still had him questioning all of his memories, all of his actions, and this past week he'd been calling her in her lab at least ten times a day, mostly "whatcha doing" kind of calls. Until yesterday. Yesterday he'd only called once, late in the afternoon, questioning her if he was such a bad person and he'd proceeded to tell her the full story about the refugee convoy that he'd blown up.

Sam had assured him he wasn't a bad person. It concerned her. She hadn't heard him that depressed in, well, never, even when he'd been rehab after the Antarctic mission. She decided that after breakfast she would drop by her house to shower and then swing by his place to give him the full 'Samantha Carter sunny side up' treatment. Make him forget Galaran mission and the murder they'd tried to pin on him. Make him forget the convoy mistake. Make him forget the Ori and everything else for a while. Make him talk out what she knew he wasn't sharing with the guys. Maybe even drag his sorry butt over to O'Malley's to shoot a game of pool, especially since he said he planned to be a hermit this weekend. She smiled - that's what she'd do.

She felt Daniel rest his hand on her forearm. "So what do you think?" he asked.

Sam blinked. Crap. What had Daniel been talking about while she zoned out? "I don't know," she answered.

"C'mon, Sam. I know you had some pretty strong opinions about that."

"Well…."

The bells on the diner's door dinged and clanged, and Sam instinctively jerked her head around to make a threat assessment. A tall, leggy blonde in the skimpiest of running outfits entered the diner, making a sharp turn into the booth by the window. Sam was surprised to see a very ruddy Cameron, dressed in sweat pants and a sweat-soaked t-shirt, follow the blonde in and drop down into the seat across from her, his back to Sam. She watched as Cameron bent forward to plant a long kiss on the blonde.

Sam squinted. Judging by the look Cameron had given the woman's backside as he'd followed her in, he didn't seem too depressed to her. Far, far from it. Sam turned back to Daniel who was also watching the pair.

"Latest conquest?" Daniel asked, knocking back the last of his coffee and reaching into his pocket for his wallet.

Sam didn't answer, instead feeling around in her jacket pocket. Driver's license, keys, a small wad of cash… she pulled the cash out and began to pull out bills to cover their breakfast.

"No. My turn," Daniel insisted, shaking his head.

"Thanks," Sam said, smiling at Daniel. She watched as Daniel examined both of their tabs and left a large tip for the waitress who smiled at them from the opposite end of the counter. "Still going to the Denver Art museum later?" she asked.

"Thought about it – I really want to see the Tiwanaku exhibit, but…," Daniel said, shrugging. "I don't know. Maybe I'll just go to the gym instead."

"That's the one you were telling me about before? The lost Bolivian culture?" Sam asked.

Daniel nodded. "I'm almost certain that the Tiwanaku were one of the last groups the Goa'u-- uh, the Goths - transplanted from this hemisphere. I really want to see if there's any correlation to some of the worl… places we've been to already."

"I'd love to see it," Sam told him, smiling brightly.

"Well, sure, uh, okay," Daniel said. "If you really want to." He stood and waited for Sam to slide off her barstool. "We can leave about eleven if you need to go home and shower."

"Fine," Sam said, eyeing the back of Cam's head as they approached the door. She didn't even stop to greet him.

That'd be just fine.

--------------------

Cameron groaned as the weight of the heaviest wooden beam shifted, pressing him up against the wall even tighter than before. He exhaled as deeply as he could and stretched his arm out one more time; reaching, reaching, reaching… He could just feel cool smoothness of the gun on the tip of his index finger. Just a little bit farther. It didn't matter it felt like he was wrenching his shoulder out of its socket. Just another centimeter. Another millimeter. Just one more….

Then he'd have the gun and be able to mow down at least one of the supports to the stinking beams that had him pinned to the wall. Ingenious trap these inhabitants of Arbitea had built, he thought as he pushed his chest and arm muscles to their outermost limits. Wouldn't keep the Ori from tracking the Arbiteans into the bowels of their mountain hideaway, but it had surely stopped him. He grunted. Just a little bit more this way and….

The P90 slid back down away from him, clattering along the stony outcropping and knocking the flashlight farther down into the crevasse.

"Oh hell, no!" Cameron roared out in frustration. Slamming his fist against the stone wall, he rested his forehead against its damp hardness for a moment. "Why didn't I just listen to Sam?" he groaned.

"Yeah, why didn't you?"

"Sam?" Cameron asked, whipping his head around as far as it would go. He couldn't see who was holding the flashlight that was blinding him.

"No, it's me, Daniel," Daniel said, slowly approaching him. He carefully angled his flashlight over Cameron's trapped body, lighting the crevasse that the lost P90 had fallen into and the pathway that was now blocked to them. He stepped back to eye the contraption that had trapped Cameron, and he gingerly pushed at the largest of the wooden poles. "I could pretend to be Sam if you really wanted me to, but I don't think that would help any," he said, jabbing at the place where the pole met Cameron's back and forcing a pained yelp from Cameron.

Daniel shook his head. "Looks like a job for Teal'c," he said, turning around and starting to pick his way back around the fallen rocks.

"Hey, where do you think you're going?" Cameron asked, trying to crane his head around to see where Daniel was headed, but being unable to do so. He quickly mentally inventoried the weaponry that Daniel usually carried and squeezed his mouth up into a grimace - a zat gun and a pistol wouldn't do anything to help him.

"Sorry New Guy, but I can't get you out of there by myself. I need to go get Sam and Teal'c and SG-12." Cameron heard Daniel's low snicker as he moved farther away. "New Guy strikes again."

"I'm not the new guy anymore!" Cameron spat out in frustration.

"Oh, sure you are," Daniel responded from the edge of the cave. "Only new guys get caught in traps like this one." He chuckled softly. "Don't go anywhere," he said.

"Where the hell am I going to go while my innards get squeezed out both ends? Why don't you just use the radio and call for help, damn it!" Cameron grumbled, stretching his free hand out and waving it at his retreating teammate for emphasis.

"Doesn't work in these caves," Daniel reminded him. "Remember – that's why Sam warned us to wait and not to come this way alone until we had back up."

Cameron could feel the beams pressing harder now. "Okay. Okay. So go get the hell out of here and hurry back!"

"I'm gone," Daniel said brightly before he disappeared around the corner. He popped the flashlight back around the corner one more time. "New Guy!"

As he heard Daniel's laughter dying out farther down the tunnel, Cameron wondered which was going to be worse – Jackson's continued delight in having more reasons to crow "New Guy!" at him or the amused look he knew Teal'c would aim at him before helping him out of his predicament. Actually neither; the disappointed look he knew Sam would give him would be the worst. He hissed as much of a frustrated sigh as his shrinking lungs would allow. He'd just gone and screwed up again. SuperCam - or "New Guy!" as Daniel put it - to the rescue; able to screw large missions in a single hour.

Damn it. He'd land back in the infirmary again and then SG-9 would have to gate in to finish the Arbitean mission, and Sam wouldn't get the intel or the machine they'd been after.

Little wonder she was backing off from him even more the past few weeks. He released another ragged, frustrated sigh.

--------------------

Sam thought about Cameron, under observation in the base infirmary for internal bleeding from being wedged between the wooden beam and the rock walls, and she sighed. He'd just proven one more time how untested he was for the reality of what could happen on the other side of the wormhole.

She frowned and picked the picture frame up off the end table next to her. That's what worried her – how much of a wild card he was. With the Ori threat looming bigger and bigger, she, Daniel, and Teal'c didn't have the time to babysit Cameron while he found his feet. Although Daniel and Teal'c thought it was fine to let Cameron make mistakes. She agreed to a point, wanting him to learn from experience, but not at the expense of the team or the mission.

She angled the photograph to cut the light's glare from it. It was a picture of her and Cameron laughing on the back of his Ninja at Ellsworth, the evening of the first time she'd run into him there. Before they'd left to go shoot pool he'd insisted on a buddy of his snapping a couple of pictures of them sitting together on his new toy. After they'd goofed off for several pictures, Cameron's buddy had insisted they pose for a "real one" and to stop wasting his time and film.

"Pose for one you wouldn't mind your Ma and Pa getting a hold of," Cameron's buddy had told them.

And the last one had been the keeper. Sam had slid forward on the Ninja to circle her hands around Cameron's waist, leaning her chin down onto his shoulder and whispering in his ear, "Now be a good boy for Ma and Pa."

He'd arched his head around at her, straining his neck to whisper back to her, "Only if you promise not to be a good girl."

They'd both started to laugh, looking up at Cameron's buddy to see if he'd heard them and he had, capturing the huge, relaxed smiles on their faces at their shared joke.

She balanced the picture on her index and middle fingers absentmindedly. She missed those easy and carefree days, but unfortunately the hard fact was they were working together in the same field unit. After he'd made his second and third "I'll save the day all by myself!" moves that'd put the entire team at risk, she'd pulled back hard, finding excuses not to get together as much with him. She sighed. Professional relationship it would be, her choice this time, not his. Sometimes professional relationships sucked.

Sam set the picture back down on the table, mentally picturing Cameron going it alone one more time out in the cornfields of P6G-452. She shook her head. He still had a lot to learn about treating Mary Poppins with a bit more respect.

--------------------

Only one other person in his life besides his mother had told Cameron no and meant it, and that was Sam. Everyone else waffled and wavered and eventually broke down and gave in, especially when he became a persistent SOB, but beginning with Al Dhafra Sam had been resolute when she made up her mind. And now here they were in a position again, where she could, and frequently did tell him no.

No to this. No to that. No, she wasn't going to follow his lead. No, she wouldn't go see a movie with him. No, she wouldn't go shoot a game of pool with him. No to everything. Hell, she was barely even being friendly to him lately, treating him like he was a leper or something. He glanced at the rash on the back of his hands – a reaction to his sticking his hands into some kind of goo on their last mission when Sam had clearly warned him not to do so. Honestly, who needed Grandma Mitchell when there was Sam?

"New Guy!" Jackson had lamented again when Cameron had howled in pain and had caused their MO to switch to getting him back to base pronto.

Maybe he was a leper, he thought miserably, wincing as he carefully rubbed the salve that Doc Lam had given him onto the raised pustules.

--------------------

Sam sighed, remembering how Cameron had run off to be with Teal'c and Reynolds in the Sodan village. He'd done it again. She couldn't stop him anymore, not that she ever could much before. She just wasn't feeling her role on the team, not feeling much of anything, so what again was keeping her there?

Oh yeah – permanent temporary assignment to SG-1. Whoo. Hoo.

But she just couldn't shake that nagging feeling that so much had changed. She frowned. But it had, when they'd taken the time ship back to Ancient Egypt, and she'd tried to keep the team from affecting the timeline. But they had. And everything changed.

She squinted at Cameron across the table from her; he was shaking his head strongly at Daniel who was sitting next to her. Who knows, maybe this all would have happened in another timeline as well.

She sighed and pushed everything out of her mind. "You think too much," she could hear Jack admonishing her. And it was true. She was here right now, not somewhere else and she had to deal with it. Her forehead wrinkled as she pushed the last thought away – but what if she didn't want to deal with it?

Sam could hear Daniel outlining the cautious plan of attack that he'd already shared with her in private. She listened to Daniel's tone more than his words, having already heard the plan in detail that morning when she'd encouraged him to present it at their afternoon briefing. His tone had become much more cynical than it had ever been, especially since his return from his last Ascension. Daniel seemed more indifferent since missing his trip to Atlantis, immersing himself in his work, but not because of his love for doing it, but instead to escape thinking about why he was here; about thinking about the bigger picture.

Sam rolled her neck around, listening to it crack and pop. Okay, so she was projecting a little there, but Daniel had changed, and so had she.

She tuned back into the conversation to hear Teal'c speaking. "That is one plan of attack against the Ori. Perhaps not the most wise plan, but a prudent one. So what is the next step may I ask?"

Sam cleared her throat and answered. "We work on collecting more information and we wait to see what the Ori's next move will be."

Cameron snorted. "I swear! Take some risks, Carter!"

Cameron's booming voice made Sam turn away from Teal'c. "Excuse me?" she asked, facing him.

"You're getting too damn cautious in your old age," he said.

Sam's eyes widened and she looked around the briefing table at the rest of SG-1. "Are you okay, Cameron?" she asked, more than a little concern tingeing her voice.

"No, I'm not," he said, pushing his chair back so he could pace in front of the bank of windows in the briefing room. "All we've been doing for these past few months is biding our damn time. Gathering data and more data. And more data! How much damn data do you need? We're screwed. We've got to get out there and attack. The longer we wait…."

"Patience is a virtue, Colonel Mitchell," Teal'c said, watching Cameron's long, angry strides with amusement.

"Oh right, like hell it is!" Cameron shook his head, rolling his eyes. "Virtue gets you killed. Patience – same thing. Sounds to me like you all are ready to sit around and get annihilated."

Sam watched as Teal'c tilted his head, choosing not to address Cameron's anger.

"I can see that peace-loving, 'let's-do-it-with-diplomacy' crap from Jackson, but you, Sam? C'mon, get off it. You know there're no-win situations when you have to be the aggressor."

Sam glowered at him. "Rashness'll get your teammates killed, Cameron, not to mention the rest of humanity."

Cameron, standing near the end of the bank of windows, mimicked her.

Sam stood up in exasperation. He'd been grouchy all week and had bordered on downright nasty throughout their meeting that afternoon. Maybe Cameron hadn't come as far as she thought. This foolish, angry man was shades of Desert Storm Cameron all over again. She had no idea what was wrong with him today, but she didn't feel like playing nice and finding out why he was acting this way - she had much better places to be than here.

"Fine!" she said, walking out of the briefing room, leaving Cameron sulking near the window.

"Fine," Cameron mimicked again. Casting an angry look at the other members of SG-1, he turned and stormed down the circular stairs to the control room where he ran into Sgt. Walter Harriman who had been carrying several large clipboards full of notes.

"I'm sorry, Sir," Harriman apologized, respectfully bowing his head and picking the clipboards off the floor.

"You should be watching where you're going!" Cameron spat out. "Klutz!" he whispered under his breath.

"Excuse me?" a voice asked sharply from behind him.

Cameron turned around, finding himself face-to-face with General Landry. "People should watch where they're going," Cameron said, a little less loudly.

"And other people shouldn't be in such a gosh-darn hurry to be somewhere," Landry pointed out.

Cameron shut his mouth into a tight, thin frown. "Point taken, Sir," he said, his jaw working overtime.

"Good," Landry said. "Now about the briefing you and SG-1 just completed – I had a chance to review Dr. Jackson's plan and Colonel Carter's recommendations and I think it's a sound one. You have a go on it whenever you--"

"Sir, that plan is a boatload of crap. We have to be firm, decisive, make a first str--"

"Excuse me, Colonel?" Landry asked, his chin jutting out a little farther as he interrupted Cameron. "What did you call it?"

"Crap, Sir. We're sitting ducks. I don't think--"

Landry squinted at Cameron and pulled his mouth up into a pucker. "Colonel Mitchell, I don't care what you think, since I seem to be in command of this base, and if you don't settle down I'll see to it that you get some time - a hell of a lot of time - off to cool those hot heels of yours."

Cameron stood his ground for a few moments, glaring at his superior officer, his body taut with tension. "I don't friggin' care that Colonel Carter thinks it should be done that way!" Cameron burst out. He held his hands tightly out in front of him like he was gripping a basketball. "Sam is not always right!" He turned heel and stomped down the stairs. "I'm not stupid, damn it. I friggin' swear you all get on my go--" he said, his thought cut off after he whipped around the corner.

"Alien virus, Sir?" a perplexed Harriman asked, peering out from behind Landry.

"It'd better be," Landry said, heading down the stairs to follow the trail of expletives Cameron was spewing down the corridor to the elevator shafts.

--------------------

"You would appear to not respect Colonel Mitchell," Teal'c observed as they rounded the next curve in the long jogging path.

Sam's rhythm broke, and she looked at Teal'c, surprised. "You think I looked disrespectful?" she asked.

Teal'c shook his head. "No, you have shown the utmost respect for him. I do not recall ever hearing you speak poorly of him." Teal'c looked at Sam and then picked up his pace. "Most unlike some individuals at Stargate Command."

Sam closed the gap between her and Teal'c, and then wiped her brow with the back of her hand. "Then what makes you say that?" she asked, blowing the fringe of her bangs up out of her eyes.

Teal'c glanced at her briefly. "Perhaps respect is not the proper expression." He considered that thought for a moment. "Perhaps faith in his skills as a warrior is a better term?"

Sam snorted. "That's about the same."

"So you do not respect him?" Teal'c asked, arching a brow at her.

Sam was quiet for a while. "No, I do respect him, because I know what he's capable of doing," she said. "But then I also know of what he's capable of doing," she repeated in a more pointed tone. She nodded at the park bench ahead of them and they slowed to a stop beside it. Teal'c gulped down a bottle of water while Sam stretched.

"Still – why do you think that?" she asked, grunting slightly as she bent side-to-side.

"I have known you for many years, Samantha Carter. You have always been careful to conceal your feelings on matters like this. But I believe that you are not very happy with his actions," Teal'c explained.

Sam grimaced and lunged forward into a deep stretch, casting a doubtful look at Teal'c. "Sometimes I am, but sometimes I'm not."

"But his missions normally are met with successful results," Teal'c pointed out.

Sam shrugged. "So you think that his putting us all at risk is fine?"

It was Teal'c's turn to shrug. "His manners are most unorthodox," he conceded. "But he is new yet," he stated.

"But old enough to know better," Sam muttered under her breath.

--------------------

Cameron groaned again, rubbing his middle finger hard along his brows, and then sliding his hand hard down along his temple and cheek, the friction burning a path along his latest wound. If he ever had the chance to meet the genius who invented the performance evaluation process, he'd kill the sucker.

Cameron looked back down through the laundry list of things he was supposed to be rating SG-1 on: job knowledge, leadership skills, professional qualities, organizational skills, judgment and decisions, and communication skills. And on top of it all he had to use one of those "one is lowest to five is highest" sliding scales to rate them. How about ten? He frowned at the sheet. Where did they get off at not having a ten for these fine people he'd brought back together?

His hand fell down onto the evaluation forms and manila folders on his desk. Lt. Colonel Samantha Carter, the header on the folder read. Okay, so how the hell did you rate a friend like Sam? A genius friend? A friend who'd saved the world and your own ass a couple times over since you started working with her? And what about that box that read "Impact on Unit Mission?" And he was supposed to limit himself to only four lines of justification for each rating he gave? Right….

"Oh… let's see, a scale of one to five? How about zero – "did not save SG-1 team leader's ass as much as should have,"" he mumbled, tapping his pen on the desk.

Thank the sweet Lord above he was only giving input on Sam's evaluation since she wasn't actually under his chain of command. But seriously, how did you set goals for or evaluate any member of the Stargate field units, SG-1 in particular? These were people who were the cream of the crop, people who saved planets, blew up suns, returned from the dead – several times over, thank you very much – and at times they literally played God, for crying out loud.

He didn't envy Landry or Sam's actual commander back at Area 51. He snorted. He bet Landry probably pushed the ratings form across his desk toward Sam and told her to write her own MO's and goals for the year. That's what Landry had had him do the year before when he'd joined the member-less SG-1.

He pushed Sam's folder off to the far side of his desk and spied Teal'c's folder. Yeah, now there was an easier one, he thought with a smile. It would be straight warrior-soldier business and none of this other stuff. Teal'c's off-world involvements and actions of the past year sped through Cameron's head.

Okay, maybe evaluating a Jaffa wasn't so easy either.

--------------------

Sam shut her eyes for a while to block out the shimmering blue light of the supergate. There was nothing left to see. The big battle was finished. Ships, or parts of them, were floating away from the gate. Everyone was dead or dying out in the vast vacuum of space. No one had answered any of her hails. The Korolev had blown; that meant Cameron was gone. Daniel, the others - gone. And her oxygen supply was depleting quickly; it was just a matter of time before it was her turn to go. She shook her head back and forth. No. No. No!

"Sam."

No!

"Sam!"

Sam opened her eyes, her eyes darting quickly around as she got her bearings. She was still in the Odyssey's infirmary. Cameron stood at the foot of her bed, looking overly-concerned.

"I must have dozed off," she said apologetically.

Cameron nodded. "Napped a good long time, you did." He smiled and tweaked her toes through the sheet. "It's okay. But you think you can get up and around now? There's a hyperdrive that has your name written all over it."

Sam nodded, stretching out and feeling that everything was where it should be. "Clothes?"

Cameron nodded at the pile beside her and the bathroom at the end of the room. "Be waiting for you out in the hall."

A few minutes later, as they entered the elevator to take them to operations level, Cameron stopped and reached out to touch Sam's arm. "Sam," he said.

As the door shut behind her, Sam looked down at his hand, still in contact with her arm. "Yes?" she asked, looking back up at him.

Cameron looked at her with a mix of uncertainty and worry. "I'm sorry," he finally said.

"For what?" she asked, looking perplexed.

"For everything."

Sam looked at him, even more confused.

"For all of it," he said waving his hands. "Before I got here, since I got here…" He frowned. "I know I've done some pretty stupid things. I'm going to do better."

Sam gave him a look and lifted his hand off her arm as the level indicator showed they were approaching their stop. "What's this all about, Cameron?"

Cameron looked down at the floor for a moment. "About losing my life out there. Losing my friends. I just wanted to make sure things were right between us if something should ever happen."

Sam tilted her head. "Nothing's going to happen," she assured him with a smile. "And it's okay. It's a new day. Right?" she asked, giving his hand a soft squeeze before the doors slid open.

Cameron returned the squeeze. "Right."

As they walked slowly side-by-side to the control room, Cameron suddenly snorted. "You know I could've really splatted you damn good upside the ship, like a fly plastered against a fly screen."

"Gee, thanks for the visual," Sam said, laughing as they stopped at the auxiliary control room that she was needed in.

"You're welcome," Cameron said. He caught her eye. "You let me know if you need anything," he said, his voice low and filled with concern.

Sam shook her head. "I'll be fine," she told him. She gave him a big grin. "I am fine." She nodded toward the command deck. "Now go!"

With a last quick touch to her shoulder, Cameron turned and jogged off.

--------------------

"Hey guys - and gal," Cameron said, bursting into Daniel's office with a deferential nod toward Sam. "How about a quick game of pool?"

"I don't know," Daniel said, starting to carefully close the overlapping layers of open books stacked on the desk in front of him. "Have you ever played?"

Cameron casually shrugged. "Eh…."

"If you choose to do so, I must warn you that Colonel Carter is what the Tau'ri consider a pool shark," Teal'c said, resting comfortably in the ergonomic office chair that Daniel never used.

Cameron grinned at Teal'c, and then winked at Sam. "So I've heard," he said.

"Sounds like a plan to me," Vala announced from the doorway behind Cameron. She nudged Cameron aside as she walked into the office towards Teal'c's chair.

Teal'c arched an eyebrow at Vala. "You are experienced at the Tau'ri game of pool, Vala Mal Doran?"

Vala lifted her chin up as she considered his question. "It involves floating around in a large container of water and splashing around a great deal?" she asked with a bright smile.

"Uh… no," Cameron said. "It involves balls. Lots of little, round balls…."

"Oh!" Vala said, her eyes lighting up again with excitement. "Is it like basketball? I like basketball. I'm good at that!" She gave Teal'c a conspiratorial bump on the shoulder with her hip. "Very good, eh, Teal'c?"

Amusement danced in Teal'c's eyes as he looked up at Vala. "The circular surface of the balls involved in shooting pool is the only similarity between the two games."

Vala brightened considerably more. "Shooting? I'm really good at that!"

"With a stick," Daniel said, putting his glasses back on and searching for his keys in his desk drawer. He looked up at Cameron. "I'm in."

"As am I," Teal'c said.

"Wouldn't miss it," Sam said.

Vala harrumphed.

Sam looked at her. "You can come watch," she said, smiling at the pout pulling Vala's face down. "You might find you like it."

--------------------

Teal'c and Daniel sat at the bar, silently sipping on their beers. Vala sat on a stool nearby, her arms crossed as she twisted the stool slowly back and forth. She finally turned away from Sam and Cameron who were stalking the edges of the pool table closest to the bar and blocking out their next shots, and Vala sighed deeply, flashing the whites of her eyes at Daniel.

"Boring," she hissed.

"So, Cameron, you said you've played a lot pool?" Daniel asked, taking another sip of his beer and turning to watch Sam and Cameron again.

"Nah. Not much. This must be my second time, or maybe third?" he said slowly, tilting his cue stick up behind him. Cameron knocked the ball cleanly into the corner pocket.

"You show considerable promise, Colonel Mitchell," Teal'c said, an approving tone in his voice.

Sam snorted as she waited for Cameron to choose his next shot. "Yeah, so hurry it up, you pool virgin you."

"Hey, don't rush the New Guy," Cameron said, tapping another ball toward the corner pocket and grimacing at Sam when it missed.

Sam made a face at him and lined up her shot.

"Why do I get the feeling that you both have considerable experience playing this," Vala asked, stopping to give an exaggerated yawn, "ever-so-interesting game?"

"You are bored?" Teal'c asked.

"It's not very interactive," Vala observed. "And especially not when you have the two them holding court on that table," she said, casting a glance over her shoulder at Sam and Cameron.

Daniel scrunched his face up. "What would you rather be doing?" he asked. "Out running around the galaxy playing 'Let's Make a Deal'?"

Vala brightened. "Ah, my Daniel, you know me so well," she said, reaching over to ruffle his hair.

Daniel shrugged her hand away and looked at the watch on his own hand. "How about a movie instead?" he asked her.

Vala wrinkled her nose and made a yawning noise. "Boring," she whispered.

Teal'c arched a brow as he caught Daniel's eye. "Daniel Jackson, I recall a story you have shared concerning an establishment that both you and General O'Neill have frequented in the past – the one with the odd social customs."

"The country and western bar?" Daniel asked.

A sly smile crept over the bottom of Teal'c's face and he nodded. "Yes. Tonight I believe they are engaging in a dancing contest. Line dancing, if memory serves me correct." Teal'c smiled fully at Vala. "Are you interested in engaging in strange alien customs?"

Vala cast an eye over Sam and Cameron who were lost deep in concentration over their game. "Anything is an improvement over watching these two play," she said, sliding off her stool and smoothing the wrinkles out of her clothes. "Let's go."

"Want to join us?" Daniel asked Sam and Cameron as he pulled his jacket on.

Cameron shook his head, his gaze not leaving the table. "No. Still need to whup the socks off Sam here."

"Whipping?" Vala asked, perking up for a minute. "Finally, something fun!"

Daniel pulled on Vala's arm. "It's just a figure of speech."

Vala frowned and pulled her arm away from Daniel's. "I knew that."

Sam looked up from the corner where she'd been thoughtfully rubbing her chin. "Cameron just thinks he'll get my socks. I'll beat the pants off him before that happens," she said, grinning at Vala.

Vala pulled on Daniel's arm to keep him from moving away from the bar. "I don't know, Daniel. It sounds like it's going to get very, very interesting now."

Daniel closed his eyes and shook his head.

"Another figure of speech?" Vala asked.

Daniel nodded.

"Damn," Vala said, sounding crestfallen as she followed Daniel and Teal'c out of the bar.

After their teammates had gone and the last ball had been pocketed, Cameron leaned back on the table next to Sam. "Beating my pants off?" he asked, a smirk on his face. "Turned into a dominatrix while I wasn't watching, did you?"

"Asks he with the sock fetish," Sam pointed out, grinning. She felt great; they hadn't been this relaxed around each other or had had this much fun, in… in a long time. She nudged him with her shoulder. "One more game? Double or nothing?"

Cameron squinted at her, slowly considering her offer. "Pants versus socks?" he asked, his inflection indicating he wasn't sure it was such a fair deal.

"This isn't strip poker," Sam said, chiding him.

He locked gazes with her, and neither looked away, each solemnly staring the other down. Sexual tension vibrated across the short space between them. "Okay then - what is this?" Cameron asked.

Sam swallowed and blinked. That was true. What was this? With their mission to destroy the Ori, she wasn't sure either of them needed a 'what' to worry about yet. They were treading in dangerous waters. "Just a game," she said with some regret. "Just a game."

Cameron quickly masked the surprise and regret that showed in his face and started pulling the balls back onto the table top. "Then double or nothing. Socks versus socks."

"Deal," Sam said.

--------------------

Totally engrossed in the programming code she was writing, Sam turned to reach for her bottle of water to suddenly find Cameron inches away from her, staring at her like there was no tomorrow. "Cameron!" she said, involuntarily jumping.

"Damn, Sam, you're beautiful," he said softly.

Sam gave him an incredulous look and snorted. She'd been locked up in her lab the entire day and she felt pretty blah, almost PMS-ey, thanks to the residual after-effects of being sleepless for so long on Vagonbrei. She couldn't help the smile that slowly filled her face; Cameron was really full of it today. She felt like a mess and she knew she had to look like one, she thought as she ran a hand along the nape of her neck, feeling wayward strands of hair sticking out in every direction.

"If I didn't know you better, I'd say you were coming on to me," she said, mocking him.

Cameron ignored her tone and locked his gaze on her lips. "Who says I'm not?" he asked. He moved closer, his lips only centimeters away from hers.

Sam swallowed. She didn't consider herself anything worth coming on to, especially after a hard mission and especially today. But this was Cameron, who didn't especially seem like he was in a mood to play today.

"Would it surprise you if I was?" he asked huskily, his eyes so heavy-lidded they were nearly shut.

Sam felt the tension vibrating off of him. For all his teasing and flirting during the times they'd been stationed together, the depth of their real relationship was something he'd never talked openly to her about or had even acted on, not beyond these insane teases. Her eyes searched his high cheekbones, and his deep-set eyes were nearly shut.

Oh, sure, she could act on her desire – they both could have years ago, but was a one night stand worth the consequences? She discreetly inhaled his sweaty scent – he'd just come from Level Four hand-to-hand combat training and hadn't showered, and the desire to touch him and to taste the sweat dotting his upper chest lingered just on the periphery of her consciousness. She decided to play along with him - she needed a break from the rote code-writing she'd been immersed in.

"Mmmhmmm," she said softly, moving closer to him, but still not touching him. "It'd definitely make me question your motives."

"Besides the sex?" he said, lifting a hand to her cheek.

"Mmmhmmm…."

"You already know I respect you more than anyone I know."

"And?"

"And I want you more than anyone I know."

Sam giggled softly. "That's good. I thought maybe you were attracted to Teal'c…."

Cameron stopped her mid-sentence, locking his mouth on hers and searching it until they were both left gasping for air. "I really like you, Colonel," he said, pulling away from her.

Recovering from what he'd denied her the experience of for so many years, Sam searched his eyes. "Just 'like,' Colonel?" she asked.

"Really, really, really like," he explained, cupping her face with both hands and tasting her again.

"Well, I don't know if "really, really, really liking" does it for me," she said, enjoying his kisses, but still playing along. She slid her hands around to his back.

"Why? Not enough commitment for you?" he asked, looking down at her hands.

"Nope," Sam said with a sly smile, slowly moving her hands down his back, coming to rest on the upper curve of his ass. "Not given what I know about you."

Cameron groaned lowly, shivering more in surprise at the move she had made than at her comment. He moved one of his hands to the nape of her neck and, with his other hand, he lazily traced a path down her back. "You really want to go there? Here? Now?"

"Uh-huh," she answered, starting to enjoy the feel of his hand massaging the small of her back and moving her own hands slowly down to cup the lower curve of his ass. "Been waiting long enough for it." She gave him a long, slow smile and gently pulled him toward her, giving him a mischievous nip on the lips. No more playing.

Cameron looked like he could die. Through the sweatpants he wore, Sam could feel him hardening and straining against her, and she smiled. "You were saying?"

He literally sparked with tension. Swallowing hard, he looked her directly in the eyes. "I…."

Sam pressed harder on his ass and shifted up against him again. Cameron struggled to make his mouth form a word. Sam's smiled deepened and she pulled him closer, gripping him even tighter.

"You…?" she asked, giving him a last tight squeeze before she bent her head to finally investigate what the sweat beaded on his chest tasted like. Cameron stood ramrod-straight as she moved up his neck, his breath catching as her hands moved up his waist to caress the middle of his back.

"Oh God, Sam, I need you more than you know," he groaned, his mouth finding hers again as both of his hands found her ass and pulled her even harder onto him.

"Now see, Cam - that's what I'm talking about," Sam whispered in his ear as he pulled her up onto her desktop.

He tugged at her t-shirt that had been tucked too tightly into her fatigues, his hands frenetically searching to find her bare skin. Her hands slipped down his back and quickly slid beneath the waistband to his sweats, causing him to groan again as she made contact with the end of his bare back. Mouths locked on one another and released as their breathing became heavier and more erratic. Minds temporarily forgot both time and place.

Then a throat cleared and an amused chuckle cut cleanly into the thickness of their passion.

"Bangin' boots, Colonels?" Colonel Dave Dixon asked smugly from just inside the doorway.

Cameron jerked straight up, yanking his hand from underneath Sam's t-shirt and pulling away from her. After giving her a long, regretful look, Cameron crossed his arms and leaned forward against the desk to cover his erection. "Dixon?" he growled.

Sam pulled her t-shirt back down into place, a deep flush rising up her neck and onto her cheeks as she slid back off the desk to stand near Cameron.

Dixon smirked at the pair and snorted. "Hey, your secret is safe with me," he said. He cast a critical eye at them. "Although, I'd never've put you two kids together like this," he said, shaking his head. "Uh-uh."

Cameron tilted his head, his frown deepening. "Can I help you, Dixon?" he bit out.

Dixon's smirk disappeared. "Don't need anything you got, Mitchell," he said derisively. He looked at Sam. "We just got back from P3X-939. Landry told me that you were supposed to have finished with the program that we're supposed to run our data through to measure that Ori residual power output crap? Landry said he wanted us to get it running before we left base this evening."

Sam looked down at the desk. That was what she had been working on before Cameron had interrupted her. "That's what I was working on before--"

"Before you got sidetracked," Dixon said, frowning. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I just need to know if it's ready and what I need to do with all these numbers." He held up two small memory sticks.

Sam held her hand out. "The algorithm is almost done. Give them to me and I'll make sure that the data gets massaged tonight."

Dixon looked at Sam and snorted. "Okay, just so long as you make sure that my memory sticks are the only things that get massaged tonight."

Cameron opened his mouth and then thought better of it, grimacing at his colleague.

"I'll leave the sticks and a printout of the results in your mailbox before I leave tonight," Sam promised.

Dixon nodded. "Sounds good. Thanks," he said before leaving.

Sam ran her hand through her hair and pulled her monitor back from the edge of the desk where she and Cameron had pushed it moments earlier. "I've got at least another two hours," she told Cameron as she retrieved her keyboard from the floor, "and about a half-hour to run his data through."

Cameron threw his head back and sighed. "Fine," he said in a resigned tone. He walked to the door and looked back at Sam.

She felt his stare and looked back up at him.

He walked back over to her and bent down, lifting her chin gently up toward him. He gave her a slow, probing kiss. "We'll see about our unfinished business later."

--------------------

"Uh, Sam?"

Sam turned away from the device cover she was welding together and flipped up the shield to her helmet. "Cameron?"

Cameron waited a few moments before walking deeper into her lab. "About what I said the other day…."

"Yeah?" Sam asked, putting her goggles back on.

He looked away as she welded another section together. When she stopped to peer more closely at the seam she had just finished, he took a deep breath and quickly said, "Can you forget that I said it?"

Sam removed her goggles and looked at him more closely. She blinked a few times before she realized what he was talking about.

Cameron shuffled uncomfortably near the edge of her work desk. He could kick himself for actually having admitted to her how much he really needed her in the heat of the moment. It made things more complicated than either of them needed things to be right now.

She squinted at him and he could tell she was replaying the whole scene in her memory. She pursed her lips at him and sighed. "Forget what?" she asked.

"Exactly my point," he said, heaving a sigh of relief. He didn't want to have to admit to her that somewhere along the line he'd committed the ultimate no-no of falling for a member of his team. He'd served in squadrons with female pilots; he'd even served with Sam before too, back at Al Dhafra. But this close, this intimate? He totally understood now what O'Neill had faced when dealing with Sam. All that scientific genius and military competence wrapped in a package that was entirely too easy to fall for.

It hadn't been intentional, that was for sure. He'd managed to compartmentalize all those mixed feelings he'd had for her so long, and all those years when they'd been apart it'd been pretty easy. After he'd joined SG-1 he'd managed to keep those bothersome thoughts locked away, focusing on trying to prove to her, and to the others, that he could play in the universal leagues and not just at the local, planetary levels, but lately, especially after that evening in her lab….

He watched as Sam turned her attention back to her device and he slid out the door into the bright corridor. Damn. He wanted to serve on SG-1 as badly as he wanted to be straight with her. Why couldn't he do both? Because the SGC was way too insular he'd found out, more so than in any squad or unit he'd been on. Nowhere to hide anything. Nowhere to run.

--------------------

"This is not our first barbecue, Doctor McKay!" Sam mimicked the exasperated tone Cameron had used when he'd engaged Dr. Rodney McKay in conversation during their mission to Atlantis.

Cameron grinned at Sam's dead-on impression of him. "Good one, huh?" he asked.

Sam nodded. "I don't think Rodney knew quite what to do with you."

Cameron's grin grew wider. "Especially once he found out I was wielding "the" lemon."

"Yes, "the" lemon," she echoed, touching the lemon still residing deep in the pocket of Cameron's fatigues. "So when are you going to throw the damn thing away?" she asked him.

"I don't know. I kinda like it," Cameron said. He pulled the lemon out and examined it. He gave it to Sam who rolled it around in her palms and then squeezed it.

She grinned at him.

"So McKay thinks you're sexy when you're reckless?" he asked, taking the lemon back and stuffing it back into his pocket.

Sam shook her head. "Just ignore him. He doesn't get out much. Rodney is just… Rodney." She stopped and gave him a sly and devilish smile. "You think I'm reckless, Colonel?"

Cameron smirked at her, fully aware of where she was challenging him to go. "Very, Colonel."

"How reckless?" she asked, her tone daring him to remember what he'd asked her to forget.

"Too reckless," he said. He stopped to look at her, appraising her and taking a cursory glance around his small office, more of a broom closet than the large rooms they'd given Sam and Daniel. Oh, the hell with it, he thought. "Reckless enough that I want to finish that unfinished business right now."

"You sure?" she asked. "I seem to have forgotten what it was," she taunted him, "since that was so long ago…."

"Not that long ago," he objected, reaching out to grab Sam's waist and to pull her toward him, "and like my grandma says - there ain't no time like the present."

"And like my cousin Dorothy says: "There ain't no place like home" either," a familiar voice shot back from the doorway to Cameron's office.

Cameron shivered and jumped like he'd been zatted, and Sam backed away from him, knocking the phone off his desk.

Colonel Dixon stood in the doorway, his arms crossed and his expression barely containing his amusement at having caught his colleagues in a compromising position again. "Y'all should really think about getting a room. I mean, you know, any old body could be walking through here and find y'both doing more than just banging your…."

"Actually, Dixon, thanks to you," Cameron said, through clenched teeth, "I never seem to make it past first base."

"Really?" Dixon asked, shooting a wry grin at Cameron. "You're welcome."

Cameron opened his mouth to respond, stopping as he felt Sam put a cautionary hand on his back.

"Can we help you, Dave?" Sam asked.

"Landry couldn't find either of you, and since I was heading over this way…," Dixon said, pausing to smirk at them. "Anyway, he just received word back from Atlantis about the Wraith response to that ship you blew and he's calling an emergency briefing in about, well," Dixon said, glancing at the clock on the wall, "in about five minutes from now."

Cameron pursed his lips and looked at Sam. She returned his frown. Whatever it was wouldn't be good news he was sure. He waved Sam in front of him, following her and Dixon out the door, and saw her shoot him a questioning look over her shoulder.

He shrugged in response. Later. Whatever they did - it'd have to be later. It was the story of his life with her – later, later, later….

--------------------

Her desire to stay alive had dissipated, draining away right along with the blood that continued to seep from the life-threatening wound in her side. It just didn't seem worth it to Sam to fight anymore. Their friends and allies were dead, dying, or uncommunicative: the Nox had cut off communication years ago after Lya had taken part in Skaara's tribunal, the Tollan were gone, the Tok'ra were diminished, and the Asgard? Although she knew otherwise, it seemed like they, too, had hightailed it away to leave the Tau'ri to fight the Ori alone.

As edges of the room darkened in her peripheral vision, Sam absently wondered if the Asgard had souls. With each passing minute she was certain that her own soul was soon going to depart this plane and go… somewhere. Heaven, hell, revert back to quarks and leptons; she was in so much pain right now that it didn't really matter. She'd take winking out into nothingness over what ascension offered; it just seemed like another plane of existence complete with all the same petty politics, in-fighting, and backstabbing that were available for free here on the lower planes. Plus, she still wasn't as sold on it as Daniel was, or had been, since he hadn't seemed too keen on it lately, either.

Sam shivered involuntarily as another wave of pain and nausea rolled over her. As she struggled to catch her breath, she noted out that Cameron had taken up position near the window so that he could watch the village and monitor her laptop at the same time. She felt so bad for him right now. He wanted so badly to respect her wishes, yet he desperately wanted to get the hell out of there.

She tried to smile, but a pained grimace was about all she could muster. If it had been Jack, he'd have told her, "The hell with the machine, I'm getting you out of here now." But Cameron, for all his similarities to Jack, was a totally different animal. He refused to return to the SGC with the machine and refused to leave her here alone, and yet he refused to put his foot down and force her to bend to his will. He'd already refused her request of him to deliver her personal letters. It made her angry, knowing that he refused to acknowledge how serious her injury was.

As another wave of pain swept through her chest cavity, she wondered why Cameron wouldn't let go. Was it out of respect? Stupidity? Sam gasped and struggled to catch her breath as fluid continued to fill her lungs; acute respiratory distress syndrome, the analytical part of her mind pointed out to her. Oh hell, it didn't matter what her body was suffering from. She just wanted to go. Let. Me. Go. She didn't want to fight anymore. None of this mattered. SG-1 – Teal'c, Daniel, and Cameron – would go on just fine without her, and win against the Ori. She was just another spoke in the wheel. She wheezed harder, wincing with the effort.

"Sam, you need to relax," Cameron called from his window lookout. "Get some sleep, why don't you?"

Because I'm afraid to, Sam thought as she tried to focus on his fuzzy shape and failed. She squinted harder. She needed to do something before she did die because Cameron's watchful waiting wasn't working. She lifted up off the cot and immediately fell back down onto it, her body seizing up in pain. She decided it probably was better to give in to his order to sleep rather than to fight it any longer. Okay, Aye-aye, Yes, Sir, yeah-sure-you-betcha, and all that other crap and jazz, she thought as she rode the crest of the next wave of pain out into unconsciousness.

--------------------

Cameron loosened his crossed arms as he watched the villagers out in the courtyard nervously defer to the Ori prior. It was just their stupid luck that Sam would get seriously injured. But dumb luck, he supposed, that the shield was holding. And he thanked God for that good luck that let them save their asses each damn time the bad struck. Well, nearly each time. He refused to think about what Jackson had to be suffering in the clutches of Vala's twisted offspring or what was going to happen to him and Sam if the shield failed.

He whipped his head around as a low moan cut into Sam's raspy breathing. Now deep in a morphine-induced sleep, Sam shook her head slowly back and forth. Cameron moved away from the window to get a closer look at her bandage. He'd sewn her up as best he could, but it wasn't good enough. She was still dying, damn it. Dying. How the hell could that be, he wondered as he ran the edge of the blanket over the sweat beading on Sam's brow.

Dying and fatalistic. Where the hell was his optimistic Sam? The friend who had never ceased to find and point out to him the silver linings in everything, even in the darkest of hells? He hadn't nicknamed her Mary Poppins for nothing. He ran his hand slowly along the edge of the blanket.

Come on, Mary - pop back in and stay a little bit longer….

--------------------

After making sure that the medics had taken Sam safely back through the gate, Cameron had returned to the village library to start to disconnecting her laptop from the power unit and shielding device. The techs who were packing up the remainder of the room had grumbled at him for not allowing them to touch the laptop, but he'd given them a sullen glare and had told them in his most clipped of tones, "The Colonel asked me to personally bring this back to her," emphasizing the word personally nearly to the point of spitting.

Okay, so Sam hadn't really said that, but he wasn't going to give anyone any opportunity to surf through her personal business. Nope. Uh-uh. Especially not after he had gotten a quick look at the directory of letters she'd told him to find and had seen who they were for and what their file sizes were. And, now that he thought about it, what the hell could Sam have to say to General O'Neill that took five megabytes to say it? Pictures. It had to be pictures.

He glimpsed his own name, listed very formally in the index – "LtColonel Cameron Mitchell." His file was twice as big as O'Neill's and had been updated just a few days earlier. He could feel the temptation of curiosity starting to burn a path down to his fingertips, and he did his best to ignore it, slowly backing out of Sam's personal files directory. He carefully closed out the other file windows he'd inadvertently opened on her laptop in his desperate rush to save the village and hoped to heck he didn't accidentally delete or change anything; she'd kill him if he did.

A small smirk spread over his face as he left the techs to manage the rest of the room, Sam's laptop tucked protectively under his arm. He was worth ten megabytes to Sam. Not too shabby.

--------------------

Sam watched Cameron as he finished off the last of the macaroons. "I don't care what you say, I know I can go home and recuperate just fine on my own," she told him.

"Not by yourself," Cameron repeated. He knew from personal experience about the side effects of the cocktail of drugs she was still on – a heavy mix of painkillers and anti-everything's. She still had a good week of stepping down off the strongest drugs. And whether she was willing to admit it or not, she couldn't be left alone.

"Sure I can," she insisted again, her perky smile fading a bit.

After wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Cameron crumpled his paper bag up into a ball and shot it at the nearest wastebasket and missed. "Don't think so, Sam," he said.

"But…."

Cameron shook his head. "Doc said it's either another week cooped up in here or you can take me up on my offer."

As the duty nurse began turning down the infirmary lights to their nighttime setting, Sam's smile completely disappeared and her shoulders sagged. "Cameron, I really am capable of taking care of myself, you know that."

Cameron shot her a "yeah, right" look.

"I could've," she said, sounding defeated.

"Oh-nine hundred tomorrow?" he asked, standing and dusting the cookies crumbs off his lap.

Sam was quiet for minute. "Cam, why're you doing this?"

"What?"

"This," Sam said, shrugging a shoulder.

"Because."

"Because why?" she asked.

"Sam! Stop worrying about it." The doctor had been adamant that Sam be under someone's care if she wasn't under base medical supervision. And he owed her. Big time. Besides it was no fun being cooped up on-base, and who else was left around these parts who could or would take care of her at home?

"Car or bike?" she asked.

Cameron snorted. "Car, Carter."

"Just checking. And please don't make me any more macaroons," she said humorlessly.

"Deal," he promised in the same tone, having no intention of keeping it.

--------------------

He'd barely gotten them off the mountain before Sam slumped down into the corner of his '65 Mustang coupe, looking much smaller and more delicate than she actually was. Cameron knew Sam wasn't all right. You didn't need to be a rocket scientist to know that drugs or not, she wasn't the same. He saw the grimness in the lines around her eyes and mouth; they weren't laugh lines either, although she'd done plenty of smiling in the infirmary.

Cameron grimaced at memory of the perky "plastic" smile that both Landry and the newest Chief Medical Officer had bought. Even Teal'c had bought it. Mal Doran had known something was up, but she hadn't pressed Sam, at least not in his presence, and he'd been sticking like flypaper to a fly's ass to Sam ever since she'd been brought back to the infirmary.

In an impromptu meeting at the foot of her bed before they discharged her, the CMO had officially stated that Sam wouldn't be going back on active duty for a full month, and Landry had added that he was going to limit her field assignments for a few weeks after that. And she hadn't protested either recommendation; just nodded and gave them an accepting little smile. If that wasn't the number one sign something was up, then he wasn't sure what was.

Sam didn't just go home and lick her wounds when teammates were missing like Daniel still was. He knew what Sam had done for O'Neill each time he'd gone missing. Cameron knew if this were any other time, Sam would be forcing him to be her partner in crime as she tried to sneak back into her lab.

As he drove slowly home he wondered why Landry and the IOC had wanted the shielding device to be tested on such a large scale without a few more, and smaller, controlled tests? Desperation? Damn them for putting her, him, and all of the villagers of P9C-882 at risk. He was all for getting new defense systems and weapons out there in the field to squash those Ori zombies, but even he'd thought the shielding technology had been too new, too untested. And Sam, literally on her deathbed, had said it wasn't ready for what they'd tried to put it through.

Glancing at Sam and seeing her eyes shut, he reached down and turned the radio on low. It was too quiet and he didn't much like being alone with his thoughts these days.

--------------------

"Sam?"

Cameron's fingertips slid over the smooth, lacquered surface of his bathroom door as he waited for her to answer. Its silkiness triggered memories what Sam's skin had felt like for those few seconds that he'd been able to run his hands over her bare back in her office, and he wondered what the rest of her felt like, especially in the soft places the sun never touched, and, without thinking, he started to knead the soft pads of his fingertips against the hardness of the wooden door. His mind shot off in fifty different directions, musing about what would happen if….

Mitchell, cool your heels, son, he chided himself. With things being so stinking-ass touch and go with the Ori, he needed to stop thinking about her like that, and especially with what all she'd just made it through. Behind that door was his teammate and his best female friend. Hormones, he thought, pulling away from the door and swallowing hard. He shook his head, his thumb and index finger working overtime on the deep ridge straddling the bridge of his nose. Damn sex hormones.

While the pressure against his forehead helped him forget his hormonal daydreams, it unfortunately also allowed those niggling feelings of uncertainty that he'd had when he'd been crouched at Sam's side to resurface. He didn't need that either - his life was conflicted enough without having to be reminded how he'd felt that on that mission. If he left her, she died. If he stayed with her, she died.

And now, since their return, she was depressed and feeling like crap, and there he was, either clamming up when he needed to be giving her support or shoving his foot clean up into the roof of his mouth when he should've been keeping it shut, much to Landry's apparent amusement as he'd discovered. He'd had no problems expressing himself when he needed to before coming to the SGC and now, suddenly, he was giving Mr. Bean a run for his money. And if it weren't real life, it'd have been side-splitting hilarious.

It had to be his lack of experience at this kind of thing. They didn't teach you this stuff in flight school. Nothing he'd done before had prepared him completely for hardcore missions that day-in and day-out drove a unit like SG-1 right to the brink of death and then yanked them right back. An emotional rollercoaster was what it was.

After this last mission, he totally understood why Jackson had seemed so damn eager to disappear off to Atlantis two years ago. Interpreting some glyphs on a wall was a hell of a lot less emotionally demanding than watching someone you'd known for so long, and had cared deeply about, go through hell and back. And being right there, seeing it, living it, and not being able to do much of anything about it… Hell, it'd been gut-wrenching enough for him, he could imagine what it would have been like for Jackson, given his history with Sam.

Cameron cocked his head to the side to listen for sounds of movement in the bathroom. None. He had to go in there. No way he'd let the brass blame him if something happened to their planet's greatest scientific mind on his watch. Maybe he should've insisted that she stay put in her on-base quarters like Landry had originally wanted. He could have kept a better eye on her that way; they all could have.

But she'd been insistent about leaving base to recuperate and he'd wanted to help her do it - anything to make her happy. But she had nearly gone overboard with that giddy "I'm fine, really" act of hers, looking like a falcon ready to take flight if she was released, an intense darkness hiding in her eyes.

He pressed his eyes shut. She wasn't fine and he would take care of her until she was, he swore that. Who else could? Her father, God rest his soul, was long gone and her brother hadn't seen her in months. Plus how would she explain that wound and her changed attitude, all under the guise of doing deep space telemetry, to her brother and his family if she had gone there?

No, she needed someone who knew what she'd been through. Someone she could trust. Someone who cared enough about her to help her pull through this.

He tapped the pads of his fingertips lightly on the door. "Sam?" he asked again, tentatively.

No answer. He reached for the door handle and hesitated. Not having personal privacy out on a mission or in the base's locker rooms or infirmary was one thing, but out here, in civilian life….

Now is not the time to second guess and be all thinky, Mitchell, he chided himself, and he gripped and slowly turned the door handle.

--------------------

The first thing that hit him as he stood in the open doorway was her hair – it was still a mess from so many days spent in the infirmary bed, and one long section was flattened, slick with moisture from where she must have pushed her wet hand up through it. He balled his hand into a tight fist to keep from reaching out to smooth the wayward strands and from telling her everything was all right, that things would be okay.

"Sam?" he whispered to the back of her head.

She hadn't even turned the water on – the couple inches of water he'd drawn earlier was still there and the bubbles of the bubblebath he'd dumped in there as a joke to make her smile were softly sizzling as they dissipated. Some of the bubbles still clung dryly to the legs that she'd drawn up close to her chest.

Man, was she pale. So pale the rainbow of colors crisscrossing her legs and thighs – deep purple, grey, yellow - every color damn it - immediately caught his attention and wouldn't let go of it. He saw her bandage, yellowed with puss, hadn't been changed either – she was supposed to have done that too. God help him if she was getting an infection; he might've bit off way more than he could chew in bringing her here.

His eyes traveled above the bandage; her ribcage looked even uglier than her legs, and for the body of a gorgeous woman, even ignoring the old scars from past missions, that was saying a hell of a lot. He averted his eyes from her breasts, paler still than the rest of her body and topped with a network of lacy bubbles from contact with her legs.

He just wanted to take her up in his arms and hold her until the bruises faded away. Until the wound healed. Until the hurt went away. It killed him to see her like this, even though they both knew what the score was when they went out on missions.

Sam rocked gently back and forth, her eyes closed and her head bent down. Cameron swallowed hard. She looked so damn vulnerable and…

He screwed his eyes shut to block out everything for a moment. Sam had never once allowed him to see what the after-effects of a screwed-up mission on her were like, not this up-close and personal, and it hurt. Bad.

He felt the sickening, nauseous feeling of loss grabbing him in the gut. He knew how close he'd come to losing her. Sure, he knew from reading the mission reports how many times the team had lost Jackson and O'Neill, and how the remaining team had been put through the wringer each time something had happened to Sam. But this was different, damn it. That was them. This was about him and how he'd nearly lost the thing… the person most precious to him.

Facing his own mortality was one thing, but this – this was the loss of someone who meant the world to him. Who really was his world these days. The glue that held his sanity together. She who kept him in check as no one else but Landry was able to do, and Landry only when he was within earshot.

Not that he felt he could tell her that. But how did you reach out and comfort someone in a situation like this? Macaroon therapy had failed miserably. He couldn't even say "Been there, done that, and you'll make it through it just fine," because he hadn't been in exactly the same situation. Never would he catch up with her on that, and honestly, he didn't want to. There was no badge of honor to say you'd cheated death two times too many.

Forcing himself to release the breath he had been holding, he stepped into the room, carefully avoiding the slippery rug that he'd been meaning to throw out for the longest time, ever since he'd joined SG-1, and that'd been two years ago….

He pulled the door shut behind him to keep the remaining heat in the tiny room and looked at Sam. She was still unaware he was in here with her.

Indecision swept over him again and he stood ramrod-straight. Do it or don't. No going back, Mitchell, he finally decided, and he bent down next to the tub, jamming his knees hard into the tub's beadboard base. As he grabbed at the side of the tub to keep from falling backwards, his hand brushed up against Sam's shoulder. Damn, his hands were freezing cold and she wasn't much warmer.

Sam shivered at his touch and she lifted her head slightly off her forearm to turn her face toward him.

Cameron gave her an unsure smile. "Sorry," he said, twitching his brows and forehead in embarrassment. "My cold hands have lost me more women than you'd…," he said, stopping as he caught the expression in Sam's eyes. They were dull, even in the brightness of the harsh bathroom light, and he bit back the remainder of his explanation. This definitely was not the time to tell her about all the women he'd been with.

He glanced up at the too-bright sconce over the sink. It was something else he'd meant to change, but just hadn't had the time to do. He frowned again, trying to keep his focus on his friend, and he leaned forward, warming his hands up against his chest.

Sam still looked lost, her eyes wide and rimmed at the bottom with a shimmering band of unspent tears. She sniffed and bent her head back down, tightening her arms around her legs and rocking harder.

"Sam," he said roughly; too roughly. If he couldn't help her pull out of this funk, how was he going to keep it together himself? Cameron cleared his throat and tried again. "Sam, I wasn't going to come in, but you weren't making any noise," he said, his voice sounding too loud for the tiny room. He glanced away from her profile for a moment, her expression wrenching and twisting the pit of his gut, forcing tears into the corners of his own eyes.

"I just wanted to make sure nothing had happened… had to make sure you were okay…," he said, his voice trailing off to a whisper.

"I'm still here," Sam said. Her muffled voice was filled with a deep tiredness and weariness.

"I'm warming up macaroons in the oven right now," Cameron said, unable to stop his joke from coming out of his mouth. "I thought you might… want something… to eat…," he said, trying to make a save. He grimaced.

Sam's head subtly shook back and forth, counteracting her forward movement.

He frowned. Damn, he was making things worse instead of better. His back and his kneecaps were screaming at him to move, the hard beadboard not helping his old injuries one bit. He should just cut his losses and give up now, he thought; she belonged back at base in more capable hands. He bent his head down to let loose a deep, frustrated sigh.

He heard a splash and the noise of body parts rubbing against enameled iron, and, looking up, he found Sam reaching out for him, her cool hands and arms sliding back around his head. She held him tightly, not giving him any explanation, just the slow in and out of her breath keeping time against his cheek.

Without a second thought, he reached his arms around her. If holding her hadn't felt so right at that moment, he'd be wondering how the hell he'd gotten into this situation; holding the most beautiful woman in the world, naked in his bathroom. Her warm breath acting as his guide, his head turned slowly into hers.

"I don't want to be alone," she whispered.

Cameron swallowed hard. "I'm here, Sam," he said softly. "I'll always be here for you."

He held her more tightly than before and felt her tears fall onto his cheek, sliding down and falling onto his neck and chest. He blinked hard to keep his own tears at bay. Even if he couldn't find the right words, at least he could be there physically for her. And that was all that mattered to him at that moment.

--------------------

"Cam?"

Cameron shot up off the floor where he'd been doing his back exercises to relieve some of the tension and tightness that had built up when he'd been hunched down beside the bathtub. "Sam?" he asked.

"Can you come help me?"

He tentatively approached the bathroom door. "You decent?"

Sam snorted softly. "Does it matter now?"

"Does to me," Cameron answered.

"As much as I'll ever be, I guess," she said.

Dressed in a loose tunic top and hospital bottoms nicked from the infirmary, Sam was propping herself up, stiff-armed, on the edge of the tub. Cameron worried about even touching her; she seemed fragile enough that to touch her would bruise and break her. He wondered if he'd misjudged her ability to bounce back quickly from her latest injury. Ten years of scuffling and fighting and torture and injuries, constantly layering themselves on top of one another, over and over and over….

And those were just the bruises on her body, the physical things that time and science could heal. He could hardly fathom what her mind and soul must have been subjected to during all those years, all those missions… He didn't want to fathom it. That was part of doing your job; keeping the bullshit at work and trying not to bring it home with you. But to keep the two separate was so much easier to say than to actually do.

"Too dizzy," Sam explained, finally glancing up and catching his questioning stare.

"See, you couldn't have done this alone," Cameron said, carefully half-lifting, half supporting, her to her feet.

"Sure, I could've."

Cameron shook his head. "Nope. Don't think so." He held her hands as she found her balance and offered her the crook of his arm when she nodded that she was ready.

Sam ignored his comment and took a tentative step forward.

"Couch or bed?" Cameron asked, taking on her weight as she leaned into him.

"Couch," Sam said, rubbing her free hand across her stomach. "I need to eat something."

"Okay."

--------------------

Cameron worriedly eyed Sam who sat curled up in a ball on the corner of the couch, ignoring the television show he'd turned on and the food he'd fixed her. Sure, it was just soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, but she'd barely even tasted it. The only thing she'd eaten was the saltine crackers he'd brought over and that was so she could take her meds.

He aimed the remote at the television set and clicked off the World Wrestling Federation. Too much distraction. Maybe she wanted peace and quiet. But peace and quiet was so hard for him to do….

"Sam, you okay?"

"Just resting my eyes," she answered wearily as she kneaded her stomach with her knuckles.

Cameron bit his tongue from saying anything further.

--------------------

Sam slowly walked back out to the couch. With each passing day she felt less weak and the dizziness had thankfully disappeared when she'd finished the last of the pain meds. Her hand trailed along the wall for support; she was still weaker than she was willing to admit to.

She found Cameron on the living room floor doing back exercises – something she'd never seen him do.

He stretched his legs out and turned his head to look at her. "What?" he asked.

"Your back?"

He grimaced as he sat up and turned his shoulders tightly around to face as far back as he could in each direction. "My back will always give me a fit, especially at certain times. I have to do these exercises for the rest of my life."

"You've never done them around us."

Cameron stood up and stretched. "I know. Sometimes it hurts to do them. Bad."

Sam looked at him. She hadn't realized that. What else didn't she know?

"Movie?" Cameron asked, looking around for the blankets that he had a feeling were probably piled up on the floor in front of the washing machine. Damn, he needed to get that wash done soon.

Sam nodded and he joined her on the couch to watch the movie. He'd picked a romantic comedy to watch next. After several days of nothing but action, adventure, and science fiction movies, he figured she was ready for a change of pace; he sure was. After the initial intimacy of her first day at his place, with each passing day she'd become more and more withdrawn from him. He missed holding her like he had the first day; it had felt more than right. He scooted closer to her, his shoulder touching hers, and he leaned back, stretching his arms out along the couch back. She didn't move, her attention fully on the movie, and Cameron pushed himself down further into the couch cushions; his own focus less on the movie than it was on Sam.

He awoke with start a few hours later, his mouth full of soft hair and his back giving him warning twinges that it was getting ready to spasm. Momentarily disconcerted, he wondered who the hell he was in bed with; he hadn't been seeing anybody for a while now. Not after a few months ago, when he'd found the last woman he'd dated and had brought home, rifling through his belongings.

And of course it had to be on the weekend he'd actually brought home reports to catch up on. She'd found them just as he'd gotten out of the shower. It was hard to keep your dignity and threaten someone to hand over classified documents when you were stark naked and suffering from some serious shrinkage. He'd finally crossed his arms in front of his chest and told her point blank to lay the files back down and get the hell out of his house. Her eyes wild and wide at the pictures that she had managed to see, she'd complied with his order, although he thought it might have been more the sight of angry naked guy than his tone of voice.

It'd hit home with him why none of SG-1 had long term relationships. Who the hell could you turn to? Who would the program allow you to turn to?

He realized he was still on the couch with Sam and he reached up to pull her hair out of his mouth, tasting and smelling his own shampoo in her still damp strands. He gently smoothed down her hair. To hell with them. If they wouldn't be here for her, he sure as hell would.

--------------------

"Sam, you got to…."

"No, Cam, I don't!"

"Come on, Sam! You've got to talk about it. It's not healthy."

"You're not my therapist, Cam!"

"But I'm your friend, damn it! Doesn't that count for something?"

Sam was quiet.

"I guess it doesn't," Cam said, finally fed up with it all. Hell with it. He shot off the couch, pulling on his sneakers as he headed toward the door.

"Where're you going?" Sam asked.

"For a run," he said. "I'll be back in a while."

"What about me?" Sam asked.

Cameron glared at her from the doorway. "Sam, you know what? You're right. You probably could've taken care of yourself," he bit out as he slammed the door shut behind him.

--------------------

She'd heard it all before from other men. The difference here was Cameron was there for her. He wasn't trying to get anything from her which was a switch for her. Everyone else always wanted something from her. All he wanted was to be with her. Nothing more, nothing less.

She angrily stuffed the last of her clothes into the overnight bag. Why couldn't she let the wall down this time? Because he's not Daniel? Nor Teal'c? Not Jack? Just Cameron.

Guilt tweaked her conscience. She should have because he was just Cameron. He'd tried, desperately tried, in fact, the whole week to entertain her, to get her to laugh, to talk. And, God, she couldn't help herself, but she had resisted everything he did and said. She sighed. Maybe it was the meds. Maybe she was just getting old. Maybe, maybe, maybe….

--------------------

Cameron returned, his head no clearer than when he left. Running just didn't have the same effect on him these days; he wasn't able to run away from his problems anymore.

He found Sam fully-dressed, her packed bag up on the kitchen table. "Leaving?" he asked.

Sam nodded. "It's Friday. Follow-up visit with the doc at fifteen hundred hours, remember?"

Cameron's eyebrows knit together as he searched his brain for her schedule. Oh yeah. "Let me get a shower and then I can.…"

Sam shook her head. "Already called a cab."

"Sam."

She shook her head again. "Be here anytime now."

"Sam."

He heard a long, loud beep out front and looked at the front door and back at Sam. She had grabbed her overnight bag and was exiting the kitchen. "See you later."

"Sam!"

--------------------

Cameron showered and sped back up to base, angry. Why'd he spend so much time and effort on her if she was going to throw him aside? Her wound and her reaction to the pain had worried him worse than anything he'd ever experienced with the team to date, and worrying like that felt like… well, it felt like he had when he'd found out his grandmother's health was deteriorating. Someone who he loved more than life itself and he couldn't do anything about it, except be there for her.

This was a woman around whom legends abounded at the SGC concerning her high tolerance for pain and suffering. Cameron knew she was hurt bad when she'd been unable to hide her pain and had struggled to hold onto consciousness off-planet. He'd done his best to patch her up, but he'd wanted to move on out, to return back to the gate and get her to safety and into more capable hands. But she wouldn't let him, refusing to allow him move her or to destroy the device. What should have he done? Told her to shut the hell up, blasted the device, and gotten her the hell out of there?

Within a little over two years she'd suffered many losses, the worst of which was her father. Then O'Neill had moved out of the mountain and off to Washington; he imagined having lost that ten-year constant in her life wasn't easy. And even the loss of Hammond to an even higher political office must have been bad. And then she'd lost Daniel again, this time to Adria and the Ori. None of that could be easy. And though he was her friend, he knew his arrival had created more loss, SG-1 changing, the new plans she'd prepared herself for changing. He didn't want to become another casualty in her life and he realized he'd almost become that several times.

He knew it was going to be tough. It wasn't so much the physical part that she needed to heal; it was her spirit, her soul.

She had told him a few more weeks and she'd be back in action, and now here she was acting like she was fine already. He started to comb the base for her, finally finding her in her lab, studiously examining something on her laptop. He stood in her doorway for a while, wishing he were someone else, whoever it was that Sam wanted him to be, needed him to be.

"Sam," he said finally.

Sam looked up. "Cam? What're you doing here?"

Cameron walked over and pulled the extra stool up close to hers. "No, the question is what're you doing here?" he asked, rolling his head around to indicate the lab. "You should've gone home after your visit with Doc."

Sam looked back at the monitor.

"Doc cleared me," she said.

Cameron didn't respond and they both sat in uneasy silence for a while.

Then they both started to talk at the same time.

"Sam…"

"Cam…."

"You first," Cameron said.

"I'm sorry I bit your head off," Sam apologized. "I'm not myself, I know it." She stopped. "Do you know what it's like to want to die? Really, really want to?"

"Yes, Sam, I do," Cameron responded quietly.

Sam looked at him.

"Sam, how the hell do you think I felt after the crash? I did not, repeat did not, want to be here. I felt like crap. I felt worse than crap. I was in so much friggin' pain…," he said, his voice trailing off. "I wanted to kill myself."

Sam touched his hand. "But you didn't," she said.

He gave her a direct, unflinching look. "Only because I couldn't." He snorted. "Saved by the paralysis."

Sam held his hand tighter.

Cameron looked down. It was several minutes before he spoke again. "You know my Grandma use to say, "This too shall pass."" He looked up at Sam. "It did for me. It will for you, too."

Sam shook her head. "I don't know. It's hard to forget."

Cameron shook his head. "I didn't say you'd forget. Every day, I remember it. Every time my back kills me, I remember it. I won't ever forget it, but I'm also reminded that I've still got a lot to live for."

Sam's face fell. "But you still have your parents," she pointed out.

Cameron shook his head. "Ain't talking about family, Sam. Not that kind of family."

Sam shrugged. "Your point?"

"You've forgotten the macaroon story already?" He shook his head. "The difference is that I have people in my life who love me and make me believe in myself and make me not give up. And you've got them too."

"I do?" Sam asked.

Cameron looked at the opposite ends of the ceiling, pointing his index finger back and forth at himself.

"Oh. I do." She squeezed his hand again and reached out to give him a hug.

--------------------

Colonel Dave Dixon aimed a frustrated glare at the red punching bag swinging wildly in front of him. "Hold still, will you?" he growled.

"I'm holding it," said a voice from behind the bag. The bag quickly shivered to a full stop.

"That's more like it, Mitchell," Dixon said, swinging a hard right to where Cameron's head would be on the other side of the bag.

"Good thing we're both on the same side," Cameron muttered. "Would hate to meet you on the way home on a bad day."

"Damn right," Dixon said. "And that's why I get it all out in here." He grimaced as he continued to jab hard with his right hand. "No way in hell I'm going to take anything out on the family, not if I can help it. I chose this life. They didn't."

He swung around and came at the bag with such force that Cameron was pushed nearly off his feet. Dixon paused as Cameron regained his balance and steadied the bag once again. "Plus, I like my wife, Mitchell," Dixon explained, leaning his head around the bag to look at Cameron. "Really like her." He grinned at Cameron. "Figure this is just doing my part to keep my marriage alive. Got too much invested now," he said, starting to jab at the bag again, "than to screw it all up."

"It's all as simple as that, huh?" Cameron asked, leaning against the bag as Dixon gave it a final push toward him.

Dixon stopped and wiped the back of his glove across his sweaty forehead. "Yeah." Dixon dropped his weighted hands down to his sides, his mouth open as he worked hard to catch his breath. "Why you askin' all these questions all the sudden?" he asked.

"No reason," Cameron answered nonchalantly. "Jus' wonderin', 'sall…."

Dixon squinted at Cameron and aimed a doubtful expression at him. "Mitchell, it's twenty-one hundred hours on a Friday night. What the hell are you doing here?"

Cameron shrugged. "What are you doing here?" he asked, throwing the question back at Dixon.

"I just told you," Dixon said. He looked closely at Cameron. "Can't tell me you don't have some hot chick out there just waitin' and ready to bang boots with you." Dixon suddenly stopped, and then leaned his head back to let a loud guffaw rip out of his gut. His laughter echoed around the small gym.

Cameron flinched, looking confused and slightly embarrassed. "What?" he asked. "What the hell is so damn funny?"

Dixon shook his head. "Think long and hard about it, Mitchell." He laughed again. "I say go for it, if it's what you really want."

Cameron looked even more confused as Dixon peeled his gloves off and pushed them into Cameron's empty hands. The grin plastered on Dixon's face had reached ear-to-ear proportions.

"You're crazy," Cameron said.

Dixon shook his head as he walked out the door. "Naw, you're the one that's crazy if you don't do something about it. And tell Carter I said "Hey" why don't you?" he called out over his shoulder as he disappeared down the corridor.

----------------

Cameron leaned against the mess hall door jamb. Sam was late - again - and he was hungry, hungrier than a bear stuck in a cave during salmon spawning season. He checked his watch again. Sam was had gotten too caught up in that phase shift invisibility cloaking device stuff again. He needed food and she needed a distraction. The concerned look on his face turned into one of resignation and he jogged off to the elevators to go find her.

----------------

"Okay, Sam, I know you're tired of me reading off all the hockey and baseball scores. Even I'm getting tired of them. I know you don't want to hear the world headlines. I already gave you the latest from the base grapevine. And I already told you about what I ate for breakfast, lunch, and supper…," Cameron said, wincing. "Sorry. You must be getting damn hungry in, well, wherever the hell that dimension is that you're at."

He instantly regretted that he'd sent Teal'c in here with a box of glazed doughnuts that morning. "Oh man, I forgot, you haven't eaten in days, Sam. You're not in some kind of diabetic coma yet, are you?" Cameron squinted harder, his eyes roving from side to side around the empty room, and then he frowned and shook his head. "Damn these one-sided conversations," he grumbled. "Feels like I'm talking to myself," he muttered under his breath.

"So, Sam," he said, leaning back in the recliner that Teal'c had requested be moved in. "Whatcha doing tonight? No, no, no - don't feel you have to answer that. Just take your time. Take your time. In fact, just try to hold that thought until you've figured out how to get back here."

Cameron sat stock still for a while, his list of talking points having dwindled to zero. He started to shift uncomfortably in the recliner when he realized that Sam might be sitting on it too, resting for a minute in her dimension. Actually, the thought that she was there beside him - in him? -whatever you called it, did make him feel better. He leaned back, a contented smirk on his face.

He wondered if they all were driving her crazy yet. He'd have gone crazy if he'd had a bunch of people yammering at him twenty-four/seven for close to two weeks. But then again, these people, this magnificent team of loyal, crazy people, were what had brought him back from the literal brink of death, giving him a will to live. There was no way in hell he could ever repay that debt, and what he'd done for Sam during and after the last mission was only a down payment on what he owed his friend.

"Did I thank you yet?" he asked suddenly. "For delivering that medal to me while I was laid up in the hospital?" He looked down at his hands. "You know you didn't have to do that," he said. "Anybody could have given that medal to me." He cocked his head and smiled, remembering how Sam had made him feel when she was there that day. "It meant a lot to me. More than you can imagine, Sam. More than you can imagine."

----------------

Cameron nodded at Teal'c as he passed him at the entrance to the gallery room, noting the smug smile on Teal'c's face.

"She is most talkative tonight," Teal'c informed him, his hands held carefully behind him.

"She is?" Cameron asked eagerly. He looked past Teal'c and around the room. Empty. He pursed his lips into a tight pout and shook his head at Teal'c. "That's not nice - pulling your teammate's leg like that."

Teal'c lifted his chin and suppressed a smile with much chin-muscle twitching. "That is true, is it not? But I have found during my time with the Tau'ri that the amount of satisfaction one derives from taking such actions increases exponentially with the degree of leg-pulling."

Cameron shook his head. "Sweet dreams, Teal'c," he called out as the Jaffa took his leave, and then he turned to face the empty room. What now? He avoided the recliner that Teal'c had just vacated and stood in the middle of the room, his legs spread and his arms crossed, his face a serious mask. So what to talk to Sam about tonight?

He'd spilled his guts all over the place since they'd started keeping shifts with her, and he wasn't use to doing that kind of gut-spilling. Nope, not with just any old body. But then Sam wasn't just any old body to him. He'd talked about his grandma. Talked to her about the women in his life, or the damn lack of any serious ones. Even told Sam about his teenage crush on Amy Vandenberg, the lust of his life.

He eyed Teal'c's recliner again. He wasn't going to spend his eight-hour shift standing up this time. He plopped down onto the recliner and, skipping the "hey, how are you's?" because there was never any answer, he started to talk, picking up where he'd left off the night before. He began to share with her how his mother swore up and down that he would never settle down and get himself a wife or give her grandkids.

Damn. For someone so quick to point out how wild and crazy she was in the sixties, his mother was sure old-fashioned about this kind of stuff. Little wonder he'd loved being with his Grandma. Grandma was the complete opposite of his mother – the soul of a liberal biker chick grannie hidden behind the conservative Bible-belt exterior of hers.

"Do what you got to do, Cameron," she'd told him countless times. "If it don't feel right here," she said, patting her hand on her heart, "then it ain't worth a hill of beans what it feels up here," she finished, pointing to her forehead." Cameron felt a twinge of emotion. He missed his grandmother.

But he knew Grandma was right. He needed to do what his heart had been telling him he had to do, and he wasn't getting any younger waiting for the right time to do it. Neither was Sam.

He stared at the ceiling for a moment. Oh man, how to do this without coming off like a total dweeb to her….

"You know you had me scared for a moment?" he asked.

He pulled his mouth to one side in a slight frown, assuming Sam would be lifting her head up in interest at that one. "Really." The creases in his forehead deepened. "And you know I don't scare easily. But when you were injured on P9C-882 and nearly bit the dust..."

Cameron shut his eyes to block out the lights in the ceiling. "You may not believe this, but it made me think. Yeah, I know. Me. Think. Scary." A low laugh escaped him.

He paused for a while, again considering how to word what he wanted to say to her. He opened his eyes and looked over to where the table would have been. "Sam, neither of us are getting any younger." He paused again. "And if you didn't know it already, I care for you more than any other woman I've every known." There. It was out there, on the table for her to examine like the machine she had in front of her. "Even more than Amy."

He figured he knew what she'd want before considering a serious relationship with him - commitment. He bent his head. This wasn't the way he'd want to do it, but it was all or nothing. No more dicking around with her.

"Sam, will you marry me?"

He looked around the room, hoping she'd suddenly reappear to save him from this awkwardness. No. No such damn luck. He huffed out a frustrated sigh. "Okay, I promise you then, if you can find a way back here, I'll ask you it again, face-to-face. The right way."

The creases above his eyes deepened even further. "Now don't let that scare you off from coming back though…."

----------------

Cameron tried to contain his surprise. What? Two weeks of spilling his guts and she hadn't heard a single word of it? Oh hell. Now he'd forget what he thought he told her and she'd have no clue when he started to make references back to the things he'd told her. And not just him – all of them. If they'd dumped out their personal stuff on her just like he had….

He immediately disappeared when Sam questioned him about what he'd talked to her about, swallowing hard as he disappeared down the corridor, a hard closed look on his face. There was no way in hell he was going to repeat what he'd told her, especially that last night's confession and question he'd popped to her. No. Not in front of the rest of the team. No way.

----------------

Sam frowned as she peered into the General's darkened office; she must have just missed him. Her report on her latest findings on the Ori defenses would have to wait until the morning. She decided she might as well see who was on duty tonight in the control room and then head on home. Following the dim glow emanating from the briefing room, she circled Landry's desk to cut through the briefing room down to the control room. A sudden, small movement on the other side of Landry's window caught her attention and she came to quiet halt.

Cameron was standing in the equally dark briefing room, his hands stuffed in his pockets and his attention held rapt by the Stargate.

Sam decided the control room could wait.

She backed away from the window to watch how the light from event horizon shimmered over Cameron's profile, the light dancing a hyperactive beat over his muted expression. What was he in there thinking? And he was in there thinking, and thinking hard; she knew him too well at this point. She smiled; she almost felt like a peeping Tom, intruding on a private, vulnerable moment. Almost felt like when she'd first taken to watching him at Al Dhafra in those early days, but serving together here had seen to it that it wasn't the same. She knew her teammate more intimately in some ways than she'd have ever known him otherwise.

That could be good, to know somebody that well, but that could also be bad. But she'd take it as good as Cameron had finally found his balance these past few months. The reality of what they faced daily on SG-1 had finally matured the man out of that cocky kid she'd been attracted to so long ago. A jab of ghost pain from her injured side flared up and she rubbed it away. Al Dhafra seemed like a virtual lifetime ago.

Exiting Landry's office as stealthily as she could, she approached Cameron quietly, careful not to bump into the media carts and monitors that were littering the space between Landry's office and the windows on the gate-side of the briefing room. Cameron was still deeply engrossed in watching the gate, his mouth having fallen open and his brows knitting closer and closer together until he finally huffed out a frustrated sigh.

"Cam?" she asked softly, halting a few feet away.

Cameron's eyes widened slightly at her voice, but he didn't move, and the vulnerable look he'd had when he hadn't known he was being watched was replaced with an unreadable mask. Signs of experience, Sam thought appreciatively. Much different than how he'd responded to surprises when they'd first met. But his gaze still didn't break away from the gate.

"Sam," he said evenly.

Sam took a few more steps toward him and stopped, turning toward the window to watch with him as a MALP unit slowly made its way up the ramp.

"You know, that was awfully sweet of you," Sam told him after the MALP disappeared into the event horizon.

"Huh? What was so sweet?" Cameron asked, blinking.

Sam stepped up to the window and turned, resting her hips back against the windowsill. "Being there for me," she explained. "Not letting me alone for two weeks. Actually that was so sweet of all of you."

Cameron continued to watch the gate. "Wasn't nothing."

Sam reached over to touch his bare forearm, the thick hairs tickling her fingertips. "Baloney. Rotating shifts, until I got back? I didn't think you all cared like that," she said, gently teasing him and smiling as his gaze slowly shifted from the gate to her face. "You especially, Cam. Every single night? That was… I really don't know what to call it."

He shrugged and then looked back at the gateroom. "Luck of the draw. Or the straw, as it was."

Sam snorted softly. "I heard differently. What you did was above and beyond the call of duty, Cameron Mitchell."

Cameron turned back to her, squinting at her face as the strong contrasting backlight from the gate darkened her face in his vision. "You're my friend. I couldn't just leave you alone there all night," he said.

"But I could have been sleeping for all you knew," she said.

Cameron twitched his head in the barest of headshakes. "Uh-uh. I know you, Sam Carter – you'd be up all night trying to get the damn thing to work to get back here." He stopped and gave her a quick non-committal shrug. "Plus I needed someone to talk to about the baseball preseason games with. Teal'c just doesn't get into sports unless there's a lot of bodily contact, you know?"

Sam game him a doubtful look.

"And there was the latest in world politics."

Sam pursed her lips.

"Okay, maybe there was some other stuff," Cameron admitted.

"Like?" Sam asked.

"Nothing really important. Some stuff about me. More Grandma Mitchell stories. You know how much you love those…."

Sam shook her head. "That's not what I heard. Vala said she couldn't sleep a few nights ago. Came up here to join you."

"Hate to contradict you, Sam, but she never did," Cameron said, shaking his head emphatically.

"I know. She said she stood outside the door, listening."

Cameron felt the tips of his ears heat up. Oh shit. Which night had Mal Doran been doing her peeping Tom thing? He turned back to the window and came up beside her. "So?" he asked, tapping the tips of his fingers on the sill.

Sam watched him closely. Cameron didn't play coy very well. He almost always came off acting too sullen. So how long did he think he was going to keep up this tentative push and pull, never quite developed relationship with her? Always finding some plausible excuse as to why he was afraid to take the next step?

She reached out and grabbed his hand and gave it a soft squeeze.

Cameron bent his head down and shut his eyes for a long moment. He bent his head up slightly and looked at Sam through the bush of his eyebrows. "So how long did you say she was there?" he asked.

"Quite a while apparently," Sam said, pushing up off the sill. "But for some strange reason, she wouldn't tell me much. Just kept grinning this huge, goofy grin and giving me these funny little hugs and sighs."

So Mal Doran had heard it all then. Or at least the important parts and amazingly she hadn't spilled her guts to Sam. Cameron snorted. Mal Doran and self-restraint weren't words you'd ever likely say in the same sentence. "So, maybe I did say a few other things."

"Other?" Sam asked.

He shrugged again. "You know. About how long we'd been friends and all. Things like that."

"Friends and all?"

"Okay, good friends," Cameron said. A smile softened his voice. "Maybe even sometimes, almost 'banging boots' kind of friends."

Sam laughed softly at Cameron's dead-on imitation of Dave Dixon's accent.

"Nothing else?" she asked. "Those 'and things'…?"

Cameron hesitated. This was the woman who married Jack O'Neill in dozens of alternate realities. Nearly married Jonas Hanson in this one. Married and divorced a civilian Rodney McKay in the last alternate reality she visited. What'd make her want to commit to him, Cameron Mitchell, in this one after experiencing all that? He was pretty damn boring once you got past his surface noise.

Sam tightened her grip on his hands and pulled him closer to her so that they paralleled the large bank of windows looking down into the gateroom. The event horizon had finally winked out and its sharp, shimmering blue light had been replaced by the duller, tungsten yellow of the gateroom lights. It made Cameron look even older. There was a lot going on in those eyes; he was looking at her in the same way that he had when he'd thought she was dying. The same look of concern that he'd had when she spent her early days after that mission recovering at his house. Come on Cameron, she thought. Open up and spit what you're thinking out.

Cameron huffed another disgusted sigh out of his nose, shaking his head. "This is not how I promised you I'd do this."

"Promised me what and when?" Sam asked.

"While you were gone and we all – well, I – thought you were still in the lab. When I promised you…."

"Yes...?"

Never a good time and no time like the present time, Cameron Mitchell, he chided himself. "Always questioning everything, Sam." He lifted a hand up to gently trace the curve of her cheek and gave her a light kiss before pulling back to be able to look into her eyes. "And I love you for it."

Sam's eyes widened. Love?

"Samantha Carter – will you marry me?"

Sam held her breath, nearly ready to burst out laughing on the one hand, ready to run away on the other. From Vala's inferences she'd known something big was brewing with him, but marriage? What about dating first? Hot, wild sex on the weekends? Maybe even living together? But marriage? She felt like laughing again, it was so far out in left field from what she'd expected.

Cameron was patiently waiting for her, his face unreadable, but his eyes sparkling in their eagerness. Wasn't it too soon after – after what? – she wondered. Over two years had passed since she broke up with Pete. Nearly that same length of time had passed since she and Jack had had their fling at his cabin and had decided to be no more than just friends.

Cameron's voice broke into her lightning-fast thoughts, and she recognized his growing frustration. "Sam, say something, would you?" he said, his voice low and clipped, his mouth barely moving. "A simple yes or no'd be fine."

Sam looked at him again. What could she say when she'd known him for so long? When she knew how impetuous and hard-headed he was. When she knew how much of an ass he could be. But she also knew how gentle he was with her and loyal he was to her and that he'd give up everything for her in a heartbeat, even die for her. Knew he cared enough to shake some sense into her when she'd given up and to be there when she needed a slow lifting out of her indifference.

"Couldn't we just, you know, be friends who…," she lifted and shrugged her shoulders, knowing her face was curling up into distressed confusion.

"You. Can't. Have it. Both ways," Cameron bit out. "All or nothing, Sam," he said, the sense of urgency growing greater with his each word.

But what about SG-1, Sam wondered. It'd been a big issue with her and Jack, so… well, okay, so she and Cameron did have different chains of command when you came right down to it. But was this love? Cameron watched her, his eyes growing wider by the second as he waited for her to answer.

But what was love? Scientifically, it was the endocrine glands spitting out a bunch of hormones that made you need the opposite sex for reproduction. Period. But beyond that, she felt was what you wanted it to be depending on culture, background, too many variables, really. So what was it to her? What did she need or want? She wasn't sure anymore.

After Jonas Hanson she'd thought she didn't need, or shouldn't be tied up with, anyone; that her friendships with her teammates and Janet were enough. A few years ago, she thought Jack was what she wanted. Most recently she'd thought sharing her life with Pete would complete her. There'd even been moments she secretly toyed with the idea of pursuing a relationship with Daniel. But for one reason or another, or for too many more reasons that she wanted to admit to, they hadn't been what she needed. Lately she'd acutely felt the ache of not having someone that close to her anymore, someone she could share her innermost feelings with. The physicality of those losses had made giving up, moving on, that much easier when she was faced with life or death on P9C-882.

The non-SGC life she led had been on the backburner for way too long. She was still intrigued by the vulnerable side that Cameron had allowed her to see. Yet he was still difficult enough to keep her on her toes. But gentle enough to really care for her and put her ahead of his needs when she needed it. No man, including Pete had done that for her. But stubborn enough to not give into her easily. A challenge; one that she really could get into if she allowed it. Could she move beyond her perfectionism to finally admit that the perfect relationship didn't exist?

But in the end did it really matter? Live for that damn moment, Sam, she scolded herself. Few were given many chances to take this kind of swan dive into the churning sea of life. He made her laugh, made her feel happy, made her feel young and silly when she got too serious… so why the hell not? It'd make life even more interesting than it already was.

"Saaaaaaaaam…?" Cameron sounded like the waiting was wrenching his gut out.

"I don't know, Cam," Sam told him doubtfully. "You see, Daniel and I - we kind of had this pact that we'd go and… you know, if we weren't already… and then we'd…."

"SAM!"

"Oh, all right, Cameron Mitchell," Sam said, laughing. "If you really want to know – yes, I will marry you."

Cameron sucked in his breath and his face opened up in genuine surprise. "Really?" he squeaked. "Just like that?"

"Really. Just like that."

"Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle," Cameron said in relief, pulling her in for a tight embrace.

"You'd better not be," Sam whispered in his ear. It was going to be enough to meet the infamous Mitchell clan. "Ready to go?" she asked.

"Go where?" Cameron asked, pulling a few inches back from Sam.

"Why wait to get married? The night's still young. By first thing in the morning we can be somewhere up in Wyoming."

After Cameron wiped the look of shock off his face, a conspiratorial grin crept across his face. "My bike or yours?"

Sam grinned. "Yours. It'll get us there quicker."

"Quicker is good?"

"Quicker is very, very good," Sam answered.

----------------

Sam shut off her computer and grabbed the couple things she planned to stow in Cameron's backpack. Thankfully there hadn't been much to clear off of her schedule for the rest of the week. Just a lunch date with Daniel and a meeting with General Landry at oh-nine hundred in the morning.

She'd just gotten off the phone with Landry who'd thankfully been up watching the late, late show and who'd told her no problem, they'd reschedule their meeting for when she returned. She'd also sent Daniel an e-mail apologizing that she wouldn't be able to keep their date and promising to make it up to him when she got back.

Sam chuckled as she nudged the lab light switch off with her elbow. It'd be interesting to see the reactions once they got back. Of course some already thought the entire SG-1 team went off and had incestuous orgies every time they went off on a mission, so she figured the two of them might as well go and ahead and do it then, if they were being damned for doing it anyway.

Sam stood out in the corridor, her eyes shut as she made one last, detailed mental inventory of everything that she had done, and that she needed to do and to take with her.

A sudden breath heated up the nape of her neck, and she felt a warm mouth slowly travel up her spine. "No thinking allowed now," she heard a male voice whisper.

She jumped forward and shivered. "Cam!" she said, looking around the corridor to see who had seen him licking her neck, and she looked up at the security cameras that had caught everything. No secret now.

Cameron came up beside her and gave her a kiss on the cheek before unzipping his backpack. "Yessssss, Mrs. Mitchell?"

"Stop that," she ordered, starting to put her things into his pack.

"What? The Mrs. Mitchell part?"

"That too."

Cameron looked hurt. "You don't like my name?"

"I hadn't planned on taking it."

Cameron finished stuffing her things in his bag. "Not even a little hyphenated number?"

Sam shook her head.

He rolled his eyes. "I got the rest of the week to work on you," he warned her.

"You're not going to win, Cameron."

Cameron gave her a wicked grin. "Maybe not. But I'll sure have fun trying, won't I?"

Sam shook her head and headed off to the elevators.

----------------

Thankful that it was the middle of the night, Sam ignored the looks and stares of the few base personnel that they did pass on their way out of the complex. Cameron didn't help things much at all, unable to keep his hands off her: touching the small of her back, her elbow, her hand – anything he could make contact with in order to reassure himself that she was still going through with it. That was something she'd have to get on him about later. But right now – she could feel the buzz of excitement coming through the tips of his fingers as he touched the small of her back again.

"After you," he said, indicating the parking lot where his Ninja sat next to her Indian.

"What're you going to do with it?" Cameron asked, nodding at her bike while he lashed their pack to his bike with bungee cords.

"Landry said he'd have one of the guards put it down in my lab until I get back."

Cameron smirked. "The good General didn't ask why we both wanted off at the same time? Or question why you were calling him at this god-awful hour?"

Sam shook her head. "He said he figured whatever we had planned had to be important or we wouldn't have bothered him this late." She laughed. "He also told me to make sure that you didn't eat too much bird seed."

"What?"

"Bird seed. You know – what they throw at the bride and groom when they leave the church."

"Uh, no, that I did not know," Cameron said. "Guess I don't get out that much lately, at least not to weddings. But Landry apparently does. Guess that means he knows what's up?"

"Guess so," Sam said as she put on the helmet that he handed her. But Landry face-to-face was something they didn't have to deal with right now. "Cam?"

"Sam?"

"Didn't you date Landry's daughter?"

"Once upon a time I had a fling with Doc Lam when she filled in at Ellsworth for a doc on maternity leave. But that was years ago."

"Okay. Just checking."

Cameron got on his bike, sliding back in the seat and straddling the weight of the bike underneath him to balance it. He nodded at the space in the seat in front of him.

Sam raised her eyebrows high. "You're actually going to let me drive your bike?"

A smug look crossed his face. "It was your idea, Colonel Carter, you just go ahead and take point on this one…."

"Why, thank you, Colonel Mitchell," Sam said, shooting an equally smug expression back at him before she straddled the bike. She felt Cameron slide forward to mold his body with hers.

"Just remember that," Cameron said gripping her waist tight as she revved the engine and shot them out of the parking lot, "…later on!"

----------------

Few people had been on the road at that hour of the night and it had been a relaxing ride up to Cody, Wyoming. Sam had decided they'd stop and find a justice of the peace there before heading over into Yellowstone and around and down through the Tetons. But relaxing ride or not, she was now getting beat. Cameron had insisted on breakfast at a Mom and Pop shop just outside of Cody and that had perked her up for a few hours while they filled out the paperwork and waited for the justice of the peace to arrive back from his morning fishing trip.

They were headed in the general direction of the Pacific Northwest by mutual agreement. Cameron had said it really reminded him of many of the off-world mountain ranges they'd seen since he joined the team. Sam stifled a laugh. If only he knew how many more similar ranges there were out there in the vast universe!

As they zipped along the highway towards their final destination of the day - Jackson Hole, Sam watched the sun climb higher and higher until it lit the mountain peaks from directly above them. She smiled as they reached another flat straightaway and Cameron gunned the bike's engine. She tucked her head down into his shoulder as much as the bulky helmet would allow her to do and smiled. The early morning ten-minute ceremony at the Cody courthouse, held after they'd visited a jeweler next to the courthouse to buy simple platinum bands, had been a fitting one for Mr. Impulsive and Dr. Cautious. Twenty-five dollars for the license and no tests. Quick and simple. They'd already left Cody well behind them. Cameron hadn't wanted to stay there and she couldn't blame him. Something much better awaited them up ahead in the afternoon.

When they'd entered the more curvy parts of the road in Yellowstone, she was happy to relinquish control of the bike back to Cameron; he knew the limits of his bike much better than she did. Plus she was able to enjoy the gorgeous views much more easily as the passenger, both of the spectacular mountains and of the man reflected in the bike's mirrors. A few times he'd caught her watching him and his intense concentration on the road would falter for a second as he broke into a silly grin for her.

She gazed around at the Tetons surrounding them, sharp peaks shooting straight up from the flat plains. God, they were so beautiful and rugged. Sam noticed the sign up ahead - Jackson, fifteen miles. She couldn't wait. Biking was fun, but after nearly a full day on it she was ready to ride something else, something equally rugged and beautiful as the peaks surrounding them. She slid a hand down from Cameron's waist to his inner thigh and gave him a loving stroke.

In response he let go of one of the bike handles for a moment, grabbing her hand and interlacing his fingers with hers. He gave her hand a quick squeeze and pulled it back up to his waist, patting it into place on his abdomen before reaching back up to give the engine a quick rev. She felt the bike pick up speed. Not long now.

Sam grinned. They'd make the hotel by dinnertime - that she was sure of. Now if only Landry would hold true to his promise to not beam them out during the next week, no matter what kind of emergency reared its urgent head.

She laughed. Well, if that happened, they'd deal with it when they got to it. For now, they were here, exploring new roads together, and that was enough.