Title: Borrowed Time
Author: Jo. R
Category: Angst, drama, romance, friendship
Pairing: Sam/Jack Established, hints of John/Elizabeth UST, Sam/John friendship
Spoilers: Up to and including 'This Mortal Coil' for Stargate Atlantis; general knowledge of SG-1 required but particular reference to 'The Fifth Race', 'The Lost City' and 'New Order'
Summary: They've always been on borrowed time, they just didn't know it.
Notes: Written way back when. Not my best, admittedly, but the last so I hope you enjoy it anyway.
Posted in memory of Fairygnomes aka Ruthie as my last story in the Stargate fandom, the last she got to read. I love you and miss you every day.
'Step, step right over the line
and onto borrowed time
when it's life, not waiting to die
waiting to divide
-'Borrowed Time', A Fine Frenzy
Morning on Atlantis wasn't something she thought she'd ever get used to. There was something almost magical about the way the morning light spread across the glittering sea, slowing passing over the graceful buildings of the city as it gradually came to life. The room she was in – not the best the city had to boast, but she'd refused the one she'd initially been offered – overlooked the ocean than spread out towards the mainland, a blue-green shadow on the edge of the horizon.
Three months, two weeks and four days of waking up to such a spectacular view and her love of it hadn't dimmed.
Her longing for someone to share it with hadn't either.
Her fingers toyed idly with the chain around her neck, the dogtags she wore as standard joined by something much more personal just days before she'd boarded the Apollo and left Earth for what sometimes felt like for good.
The ring was simple, understated. Perfect for her. He'd chosen it with Cassandra's help, though she suspected Daniel and Teal'c had been consulted, too. They always were for the important things, for the monumental decisions, and this, their engagement, had certainly been a long time in coming.
She'd never forget the way he proposed; there'd been no flowery declarations and heartfelt pleas, that wasn't them. There'd been no candlelit dinner for two or fancy restaurant, no violin in the background and waiters on standby to witness the moment. No. The proposal had been as simple as the ring she wore on a sturdy chain around her neck, as natural as their progression from colleagues to friends to lovers had been.
Curled up beside him on the couch, a science journal in hand as he channel surfed in between Simpsons repeats. A glass of wine on the table in front of her, a bottle of beer in front of him. Her head on his shoulder, the slightest brush of lips against the top of her head. Then his voice, low and deep and oh so close to her ear.
"You think, maybe, we should make this official?"
"Official?" A page turned, her attention still focused on the printed words in front of her. Black hole theories she knew were way of-base but had no way to publically disprove.
"Yeah." Another kiss to her head, lower this time. Lips against her temple so she turned her head to look at him. "You, me and the bright lights of Vegas. And maybe the guys, too. If you want."
The journal had slipped to her lap, momentarily forgotten. She studied him, read the look in his eye. Saw he was serious. She waited for the little voice in her head, the one that only occasionally spoke up now but which had been a loud and often necessary reminder of military regulations in the past, to start listing the cons of such a move.
Smiled when it remained silent and tilted her face, lips finding his in a sweet kiss.
"Sounds good to me."
No doubts, no uncertainties. No awkward moments or drawn out silences. Jack had accepted her answer with a quietly murmured i"cool"/i and returned his attention to the antics of the dysfunctional yellow family on TV. She'd returned her attention to her journal, her head once again finding a pillow in his shoulder.
Two days later, she'd woken up with a ring box on the pillow next to her where his head should've been, along with a note saying he'd been summoned back to DC for an emergency meeting.
Three days after that, they'd said a respectful goodbye in front of friends and colleagues. Atlantis needed a new – temporary, she reminded herself – commander and she had been chosen. Jack had told her she proven herself with SG1, with her few stints as commander of the SGC when General Landry had been called elsewhere. They'd wanted someone from the military to take command for a while and she, for better or worse, had been selected.
Colonel Sam Carter closed her eyes, shutting out the spectacular view for a few moments. The majority of her adult life had been spent making sacrifices for the good of mankind. What was one more?
A few more minutes and she would have to don her headset and become Colonel Carter again. Leader of Atlantis – temporarily. She allowed herself a small smile as she thought of the day ahead; nothing was ever dull or boring in Atlantis, no minute went by unoccupied or unaccounted, which helped take her mind off the less pleasant aspects of her assignment.
First up was a meeting with the heads of the SG teams under her command, Lt. Colonel John Sheppard included. He'd become one of her greatest allies on Atlantis, after his initial wariness. He, like many others, resented her being there at first. She couldn't blame them; she remembered what it was like having to get used to a new way of thinking when someone else took over – someone who could never quite meet up to the person who'd gone on before. No, she wasn't Elizabeth Weir and she had no intention of trying to be. Once John and the others had realised that – had realised she wanted the Doctor to take back command of Atlantis as much as they did – they'd begun to accept her into the close-knit community the city had become.
After meeting with the military minds of Atlantis, she was due to speak to the scientists – McKay, Zelenka and a few select members of their teams. There'd been a few power fluctuations in various parts of the city and they were due to report back on their progress at finding the cause and hopefully a solution.
The two meetings would take up the day, with the scientists taking up almost her entire afternoon. She realised now what General O'Neill had felt like when he'd taken charge of the SGC and wondered, not for the first time, how he coped being "the Man" for the entire of Homeworld Security.
With a deep breath released on an equally deep sigh, Sam reluctantly reached for her uniform and took it with her into the small en suite bathroom of her quarters. Some ten minutes later, Colonel Carter emerged, affixing her headset before leaving the sanctuary of her quarters and letting the day begin.
The word "traitor" followed him around. There were a few members of the exhibition, mostly scientists who'd transferred in from other countries, other agencies, who had little to no experience of life at Stargate Command, who resented Colonel Carter's presence on Atlantis.
Who resented a military figure in command of the exhibition – an American Air Force officer at that.
Elizabeth hadn't been entirely accepted by those people but she'd won them over with her diplomacy and tact. Sam didn't stand a chance; the title affixed to her name saw to that.
He supposed he couldn't blame them; he'd been wary of their new commander at first, too. More than wary – downright suspicious, not to mention polite to the point of icy towards her. It'd all come to a head within a matter of weeks, when Teyla let it slip she'd seen Carter frequent the balcony that everyone on Atlantis knew to be Elizabeth's favourite place.
Anger had fuelled him into finding and confronting the Colonel, in spite of the reprimand he knew it could – should – have earned him. The anger had drained out of him, though, when he'd caught the blond woman surreptitiously wiping a tear from her cheek, a hand wrapped around the dogtags she wore around her neck.
Deflated, concerned without really wanting to be, John hadn't asked her what was wrong. He'd joined her at the balcony, waiting for but not expecting her to speak. He'd caught a brief glimpse of something sparkling before it disappeared beneath the material of her uniform and, although she hadn't acknowledged it, she'd given him a watery smile and told him he wasn't the only one wishing she was somewhere else.
They hadn't spoken about it since, but whenever he found out from the grapevine that Colonel Carter was on Doctor Weir's balcony again, he did his best to join her, sometimes taking two mugs of coffee, sometimes not. Sometimes they spoke about Atlantis and the day-to-day goings on and sometimes they said nothing at all. He never asked about the ring and she didn't volunteer anything of a personal nature, other than to say she wondered what the fishing would be like on Atlantis but, at his confused look, she'd smiled and let the subject drop.
They'd become friendly, though John didn't think they could be called friends. They didn't socialise outside of those visits to the balcony, didn't grab lunch together without the rest of the team present or make a concerted effort to get to know one another any further. Still, he knew McKay thought highly of her, knew Teyla had invited her for herbal tea more than once – she apparently favoured the same brand as Elizabeth, which made sense given the last batch from Earth had been a gift from the Colonel to the Doctor.
And he still found himself studying her across the briefing room, noting the strain around her mouth and the slight shadows under her eyes that her fleetingly applied make-up just couldn't conceal.
Leading the expedition wasn't easy; he knew that from watching – and supporting – Elizabeth during their first year on Atlantis. Doctor Weir had made a formidable commander but she'd gratefully accepted any help that had been offered to her.
It made him feel ashamed to know she would have offered the same help to Colonel Carter where the circumstances different. If Elizabeth hadn't been left with the replicators, she would have been among the first to welcome Sam Carter into the city.
Maybe she'd even have been relieved, John reflected, swallowing back a sigh. He knew Elizabeth had found her last year in Atlantis a struggle, even before the accident that had almost cost her her life. He knew she'd been under an inordinate amount of stress – had even worried she'd chose to leave the expedition when the IOA next decided to put pressure on her to go.
If she'd had a choice, would she have stepped aside to let Colonel Carter take command or would she have fought for her position? He wasn't altogether sure. He hoped he knew her well enough to know that Atlantis was as much home to her as it was to him – that she would fight to stay in the city even if she was willing to give up the responsibility of command.
John shrugged internally and dragged his mind back to the meeting, tuning in to hear Colonel Carter ask if there'd been any news of Elizabeth filtered back to any of the exploration teams currently on rotation, a subject she continued to pursue even after word had reached them that the former leader had died while in the hands of her Replicator captors.
The other team leaders looked at one another uncomfortably, their gaze shifting from Colonel Carter to John and back again.
Colonel Carter arched an eyebrow and gave him a cursory glance. "I asked a question, gentlemen. It isn't a difficult one to answer."
One of the newer recruits – a former SG-team member who'd transferred to Atlantis around the same time as Carter – cleared his throat before answering. "With all due respect, Colonel, it's been almost two months since the replicators said she was dead... They had no reason to lie to us about that, so we assumed that Doctor Weir is..."
John opened his mouth to protest but found he didn't have to; Colonel Carter did so on his behalf.
"Until I say otherwise, Doctor Weir is still classed as Missing in Action, Major Thompson." Her voice was firm, the sentiment non-negotiable. "She is still a member of this expedition and we do not leave our people behind nor do we give up on them. Not where there's still a chance they can be recovered." She paused, glanced around the table taking care to meet the eyes of each and every member of staff present. "The IOA may have called a halt to our active search for Doctor Weir but it is still a secondary mission objective for all teams. Anyone who has a problem with that can report to myself or General O'Neill."
John sat up a little straighter in his seat, eyes narrowed at the glance that passed between Major Thompson and the man on his left – another new transfer from the SGC. He was aware of the rumours, had wondered himself when Elizabeth had confided General O'Neill's last words to her on his last visit to Atlantis, but he'd thought they'd have died down a little now Colonel Carter had been assigned to Atlantis. Surely no one could suspect something untoward between the Colonel and her Commanding Officer? Not now she was based in another galaxy, millions of light-years away at the General's order?
He watched carefully as Colonel Carter glimpsed the reaction, eyebrow raising a touch when she momentarily glanced down at her hands.
"I'll ask again," she spoke up quietly but firmly. "Has anyone heard or seen anything that could be related to Doctor Weir and her last known whereabouts?"
There was silence in the room. No one had anything conclusive to say so didn't want to say anything.
"There was a sighting of someone who may or may not have been Doctor Weir on M5S-547 two months ago, after she was declared dead by the replicators, though witness reports are sketchy due to the language barriers," Major Evan Lorne said eventually, telling John and Colonel Carter nothing new but informing the rest of those present of the last suspected sighting. "The locals were able to describe a dark haired woman who spoke little of their tongue. They said she seemed dazed and unwell, that she'd wanted to trade but had nothing of value with her. A woman – Alahra - said she'd given her blankets and food in exchange for an item of clothing and that the stranger had left through the Stargate that same day."
"Any luck tracking down the item of clothing that exchanged hands?" Colonel Carter turned in her chair slightly, fixing Lorne with an interested look. "If we could confirm it was Doctor Weir, I'd be able to request permission to resume the search on an active basis."
Lorne glanced apologetically in John's direction before answering the Colonel's question. "No, Ma'am. It's changed hands several times since. The last time anyone on the planet recalls seeing it was when it attracted the attention of an off-worlder."
Colonel Carter nodded, a small, ghost of a smile relieving Lorne of his guilt. "Thank you, Major. We'll see if anyone remembers anything new when we go to trade again." Her gaze shifted to John and he found himself holding his breath. "I'd like your team to make the next trip to M5S-547, Colonel Sheppard. Teyla or Ronon might have more luck getting something out of the locals." He nodded his agreement, both relieved to have secured the mission without having to ask for it and disappointed he hadn't got to use the arguments he'd spent a week or so compiling. "If that's all everyone has to report and you have no questions about your assignments, you're all dismissed."
John remained where he was as the other military leaders slowly rose from their seats and departed the room, talking quietly amongst themselves. The low hum of mumbling was a welcome distraction but he couldn't help but notice the speculative glances one or two of them threw in his direction as he and Colonel Carter were slowly left alone.
"Is there something you want to discuss with me, Colonel?" Colonel Carter leaned forward in her seat, arms crossed on the desk in front of her. "A problem with your assignment?"
"No. No problem." John surveyed her carefully, noticing the way she carefully avoided making eye contact. "I was just wondering..." His voice trailed off and he waited until she glanced his way before continuing. "What made the IOA change their minds? Last I heard, they were convinced the replicators were telling the truth and wanted to pull the plug on all search and rescue ops."
She gave him a one-shouldered shrug, busying herself by gathering her things together as she got to her feet. "I asked them to reconsider," she said eventually.
"And that worked?"
Again, a ghost of a smile flickered over her lips. "No." For a brief moment, there was something akin to amusement in her eyes. "What they don't know won't hurt them, Colonel. Besides, what I told Major Thompson still stands. Atlantis is a sister facility of Stargate Command and we do not leave our people behind, no matter what the situation or individual circumstances." Her voice dropped, softened slightly. "If Elizabeth is out there, we will find her. It just might take a little while longer than any of us had hoped."
John nodded and got slowly to his feet. He walked around the desks, towards the door, only to stop just short of crossing the threshold into the command room and turn back to her. "What if she doesn't want to be found?"
Something unreadable passed over her face but Colonel Carter quickly school her features into a neutral expression. She knew he believed that the errant leader had somehow escaped from the Replicators, knew he couldn't bear the thought of giving up on her until they had evidence – concrete, infallible evidence – that the Doctor was dead. "We keep trying and hope she changes her mind. Hope she realises that we're not the enemy she believes us to be, that she realises we want to help her and bring her home."
"And if she doesn't?"
Colonel Carter looked away, her expression distant. "We'll keep trying till she does."
He understood that he was dismissed when she resumed gathering her things. John hesitated for a few more moments, watching her carefully, before turning on his heel and leaving the room.
Asurans, Replicators, Wraith, oh my.
Sam sat back from her desk, rubbing her eyes as the laptop screen dimmed as her computer shut down. She never thought there'd be a day she longed for the Goa'uld to put in an appearance, if only because they weren't as indestructible as they'd once seemed.
It felt like a long time ago that the Goa'uld had been the biggest threat the Stargate programme had to offer and it made her feel old to realise it was over ten years ago that Apophis had made his first appearance in the mission files of the SGC. She remembered her first trip through the Stargate to Abydos – her non-too-graceful stumble through the wormhole courtesy of the then-Colonel Jack O'Neill, her first introduction to the befuddled and allergy-prone archaeologist who'd become one of her closest friends, her first fearful meeting with the First Prime of Apophis who'd become one of her most trusted and cared for companions.
She missed them, all of them. She missed the original members of SG1 as well as the new additions who remained on the team even now she was no longer a part of it. She missed Vala's constant chatter and Cameron's unwavering enthusiasm. She missed the late night discussions she'd had with Daniel when neither of them could sleep, the steadfast presence Teal'c lent to the moment and the quiet confidence that he'd be there – they both would – if ever she needed them to be. She missed wandering to the commissary and eating cake with Jack. Arguing over jello in the great – and unsettled – blue vs. red debate.
She missed knowing she wasn't alone, wasn't completely out of her depth. She missed knowing there'd always be someone there for her, no matter if or when she screwed up or needed a gentle reminder that sleep and food were necessary parts of her daily routine.
The Ori had been terrifying enemies; a threat unlike any other – even in the Pegasus Galaxy. They'd swept through the universe like a plague, spreading chaos and destruction in their wake but she'd handled it, managed it, survived it.
All because of the people who'd been at her side.
She let her elbows rest on her desk, her head falling into her hands. She closed her eyes and wished – prayed, even – for the peace of mind she'd once known to return.
She opened her eyes after a long pause, studying the office that was hers by default in Doctor Weir's absence and sighed heavily. Even with the added personal touches, the trinkets and photographs that reminded her of home, it couldn't hold a candle to the lab she'd spent so many hours in. It didn't yet feel like hers and she wondered if it ever would while the ghost of Elizabeth Weir still haunted the hearts and minds of those under her command.
Sam sighed again and lifted a hand to rub the back of her neck, a futile attempt at dislodging the tension gathered there. Something moved out of the corner of her eye and her gaze shifted to the door, to where Teyla stood uncertainly awaiting acknowledgment.
Letting her hand drop to her lap, Sam welcomed the Athosian with a smile and wave of her hand. "Good evening, Teyla. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Good evening, Colonel Carter." Teyla stepped into the room, her hands clasped lightly in front of her. "I came to see if you would consider joining me for dinner. I noticed you did not partake in lunch and thought you might be hungry."
A small smile fought to appear and succeeded after a few moments. The leader of the Athosians – a people Sam was yet to meet as they, too, were unaccounted for in the wake of the disturbances of the last year on Atlantis – was one of the few who had been welcoming from the start. Their friendship was tentative but a friendship nevertheless.
It helped abate the loneliness for both of them, even if just a little.
"I'd like that," Sam accepted the invitation graciously, though she doubted her stomach would settle enough to let her eat much. "Between meetings and reading area reports, I seem to have lost track of time."
A small smile appeared on Teyla's lips and she bowed her head in acknowledgement. "It is a trait common among leaders of Atlantis. Elizabeth would do so often."
"I'm not surprised." Sam returned the smile with one of her own. "She's very dedicated, if the reports I've read are any indication. I don't know how she found the time to keep her files so organised and detailed."
The two women left the office, the spirit of Elizabeth Weir walking alongside them.
General Jack O'Neill rubbed his temples as his head began to pound. He sat at his desk in his office, ignoring the stack of paperwork awaiting his attention – stupid, pointless reports, he decided, thrown at him in an effort at making him forget what they'd done. What they'd threatened to do.
The President claimed he had no idea the IOA and other members of Homeworld Security had been so forceful in their demands at reassigning Carter and while he wanted to believe him, very little to reprimand those responsible had been done. Even Woolsey had been taken aback by the threat of a complete communications blackout and had taken the time to visit Jack at his office to assure him that would never happen.
It didn't help.
Carter was gone already and he was powerless to bring her back.
There was a resignation letter sitting in the top drawer of his desk, just waiting to be signed and dated. He'd written it the day he'd been told Carter would be going to Atlantis, intent on going there with her. Because they'd denied that request, it had remained in his desk drawer, just waiting for the right moment.
Assuming the right moment ever came.
Carter had been assigned to Atlantis just over three months ago, her assignment extended passed the initial four weeks after Doctor Weir had been declared MIA. The chances of her returning to Earth in time for their Vegas-themed wedding was slim to none.
It was a good thing, really, that they hadn't made plans or spread the news to their friends. He imagined it'd be pretty damn unbearable now if the guys had known that in just over a week, he and Carter planned to get hitched in as classy a chapel as they could find in Vegas.
He wondered how she was, if she remembered. The Atlantean calendar was different to the Earth one but Carter – Sam – was smart. She'd figure it out if she hadn't already.
Jack hoped she wouldn't dwell. Wouldn't be alone as he planned to be.
It was going to suck.
With a groan, he let the pen drop from his hand and onto the table, leaving an unsightly ink stain on the requisition form he'd been completing – a damn form for more paperclips, for crying out loud! A little box of twisted metal wasn't going to break the Pentagon's budget but try telling the paper-pushers that.
His headache was getting worse. It always did. He'd found, over the last few weeks, that a day that ended with him being able to see straight and drive himself home was a good day.
He didn't have many of those.
There was a part of him that said he should go get that medical the higher ups were pushing him for, the one he was supposed to have every year. Since the requests and pointed reminders had started to flow in after Carter's reassignment, however, he'd been determined to put it off for as long as he could.
Preferably till she was home again.
He couldn't help but wonder what they'd do if the medical proved he wasn't as physically fit as he'd once been. Would they use it as an excuse to push him into retirement? A way to cut him off from the SGC and Atlantis without making too much of a scene?
Maybe he was just being paranoid, but Jack wasn't about to take any chances. There was too much at stake.
The intercom on his desk buzzed and the noise sliced through him, forcing him to grit his teeth against an expletive. After a moment, he managed to compose himself and reached out to hit the little button beside the offending speaker.
"General O'Neill, Sir. I need any and all stationary requisitions you have within the next ten minutes if I'm going to make the deadline."
There was a pause. Jack narrowed his eyes and glared at the piece of paper on his desk, now defunct and completely unacceptable to the paper-pushers downstairs.
A growl escaped before he could stop it. Jack hit the button again, with a little more force that necessary. "I'll have it done in five."
The intercom was silent but the pounding in his head continued. His teeth gritted against the dull, nauseating ink and slid another form out from the pile of spares his secretary had had the foresight to give him.
Another form, another hour.
Another day without Sam.
It took a few more days for Jack to realise there was more wrong with his world than the unjust political agendas of the people he worked with and for. His first inkling was the dull ache in his head that refused to diminish with time or the aid of chemical supplements; his second was the strange dreams he began to have, the scrolling symbols and text that he knew he shouldn't be able to understand but somehow could.
He didn't voice his suspicions to anyone, or share his concerns with Daniel and Teal'c when they stopped by out of the blue to see how he was. They had, it became clear, decided his distant mood and apparent distress were the result of Sam's absence and saw it as their duty to cheer him up.
For almost a week, he let himself enjoy their company and forget the machinations of his workplace; he relished in almost having the old team back together again and let himself be swayed into insisting to his bosses that he be allowed to visit Atlantis for business purposes.
The arrangements weren't easy to make but he went straight to the President, calling in almost all of the markers he'd gained while working at the SGC as part of SG-1 and as the base commander. It was only when his teammates and former CO, the retired General George Hammond, got involved that the President and Joint Chiefs agreed to his request with obvious reluctance.
He packed the few personal belongings from his small, Pentagon-owned apartment in the heart of DC and glanced around it with a slight ache in his chest; he had a strong, sinking suspicion that he wouldn't see the familiar walls of the place that had been his home for almost three years again.
Reaching Atlantis itself took longer than he'd counted on; they wouldn't let him go straight there and insisted he spent two weeks at the midway station before being allowed to proceed with his journey.
He arrived in the middle of the night but she was still there to greet him. With shadows under her eyes and lines of exhaustion on her face, Jack thought she'd never once looked more beautiful. It took all of his restraint not to take her in his arms right there and then in the middle of the gateroom, regardless of the curious almost accusing eyes he could feel watching their every move.
Instead they'd retired to her quarters and spent what remained of the night talking and reacquainting themselves with one another before he'd unwillingly let her slip from his arms as the morning rays streamed through the open bedroom window.
While Sam went to a meeting with the department heads of Atlantis, Jack found himself heading towards the infirmary. He wandered through the hallways of the city with an air of practised aimlessness around him, giving no indication to the passing scientists and soldiers he met on the way that he had a fixed destination in mind.
Doctor Keller listened to his every word, jotting down notes before leading him into another, smaller room. She was discrete and efficient, reminding him of another Doctor he'd known what felt like a lifetime ago. Within an hour, the necessary tests had been performed.
By the end of the day, the results were in.
Jack sat at Sam's desk, trying to focus his eyes on the laptop screen in front of him. The words of his resignation letter stood out in stark contrast t the white background but he was still unable to focus on them. His gaze instead kept drifting to the photograph on her desk, the one he'd taken down from her bookshelf so he could stare at it more easily.
"Here you are." The smile on her face was warm, almost indulgent. The look in her blue eyes, however, revealed her concern. Sam moved around the desk and sat on the edge of it as he minimised the document on the screen. "I looked for you at lunch time."
He stared at her, not volunteering any information. He studied the familiar features of her face, the curves and dimples and lines and shadows. He'd missed her so badly, as if somehow just knowing she was in another galaxy instead of just in another state could make their separation all the more difficult to bear.
"Jack?" The smile faded and she nudged his arm with her knee. "Is there something wrong at home...? It's not Cassie, is it?"
"No. Not Cassie." He sat back in the chair, unable to keep his gaze from straying back to hers despite a concerted effort. "Everyone at home's fine."
"Oh." A flicker of fear, a glimmer of regret. She glanced down at her hands, clasped them together. "I think I know..." Her voice trailed off on a sigh and her face grew pale. "I understand. Long distance relationships don't usually last this long, anyway..." Her shoulders slumped but her back was painfully straight. "I hope it won't affect our friendship, Sir..."
It took a few moments longer than it should have done for his addled brain to catch up but, when it did, he was up on his feet as fast as his old knees would allow. He grasped her face tenderly with both hands, holding her still even as she tried to pull back in surprise. Not giving her the chance to voice the question in her eyes, Jack covered the distance between them and lowered his lips to hers.
What he'd intended to be something sweet and loving descended rapidly into something deeper, something urgent. The fear and passion he felt, the desire and despair mingled instead him and was poured into that kiss as he desperately tried to show her what he knew he'd never be able to express in words.
The pressure in his chest that reminded him breathing would soon become an issue was the only thing that stopped the moment from progressing into something it really shouldn't be in an office with glass walls and doors. They parted reluctantly, both breathing heavily. He let his forehead rest against hers, his hands dropping from her face to rest on her shoulders where they tightened almost painfully.
"What's wrong, Jack?" Her voice was uneven, her eyes luminous when he risked looking into them. Lust and longing were evident in their depths but the worry his gesture had caused her was unmistakeable. "Don't lie to me and tell me it's nothing. I know you. I know when you're hiding something."
His face arranged in a carefully neutral expression, Jack let his hands drop to rest on the desk either side of her. He held her gaze and spoke quietly, forcing the words passed the lump in his throat and the fear in his heart.
They'd been living on borrowed time without knowing it. And their time, borrowed or otherwise, was up.
In the operations centre just outside of Sam's office, John sat at a console and did his best to ignore the animated whispers of those around him. He, too, was surprised by the passionate embrace the couple in the office had displayed to all and sundry but to his practised eye, it was painfully obvious that there was something wrong.
His instincts screamed at him to stay close so he busied himself with the screen in front of him, loading a game McKay had designed onto it though he had no intention of paying it his complete attention.
He watched as an array of emotions passed over General O'Neill's face, as sorrow and regret and love each appeared. He watched the other man lift a hand to Sam's cheek and had her lean into his palm. He watched as she stood and faced away from him, staring out at the Stargate, arms wrapped around herself as if trying to keep her own feelings from breaking free.
He watched as the General moved to stand behind her, turning her with gentle hands on trembling shoulders. Even from a distance, he could see the tears in her eyes, the ones that broke free and slid down her cheeks.
Even from a distance, he knew whatever had been said was enough to break a strong woman's heart.
When Daniel and Teal'c of the infamous SG-1 arrived in sombre moods a few days later, it became obvious to the occupants of Atlantis that there was more to the General's visit than they'd suspected. There was a meeting held in the conference room but few were privy to its subject; General O'Neill, Colonel Carter, Doctor Jackson and Teal'c met with Doctor Keller, Lt. Colonel Sheppard and his team and remained ensconced in the room for almost two hours.
At the end of the meeting, Colonel Carter said her goodbyes to her former teammates and retired to the balcony just off the operations centre, leaving General O'Neill to see them off in the gateroom. No one was particularly surprised when the General didn't leave with them, though from the emotional goodbyes it seemed that he had every intention of staying on Atlantis for the foreseeable future.
Doctor Rodney McKay wandered off with Doctor Keller, both of them sporting troubled expressions as they headed somewhere together – not to the infirmary, the grapevine provided, or to McKay's lab but to one of the other, unused rooms where the elder Doctor Weir had been found during the expeditions first year.
It was no surprise to many of those watching that Colonel Sheppard said a few short words to Teyla and Ronon before following their leader out onto the balcony. Teyla and Ronon were seen to exchange concerned glances before they, too, found somewhere else to be, leaving a trail of unanswered questions in their wake.
Her arms tightened around her body as the sea breeze washed over her. Her throat ached and her eyes stung and her chest felt unbelievably tight but Sam refused to let herself cry.
She'd cried so much already. Too much.
She heard the doors open and knew instinctively who it would be – who it wouldn't be – and squared her shoulders.
"I'm sorry." John's voice was gentle, almost understanding. She sensed him move closer but didn't turn to acknowledge him. She knew she wouldn't be able to see the sympathy on his face and keep her carefully built facade in place. "I know that's inadequate... I know there's nothing I can say or do to help but... I'm sorry."
Even breathing hurt. She let her arms uncross so she could grasp the balcony in front of her, the firm grip a link to reality that kept her from falling into the pit of despair threatening to consume her from the inside out.
"Do you think..." Her voice cracked and she paused, clearing her throat before attempting it again. "Do you think McKay and Keller will manage to get the chamber ready?"
John shrugged; she could hear the rustle of his clothes. "If anyone can get it operational, it's Rodney. And Keller can be pretty stubborn when she wants to be."
Sam nodded, her unseeing eyes fixed on the fading sun so close to settling on the horizon. "It doesn't really make a difference," she muttered, her voice brittle. "Stasis chamber or not, he's still going to leave me. He's still going to..." Her voice trailed off, her jaw clenched. "I can't do this," she whispered, forgetting momentarily that he was there. "I can't lose him again, not like this..."
"There's still a chance..." He let his sentence fade when she turned to face him, the look in her eyes so distraught that he forgot what he'd been about to say.
"There is no chance, no hope..." She pressed an unsteady hand to her mouth, her eyes wild and searching. "At least last time we had hope that the Asgard would be able to help. This time... This time..."
Impulse drove him to wrap his arms around her and draw her close to his chest. She hid her face in his shoulder and cried silently, the only evidence that she did so being the gentle shake of her back and shoulders.
He wanted to tell her it was going to be okay, that they'd find a way, that she couldn't give up hope of getting the happy ending he knew now that she wanted so badly...
The happy ending he couldn't help but wonder what the hell they'd done to have snatched away from them both so cruelly.
Instead of murmuring words of comfort, he held her. Instead of whispering meaningless platitudes, he rubbed her back as a father would a child, soothing her the best he could. When the doors to the balcony opened sometime later, he knew instinctively who was there but couldn't find it in himself to make an apology for the potentially compromising situation they were in.
John stood still and held his ground. He met the dark brown eyes of the now-retired General evenly and gave a barely discernable nod at the question he read there. Easing her out of his arms and into those awaiting her, John stepped back and watched as she realised who was holding her, stepping back further into the shadows when she tilted her face upwards, her lips meeting her lovers in a searing kiss.
He backed away from them and slipped back inside the city walls, stopping just inside when the doors slid shut behind him.
It wasn't fair, he decided, taking up a position near the doors so he could prevent anyone from disturbing the couple standing on the balcony just a few feet away.
Sometimes life was just goddamn unfair.
His condition deteriorated rapidly. Within another week on Atlantis, the situation was public knowledge. It was hard to deny when news spread that he'd retired on medical grounds, impossible when he lost the ability to speak English.
The project McKay and Keller had been working on was revealed and the stasis chamber from the lower levels was moved to the infirmary and hooked up to various machines and pieces of equipment designed to monitor the responses of the person inside it.
"Daniel and Teal'c tried to come back," Sam murmured, standing with her arms crossed in front of the chamber. She assumed Jack could understand her, assumed the intense look in his eye meant he was following their conversation. "The IOA aren't happy you refused to go back to the SGC; I think you're right, they wanted to see if they could use any of the knowledge you have to recreate some of the Ancients weapons before... before you got to this stage..."
He moved his hand, his fingers brushing hers gently as they stood side-by-side.
Sam wondered if he knew what day it was, if he realised as she had done that the day they would say goodbye was the day they'd planned to get married in a chapel in Vegas. Tears stung her eyes at the thought but she blinked them away; the diamond ring hung heavily on the chain around her neck and always would do.
It seemed like it was fate that it would never grace her finger with a band of gold as its mate.
"They promised they'd keep trying, even if... Even if... They wanted to be here." Her fingers tightened around his almost painfully but he made no move to pull his hand away. "Jack..."
He turned his body slightly and his other hand moved to her face. His finger followed the trail left by the only tear she let escape from her eye, tracing it as it slipped over her cheek and down the slender line of her throat. He placed his hand at the back of her neck and eased her forward, her body melting against his as she buried her face against him.
"I love you," she whispered, words muffled but heard as clearly as if she'd shouted them at the top of her lungs. "I'll never stop trying to find a way to get you back. I promise."
Jack held her for several long moments, his heart beating sadly in his chest at the thought of never holding her again. A slight movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and he glanced up to see John Sheppard lingering just inside the doorway with an anxious looking Doctor Keller and Doctor McKay.
Silently, his eyes met and held those of the younger man and a wordless request was asked.
A promise made in return.
"Colonel Carter, General..." Doctor Keller moved forward hesitantly. She clutched a clipboard to her chest and bit her bottom lip when the woman in his arms moved to look at her. "It's time."
Two words that signalled the end of everything they knew.
Sam smiled tremulously up at Jack, moving her hands so that her fingers could curl over his shoulders as their foreheads came to rest against one another's. "We'll find a way to fix this."
He gave her a small smile in return and moved to kiss her forehead tenderly before stepping back. His eyes remained fixed on hers as the others approached and he settled himself in the stasis chamber.
"It's on a slightly timed delay," McKay explained; he sounded nervous and kept darting worried glances at the blond Colonel hovering next to him. "It takes a few moments for the sensors to realise there's someone in it... You've got about a minute, General, then..."
Jack nodded but kept his eyes on Sam. "Ego te sempre amo."
"That means..." McKay's brow furrowed as he thought; he could read Ancient but couldn't quite speak it as fluently as he'd have liked. "Ego means I..."
"I know what it means, Rodney." Sam spoke softly, the look on her face both touched and saddened as she gazed at the man who'd said it to her. She'd recognise the tone of voice and look in his eye no matter what language he spoke.
As she watched, the Ancient device activated and dormant lights began to glow. A shield as solid as ice appeared and settled over him, glass like and impervious, she knew, to any and all human tools and weapons.
She took a step forward and let her hand rest against it, the smooth surface humming beneath her touch as a similar device had done some four years ago. She stared into his unseeing eyes, memorising every inch as the others moved around her, murmuring in low voices she did her best to ignore.
There'd been a subtle shift in their relationship, a slight change that made it easier to be friends rather than just simply colleagues. Sam knew the new and improved attitudes the base personnel had towards her was related to the fact her fiancé – no longer a secret – was in stasis in the infirmary with no real hope of being revived but couldn't bring herself to care.
She couldn't bring herself to care about a lot of things, actually.
As was her way of handling times of turmoil and stress, she threw herself into her work, catching up on the mounds of paperwork and report-reading that had been threatening to overwhelm her from the beginning of her time in Atlantis. She skipped meals in favour of staying in her office and reviewing the vast amount of requisitions she needed to approve or sanction before forwarding them on to Earth and found herself sleeping more and more at her desk than in the quarters she'd once enjoyed escaping to.
They held memories of him, now. Memories of desperate couplings and frantic attempts at getting as close to one another as they could possibly be. She couldn't lie in her bed without smelling his aftershave on her pillow, couldn't curl up beneath the blankets without remembering the feel of his arms around her and his heartbeat beneath her ear.
She was on an automated path to self-destruct and was aware of it; it was one she'd been on more than once before.
Instead of Daniel and Teal'c taking it in turns to pull her out of her misery, it fell on John and his team. John brought her meals in her office and had taken to sitting down at the desk, staying until she'd eaten enough to satisfy his concerns.
Due to his constant checks on her, it was John who found the commander of Atlantis slumped on the floor of her quarters, pulse steady but body refusing to cooperate to his attempts at waking her. Alarmed, he called ahead to the infirmary to alert Doctor Keller she'd be gaining a new patient soon and scooped the unconscious woman up into his arms.
It was only when he was carrying her over the threshold into the Doctor's domain that she began to stir, staring up at him through cloudy blue eyes when she realised she was no longer where she'd expected to be.
"You were unconscious," he told her, laying her gently onto the bed Doctor Keller motioned to. "You didn't show up for breakfast."
Her brow furrowed as she cast her mind back. Sam lifted a hand to her forehead, worried eyes locking with Doctor Keller's as John took a step back to allow the young woman access to her patient. "I don't remember," she murmured quietly. "I was heading to the door..."
Doctor Keller gave her a reassuring smile and placed a hand on her arm. "You probably skipped one meal too many. But just to be on the safe side, we'll run some tests, okay, Colonel?" Without waiting for a response, Jennifer glanced at the hovering Lt. Colonel and gave him a patient smile. "I'll let you know as soon as we're done here," she assured him. "I'm sure it's nothing to worry about, Sir."
The worry was evident in his eyes and the thoughts running through his mind could be read as clear as day on his face: he already felt responsible for losing Elizabeth, for not being able to save the original commander of the expedition. To lose Sam as well, for something to happen to her while on his watch so-to-speak...
"I'm fine, John." It was Sam's voice that shook him out of his thoughts, the gentle smile that accompanied it weak but there. "Would you mind meeting with McKay and Zelenka for me? They were going to update me on the status of our ZPM reserves..."
Glad of something to do, John gave her a small nod. "No problem. I'll take the rest of your meetings, too. Or at least postpone them till you're feeling better."
"Thank you," Sam smiled at him again and hoped he knew she was thanking him for more than just his offer. He'd proven himself to be indispensible during the weeks since Jack's confinement in the stasis pod and she realised with a pang of guilt that she'd taken it for granted - just as she'd realised she'd allowed herself to do the one thing Jack would never have wanted her to do: wallow in self-pity and doubt instead of taking care of herself and finding a solution to the problem facing them.
"Anytime." The grin he gave her suggested he understood, and it was a considerably lighter John Sheppard who walked out of the infirmary – and not just because he was minus the weight of one Colonel Carter in his arms.
The smile slipped from her face as she turned back to Doctor Keller, the worry she felt showing on her face. "What do we do first?"
Two hours later, Sam sat in her office at her desk. She let her chin rest on her hands as she gazed at the photograph on her desk, the one of the happy couple who looked as though they didn't have a care in the world that had been joined by another photo, separated by the glass but held in place by a corner slid underneath the wooden frame.
She glanced up when John knocked on the door frame as a courtesy before walking in and sitting himself down in the chair opposite her.
"You wanted to see me?" His stance was casual but there was a glimmer of concern in his eyes. "Everything go okay with Keller?"
She lifted a shoulder in a casual shrug and bit down on her bottom lip. Instead of giving him a verbal answer, she carefully removed the new photograph from its prided place and slid it across the desk towards him.
His expression guarded, John picked it up and stared wordlessly at the black and white image for several, long moments.
Eventually, his gaze lifted and came to rest on her face. "You... Your...?"
"Pregnant," Sam supplied, a ghost of a smile curving the corners of her mouth as her lips formed the word. "I'm pregnant."
John's eyes widened and he swallowed audibly before setting the photograph on the desk and sliding it back towards her with care. Leaning back in his chair as she picked it up, he studied her seriously. "Planned or otherwise...?"
"Oh, otherwise. Definitely otherwise." Her grin was rueful, her eyes sad. "I'd resigned myself to not having children. We'd talked about it but realised it wasn't viable, what with this assignment and everything we've been through over the years..." She glanced up from the picture to meet his inquisitive gaze. "Any child of mine and Jack's will not be safe on Earth. We knew it and decided it wouldn't be fair to have children, knowing they'd be constantly at risk from various immoral individuals who'd just love to get their hands on the offspring of a former host – well, two, if you consider Jack's experiences - and a man with one of the strongest Ancient genes we've come across."
Her hand caressed the image on the paper, fingertips tracing the outline of the child she'd never allowed herself to hope she'd know.
"I've decided to go through with the pregnancy," she murmured, her eyes transfixed by the image. "If things were different, I might reconsider but with the situation being as it is, I'm going to be incredibly selfish because I can't stand the thought of destroying anything that's part of him when there's a good chance I'll never get him back."
"It's not selfish." The derisive tone he used made her look up. "After everything you've done and been through over the last decade or so, you deserve something good. You're allowed to have a baby if that's what you want, Sam. No one has the right to judge you for it or tell you otherwise."
Tears sprang unbidden to her eyes and she found herself smiling, a weight easing in her stomach. "It won't be easy," she warned. "When the SGC and IOA find out, they'll probably demand I go back to Earth. They won't be happy leaving the expedition under my command and I can't really blame them. It certainly isn't ideal..."
"Tough." John shrugged and sat up straight. "There's not one person on this base who won't be prepared to fight for you if needs be. You're good here." He shrugged again when she looked at him in surprise. "You're a fine leader. They made the right decision when they sent you here."
Touched and tearful, blaming hormones even though she suspected it might be a little too early to use them as an excuse, a soft smile graced her lips even as Sam sighed. "Hopefully it won't come to that but it means a lot that you think that." She leaned back in her chair and found her gaze drawn back to the photographs. "My plan at this moment is to refrain from letting anyone on Earth know of my condition until it becomes impossible to hide. They seem reluctant to let anyone travel to Atlantis until they've appointed a replacement Head of Homeworld Security and I'm going to use that to my advantage. I've requested that all medical reports Doctor Keller has to send back come to me first. Of course, if anyone questions the lack of reference to it, I can say that I may have accidentally deleted something when compiling all of the reports from the department heads."
"Accidentally," he repeated slowly, an approving grin on his face. "Well, accidents will happen."
"That they will." Sam straightened in her chair and folded her hands on her desk. "I also wanted to see you to apologise for the way I've been acting since... Well, since everything. It hasn't been fair on you and I'm sorry for that. I tend to get a little crazy when something like this happens – you'd have thought I'd be used to it by now but I'm apparently not. Thank you for everything you've done for me recently. I can't promise things will be easier from now on but it'll be different. I'll be taking care of myself so you won't need to worry about it."
He shrugged again, evidently uncomfortable with her words. "It was nothing. I kind of made a promise to General O'Neill and didn't want to break it – he'd be pissed when you and McKay find a way to get him out of that thing and that'd look real bad on my record."
A slight smile touched her lips for a brief moment but her expression quickly grew serious, a shadow of doubt passing over her features. "It isn't going to be easy."
"Nothing worthwhile ever is." He held her gaze, refusing to let her look away.
She tilted her head to the side, considering his answer. "I guess not." She took a deep breath and released it on a heavy sigh. "So how did the meeting go with McKay and Zelenka...?"
He made a face, rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically before launching into a detailed recounting of the meeting she'd missed, defusing what was left of the nervous tension she felt almost completely. More than once, Sam found her gaze straying back to the photographs, to the smiling couple and the child they'd created.
It was going to be okay, she told herself firmly. Not perfect by any means but okay would have to do.
Weeks passed and turned into months. Although she'd tried to keep her condition secret, it became impossible to deny as her stomach extended to accommodate the child growing inside her. She found herself overwhelmed with support, both from those she'd expected it from and those she hadn't.
Teyla had proven herself to be far wiser than her years and had become a friend Sam knew she could rely on through thick and thin. They met for an afternoon break most days, with the Athosian leader offering various suggestions and methods to ease the aches of pregnancy that had aided her people through the years.
Along with Teyla and, of course, John, Sam had been pleasantly surprised that the other members of her flagship team were equally as supportive. Even Ronon offered the advice of his people and volunteered more than once to help make and move furniture and fixtures for her extended quarters, which had been designed by Rodney and his team of scientists, taking advantage of the empty quarters that had been situated next to her own.
Other members of staff had shown their support, too. The staff of the mess hall had indulged her cravings with grace, even going as far as to ensure there was something that would appeal to her on the menu. A Lieutenant with a knack for sewing had altered her uniforms, adding folds of material here and there to allow for her growing abdomen so there was no need to alert the SGC and IOA that there was a requirement for maternity wear in the city. Doctor Katie Brown had made her cry, once, by offering to name a newly discovered plant after Jack – a plant with blue-tinged leaves that she'd given Sam as a gift so she could keep it in her quarters and talk to it as much as she wanted to.
She wasn't alone in the city and appreciated their efforts immensely. Even so, she couldn't help but wish she could have her former SG-1 teammates at her side or at least that she could send a message to them to let them know what was going on but she couldn't.
She couldn't risk any message she sent them being intercepted by someone who wouldn't hesitate in using the information to get to her unborn child.
Sitting on the bed in the infirmary, waiting for Doctor Keller to return to perform the ultrasound, Sam stared up at the ceiling and tried not to think too much about everything that was wrong and instead concentrate on everything that was right.
"Colonel Carter..." Instead of the calm, almost excited tone she'd been expecting, Doctor Keller appeared around the curtain shielding her bed from the rest of the infirmary with a worried frown on her young face.
Sam pushed herself up into a seated position, one hand supporting her weight while the other moved instinctively to rest on her rounded stomach. "What is it? Is it the baby?"
Jennifer Keller shook her head, her eyes luminous with emotion. "No, the baby's fine... It's the General. The stasis pod... It's failing, Sam. It's losing power and nothing McKay can think of is making a difference."
She was off the bed in an instant, her body swaying as the blood suddenly rushed to her head. "Take me to him," was all she said, a hand still clasped protectively over her stomach and the child growing there.
Consciousness slowly seeped in, a sense of awareness spreading throughout his body as the icy numbness wrapped around his limbs began to thaw. It took a little longer for him to be able to open his eyes, his eyelids heavy after months of non-use.
He blinked and frowned, unable to move more than his eyes but having seen enough to know the room in front of him wasn't quite right.
"Don't be alarmed, General. It's okay." The voice wasn't right, either, nor was the woman who used it. Doctor Elizabeth Weir stood in front of him, her arms crossed loosely over her chest as she gazed at him in open concern. "I know I'm not who you were expecting to see."
He tried to open his mouth to speak but found he couldn't, his eyes widening in mild panic.
"Stay calm," she murmured. She stepped forward, the cream material of the dress she wore swaying gently around her legs. Her hair was a mass of tangled curls, its darkness a startling contrast to the paleness of her skin. She stopped just in front of him and reached out a hand. Her fingertips brushed his lips and she smiled when he gasped, withdrawing her hand again and letting it fall to her side. "You should be able to talk now."
It took two attempts to speak as his throat and mouth were dry but eventually the words slid passed his lips. "Where... Where am I?"
Elizabeth let one shoulder rise and fall in a small shrug. "Physically? You're still in the stasis pod in the infirmary of Atlantis."
"But how...? You..."
"I'm in your mind," she said softly, folding her arms again. "I... They didn't want me to come to you but I couldn't not. I want to help you, General. You're needed in Atlantis, now more than ever. I couldn't sit back and do nothing when there's so much at stake."
His eyes narrowed and she wondered if he knew the suspicion he felt was obvious on his face. "Who didn't want you to come...? The Replicators...?"
A soft laughed escaped her but it wasn't a happy sound. It was sad, almost bitter. "I've not been with the Replicators for a long time. They were telling the truth when they said I'd died. Luckily for me, I apparently made an impression on the founders of Atlantis and they decided to help me out."
"You ascended." It took less time than she'd expected for him to reach the right conclusion and she arched an eyebrow in surprise when he did. To his credit, Jack merely shrugged as the feeling slowly returned to the rest of his body. "Been there, done that... He didn't get a t-shirt but I insisted he kept the flag..." He shrugged again at her look of confusion after trying to lift a hand to wave and failing; the feeling hadn't quite fully returned to all of his limbs. "So are you here to get me to ascend? 'Cause I gotta tell you, it doesn't really appeal..."
"I'm not here to do that. I couldn't, even if we both wanted to." She glanced over her shoulder, a slight frown marring her smooth brow. Almost as if there was someone there he couldn't see. "I told you I'm not supposed to be here. I'll probably get punished for it but, well, she needs you and Atlantis needs her... and her child."
Jack arched an eyebrow and tilted his head to the side. "Not quite up to Daniel's standard of riddles but you've still lost me, Doc."
"Colonel Carter. She needs you," her smile reappeared though not without a touch of sadness. "She was the best choice for Atlantis. She understands both the needs of her people and their limitations."
"So did you," he pointed out. "You were a damn fine leader, Elizabeth. If there'd been a way to have you both, the Wraith and the Replicators wouldn't stand a chance."
Her smile widened marginally and for a second, he glimpsed a wistful expression on her face. "I wish that were possible but it's not. But I can still help, if only a little and not in the way I want. She does need you, Jack, and the people of Atlantis need a leader as strong as her."
He nodded and tried to get his legs to move, clearly frustrated when they refused to cooperate. "You said something about a kid? I'm a little confused at how a city can have a child."
Her bubble of laughter surprised them both. Elizabeth shook her head and grinned at him, her arms falling to rest at her sides. "I wasn't talking about the city, I was talking about Sam. Congratulations, General, you're going to be a father."
"Wha..?" The look on his face must have been comical if the second burst of laughter was anything to go by. "We're not having kids," he shook his head in denial. "She might not be able to... It wouldn't be safe for her or the kid so we decided we're not..."
"Fate had other ideas," Elizabeth remarked cryptically. "And she can indeed have children, General. She is having a child. One that will need both its mother and father." She waited for as long as she dared, wanting to give him a chance to compose himself and recover from the shock. She couldn't wait too long, she knew, time was running out whether or not he was aware of it. "If you want to be there for her and for your child, you're going to have to trust me."
Indecision warred inside him for almost a minute, suspicion and scepticism competing with hope and happiness. After a long moment in which Elizabeth held her breath and could only pray he believed her, Jack gave a short nod, his features set in an expression of determination. "What do I have to do?"
Relieved, Elizabeth took a step forward and held out a hand. "Just take a step towards me," she encouraged, eyes fixed on his even as the lights around them seemed to flicker and a spark flew from the stasis pod keeping him alive.
The scent of smoke clung to his hair and clothes. Another spark, the heat of it warming his skin even as he tried to move away from it.
His legs felt heavy, as though they were encased in concrete. He tried to lift one over the remains of the crystallized substance that had formed a glass-like coffin at the front of the pod but his knees protested.
"Come on, General." There was a note of urgency in her voice, a flicker of alarm on her face. "You have to do it now or it'll be too late."
He tried again, managing to free one leg of his prison. "What about you?" He asked, his eyes searching for and finding hers through the clouds of smoke escaping the pod. "What will they do...?"
She forced a smile when his fingers brushed her hand, moving forward half an inch so she could grasp them with her own. "I'll be fine, General. I've learnt that I'm a lot stronger than I thought I was."
It was somehow easier to lift his weary limbs with her hand wrapped around hers. Jack found himself stepping free of the pod, still dimly aware of the little explosions and sparks behind him. He met Elizabeth's gaze once more and was startled to see the tears shimmering in her eyes were accompanied by a fear she'd tried and failed to hide.
Jack opened his mouth to reassure her but found that he couldn't; he couldn't lie to the woman who had no doubt saved his life. "Thank you," was all he was able to say. "Thank you."
Elizabeth smiled, her hand tightening momentarily around his. The memory of the look on her face, of sorrow intermingled with peace, stayed with him long after the world around him was consumed by darkness.
A spark from the pod caught her arm but Sam refused to leave long enough to have Doctor Keller look at it. She stood with her shoulders squared, aware of the attention focused on her. It reminded her of the day she'd said goodbye to Jack, the day that should have been their wedding day.
Rodney and Doctor Keller were lingering close by, speaking in low voices about the machine and what could be done – if anything – to help the man inside it. John hovered behind her, ready to support her in whatever way she needed. His hand was warm at the small of the back and although she appreciated it and wouldn't want him anywhere else, she couldn't help but wish he was someone else.
She stared at Jack and he stared back through frozen eyes.
"I'm not ready to stay goodbye," she muttered, pressing a hand to her stomach as the fragile life inside it moved as if in response. "I'm not ready to do this. And Teal'c and Daniel... They should be here... They never got the chance..."
John's hand moved from the small of her back and his arm wound its way around her waist. He drew her closer, his expression stoic. "We could send them a message," he offered quietly. "Try and get them here..."
She shook her head and bit her lip. "They'd never get here in time. And there'd be too many questions if the rest of SG-1 came with them..." Her voice trailed off and she took a step forward, ignoring the slight sound of alarm from behind her where Doctor Keller stood. She lifted a hand to the surface of the pod as she had done before and let her fingertips trail over it above the frozen face she knew and loved so much. "Fight for me," she whispered, willing him to hear, to respond. "Don't let this be the end, Jack."
She reluctantly took a step back as the surface beneath her fingertips appeared to melt. She watched in horrified fascination as it seemed to first melt into a clear liquid before evaporating into a fine mist that was swallowed by the film of smoke still being emitted by the machine. Blinking as her eyes began to water – due to the sting of tears or the sting of smoke, Sam couldn't be sure – Sam took another step back and turned her face away.
Time stopped. The smell of smoke and singed electronics filled the air. Sam kept her face averted and closed her eyes. The low murmurings of McKay and Keller reached her ears but she couldn't bring herself to focus on the words, to try and make sense of them.
"Sam..." John stood beside her, his hand on her arm. "Sam, you don't have to stay here..."
Whatever else he was going to say was interrupted by a beeping from the headsets they wore. She heard him mutter something indecipherable under his breath before answering the call.
"Colonel Sheppard, we've had some strange energy readings from the living quarters. There... There seems to be an additional lifesign in the city, Sir. We haven't detected any Wraith darts but it's possible one escaped detection and has beamed its pilot into the city."
"Where is the additional lifesign now and what's it doing?" John demanded, his tone suggesting that it was the last thing they needed.
"Ah, Sir... It's.." The young technician stammered over his words, his nervousness audible across the radio waves.
John sighed and looked up to find Ronon standing in the doorway, already armed - no doubt ready to find and neutralise the threat. "Spit it out, Sergeant. Where is the lifesign?"
"Doctor Weir's quarters, Sir. It's in Doctor Weir's quarters."
A beat of silence, a moment of pain.
It was Sam's turn to offer comfort, her hand moving to rest over his for a brief second. "Go," she ordered him softly. "See who it is and what they want."
He hesitated for a second before giving her a nod, acknowledging the order. After one final smile of reassurance – everything would be okay, it seemed to say, we'll get through this – he left with Ronon to head to the place he'd tried to avoid ever since Elizabeth's disappearance.
Sam remained in the infirmary, her back to the stasis pod. She walked slowly over to the nearest bed and sat down on it. She wrapped her arms around her stomach and closed her eyes tightly against the moisture threatening to escape.
"Sam..." Rodney moved to her side while Doctor Keller braved the broken pod. She didn't hold out much hope for the patient inside it but couldn't be sure if the readings from the machine were accurate or a result of the blown circuits. "Sam, maybe you shouldn't be here..."
"Where else am I supposed to be, Rodney?" She opened her eyes, the pain in their depths causing him to take half a step back. "Where else can I be?"
Too engrossed in offering her comfort, Rodney didn't hear the startled gasp behind him nor did he or Sam witness the shaky smile or the sight of fingers against lips in the universal sign language for silence.
"You could go to your quarters," he suggested, moving a hand as if to touch her only to pull his hand back at the last minute. He'd never been comfortable around pregnant woman and this woman in particular made it all the more... weird. "Or, you know, if you wanted, you could go to your office but I guess you really don't want to work right now so you could go to your quarters or the balcony or the mess... Or if you want, if you don't want to be around too many people but don't want to be alone, you can always go see Teyla or come to my quarters or lab or whatever..."
The rambling would have amused her if it weren't for the ache in her heart. She would have stopped him from continuing if someone else hadn't beaten her to it.
"Are you hitting on my girl, McKay?" Weak and disjointed but unmistakably Jack, both Sam and Rodney looked up so fast that he winced in sympathy. Doctor Keller grinned where she hovered beside him, ready to catch him – or try, anyway – if the unsteady legs he moved forward on gave out.
"Jack?" Brushing passed McKay who still stood imitating a goldfish with his mouth agape, Sam somehow found her own voice. She stood on legs as unsteady as the man slowly making his way towards her and made an attempt of her own at bridging the gap between them.
"Hey." He gave her a small grin, eyes fixated on her face. "Miss me?"
Her smile lit up her face and tears sparkled in her eyes. "You have to ask...?"
His arms went around her waist and hers moved to encircle his neck. They forgot about their audience, stopped wondering who was holding who up. "Did I miss much?" He asked in a murmur, an eyebrow rising when he felt her stomach come in contact with his body. He lifted one hand from her waist and took a small step away so he could stare at her stomach in wonder, a cautious hand moving to rest against it.
A delighted laugh escaped her and Sam covered his hand with her own, a coy smile on her lips. "Oh, nothing you can't catch up on."
He grinned in response and lowered his lips to hers, making a silent vow to himself to take full advantage of every second they had together, an unexpected gift he promised to treasure.
They broke apart only when her radio beeped and she took a step back, her cheeks flushed and smile dizzying. "Carter here."
Frowning slightly, Sam eased out of Jack's arms only to lead him over to the bed, sitting down beside him as Doctor Keller hovered close by, eager to tend to her patient. "Who's back, John?"
"Elizabeth. She's... She's here. Unconscious but alive. She's come back."
"Elizabeth...?" Sam arched an eyebrow and glanced at the man beside her, who's eyes had widened at the name. "Bring her to the infirmary, ASAP. I'll tell Doctor Keller to be prepared."
"Yes, Ma'am. Sheppard out."
There was a giddiness in his tone she'd never heard before. She gazed at Jack in confusion before addressing the concerned Doctor in front of her. "Colonel Sheppard will be bringing who he believes to be Doctor Weir to the infirmary in a few minutes. You might want to prep a team, Doctor. I have a feeling it's going to be a busy afternoon."
"Doctor Weir...?" Doctor Keller stood frozen for a moment, the same hope and wariness Sam was feeling reflected on her face. "How...?"
Jack's hand tightened around hers and Sam glanced at him again, surprised to see a small smile playing on his lips. "She helped me," he murmured, fingers entwining with hers. "Said you needed me, said the kid needed me..." To Doctor Keller, he gave a solemn nod. "You can access the SGC's medical database, right, Doc? Look up ascension...or... whatever it was called when Daniel came back the first time. It might help with Elizabeth."
He looked at the woman beside him and saw the myriad of questions on her face. Instead of answering them, he grinned and lifted her hand to his lips, his other finding its way to her stomach to feel as their child kicked beneath his palm.
"Later," he promised her. "I'll tell you everything later."
Sam stared at him for a few moments, debating with herself whether to push him or wait. In the end she simply nodded and gave him a soft smile. "We've got time," she murmured, more to herself than to him. "We've got time."
'Oh, it's good to be true,
If our hopes and dreams come true
Wish that I had more
of this borrowed time
If only it would last a lifetime.'
'Oh, it's good to be true,
-'Borrowed Time' by Cueshe