A Place Called Home 7

by Sharim

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Disclaimers in Part One

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Wow. The end. I never thought I'd actually get this far!! *grins*. Enjoy... and to Jo just because.

~Thirty One~

~*~

To say this feels odd would probably be an understatement. To say that I never thought I would be doing this again would be a bit closer to the truth.

"Ready?" Daniel looks over at me, a disbelieving grin etched on his face also.

"Just about." I grin back, snapping the final buckle together with a satisfying click.

"Well then, off we go." Thomas heads out of the changeroom and falls into step with Bester beside him.

"You know, I'm not so sure if I'm sane." I admit to Daniel as we trudge along the corridor.

"Why not?"

"Well, the last time I did this..." I trail off, watching Daniel. He grins slightly at me again and then looks ahead.

"Well, you know what they say, lightening doesn't strike the same place twice."

"Meaning?" I ask, feeling the old fingers of excitement starting to course through me. I'm doing it again. I'm finally doing it!

"It's highly unlikely that you'll get stranded for a second time, Jack. And, even if you do, there's always the Asguard or Tollan who can just whip out there with their ship and bring you home." Daniel jokes.

"True." I agree, but despite the excitement and adrenaline coursing through my veins, the fear is also kicking. I'm scared. I'm damn scared of stepping through that ring again because I'm damn scared that this time I won't be so lucky. That this time I *won't* be coming home.

"Colonel." Thomas pulls me off to one side as we enter the 'gateroom.

"Yep?" I ask, forcing the casual nonchalance onto my voice. Can't show anyone my anxiety; my fears.

"Are you okay with this?" He asks hesitantly, eyeing my suspiciously.

"Okay with what?" I frown. Is he onto me? Does he know how much I'm dreading stepping through that gate again?

"Being under my command, I mean, you are a Colonel and I'm only a Major..."

"Not a problem with it." I tell him honestly. To be truthful, I'm glad that Hammond's giving me this chance of going through the gate again and getting used to things without having to worry about being in charge of others as well.

"You sure?"

"Positive." I say sincerely, glancing over at Daniel. "I'll just be tagging along, familiarising myself with everything again." I reassure him.

"Okay then."

"Thomas?"

"Colonel?"

"Are you okay with this?"

He grins at me and I grin back as the 'gateroom is suddenly filled with the whooshing noise the gate makes when it locks on and the blue glow falls over us.

"And we're off to see the wizard." I say aloud, turning and saluting the General half way up the ramp.

"Send him my regards, Colonel." General Hammond smiles to me, saluting in return. I don't think he expected this either, to tell you the truth, to be saluting to my sarcastic comments as I make my way up the ramp. It sure does instil respect in a person, being missing for a while, respect for what the Stargate is capable of doing to your life.

~*~

"And this is Laira." I introduce the brunette to Jack, watching as she openly sends a flirtatious smile to him. Jack being Jack though, seems to either not notice it or decides to completely ignore it. I think he's ignoring it, because despite the fact that neither Sam nor Jack have spoken in the few months that have passed since that barbecue at Janet's when she moved in with Janet and Cassie, they're not over each other yet. Not by a long shot.

"It is my pleasure." She smiles at him, and he merely nods in return.

"So, Laira, when is this fire rain supposed to start?" Bester asks, immediately jumping in and questioning Laira about the secondary purpose of our mission, the primary purpose being establishing a diplomatic relationship with these people involving the mining of Naquadah in their soil.

"Tonight." She states softly, still smiling only at Jack.

"How do you know?" Bester frowns, confused, and I can understand his confusion.

"It starts on the same night every year. Come, we will have our evening meal and then when darkness falls we will watch the fire rain from the hill." She finally turns her attention to Bester, obviously dragging her attention away from Jack with great reluctance.

"The same night every year?" Bester questions further.

"Yes." Laira nods agreeably. "Come, we are all eating together tonight to celebrate the start of the fire rain."

And we follow her to the 'village' square where her people have all gathered. My eyes stray around, taking in the homes and tools that have been fashioned by these people living here. The tales of their ancestors relayed back to me by SG-4 who originally established contact with this world still ring in my ears, but now isn't really the time for discussing their background.

The food we eat is simple but tasty, remarkably satisfying especially when compared with our MRE's. Even though the chatter is light through out the meal and most of the villagers seems to accept us as 'the good guys', I can't seem to stay focused on the conversation.

Instead, my eyes keep drifting to Jack who also seems slightly preoccupied, despite Laira's best attempts to involve him in the conversation. I don't have to be a genius to figure out that his thoughts aren't on a brown haired woman, but rather a blond one that's right at this moment on the other side of the galaxy probably working out some way to improve some company's product.

I wonder how she is, where she is, what she's doing with herself. Janet says she's doing okay, but seeing as Sam has basically cut off ties with everyone, especially Catherine, Ernest, Teal'c and Jack, it's hard to believe she's okay. The only people she really has contact with lately are Alex and Janet, simply because Alex is now paying *her* the rent, as opposed to me, and she only sees Janet because of Cassie.

Having watched Sam with Cassie a few times before she moved out and started a new life, I've started to wonder if she ever thought about having kids. Looking at Jack, I wonder if he wants to have kids again, but it's not my place in either case to ask those questions, it's simply me being too curious for my own good.

"The fire rain will start soon." Laira suddenly says, standing up. She offers a hand to Jack, and he accepts it almost absently, his thoughts obviously still far away. It's hurt him, the way Sam's just disappeared out of all of our lives, it's hurt him a lot more than he'll ever admit because he wasn't supposed to have feelings for her in the first place. And I find that sad that for some reason the two of them believe they are better off apart.

The hill we settle ourselves on is about ten minutes walk away from the village. I watch as Jack glances at the moon and smiles almost fondly.

"Jack?" I wait, watching him look at me with a mildly surprised look on his face.

"Daniel?"

"You were smiling then..." He smile slightly, hoping I wasn't prying.

"I was just thinking about Carter..." He starts off. "On Kaldroon we were discussing names for the moons and the planet itself and..." He stops abruptly, grinning. "It was just one of those things, Daniel." He sighs slighlty and takes his cap off, scrunching it between his hands and settling himself on the ground.

"So when is this fire rain supposed to start?" Mason sighs, already bored.

"The wait is killing me." Jack adds, sending a conspiratol smile towards Mason.

"Soon."

"Soon?" Mason blinks. "You said that...a minute ago." He checks his watch to confirm.

"Soon." Laira says firmly, smiling at Jack. For some reason, he notices the smile she's sending towards him and smiles right one back, almost as if he is encouraging her. I send him a glare, but he's too busy smiling at Laira to even notice.

"There!" Laira points to the sky a few seconds later, and we watch as a falling star shoots across the sky.

"Fire rain." I breath. "On earth, we call those falling stars."

"There's another one!" Thomas says excitedly, pointing to the sky.

Almost as if in slow motion the 'fire rain' explodes into a fireball and the earth seems to tremble with the noise as it bounces off the atmosphere.

"Bester?" Both Thomas and Jack speak at the same time, worry on their voice.

"Yes?" Bester also turns around, watching the near miss fly out into space.

"How close was that?" Jack demands.

"Close." Bester states.

"How big?" I demand.

"Big." Bester looks up at me.

"Is something wrong?" Laira asks, concerned.

"Laira, that's what is termed as very nearly a disaster." Bester says smoothly.

"And this happens ever year?" Mason says.

"Yes."

"Laira... has the Fire Rain ever hit the ground?" Bester asks slowly.

"Not in my life time... but there is a story that is told among my people, that when the Ancestors were here on the second day of the fire rain there was an shaking of the earth and in the distance the sky burned red as though the sun never set." She says softly.

"I'll have to make some more observations tonight, Thomas." Bester says eventually.

"I'll check the geological surveys." I add, frowning in concern. If my growing suspicions are right, then Laira and her people are in a lot of trouble.

"I'll make a wish." Jack says softly, casting his gaze out over the sparkling sky. And I'm sure I know what wish Jack is making.

~*~

"Anyone else see that?" I demand into the radio, the adrenaline starting to pump.

"I did." A voice responds.

"Who's speaking?" I sigh. They all do this, Bester and Jackson in particular - never identify themselves when they talk on the 2-ways.

"Bester here. Thomas, I went over those results that I collected last night and did some work back on base..."

"Get to the point, Bester." I snap.

"It appears that this planet's orbit goes through an astroid belt which is why the fire rain starts on the same night ever year. Also, the belt isn't uniform so every so often it goes through a particularly bad patch which results in the planet being bombarded..." He trails off as another flash lights the sky and the ground shakes slightly with the impact.

"Jackson, Mason?" I demand into the 2-way.

"We read you Major. Jackson is just busy collecting his gear and we'll head down to the villiage. It looks like this happens every 150 years or so..."

"Get moving, we have to get these people out of here. Colonel?"

"Yes Thomas?"

"Are you in the village?"

"Yep. Want me to gather the people?"

"Yes. I'll meet you there in...five minutes."

I take off at a run, the villiage visible through the trees up ahead. As I enter what could be termed as the main road, I'm happy to see that O'Neill has started on his given task and already most of the people are standing around, looking slightly annoyed and bewildered.

"Okay..." I stand a minute, waiting for them to be quiet so that I can be heard over them. "The fire rain is busy hitting the ground as we speak, so I guess that pretty much speaks for itself. It's gonna get pretty dangerous here soon, so if you want you can all come back through the Stargate with us and then when it's over we can send you back..."

"They are after our lands!" A man yells out.

I open my mouth, but before I can speak further O'Neill jumps in, unconsciously taking command. I remain silent as I watch him, remembering the conversation in the 'gateroom. He isn't taking my command, he is just simply doing what comes naturally to him, and that is leading. Besides, he's a much better speaker than I am, and as he argues with a stubborn man I can only admire his quick wit and sarcasm. No wonder Jackson is so good at being sarcastic; he had a good teacher.

"I have come to know these people, and I trust them. I will follow them through the stone circle because though it seems far it is only a step away. Those of you who wish to come with us can meet us at the stone circle." I blink as Laira backs down, but her speech seems to have convinced a fair few people that we are right.

"Here come Jackson and Mason." Bester announces by my side, and sure enough the two men are stumbling towards us.

"How's it look?" Jackson breathes, panting heavily.

"We've got most of the villagers coming wih us." I inform them, checking my watch again. Another shake of the earth and right before my eyes a hill is engulfed in flames. "That was close..."

"Too close." O'Neill agrees.

"Have you seen Garan?" Laira comes running up to us, here eyes fearful as she gazes at us.

"They should be here..." Mason looks around, slightly confused.

"The caves." Jackson breathes, relisation dawning on his face.

"Okay... all of you get these people through to earth, we'll go find Garan." I state, taking Laira's arm.

"I'll come with you." O'Neill says, trading looks with Laira. I'm confused, but I won't argue because it's obvious that Laira wants O'Neill along and given her sudden near panic, I won't argue with her.

"We'll see you at home." I wave the others off, and the three of us set off at a quick jog up the well-worn pathway.

~*~

"Is this all?" Jackson looks around, worry in his eyes.

"About a third of them didn't want to come, those are the last ones going through now." Bester announces.

"You go through, we'll wait for O'Neill and Thomas." I instruct, and with a reluctant nod, Bester steps through the wormhole.

Time and time again the earth rumbles and rattles as the fire rain hits the ground. The horizon is a hazy red, the dust hanging over the hill-tops like an eerie curtain, illuminated by the red glow of fires in the distance.

"Thomas, Thomas, do you read?" I try desperately to reach my CO, but the 2- way remains silent.

"Jack? Jack, where are you?" Jackson mutters into his 2-way, his eyes gazing around fearfully.

A fireball strikes the ground not even a kilometre away, and a tremour runs through me. Close. It was even closer.

"We can't hang around much longer, Jackson. They'll just have to dial through when they get here." I start saying, but Jackson isn't looking at me. His attention is focused on the sky, which has suddenly turned into a blinding ball of light. We stare, mesmerised for what feels like an eternity, but is only a few seconds, until the fear hits us and we dive through the Stargate in perfect synchronisation. I'm aware of the whole world roaring around my ears and a searing blast of heat before I'm pulled into the wormhole.

"Where's Colonel O'Neill and Major Thomas?" General Hammond demands, stepping forwards as I pull myself to my feet. "Mason?"

"They're still there." I swallow, pulling the cold air into my burning lungs. "Sir, that last hit was right on top of the Stargate." I whisper.

"General Hammond, I would attempt to go back and search for Colonel O'Neill and Major Thomas." The Jaffa steps forwards, his features blank.

"I'm sorry, but if a meteorite just struck the gate, then you'd be walking into a firestorm. There's no chance that you'd survive." Bester says, his brow creased in thought.

"What are you recommending?" General Hammond asks, his voice unnaturally emotionless.

"We wait oh... 24 hours and send a MALP through."

"Very well then." He turns to go, but then stops and puts a hand on Teal'c's shoulder. "I'm sorry, son." He says quietly before stepping away and leaving the four of us looking at the Stargate in bewilderment.

~*~

"Mason? Mason, do you read?" Thomas sighs, his shoulders slumping.

"It could just be interferance." I remind him, turning to go back into the cave.

"Or they left because it was getting too hot." He returns, his spirits seem to climb again.

"Which means we just have to go dial home when it's over." I add.

We step back into the warmth of the cave and look around. My eyes rest on the boy, Garan, and I can't help but feel a stab of pride. He'd believed there was no hope, so he'd decided to create a hope for himself and his girlfriend. Not a bad attitude, but considering that we already had a better plan *which* he apparently knew about...

"Can you see the village?" Laira asks, her voice hopeful.

"No." I shake my head. No need to lie to her.

"Oh."

"It is raining though." Thomas adds, sitting down on 'his' rock. "That should put out most of the fires."

"I'm scared." Garan is looking at me. Why is it I feel so much affection for him? Probably because he reminds me a bit of Charlie, like most boys.

"Me too." I say softly, not looking at Thomas. I'm scared. Not that I might die, because I'll die when it's my time. Not scared that we'll be stuck here, because we can always be rescued, just like my stint on Kaldroon proved. No. Suddenly I'm very scared that something will happen and I'll never see Carter again, that I'll never be able to tell her she's wrong and that I want to be with her, that it *will* work. I want to tell her that I love her, I don't care about her arm being ruined, I still love her.

I look up to find Laira suddenly sitting next to me, leaning all over me. I look up helplessly at Thomas, but the woman is scared stiffless. That's why I have to put my hand over hers, offering her the comfort she wants. And if I close my eyes and make sure I don't smell the soft scent of her hair or feel the difference in the shape of her fingers against mine, I can pretend it's Carter sitting here next to me, holding my hand and burying her head against my arm.

~Thirty Two~

~*~

"Chevron seven... locked." I close my eyes in a quick prayer of relief. It the Chevrons lock and the wormhole establishes, it means that the Stargate did survive the hit. We have a chance of them being able to return home.

"The MALP should reach its destination in three.... two... one. We're not receiving a signal, Sir." The gate technician frowns and I close my eyes.

"That means the 'gate must be buried, there's no other explanation." I close my eyes, my shoulders slumping.

"Dr. Bester?" General Hammond waits for an explanation.

"The MALP was destroy, it didn't have time to re-integrate. That means the gate must be buried..."

"So now what?" Jackson asks, desolation in his eyes.

"Can we bring them home?" Mason asks hesitantly.

"I don't know." I admit somewhat reluctantly. "If nothing is given a chance to re-integrate, then I don't know how we can possibly unbury the Stargate from this end. It's probably up to O'Neill and Thomas to unbury the gate on their end." The words stick in my throat. There has to be another way, someway to get them home.

"Then I'm afraid I'm going to have to declare them MIA..."

"Wait a minute, Sir." Jackson jumps in, determination in his eyes. "What about our other allies? Allies capable of space travel? The Asguard helped us last time. Maybe the Tollan will help us... or even the Asguard again." He suggests. I feel hope in me rising.

"Very well." General Hammond nods his assent. "See what you can do, Dr. Jackson."

~*~

The village seems eerily quiet. I can see a burnt patch a little way away, still steaming, with rubble lying strewn around it. It doesn't look too good.

The house we enter is one I recognise as Paynan's, the man who put up such a complaint when we offered to take the villagers away and keep them safe. Inside people are sitting around, their faces smudged black with soot and some sporting burns. But all of them just sit there, not moving, not reacting, not even responding to our arrival.

"Paynan?" Laira leaves her constant position at O'Neill's side and dashes forwards to a dirty figure, leaning against a wall.

"Laira? Is that you?" He sounds slightly drunk, his eyes seeming unfocused as he gazes around and moans slightly, his head seeming to loll lifelessly from his neck.

"What happened?" Laira asks. I can feel the Garan and his girlfriend Maya shift slightly beside me, and I glance at them. There is horror and fear on their faces, but I can't do anything now.

"One stuck Telmar's home. Three families were inside." He whispers, closing his eyes in sorrow. I feel something lodge in throat and swallow roughly to try and dislodge it. A waste. A waste of lives. That should never have happened.

"See, that's why we said you should have come with us, but you had to go and open your mouth, right?" O'Neill jumps in, taking his anger out on Paynan and blaming the man. I can understand Paynan's reasoning, our offer to them did seem too good to be true, he felt he was only doing the right thing in protecting his people.

"On the third day it grew to much, so we gathered our belongings and fled to where the stone circle used to be..."

"Used to be?" Both O'Neill and I chorus at the same time, turning to each other in horror.

Without another word we get up and run out of the house, ignoring the burnt and smouldering landscape around us. The path disappears beneath our feet, and instead of running in a green landscape where the grass is thick and lush, we are stumbling over rocks and small boulders that are still warm enough to make our feet sweat inside our military issue boots. And then we stop running, because there Stargate is nowhere to be seen, and we are standing in a huge crater where a meteorite must have struck.

O'Neill starts laughing slightly, but it's *not* a happy laugh.

"What?"

"And Daniel said that lightening doesn't strike the same place twice."

"It was a meteorite."

"I know *that*."

"Then what?"

"Jack..." Laira followed us, but he ignores her.

"He said chances that I'd get stranded again were basically none.:

"And the Gate's been destroyed once again."

"It could be buried, Thomas." He reminds me, kicking at the rocks.

"It doesn't matter either way." I remind him.

"It's gone." Laira whispers, and we turn to look at her. "My people, they can never come home now." Her eyes are large and frightened as she gazes at us. "And you can't go home."

Yes. We can still go home. It will just take time. A few weeks, a month at most. The Asguard or the Tollan will come get us... that's for certain. We won't be stuck here all that long.

But we don't say anything. We just gaze at each other and then cast our eyes around the empty land around us.

~*~

"The Tollan can have a ship somewhere near Edora late next year." I whisper, the words clogging my throat.

"And the Asguard?"

"Well, we haven't made contact with them yet, but the impression we got from the Tollan said that the Asguard are currently too busy fighting their enemy to spare a ship to rescue Jack and Thomas."

"Well, unless someone can offer me an alternative I'm going to have to declare Colonel O'Neill and Major Thomas MIA." General Hammond says softly.

I nod slowly, closing my eyes. I told Jack that it wouldn't happen, that he wouldn't get stranded again and looked what happened. Once again Jack O'Neill is stuck on a world with no quick way of getting home. He'll never let me hear the end of it when he gets back.

"I'll inform Major Thomas' family, Sir." Mason says softly.

"Very well." General Hammond agrees.

"What about Jack?" I demand.

"What about Jack?" General Hammond frowns.

"His family..."

"I don't think they even knew he was back, son." General Hammond smiles gently and then turns to his book. "You might want to think about informing Sam, Catherine and Ernest though." He adds as an afterthought.

The General's not stupid, he knows that Jack and Sam haven't seen each other for months. So why should she be told? Because, I realise, she has a right to know. Her and Jack... well... she still has a right to know.

I don't want to make the phonecall, I don't want to be the one to tell Sam, but I know that it's only fair if I tell her. Checking my clock, I realise she'll probably be at work now so I only have to look up the phone number of the company she works at.

"Uh...hi. I'm looking for Sam Carter." I explain as the receptionist picks up the phone.

[Just a minute, I'll put you through.]

I wait patiently while the classical music winds itself around me, pulling my tension even tighter.

[Hello?] A voice answers. It doesn't sound like Sam.

"Sam?"

[Uh...no. Marie actually, I work with Sam. You looking for Sam?]

"Uh... yes."

[She's just gone out for a second, should be back in...a few minutes.]

"Oh. I don't mind waiting." Not true. I don't want to wait. I don't want to sit here and tangle my fingers in the phone wire, running different apporaches, tactics, speeches and scenarios through my mind and then discarding them the minute they stop playing like a bad movie.

I rub my sweaty palms on my trousers, watching as the sweat marks streak over the drab green colour and turn them a darker green.

[Hello?] Her voice still sounds the same, if slightly subdued and not quite as distracted as she normally sounded on the phone.

"Hey Sam, it's Daniel."

[Daniel.] I can hear the surprise on her voice and know that she must be wondering how I got the number.

"How have you been?" I ask, stalling for a few minutes.

[Fine. You?] This is tense. Awkward. Incredibly difficult.

"Me? I'm fine. I'm fine thanks." I stutter, rubbing my hands on my trousers again. How do I tell her? How do I tell her Jack's once again stuck on a planet due to a Stargate being buried, lost or destroyed and the possiblity that he'll be missing for months *if* he survived...

[You sure? You sound a little tense.] I can almost see her frown of concern over the telphone, picture the way her face will scrunch up and tilt to one side while she studied you to confirm her suspicion. She never misses anything.

"I'm fine, Sam..." I swallow. "Uh... well... "

[What's wrong?] Her voice is also strained now, obviously picking up on the fact that the hesitation in my voice isn't good.

"It's Jack." I whisper.

There's a silence on the other end of the line, I can't even hear her breathing. [What happened?] She's fighting for control, fighting to stop from showing how much she still cares about him. I can hear someone asking her if she's okay in the background, but she ignores them and demands, [Daniel? What happened?]

"We... I can't tell you Sam, you know that." I hate this, her having to be left out of the loop because she's no longer got the necessary clearance.

[I'm sorry.] She whispers, and I know she's not just sorry because I can't tell her. Those two words were delivered with such a complete desperation that I know she's not apologising to me. She's apologising to Jack.

"He... he should be back in a few months." I continue, struggling not to cry as her words hang in my ears.

[A few months?] She sounds completely shocked, confused even.

"Yeah. The best we can do..."

[It happened again, didn't it?] She realises, and I swear there's relief on her voice.

"Sam..." I'm not supposed to tell her anthing, excpet that Jack's MIA. "Yes."

[Why's it going so long?] She demands.

"I can't tell you, Sam, you know that." I try, trying to convince myself of the fact also.

[Damn it Daniel, I don't care. Why will it take so long?]

"The Asguard are busy. We're asking some others for help and it's the best they can do." I relent, hoping General Hammond won't kill me.

[Daniel... please. I just need to know what happened.]

"We were on a planet called Edora, watching a meteorite shower. The planet got blasted and in the confusion a boy went missing. Jack and Thomas went to find him... we don't know for certain that he's alive, Sam." I admit.

[So why can't he come home?] She demands, desperation on her voice. I do believe that if Jack appeared in front of her this minute she'd see sense and throw herself into his arms, and I don't really think that you'd be able to separate them after that.

"A meteorite struck the gate and we're pretty sure it was buried..."

[You mean it survived a direct hit?] She sounds shocked.

"Yes. Unfortunately nothing can get through though..." I start out.

[Daniel... I want you to get every single mission file out for me, okay?]

"Sam..."

[And get Alex called in. I'll be there within the hour.] And then she hangs up, and I'm left standing with a dialing tone beeping in my ear and the distinct uneasy feeling in my gut that General Hammond is going to kill me or severely maim me for telling Sam as much as I did.

~*~

"So... how long do you think it will be before we go home?" Thomas asks, sniffing at the bread on the table in front of us.

"I don't know. Thor's ship only took an hour or so..."

"We had to wait for them to contact us first though." Thomas points out, placing a chunk of the food into his mouth.

"Who else do we know?" I ask, straining my memory. The Nox? Nope...

"The Tollan." Thomas says after a while.

"You mean those guys you saved from the Goa'uld a while ago?"

"Yep." Thomas nods again, his face calm as he swallows his mouthful. "We helped them out, they shoud help us out."

"Stands to reason." I agree, finishing off my own food.

"Jack. Paul." We turn to look as Laira heads over to us, her face hopeful.

"What's up?" Thomas asks cheerily, moving over so that she can sit down next to him.

"Winter will come soon, and we have much to do before that. The fields must be harvested... and there are not many of us now." She hesitates. "Would you help us?"

"Sure." I nod. It's the least we could do. While we're waiting to be rescued we might as well help these people that are sharing everything they have with us.

Thomas nods his assent and stands up. "What do you want us to do?"

"Once you have finished the morning meal I can give you some work clothes." Laira offers, her eyes hesitating as the words pass over her lips. "I have some shirts..."

"That'd be good." I say softly. Her husband, I remember, died a few years back. Judging by the way she turned so quiet when she mentioned him yesterday, I have no doubt that they loved it each other a lot.

"You believe you are going home." It's not a question, it's a statement.

"Yes."

"And my people?"

"Chances are they'll be brought back here." Thomas agrees while I lean over and pat her hand comfortingly. I know how it feels to be seperated from everyone you care about, everyone you know. I am going through what she's going through.

"So, what's on the agenda for today?" I ask, also standing up.

"Plenty." She smiles slightly and stands up, leaving the room without another word.

"She doesn't believe you." Thomas says after a while.

"So?" I look at him. "We're going home, Thomas. Give it a month, two at most. We're going home."

~Thirty Three~

~*~

"Hey there, Graham!" I grin at the young man, watching as a smile lights up on his face. "Haven't seen you for a while."

"How are you?" He asks, glancing around to check that no one of much consequence is watching.

"Great. You?" I give him a quick hug and start off down the hallway again, motioning for him to follow me.

"Fine." He falls into step with me and watches me curiously. "What brings you to our base for the day?" He asks curiously.

"Been roped in by General Hammond to help Captain Carter..." I say, not quite clear on the specifics.

"Oh." He frowns for a second, his eyes darting towards me.

"What?"

"She's grasping at straws." He says eventually.

"Why do you say that?" I come to a halt outside General Hammond's office.

"Bester and the other scientists are pretty certain there's nothing she can do."

"About what?"

"Good morning, Dr. Lawson." General Hammond appears out of his office, raising an eyebrow at Graham Simmons who immediately snaps off a quick, jerky salute and disappears back up the hallway.

"General." I greet him, waiting for an explanation. "May I ask what this is about?"

"Colonel O'Neill and Major Thomas are stuck on a planet..." He starts out.

"I beg your pardon?" I blink. This is a joke, right?

"A meteorite struck the Stargate, and as the wormhole still connects everyone is satisfied that it's still functional. The only problem is we can't send a probe through, so Dr. Bester thinks the gate is buried..."

"And Captain Carter is trying to think of a way to unbury it." I frown.

"Right. Now, I won't lie to you Alex, according to all the scientists on base this one is a lost situation. We have asked the Tollan and they can have a ship near Edora - the planet O'Neill and Thomas are on - by next year."

"That's too long." I shake my head, already agreeing with the Captain's determination.

"I thought you might think so." He smiles slightly.

"How long have they been there?"

"Four, nearly five days." He admits, frowning slightly. "We don't have any way of knowing if they're alive, Alex." He says gently.

"As long as it's a possiblity, Sir, I think we should put in every effort."

He smiles at me, his eyes twinkling at my determination. "I have every bit of faith in both you and Captain... Doctor Carter." He frowns slightly, but it's gone before I have any grounds to ask him about it. It saddens him, I think, that the daughter of one of his friends isn't in the military anymore, that she isn't in the position that was rightfully hers and is now held by a civilian.

"Great. Where is she?"

"She's taken over Dr. Bester's lab..." He doesn't have to say the words, 'her old lab' because that lab used to be mine after it was hers.

"Great, I'll head straight down to her." I smile at him and depart quickly, my mind spinning. If the gate is buried, why don't the men just dig it out? Unless, they don't know *where* it's buried, or they can't get to it.

I frown. How can we dig it out from this end if we can't even get anything sent through... the matter must be unable to re-integrate as it comes out of the wormhole, which means there must be some sort of iris over it... how to penetrate that iris?

"Morning, Dr. Lawson." The SF on duty looks very familiar, but I can't place his name as I nod my greeting to him and step into the lab.

She's sitting at the table, that Bird perched firmly on her shoulder while she scratches furiously through the piles of paper on the desk. I don't think she's even noticed I'm here, and judging by the furious mutterings coming from her I don't think she'll notice for a while yet unless I make my presence known.

"Morning Sam." I greet her.

Her head whips up, surprise clearly written in the blue depths.

"Did I scare you?" I grin.

"What?" She blinks. "Oh, no. Is it morning already?" She frowns. I nod at the question, quickly taking in the dark circles under her eyes and the empty coffee mugs strewn around the place.

"I take it you've been here a while." I say, making my way over to her.

"What? Oh yeah." She nods, then looks at me. "Alex, I need you to think for me. Has there been *any* instances where something has penetrated the iris?" She asks, turning back to her scratching.

"The iris?" I blink.

"Yeah. I figure that something, probably naquadah given the soil samples, was melted when the meteorite struck. Because the wormhole was open, it set *over* the even horizon and formed a shield, like our iris." She explains quickly.

"I was thinking somethign along those lines." I admit.

"Good. Now, I'm not aware of anything being able to penetrate the iris, and neither is the SF out front."

"Well, about a month after I left they gated to a planet with a black hole..." I start, frowning to remember that incident. General Hammond had me called in, and in the end Bester and I had come up with a way...

"I read something somewhere, but I didn't think anything useful would be in there..." She admits, digging through her papers. She resurfaces a second later, clutching a bundle. "Yep..." She waits for me to continue.

"The gravity & time distortion both came through even though the iris was closed." I offer. "The time distortion ahead of the gravitational effect though..."

"Really?" She blinks, amazement in her eyes. "That's incredible. I'm going to have to go through all of these soon." She decides. "That doesn't really help us though..."

"No. It doesn't." I sigh. "How about we go through all the reports after I left?" I suggest.

"That might be good." She agrees.

There's silence for another while as we both start flipping through the reports, our eyes skimming the matter, searching for anything to help us.

"HERE!" She squeals suddenly, causing Bird to mutter angrily. "A particle beam generator!" She grins.

"What?" I blink.

"Somehow this Sokar bombarded the iris with particles. They were small enough to reintigrate and then release energy when they hit the iris..."

"How do we do one of those?" I take the report from her, skimming the bit she's highlighted.

"I don't know. But it's possible, now it's just a matter of doing it." She sounds satisfied with herself.

"You do realise we're going to have to do some serious law changing when it comes to the physics of the machine?"

"I know." She shrugs, sitting back in her chair. "But it's possible, Alex, which means that we can do this."

I gaze at her for a second, impressed by her sheer determination. "Yes, we can do this. As soon as you've had some sleep."

"Alex..." She starts.

"You want Janet in here waving her needles around?" I demand. "There are *two* of us working on this, Sam. We can do it, as long as we get some sleep." I remind her.

"I know, but..."

"No buts. I'll go call Janet myself if you don't get up and go find a bed *now*."

She glares at me before tidying up the desk and getting to her feet. "Fine."

"We will get him back you know." I break the silence as we walk towards the VIP rooms where she's been stationed.

"I know that..." She hesitates.

"Sam, I promise you, we'll get him back for you."

She offers a watery smile and then disappears into her room. Right now, I need to go talk to Bester and find out exactly how long Sam's been here, working, and what exactly he knows about a 'particle beam generator.' Something tells me this could be a very big project we're undertaking.

~*~

"Hey, Colonel!" I catch sight of the man I'm looking for standing in his usual haunt, the riverbed. Judging by the way he's always heading here on his 'off' time, I'm guessing that he's very much a water person.

"Thomas." He doesn't look at me, but by the nod of his head I can tell he doesn't mind my presence.

"Escaping Laira?" I tease him, watching him frown slightly.

"What do you mean?" He asks eventually, throwing the last of his stones over the water. I watch as they skip along the surface, finally splashing into the water and disappearing from view.

"You know what I mean. Someone likes you." I tease him again, watching as his cheeks colour slightly.

"What can I say? I'm irresistable."

I roll my eyes and wait until he turns to face me.

"What?" He demands, narrowing his eyes.

"Uh... I don't intend to pry here Colonel, or stick my nose in where it isn't wanted, but if you're not interested in her then you probably shouldn't lead her on like that."

"How do you know I'm not interested in her?" He retorts, digging in his pocket and revealing another handful of stones.

"Well... you don't go looking for her company, you don't initiate anything between the two of you, you seem slightly awkward when anybody so much as mentions something along those lines..."

"What's your point, Thomas?" He snaps, annoyed.

"Nothing. I'm just saying that I think she's getting the wrong idea."

He's silent for a while, throwing another stone across the pond.

"Maybe I *am* interested in her." He says, but it's half-hearted.

"You're not." I know that, for a fact, it's a certainty.

He spins around, anger blazing in his eyes. "And just how do you know who I'm interested in and who I'm not interested in?" He demands angrily.

"You're only interested in Sam Carter." I state bluntly, watching him. His eyes widen slowly and I can see his jaw muscles clench once, but that's the only indication he gives that I've hit on a sore spot.

"How do you know that?" He asks quietly, but I can hear the steel and tension in his voice, ready to snap.

"I'm not stupid, Colonel. Neither's Daniel or Bester or Mason or Alex or Janet or even General Hammond." I take a quick breath. "You won't speak about her. You won't let anyone else speak about her in your presence, you act as if you couldn't care. Which is all a lie."

He stares at me, his jaw hanging open slightly as his shocked eyes take a few more minutes to process the information.

"Well, Thomas." He says eventually, regaining his control. "Even though this has *nothing* to do with you, there isn't a chance in hell that Carter and I will ever get together."

"How come?" I ask, watching. He scrunches his face up slightly, almost as if he squashing any emotion out of the way.

"We talked about it and she made her choice."

"What about you?"

"What I want doesn't matter." he says simply, turning away from me again. "It's the moving on thing again, Thomas. I learnt on Kaldroon that you have to move on cos life just keeps going. Same thing with Carter. I'm getting over her now and moving on."

"So, what? You're encouraging Laira because you're on the rebound?" I accuse.

He stiffens slightly, but he doesn't deny it.

"That's not very fair." I state softly.

"Life isn't very fair either." But he's not being sarcastic or witty or defending himself, he's just stating a fact and as yet another stone skims across the water and sinks from view I can't help feeling that Laira will drag him down into the river just like that stone sank from view.

"It's only been two weeks, Colonel. We'll be going home soon, and then you can go and talk to Carter..."

"No." He shakes his head.

"No?"

"No. I told you, I'm moving on from Carter."

"Well, wait until you've moved on then before you ruin things with Laira." I frown, confused and slightly annoyed by his attitude.

"And just who do you think you are, ordering me around?" He lashes out.

"Your CO." I remind him icily, daring him to argue. He opens his mouth, ready to whip me to pieces, when he realises I am right. So what if his situation breaks all the usual military regulations, so what if I'm a lowering ranking officer than he is. So what. I am the CO of this mission, and he knows it.

"Last time I looked, CO's can't order their subordinates how to live their private lives."

"This isn't your private life, Colonel O'Neill. You are still under my command on a mission, however extended it may be." I reply scathingly.

He glares at me for a minute.

"Permission to be dismissed, *sir*."

"Granted." I manage through my clenched teeth as he salutes me and marches off stiffly. Jack O'Neill is the first person I've who can turn respect into an insult.

~*~

The numbers and equations seem to be swimming on the sheet of paper in front of me, dancing an incredible dance that my eyes can't follow and, in return, no sense can be made of what is happening on the page.

"Here." I start slightly, turning to find Janet standing next to me. "I brought you some coffee."

"Thanks." I accept the steaming beverage and watch her slyly from beneath my lashes as I sip at it.

"You know what I'm going to tell you, don't you." She sighs slightly, her eyes defeated as she looks at me.

"Go to bed?" I guess, knowing I'm right.

"Yes." She sighs again, shaking her head. "Sam, you're not going to do him any good if you collapse..."

"I'm not going to do him any good either if I sleep." I point out tiredly.

"All I'm trying to say is, we all know you're going to solve this, it's just going to take time."

"Yeah, well if I allow myself to think like that, Janet, then it's going to take months."

"Sam..."

"What's the time now?"

"0330."

"Alex should get here around 0800, right? I'll go to bed then. Promise."

"And you'll sleep?"

"Yes." I nod, knowing that I probably won't but willing to play along for some peace and quiet.

"Okay. I finish my shift just before then, so I'm going to hang around for a while anyway, just to make sure." She tells me, standing up and turning to walk away.

"Janet?" I hesitate, watching as she turns back around to look at me. There's a long suffering look in her eyes as she gazes at me, obviously tired of the same arguement we've been having for the last month, but I can't just go to sleep like that. They make it sound too easy. The last time I went to sleep easily was our last night in the infirmary months ago, when we first came back from Kaldroon, when I slept with the Colonel.

"What is it?" She waits for a minute.

"I... I'm sorry, okay?"

"For what?" She frowns, confused.

"Being difficult, arguing with you..."

"You should go to bed if you want to apologise."

"I can't, Janet, even if I did go and lie down, I wouldn't sleep because..."

"I can give you something." She offers gently.

"No." I shake my head, swallowing roughly. "I'll see you later, okay?"

"Okay." She agrees softly. I know she's not happy with me, but I can't help that.

I rub my eyes and open them wide, glaring down at the paper in front of me. Why? Why can't I find the answers? I've got so much stuff, so much *knowledge* floating around in my brain at the moment... but it's all fuddled, blocked by the emotions swimming around in me as well.

Fear. Anger. Hope. Anxiety. Love. Regret. Determination. All these things are surfacing now, and they're forming a frosted glass shield over my knowledge, letting me glimpse it but not letting me see it clearly enough to access it.

I sigh again, finishing the last of the drink and placing the mug on a stray sheet of paper. I watch as the paper underneath it slowly turns soggy as the little bit of moisture clinging to the bottom of the mug gets absorbed.

I was horrible to him. I don't deserve him. I don't deserve any of them. I don't deserve the friendship they're still giving me, the support... even the scoldings to take better care of myself. I don't deserve any of it, not after my treatment of them and literally cutting all ties with them.

But they still give it to me. They give me the love I haven't felt from any one for a long time, they give me support by bringing me coffee while I work, sitting next to me, doodling on bits of paper, scolding me, just being there for me.

Why?

I stare down at my ruined arm lying limply in my lap. I've taken to wearing a long sleeved top all the time. It's a pain in the backside - or Mikta as Mason would say - in summer, because I get so hot, but it stops the sympathetic stares and looks I get from my new work colleagues, and it also helps me to forget sometimes because I can easily hide my hand from view and just pretend my arm is still fine.

This arm... this ruined arm of mine is simply mirroring what's on the inside. All the bad things I feel, I've seen, I've done... they're the little withered bits on my soul. Now, the bad bits are becoming visible on my physical body, in the form of this arm.

Everyone knows that we all have withered bits on our soul, the only thing is that most of the time we don't see each other's withered bits. The only difference with my arm is that everyone can see it. I didn't simply close off my existance and run away every time something bad happened to me and withered my soul a bit more, but I'm running away because something bad happened to me and withered my arm.

I snort in disgust as I tear my eyes away from my arm. I'm getting tired. Too tired. My brain is busy spinning out whacky, lame metaphors that make no sense whatsoever... but still...

I frown, glancing back down at my arm.

That's all it is. It's my arm. It's not who I am, it's not who I've become... it's just a part of me.

I blink, and then for the first time in months I feel the first real stabs of acceptance shoot through me, adding to the emotions in me. My arm is ruined. So what? My brain is still fine... I can still bring him home and apologise to him.

With a slight smile hovering around my lips I turn back to the sheet of paper. The writing is still swimming, the answers are still hidden behind that shield of frosted glass, but instead of the hopeless despair I'd been feeling moments before, a determination sets in and I *know* that we'll suceed.

~*~

"Laira, can I talk to you?" I ask hesitantly, watching her bend over the basket of washing.

"Of course." She smiles up at me and straightens, clutching a faded shirt in her hands.

"I need to talk to you about the Colonel. Jack." I state, glancing around guiltily. If he caught me having this conversation... I don't even want to *think* about that. He won't accept the fact that I'm trying to do him a favour.

"What is it you want to speak about?" She frowns, obviously unsure of why I'm doing this behind his back.

"Well... uh... this is hard. Could we go somewhere?" I ask hesitantly, watching her warily.

"Of course. We will go to the river." She states calmly. I wait a few seconds as she folds up the shirt and places it on top of the neat bundle and then turns to look at me. "Come."

We walk in silence for a while, until we reach the shores. I watch as the river aimlessly toys with the reeds and grasses as it passes, the colour slowly being leached out of them. That's how I feel, slowly but surely my hope of us returning is being leached out of me. We've been here for a month and a half already... surely it won't be much longer.

"You wanted to speak to me?" She waits, her eyes focused calmly and expectantly on mine.

"Uh... back on Earth, at home..." I start out.

"Your home is here now, Paul." She points out gently.

"No Laira, it's not. This isn't my home, and it's not the Colonel's home either."

"You can't go home, Paul..."

"We've told you already, Laira, we are friends with races who can travel through space, from world to world without the Stargate. They'll come and fetch us, it'll just take time."

"What of my people?" This is an old arguement, we've covered this ground what feels like hundreds of times.

"I don't know, Laira. I'm sure they'll be brought back here as well."

She's silent for a while, her eyes now focused on the river. "What is it that you want to tell me?"

"Laira... I... I don't want you to take offence... but.." I stutter helplessly. How do I tell her? How do I tell her the man she's flirting with and who's flirting back with her so shamelessly has already got someone back home. Okay, so maybe they're not together as such, but things can always change in that aspect.

"I will not." She says calmly, concern now present on her voice.

"Well... The Colonel doesn't really talk much about how he feels... but... he already cares for someone, Laira." I stumble over the words, watching her face. "They had an argument just before he left... and they didn't part very well."

"Why are you telling me this?" She whispers, pain on her face.

"He's hiding Laira, running from something because he's scared." I say carefully. "It's not that he doesn't like you, it's just that when we go home..."

"I cannot believe that you will go home, Paul." She says softly. "It has been nearly a season, and yet they still have not returned for you."

"I know that. It just takes time. The Colonel was on a world for two years before he was finally taken home..."

"How do you know you won't be here for that amount of time also?" She demands, anger on her face.

"I don't, Laira. All I do know is he's not over her yet, he's trying to hide his feelings for her by developing feelings for you." I stumble around. This was stupid, it was a dumb idea. I should just order the Colonel to ignore Laira... but I can't do that. Not morally and not really with any grounds other than my own personal beliefs that just happened to be shared by nearly everyone who knows the two of them.

"A hundred days." She says softly, her eyes lost on the river again.

"Pardon?"

"When my husband died, I mourned him for a hundred days. I did not speak, I did not leave my house..." She trails off.

"And then?"

"I spoke to people. I left my house."

"I know what you're saying, Laira." I frown, still struggling to make her understand. "But Carter isn't dead, she's very much alive... just like the Colonel is very much going to go home again."

"He must choose by himself, Paul. It is not for you to decide." She says softly, her eyes determined but strangely saddened as she gazes up at me.

"I know that. I'm just telling you that you should know these things." I agree eventually. It is up to the Colonel. It is up to him to choose who he would rather love and commit to. It's not my choice to make for him.

~*~

"I'm worried about her, Sir." I let my eyes bore determinedly into the General and he nods slightly.

"I understand that, Doctor Fraiser... but both her and Dr. Lawson believe that they're nearly there."

"They'be been at it for nearly two months now, Sir!" I snap, glaring at him. "In that time, I'm only aware of Sam going to be every second night and only remaining there for a few hours. I don't know if she sleeps or not, and I have no idea how she functioning with less than five hours sleep for every two days... but the fact is, it's going to catch up with her, and by the looks of it, sooner rather than later."

"Janet..." I pause as he looks at me, his eyes accepting. "You know that even if we *do* order her to sleep, she'll just lie there and brood or think of ways to improve the machine..."

"I could sedate her, Sir."

"No." General Hammond shakes his head, rubbing his face with his hands. "I can't order her to be sedated, and you know that."

"Sir, with all due respect!" I flare up. Doesn't he understand? Doesn't he understand that this could *kill* her? Literally!

"Dr. Fraiser, I understand your concern and I will speak to Dr. Carter, but I can not authorise you to sedate her anymore than I can order her around now. She's not military anymore." He reminds me softly, a sorrow in his eyes that belies the one in his heart.

"Yes Sir." I accept it reluctantly, this order - or lack of one - going against *everything* in my principles of being a doctor. Can't she see what she's doing to herself?

"Dismissed." He says gently, and I don't say anything as I let myself out of his office.

Maybe I should take her some food... sneak something into it... I shake my head slightly. No. I can't do that. Not to myself or to her either.

I stand in the doorway of the labs for a second, watching as Alex and Sam work together, both oblivious to my presence. I'm happy to see that Alex, for once, has a sense of mind and goes home every night for sleep, food and her amenities.

"Samantha Carter." I snap, catching sight of an untouched plate of food from lunchtime.

"Janet?" She looks up at me innocently, dark circles and hollow cheeks telling the truth about her state of well being.

"You didn't eat lunch." I sigh, pointing to the plate.

She blinks in surprise and then glances at her watch. "Oh, sorry, I guess I just lost track of time."

"Again." I sigh. "Alex..."

"I told her, Janet..." She says guiltily.

"But then you forgot too, huh?" I sigh and enter the room. "That's it. The two of you will go to the comissary *now* and get something to eat. A *proper* meal for the two of you, more so for Sam than you, Alex. And then you *will* go home Alex, and Sam you will go to your quarters and sleep. And if I don't find you fast asleep when I come to check on you..." I let the sentence hang, hoping my threat works.

"Janet..." Sam hesitates, eyeing me hopefully. "We're nearly there... all we need to do is..."

"Ack!" I shake my head and act very much like a certain Colonel used to. "I don't want to hear it. Commissary. NOW." I bark, pointing down the hallway. Like two guilty school girls caught giggling they traipse past me, heads hung low and shoulders slumped apologetically. Good.

I decide to follow them, just in case they decide that they're not going to listen to me, and together we enter the commissary.

"Food." I remind them as they pause for a minute. "And no coffee, Sam. Milk. Warm milk."

"Janet..." She turns to me, disgust on her features.

"I don't want to hear it Sam. You say you won't sleep. I'm not entirely surprised, given all that caffeine floating around in your system. Warm milk." I raise my eyebrows, daring her to argue.

She opens her mouth to protest, but then catches sight of something that causes her to grin widely instead. "Teal'c!" She exclaims, catching sight of the Jaffa.

"Dr. Carter." He dips his head, but the slight smile on his face shows he's happy to see her.

"Teal'c, maybe you can convince Sam to have some rest." I suggest, my eyes still focused on Sam.

"I believe it would be beneficial to both yourself and Colonel O'Neill if you were to rest, Dr. Carter." He says, and I can tell by the way he tilts his head and watches her that he's serious about the statement.

Sam glares at me again before accepting the food Alex puts down next to her. "Thanks." She looks down at the food and sighs.

"Don't even think about telling me you're not hungry." I warn her, watching.

She sighs this time, and her shoulders slump suddenly in exhaustion. "I'm tired, Janet." She whispers softly, burying her face in her hands. "I'm so tired..."

Food forgotten, I go over to her and pull her gently to her feet. "I know. Come on." She walks slowly, half staggering between myself and Teal'c. She doesn't even make it to the door before she sways and nearly collapses, only saved from dropping on the floor by one ready and waiting Jaffa.

"Let's take her to the infirmary." I sigh, checking her vitals quickly before letting Teal'c carry her out of the commissary.

I knew this would happen. I knew she'd collapse. I think the only reason this didn't happen sooner was because she wouldn't let herself think about it, she purposely ignored sleep and food because she knew that if she acknowledged them she'd lost the battle.

Once I've got her settled on a bed, I place a phonecall to General Hammond, and tell him in no uncertain terms that I'm the base CMO and I'm over- riding any further orders he is going to give concerning Sam's health. Feeling very annoyed at myself and Sam for putting us in this position, I station a nurse on watch duty to make sure she doesn't do anything stupid when she wakes up, and go make sure that Alex goes home, with orders to stay away for five days at least.

"Janet..." Alex protests, but I can see her heart's not really in it. She's just protesting for Sam.

"Alex, Sam has just worked herself into a state of exhaustion... you will go home and take some time off. I don't want to see you in here until Tuesday, okay?" I watch her.

"Janet..." Alex hesitates. "We talked..."

"About?" I frown.

"Well, not much." Alex studies me, her eyes pensive. "You know she loves him, don't you?"

"Well, she's never said anything to me." I'm not stupid, I know who Alex is talking about.

"Me neither." Alex shrugs and continues. "She apologised at any rate."

"For what?" I'm confused now.

"Treating me the way she did." Alex has a funny smile on her face. "She never treated me badly, I don't think she treated anyone badly. Did she?"

"Not that I know of."

"She thinks she did, running off like that." Alex pauses before continuing. "She apologised for it, and then when I said it didn't matter she smiled slightly before working again. Janet..."

"What are you thinking?" I pounce, knowing that look in her eye all to well.

"You don't think she's like this because she thinks it's her fault..."

"How could it possibly be her fault?" I nearly laugh.

"Well, maybe she thinks that if she talked to the Colonel, to all of us... I don't know. She's desperate... she gets so frustrated and worked up when things don't work..."

"I know." I smile again, remembering other times when Sam lost her temper with bits of machines that wouldn't work.

"It's stupid... but I think that she won't stop until she's got him back."

"I know that. I knew that from the beginning."

She pauses again, watching me narrowly. "How did you know that?"

"Other than the desperate, driven look in her eye and the way she completely threw herself into work?" I ask, raising an eyebrow and earning a smile from Alex as she realises my words are true. "I saw the alternate reality's Jack O'Neill. To judge by the level of his grief I'd say the two of them were completely devoted to one another, if that word describes it adequately.

"She died for him, didn't she?" Alex whispers, her brow furrowed in thought. "Do you think Sam would...?"

"Yes. She nearly did. Twice now." I agree.

"Twice?"

"She threw herself into a river after him..." I admit. "And now this... I'm worried about her Alex, this could have serious effects on her permanent health, not just her present health." I watch her pointedly. "Please, Alex, don't let it get to this again. Okay?"

"Okay." Alex agrees, subdued. No one had taken me seriously, and Sam's collapse just proves that. I think they were all more concerned about getting the Colonel and the Major home. And while I'm not angry at them for not trusting my judgement, I do think that they should *all* have been paying more attention to Sam's health and state of well-being also. Myself included.

"See you on Tuesday." I hug her briefly, showing I'm not still angry at her, and then we part.

~Thirty Four~

~*~

He's not happy with me. He's *really* not happy with me.

Then again, I'm not particularly happy with *him* either.

"Colonel..." His voice hesitates, but I don't turn to look at him. Instead, I scratch irritably at my stomach. Despite assurances from Laira and every other woman in this village that these shirts and pants are very good quality and will last for 'several seasons of hard work', they are itchy and uncomfortable as anything.

I'm not making this easy for him, and I'm pretty sure that he's trying to hold out an olive brother. Another olive branch. This would be... oh, about... number eight, I think. Maybe it's nine. I don't know, don't really care either.

"Jack." He sighs, and I raise an eyebrow even though he can't see it because I'm facing the river and he's facing my back. Jack? Since when is it *Jack*?

"Paul." I return smoothly, still not facing him.

"I shouldn't have said anything..."

"I know that." I agree with him, skipping another stone across the river. Wow! Six jumps. That's pretty damn good, even for me!

"You're not making this easy."

"I'm sorry, I wasn't aware that I was supposed to make this easy for you."

"Would you shut up for a minute so I can talk to you?" He sighs.

"You not going to make that an order?" I can't help myself. I'm angry. Not so much at him, more at myself than anyone else, but he's the only person who I can really take my anger out on.

"Why do I even try?" He snaps, and I can hear the grass crunch under his boots as he turns to march off.

I turn and watch him walk off, and I feel a smidgeon of disgust and anger at myself for treating him like this. It's not fair on him... but I can't bring myself to apologise to him.

"Jack?" A feminine voice asks, intruding very rudely on my brooding.

"Laira." I'm not particularly nice or encouraging to her either, definitely not very good company but for some strange reason she seems to persist on talking to me.

"You were arguing with Paul, I could not help over hearing." She says gently. No, I don't suppose she could help over hearing given the fact that our voices were probably a lot louder than a normal speaking tone thanks to my orinariness.

I don't say anything, not even as she comes up to me and slips her hands around my arm, leaning against my side.

"Are you coming to eat?" She asks gently.

"No, I'm not hungry." I shake my head, flinging another stone with venom.

"You are lying." She's not accusing me, must telling me she knows that I'm not being honest with her.

"Laira..." I hesitate, looking down at her brown head resting on my shoulder.

Brown. Brown curls that bounce on the breeze and glow slightly red in firelight.

Not blond. Not short and touseled, not smooth and silky, not even long and tied back with a leather strip.

She's not Carter. Who am I trying to fool? Only myself and everyone else, apparently.

"Yes?" She looks up at me, her eyes questioning.

"Paul's right." I admit, looking back at the water. I can feel her become slightly wary, but she doesn't let go or move from her position.

"About what?" She asks, almost as if she doesn't really want to her my answer to the question.

"About me." This is hard. I never admit to things like this.

There's silence for a while, and I'm aware of her fingers tracing patterns on my arm, almost absently. It's nice, having a woman who wants your company, who obviously admires you and finds you funny... but it's not the same as having the woman you love near you.

"I'm sorry, Laira." I don't make any move to let her go, I want her to do it herself. She doesn't seem to share my ideas though, and presses herself a little closer to me.

I look down at her, to try and let my 'expressive' eyes tell her that she's only a friend and that's all she'll ever be, but as I turn my head she reaches up and touches her lips lightly with mine.

It's.... nice. That's all. Nice. Nothing explodes inside me, no huge emotions are triggered... nothing. It's just... nice. Pleasant even... but that's all.

"Laira..." I pull away, shaking my head slightly. "I'm sorry." I tell her. She studies me, and I can see the slightest traces of tears in her eyes, but she won't cry. Laira is strong, I'd even go so far as to say nearly as strong as Carter, which is probably what drew me to her in the first place.

"Me too." She whispers and licks her lips slightly, nervousness and awkwardness settling over both of us. She lets me go then, and steps away slightly, focusing her eyes on the water. I follow her lead and look out over the water. "Will you come and share a meal with us?" She asks eventually, still not looking at me.

"No, I'm not hungry." I repeat my lame excuse, but this time she accepts my words with a quiet nod and then softly retreats away.

I rub my face with my hands. I've screwed up. Big time. What was I doing, fooling around with Laira? I turn around and catch sight of Thomas watching me with a disgusted, if not slightly resentful expression before he also turns on his heel and marches off in the opposite direction to Laira.

Oh damn.

~*~

"Hello." I pop my head around the corner and am greeted by an empty bed. Okay. So the last I was aware, she was still supposed to be in that bed.

"Looking for Sam?" Janet's next to me all of a sudden, having done her quiet 'doctor/military' walk thing and snuck up without being heard.

"As a matter of fact, yes." I nod my head. "I thought she might appreciate some cookies..." I hold the bag up, and she grins.

It's a tradition from the old days. If Sam was laid up in the infirmary, I'd bring her Chocolate Walnut Cookies. If I was laid up, then she'd bring me some. Everyday for the last two weeks that she's been in official 'bed rest', I've been bringing her the snack despite protests that she'll get fat. Huh. She's still so skinny that I can count the bones in her hands and get a first hand view of how they all move and work as she moves her hands.

"She's gone to the labs..."

"Already?" I blink.

"Yes." Janet nods, but I sense there's a catch.

"Oh?" I wait for more information.

"Two hours in the morning, then rest and lunch, two hours in the afternoon and then sleep, dinner and sleep again."

"She's not going to be happy about that." I grin slightly, but able to understand Sam's frustration.

"Daniel... I don't care." Janet states pointedly, daring me to argue.

"I'm just saying..." I hold up my hands innocently. "Well, want a cookie?" She smiles at me and shakes her head, wrinkling her nose at the thought of walnuts in the cookie. I grin in return and then head off to the labs.

Even with Sam being out of action for the last two weeks, work hasn't gone to a standstill on the generator. Both Bester and Alex have been putting in a lot of time on the device, and according to reports I've heard they're not far off from completion.

Sure enough, I enter the lab to see Sam, Alex and Bester very busily involved in a discussion.

"Tea - break." I announce, holding up my little bag of cookies.

"More?" Sam asks, smiling slightly as she looks at me.

"More." I agree and head over to the percolater they've relocated into the labs. Yum... coffee and cookies. My favourite.

"So how's it going?" I ask as we all munch on cookies and sip on our beverages. All of us, that is, except Sam. She took a bite out of a cookie and a sip from her coffee before her eyes suddenly opened wide and she nearly jumped with excitement.

Sensing her excitement, Alex also gulps down last mouthful of coffee before she also puts her mug down and joins Sam at the generator. I listen with half an ear to the excited babble going on between the two women, not really understanding much of it, while Bester stands and nods agreeingly while still chewing thoughtfully on his biscuit. This could be good.

"So..." I wait a second. "What exactly have we discovered then?"

Sam looks up at me, grinning. "Another three hours and we should be done."

"Done as in done done?" I check, surprised.

"Yes." She nods eagerly. "We should have them back home within a day!"

"Well... I'll leave you to it then." I grin, relief shooting through me.

A day. One more day and then Jack should be safely back on earth, in the briefing room yelling at me. I can't wait.

I stand aside for a minute, watching as Sam starts working on the generator again. How can someone so incredibly intelligent and amazing be so completely stupid when it comes to dealing with emotions? I've watched her this last month and a half, completely devoting herself to bringing him home. She feels guilty. The way she's apologising not only to me but everyone else as well... she feels guilty and that guilt coupled with her feelings for Jack...

There's nothing I want more right now than to have Jack walk back down that ramp and have the two of them tell one another that they love each other. I *know* what they're missing out on, I can see what they mean to each other simply by the way they say the other's name, the looks in their eyes... even their body language... and they deserve some happiness. They deserve to have the same kind of love that I had with Sha're... and even though I don't have Sha're anymore, I still want them to have it, even if it's only so that I can experience the warmth of that emotion through them because I'm their friend and their love will spill into my life.

"Bring him home, Sam. Bring them both home." I whisper before leaving the room, the three of them probably unaware of the fact that I've left.

~*~

I catch sight of him in the corner of my eye. In one fluid movement I rise to my feet, bringing my bread and drink with me, and step out of the dim room where we all eat and make my way out into the fields to sit and eat in peace beneath a tree.

I want nothing to do with him.

I feel betrayed. I feel betrayed, not only for myself, but for Carter too. How could he?

Fair enough, there isn't actually anything going on between O'Neill and Carter, but to kiss *Laira*? Right after refusing to listen to my apology?

A twig cracks behind me, and I know that it's him. Fair enough, he has black ops training, but he *wants* me to know he's there.

"What do you want?" I demand.

"To apologise." He says stiffly, but I don't budge from my position beneath the tree. It's not the most comfortable position in the world, scratch that, it's one of the most uncomfortable positions I've ever had the misfortune of putting myself into. The dumb nobbly bits are digging into my back and the roots are...

"For what?" I derail my aimless train of thought and turn half of my attention to the man grovelling behind me. Well, not grovelling *yet*.

"For my treatment of you." Geez, the man sounds so stiff and formal you'd think that this was a forced apology.

"Oh."

There's a tense silence for a while, and suddenly he's sitting half next to me, his shoulder brushing against mine as he also parks himself against the tree. Ha. Now he gets to be uncomfortable too.

"You were right." He says eventually, and I have to be careful that I don't suddenly choke on the piece of bread in my mouth.

"I was?" I manage, swallowing my water roughly.

"Yes."

"About what?" I'm not making this easy for him, but then, he didn't make things easy for me either, did he?

"Everything." He sighs. "It was a stupid mistake, Thomas."

"What? Arguing with me. Of course it was."

"No." He's getting frustrated, ready to flee from this apology, I can tell. Maybe I'm pushing it too much; O'Neill isn't usually an apologetic man or someone who's willing to go into his life - both mistakes and successes - in great detail. "Laira. Encouraging her." I can almost see him spitting that out through clenched teeth.

"Oh." I finish off my bread.

"For what it's worth, Thomas, I was an idiot."

"You mean that?" I check, trying not to grin.

"I'm not putting it in writing... but yeah... I'm an idiot." He sighs.

I shoot him a look over my shoulder. "And Laira?"

"That was her, not me." He says, and I believe him. "I was wrong to play along... but I admitted that to her and then she kissed me."

"Oh. Admitted what?" I don't really have any right to this, but I am taking full advantage of this grovelling, and he knows it *and* there's nothing he can do about it. He owes it to me.

"That I didn't love her."

"No one expected you to love her in a month." I point out, digging for more.

"You want me to say it, don't you?" He sighs, but I can almost hear the hope on his voice.

"Yes."

"I love her. I love Carter. I love Sam Carter." He repeats it, almost like a mantra, and with each uttering I can hear the strength, conviction and happiness grow in their tones. "I love her, Thomas, and when I get home I'm gonna make damn sure she knows that."

I smile silently to myself as we finish off our lunch and just sit together in silence for a while. "O'Neill..."

"What?"

"When we get home, you owe me a beer."

"I owe you a whole damn case of beer." He says vehemently.

We stand up slowly, stretching our legs when I catch sight of Laira coming towards us slowly, a look of apprehension on her face.

"Fair day, Laira." I greet her, feeling happy again.

"Fair day, Paul, Jack." She greets us and then glances over at Jack before looking at me again. "I have not seen either of you since this morning." She starts out.

"Were you looking for us?"

"Yes." She nods again and bites her lip slightly, nervous. "A while ago, before our midday meal, I was cleaning when I thought I heard a sound come from this..." She pulls a 2-way out of the folds of her skirt. "Perhaps a voice."

"You did?" I snatch at the 2-way and look over at O'Neill. "This is Major Thomas, is there anyone out there? Repeat, is there anyone out there?"

"Major Thomas, it is I, Teal'c."

I nearly drop the 2-way; my mouth drops open and I stare dumbly at O'Neill. Teal'c. How did Teal'c...?

"Teal'c? Is that you?" O'Neill snatches the 2-way off me and heads off at a run towards the houses.

"Indeed. It is good to hear your voice, O'Neill."

"Yours too." O'Neill pants as we skid to a halt. "Where are you?" Why were we running?

"At the Stargate. It was buried, O'Neill..."

"We've got you... hold on Teal'c."

Not a word is spoken between the two of us as we gather up picks and shovels, and then following the signal on the 2-way, we head over to where the Stargate used to be.

The blood running through my veins is humming with excitement, adrenaline coursing through my body which seems to have found an incredible strength because with each swing of my pick stones and debris shower over O'Neill and myself, and the hole we've started digging grows visibly deeper.

O'Neill releases a sudden shriek of excitement and drops to his knees as a small hole appears in the ground. He shoves his hand through and the dirt crumbles away, sending a shaft of light down into the inky blackness and illuminating Teal'c's eyes as he gazes up at us.

"Teal'c! You are one stubborn son of a bitch!" O'Neill laughs, our hands scrabbling desperately at the hole and digging it wider.

Home. We're going home.

~Thirty Five~

~*~

That sentimental lump of emotion is back in my throat as I stand at my post, watching the silent stone circle in front of me.

Twice it's tried to steal some one from us, one man, and for a second time it's being cheated of its victory. Thanks to Sam Carter's stubborness and ingenuity, Jack O'Neill will be brought home for a second time, along with Paul Thomas.

I'll be damned if the lump doesn't raise itself a bit higher and brings on a certain burning sensation in my eyes as the red Chevrons engage and the wormhole engages.

"Receiving and IDC, Sir. It's SG-1." The technician announces, and I can even hear a faint trace of relief on his voice.

There's a flurry of movement from behind me, and I don't even have to look to know that despite the strict orders of Dr. Fraiser, Sam Carter has abandoned her assigned chair and fled down the stairs to be in the gate room.

A smile tugs at my lips as I glance over at the doctor who is staring at the doorway with a look of disbelief and complete and utter defeat etched on her features. Feeling my eyes on her, she turns around and returns my gaze evenly.

"I take it Dr. Carter didn't adhere to your orders." I say somewhat tongue- in-cheek.

The good doctor glares at me and then comes and stands beside me, her eyes also focused on the wormhole that is still rippling calmly.

"Despite collapsing and causing some serious concern for her health, she still doesn't seem to understand that she needs to rest." She sighs eventually, her eyes trained on the wormhole. "She promised me..."

I smile to myself. We both knew that Sam wouldn't keep that promise and stay off her feet today if she was allowed to work and extra hour on the generator to bring O'Neill home.

Any response I might have felt compelled to give to her comment is forgotten as the 'water' ripples suddenly and then five figures as spat out of it's depths. "At ease." My words are not necessary as the Airmen in the 'gateroom have already dropped their weapons and are closing in on O'Neill and Thomas to welcome them back.

I smile myself as both of my returned soldiers look up at me and salute, and I offer them a salute and smile in return.

I watch then as O'Neill's attention is diverted and an almost cliched hush falls over the 'gateroom. He's seen Sam then, and he's obviously watching her given the smile on his face.

I can't hear the words that leave his lips as he walks down the ramp, and I can't hear or see if she's saying anything, but it seems to take less than a second for the two of them to walk up to each other. They pause then... hesitating, before he suddenly and fiercely wraps his arms around her and she clings to him just as tightly while he kisses the top of her head. And where I stand here, I can hear her sobs echoeing off the walls and see the smiles on everyones' faces as they watch the reuinion. The lump in my throat grows bigger, he's crying too.

Once again my eyes are prickling, and as I turn discreetly to look for an excuse to blow my nose, I catch sight of Janet Fraiser wiping her eyes as she also watches their reunion.

"It's about time." She states, her voice trembling slightly with emotion. And I agree with her.

~*~

"Well... everything looks fine, Colonel." Jack grins at Janet as she finishes off her examination, closing her folder with a snap.

"So I'm clear to go home then?" He asks hopefully, and I can't help but smile at his usual behaviour. It's good to have him home. Again.

"Yes." She nods, narrowing her eyes slightly. "Do me a favour, would you?"

"Sure." He nods. "You haven't needled me yet and letting me go with relatively little fuss. Why wouldn't I do you a favour?" He tells her cheekily, and she smiles inspite of the news she's trying to keep from him.

"Sam's sitting outside. Would you send her in?"

"Sure." He hesitates. I can see his train of thought. 'Why does she want Carter?' Unless it has something to do with the fact that Sam looks like a skeleton and has panda rings under her eyes.

Janet catches his hesitation, and does a little hesitation of her own which prompts him to ask the question... "Why?"

Once again she does that famous little hesitation thing. "Colonel..." She's not really supposed to tell him, the whole doctor/patient/confidentiality thing coming into play again, but she *wants* to tell him, just like I also want him to know what she did for him.

"What's wrong with her?"

"She's run down, Colonel. She's been working non-stop since you went missing..."

"You mean she..."

"She built the generator with Alex's and Dr. Bester's help... but she barely ate or slept in that time and her body simply could cope with the stress..."

"What are you telling me?" He frowns.

"She collapsed about two weeks ago... exhaustion and the likes." Again she hesitates.

"She's okay though?"

"She will be. If she behaves herself and actually rests properly for a period longer than five minutes." She sighs.

"Oh." Jack stands up. "I'll send her in before I leave. Janet?"

"Yes?" She looks up at me, a smile on her lips.

"Tell her not to leave without talking to me, okay?" Jack persists, but she doesn't look at him, knowing her eyes will betray her. She's just as glad as all of us to have him back, but she won't let herself show it.

"Okay. It's good to have you back, Colonel." She grins at me and surprises me by giving me a quick hug. I smile briefly and follow Jack into the hallway.

"Doc Fraiser wants to see you." We tell Sam as she looks up at him expectantly, her eyes shadowed and slightly scared for some reason. I feel fingers of concern tugging at me, but it's not my place to ask this time.

"Okay. Colonel..." She pauses.

"Where's Bird?" Jack asks suddenly, avoiding a serious conversation. I know my presence is probably the reason, but I'm still annoyed at him for interupting her like that..

"Bird?" She blinks, thrown by the question.

"Yes, Bird. Our yellow and purple parrot."

"Oh. He's with Cassie. She's been looking after him..."

Jack grins slightly. "I'll see you soon, Carter." He promises, and I feel worried at the awkwardness I sense between them suddenly.

"Yes Sir."

I watch her almost slink into the infirmary and direct my frown of confusion at the wall. Before we got back, I was determined that the first thing Jack'd do when he saw her was sweep her up into my arms and kiss her until she relented and admitted she loved and him and would marry him. Well, that's the impression I got from Thomas anyway.

He didn't though, and they still haven't talked or, to my knowledge, confessed how much they mean to each other. That *really* makes me mad.

"Jack..."

"Yes Daniel?" He looks at me expectantly, his eyes hiding any emotions other than interest in my words.

"You're doing it again." He doesn't have to pretend not to understand because we both know what I'm talking about. He sighs slightly and starts walking up the corridor to where the others are waiting for the debriefing.

I rub at my face with my hand. Maybe they'll talk after the debriefing. Yes. When they both have time and he doesn't have to rush off the the debriefing anymore.

I smile slightly and follow them into the debriefing room.

~*~

Never has a debriefing felt so long. Never have I more yearned to escape from the formalities of the Tau'ri. My eyes shift towards the clock. We have been here for nearly an hour now, and I wish to leave.

My family is waiting for me. In the Land of Light where they now live in safety and without fear.

"Teal'c?" General Hammond is looking at me, and I am ashamed to say I do not know what his question is.

O'Neill is staring at me with an amazed look on his face, and I almost smile. He had not thought it possible, that I would not pay attention to a conversation.

"Have you got any other thoughts you'd like to add?"

"No, General Hammond." I shake my head and turn my thoughts back onto the debriefing. They are now discussing what occured after we righted the Stargate, and Dr. Bester, Daniel Jackson, O'Neill and Major Thomas are all correct in their descriptions of our activities.

Despite my resolve to pay attention, I once again find my thoughts slipping towards my family, and I feel a small smile playing around my lips once more. Drey'auc is with child again, and she will give birth to our second child. This child will bear no prim'ta, it will be free, just as I am, and as my wife is, and as my son is.

I look over at O'Neill and Daniel Jackson who are once sitting side by side, squabbling over a detail that is not relevant. Both men are different, and yet, I am proud to be able to call them both my friends. They have both known loss in their lives, yet they both understand and still have the ability to love. While Daniel Jackson has lost his wife and has no one to call his own, I know that he will one day find another.

And O'Neill? He has found another, but I am scared, as are the others, that through their own foolishness and pride they will lose one another. I have watched them grow together during our time on Kaldroon, and their seperation has caused my much sorrow, but it is not for my to take it onto myself. It is something between the two of them only, and for them only to resolve. And, watching O'Neill glance impatiently at his watch, I believe that it will not take long before it is solved.

"Very well then, dismissed. Teal'c, I'll have them dial up the Land of Light for you now." General Hammond offers.

"Thank you, General Hammond." I stand along with the rest of the people in the debriefing room and nod my farewell.

I am going home, for now, and will enjoy my 'downtime' with my family. When I return changes will have been made, and more of my friends will have developed subtle changes during my short time away from them. I can only hope the changes will all be well and beneficial to not only themselves, but to their family and friends also.

~*~

What feels like fifteen hundred years later - although it's only really an hour and a half later - I step from the debriefing room along with Thomas, Daniel, Bester, Teal'c and General Hammond.

"You coming for a drink, O'Neill?" Thomas asks me, his eyes almost daring me to say yes. But I can't say yes. I've got something more important to deal with than coming good on a simple debt repayed with beers.

"No thanks." I shake my head.

"Well... have fun." He grins at me, and I am ashamed to say that I nearly feel myself blush at his deliberate jibe. I send him a dirty look - thankfully no one else seems to have picked up on what we're not talking about out loud - and head off back down to the infirmary to where Carter is no doubt long finished with Dr Fraiser.

"Hey, Janet!" I catch sight of the doctor and grin at her, joy at the thought of smoothing things over with Carter starting to get to me.

"Colonel." Janet looks slightly apologetic as she gazes at me.

"Where's Carter?" I demand. This isn't good... she looks almost as if she's going to say...

"I'm sorry, Sir, but she left."

"I beg your pardon?" I swallow and check to make sure I've heard correctly.

"She left already."

"Oh." Now I'm confused. "Didn't you say that she was exhausted?" I frown. Surely Janet wouldn't let her drive like that...

"She asked Alex to take her home. I couldn't keep her here against her will."

"Oh." I swallow, the blow crushing me but not killing me. "What's her address?" I'm embarrassed that I don't know it, but it's time I changed that.

"Colonel...with all due respect, Sir, I think you should leave it for tonight." She says apologetically.

I stare at her. Leave it? I've left it for six...no, it would be seven and a half months now. I'm not leaving it any longer.

"Janet..."

"Colonel, she needs to sleep, to rest. If you go there now and upset her..."

Me? Upset her? I nearly laugh.

"Sir... please." I sigh. Maybe I've gotten soft in my time off-world, maybe I'm a coward and looking for ways to prolong this, to stall so that I don't have to do it.

"Okay." I sigh, my shoulders slumping.

"I'm sorry, Sir." She whispers, genuine sorrow in her eyes as she gazes at me.

"It's okay." I smile at her, but I know it doesn't reach my eyes. "I think I'll head home too... get some rest."

"Yes Sir." She pauses. "I'll give you her address... for tomorrow." She swallows slightly, and I know she's not happy but I'm guessing that Carter didn't want her to give me her address at all.

I wait the few seconds as she scribbles some letters and numbers down on a piece of paper, but I don't even glance at them before I screw the paper up and shove it into my pocket. "Night Janet."

"Night Colonel." She doesn't say anything else as I leave the infirmary, and I can understand that. I don't feel much like talking either.

Outside I stand a moment and just inhale the smell that is uniquely earth. Pollution mingled with pine trees, gravel and dew. Yum. Never thought I'd miss this smell until I came back from Kaldroon. This time I am more experienced, and appreciate it just as much.

I catch sight of Carter's little silver car sitting in its usual spot in the parking lot, and something catches in my throat again. I haven't seen her car sitting in this park since the day we left for Kaldroon. The day we became marooned and things in both our lives changed forever.

That sounds dramatic.

Thinking about it, it was pretty dramatic. Not many people can say they spent two years marooned on another world with four other people - well, three people and a Jaffa - and were rescued by some aliens that look an awful lot like Roswell greys and fell in love with their 2IC who had her very promising military career cut cruelly short because of fate's unique sense of humour, and even *fewer* people can claim to have been marooned for a *second* time on another planet due to a meteorite shower.

Ha.

Guess my life is pretty dramatic.

But it's over now.

Looking at Carter's car sitting there so quietly, so inconspiciously, a little flash of knowledge comes to light. I've lived through two strandings. I'm not tempting fate a third time... who knows how tired she might be of letting me escape.

No. Even if things don't work out between Carter and myself, even if everything in my life is suddenly turned upside down again for some reason, my time with the Stargate is over. I had fun, a wild ride, but it's time for me to move over and let Thomas get on with commanding his team, just like Carter has to accept that her military career is also over.

And, funnily enough, the prospect of retiring doesn't fill me with dread. It doesn't fill me with horror and the thoughts of boredom. Instead, I can see days ahead of me where I might be bored, might be looking for something to do but I know that I'll be happy, no matter how much I complain, because I'll only have to look around and see the world around me and remember how lucky I am that I had two chances at returning home.

My decision is made.

I sigh again as I look at the car. I'm standing here, looking at her car and sighing. I shouldn't be looking at her car, I should be looking at *her*. I told myself, no, I *promised* myself on Edora that the minute I caught sight of her the first thing I would do is kiss her so thoroughly that she agrees to marry me when I ask.

What did I do?

I hugged her. Oh, it was a very nice hug. More than nice. It was something more incredible than a simple kiss would have been. The hug had been... an acknowledgement by *both* of us that we needed the other. The way she'd leant on me, buried her face against my shoulder and held me tight with her good arm... And she'd cried. Great, hiccupping sobs that left no doubt in my mind that she was unhappy about things. And, I'd cried too. Cried with relief at being back, at being able to hold her in my arms again and at being given the opportunity to make things right with her. But I hadn't used that opportunity, and now that she's running I doubt whether I'll ever have that opportunity again.

I shake my head to clear it, feeling my eyes misting over again. What is it with me, crying for the second time in a day? In less that two hours.

I'll try to sort through this later, figure out why things are suddenly so *funny* between us and try and set things straight tomorrow. I *will* set things straight tomorrow. Tomorrow, after I've gone home again and just let myself forget everything for a while.

I climb into my car slowly, letting myself enjoy the dusk as the light slowly fades from the world. I can hear the chorus of birds singing over time in the trees ahead, I can hear cars in the distance, and I feel contentment well up inside of me. This is the place that I live. Now I've just go to go home.

The drive home is slow, my usual aggressive style of driving ignored for the moment and instead I take the time to notice what I normally took for granted. I look at the carefully tended gardens along the road and acknowledge the efforts their owners put in to making the plants so alive, so vibrant. I watch the children still lingering in their yards, playing in sandpits or riding bikes.

And I think of Charlie.

I think of how lucky I was to have had a son like him. I remember the way he used to sigh in his sleep if I tucked him in and kissed him on the forehead, I remember the way he used to whoop for joy while he was playing. And I remember the hugs he gave me, the kisses, the way he looked up at me as if he admired me. And I remember how he loved me.

I feel strange. As though all of this is a dream. An incredibly good dream where I'm just floating and all the good things that have happened in my life are pushing to the fore front of my dark and murky mind, tracing bright patterns over the blackness of my past and eventually just hiding the inky darkness with their goodness. For the first time in a long time, I feel free.

My house is like I remembered it. A little dustier, a little musty maybe, but my house none the less.

I'm tired, it's been a long day. Tomorrow is also going to be a long day, but now I don't mind. I'm going to lie down and go to sleep, and relax in my new-found contentment. I just hope this feeling doesn't leave me soon.

I pull my bedroon door open quickly and step inside, my hands already busy shedding my jacket. And then I stop.

The curtains are still drawn, just like I left them, but the light in the bathroom is on. I never turned the light on before I left. I swear it. My eyes flicker to my bed, and my lips curve into a smile. Silently I continue pulling my jacket off, soundlessly my shoes and socks join it on the floor and as carefully and gently as possible I crawl onto the bed.

She turns almost immediately, cuddling herself against me as if she never stopped doing it, and wrapping her arm around my waist just like I put mine around hers. Smelling in the sweetness of her hair and feeling her slight frame next to me, I close my eyes and press a kiss to her forehead.

She sighs against me and I just lie there for a while, watching her sleep. My fingers trace a gentle pattern along her forehead, down over her nose and along her jawbone, feathering over her lips and lingering on her temple.

I love her.

The world turns dark as I lie there, until finally only the light spilling through from the open bathroom door illuminates her peaceful form, but I don't shift or make any attempt to fall asleep. Tomorrow's going to come, and things are either going to turn good or bad between us. I'd like to think that they'll be good, but I don't know. I'd like to think that we are, like Catherine and Ernest, finally going to be able to just be together and have a 'happily ever after' that has it's fair share of ups and downs, but I don't know.

All I do know is that she's here with me now, lying in my arms and sleeping against my chest is that I'm going to do everything in my power to make things right between us, to convince her that it'll be okay. But for now, lying here in the semi-dark I know that for tonight things will be okay because we're home.

Home. We've both come to a place we call home.

~*~

Warm. So warm and soft. Gentle. Warm. Lips smile. Eyes dance. Warm. Gentle rustling, sweetness. Warm. So warm, so safe.

Warm. Close. Silk. Sunsets. Warm. Comfortable, soft blankets. Careful arms, secret smiles. Smiles. So warm. Safe. Happy. I'm happy.

I'm home.

~*~

FINIS!!!

YAY!!!!

11-01-02

Thank you all for the luurvely feedback. It's ppl like you confidence boosters that make me want to write more!! You all ROCK!!

Hugs

Sharim