The Assignment by Alli Snow
FeatureSummary: "This single-minded fascination I’ve got,
Do you call it love, if you don’t then what?"
- Thinkin’ About You, Trisha Yearwood (used without permission)
Rated: PG
Genres: Angst
Original Archive Date: 2000 Apr 22
Warnings: None
Series: Andromeda
Chapters: 1 | Word count: 6166 | Completed: Yes | Published: Aug 30, 2009 | Updated: Aug 30, 2009 | Read: 2630
Story Notes: TITLE: The Assignment

AUTHOR: Alli (alli@ecis.com)

RATING: PG/PG-13 (language)

CATEGORY: Angst, future story

SPOILERS: FiaD

ARCHIVE: SJA and Heliopolis, yes. Others, email me.

NOTES: Contains minor... nope. You know what? It’s going to be a surprise. Hee hee hee... That’s right. It’s the Evil One. I’m back. ;)

DEDICATED to everyone who got mad at me for not posting much lately. Yall know all I need's a little motivation
Chapter 1 by Alli Snow
It's a high-rise, an attractive building with lots of glass, wide, railed balconies and a front plaza dotted with all types of greenery in an attempt to soften the distinctly modern mien. Standing on the sidewalk, letting the people rush past me, cohesive as any stream, I check the address in my book against the numbers on the door. Yep, this is the place.

I'm a little surprised that it's actually here; that I was actually able to find it. Considering that it's one of the tallest, most distinct complexes in this area of Denver, this sounds silly, but a part of me expected the building to be as difficult to track down as the man who lives on floor 23.

With a shrug and a little thank-you prayer for my good fortune, I jam the address book back into the bag hanging at my hip. The leather satchel is my life; if I lost it, I'D be lost. It has everything: my money, my identification, my assignments and all my codes. Maybe it's stupid to have so many important things in one easily-pilfered container, but it also makes things a hell of a lot easier to keep track of.

Scant seconds later I'm up the stairs, stepping through the door, and admiring the lobby. It's impressive, to say the least. The ceiling is high, the floor immaculately tiled... practically a mosaic. The potted plants are real, not light-maintenance plastic imposters, and the furniture is so perfect it appears untouched. EVERYTHING in this room goes against EVERYTHING I know about the man that I'm here to see. In fact, when I'd received the assignment, I'd expected to have a multiple-mile woodland trek ahead of me, to a remote cabin in some forgotten valley, not a picture-perfect apartment complex less than an hour and a half from ground zero.

I'm not a psychologist, but he must have his reasons.

The man standing behind the marble counter is young, blonde, and delicately-featured, with a practiced smile and a calm, 'how lovely to meet you' voice. "How can I help you?" he asks, tone perfectly modulated to reflect helpfulness, friendliness... and maybe just a touch of admiration as well. I automatically run a hand through my blonde hair. I've been told I'm 'insanely beautiful'. Maybe by that they mean an attractiveness appreciated only by the insane, because I sure don't see it.

"I'm here to see Jack O'Neill," I tell the young man, flashing a smile. If I am at all pretty, I hope, maybe my looks will help get me to my destination with a minimum of hassling.

The young man KNOWS the name, of course, but his green eyes flicker down to what must be the register anyway. As he pauses, I sneak a look at the elevator. The double doors are flanked by men nearly as large and just as immovable; the complex respects its residents' privacy religiously. An isolated cabin would have been easier to gain access to.

"What's your name?" the man behind the counter asks, the pleasant tone now tempered by doubt. How many people, I muse, have told him the same thing, tried to get in and see the same man?

"Shannon Biggs," I reply. "He's expecting me."

Now the man is even more dubious. "Yeah, sure he is. Hold on a second," he tells me dismissively. "I'll need to call and check."

"Of course you will," I answer, my voice at once so snide and ingratiating that he gives me a double take before turning to the telephone.

As he punches in a series of numbers, I turn my back on the counter, resting against it and staring out on the lobby. This is NOT typical Jack O'Neill style. It's not a place I would expect any SGC member to live in, but most of all not him. O'Neill was the rugged type, the loner type... especially considering what had happened in '05.

Considering how it had all ended.

THAT I knew -- the dates, the details; it had been covered by a dozen authors in a dozen books and millions of newspaper and magazine articles to boot. It had been done to death, and my assignment would either be a legacy or overkill... or both. But it could also quite possibly lead to answers to questions a lot of the public had been asking since the Pandora Act, questions that haunted me just as much - maybe more - than any of my superiors.

"Ms. Biggs?"

I glance over my shoulder.

"Mr. O'Neill will see you."

He sounds as surprised as I feel. O'Neill HAS been expecting me - unless Shawn fed me a whopper of a disgusting lie - but I wouldn't have been all that shocked if the former Air Force officer had turned me away on a whim. This very interview is statistically improbable as it is.

Counting my blessings again, I flash the young man a smile, hitch my satchel more firmly on my shoulder, and prance over to the elevator.



*



Floor 23, suite 2.

I stop just short of knocking on the door, stepping away and pulling out a compact. No smudges, no lipstick on my teeth or knots in my hair. This is going to be difficult enough as it is, I reflect. I don't need to look like I just got off a two-hour flight twenty minutes ago... though that pretty much describes the situation.

I put the compact away, comb through my hair with my fingers, compose myself with a cleaning sigh... and knock.

And wait.

And wait some more.

He's obviously home, and he's not avoiding me if he let me up here. It's always possible, I think ruefully, that he's just doing this to be funny. To show his contempt for people like me. Either he's ignoring me or he sneaked out of the building while I was in the elevator-

The door opens.

For about five seconds - five very long and painful seconds - I can't talk. This... this is a celebrity. Not a movie star, not a politician... but a celebrity. A fucking hero. Both the Democrats and Republicans wanted him to run for President. The chick magazines were after him for months. Harrison Ford and Sean Connery were livid. Warner Brothers and Paramount are still angling after the movie rights.

Jack O'Neill.

He hates the attention... and 'hate' isn't really a good enough description. He holes up here because, even if everybody knows where he is, they can't GET to him, whereas that isolated mountain cabin would eventually become a spot of interest on somebody's bus tour. He's ignored invitations to the White House, the Emmys... The only time anyone KNOWS where he'll be is the anniversary of the Andromeda battle, and even then he stays away from everyone, especially Samuels and the Tok'ra representatives, even his old teammates. It's sad, really.

But right here, right now... it's incredible.

"Shannon Biggs," I finally manage to croak out, extending a hand. "Robinson-Snow-Webster Publishing. Um, you see, I've got this assignment..."

He stares at my hand as though he's forgotten how the greeting works, and then he grunts in acknowledgement and turns away, walking back into the apartment.

Trying to keep from getting flustered, I follow, closing the door behind me.

The rooms are spacious, full of light. I'd expected dark colors, drawn curtains. But, I realize, staring out at the incredible view, what in the world does he have to shut out all the way up here?

"Mr. O'Neill?"

He's still walking away, and merely raises a hand to placate me. I frown. Obviously hating the celebrity hasn't protected him from the adverse effects... or maybe he was always like this.

O'Neill strolls through the living area, pausing only to retrieve a beer can from the tabletop before continuing into what's probably the kitchen. I stop by the sofa and watch him toss the empty aluminum cylinder in a bin and then rummage through the refrigerator for another. "Want anything?" he asks gruffly, and I jump slightly. He has a nice voice, I think before I can stop myself, a commanding voice. I'm almost tempted to request a beer, just to be able to acquiesce.

"Um... no thanks. I'm on the job."

He shrugs, closes the door, pops the tab of his own can, and drinks. Through the doorway I watch with unabated curiosity. There's always something a little remarkable when you see someone 'famous' eat or drink... or do anything 'normal'. No matter how many 'stars' you've seen, it's always a little reassuring to recognize that they ARE human.

O'Neill takes his sweet time, but eventually he ends up plopping down in an armchair in front of the large window. Unsure, I seat myself on the coach across from him.

He's old enough to be my father, I realize, in his late forties, or - more probably - early fifties, but... I can still recognize him as an attractive man. Sure, most of the color is gone from his hair, but now I can see what they mean when they say gray is 'distinguished'. My own father keeps his locks existent with Rogaine and an unnatural brown shade with Just For Men. Looking at O'Neill, I can tell he isn't the kind of guy who would give a flying fuck about his hairstyle. As it is, bits and pieces of it are sticking up all over the place, like he just got out of bed or something. And his face isn't wrinkled... it's worn. Rugged. Announcing to the world that he's been through hell... yet he's here to talk about it. His eyes aren't tired, they're wise. And warm and brown and full of... intelligence. Not school smarts, maybe, but life smarts. Street smarts, they used to call it. Life experience.

Finally coming back to myself, realizing I've been staring, I mutter an apology and reach for my bag. "Like I said, Shannon Biggs, RSW Pub and Co. You talked to my boss? Shawn Adamich?"

"Guy with a squeaky voice?"

I look up and grin. "Yeah, that's him."

O'Neill shrugs. "Said you'd have some questions for me or something."

I nod, pulling a beaten and abused notebook out of the satchel and flipping it open to the bookmarked page where I'd scrawled down all my questions... about Andromeda and the betrayal and the final, unexpected victory against the Gou'ald. But the thing is that I don't need to ask these questions. I know the answers. Everyone does. Everyone knows the whens and hows of the entire conflict... what they don't know is the whys, and I guess that's what's driving everyone crazy.

I take out a mini-recorder; wave it in front of O'Neill to gauge his consent. He rolls his eyes, but nods, and I turn it on... and shut the notebook.

"Actually, Mr. O'Neill... my first question is... why are you even talking to me?" I smother an excited little laugh. Can I help it if I feel privileged? "To RSW?"

"Uh... I was ASKED to," he reminds me pointedly.

"Well, yeah, but you must have been asked for interviews a thousand times over. I mean, you said no to 20/20."

"I don't like Barbara Walters."

I ignore the offhand quip. "I'd really like to know this. Why us?"

"Why not?" he shoots back. "Okay. You guys do textbooks and reference material... for schools, libraries, that kind of stuff, right?" I nod. "I guess I'm just a little paranoid about how this is all going to be looked at in the future. By kids and stuff. And I don't want anyone to ever say 'well, Jack, you never told us how it really happened'. So I'm telling you." His tone is still informal, improbably so. This means a great deal to him... but he doesn't want me to see that.

Tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, I shake my head. "I don't understand. The entire conflict... the media was on your side. The entire SGC and your team especially came out looking like heroes. Which you are, by the way." I flush as I realize that I'm ARGUING with said hero, but plow ahead. "Future generations will see you as champions... model citizens... saints even." My only basis for this is knowing how respected other war figures became over the course of decades... but it's a good guess, and a little flattery can't hurt. "You'll inspire people... you'll give them hope. You could be seen as... the leaders of a totally new era in human civilization!"

"For crying out loud." O'Neill reaches down and yanks on something, and I jerk. My alarm turns to an abashed blush as I realize all he's done is recline his chair. I take in the relaxed position, the jeans and tee-shirt, the dingy socks now propped up on the footrest, and reflect that this is by far the most... casual interview I've ever conducted. I've met Julia Roberts, Colin Powell, Brandon Garrett... but this is something altogether different. "We aren't leaders. We aren't even heroes. We were just doing our jobs. And at some point, someone's going to realize that, and I'd just like to go down on record as trying to set things straight."

"I don't understand," I repeat, totally truthful. "Dr. Jackson is a VERY respected man. They changed the goddamn Constitution for Teal'c! And you, you're a celebrity. A 'somebody'. If you want to tell the world how it really happened, well, they're more than ready to listen. They want to know."

"About what?" O'Neill is vehement, but I can tell he's also more than a little confused by what I'm saying.

"YOU. And your team. We know about the battles, the debates, the outcome... but the public gets tired of that after a while. What they want is the human interest part of the story. They want to know about SG-1. About the things not revealed after the Pandora Act."

O'Neill sits up, and the footrest of the chair clicks back into place. The interview has gone from casual to tense in the space of a few minutes, not the atmosphere to be lounging around in. "Oh, I know. Trust me. I know. We've got our pictures splashed across magazines and tabloids from here to Malaysia... my personal history is being broadcast every other night on A&E. It's like I've become public property, and I never signed onto that!" I never considered chocolate brown to be a very HOT color, but his eyes seem to burn into me with barely-checked intensity. "That's the whole thing about being military, Biggs. What you do is classified. SECRET. It's stuff you take to the grave. But then that IDIOT Kinsey gets his Pandora Act passed and suddenly every horrible thing I've ever done is ending up on the evening news and two dozen movies of the week. And I don't like it! Half the population is just as disgusted about what I've done as I am, and the other half is willing to overlook that seeing as how I 'saved the universe'. But they can't just leave it at that, can they? They have to make up their stories... and assume..." His face is flushed, his breathing erratic, systems pushed to the limit by the outburst, and it doesn't take any great wealth of experience or knowledge to ascertain that there's something he's not saying.

"Rumors," I say quietly, surprised when O'Neill's voice trails off, allowing me an opening. Rumors are both the bane and the life-force of Hollywood - of the famous - and now Jack O'Neill has unwillingly joined those ranks. A life of spite and star-struck fans and not five minutes of privacy in sight. He'll probably never be able to do a damn thing without it ending up in TIME magazine or being published on the Internet for a bunch of lovelorn women to moon over. And, okay, Jack O'Neill would be very easy to moon over. But that isn't the point. The point is that he's hiding up here - hiding in plain sight, you might say - slowly going crazy from the loneliness and exposure and... and regret. Regret is one of the few emotions that can thoroughly and unconditionally bring down a man. The sister of guilt, daughter of pain and love.

"This has to do with Carter, doesn't it?"

He glares at me. "Why do you say that?" he asks in such a caustic tone that he might as well save his breath and agree with me straight away.

"You haven't mentioned her."

His brow creases. "I have mentioned anybody."

"Talk about Carter," I plead, not too proud to beg and armed with the knowledge that THIS is what people want to know... O'Neill and Carter, perhaps one of the most tragic, most talked-about couples these days. And they aren't even a couple.

"What's there to say?" O'Neill asked bitterly. "I mean, everybody KNOWS, right? We'd been having a torrid affair from day one... haven't you been paying attention?"

"That's not true."

"Ya think?" he asks balefully. "I mean, I might have the reputation of the rule-breaking macho man-" He wrinkles his nose in disgust "-But that was a reg we never broke."

"You wanted to," I observe, not all that sure why I've gone HERE when my assignment was to get a couple of quotes about the battles, maybe a little insight about the Tok'ra.

The comment is obviously not appreciated. "Does RSW REALLY care all that much about who I wasn't sleeping with? Or is this just you, Biggs?"

I shrug. I REALLY don't like being called by my last name. "Me, mostly."

At that, he stands, and stalks over to the window. I'm silent as he stares out across the view, watching the flicker of his reflection in the glass, superimposed over the afternoon sky. I want to kick myself... I really do. The date is February 13, 2006... it's been less than a year since the end of the conflict and the beginning of the end of the SGC. And the end of him and Sam Carter, if even half of the stories are true. The wounds are still open - either that, or they never closed - and here I am, playing reporter for a fucking textbook company, rubbing salt into them.

For just a moment, I think of my mother. She'd been living in D.C. when IT happened... she'd been one of the first casualties. I hadn't talked to my mother for a good five years before her death, but knowing that she's gone for good, knowing that I can never see her again, even if I wanted to, hurts a lot. And we didn't have the best of relationships. O'Neill and Carter had been coworkers, friends... maybe more. It had to be just as bad, even worse, for him.

"I'm sorry," I say, realizing that a lot of the tension has already bled out. "If you want me to leave, I will."

I glance down at the tape recorder as I say the words, knowing that if Shawn Adamich ever finds out I spoke them... he will NOT be happy. I may only be playing reporter, but Robinson-Snow-Webster is one of the biggest publishing companies on the continent. At best, I'll get chewed out. At worst, I'll be fired. Still, I need to say it. I need to give O'Neill an out... need to remind myself that he IS human, just as fallible and easily injured as I.

"What do you know?" he mumbles in response, the reflection of his face in the window thoughtfully dour.

"For certain? Not all that much." The Pandora Act was heaven-sent, a damn blessing for the entire media, but what the records told us isn't what the public wants to know. The military never did keep very good reports on the relationships between officers, which leaves it up to us to drag the stories from them, or face the wrath of our superiors. "You were teammates." He nods. "Friends." He continues to nod. "But beyond that, it's all... rumors."

"You know what the problem is?" He isn't looking at me, but I shake my head anyway. "The problem is that nobody believes that two people, a man and a woman, can be FRIENDS. Just friends." The volume of his voice begins to rise. "Not sleeping together, not having an affair, just friends. They automatically assume that we just can't keep our hands off each other."

"Well, that's obviously not true," I note. "Nothing ever happened between, say... you and Janet Frasier. Or Carter and Jackson."

At the professor's name he turns back to face me. "No, you see, with Daniel, it was different. He had Sha're. Even after she died, he still had Sha're. Okay, so he... looked around a little bit, but who doesn't? The thing is, he loved her very much, and that pretty much kept him from having ANY serious relationships."

My eyes drop from his face, drift down to the carpet. O'Neill obviously isn't a big fan of Entertainment Tonight, otherwise he'd know, just like the rest of the world, that Dr. Jackson got engaged a couple of weeks ago. I bite my tongue. I don't want to be the one to tell him, to shatter another of his beloved, preconceived notions of a friend... even a former friend.

"Besides," he continues. "Daniel was civilian. We were all on the same team together, yeah, but a week didn't go by without something reminding me that Daniel was NOT military..."

'And Carter was'. The words hang, unspoken, in the room, like a crystal chandler suspended by a thread, ready to come crashing down upon us. Carter was military... that was his reason. His excuse. His flimsy pretext for not acting or even speaking on any feelings he might have had for her. The military, and the rules and regulations thereof.

He was fooling himself - they both were - but they fooled a hell of a lot of people along the way.

O'Neill remains silent, and I take it upon myself to resume the dialogue. It's hard; I feel like I'm interrupting somebody, cutting in ahead of some unseen presence that wished to speak... like Sam Carter is in this room at this very moment, eager to tell her friend the truth. "I met Dr. Jackson at the Andromeda ceremony," I croak out. "And I interviewed the Senator about a month ago. They both asked about you."

Standing motionless as a statue a few paces from the window, he pierces me with an unnerving stare, working his jaw.

I raise my eyebrows. "You don't want to know how they are?"

O'Neill shrugs.

I feel my incredulity growing. "Well, they're fine. They miss you."

"They know how to get in touch with me."

"The same goes for you!" I explode, unable to tolerate the ass's nonchalance any longer. "You've hardly talked to either of them since the Stargate program was shut down! And the only reason I can think for that is because they remind you of what you lost. You didn't just lose your job and you didn't just lose your command. You lost Carter, and military or not, you had to know that you loved her."

"This is what I mean!" rages O'Neill. "No privacy. None! You're some twenty-something working for a publishing company and you feel like it's your right to know every... intimate detail of my life. If everyone respects me as much as they pretend to, people like you would have the common courtesy to leave me the hell alone! And for crying out loud, leave Sam out of it, too. God! You've all made our lives your own personal hobby. Every chance they get, they tote out the booze and the music and the flags and parade around like there's something to celebrate. And yes, I did what I did for my country, for my planet... but I didn't do it so that every goddamned person could revel in what happened. Do you know what happened?"

The question isn't rhetorical. Slightly cowed by the flare-up, I reply meekly. "People died."

"That's right," he answers, looking relieved that I got it correct. "People died. And I'm not just talking about Carter."

He deflates, perhaps at the mere mention of the woman's death, and drops back into his chair.

"It's just... Don't you feel any kind of pride or... or gratitude that people are in some way honoring the sacrifice they all made?" I'm wary of pissing him off again, but it's a question that begs to be asked. "Isn't it better to be remembered than forgotten?"

O'Neill shrugs helplessly. "That's just it," he tells me almost pleadingly, voice strained. "You can't remember her. You never knew her."

I don't overlook the subtle change of topic; we HAD been talking about general casualties, and now we're talking about Carter. That subtle shift in subject says a whole hell of a lot that will never be adequately appreciated by anybody who listens to this interview on tape. He loved her - he loves her - and why that means so much to me, why it brings tears to my eyes, I'm not all that certain. Maybe it's the stark dreariness of his voice, and what he's insinuating: 'You never knew her... you never will.'

And with a rush, like the sound of an approaching tsunami, reality strikes full force. This isn't a lofty star who's never been touched by a calamity more devastating than a bad hair day. This isn't a trivial matter that'll have moved from page one to page 42 in a couple of days. And this isn't some damn assignment. This is a man who's hurting, who's cut himself off from everyone because he can't HAVE everyone. He lost her so long ago, never knowing where or how she was, never hearing any news, never receiving a reply. The letters... those went into Hammond's logs, and that's one of the reasons half a dozen production companies are clamoring for the movie rights. Boy meets girl... boy falls in love with girl... boy can't have girl... boy looses girl... boy doesn't give up on girl... boy can't find girl... girl is dead.

That's why the women swoon over such a loving, devoted man. That's why the public opinion of Samantha Carter is both hot and cold. She must be a good woman if she could win the heart of General Jack O'Neill, but the hard, cold facts don't lie, and they say that she was at the core of the betrayal. She was the reason the Gou'ald hit so hard, so fast. She was the reason a whole lot of people almost died.

"You don't think she betrayed you?" I ask quietly.

"I KNOW she didn't."

I close my eyes, enthralled by the unadulterated certainty in his voice. To have such utter confidence in a person, to see both the supremacy and the shortcomings, weigh them... in short, to KNOW a person so well that you can speak of them in such precise, unwavering terms...

Is romantic.

My hand snakes along the cushion to where my recorder sits, spinning its tape away quite happily. My fingers find the row of buttons on top, and depress the one furthest to the left.

There's a small click. The tape stops spinning.

"You know, you kinda look like her."

I look back up at O'Neill, blinking hard to clear the tears from my eyes. "Excuse me?"

"You know," he mumbles, watching me broodingly. "Blonde hair, blue eyes." He shrugs. "If I had a picture, I'd show you, but everything I had was either... blown up or confiscated after the ratification of the Pandora Act."

The hurt in his eyes is overwhelming. "That's okay," I mumble. "I know what she looks like." I've seen pictures.

"One of these days," he says with some akin to surprise. "I'm gonna forget. What she looks like, how... how she made me feel. One of these days," he repeats, sounding a little disgusted but mostly just NUMB. "I'm gonna stop grieving for her. I'm gonna forget all those letters I wrote that she never replied to. What I had to tell her brother. What I had to tell myself. I'm gonna move on... and just accept that she's dead."

Again, I have to look away from him. I can't. I CAN'T. Forget being chewed out. Forget being fired. I do this, and I will never be given another assignment again. Not anywhere. These are the goddamn orders of the fucking President, and the only reason I know about it at all is because... because I'm supposed to be insanely beautiful. And Shawn Adamich is a sucker for beauty. I do this, and I change a lot of lives. I didn't feel that it was my place to tell him about Jackson's engagement. I didn't even broach the topic of George Hammond's death. And yet I feel that it's my place to tell him this, to make a decision that is not mine to make.

Yet I make it.

"Mr. O'Neill..."

He glances up. His eyes are most definitely tired.

"That's not exactly true."



*



"Wait up, dammit!"

O'Neill ignores me, but my urgent cries attract the attention of everyone else in the parking garage. They stop, stare, and even cry out as they watch Jack O'Neill dash across the aisle... with me on his tail.

For an old guy, he sure can run.

He has to pause and unlock the door of his SUV, and that gives me the time I need to catch up, and latch onto his shoulder. "I'm coming with you."

"They won't let you in."

"You can GET me in."

"I'm retired."

I narrow my eyes. "Don't make me laugh."

He scowls at me. "This isn't some story, Biggs."

"It's Shannon. And you're right, it's not. I'm asking as a favor, JACK. Please."

He knocks me away, and opens the door, climbing inside.

"Oh, come on!"

"You can come when you tell me why you CARE so damn much! And if this is just some joyride thing, I'm gonna be REAL disappointed."

Through the half-open door, I stare him down. "I don't know. I guess I'm just one of the many people who's made your life my personal hobby. No matter how much you hate it, Mr. O'Neill, your life reads like fiction to a whole bunch of people. It's like some really whacked fairy tale. Now I am taking the biggest risk imaginable just telling you this. My boss gave me confidential information he heard through the grapevine from the President himself. He doesn't want fifty million people all showing up in Colorado Springs at the same time, and considering everything that happened, he especially doesn't want you there. I guess I agree; it isn't my decision and it isn't yours. But damn it, I just want to know the end of this story. I want to know what happens."

I spread my hands to show that I have no further arguments, and wake for him to make up his mind.

O'Neill closes the door. Starts the engine.

Rolls down the window.

"Get in."



***



The Stargate program had been shut down, but the Stargate had remained where it was, under constant guard. It had taken a hell of a lot of lobbying, pleading, and almost cost Teal'c the election, but thanks to him and Doctor Jackson - recently honored with a college of archeology in his name - they managed to keep the alien device unsealed.

O'Neill no longer has his pass, his dogtags, his tell-tale BDUs... but he has one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. The young Airmen we pass as we hasten through NORAD simply stop and stare and, after a few seconds, salute. The hallways are nothing more than arenas of controlled panic, and I'm hardly noticed. I know this all happened only hours ago, but really, the security sucks.

The only obstacle we encounter is a man - thirty-something, dark hair, cute face, Captain insignia - already occupying the elevator that we step into. "I'm sorry," he stutters. "You can't--"

"Simmons?"

The captain's eyes so wide. "General O'Neill?"

O'Neill grins. The expression is as alien to me as any Gou'ald. "The one and only."



***



We leave the stunned captain behind when the doors open... and then O'Neill leaves me behind. He knows the underground complex better than anyone, and soon I'm merely eating his dust, doing everything I can to catch up to him as he speeds towards the infirmary.

As I stumble into the room, I see O'Neill already in argument with a white-coat, a behemoth of a doctor with huge hands and an equally large frown on his face. "I don't care who you are. This is a secured area."

"Where the hell is she?"

I lean against the doorway, trying to catch my breath.

"I don't know who you're talking about."

"Don't give me that crap, Doc."

Someone brushes against me, muttering a soft "Excuse me." I move a couple inches, an apology already on my lips, but then I look up, and it doesn't exactly come out like I'd planned.

"Shit..."

She looks exactly like her pictures. Older, of course, but all in all, pretty good for a dead woman.

Samantha Carter - THE Samantha Carter - stands only inches away, as stunned by Jack O'Neill's presence as he is by hers. Transfixed, I can only gawk as their eyes meet, widen; as their jaws drop in unison. The chubby doctor looks from one to the other, glances distrustfully at me, and makes a hasty exit.

The silence distends time and space.

"You never wrote back," O'Neill blurts. I roll my eyes. Idiot...

"They told me you were dead," whimpers Carter, hugging herself awkwardly. "I never... I never got any letters."

For about three-fourths of a second, O'Neill's eyes slide over to me. I raise my eyebrows, wishing for telepathy, trying to remind him by expression alone:

You aren't in the military any more.

One step and he's within arms' reach, pulling her towards him, against him, wrapping his arms around her. He must have imagined this moment a hundred times, I reflect, and she must have as well. Clinging to him desperately, as though afraid he'll vanish, Carter starts to sob, burying her face in his chest and letting the tears consume her. O'Neill holds tight, eyes tightly shut... moisture tricking down his face as well. I watch in mixed awe, delight, and horror, as I watch the man I've spent the last two hours with come apart in the most splendid of ways. His hands clutch at her back, reaffirming his hold as her body vibrates with the force of her sobs. If I didn't know better, I would guess that some great tragedy has just taken place, some unfathomable sorrow, but closer to the truth is the fact that they simply must be so damned overwhelmed by... by everything. By seeing the other alive. By feeling the other's pain. By confirming something more wonderful than either of them dared to hope.

"God, I missed you," Carter moans.

Swallowing hard, fighting back my own improbable tears, I step back into the hallway, brushing back my hair with somewhat shaky hands and wondering if I can get a taxi to pick me up here.

"Uh, ma'am?"

I stop short, pulling out of my thoughts long enough to recognize Captain Simmons, the man from the elevator. His brow is creased, and I wonder if he's come to toss me out on my ass. "Yeah?"

"Was that really General O'Neill?"

I smile gently. "He's retired."

"I... but... rumor had it he was in Japan or something."

I raise an eyebrow. "Rumors are usually wrong."

Simmons digests that, and then shoves his hands into his pockets. "He's in there with Carter, isn't he?"

"Yeah."

He nods, and gives a half smile, looking past me, down the hallway. "Rumor also had it he was in love with her."

"Some rumors are right."

His eyes shift back to me. "And you would be?"

"A friend." He looks dubious. "Um, a reporter friend. RSW Pub Co. Well," I amend. "Maybe not for long. I have this report due tomorrow and I do NOT think O'Neill's going to be doing much that's not Carter..."

"Maybe I can help."

"Really? You sure?"

Simmons shrugs. "Pandora Act, remember. Nothing's secret anymore. Besides," he smiles shyly. "I don't want to see such a beautiful girl get in trouble."

I grin. "Fine, you've convinced me."

He steps closer, and from my blessed leather satchel I remove a notebook and a recorder. I hit the rewind button, and let it stop at the beginning of the tape, opening the folder to the bookmarked page.

"You see, I've got this assignment..."



The End.

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