A man, a woman, and a child.
More importantly, me, my wife, and my daughter. Jack, Sam, and Bridget.
She wasn't my wife, not technically, but in my heart and mind that hardly made a difference. She was /mine/, and I don't say that out of pure machismo or protectiveness. I say it because it was true, because we were in love. I doubted that the universe had ever seen such a thing, and was pretty unlikely to see it again, but we loved each other, and we knew it, and despite the fact that we were all but walking into a war zone, we were happy.
Maybe it was stupid. We both knew that the intelligent choice would be to stay on Ma'at'a... if not indefinitely, then at least until the battle with Lel'tan ended for good. It was an argument that Krivin and Emiko had presented many times, not able to truly understand where we were coming from. And under other circumstances the planet might have been more tolerable, might have been a nice place to stay until things settled down... but it represented too many things to us, too much heartache and hardship, anger and frustration directed as much at ourselves as at the members of the Council.
There were some things that Ma'at'a would always be identified with, good things. My burgeoning relationship with Sam. The friends we had made. Bridget's conception and birth. But there were still too many hard feelings, too many things that kept me from being totally at ease at any point. I didn't want my daughter to have any memories of this world. I didn't want her asking any pointed questions before she was old enough to understand and accept the truth.
That she had been born on another planet.
Still, with all these deep, dark thoughts chasing themselves around my skull, I couldn't remain downcast. We were going home, and we were happy. Happy to have survived all that had been hurled at us. Happy to be in one another's company, and to have a goal to work towards. Happy to finally, after a year, be looking towards asylum, safe harbor, again.
I held our bag, Sam held Bridget, and we trekked intrepidly down the street to the market square. From there we'd take a side-street that led further into the guts of Ankh'ij before eventually twisting around and leading into the woods. I had a halfway decent memory of the area, a good sense of direction, and a map sketched out by Emiko - from one of her mother's documents - to guide us. I could see the map in my mind's eye as I walked: the jumbled mass of rectangles that were the buildings, the squiggly line that was the road, and the concentric circles labeled "Sungate" in the Ma'at'an language I was finally becoming adept at reading.
The market square was empty; it had been for some time, ever since it had finally dawned on the natives that the Lel'tan people had a good chance of holding off the militia. Doors were closed, as were most windows, but every now and then I saw the flash of eyes, glimmering in the late afternoon sun, peeking out from under sills. I shivered involuntarily, glancing around the deserted street. Déjà vu; apparently, we'd leave Ankh'ij the same way we entered it: under the population's supervision.
We pulled out of the square, onto the side road, and I placed a hand on Sam's shoulder. She rolled her eyes but remained silent. This was the older part of town, the seedy part of town, where the Accountant had his offices and thieves and vandals waited in the shadows, eager to attack the newly-destroyed. I did have a scalpel-like knife - a parting gift from Krivin - tucked into the side of my boot, but as we marched boldly down the curving road, I began to wish it was a little closer at hand.
As my eyes automatically scanned left, right, and far ahead, my mind wandered back to the woman beside me. It was possible that she wouldn't be immediately recognized as a woman: her hair was pulled back into a short ponytail and she wore a gray tunic and pants, the same as me: clothing a little more practicable in a possible combat situation. And as I watched her out of the corner of my eye, noting her straight posture and attentive features, that already she had regained some of her military bearing. Already she was becoming Captain Carter, right here, before my very eyes. If it wasn't for Bridget - lulled to sleep by the motion of the walk - I would have hardly recognized her from the woman I had come to know over the past year.
The topic of 'what happens when we get home' had been another subject that had never really been broached. Another touchy area that neither of us wanted to jinx by assuming it would come to pass. But now that we were well on our way, I let myself consider it.
It wasn't as though we could simply claim that Bridget wasn't ours, that we had adopted her or some other such nonsense. Janet - or whoever was awaiting us in the SGC infirmary - would be able to tell right away that Sam had recently given birth. Which would lead to the question: 'Who's the father?' Hammond - or whoever had replaced him - would immediately suspect me, and I wouldn't deny it. The very concept of denying that she was mine, just to escape what was sure to be a difficult situation and long explanation nearly made me sick. So we'd be forced to admit that we had conceived a child while on the planet together... and then what? Would The Powers That Be waive it, as I had predicted months ago? If they did, would Sam want to leave the program - temporarily or otherwise - to care for her daughter? Could I actually expect that from her? And what would she expect out of me? What was I willing to give... what could I afford to?
We'd spent the last year pining away for Earth when all we'd really been longing for was for things to go back to normal. At the same time, we'd irrevocably changed them so that they never, ever could. When we stepped through that Stargate, nothing would be the same. Telling myself 'this was the path you chose' didn't help much.
I loved Sam, and I was happy to be with her. But all these decisions had been made, all these paths chosen, on /this/ planet. By /this/ set of rules, not the set we had left behind. By leaping back into the fray, we were changing things.
How much would change between /us/?
Jack was quiet. I was quiet. For once, even Bridget was quiet.
We left the winding road and stepped down into the woods, and I relaxed at once. I shouldn't have - there was more danger out here than back there - but the small, dark streets had been oppressive, almost suffocating in their narrowness. Like the apartment here in Ankh'ij, like the cottage in Depa'ma, like the alley I'd been attacked in. The trees and craggy cliffs of the King's Woods towered over me, but didn't press in, didn't make me feel as though they would suddenly topple down upon me. And Jack kept his hand on my arm, which was also very... nice.
I was still attracted to him, obviously. Some of that tension had dissipated, but what had replaced it was even better and just as indescribable. I felt close to him like I never had before, like I'd never felt with anyone else before, not even Jonas. Jack and I, we were compatible, which surely came from working closely together for so long. Even before Ma'at'a, we had respected each other, trusted each other, been friends to each other. And that was the most important foundation of all.
Still, it wasn't until arriving on this world that we'd built upon that foundation, taking advantage of our freedom from the military restrictions and sharp-eyed sycophants that would have scared us away from ever pursuing a relationship on Earth. And though I knew I shouldn't worry myself with 'maybes' until we were stepping through that event horizon, I was a thinker. A planner. I couldn't help but look ahead - even if that was only two miles ahead - and be troubled by what could very well be in our future.
The old rules. New circumstances.
Shading branches stretched overhead in a mesh of canopying limbs, creating a barrier to the sky. It was a good ten degrees cooler as well, which felt good now but would become more and more of an annoyance as time wore on. I shifted Bridget gingerly in my arms, hoping not to wake her, and draped her blanket up over my shoulder, covering her bald head.
"Are we just cutting straight through?" I asked in a hushed tone of voice, taking one last glance over my shoulder as the buildings of Ankh'ij faded from view behind entangling foliage. It had been our prison, perhaps, but it was also the last remnant of civilization in sight. I faced forward quickly, wary of tripping on the treacherous terrain and unhappy with my sudden reluctance to leave the city behind us. We'd been hell-bent on getting home from Ma'at'a for a year, and in the process Ma'at'a had /become/ home.
"It's a good a plan as any," replied Jack, equally quiet, as aware as I was that there could be colonists and militiamen all around us. "These woods are crawling anyway. The less time we have to spend in them, the better."
I nodded my whole-hearted agreement with that sentiment. "No one's going to be 'expecting' us there, are they?"
"The Council members know where we're from," he reminded me with a shrug. "But Clera's not expecting me to be hanging around here. She probably thinks I'm either dead or I went back through to Earth without you." His voice was hard as he mentioned the prospect, and I fought back a smile. He could be sweet in the strangest ways.
"They've got bigger problems anyway," I pointed out. "Assuming this truce is for real." I pitched my words low - no reason to announce our position to all present - but I also knew, as did Jack, that if there were troops out there, of either side, they were already watching us... closely. By acting furtive we'd only be casting further suspicion upon ourselves. "Personally, I think it's more likely that they're just stalling... for time to bring in more militia and weapons."
"Or they're trying to lull the colonists into a false sense of security," Jack added, lending me a hand to cross a shallow ravine. "She's not getting too heavy for you, is she?" he asked, nodding down at Bridget.
"She was a lot easier to carry when she was still in the womb, I'll say that much," I told him with a grimace that ended up a smile. "I'm fine. If she wakes up we can switch."
Jack shrugged. "She likes me better anyway."
I raised an incredulous eyebrow, even though I knew full well that he was joking. "You're going to be one of those fathers who spoil their kid rotten, slowly but surely turning her against the mother, aren't you?"
"That's the plan."
"Please," I beseeched dryly. "She's going to get enough pampering from Teal'c and Daniel."
"Oh yeah. He's a sucker for little kids."
"Well, that explains why he put up with /you/ for so long."
He snorted, and I grinned, and we continued on for a while in silence, saving our breath as the ground tilted sharply upwards. At the top of the bluff, that was where we would start to loop around a bit, heading towards the water again... and therefore, moving towards the Stargate. We'd enter the clearing at a different angle then we had the first time around, and I carefully planned every action I would take once we were unprotected, unconcealed.
The continued silence of the woods had a deceptive quality, as though we were being watched by those with ill intentions who were waiting for up to get as close as possible to our goal before gunning us down... out of shear spite. As we rested at the crest of the bank, with night beginning to fall and - predictably - Bridget beginning to wake, a macabre thought spirited into my mind. "Jack?"
"Yeah?" I could only barely see him in the twilight; his clothes, and mine, seemed to blend into the dulled evening colors perfectly. It was by outlines and impressions alone that I was able to trace his movements as he opened the satchel and withdrew the water canister.
I accepted it from him wordlessly and took a long drink before returning it to him and continuing. "If anything happens to me... you take Bridget and you get off this planet."
He stopped mid-swallow and stared at me as though I'd gone mad. Finally, though, he nodded, and we both knew the reason why. We had something more important to worry about than the other's safety and the repercussions of their loss. We had a child, a baby, our daughter, and the only thing that mattered now was /her/ protection. "Same here," he said solemnly, as though reading my mind, as though knowing that I still felt indebted to him for putting his life on the line for me back at the beginning.
We stood there a moment longer, the only sounds our heavy breathing and Bridget's fussy murmurings. Even with the canopied branches parted and two half-moons rising over our heads, it was so damn /dark/. "We should... find a place to spend the night," I spoke up, knowing just how unappetizing that sounded. "One of us is going to break their neck if we try to get down this hill in the dark."
Jack grumbled to himself, looking around the lightly forested summit. It would have been smarter to start out earlier, but we hadn't wanted to waste even a day before setting out, in case the conflict started up again. Now I realized what a mistake that had been. If the fighting /did/ begin again, tonight, we would be caught right in the middle of it. No protection. Nowhere to hide, and no allies to fend off the enemy. It seemed that on this last stretch of the journey, we'd be truly alone.
I opened my mouth to suggest we find a more sheltered spot to camp out when I heard it: a foot snapping a dry branch. It was a deliberate sound, too; I knew because it was /close/ and if this unknown person had managed to sneak this far up on us, undetected through the leafy debris, he wouldn't have made such a stupid blunder, giving away his position. I stiffened, catching the whites of Jack's startled eyes in the starlight and willing him not to do anything rash.
"Are you carrying weapons?" came a voice immediately, somewhat hushed, definitely male, and closer than I had expected.
"No," lied Jack.
"Unlikely. What about you?" demanded the voice, this time directed to me. "What are you carrying?"
"My daughter," I answered, more shakily then I would have liked, scared to death that the disembodied speaker wouldn't believe me, would assume Bridget was in fact some sort of weapon. What would happen then?
There was utter silence for a long moment.
"Sam... Jack? Is that you?"
I started in confusion at the conversational tone, but Jack gave a laughing, relieved sigh. "Jerdess?"
The stout man crept out of the underbrush, hardly more than a shadow in his dark clothes, swallowed up by the night. A Slade weapon, hanging by his side, gleamed dully. "I don't believe it," he announced incredulously. "The last I heard... you two were sent to Depa'ma."
"We couldn't stay away," Jack confided. "And not to sound paranoid or anything, but... are there more of you guys out there?"
"Of course," the other man chuckled. "These are /our/ woods, Jack... that's the only reason we've been able to hold out so long against the militia. Speaking of them, they're out here, too. Let's get the two - the /three/ of you - somewhere safe."
He led us off the bluff in a different direction than we'd been headed, further from the Stargate, but I wasn't about to complain. Especially when I saw the cave carved out of the base of the hill, saw the firelight and heard the voices coming from within.
"It's not an easy life," Jedress was saying. "But it /is/ worth it. It's me!" he called out as we passed over the wide, rocky threshold, and I noticed two men crouched in the underbrush on either side. I was impressed, to say the least.
"Thank you," Jedress laughed when I told him so. "We've... learned from our past mistakes, you might say. And it doesn't hurt that there are people officially in the service of the Council who are willing to take a few risks for us."
We emerged from a narrow, declining tunnel into a low-ceilinged 'room' -- for lack of a better word. It was a cave, probably a natural one, but far larger than I had expected. Torches spaced along the walls gave the impression of a medieval banquet hall, and the way the population sprawled throughout reminded me of the Central Hall back in Ankh'ij. Faces turned towards us as we entered, not panicked, simply vigilant. Most were unfamiliar, but there were a few here and there that I thought I could place.
One of them, a slender, graceful figure, leapt from her place at the hearth and picked her way towards us with all the haste she could muster. "Halsi!" exclaimed Sam as soon as the woman was close enough, and I took Bridget so that she could greet the other woman with a nervous hug.
"We never thought that we would see you again," the woman gushed, taking in Sam's clothes with a measure of bewilderment. "I've never known a person to return from Depa'ma."
"We were kinda... unorthodox about it," I admitted.
Halsi smiled at me, and her beautiful hazel eyes widened when they landed on the bundle in my arms. "Is that...?"
"Ours? Yeah," I replied, shy and proud at the same time as Halsi peered into the blanket. "Her name's Bridget."
"She's absolutely beautiful." Sam beamed.
A tidbit of information popped into my head. "Hey, Halsi, didn't you have one too?" At her confused expression, I clarified. "A baby? Weren't you pregnant?"
Her eyes, so much lighter than the others, darkened, reflecting the flickering patterns of the torches. "I was," she said softly, and then turned, not meeting our eyes, and went back the way she had come.
"She lost the child... gave birth to it over 100 Réys too early," said Jerdess sadly, as soon as she was out of earshot. He readjusted the weapon on his shoulder, a bit of neurotic action, and sighed. "And before you ask... Bob is dead. He was killed in one of the first battles. Halsi... she wanted to name the child after him... to honor him, but..." He sighed. "She's alone. All Ciarrah and I can do is be her friends."
So, I was right. These people weren't big on second marriages, even when the spouse was dead. No husband, no child. How awful for these people. How patently awful to lose a child and then a... I stopped the thought before it fully formed.
I was /not/ going there.
I'd already /been/ there.
"SG-1, you have a go."
Landseth nodded up at Hammond, and then at me. I looked over at Teal'c, and he glanced at Kelly. "Everybody set?"
It seemed we were. The Colonel led the way up the ramp, letting Teal'c proceed her into the Stargate, and then Ian Kelly. The Captain was the newest member of the team, replacing Aaron Barrette, who had replaced Sam. He was no scientist - he even made Jack look pretty smart - but he was easy to get along with /and/ he was someone I had known since the beginning of the project: a bonus. Hammond had simply counted his lucky stars that he wouldn't be fighting me all the way, as he had while appointing Landseth, and transferred Kelly from SG-3 to SG-1. Makepeace wasn't pleased - the two teams had a definite tolerance/hate relationship - but eventually he quieted down, especially when Kelly's old spot was taken by a certain Lieutenant Fallon. She had a much better body than Ian.
Landseth also waited for me to make my way up to the event horizon. She didn't smile, didn't nod... she didn't have to. This was no special mission. This was standard recon to a boring old swamp planet, our first legit assignment since the deaths of Sha're and Aaron. Hammond had never brought up returning to Ma'at'a. Neither had Landseth. Neither, I'm ashamed to say, had I.
I don't know how Teal'c felt about any of this. We didn't talk as much as we had before; even after Sha're's death it had been Janet I had gone to, not him. It was sad and I felt like an ass doing it, considering the fact that the Jaffa didn't have many good buddies on base or off... but spending time with him was hard. Maybe because he reminded me of the old SG-1. Maybe because he'd never spoken up while I was killing myself trying to get an okay for a return trip to 984. Maybe... and a thousand other possible reasons.
I looked over at Landseth only briefly before stepping into the Stargate, ignoring the short pat on my shoulder as she followed me.
The sound of hushed voices brought me back into the waking world, blinking sleep away with some reluctance as I strove to remember where I was and why the hell I was so sore. Slowly, the cavern came into focus and my blurred memories became sharper. Jerdess. Halsi. The colonists.
I was laying on my side on a thin cot that passed as a bed around here, which was to blame for the pain arcing up my side. Sure, a year ago sleeping on the ground was no big thing, but I'd grown too used to the soft mattress we'd called our own at Krivin's. This lifestyle took some getting used to.
I lay on my side, facing Jack, one arm in its customary position looped over my waist. Pillowed by our bag, which we'd used to cushion our heads, his face was calm, his expression tranquil and almost childlike, a muscle in his jaw working lazily. We were such different people when we slept, I reflected. For a short time, our worries and fears and hopes melted away, sneaking back into some hidden compartment that would spring open as we woke, but thankfully remained shut as we rested. I wondered what I looked like when I slept... the same? Oblivious to the world? Content?
I'd come to be content... and on this world, no less. Months ago, admitting that fact would have hurt. Having to confess that I had grown comfortable on Ma'at'a, that it had somehow evolved into less of a prison and more of the home would have cost me dearly. Even now, the notion sent a pang through my chest as I thought of Daniel, Teal'c, Janet... and my family, my biological family: Dad, Mark, his wife and children. All back on Earth with no idea of what had become of us. I knew. I had been on the other end, of having no control of the situation, able only to sit back and hope for the best possible outcome out of a handful of bad choices. I could imagine all too well what the others were going through... while Jack and I had become closer, started a family, started a life, without them, on this planet whose existence they most likely cursed.
They would have stopped looking, I knew. Rescues, when they came, came quickly, and there had been none. If it had been an SG team in the King's Woods the night Jack had been shot, all the more reason to believe that that had been one last ditch effort and that they were all moving on with their lives. Maybe they counted us lost. Dead. They had most certainly replaced us, found others to take the positions we had so proudly filled.
Maybe they even talked about us. Maybe Teal'c and Daniel told old SG-1 stories to new team members around the campfire... or, more than likely, the EKG monitor. They had to have a lot of good memories. I sure did.
And I was determined to make more.
For so long, I had lived each day with the dream of returning to the SGC, to the flabbergasted stares of my old teammates and friends, to breathless questioning: What happened to you? How did you get back? How did you do it? Every night, painfully aware of the body beside me, I'd held onto that vision, that talisman, that goal.
But even with that distant star to reach for, the days had passed agonizingly slowly, the interval between sunrise to sunset so torturous that I wondered if perhaps Ma'at'a's orbit wasn't so Earth-like after all. The star, the dream, simply seemed too distant, too impossible, and when I realized that, it had lost most of its strength.
I turned in Jack's slack grip, looking out over the cavern. We'd been given a spot near the wall, and a woven basket that we had used as a makeshift crib for Bridget. Peeking inside, I noted with relief that my daughter was still out cold, blowing bubbles of saliva in her sleep. I smiled and returned my head to the cushioning bag. She'd cried out only once during the night, but had gone back to sleep, thank God.
I'd floundered for some time, with no goal that seemed even slightly achievable, afraid to reach out for help because the only person who could help was Jack and that didn't seem quite fair. It wasn't his responsibility to hold my head above the water, to give me pep talks, to worry about me when he had concerns of his own. Even when he /tried/ to be there for me, I refused to see the signs, and pushed him away. Until I just couldn't any longer. Until I had surrendered and realized that what I had been fighting was the only thing that had saved me.
Across a sea of sleeping bodies through the dim lighting - firelight mixed with strains of early morning sunshine filtering through - I saw two men talking in muffled voices near the entrance. One, I could tell by the stature, was Jerdess. The other was a taller man who nodded once at something Jedress had said, waved goodbye, hitched his weapon up on his shoulder, and left the cave.
Carefully, cautiously, loathe to wake Jack, I slipped out of his arms. He must have been exhausted; his limbs were a dead weight, slapping back onto the pallet torpidly. I paused to make sure the motion hadn't been enough to draw him from his much-needed sleep, nodded as I saw it hadn't, and stood.
Dust motes waltzed in the dim light, dirt and bits of ash from the fires, and I waved the airborne debris away as I picked a path across the floor. Most of the prone bodies I passed lay in pairs, gray-donned frames huddled together, arms wrapped around shoulders and backs and waists, faces tucked against cheeks or chests. Children either snuggled with parents or siblings in such wrinkled heaps that they could have been mistaken for a pile of laundry, or maybe a litter of puppies clustered together against their harsh new world. I wondered what kind of food they hoarded or grew, how they stored it or kept it fresh, if they had any bathroom facilities besides the great outdoors. I wondered how good their chances were and what the morale was like and what the Council would do to these fine people if they lost. Relocation again? Somehow I doubted it.
When I reached Halsi's thin mattress, I wasn't at all surprised to see her beautiful eyes open and fixated on the ceiling. Something told me that she hadn't slept at all, that she'd been laying like this, in a faux catatonic state, since wandering off the night before.
The loss of a child, I thought, a marrow-deep shudder reverberating through my chest. It was something I could envision all too well now; I felt a deeper sympathy for the father of my own child, the kind of compassion that can only come from a parent.
The loss of a husband, I added, glancing back in the direction from which I'd come. Finally, I was able to comprehend something that had alluded me for some time: what it meant to be husband and wife. Not like what it would have been with Jonas, controlling and domineering. Not like what it could possibly be with someone like Narim or Graham Simmons, whimsical and full of childish delight. No, it seemed to me now that 'marriage' was nothing more than a legal term, a bit of ink on paper, a truth or, in our case, a lie. It didn't matter what some Accountant had jotted down, and it didn't even matter what we ourselves had assumed we'd known. Being married to someone, at least in our day and age, was about trust and attraction and love, and love was about admiration and respect... and so maybe, just maybe, I'd been married to Jack O'Neill before I'd ever set foot on Mat'at'a.
"Your daughter is beautiful," said Halsi hollowly.
I sat down next to her, on the very edge of the pallet, near her slippered feet. "I'm sorry."
She didn't look at me.
I sighed, knowing how empty and meaningless those words must seem to her, and trying to remember how it had been when I'd feared that Jack had been killed. The awful void in my life and my soul, the constant presence of dread and depression that lurked in my mind like a sinkhole, ready to pull me into bottomless doubt if my thoughts dare stray in that direction. Despite the horror of it, I tried to imagine Bridget dead, Jack dead, nothing before me but a long and lonely future. Nothing but a cause, a job, some task that would take my mind off what I had lost, through no fault of my own.
"We're going home," I said softly. "Through the Sungate. Come with us."
The request jolted a second of emotion from Halsi; she lifted an eyebrow and glanced briefly in my direction. "And what would I do there? What kind of use would I be to you? I cannot fight, I cannot be strong. I cannot lose anyone else, and this... this is everything to me now." She shook her head. "They feel sorry for me. Your people would pity me as well, and those are sympathies I don't deserve."
"You are strong. You're one of the strongest people I know. And you /would/ have a place. You could help me take care of Bridget," I pressed. "You wouldn't be pitied... you'd be welcomed. Maybe... maybe you could even find someone else."
Her voice had a chilling ring of finality to it. "I don't /want/ anybody else."
I wanted very badly to protest, to explain, to tell her how Jack had been married and had lost, and now how he loved me, how he wanted someone else after all... but I didn't. It wasn't just that we were keeping silent of his marriage to Sara. It was the determination in Halsi's eyes, the resolution, the stubbornness I recognized and knew could not be buffered down with a few pathetic platitudes.
I put a hand on one of her bent knees, and sat there with her until the others woke.
Before I was even fully awake, I was reaching out, filled with panic, for Sam and Bridget. The mat beside me was empty - warm, but empty - however, my daughter's basket was still within an arm's length. I jostled the makeshift crib as I pulled myself into a sitting position, and the infant squealed and gurgled, as though to say, "now you're gonna get it" and launched into one of her most splendid renditions of 'cat in a rusty blender'.
Heart still pounding with the anxiety that follows such a hasty waking, I lifted Bridget from her bed, held her against my thumping chest, and realized a suspiciously wet warmth against one hand. Suppressing a sigh, reminding myself of how glamorous fatherhood was, I set her back down, this time on the mat, stripping off the soiled stopgap diaper - a folded cloth - and reaching for a clean strip of fabric. All the while, I kept glancing up, scanning the room. There was tension in the air, a pressure any military man worth his salt would notice at once.
Most of the adults were up, though some of the older children still huddled on their mattresses, squeezing their eyes shut against the noise, the shifting morning light, or the strain in their parents' voices. Words were mostly murmured in hushed tones, but now and then someone would lose control and let out an angry shout.
I tucked in Bridget's "diaper", picked her back up and stood, better to see the room and gauge the changing situation. My eyes were drawn immediately to Sam, to her hair, and I saw she was deep in conversation with Halsi and Jerdess. All three looked dismayingly glum, and, hoping against hope, I hurried over to them.
Jerdess was breathing hard. "We should have... suspected treach... treachery. Why did... we not? This is the /Council/, we should /know/ better by now."
"Don't blame yourselves," said Sam firmly, and then she turned to me. "The negotiation team they sent to Ankh'ij is missing," she explained. "One of the scouts they sent this morning is claiming he heard gunshots."
Unconsciously, I held my daughter closer. "Clera had them killed?"
"I doubt they are sitting down for breakfast together," said Halsi frostily. "Seeber and the others knew what conclusion we would come to if they did not return at the correct time. If they were alive they /would/ have been at the meeting place."
Sam squinted in confusion. "Seeber... Seeber was part of the negotiations team?"
Halsi raised her chin. "He was very good at it."
"Not good enough," Jerdess growled. "We must retaliate."
A few of the colonists milling fearfully around the cave began to take notice of us, and our conversation. Their frightened expressions did nothing to quell my own growing anxiety. These weren't soldiers, not even poorly-trained ones like the Council employed. These were men who had brought their wives and children to this place to escape tyranny, but had they ever foreseen this fate? These were families who had chosen hardship and freedom over more comfortable oppression... but just how uncomfortable were they willing to get? How chivalrous were they willing to be? How much were they willing to risk?
Two sides of me seemed to battle for dominance. The fighter, the reasonably-well-decorated army man, demanded that I join the battle, that I follow my conscience and do whatever I could to help these people. A year or so ago, that voice, while not the only deciding factor, would have overwhelmed the others; I would have grabbed and a Slade and would have been leading the charge to Ankh'ij without a second thought. And, ten to one, Sam would have been right behind me.
But now that things had changed, the soldier's voice wasn't quite as loud. And there were other thoughts. Not counting the brief skirmish against Lel'tan months ago, the one I'd deserted, I hadn't /been/ a fighter in quite a while. What I had been was a father, and it was the voice of the parent that spoke above the others, telling me that I wasn't in the same boat as the rest of these people, that Sam, Bridget and I didn't have any part in the freedom fighters' cause. Sure, we might support it, and we might agree with it, but surely that didn't mean we were required to lay down our lives for it? Or that we could look on as our lives were laid down for us?
When I spoke, I did so carefully, aware that many eyes were on me. "Jerdess, I need to ask you something important."
His expression was guarded. "What is it?"
"If you blow this thing against the Council wide open... if you start a war, /today/, what're your chances of winning?"
The question was poison. The room fell as silent as a graveyard; the air was as heavy as a corpse. It was as though every soul in the natural hall had taken a breath at the exact moment I'd posed my question. Jerdess squirmed.
"Good?" prodded Sam. "Or hopeless?"
The other man glanced around the room. "Neither one nor the other," he said warily. "But I do know one thing. With our level of experience, and our supplies, and our manpower, we can hold out against Clera for some time. But in an all-out battle, an offensive, I can't imagine we would last long. /She/ isn't afraid to throw her men in harm's way, and she has a good many of them."
"It's hopeless," announced a man near the back of the room, identity kept secret by the crowd. As a result, I couldn't see the speaker's face, but his tone said all I needed to know. The voice didn't waver. There was no timid or bitter edge to the words. As thought 'hopeless' was less of a condemnation and more of a challenge.
So maybe I hadn't given these colonists enough credit, I thought, wryly.
I had a bad feeling about this.
It was nothing I could put into words exactly. It was emotion gleaned from the tense atmosphere, the trepidation that was less a condition and more a physical /thing/. The room nearly vibrated with something insidious, and the wide-eyed way the colonists stared at our little group seemed a bad omen in and of itself. Last night, walking with Jerdess, they had all seemed so in control, so prepared for any eventuality, even this one. Now it appeared that hadn't been the case at all, that the refugees were still alive because of luck more than any other factor.
But that couldn't be it, could it? Clera's forces were disorganized, but there were also frighteningly large. I'd seen close up some of the injuries the colonists had inflicted upon the militia, and I felt like a doctor venturing out into the field for the first time, seeing what inhumane actions had led to a person falling under my care. Because they were all people. Every militiaman. Every Council member. Even Clera had borne a child for nine months, just as I had.
Aquatinting oneself with the enemy was almost always a risky business. War, when you get right down to the bare bones of it, is about killing. We had somewhat of a lucky break, finding a home in the SGC, because our enemies /weren't/ people, not in a sense, anyway. We could justify the fighting and the deaths in a way we never could during Vietnam and the Gulf War, and all other, less recent, armed conflicts: these were hostile aliens, and they didn't just want to rule other countries by offensive means. They wanted to kill and enslave us, and we were duty-bound to stop them.
Here, we didn't have that luxury. Not only were the militiamen very human, they had also been impressed. They were doing this because the Council was threatening their families' lives. On the other hand, if the colonists /didn't/ fight, and injure, and kill, they would lose definitively, and little mercy would be shown to them.
There was a reason I preferred science to combat.
My bad feeling remained.
Jack paused, and his downcast eyes glittered: a sign he was doing some serious thinking. I wondered if he still realized that he was holding Bridget - swathed in a blanket and fretting to herself - or if the military mind had already taken over. The ominous presence that had settled down over us told me that I already knew what he was thinking, and what he would say to Jerdess, Halsi, and the rest of the anticipating throng.
/We'll stay. We'll help you try to even those odds. We'll try to not make it so hopeless./
Because that was Jack personified. /I'll grumble, I'll bitch and moan and complain... but seriously, what can I do to help?/ My throat went unexpectedly dry as I waited, with the others, for him to make that inevitable announcement. I was less sure about what my own reply would be... but only slightly. I would offer to go with him at once. We would give Bridget to Halsi, entrusting her with our daughter's safety and - perhaps - future, and we would be the duty-bound soldiers, following the lead of our consciences and doing what we could to keep an extraordinary people free and alive.
When I snapped out of my dejected reverie, and looked over at Jack, I was surprised to see him staring down at the bundle in his arms.
I weighed the stone in my hand, rubbing the pads of my fingers across it's water-smoothed surface, testing its mass in my palm. Just a rock, the kind of stone that could be found on any coast or lakefront or riverbed on earth. Deep brown in color, laced with darker strata. Leaning away to gain leverage, I pulled back my arm and let fly, loosing the rock in the moon-spangled darkness, hearing only a subtle 'plop' and a vague motion on the starlit water.
There was another, larger, motion beside me, one I recognized as Kathryn Landseth even before I turned towards her. The Colonel shuffled down the shallow slope and then sat down at my side, her boots, like mine, only a few inches away from the water's edge. It was the same lake that we had circumvented earlier, after coming through to this planet in late afternoon, walking to the nearest village, making nice with the populace, and then excusing ourselves for the walk home. Kathryn had decided - and the others had agreed - that it might be prudent to spend the night planetside; there were far more treacherous places on the lakefront than the spot where we'd set up camp.
The same body of water... but it looked so very different. So dark, so angry, so all-encompassing, a black force that could swallow all of us as easily as it had swallowed up that faultless stone.
Landseth had shed her jacket in favor of enjoying the breeze, although her weapon was still a conspicuous bulge in the holster at her thigh. The same light wind fingered strands of hair that had come free of her bun; in the navy darkness, they seemed less wine-red and more raven-black. Her eyes were dark as well, staring out on the water intensely, as though sharing some special communion with it, cheekbones aglow with moonlight, her dogtags sparkling with it.
So eerie was the specter that I nearly started when she spoke, and her voice was normal. Rich, throaty, and invigoratingly frank. "When are you going to stop looking for them, Jackson?"
I dug my heels into the bank. "I don't know. When I find them, maybe."
"And if you don't find them?" /Them/. It was like a talisman.
"I won't accept that," I replied stubbornly.
Landseth drew up her knees and rested her elbows on them. "What if you do find them, and they're dead? Are you going to be able to let go? Give up?" She answered her own question. "Because I don't think you can. I think it's become such a part of your life that even if you found them ALIVE and well, you'd still be... compelled to keep looking."
"We KNOW Sam's alive," I said patiently. "Sam said so... physics says so."
"And how many times has physics been proved wrong at the SGC?" Landseth countered, earning a nasty glare from me. I had my own doubts and insecurities to deal with; I didn't need hers on top of it. "Look, I'm not saying you're wrong. That Samantha was just as smart as you've told me. And I'm sure that O'Neill more than lives up to his stories. I WANT to believe that you're right, Daniel, I honestly do. I wish I could FEEL it like you can, because then I wouldn't be stuck here trying to play devil's advocate."
The use of my first name earned her another glance, and I was shocked by the earnestly in her expression.
"Now," she began with gusto, "you were the one with the GDO, right? Which explains why they haven't tried to return before. Even if a tech recognized the planet, he'd probably be ordered to keep the iris shut."
"In case they had the codes tortured out of them by the Ma'at'ans," I said flatly. "Even though the natives were terrified of the Stargate and not close to our level of technology."
"There's also the fact that the Gate's been buried for some time," Landseth said, heedlessly. "How long, who knows? Not to mention the fact it's a damn war zone in that area."
"There was no fighting in the immediate vicinity of the Gate."
"Good point. Holy ground?"
"Something like that."
"So... what? You saw Carter go down, didn't you? And as far as I know O'Neill wasn't much for medical training, beyond the basic field courses."
"Maybe she got medical attention in Anhk'ij."
"It's a possibility," said Landseth slowly.
Her tone caught me off guard. "What are you thinking?" I asked, warily, knowing that when the Colonel went into this kind of Deep Contemplation mode, it usually wasn't a good sign.
She brushed the windswept strands off her face. "That there's only one way to know for sure, for certain."
I swallowed down hope, stomped on it, locked it away... and still it rose, a balloon in my throat, clamping off my air supply. "What's that?" I squeaked.
"We go back. Tonight. Now."
"What are you talking about?"
Landseth leaned towards me, eyes bright and expression exuberant and suddenly intrigued, as though she hadn't been the one to bring it up. "I'm talking about putting an end to this, Jackson," she said smoothly. "About finding whether or not you've been right all this time. About ending this chapter of your life one way or another so you can move on with Janet. You say you love her, and yeah... I'm sure you do or you would never have proposed. But such a big part of your life is devoted to O'Neill and Carter. If you don't find them or find out what /happened/ to them, you'll never be happy."
I remained silent, trying to absorb this outburst. Landseth had always been brisk and straightforward, honest to a painful point, but where I was concerned and where Sam and Jack were concerned, she'd been a little more careful... even danced around the subject at times. And now here she was, coming up to me and out of nowhere suggesting a plan of action that was very... unlike her. "You care if I'm happy or not?" I stammered, confused by the sudden change.
"Or course," she said scornfully. "Right from the start you were determined to make me hate you as much as you hated me. All that did was make me more determined to like you. And it wasn't hard. You're a good man, Jackson, even when you're trying to be an ass."
I ignored that last bit. "I don't hate you."
She grinned brilliantly. "Glad to hear it. Now. What do you think? We aren't due back to the SGC for another ten hours. That gives us more than enough time to do a little investigating on old P2F-983, don't you think?"
The situation was so absurd that I stood, trying in some small way to regain control I'd never really had in the first place. Our camp, where Ian Kelly and Teal'c sat guarding the tents and feeding the fire, wasn't far away, but was thankfully out of earshot. I glared down at Kathryn. "Hammond would kill us."
She stood as well, and met me eye-to-eye. "IF he found out, he'd kill ME. I'm the C.O., and I'm perfectly ready to take the blame."
"If we don't find anything there, he never has to know, now does he? And if we do..." She gave a disgusted grimace. "Well, I don't care. I WANT to do this."
"You're assuming the Gate's still unblocked."
"We can't use the MALP to check, not from here."
"I will go first, Daniel Jackson."
For a big guy, Teal'c was unnervingly quiet. The sudden sound of his voice caused me to jump a step back; my heel caught on something and I would have fallen backwards into the soggy bank if Ian Kelly hadn't grabbed my sleeve. The captain stood beside Teal'c, almost hidden by his shadow, silent and stocky.
Landseth frowned, seeming not at all thrown off by the two men's unexpected appearance. "Can't ask you to do that, Teal'c."
Teal'c face appeared to blend into the darkness, leaving only the whites of his eyes gleaming resolutely back at the Colonel. "If the way is indeed clear, I can inform you by reopening the Stargate to this planet."
"No, Teal'c. I'm not letting you go alone. Hostiles --"
"Then I'll go with him," said Ian glibly.
The stout captain stood beside Teal'c, backlit by the campfire several meters away, the moonlight casting deformed globs of darkness over his small features. I remembered a conversation I'd had with Janet about Ian Kelly's fitting in, where I'd mentioned how painfully affable and eager-to-please the Captain was. Unlike Kathryn, Kelly understood the weight of the role he had taken, and was leaving us plenty of leeway to hate his guts because of it. For that very reason, he was impossible to dislike, but he had overzealous tendencies that were slightly disturbing. Nothing worried me more than a blindly loyal, furiously-dedicated follower, whether he be human or alien, because that kind of indiscriminate devotion was what put people like Hitler and Stalin and Apophis in power. Ignorance and fear.
Not that Ian was unintelligent. He /was/ stupid in the same way Jack had been stupid: profoundly, proudly, in his own words "a flaming idiot". But he was also astute and discerning in that same O'Neill-ish way: quietly, reluctantly.
I liked the kid. But even if I hadn't liked him, I wouldn't have been able to take him up on his offer.
I grumbled loudly and trudged back up the slope of the bank, towards the camp, noting with pleasure how the others followed almost hesitantly. I grabbed my jacket from where it sat on the ground, shook out any insects that might have moved in, and shrugged it on, turning back to Landseth, Teal'c, and Ian as they warily approached. "If we're going to do this," I decided, "I'm going to be the one to do it. Me and the Colonel. I'm a civilian and... well, it was her idea."
Kathryn gave me an unexpected grin. "That it was," she quipped. "Come on. We've got ten hours. Let's break down camp."
"I'm going to ask you something very selfish."
To his credit, Jerdess didn't walk away from me, and he could have, very simply. This was war, and in war, there was little time for conversations and requests. Especially selfish ones. But the other man held his ground, merely sneaking a discreet glance at Halsi before prodding me. "Go ahead."
I couldn't seem to form the words. "I realize this is a difficult time for everyone here, and this might make it even more difficult..."
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Sam, alternately staring at me and Bridget with an unreadable expression.
"Say it," demanded Halsi.
"It's going to take us an hour or so to make it to the Sungate," I blurted. "That's only if we're lucky. Now, we're right in the middle of a fight here, a fight you're not sure you can win." I saw Jerdess wince, and a couple of our 'audience' murmured, but I plowed ahead. "Basically, if you start a retaliation now, if you start /fighting/ now... we'll never be able to make it back."
Sam's expression had slipped into surprise, even amazement, and as I looked down nervously at my daughter I thought I understood the reason. The old Jack O'Neill's MO would have been to automatically offer himself as a soldier for their cause, to don himself in their camouflage and hoist up their weapon and call himself one of them for the remainder of his life. Because these were a people I agreed with, as I'd agreed with Thomas Jefferson when he'd said that resistance to tyrants was obedience to God, and the Council of Ma'at'a /were/ a bunch of lowlife, lying, cretin tyrants as much as Hussein or any of those other creeps. A kind of universal enemy. Jerdess and Halsi and the others... they were the underdogs. The kind of people I could root for. The kind the old Jack O'Neill could fight alongside.
But, damn it, I'd changed. I'd /been/ changing, certainly since becoming a father again, probably since realizing my stay on this planet would be a bit longer than planned. I couldn't play by the old rules here any more than I could live by the regulations once we got back home. And to do my duty as a /father/, to make sure my daughter and her mother /got/ back home, I had to have the balls to make a purely selfish request. And it was hard, especially when the person you were asking knew you as a pretty straightforward, upright kind of guy.
As it was, Jerdess didn't seem a bit confused. He was a father, or at least he'd been one. Just as I empathized with him as a soldier, he had to empathize with me as a parent, right? That was what was so great about the SGC, about dealing with transplanted humans more than exotic aliens. No matter what world they called home, or what values system they had grown up on, there were just some things that all humans shared. That they could connect with. "You want me to delay the counterstrike," he repeated, flatly. "Long enough for you three to get to the Sungate."
He didn't need me to acknowledge that what he said was the truth. I remained silent. Sam remained silent. Bridget kicked and flailed against my chest, but also seemed to understand the gravity of the situation and kept her fussing to a minimum.
Jerdess's face told me nothing of what he was thinking or feeling. "You know that for every moment we wait, Clera's reinforcements grow closer. Our enemy becomes stronger."
Halsi's gaze was chilling.
"We know," confirmed Sam.
"And that as they strengthen, our chances for success grow dimmer. And that this is greater than any one family."
My jaw ached; I realized I was clenching it. Didn't that just figure? The one time I went a little greedy, I was the one who got the lesson in the needs of the few and the one. "Yeah, I know."
Halsi's voice had a monotonous, almost dead quality. "But if we didn't put the family first, we would be no better than the Council. Holding comrades as hostages, as prisoners. Trading lives for victory."
Jerdess cocked his head in concession. "I know," he echoed me.
A moment passed. A moment of deliberation and decision, and then Jerdess nodded to an unseen member of the crowd. "I will do my best to get in contact with the group on the other side of the hill," he said dryly. "Now get your things and go. You don't have all Réy."
"Mind telling me something?"
Landseth actually smiled at my answer. "Yeah, you probably will. But I'm going to ask you anyway: why fight me on this?"
For a few moments, I didn't answer, trudging along, watching my footing, creating just enough of a pause to get her wondering if I planned on replying at all. In truth, I wasn't sure what to say. When she had suggested returning to The Planet, why hadn't I leapt to my feet, sprinted down the lakefront, yelling that I would meet her there? When all my dreams had been answered, why hadn't I acted as though they had been? "Why not?" I muttered.
Landseth sighed, resting her hands on her MP5. "You think I was just yanking your chain? What? Why argue?"
Ian and Teal'c walked side-by-side only a few feet behind us, but from the way the wind blew, I knew my words would be taken away from them. "Because... it's what I've been doing for the last /year/. Arguing. Fighting. Disagreeing, either about Jack and Sam or else just for the sake of... of..."
"Of being contrary," the Colonel finished. "To make everyone else as miserable as you."
I glared at her for knowing exactly what I was feeling.
She just laughed, and directed her face at the moonlight. "You act like you've got a monopoly on pain and suffering, Jackson. Like no one else but you has ever been through this. /I/ have. /I've/ lost people I've cared about with all my heart. Not in such a spectacular fashion, and I didn't grieve for them so spectacularly, either. Because I knew they were gone. And you still have hope. I guess that's why I'm doing this." Her tone because clipped, sharp, capable of drawing blood if I listened too closely. "You have hope. You kept hoping. You've practically kept your life at a standstill because you didn't want your friends to miss out on too much. That's a little overboard, but it's still... honorable." She shrugged, ducking her head. "I thought I was the one who'd asked /you/ the question?"
"I answered it."
Another shrug, a more confident one this time. "I guess you did."
No more than ten minutes later, we were on our way, armed with a Slade and a word of advice from Halsi: "There is a rough clearing surrounding the Sungate. It has become a holy land, a neutral spot, a place of refuge for both our side and theirs. Make it to that place, and Ma'at will keep you safe."
How patently ironic that the area of woodland that had been our undoing long ago, as we'd retreated from this place, would now be our sanctuary.
A young girl of nine or ten look me to an alcove where I could change from my ill-fitting tunic and pants to a slate-colored, knee-length dress, more utilitarian than feminine. It had been another bit of advice from Halsi. "The clothing of men is easier to move in, but it might also lead to your being /mistaken/ for a man. Two soldiers carrying bundles are much more suspicious and likely to be attacked than a husband, wife, and child."
Husband and wife...
Halsi, Jerdess, the other colonists... they had all been so outrageously helpful that I felt more than simply indebted to them. I feel that I had /stolen/ from them. Not just their clothing and weaponry, but their time and their one chance to remain alive and free.
'Live free or die'. It looked a lot nicer on paper than coming from the mouth of your leader.
I knew that we could never thank Jerdess and Halsi and the others enough, so we let our appreciation be shown in our good-byes. By the time we were ready to leave, most of the colonists were distracted by their own duties, gathering up their children and their belongings. Even Jerdess was gone, outside with some of his civilian contingent, preparing for the battle that would follow as soon as our time limit had passed. So it was just Halsi, waiting to see us out, looking timid and alone, as though this was the only duty small enough to fall beneath her notice. It was untrue, of course. It had to be. Look how she had assisted in convincing Jerdess to help us.
"You're sure you won't come with us?"
For a split second, even less, Halsi's face betrayed her feelings. She /did/ want to come with us. She wanted to escape all this, and see the world I'd told her about back in Ankh'ij. But she also couldn't, or wouldn't, or wouldn't let herself. She had a responsibility to this world as I had to Earth. Just as intensely as I knew I had to return to my home, she knew that she had to remain on hers. "I am sure."
Jack still held Bridget, whose fretting was - naturally - more pronounced now. He also still carried with him a vague sense of embarrassment that probably stemmed from his earlier request. To ask a people to put themselves on the line for him... that went against his grain, and it had to rub painfully. To know that increased numbers of colonists might die in order to secure safe passage for us... that was something /I/ didn't even want to contemplate. Even knowing that our biggest obligation was Bridget, and this was the one way to keep her safe. "Halsi..." he began, with more uncertainty than I had ever seen from him, "I don't want you to think any less of us... of me... but... I had another wife. Named Sara. And a son... a son named Charlie, who died. Here, and with..." - he seemed to lean unconsciously closer to me - "I had a second chance. You deserve one, too."
The woman brushed an oily strand of hair out of her eyes, and stared at us with some mixture of horror and hope. In response, I put my hand on Jack's, the one that supported Bridget's back, hoping to show Halsi that we didn't mean any less to each other, that I wasn't a second choice, that he wasn't in some way damaged. Balancing Bridget against one arm, he captured my hand in his own, threading our fingers together. A thunderclap of ill-timed lust jolted through me, and I banished it.
"I see," said Halsi in a way that told me she didn't, not yet. "You have to go."
All business. I could deal with that. Halsi moved aside, and we were confronted with the gray morning light. And trees. Some things never changed.
It didn't take long for me to realize that an hour was a optimistic assessment. It was perhaps a mile as the crow flew, but from this direction, over this terrain, with our precious cargo, it was a different story. Panic spurred my every step, fear that our time limit would pass, that the Council would start the fight, that we would be deemed suspicious by the soldiers that had to be concealed by the foliage, that we would be gunned down.
My breath came in wheezes, and sweat began to bead at my hairline. I barely noticed when it started to rain, tiny drops commingling into larger ones in the canopy above, then splashing down upon us. I didn't really pay any mind until my brain resurfaced and I realized that my clothing was sopping, clinging to me in sodden bunches. Sam was only a foot or so behind, and I looked back at her. "Bridget?"
"She's good," she huffed, meaning our daughter was warm and dry and not unduly irritated by our present conditions.
And then we were Colonel O'Neill and Captain Carter again, trekking through the deep woods in unfavorable conditions, me armed with a weapon and her with a package of unmatched importance. Not so long ago, I'd reminded myself of what a great thing the SGC was. And that was just it. Suddenly, it became apparent that I was still a part of Stargate Command, that I hadn't left it behind as fully as I'd thought when I'd 'married' Sam and found a new home with her. The realization was frightening and awe-inspiring, striking me not so much a feeling of homecoming as one of loss. When I went through that Gate, I would lose what I had gained here.
In response, the heavens opened up upon me. Lightning carved the sky fiercely. Bridget whimpered.
I thought of my daughter's namesake, and all the other gods that these people believed in. The different deities that so many other cultures worshiped. During that brief stroke of light and subsequent clap-crash of thunder, I could sense them. Staring down at me disapprovingly. Telling me to turn back.
In the moonlight, by the lakefront, framed by darkness, reflecting the stars, the gate was particularly monolithic. In this setting, it looked more like the massive alien structure that it was and less of the conventional piece of machinery I'd become accustomed to seeing and using every day.
Before I could think twice about my motivation, before Kathryn could question hers, I punched in the symbols for Ma'at'a, forever etched in my mind. The plasma rushed at us, snapping back like a dragon's maw, but it only served to remind me that we were walking in blind. What if the war had gone right up to the Gate, and the militia was waiting for us? What if it had been reburied? Jesus, what were we thinking, going into this kind of situation?
Ian looked as though he was wondering the same thing. "So you two go through... then what?"
Landseth seemed to be sizing up the event horizon, as though challenging an opponent. "We have ten hours," she said conversationally. "Give us half of that. Whatever you do, don't come after us. Five hours and there's no word, you get yourselves home and make sure the General understands that I /ordered/ you to let me go, and that I /made/ Jackson come along, against his will."
"You're right," she grinned. "Hammond wouldn't believe that either. Leave out that last part, Ian. But don't even /think/ of coming after us."
"Yes ma'am," he said unconvincingly.
The Jaffa said nothing, and Landseth scowled. I nudged her. "They wouldn't have listened to Jack, either."
She seemed to take it as a compliment. After a moment of thought, I realized that was how I had intended it to be taken.
"Come on, Daniel," she entreated. "Let's do this."
The 'clearing' was atrocious.
It was a different place than the one I'd been run into and carried out of a year ago, hardly recognizable as that same indefensible field. The surrounding brush had taken over, pressing in on the center, where the Stargate had to be. Trees, vines, and overgrowth tangled themselves in a thick organic carpet that was only somewhat marked by narrow, meandering pathways. It certainly said something for the plant life on Ma'at'a.
On top of all of this, there was the storm to contend with. What had begun as a sprinkling, a light spattering of raindrops against the trees had morphed into a full-fledged torrent. The clouds high above, peeking through grizzled branches, were vaguely luminescent, set aglow by the morning sun hidden behind them. It was our only boon: at least it wasn't dark.
Not /yet/, anyway.
With no option but to continue to plod along, in search of shelter, the three of us were soaked to the skin, burdened by our soggy clothing. Bridget was decidedly unhappy with these accommodations, and let us know, refusing to be soothed or quieted.
Wordlessly, determined only to keep the other in sight, Jack and I fought our way through the lashing branches and slick, overhanging vines, edging past trunks of trees and the cold stone outcroppings that I remembered so well. A sixth sense told me we were almost there, that we had nearly made it. Maybe it was the naqueda in my blood, an echo of Jolinar, singing out that our goal was near. Maybe it was just me, and my remembrance of this fated place.
Bolts of lightning charred across the sky, arcing; heaven's party streamers. I flinched at the resultant thundering, a noxious, dooming sound, and brushed my dripping hair out of my eyes. /Don't think about it, not how uncomfortable you are, how the rain and cold air could affect Bridget's health or yours or Jack's, don't think about how your legs hurt, and how close you must be and why aren't you there yet? Just one foot in front of the other, don't think, just walk, just keeping moving.../
I was so committed to my task that when Jack stopped abruptly in front of me, I crashed into his back. He turned to me, his skin glistening with rainwater, his hair plastered to his head, a rather damp smile splitting his face; he moved to the side, to let me see what he had seen.
I /knew/, intuitively, what he had seen; there was only one thing that could get him to smile like that in these miserable conditions. And I knew what it would look like: dark, round, solemn, an unlikely talisman of hope and longing. What I didn't know, what I didn't expect, was how it made me /feel/. Exhausted. Pained. Relieved.
The Gate. Our ticket home, our passage out of this place once and for all.
The clearing the Stargate now occupied was considerably smaller than it had been on our last visit. At an all-out run, it would take less than two minutes to reach it, only seconds to dial in Earth's address. With any luck at all, Hammond and the others at the SGC would be curious enough to open the gate from their side, and send a probe through. There we'd be, and they'd open the iris for us, and then we'd be home.
Ten minutes and we could be home.
I felt Jack's body tense; looked up and saw him regarding the Stargate almost hungrily. Before he could break into that all out run, I grabbed his elbow. "Wait!"
I stared at Sam dumbly. Wait. Wait?
Why wait? We were here, we were as good as home! From our friends and family and all the things we had fantasized about returning to back in Ankh'ij: showers and junk food and television and computers and hockey. Why wait?
As though reading my mind, Sam tilted her head up, indicating the sky, and as though reading /her/ mind, I understood. The storm. The lightning. And before us, a metal object standing alone in a field. Already not a good combination. And then if we were to use the Dial Home Device, which routed power to the Gate...
"If it was struck while we were in transit..." Sam trailed off grimly, her words broken and strewn by the increasing winds. She didn't have to finish. Every bone in my body remembered Antarctica, being flung so fiercely through the Gate that I heard the crack of the ice in my skull. At least that time, we'd been lucky enough to land on the same planet. If the Stargate was hit by lightning while we were inside the wormhole... well, I didn't know much about this stuff, but I knew we might end up just about anywhere. "We'll have to wait out the storm," she continued, using her slender frame to shield Bridget from the stinging rain.
It was easier said than done. There were numerous trees in the area, but they were all small, young. We ended up retracing our steps back into the thicket, watching keenly for any spot, no matter how small, that was somehow protected. We found it at the base of a bluff, a jutting bit of stone that appeared to protrude directly from the hillside, sheltering a small bit of ground that the overhang had kept mostly dry. My mind raced: maybe I could even use some of the brush to start a fire, to keep us going through the storm, through the night. And hopefully it wouldn't be blown out or spread by the wind, and hopefully no one would see us and decide to come visit...
By that time, Sam was shivering violently, and I helped to guide her down a slick embankment to the leaning bluff, ducked her head down so she wouldn't bang it on the low ledge. Then I climbed in after her, trying not to realize that my sodden clothes were increasingly more uncomfortable now that I was out of the downpour. The overhang shielded a plot of about five square feet; the 'ceiling' wasn't much taller than that, so even sitting, it brought back old claustrophobic feelings from past missions. Hunkered in a crevice, hiding in a ditch... ah, memories.
The foliage that had managed to grow, even under the ledge's shade, wasn't as dry as I had hoped, but the disappointment of that realization was short-lived. In fact, it faded completely from mind as soon as I had blinked away some rainwater and brushed away a few stray leaves and something that looked suspiciously like a cricket.
It was an innocuous circle in the ground, framed by medium-sized and multihued rocks, a shallow depression filled with charred wood and - most of all - ashes.
Sam, still shivering, drying off the whimpering Bridget as much as possible, looked from the hearth to me, an expression of good, old-fashioned amazement on her features, an honest scientist's interest in her eyes. "A campfire," she murmured, her voice barely audible over the sounds of the rain. "Someone's been here before."
And not too long ago, if I hadn't forgotten /everything/ I'd learned as a soldier. "Halsi said this was a... sacred spot. That colonists and militiamen and people from Ankh'ij have been coming here to pray to Ma'at and - "
But she wasn't listening to me any longer, I knew that when I looked up and saw her face. Again it had changed, first from misery to interest and now from interest to down and outright fascination. I looked where she did, searching for the cause of her sudden preoccupation, and found it quite easily.
Halsi had been right.
From this angle and this height, a new world had emerged. Through the rain-soaked forest, between the waterlogged saplings and shiny-wet rock, I could see lights. Flickering lights. One here, one there, two over there. Tiny spots in different directions and at different distances, somehow sheltered because the flames seemed to dance in spite of and even /defiance/ of the smothering storm. If I squinted, now and then I could make out a huddled shape beside the light, see it rise or slump or shift. It was entirely eerie. The woods surrounding the clearing had felt so empty, so deserted, like a ghost town. Now we could see that they were more populated than we had even dreamed.
The Sungate had a lot of fans.
Bridget didn't exactly appreciate the discovery of our new neighbors; she began to bawl again, this time with purpose, and Sam muttered something about her needing to eat. She ritually turned away from me, and I automatically undid the top few clasps of her dress, trying not to notice the skin that was exposed, because it was skin I hadn't touched or even seen in some time and would only lead me to distraction. So as she shrugged one arm out of its sleeve, I studiously turned away, leaning through the dark morning, trying to pinpoint the exact position of the campfires.
And all of a sudden, I was staring at a pair of legs.
I jerked back, my neck snapping up and my hand reaching instinctively for the weapon. It was Clera's people... it was some of the colonists who didn't know us... it was a straggler, a vagrant, a robber, a murderer... I backed up against Sam, who let only a small gasp escape before hunching down and away, concealing and defending Bridget as best she could against this new threat.
The 'threat' seemed less than impressed by the barrel aimed at his face, and also appeared less than threatening himself. He was of medium height, a little on the skinny side, drenched, as we were, from head to toe. The familiar gray tunic he wore was too waterlogged to even cling to his body; his hair was jaw-length and matted to his scalp. One hand continually wiped water out of his eyes. The other hung by his side, and in its grasp was a handle, and attached to the handle was something metallic, something roughly the same size and shape as a liter of soda.
"You are wise to take precautions!" he told us over a pummeling burst of thunder. "Not everyone here is well intentioned!" Our visitor didn't attempt to enter our shelter, but he thrust the metal canister toward me. "I sense that you are fellow travelers on this path of enlightenment, and I pass the flame of Ma'at on to you this night!"
I started at the engraved container for a few embarrassing seconds before realizing what the man was talking about. He was offering us fire, warmth for the night, in the name of a Gou'ald. No, not a Gou'ald, not exactly. In the name of their God. Was our visitor searching for enlightenment, some kind of Ma'at'an New Age? Was he a theologian? . Or was he just... just some guy, some average Joe, looking for spiritual solstice in a holy place? Slowly, not completely willing to listen to the instincts that said this man could be trusted, I lowered the Slade, and with my free hand took the proffered handle.
"Open it," said the man hastily, still not coming any closer, still letting the storm rain down on him. "The flame must have air, or it will die!"
I glanced behind me at Sam, who had risen out of her protective, mother-bear crouch and covered both her bare shoulder and her satiating daughter with one of the less-damp blankets. She met my eyes squarely, without fear, and looked to the canister. "Open it," she all but whispered.
Setting the weapon on the ground between us, I felt for a seam in the near darkness. My fingers connected with a metal hinge, and I pulled back on the container's top, splitting it in half and revealing a spasmodically flickering tongue of fire burning on a piece of cord, like the oversized wick of an oil lamp. I brushed dry, leafy debris into the ashy hearth, cleared away the area around it, and then touched the flame to the refuse. Immediately, miraculously, the incandescence spread to the make-shift fireplace, and remained there, as though confined by the surrounding stones.
When I handed the canister back to our visitor, I found him smiling at us, water dribbling off his lips and chin. "You are not from here."
I felt Sam shift in surprise. "No," I answered carefully. "We're from Ankh'ij."
The smile deepened. "You are from the Sungate," he said reprovingly. "I have heard the stories."
"For crying out loud..."
His dark eyes slipped behind me, to Sam and Bridget, silent, shrouded. "Many have wondered when you would return, and what message you would take to Ma'at for us."
"What message would you like us to take?" I answered quickly, before our new friend could sense hesitation, and before Sam could habitually correct him.
He answered equally quickly, which told me he had prepared himself for this moment, and labored over this answer. "Her flame burns bright," he said, face alight with pride, even in the cloying darkness. "And her people are strong."
"What a character, hmm?"
Leaning against the back wall of the dugout, I smiled gently, not at Jack's comment but at Bridget. My little daughter was finally asleep, mollified by the new warmth and a full stomach, her tiny features relaxed, lids twitching and lips pouting in an incomprehensible baby dream. Firelight played on her face. "That character might have just saved us a nasty bout with bronchitis. Bridget especially."
"Yeah," he relented distractedly, wringing water from a shirtsleeve and then, after a moment of consideration, peeling the tunic over his head. His shoulders, chest, arms... they were all as impressively defined as I remembered, from familiarization from our nights together, or when I'd seen him bathing, or even from those few times, back at the SGC, when I'd managed to spy my commanding officer shirtless.
It shouldn't have been such a big deal, seeing him like that. The damp sheen highlighted as the light from the fire crisscrossed his body shouldn't have affected me so strongly, I was sure. We'd been living together, we had a /child/ together, for crying out loud.
But still... still...
Not noticing my preoccupation, Jack took Bridget from me, gingerly, and I pulled the sleeve back over my shoulder, securing it in the back as best I could. When I looked back up, I saw him studying his daughter adoringly, just as I had. But maybe there was something different in his expression, just a little different, just the slightest tic. Maybe it was a shadow of sadness, Charlie's shadow, reminding Jack of holding his tiny son, his first child, his dead baby.
I shivered, and it wasn't because of the storm.
It was the first sound I heard as I was thrust from the wormhole onto solid ground, and likewise, the first thing I felt was a viselike hand on my arm, yanking at me insistently. The darkness I'd emerged into was split in half by a glaring stroke of lightning, blinding me temporarily, and I allowed myself to be dragged away from the disengaging Stargate and into the wet, wind-whipped night.
By the time vision returned, Landseth had already released me, and was leaning against a gnarled trunk, breathing hard from the sprint. "Stargate in... an electrical storm..." she heaved, "didn't seem... like a real good idea."
I nodded my agreement, turning in place, taking in our surroundings. There was a strange luminance to the clouds that made me suspect it was either morning or evening beyond the storm. The rain slashed at my jacket and the gale-force gusts gnashed. Tree limbs swiped at me relentlessly. "See any armies?" I asked, leaning toward Kathryn.
"If we're lucky, they're having a rain delay."
"If we're unlucky, Sam and Jack are actually out in this."
The Colonel frowned. "Personally, Dan, I'd rather they be here than some city halfway around the planet. Or dead."
"They aren't dead," I grumbled.
"I'm just saying... this could be worse," she said pointedly, wincing as a flash of light underscored her words. "Well... we're not sending word to Teal'c and Ian while this storm's going on." She tugged at my elbow. "Let's go look around."
We picked our way into the forest, which had grown and thickened considerably over the year-long interim. Every now and then, Landseth would mutter something about a path, but the trail, if there really was one, was crowded with foliage, muddy, and almost impossible to follow. I wiped the rain out of my eyes and slogged along in the Colonel's wake, looking carefully for something, even though I didn't know exactly what.
It wasn't exactly the time or place for conversation, and I wasn't sure why I was initiating it. I knew only that I was, that the words were flying heedlessly from my mouth, not spoken loudly, only heard because Kathryn was walking so close. "Do you really think finding something here's going to help me... find closure? Move on with Janet?"
The Colonel kept looking straight ahead, but I could tell by the tone of her voice that she was surprised. "You're asking /me/?"
I felt flustered, transparent, but plowed ahead. "It's just that, what you said... back there... was pretty dead-on. I've been living with their ghosts, real or imaginary, ever since it happened. And it's... it's really been a strain."
She nodded, sympathetically, I imagined. "It's also what brought you and the doctor together," she pointed out.
"Yeah," I admitted, whole-heartedly. "She was the one I went to. I don't know. I couldn't talk to Teal'c about this, he just seemed so apathetic. Like it didn't bother him, like he didn't care. And I /know/ he was feeling everything I was, I know it was just him being strong, but I didn't need somebody strong. I needed someone to commiserate with, someone who felt those things /and/ expressed them. That was Janet. She got me though everything, through the initial shock of it, and through Sha're, and through..."
Landseth smirked when trailed off. Water dripped off her nose and plastered her hair to her neck, but still she managed to look haughty. "Through me?"
I tripped on a twisting above-ground tributary of a root system, and remained silent.
The colonel grinned. "I don't take offense, Jacks... Daniel. If I took offense, maybe you would've actually gotten rid of me. But I don't. So you didn't."
"You didn't care what an asshole I was to you," I observed.
"Of course I /cared/."
"Well, you didn't let it bother you."
She shook her head incredulously. "Are you kidding me? Sometimes I'd end up laying awake in bed at three a.m., thinking about it, worrying about it, being bothered about it! I'd go back over the day in my mind and wonder what I'd done wrong, and I'd remind myself, over and over again, what a terrible, terrible loss you had suffered. How you saw me as an intruder. Hell yeah, it bothered me. And it kept bothering me... 'til I met Samantha. Captain Carter. Until I got to know her and hear about O'Neill and about /you/, from her. She was the one that made me see that... that I wasn't doing anything wrong, and you weren't doing anything wrong, and nobody was the bad guy here. And she got me to understand that it could be a lot worse. Because like it or not, like /me/ or not, when it comes down to the wire, we work well together, Daniel. I've always respected you, and trusted you. It's okay if you can't say the same thing about me, I don't mind. I just want you to know that it /did/ bother me. I let it bother me. I just didn't let it make me leave."
I looked over at her, and stared, unable to think of a single thing to say. The rush of words, the outpouring of honest emotion as thick and drowning as the droplets that pelted our coats, was far more than I had expected in even my wildest expectations.
"I think the storm's letting up a little," said Kathryn mildly.
And then I saw it.
A fire, a campfire, in the distance.
I stifled a yawn and stared out into the unrelenting gray, watching droplets of water congregate on the spindly branches and folded leaves of trees, gaining cohesion and weight until they plummeted to the earth in fat drops.
Earth. It was almost as though the word had lost meaning. Ever since joining the program, learning about all the worlds out there now within our reach, I'd realized that I'd been taking my planet for granted. Taken my freedom for granted. After seeing the tyranny the Gou'ald inflicted upon their subjects, partisan politics had no longer seemed so corrupted. After spending days or even weeks on an unfamiliar world, one that never felt quite /right/, even the most rundown sections of Colorado Springs seemed welcoming, comforting. Home.
But now a year of my life had passed on another planet, so much time that it felt normal. That it nearly felt like home. And my world had grown considerably smaller, consisting of a few disgruntled workers or quiet rebels, and most importantly, Sam, and then Bridget.
In a way, I'd been forced to turn to Sam Carter; she was, after all, the only small bit of Earth, of home, that I had been able to hold onto, to see and touch. A familiar face and voice and mind in a maelstrom of new opinions and beliefs, strange attitudes and practices. While once I had never thought that I had much in common with Sam, now I had everything in common with her. I had relied on her through this, shamelessly, for friendship and comfort and companionship. Maybe it had only been a matter of time before I turned to her for more. Maybe this had been only a relationship of convenience.
The rain appeared to be lightening, and there had been no flashes of light or bursts of sound for some time, but I made no move to wake Sam. She'd fallen asleep not long after Bridget had nodded off, leaning back against the wall of the overhanging, breathing silently through her mouth. We'd had a good night's sleep, but the hiking over the past few days had been more difficult work than we were used to. It was going to be hell working up our stamina again, at least back to the point that Hammond would let us go back to work.
But that was another problem, wasn't it? Bridget. She was my daughter, my blood, and I loved her unconditionally, but the fact remained that her presence wouldn't make things any easier. I didn't look forward to explaining to Hammond - to anyone - how she had come to be, because I knew what would happen. I would get defensive. I would get angry. I would say exactly the wrong thing, and make somebody mad at me.
Provided I ever figured out exactly what I was supposed to say. As eager as I was to get home, I was also scared to death of leaving a life that I had just become comfortable with. And I was afraid of how jumping back into normalcy would affect what I had - what I /thought/ I had - with Sam. The truth was, after all, that our relationship would never have evolved to this point if we'd returned home safely all those months ago. What if it was something that would only work here? What if my feelings for her weren't feasible in a normal world?
A shuffling sound woke me from my ruminations. My eyelids, which had drifted half-closed, snapped open again. Sam still slept against the wall; Bridget was still snuggled soundlessly against my drying tunic. The fire had died down somewhat, but still gave off light and warmth.
The sound came again - footsteps through brush - and I grabbed for my weapon.
"Look at em all," breathed Landseth.
It was true; all of a sudden, the dead woods seemed to be dappled by firelight, by life. I couldn't see actual people yet, but that was only a matter of distance. I remembered what Kathryn had said about the battle being postponed... a rain delay. Was this where it was being staged? Was each one of those campsites home to a assembly of soldiers, the kind that had chased us away on our first trip, and injured Landseth on the second.
"Could this have anything to do with the Stargate?" the Colonel wanted to know.
I blinked, surprised that hadn't occurred to me. "Yeah... if it's some kind of holy icon. Especially if there's a war of some kind going on..."
"So these are... pilgrims?"
"Could be." It was certainly preferable to considering them all militiamen. "There's only one way to find out."
She nodded, understanding what I meant, and together we made our way around a shank of solid stone, towards the nearest flame.
The footfalls continued to approach and I froze, remembering our friendly, fire-bearing visitor, but also remembering his warning: "Not everyone here is well intentioned!" For every kind-hearted, welcoming person here, there was probably a contingent of criminals vying for the opportunity to slit their throats.
Just let them try.
"Excuse me... whoa!"
I jumped back when I realized that I was staring down the business end of some kind of rifle. Before I could even catch the glimpse of the man who held the weapon, Kathryn had pushed me down and out of the way, jumped in front of me, and had aimed her HK right back in his direction.
Two big, dark eyes stared up at us from their shallow crevasse in the ground, and the weapon's muzzle dropped to the ground. "Please," the man croaked hoarsely, his voice all but gone. "I have a child..."
Landseth didn't move. "Identify yourself," she directed calmly.
The man frowned, and then grimaced. Creeping closer, I could see that his right leg - which was nearly hidden under a mat of brush - was meaty, grisly, seeping blood through onto the plant life. "I do not know you," he spat, and then narrowed his dark eyes. "You aren't militia."
"We're not," I said quickly. "And we don't want to hurt you."
Landseth followed my lead. "I see you're wounded there. Looks infected. Must be pretty painful."
He glared, but the anger in his expression gave way to utter agony. "I have dealt with this injury for a long time, ever since I was separated from my group."
The bravery in the face of such pain seemed to impress Kathryn, though she still watched the man's weapon cautiously. "And how long ago was that?"
"Many, many Réys," he explained, staring down the Colonel's own gun. "I joined a group on the other side of the Sungate, but they could do nothing for me. I have been trying to return to Ankh'ij, but..." he trailed off weakly.
Landseth looked back at me, grimacing. Judging simply by the abundance of facial hair, I guessed that the dark-eyed man had been out here for some time, battling infection along with the enemy. It seemed nothing short of a miracle that he was still alive. But would he stay that way? How advanced was this planet's medicine? His face was gray and greasy, and his wounded leg carried a putrid odor. "What's your name?" I cajoled, looking away from Landseth's face and it's grim prognosis.
He hesitated, and then tossed his metallic weapon aside futilely. "Bob."
Kathryn's brow knit in confusion. "Excuse me?"
"My name," he repeated sternly, or as sternly as a half-dead man could, "is Bob." He seemed less than charmed by the amused look Landseth directed at me, but there was something else that seemed to capture his attention any more. "Your hair," he began, "is a very odd color. /Red/. Is that its natural state?"
"Afraid so," she answered distractedly, looking back through the forest.
Bob peered at me. "And your skin... yours as well... it's very fair, very pale..." He appeared just as preoccupied as the Colonel.
"I don't tan well," she said candidly, all but ignoring the injured man now.
I found it impossible to not be fascinated with him, because he seemed fascinated with /me/. With my hair and skin, and now, my jacket. His mouth dropped open in wordless wonder.
"SGC," he blurted.
Landseth whirled on him so fast that she nearly lost her balance and toppled into the crevasse. "What?" she demanded.
Bob stared back at her with equal amazement. "Do you know Jack and Sam?" he entreated.
"Do you?" I whispered.
The footsteps had trailed off into the ambient noise of the fading storm, but that didn't make me feel any better. I could hear voices now, far away, too far to be understood, but still somehow threatening. I trusted my sixth sense. If it told me that there was danger out there, I would believe it.
I touched Sam's shoulder lightly, and she awoke with a snap of her neck and a little gasp. Immediately she recognized the look on my face, and leaned forward vigilantly, long locks of hair hanging in her face. "Voices," she mumbled. I nodded once.
"Let's go," I mouthed, jerking my head outside to indicate that the thunderstorm had passed. Sam acknowledged me silently. One of the blankets near the fire had dried, and it was with this she lifted Bridget to her shoulder. The infant murmured, but didn't wake, and I let out a shaky sigh of relief, pulling my damp tunic back over my head. At the very least, it would help me to blend in with the surrounding woods.
We emerged from our refuge, flinching at even the smallest noise. The rustle of leaves beneath our feet seemed like a succession of gunshots.
Bob recoiled at the vigor of Kathryn's tone. "I lived near them for some time," he explained delicately. "I worked with Jack. My committed was a friend of Sam's."
"Was?" I pressed, a heaviness on my heart.
He shrugged gingerly. "They were relocated a long time ago. Across the bay." He pointed.
The Colonel's face was set in stone; she wasn't about to give into hope. "Do you know if they're still alive?"
"No... I have no idea."
"Would you know where to look?" she pressed.
Kathryn nodded and looked over at me. "This is it, Daniel. This is what we need to convince Hammond. We take this guy home, let Janet look at him, then come back and let him lead us right to O'Neill and Carter."
"My wife is out here," Bob protested.
"We'll find her, too," I promised, knowing that Landseth was right, this was the break we'd been waiting for. The next best thing to actually stumbling across Sam and Jack. "But you won't be getting very far on your own, not on that leg."
Bob grimaced at the brush-shrouded wound, and then tilted his head to face Kathryn. "Who are you?"
"My name's Colonel Landseth. Um... call me Kate, actually."
He turned to me. "And you?"
"Daniel Jackson. Just Daniel."
The indecision in Bob's face cleared instantly. "Daniel. Jack spoke of you often. I can trust you," he said confidently, forcing himself upright. "However I can help, I will."
I hadn't even been this scared a year ago, when I had been chased down and /shot/ down by the Ma'at'an militia. When I had woken in an alien hospital to an unfamiliar face. When I had been confronted with sharing my life - and my bed - with Jack.
I'd had good old bravado back then. Now, I knew what I was returning to.
To stiff military guidelines. To Captain and Colonel. To a world that had no place for Jack, Sam, and Bridget. I didn't want that world. I wanted to go back to Krivin and Emiko and people who maybe didn't know the whole truth about us, but accepted us, unquestionably.
What /I/ wanted didn't apply any longer, however. What was best for Bridget, what was best for all of us, was Earth. Home. Everything I had longed for, for as long as I could remember. Everything I was now, suddenly, irrationally fearful of.
We reached the edge of the clearing, and started across it.
"Someone's been through here," remarked Landseth.
Helping to support Bob's weight, walking in Kathryn's shadow, I only grunted. "Many come here to pray to Ma'at," our new companion explained sadly. "And sometimes, they come here to kill."
We walked slowly back through the forest; I trusted Landseth enough to continue the conversation. "Why are you fighting this war?"
"For freedom. From the Council, from their laws and lies and tyranny."
"Are you a soldier?"
"I am a worker. A man. It is my duty to fight for my committed and child."
I smiled at the pride and adoration in his voice. He had to mean his wife. "Son or daughter?"
He returned the friendly gesture. "When I left, my committed had not yet given birth. But by now, she must have. The gender does not matter, as long as the child is healthy."
"I hear ya," murmured Landseth. "What's your committed's name?"
"Halsi," he said brightly.
"What's she like?"
"Beautiful," he said at once. "Kind and caring, and smart. Perhaps not as brilliant as Jack's, but--"
"Jack's what?" I interrupted.
"His committed." Bob seemed confused by my puzzlement, and clarified slowly. "Sam."
I chuckled. It wouldn't be the first time those two had been mistaken for man and wife. With my laughter came the realization that things were finally moving in a good direction. My friends were alive, and back to their old tricks. "They aren't committed," I explained gently.
"But I saw..."
"What did you see?"
Bob shook his head. "It's not my place. I didn't see anything."
"Well, I do," said Kathryn sharply.
We had reached the clearing. Landseth pointed out into it, towards the Stargate.
It loomed tall, majestic, over our heads. The Sungate.
It was almost too easy, I thought, eyeing the DHD distrustfully. It made me worry that the rest of our half-assed plan wouldn't go so smoothly. What if no MALP was ever sent through? What if we never knew if the iris was open or not? I couldn't risk Sam and Bridget like that.
"Here goes nothing," I mumbled.
I heard the voice, the shout, come from the woods, but disregarded it, seeing it only as an indicator that I should get moving. I punched in the first symbol to Earth.
I stood in front of the Gate, cowered in front of it, and watched Jack approach the DHD. We were going home.
Bridget murmured drowsily, and over her sleepy susurrations I almost didn't hear it. A single voice, an individual clamor in the preternatural silence. One man's urgent call.
I felt their names being ripped from my throat before I even made visual contact. I abandoned Bob, left him hobbling on one leg, and raced past Kathryn, into the field.
There was a man at the DHD, donned in gray, and at his side, dressed in the same shade, a woman. Both seemed to have frozen in mid-step, mid-action, mid-thought, perfectly still and staring in my direction. I wondered distantly if I had gone utterly insane, if I was seeing a mirage as a man in the desert might conjure up the sight of an oasis. This was my oasis. My goal, my Holy Grail.
The cloud cover broke, and in the dubious sunshine I could see more clearly. The beams of light reflected off long blonde tresses.
"God!" I said - I /screamed/ - not an epitaph or a prayer or a condemnation, but a release of something that had been trapped inside me since I had returned home with only Teal'c at my side. The world spun crazily, the sky tipped and tilted, and then I realized I was running heedlessly, running recklessly, just running, running, through the meadow, running towards my lost friends.
Sam took one, then two, stumbling steps back towards the treeline. I watched her, horrified that she was about to pass out.
I looked up, and was suddenly unsure of my own consciousness.
No. Daniel Jackson? Tearing through the field toward us? Hat flying out behind him like a drag chute? Almost flying over the brush and weeds, calling "Jack! Sam!" over and over again? No... it was impossible... it was inconceivable... I was going to wake up... right... now... Any time now, because this couldn't be happening, I couldn't be seeing this...
"Daniel," cried Sam, and she /was/ crying, choking out the syllables over senseless sobs, bumbling towards him, tears streaming from her face, still holding Bridget close to her chest.
I lurched away from the DHD, heard my own voice taking up the elated call - "Daniel! Goddamn it, Daniel!" - taking up the name of my friend whose presence here was unfeasible but undeniable all the same. My legs ate up the distance, so that I was the one to reach him first, the floppy-banged phenomenon in olive drab, the first to realize that this was actually /happening/; his ear-to-ear grin was as real and substantial as mine.
I threw myself at Jack, and was almost startled to find that I had actually made contact with him, that he was no apparition, that his voice jovially shouting my name was genuine. We slammed each other in a ferocious man-hug, which consisted of one quick squeeze and a lot of shoulder- and arm-thumping and tearful laughter. At first I couldn't get over how gray his hair was and how tan his face, but then I /did/ get over it, and turned to Sam.
Her face was smudged with dirt, and her hair hung in loose locks to her shoulders, but it was her; it couldn't have been more her. Grinning crazily, she embraced me with less abandon, with one arm; the other cradled something in a gray cloth. There were tears gleaming in her eyes, which were just as blue and just as loving as I had remembered; she pressed her cheek against mine and the moisture came off on my skin.
This was impossible, said logic. And yet, it wasn't, not at all.
I pulled back from Daniel, and cupped his cheek with one hand. The warm, soft eyes, shining with emotion more pure and honest than most other men would dare show. The hat, hanging from his neck by its cord. His hair, shorter now and with bangs that hung across his forehead. The smell of his shampoo, his BDUs... the smell of Earth.
"Daniel!" shouted a woman.
He turned towards the sound, and Jack moved closer, standing between Daniel and me, touching my waist and his shoulder. A slender female figure in olive green trudged through the field, and in her tow was a Ma'at'an colonist. A limping Ma'at'an colonist. A familiar Ma'at'an colonist.
"Oh, God," breathed Jack, genuinely shocked. "Is that /Bob/?"
Daniel looked ready to pass out from sheer happiness. "That's what he said."
As the woman approached, I could see that she was red-haired, green-eyed, and strikingly attractive. Maybe she wasn't exactly /pretty/, but she had such an energy that it was impossible to look away from her. I stared at her, and she gawked at me.
"Captain Carter," she said, and her voice squeaked. She cleared her throat. "Colonel O'Neill," she continued, less certain, lifting the hand that had been dragging Bob to her temple in salute. "Um... Colonel Kathryn Landseth, USAF. It's... an honor... to finally meet you. Both of you." Wide-eyed, she turned to Daniel. "This is them?"
"This is them," sighed Daniel in deep satisfaction.
"It is... them..." gasped Bob, smiling, still trying to catch his breath from his trek through the field. "Sam... Jack..."
Bridget took precisely that opportunity to wake. The sun had been uncovered by the passing storm clouds. Sunlight streamed into her face, and she railed against it with one of her famous, high-pitched squeals, kicking at the blanket she was swathed in.
Jack swallowed... hard. Daniel's eyes actually crossed. Colonel Landseth simply gaped at the bundle in my arms.
"And baby makes three," she whispered, sounding amused.
Surprisingly, Daniel was the one to volunteer to go back and 'pick up' Teal'c and the fourth SG-1 member, my replacement, Ian Kelly, from the planet they had been left on. On second thought, maybe it wasn't so surprising. Seeing Bridget had appeared to genuinely shock him and, even worse, dampen his happiness about finding us. I'd expected him to not want to let Jack and me out of his sight. Now, he seemed eager to get away from us, for a little while at least.
So we waited for him and the others, deciding to return to Earth as one group. Jack used Daniel's first aid kit to treat Bob's badly infected leg as best he could, I tended to Bridget, and Colonel Landseth scanned the clearing for signs of approaching company. All the while, I talked to her, trying to dredge up a first opinion, to know something of her other than the fact that Daniel obviously trusted her, or he wouldn't have left us under her supervision. The woman was almost reticent at first, as though intimidated by us, but eventually I was able to coax a dialogue from her.
Sitting side-by-side, leaning in the shade of the DHD, Bridget was the definitive ice-breaker. "She's beautiful," praised Landseth shyly, tucking back the coarse gray fabric around my daughter's head and then smiling timidly at me.
I grinned, full of pride, and glanced over at Jack, but he was busy salving Bob's leg with every anti-biotic agent in the kit. "Thank you," I said appreciatively. /I'd/ always known she was pretty, but it was nice to have a second opinion, especially from another woman. "Her name's Bridget."
"Lovely," said Landseth gently, looking from the baby's face to my own. "She bears a great deal of resemblance to her mother," she added, and I blushed at the implied compliment. "She /is/... yours?"
"Ours," I said firmly, and this /did/ get Jack's attention; from the corner of my eye I saw him look up at me.
The negative, judgmental reception I had half-expected from the Colonel never came, and she didn't seem as disturbed as Daniel had been, either. Instead, she beamed at me, bolder with every word that passed between us. "She's... adorable, really. You're both very lucky."
I nodded, flushing again with the pride that came from the acclaim of a stranger.
Jack set to wrapping Bob's leg in a dressing. The bandages would come off as soon as he was in the SGC infirmary, of course; it was nothing but nervous action. Neither of us wanted to be the one to tell him the sad news: that Halsi thought him dead, and worse, that she had miscarried. I prayed that he wouldn't bring it up until I had thought of some tactful way to impart the information.
At the moment, the Ma'at'an revolutionary didn't seem like he'd be doing much besides trying to stay alive. His bronzed skin was an ashen tone, and the exposed muscle of his leg looked like ground beef. He'd been injured and separated from Jerdess's group during battle, he'd wearily explained, and had been spending all of his time, energy, and resources since then trying to get back home.
It was a familiar tale.
Presently, Landseth brought up Daniel. "His whole life, ever since you were lost, has been dedicated to finding you. Mostly everyone in the SGC... well, they gave up on you after a while. Counted you lost. But not Jackson. He's been /insistent/, to say the least, that you were still out here."
"He's pissed a lot of people off, hasn't he?" asked Jack candidly.
She laughed darkly. "He made more enemies than friends. But I'm happy to say that I count myself among the latter. He's a... rare man."
"Rare would pretty much describe him," said Jack, but he said it affably.
I hesitated for a minute longer, and then finally blurted out something that had been irking me since I'd started talking to Landseth. "Have we ever... met before? Before today?"
Her green eyes widened. "Why? You know me?"
"No," I replied. "But... you act like /you/ know /me/."
The Colonel chuckled. "It's unintentional, I swear. And... we /have/ met, but it's a long story. One I'd really love to share with you." She bit her lower lip thoughtfully. "A lot of stuff's happened since your last mission."
"I'm sure everyone will have a lot of explaining to do," said Jack grimly.
It sounded like a prophecy.
"Teal'c!" I greeted.
He nearly crushed me.
Somehow, I'd forgotten just how strong the man could be. As he proceeded to cut of the circulation to my brain with his shattering embrace, I wondered if hugging was something Serpent Guards did a lot of... or if it was just something nice he'd picked up on Earth. It was flattering to imagine that it was the latter.
Eventually, Teal'c released me and turned to Sam - who had handed Bridget off to Colonel Landseth - and enfolded her in a more subdued embrace, mindful of her smaller frame. Ian Kelly - a stout, sparky young captain I'd known before - grinned wildly and pumped my arm in an enthusiastic handshake.
Daniel hung a few feet away, and finally suggested that we dial back home now, for Bob's sake.
I watched him enter the first three symbols for Earth, and then a soft palm slid into my callused hand. Startled, I looked down at it, and then up the body it was attached to, and into Sam's face. Holding Bridget again, holding her close, swathed in fabric, Sam gave me a distinctly nervous smile. I returned it, and caressed her wrist with my thumb in what I hoped was a comforting manner.
"We're going home," she said tremulously.
"Yeah," I breathed.
Then, for the first time in far too long, I leaned forward and kissed her. The real thing was immeasurably better than the memory, but... different, as well. Sweeter. Courtlier. Sadder. A kiss from olden days, a gesture of good-bye from a suitor to a maid. As the Stargate rushed open, her lips played against mine, and I went so far as to finger a lock of her hair, but neither one of us made any move to deepen the kiss, to prolong it. When it was over, we both knew it.
We also knew that while Landseth was Kelly were sharing reproving smirks, and Teal'c looked temperately curious, there was an expression on Daniel's face that lingered somewhere between melancholy and nausea.
Colonel Landseth and Teal'c stepped into the wormhole.
Before I could think about it again, I pulled Sam and my daughter after them.
It was worse than I remembered. More dizzying, more disorienting, more sickening. Stepping onto the grated ramp, I would have stumbled over my own feet, if it hadn't been for Jack's support and the knowledge of my precious charge.
Teal'c and Landseth stood a few feet in front of us. Captain Kelly, Daniel, and Bob stepped - or limped - through behind us, and then the Stargate disengaged.
For five very long seconds, no one spoke. No one even looked up at us. And during those five seconds, it was eternally easy to pretend that the last year had never transpired. That this was just Colonel O'Neill, Daniel, Teal'c and I, returning from P2F-983 at last. We'd never been replaced. I'd never been blessed with a daughter. More than a year of my life hadn't been squandered on a hostile alien world.
Everything looked the same, or nearly so. A handful of techs stooped over MALPS in the corner. A few gunners sat behind their turrets: SOP in the case that a returning team brought back some unwelcome guests. A quadroon of SGC Marines were in conference at the far side of the room, decked out in their finest cammies, obviously awaiting the okay for their own off-world excursion.
And then, in the window of the first-floor control room, I saw someone stand. I saw that someone's jaw fall slack. Harriman.
One, then two, and then all four of the Marines turned, and for once were rendered speechless. Robert Makepeace was among them.
One of the airmen peaked curiously around his gun turret.
With slow, measured steps, Teal'c and Landseth stepped off the ramp. Kelly steered Bob around us, following his teammates. Daniel walked up to my side... and remained there.
I was rooted where I stood. I wouldn't have been able to move had the Sungate - /Stargate/ - been opening behind me.
One of the technicians - Siler - uttered a low curse, and then a lower prayer.
And then a figure appeared at the window before us, just beyond Harriman's shoulder. Pale-faced, bald, portly, dressed in blue and staring out at us unblinkingly.
General Hammond put a hand on the computer console to steady himself, and then fumbled for the intercom mike. "Wel-welcome back, SG-1," he stuttered. I'd never seen him so unsettled, so obviously shaken, as though he'd seen a ghost.
Or in this case, two ghosts.
"Thank you, sir," said Landseth.
Jack echoed her.
He squeezed my hand.
In the midst of all the welcome backs and general congratulations, it wasn't difficult to slip out of the embarkation room, to make my way with unsteady steps to the elevator. Infirmary, I decided franticly, stabbing at the button, wondering if I was actually physically shaking in my regulation boots or if it was only my skewed perception.
When the elevator's doors opened, I saw Janet standing alone in the hallway, awaiting the car. She answered my unspoken question. "God, Daniel, what's wrong?"
Wrong? Nothing was wrong! What in the hell could possibly be wrong? I'd just gotten back two of my best friends, just realized a year-long goal. There was no problem, none at all. If you didn't count the fact that there were now three of them. Sam and Jack... /together/... I'd been tearing my heart out, searching the galaxy for them; meanwhile, they'd been so wrapped up in each other that only now had they bothered to try and return to us. Why only now? Why not sooner? Had they just figured that it was easier to stay on P2F-983, where there were no Gou'ald, and no military principles to punish them for... having their ways with each other? Hadn't they thought about me once?
It wasn't fair, and it wasn't even logical. But at the moment, in my distraught frame of mind, it seemed to be both. Silently, I let Janet guide me into the infirmary, and sat down on the bed she indicated, rather than explain what had happened. When the voice on the P.A. requested that Dr. Frasier and SG-1 should please report to the infirmary, I didn't explain.
Just when I thought I couldn't possibly withstand another hug, couldn't tolerate another handshake, couldn't abide another salute, I realized that we hadn't even left the Gate room. Civilians and enlisted members and officers, faces well-known and unknown, a barrage of excitement, a tempest of enthusiasm.
Two stray sheep had at last returned to the flock.
At one point, I'd pictured this being a moment of utmost ebullience and eagerness, when I would traipse up and down the halls, throwing my arms around the necks of random strangers simply because they were human, my kind of human, Earth-grown, and I was back among them. I'd imagined smiling and laughing and... in effect, rejoicing over my homecoming.
But that had only been the girlish fantasy of one naïve Captain Samantha Carter, an attitude and a persona I barely recognized.
For a while, that title had been my only defense against other forces: mainly, my attraction to Jack, but eventually I had shed rank in mind as well as word. I'd abandoned my strong ingenuousness and the standards of conduct that came with, in favor of two arms to hold me, a mouth to kiss me, a man to love me through our trials. I'd evolved into another creature, a separate species, and now I looked back on that strong-willed girl with a mixture of pity and longing.
How much had I grown since then? It seemed impossible to measure. I'd set such strict guidelines for myself, vowing to never do 'this', to always do 'that', but the truth was that you never knew what you could or would do until you were placed squarely in that position.
Landseth began to clear a path for us towards the door. Ian Kelly gestured towards Bridget, offering himself as a temporary baby-sitter. Knowing that there would be plenty to sort out with Hammond and Janet and Daniel and Teal'c before the subject of my daughter was even breached, I handed her over... reluctantly. Kelly pledged vows of utmost care, and then fled the room ahead of us, before anyone could cut through the hysteria and realize that within that bundle was a living, breathing person.
At some point during the melee, Jack had dropped my hand. Knowing how improper it looked but not really caring, I grabbed his sleeve as we made our way into the corridor. Though peppered with faces I well recalled, the crowd was still somewhat daunting, reminding me all too well of the throng in the merchant's square, of being chased by the miscreant militiaman.
And I wasn't the invincible Captain Carter any longer.
Frasier's face was familiar... and then again it wasn't. For so long her features had existed only in my memory, and the recollection seemed to have warped and eroded over time. I was bound to be a little thrown off.
Hammond's face held the same quality. I almost felt like I was meeting a celebrity, someone I'd seen a lot of through television, but had never actually encountered, and now that we were face-to-face I was only starting to realize that he wasn't the character he portrayed.
The general had opted to meet us in the infirmary, where the rest of the SGC could be turned away more easily by Teal'c's unwavering glare, Landseth's authority, and Doc's sharp tongue. His first action was to extend his hand, take mine, and shake it ardently. "Jack... it's very good to see you."
"You too, sir," I responded, casually, as though I'd only been gone a few days, on a mission or perhaps on downtime, not considered dead, exiled to another planet. It was easy to imagine, regarding Hammond. The past year had been good to him. As far as I was concerned, he was unchanged. Teal'c, standing in the doorway, was also the same old Teal'c I knew and loved: tall, imposing, but just a big old teddy bear inside.
It was different with Frasier, who had finally gotten over her initial shock and was hugging Sam for all she was worth. Her demeanor was more whimsical, somehow; her hair was French-braided and hung past her shoulders, and on her hand, a diamond ring sparkled modestly. There was something different about Daniel, too, but nothing I could place as quickly. His hair was a little different, and his skin paler than I was used to, but between his complexion and his chosen profession, that was no big deal.
A few beds away, Bob lay motionless, doped up past cognizance. Frasier would have refuted the charge, and would have been insulted by it to boot, but I believed her administering of the anesthesia was less about putting the kid out of immediate pain and more about having extra time for gossip and greetings.
I found it amusing that none of my old friends even considered running an MRI or ultrasound, to check for Gou'ald infestation. I suppose that even in the more subdued atmosphere, there was still too much merriment around here for something like that. It'd spoil the fun. It'd be like giving patrons a breathalyzer test halfway through a Christmas party.
Other than that, Doc mechanically went through a modified version of her quarterly physical, guiding Sam and I to separate beds, drawing the curtain around the cots when needed, all the while helping to keep up a steady patter of conversation.
"Mind explaining exactly what happened, Colonel?"
I almost laughed outright, but remembered that cracking up at your superior officer wasn't a really great idea. I sneaked a look at Daniel, who was unusually reserved. "We were running back to the Gate, sir, and they got Carter and me." It seemed more appropriate to call her by her last name. Just as it seemed more appropriate to not mention how the militia hadn't really 'gotten me', I had gone /back/ to them. "We got taken back to the town. They set us up with a cozy little place, not exactly spacious, but no mello roos at least. Basically, the Council bounced us around for a couple months, I got to go back to war, Carter played nursemaid, and we eventually were able to sneak our way back."
Frasier paused in taking Sam's blood pressure and snorted. What a wonderfully familiar sound. "Why do I get the feeling that's the condensed version?"
"More like the inside cover," said Daniel mildly. Landseth, Teal'c, and I looked over at him so sharply that it attracted the attention of the other two. Sam ground her teeth.
General Hammond continued, less certain now of a happy ending. "Gou'ald presence on the planet, Captain?"
It was a few long seconds before Sam replied, almost as though she hadn't quite realized that he was addressing her. "Only in mythology, sir. The Council knows that the Gou'ald aren't gods. They found several pieces of ancient evidence that their goddess Ma'at was not only mortal, but also not a very nice person. The public has no idea. The Council lies to them every chance they get."
"Is that what all the fighting's about?" asked Landseth, glancing back at Bob. One of the nurses was cutting away the bandage.
"It's sorta the Revolutionary War all over again," shrugged Sam. "Only this time, the tyrant's a lot closer."
"And your companion over there is... one of the colonists?"
"That's right," said Sam softly, perhaps sensing his disapproval.
"I'm not saying what you did is wrong, but in a war, Captain, people are injured. You can't bring back all of them."
Landseth, not surprisingly, jumped to her own defense. "With respect, sir, we couldn't just leave him there. Besides, at the time, we didn't have any idea how close the Colonel and Captain were. We were hoping he could help us find them, in return for medical treatment. And if I understand correctly, he was a friend, an ally, to both of them when they needed one."
I repressed an impressed grin. Despite what she represented, despite what she was, I felt it hard to dislike her simply because she had taken my place on SG-1. In fact, I found it hard to dislike her, period. She was flamboyant, maybe a little dramatic, but she still managed to seem /real/. There wasn't any hint that she was just playing a part, and her description of Daniel back on Ma'at'a had been dead on, just what I had expected. Landseth was a tiny bit bitchy, but as long as the attitude wasn't directed at me, I respected and even admired it.
"This man will recover from his injuries here," added Teal'c helpfully. "Where he might have well died from his injuries if left untended. Certainly that cannot be a bad thing."
Sam clasped her hands together in her lap. "Sir, the Colonel's right. He was a friend to us. We owe him something, at the very least saving his life and helping him find his wife."
Hammond glanced in my direction, as though expecting me to contribute my own retort. I merely shrugged; just about everything had been said. The General sighed, knowing when he was beaten. "It seems I've been overruled," he said good-naturedly. "Not that I intended to throw him back through the Gate or anything."
Teal'c looked rather perturbed by the concept. Landseth just grinned. "Of course not, sir."
Janet uncapped a syringe, flicked out the air bubbles, and went after Sam almost vengefully, drawing the partition around the bed. Hammond looked a little put-off by having to speak to the curtain, but did anyway. "Captain, I'll contact Jacob immediately. We'll send a memo to your brother's family, as well. I'm sure they'll both be gratified to know you managed to wander back home."
"Thank you, sir," said Sam's disembodied voice, followed by a sharp, "ow!"
"Sorry," said Frasier, not sounding sorry in the least.
The General merely rolled his eyes at their antics, again, as though this was something he'd been a party to every day this past year, and left the room.
Janet pulled back the curtain; Sam was rubbing her backside and frowning. "I'll be right back," Daniel vowed, and then followed Hammond out into the hallway.
Clearing her throat, Sam caught Landseth's eye. "Colonel... can you do me a favor? Go find Captain Kelly for me?"
The other woman narrowed her eyes. "Are you sure?" After glancing at me, and taking a cleansing breath, Sam nodded, and Landseth left the infirmary as well, heading in the other direction was dragging Teal'c along with her.
Frasier seemed puzzled by the exchange... but let it pass. She returned to her cart, and then came after me with a needle that I was sure was at least twice as large as Sam's.
The air seemed calm, tranquil. I could nearly fool myself into believing it was over.
But it wasn't. Not by a long shot.
"It's Daniel, isn't it?"
To her credit, Janet didn't jump or start. She stood under my gaze quite easily, labeling the vials of blood she had drawn from Jack, Bob, and me. "What's Daniel?"
I caught her hand and lifted it to eye level. The diamond seemed somehow larger in the harsh lighting, neon glittering off every cut surface. "This. /This/ is Daniel."
Again, impeccable calm, but now she was smiling. "Whatever would make you think that?"
"'I'll be right back'," I mimed Daniel's last words to her. "It's... obvious, Janet, it really is."
She seemed pleased by this observation, but admitted to nothing, only glanced over her shoulder at Jack. He'd wandered over to Bob's bedside. "It's O'Neill, isn't it?" she mimicked me.
My heart seemed to forget its place in the bodily order of things. It dropped into my stomach and then rebounded into my throat, making me feel nauseous. "What is?" I managed to sputter.
Janet didn't look at me, kept labeling and sorting, but her entire manner was quite knowledgeable. "There's something you're not telling, and it has to do with the Colonel." She paused, waiting for me to jump in with an explanation, and then prompted me: "Well?"
For the life of me, I couldn't imagine coming right out and saying it: 'Well, 'the Colonel' and I /are/ sorta married, and we have a child together.' Look at the effect it'd had on Daniel. I hadn't really accepted how shocking a development it actually /was/, hadn't taken into account the fact that the last these people knew, we were friends. Just that. Hardly that. I struggled for another way to phrase it. "Let me just say... being a single woman on that planet isn't easy. Or safe." Ergo, I'd had to pretend to not be single.
But Janet jumped to another conclusion, now pinning me where I sat with a vicious stare. "Sam? Are you talking about rape?"
I blushed furiously - I /was/ furious - but then I realized I'd mistaken her. She didn't think that Jack had forced himself on me... she'd probably never even consider it. But she knew men, and she knew that even men on other worlds followed a certain pattern. The militiaman who had attacked me - Marten - was an example of that fact. Sad but true. "Actually, I--" I began, mind racing, but I was interrupted in mid-lie.
"Doc!" barked Jack from across the room. "I think he's waking up."
Janet scowled at me almost distrustfully, a promise to extract the story from me if she had to use forceps to do it, and then dashed across to Bob's bed. At the same time, Jack crossed the room to me, his expression just as leery. "What're you doing?"
"Looking out for you."
I stood to be nearer his own eye level, and whispered. "If I tell Janet that someone on Ma'at'a got me pregnant, she'll believe me."
He flinched, but recovered quickly. "She has blonde hair and blue eyes," he pointed out, meaning Bridget.
"It's not that unbelievable," I pressed. So what if my daughter looked like me; it wouldn't give any clues as to who the father was. "Listen, Janet's going to be able to figure out pretty easily that I just gave birth. But unless someone asks for a paternity test, there's nothing linking you to her. I /know/ you," I blurted, watching Janet make pleasantries with Bob a few beds away. "You can't wait to get back to work, back to... saving the world. If they find out that you and I... well, it'll just be a hassle. They'll say we should've known better. They might even try to discipline us," I added, breath coming out unsteadily.
"They'd discipline /me/," Jack said, accusingly. "I'm the senior officer. Besides, you're forgetting something kinda important: the rest of 'em already know Bridget's mine."
"The only person I told was Landseth."
"She'll keep quiet if I ask her to. I'm sure she understands."
For a moment, the anger that had flared up in Jack's face vanished, and he only looked truly, truly sad. I couldn't quite understand why. I was doing him a favor here. Right?
"/I/ don't understand," he avowed.
But hadn't I thought the very same thing mere hours ago, watching Bridget and Sam sleep as the rain fell? I'd harbored the very same doubts that Sam was expressing now, about being able to find a place in our old world after changing so drastically in the new one. In a manner of speaking, Sam was the brave one here, taking charge, taking action, whereas I would have simply remained frozen and inactive. I would have been forced to face the consequences of my actions, perhaps would have even been punished for them... but at least it would be allowing the truth to be known. It would be... not lying. Not like Sam was prepared to.
Panicked heat flared up in my face as a new thought came to mind, a notion much more horrible then anything I had been forced to contemplate lately. What if Sam wasn't lying... what if Bridget wasn't mine?
Oh, God... we'd been separated the very next day after our first night together. She'd spent so much time alone, without me there to look after her, at first with Emiko in her home. and then with Parson in his colony. What if... soon after that, during my absence, she had slept with someone else? One of Clera's militia, or one of the colonists - or Parson himself - of her own free will... or otherwise. I thought of how gorgeous she was, how exotic she had been considered, the close call in Ankh'ij with the militiaman. What if something had happened, and she hadn't told me, either ashamed or worried that I would be upset. Which I certainly would have been... but that was beyond the point.
Was it possible? Was she subtly breaking the news to me, trying to let me down easy?
I told myself that Sam wasn't the sleeping around type, that some time during the last nine months she would have found the decency and honor to inform me I might not be Bridget's father at all. But was I kidding myself, trying not to see how much she had changed in the last year, how far-removed she was from the captain I'd found myself exiled with? I'd thought it over and over again, how much we had changed, how different we had become. This different? So different I wasn't even sure I could recognize her... or, for that matter, trust her?
Not long ago, I'd pledged to myself that, when the question came - "Is she yours?" - I wouldn't deny it. I would be a better man than that. I had been so sure, so certain...
Now, doubt spun me and left me dizzied and ill.
"Doctor, is there something wrong?"
The glance I cast at General Hammond was sharper than was wise, and angrier that I had intended. In fact, I'd been waiting for the General to bring this up ever since we'd left the infirmary. I just hadn't expected it in such a kindly tone of voice.
Sometime during the last year, I'd stopped believing that Hammond even gave a damn about me. His every action seemed to have the sole purpose of tormenting me; his every word was either vague or inflammatory. And after all the hell I had caused, butting heads with him, reveling in the fact that I wasn't military and was probably the least expendable person in the program, he would have been well within his rights to out-and-out despise me.
But there was still that concern present in his words, that tinge of worry in his eyes. I was bewildered, and impressed to boot.
However, that didn't mean I was ready to pour my heart out to him. "Nothing's wrong."
We stopped at the elevator, and I pushed the call button. We'd been quickly to the control room, where Hammond had sent a message through the Stargate to the Tok'ra - more specifically, to Sam's dad - and I had used his secure office line to relay the news to her brother, Mark. It was all about good cheer and celebrating, knowing that Jacob would get the message soon and hearing the overjoyed disbelief in the younger Mr. Carter's exclamations, but I couldn't stay cheerful. Not knowing what it would be like explaining to Sam that her dad was - sort of - a Gou'ald. And wondering how Sam would explain the new little addition to her family.
And panicking about how they intended to explain it to Hammond, especially Jack's part in it all.
My dream of being SG-1, the original SG-1, again by next weekend was dissolving before my eyes. My vision of returning with an unchanged Jack and Sam was superficial and hollow. It was all... different.
/That's/ what was wrong.
The doors opened promptly and without the slightest squeak, as though they sensed that their next passengers were important ones. The car was empty. We stepped into it, and the General hit the button that would take us back up to the infirmary.
Hammond didn't buy my claim, not for a second. "I had expected a couple 'I-told-you-so's, Daniel."
As always, the casual use of my first name jolted me, but it was the General's words that nearly threw me into shock. For over a year, that was exactly what I had been living for. Not to see my friends brought home. Not to see them alive and happy. If that was the case, I would be ecstatic right now. Elated. I would have handcuffed one wrist to Jack and the other to Sam and refused to let them out of my sight.
But that /wasn't/ the case, just as my goal hadn't been what I'd always thought it'd been. I hadn't wanted to bring them back -- I had wanted to be able to stick it to everyone else that they /had/ been brought back. I wanted to justify my foolishness in front of Hammond, my rudeness to Kathryn, my overall attitude those first couple of weeks. I had wanted to be able to excuse my reprehensible behavior by covering it up with /more/ bad behavior, and being able to vindicate myself later by saying 'You were wrong, I was right... you awful person, how could you have given up on them?' When, deep down, Landseth herself had been more operative in retrieving them then I had ever imagined being.
What kind of friend was I? What kind of /person/?
"Maybe later," I said wearily.
Jack had wandered back over to Bob, and was talking to him in stilted tones, words I couldn't make out. His somber attitude wasn't just about sympathy for the other man. He was angry with me. At me. Shocked even. And in return, I was annoyed. Here I was, willing to keep him out of the whole mess, allowing him to get back to his old life sooner, to sidestep the drama. And he wasn't even the least bit grateful... he was actually confused and furious.
I should have given up on understanding the man a long time ago, I reasoned. But still, for some inexplicable reason, I persisted in trying to figure him out.
It just wasn't possible, damn it.
What man would want family where he could have freedom? Monotony where he could have adventure? Monogamy where he could play the field? On Ma'at'a, we'd only had each other, and so we'd turned to each other. But certainly being back would give him the chance to turn away, to run back to Sara, or to enjoy his virility with others while he could.
On Ma'at'a, I had been virtually the only choice, the only safe, familiar choice. But on Earth, the options were back to being endless. And I was back to being Captain Carter.
Only I wasn't. I couldn't pretend to be.
I looked up and saw Kathryn Landseth standing at the door, and saw a bit of my old self in her. Young, brash, filled with too many ideas to consider all at once. Certain of saving the world, saving her friends, and still finding time later on to fall in love. Certain of so many things, ignorant of so many others. Me. I hoped that she'd never have to learn what I had, or, if the lesson was inevitable, that she would come by it in a less traumatic way.
Landseth peered into the room, at Jack and Bob, at Janet talking to one of her nurses across the room, at me sitting on the nearest bed, patient and self-possessed. I hoped. The red-headed colonel raised one eyebrow, glanced back out into the hallway, and turned back, mouthing "Ready?"
As though he'd heard the unspoken word, Jack abruptly whirled around towards the door... and then shot me a look filled with what could only be called distrust.
Fighting against biting my lip or clenching my fists or any other signs of nervousness, I gave Landseth what I hoped was a brave nod. She nodded back, more vigorously, and then ducked back into the hallway, presumably to wave Ian Kelly in. Wondering where she had stashed Teal'c, what excuse - or order - she could possibly have given him to keep him out of the infirmary for the time being, I took a deep breath. I knew full well that my nerves would not be so easily steadied, but I was hoping all the same. If I could lie to Janet about Bridget's paternity, maybe the falsehood would come more easily when I had to pass it along to Hammond... and to Daniel, and Teal'c, and Dad. Or maybe Janet would do it for me, pass along the untruth so its weight wouldn't rest so squarely on me.
Make no mistake, I wasn't looking forward to lying so blatantly about something so important to me. My ideal scenario was one in which this... incredible act of friendship and love could not and would not come under fire from bureaucrats or military brass. When I didn't have to worry about one or both of us being penalized for something that had come so naturally to us. But that wasn't a viable scenario, and so to avoid all the ugliness I was willing to give up the right I had as a mother to name the father of my child, and to expect him to act appropriately because of it. To help with her upbringing and upkeep. I was willing to give all of that away... and he was insulted.
Voices came from the hallway, startling me and filling me with blind dread.
"General Hammond!" Landseth.
"Uh... hey, Daniel." Kelly.
"Colonel, Captain, what... Captain? What do you..."
I sighed and slipped off the bed. Naturally, it couldn't have been as easy as I had hoped. Kathryn Landseth and Captain Kelly - Bridget swathed in his arms - were followed into the infirmary by a curious Hammond and an exceedingly weary Daniel.
Obviously, their notifications hadn't taken as long as expected.
There was a soft tapping of soles against concrete behind me, and I looked over my shoulder to see Janet approaching, frowning at the onrush of people into her sanctum. Bob was still laying prone on his cot, but Jack was drawing nearer as well, step by careful step, not coming too close as though afraid I'd run from him.
Letting motherly instinct swell up and overwhelm my military pride and bearing, I scooped my daughter out of Ian's arms and cradled her in the crook of my elbow. In the interim, he had traded the gray, coarse, Ma'at'an blanket for a crinkly yellow thermal blanket, the kind that was - or at least /had been/ - included in emergency kits. Kelly and Landseth stepped back, respectfully or maybe fearfully, letting Janet and Hammond crowd closer. Daniel and Jack both seemed to be rooted to the floor. Neither moved, nor even seemed to breathe.
My little girl was awake, and for once behaving herself, staring contentedly at the exposed ceiling and neon lights as though acquainting herself with them. I pulled the blanket back, unable to keep from smiling at the languidly-blinking blue eyes or the fine dusting of almost translucent hair. It was still so difficult to look at her and accept that I'd had a part in her creation, in the inception of this perfect little person.
"A... baby..." muttered General Hammond, almost dumbly, I thought. Then again, he hadn't exactly been expecting this.
"She's mine," I said softly, watching her tiny mouth open and close, and her hands flex and clutch the blanket. "Her name's Bridget Teryn... and she's almost a month old."
Daniel cleared his throat, obviously too inquisitive to keep giving us the silent treatment. "Teryn? You mean... like, 'Terran'? As in 'a person from Earth, an earthling'?"
He sounded impressed, and I was almost embarrassed to admit that there had been no deeper meaning. "We... just liked how it sounded," I admitted.
Hammond appeared beyond words, gaze still fixed on Bridget, but Janet missed nothing. "'We'?" she prodded softly, not looking up at Jack -- not yet. "Who's 'we', Sam? Who's the father?"
I studiously avoided meeting Jack's eyes, and met Landseth's instead. The colonel furrowed her brow, momentarily confused by my intent gaze, and then her expression cleared in understanding. She knew, but she wouldn't say anything. She wouldn't give me away. I didn't think.
The silence that had blanketed the room was a tangible thing, smothering me. The longer I hesitated, I knew, the more guilty I would look. The more obvious the truth would be. And certainly, the most obvious scenario was that 'Colonel O'Neill' and I had --
"Was it someone on 983?" prodded Janet.
I stared at her over my shoulder, painfully aware of the rest of my audience, at first confused about what '983' meant, and then baffled that she'd jumped to a conclusion I hadn't expected her to. Then my mind cleared, and I remembered that these people knew Ma'at'a only as a series of letters and numbers, cold and impersonal: P2F-983. Bam, just like that.
And they only knew my relationship with Jack as that of a Colonel and his Captain. Two friends without the slightest romantic or sexual interest in one another. The same people that had left them so long ago. And yes, we /had/ been gone a long time, but surely the time had passed more quickly for them; days and then weeks merging together as MALPs were sent and rescue missions scratched. They'd never understand how solitary and segmented our lives had become: the long afternoons in Ankh'ij spent with the other wives, seeing Jack at the end of the day, kissing him, initially to play a part, subsequently because... because I enjoyed it. I'd liked having a man to come home to me, liked the sensation of his arms around my waist and his mouth capturing mine. I'd delighted in the other women's jealously of my handsome committed, in the cautious exploration of our feelings for each other, in the perception of safety he had given me in even the most unsettled of times.
But they couldn't understand the despair I'd felt when we'd been moved to Depa'ma, deeper than it had any right to be because it seemed as though the bad luck had been triggered by our own actions. They couldn't possibly contemplate my inordinate anger those first few days, when I'd felt that Jack, the only remaining remnant of my old life, was being stolen from me by this planet, piece by piece. The complete turnabout of emotions the evening of the party, where in the moonlight and firelight and between the notes of a song he'd admitted to loving me. And my own affirmation. And that long, soft, sweet night. Fabric slipping and sighing its way to the floor. Muted light playing across us in rhythmic bands. The feeling that none of this was quite real, that it was all too pure and perfect to be anything more than a dream, contrasted with the vivacity and validity of each touch, all set into bold relief.
Again, the guilt and almost crushing desperation when we'd been separated, because now we were more than friends and fellow Earthlings, we were lovers, and as trite as that word sounded, it brought something wonderful with it. The long, lingering sensation of utter breathlessness as it dawned on me that I was pregnant, I had to be, after one night, one time, I was pregnant. The long wait at the colony. The sickening voyage across the bay. The narrow escape and the miraculous reunion with Jack in the market square, and realizing that the last three months, more than I had missed home, I had missed him. He had /become/ home, and finally I had returned to it.
I couldn't expect the others to appreciate the remarkable five months spent with Jack and Krivin and his little cousin, feeling something move inside of me and knowing that it was as much of a person as I was, that it had a brain and a heart, like I did, and a future, just like me. The marvel of bearing a child and bringing it into the world was something no one else in this room could fully comprehend, not even those who were fathers, or mother by act of adoption.
Likewise, I could not count on Hammond, Daniel, Janet, and Teal'c - wherever he might be - perceiving how these events and experiences had made me different from them and the woman they assumed they knew. On their comprehension that I had not fallen in love with Jack because I had changed, I had changed because, despite my most valiant efforts - I had fallen in love.
And now this changed Samantha Carter was one who would lie bald-faced to her general, her friends, her comrades in arms, and the man she cared most about in the world.
Janet, at least, believed the lie before I had even put voice to it, because it was easy to imagine on a barbarian planet filled with savages and beasts, easier than imagining Captain Carter and Colonel O'Neill in a lover's embrace. Now all I had to do was embellish the tale, tell a story. Stick with that I knew.
I couldn't look at Jack, Daniel, or Landseth because they knew the truth, however vaguely. I couldn't look at Captain Kelly because I knew he must have more honor than I did. I refused to look at Hammond because he deserved more than to be lied to, so boldly and so promptly. So I looked at Janet, or towards her, at least, fostering the sympathy in her eyes. My voice cracked with the burden of fabrication. "About three months after the, um, incident... I was alone, and one of the militiamen..." Tell as much truth as you can, my conscience urged me, and let them decide the rest on their own. "He threw into an ally and..." I trailed off, as though in embarrassment, allowing them to finish the sentence. "I'm sure he would have killed me if... Colonel O'Neill hadn't come along," I acclaimed, giving credit where it was due, and then raising my head to take in their faces.
Hammond continued to stare down at Bridget, chagrinned. Daniel had turned a paler shade, and there was considerably more compassion in his eyes than there had been a moment ago. Captain Kelly , eyes cast downward, shuffled out of the room with a murmured word to Landseth, who stood stiffly with a set jaw and crossed arms. Janet's lips were parted in wordless empathy, her shoulders sagging tiredly.
But if she was tired, Jack was depleted, exhausted, dead on his feet. He was the only one to meet my eyes, a fact missed by the others; we stared at one another across the room of appalled and bewildered colleagues, trying to find something in the other's face, not recognizing it for what it was, and looking away.
Damn Sam Carter for taking the easy way out.
Teal'c arrived then, and broke the spell that appeared to have fallen over the room and everyone in it. Easier to banish the pain and bad feeling conjured by what Sam had told them when she was obviously okay and obviously so attached to her illegitimate, misbegotten child, so comfortable with motherhood. Congratulations were uttered in place of sympathies because no one really wanted to be unhappy, not now.
Daniel seemed to have thawed out some. I heard him laugh out loud as Sam placed Bridget in his arms; it giddy, nervous laughter, but laughter all the same. Teal'c was next in line, giving no excuse for his disappearance, looking down on the baby as though fondly regarding some novelty item. The pale bundle, wrapped in vibrant yellow, seemed impossibly tiny cradled in his huge dark arms. When he smiled down at her, I wondered if he was thinking about his own kid, of another time and place when he had held his son to his chest.
Colonel Landseth knew that Sam had lied; she kept sneaking furtive glances at me as though wondering when I would simply explode with the unjustness of it all. But even that worry wasn't enough to override her own maternal instincts, and with Sam's nod of permission, Teal'c passed Bridget onto the red-headed, green-eyed woman.
Janet was there as well, cooing and fussing over baby and mother alike, although more than once I caught her scrutinizing Sam's face and easy posture. Vigilant, or suspicious?
I'd long since come to realize that there was no way Bridget could be another man's. Not so much because of resemblance - she was her mother's daughter in every respect, it seemed - but because I had come to an important decision. No, Sam had not changed /that/ much. Besides, Bridget had been premature as it was, so Sam would have had to have... liaisons with someone else almost immediately after I'd been sent back to Ankh'ij. She wasn't even capable of that, I would stake my life on it.
My certainty calmed me somewhat, but it didn't make up for the lie Sam had told, that I had corroborated with my silence.
Captain Kelly reappeared, declining from holding the baby, professing clumsiness, but still smiling down on her. Bridget did her best to live up to all the attention, making inarticulate squeaks and howls, communicating with her new friends in her most assertive baby-talk. A few of the nurses wandered over, and then an airmen who'd been standing outside, and soon there was a gathering large enough to be considered Sam's baby shower, albeit a few months too late. I hung at the edge of the crowd, feeling out of place, out of sorts... and suspiciously like I was missing a portion of the limelight that rightfully was mine.
To distract myself, I wondered about the ring on Janet's finger, and the dynamics of my team with Landseth and Kelly, and what had ever happened to my house and Sam's apartment and all our belongings therein. I wondered about Daniel's changeable mood, and Sam's real reasons for lying, and about Cassandra, and what I had missed on TV during the past year.
And then, quite suddenly, I realized that Bridget was being placed into my arms by one of the nurses, who quickly turned back to the jovial conversation and left me standing there quite awkwardly. I caught Sam's eye across the melee, and she gave me a tight smile before looking back at Daniel.
Sighing at my mistreatment, I bent my head to my daughter, trying not to exude too much fatherly adoration. It was basically impossible. There was a cross line forming in between her radiant eyes, a sure sign of impending crankiness if I couldn't get her to sleep first. I wondered if too much familiarity would look suspicious, then realized that I didn't really give a damn, that I wasn't going to spend each moment with my daughter worried that someone was going to catch on. I looked away from the fray and the noise they were causing, moving first into the doorway and then into the vacant hallway beyond.
Hardly noticing that I was still dressed in gray, coarse, slightly-damp fabric, I pulled Bridget to my chest. I paused to feel her weight and warmth through the fabric, and then cradled her against me, cupping her little body so that she could just barely see back over my shoulder, into the infirmary.
"What a mess, huh? All because of you, and now I bet they don't even notice you're missing."
She gurgled in response, and smacked her head against my arm in agreement. I grinned and supported her head more prudently.
"Yeah, well, you'll get to like them anyway. Your grandparents... well, my folks aren't around any more, but your mom's dad... I'm sure you'll get to spend some time with him. But if you don't, you know what? It's okay These guys here are like family. All the family you need."
Tiny hands grasped at my collar. I could feel drool seeping through the sleeve.
"I wish... I really wish Charlie was still here. He would have gotten such a kick out of having a little sister, you have no idea. He'd be an old pro at... diaper-assistance and getting you to sleep, and introducing you to all sorts of little things you could try and stick in your mouth."
"Yeah. But I could probably use the help. Any help. Because... well, let's face it kid, I don't know what the hell-- I don't know what I'm doing here. I didn't the first time around and I don't now." It was the same thing with Charlie. Sitting around while he bonded with Mom, wondering when it was my turn to get to know my kid. Moping around, contemplating what I could do to make up for my inability to breast-feed the little nipper. Puzzling over where Mom ended and Sara began. More than anything, wondering when are where and how I would screw up. Because it was inevitable.
Was that why Sam had lied? Because she had looked back as my track record as a parent and found me failing? Was this her surefire plan of keeping me away from 'her' kid, all under the guise of helping me out?
I pulled Bridget back away from my shoulder, and wiped the spittle and slime and various other excretions off her face with the corner of the blanket. Her eyes crossed when she tried to focus on my face.
I responded to the brisk, business-like tone before I absorbed the word itself. Colonel? Who was that? Who was a Colonel? Not me, certainly. I was just Jack, Jack O'Neill, you know, that guy with pale skin and hair, the one who came through the Sungate, the one with the gorgeous wife and the new, equally gorgeous baby.
But I turned all the same, and in the midst of the turn, remembered that I was Colonel Jack O'Neill, USAF, SG-1, the one with the team that always got into scrapes and then out of them, with the hulking Jaffa and the high-brow archeologist and the gorgeous second-in-command.
A sandy-haired airmen stood in the hallway. He wasn't familiar to me, but obviously knew who I was.
"Colonel, sir? General Hammond would like to speak to you. In his office."
I nodded silently, watched the airmen leave, wondered if I still remembered where Hammond's office /was/, and then looked down at Bridget. She looked back up at me - sorta - and I decided against handing her back off to Sam before I went.
Let her wonder.
"Time to meet Grandpa George," I informed Bridget, and we followed in the airman's wake.
Familiar faces swirled around me, only serving to enhance the already-dreamlike quality of the moment. I had simply imagined this moment too many times, in too many never-to-be-realized scenarios, for this moment to be real to me. I wondered if I would ever truly snap out of it, ever get over the fear that this was just one more dream.
"We heard you weren't exactly the welcome wagon for Landseth and Kelly," I gently chided Daniel, and nearby, Janet scoffed. The aforementioned officers were speaking with Teal'c, just out of earshot.
Daniel shrugged, with the good sense to look abashed. "If I could do it again differently... yeah, I would. If that's what you're asking." At my incredulous look, he rushed on. "It wasn't so much Kathryn as it was everyone's attitude about her and about... you guys. I saw her as temporary, they saw her as permanent."
Daniel squirmed. "He wasn't the first... so it was different."
"The first replacement," he elaborated, looking positively ill at ease.
There was a pain in my chest and I realized that I had taken a deep, sudden breath, taken it so sharply that it made my eyes water. I turned to Janet and found her grimly nodding. "Aaron Barrette," she confirmed. "He was a good man."
"It was Sha're... well, Amonet," volleyed Daniel. "She killed him. And she tried to kill the Colonel."
"I killed her."
I stared at Daniel, waiting for him to take back what he had just said, not wanting to see the hollow hurt in his eyes, forcing in deep breaths as the pain in my chest expanded. So, this was when it began. The guilt of my absence, my inadequacy, and the toils they had taken on my friends. Thus began a hundred thoughts starting with "If I had been there..."
If I had been there, Daniel wouldn't have been forced to kill the love of his life to save his C.O., who he obviously hadn't been crazy about to begin with.
If I had been there, surely things would have turned out better.
If I had been there, would /I/ have been killed, rather then this Aaron Barrette?
I surfaced from my moment of panic to find Daniel and Janet staring at each other over the narrow bed, silently, unblinkingly. Was this how it had happened? How it had started? The repartee between the two of them that Janet had all but acknowledged? If I /had/ been there, would I have somehow kept it from coming to pass?
"Have you set a date yet?" I asked boldly.
Daniel shifted, and Janet smiled, but their gaze was unbreakable, and I got the impression that I was a party to only a small percent of the conversation being held here.
"We were waiting for you to get back," said Janet smoothly.
The door to Hammond's office was open. The room itself was empty, but I could see the General moving on the other side of the transparent partition, and as I walked towards his desk, he entered from the other door. In his hands were two small, white cups filled with steaming liquid, emanating an odor that made my mouth water.
Coffee... oh, how long had it been..?
Hammond smiled indulgently at me and set one cup at the corner of his desk, taking his customary seat behind it, and gesturing for me to sit as well. I did - the ridged ergonomics of the chair were all too familiar - and propped Bridget up against my left leg. I retrieved my coffee and leaned to the right as I sampled it, far out of the range of her flailing limbs, and then set the Styrofoam cup at my feet.
Hot. Bitter. Oh, but that smell, it brought back memories.
"It been a long year," was all Hammond said.
"You're telling me," I quipped, falling back on humor and sarcasm almost unconsciously. "And I have to warn you, it might be another year before I get the report about it in."
Hammond leaned back in his chair. I half-expected him to cross his legs on the desktop. "So you /do/ want to come back."
"Looking forward to it, sir," I boasted, shifting Bridget to my other knee and bouncing that leg a little, just to keep her occupied. "That is, unless they think they have to send me back through Basic Training."
"What do /you/ think?"
Bridget drooled onto the General's carpeting as I considered this. "Well... I guess I'm still in pretty good shape, as well as can be expected anyway. But my reflexes... battle preparedness, I guess you could say..."
"You need to get your confidence back up."
I smiled at his understanding. "Yes sir."
Bridget fussed, her voice vibrating in time with the jostling of my knee somewhere deep inside her little body. I turned her to face me as Hammond rifled through a manila folder on his desk. "Doctor Jackson was actually looking forward to taking a leave of absence from SG-1 in order to study the artifacts brought back from P2..." He trailed off, seeming to realize that the designation would mean nothing to me, and shook his head as though to clear it. "If you wouldn't mind deferring to Colonel Landseth as team leader, I could fit you into the Doctor's spot. Send SG-1 on a couple previously-charted evals. Let you regain your bearings."
I lifted Bridget to eye level and watched her squeal and kick at the air. Smiling, wondering how long it would be before she spit up all over my lap, I answered Hammond. "That doesn't mean I have to ask dumb questions and spend all my time looking at rocks, does it?"
"You can leave the rocks alone, Jack," he chuckled.
Watching me with her mother's astonishingly blue eyes, Bridget gave an answering giggle. Or maybe it was just gas. I realized that I was smiling back at her, my face almost split in two by the grin, and that Hammond was watching me, beaming at me, and that a warm balloon of unadulterated happiness was spreading across my chest.
"You love her," prodded the General graciously, "don't you?"
The balloon tensed, and my arms froze in place, locking Bridget in midair and sending a stabbing pain through my shoulders into my neck. Shit... was he that perceptive? Or did he mean... did he just mean... was he talking about Sam? Or Bridget? Or both? Or...
I decided to play it stupid, forcing my arms to relax and lowering my daughter back into my lap, running the fingers of one hand lightly over her fine blonde hair. "Yeah. I- I did from the beginning. If we hadn't been able to get back, I would have raised her as my own." I shrugged, as though that were the only possibility, as though I hadn't even considered doing otherwise. "I mean, what kid needs to grow up not knowing... not knowing who her father is? Not having a guy role model in her life. Always asking why the other kids have a... a dad and she doesn't. And then finding out, knowing she wasn't planned or even really wanted..." I was very proud of myself. My voice didn't even crack once.
"Captain Carter obviously wanted her," Hammond pointed out.
"Well, yeah. She actually had the chance to abort the baby... but she wouldn't. She didn't even know that she /could/ have children, after what Jolinar did to her body. She was kinda under the impression that she'd never be able to be a mother, and now... Bridget's a gift. Doesn't matter who her father is."
The words were spoken boldly, even confidently, but inside, I felt like I was dying. Because every single word I had just spoken, though intended to propagate a lie, was the truth.
Hammond looked... disturbingly pensive. I wondered franticly if there was any further way we could be punished, a loophole we hadn't wiggled out of or lied through. To break the anxious moment, I announced, "Hey, I don't suppose you guys keep a supply of Huggies stashed anywhere, do you? Because let me tell you, cloth diapers after you've gotten used to the disposable kind are... just the most annoying thing in the world."
He blinked at me, as though withdrawing from some deep thought, and then smiled wryly. "You might want to see Teal'c about that."
"Teal'c? Oh God, don't tell me..."
"No, Jack... no," Hammond assured me, still smirking, and he explained. "As soon as you got back, Colonel Landseth gave him some cash and sent him down to the store off of 5th Street, to pick up some things for you."
The warmth in my chest continued to grow at this, this generosity from total strangers. And Daniel hadn't liked this woman? How could he not? /I/ liked her, and she had my job.
Bridget's fussing increased; she got irritable if she was forced to stay in one place for too long a time. Feeling suddenly vulnerable in the General's presence, I stood, almost kicking over my coffee cup. "In that case, I should go. I've got to see a Jaffa about a diaper..." I trailed off as I realized I hadn't been dismissed, by word or gesture, and I had either forgotten that the man sitting across from me was my commanding officer, or I had unconsciously expected him to place my responsibilities as a parent above my responsibilities as an USAF Colonel. For the second time in five minutes, I froze.
But Hammond was nothing if not mellow. He stood, circling his desk to me. "Of course," he allowed, and then his manner changed a bit, to one of almost... bashfulness. "Colonel, before you go... could I hold her?"
This time, I was able to restrain my smile, but my answering "Sure ya can" was so permissive that my every emotion was exposed. I lowered Bridget into Hammond's arms, marveling again at her smile, her charm, her perfection. How on earth could something so... exquisite come from two such totally flawed people?
"Aren't you an adorable thing?" prattled Hammond. "Such a pretty little girl... yes you are." Bridget responded with an garbled jabber, and the General chuckled.
Yes, it was cute, but it was also enough to make me wonder if I'd come back to the right planet.
"I bet your mama's just so proud of you."
The cooing, cajoling tone was just too... delightful. I turned my back on Hammond and, under the guise of a cough, snickered.
"You sure do have her eyes."
Baby talk from General George Hammond... who would have imagined.
"But your nose... I think you have your daddy's nose."
For the /third/ time, the world and all my bodily functions screeched to a halt. Slowly, so as not to tip the orderly balance of the universe, I turned back to Hammond. I half expected him not to be there at all, my consciousness had been so fundamentally shaken. But he was there, looking up at me, genially, genial as ever. "Besides, Jack, did you know that most babies are born with blue eyes?" he asked conversationally. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if they've turned brown by, say, her fourth birthday."
I stared at him for a minute longer... and then ducked my head, sighing. "You want to know why Sam lied."
"No. I /know/ why she lied, as foolish as those reasons are. I want to know why you're going along with her, son You had to know--"
"No... no, I know. I just... I don't know why I lied."
Hammond handed Bridget back to me, his tone chiding. "At first, I thought, maybe you /didn't/ know. Or maybe you just didn't care. But you do. You care about her and you care about the Captain."
I could say nothing in my own defense.
Hammond sighed. "Have you ever met Captain Carter's father, Jack?"
The inlaws... I shook the thought off quickly. We weren't married.
No... but I would still have to answer to this man...
I cleared my throat. "Well, Sam's told me a lot about him, but I've never met him, not personally."
"You will," Hammond promised, or was it a threat? "And let me give you a word of advice. He's a good man, but now you know personally, in your heart, what a father will do to protect his daughter."
Eyes still fixed to the floor, to that errant drool mark on the carpet, I asked meekly, "Are you saying you're going to tell him?"
Hammond chuffed. "I'm saying that I won't have to."
"This is probably a stupid question," submitted Landseth, sliding up to us with Teal'c and Ian in her wake. "But... is this all worth the wait? Are you happy to be home?" she prompted Sam.
She wasn't, I realized, feeling sick and hollow again. I could tell by the instability of her smile and her hesitancy. I tried not to take offense: after all, she'd been gone a long time, had had a lot happen to her during that time, and was for whatever reason uncomfortable around all of us. I tried not to be upset, tried not to want to forcibly shake an answer out of her. But I did want the words. I wanted her to have to say them, and explain them.
"Provided we have a home to go back to," quipped Jack, striding into the room, making us all jump at the suddenness of his approach and saving Sam from having to answer. Bridget was cuddled in his arms. "No offense to you, or to this fine establishment," he elaborated flamboyantly, nodded deferentially to us and glancing around the room "but I haven't had a breath of good old-fashioned unfiltered Earth air in way too long."
Immediately, I dug into my pocket and withdrew a jumbled key ring. "We took the TV and VCR over to Janet's," I explained, trying to slide a brass key off the metal loop. "And the stereo's at my place. Thought it might be a good idea if it didn't look too appetizing to potential burglars."
"Yeah right," mocked Jack, as though doubting our good intentions, but as he handed the baby back to a quiescent Sam, he seemed to be pleased at the time and thought we had invested. "I don't suppose you kept up the yard," he joked.
"Actually, we paid a kid across the street to water and mow the lawn. And I cancelled your morning paper. Didn't want it to look too vacant."
'Pleased' melted into 'impressed'. "Wow. You... believed that much that we were coming back."
I shrugged, embarrassed. No Jack, I wanted to say, it wasn't so much that I believed it, it was that I needed everyone else to think that I believed it. Lucky for you, isn't it? "Um... you bet." I struggled with another key. "Sam, if you had any goldfish or houseplants, they're no longer with us, but your apartment should be in one piece."
As I handed over her apartment key, she flashed me as bright a smile as I had ever seen. "That's... that's wonderful to hear," she exhorted. "I wasn't really looking forward to spending the night... here..." Her expression grew steadily more sober until she looked positively claustrophobic, and then she forced the grin back on her face. "I suppose you confiscated my electronics as well?"
"Nope," supplied Janet, jumping in. I was profoundly grateful for the assist. "Your dad's actually been staying in your apartment when he's... in town. We figured between that and the fact it's a busy building..."
"My dad? Is he around a lot?"
Janet was suave and in control. I admired her pose. "Now and then."
"Is he here now?"
"No" I interjected. "But General Hammond's been in touch with him, and he's on his way."
She looked so gratified that I didn't have the heart to tell her that Hammond had actually been in touch with the Tok'ra... that he was on his way through the /Stargate/... that it wasn't just him anymore. It was the symbiote. I didn't have the heart... or the guts.
Landseth excused herself, Janet went on to inform Jack and Sam that their cars were still their own, but had been moved to a storage lot, and Landseth shouted from the other end of the room that there were a pair of sedans up top, fully equipped with airmen ready to give them both rides home. One, she informed us proudly, was even equipped with a car-seat. As impressed that I was, I also had the feeling that some unlucky NORAD employee was going to be filing a police report for stolen property in the morning. Landseth had /just/ that kind of look to her.
Jack immediately went on the offensive.
"Maybe you shouldn't go home alone tonight," he suggested to Sam, nervously.
"I'm not staying here."
"I wasn't suggesting that."
"What were you suggesting?"
"Why don't you spend the night at my place?"
Janet tipped her chin, listening. I tried to tune the conversation out, and found that I couldn't.
What I was thinking, what I suspected, it was just silly. Sam and Jack weren't involved. Bridget wasn't his. They were in no way 'together'. The kiss I had witnessed back on 983 was just a last minute "we're going home, isn't this wonderful, it's been a slice" gesture of friendship and elation. It hadn't been the... continuation of anything. No way. No how.
"I just don't like the idea of you being alone."
"I won't be alone," Sam snapped, glancing sharply at Bridget.
"That's what I mean."
Sam smiled again, but it wasn't a smile I liked. It was an acute and angry gesture, and the chuckle she gave was just as sick. "Colonel, we're home now. You don't have to play bodyguard anymore. I can take care of this myself."
Jack's face turned first white, than red. I didn't know blood could move that fast.
Janet looked worried.
Sam continued, still smiling thinly, arms holding the bundle that was Bridget Teryn close to her chest. "I'll call you in the morning so you know that everything went all right. Is that okay? Sir?"
Jack took a step back and inhaled sharply. It was as though he'd been punched, stabbed... eviscerated... by some invisible enemy. One step became two, and then three, and then four, and then he turned on his heel and left us standing there.
If she'd know how close I had been to letting the truth be known, to demanding a paternity test to prove my claims, to setting it all out on the table...
If she'd known that Hammond knew, and that her father would as well...
If she'd known, she wouldn't have been half as smug.
Before I knew it, I was on the surface, with no real memory of riding elevators and navigating tunnels and making my way through various security checkpoints. I knew I must look like hell: dirty, gray hair matted and askew, dressed in clothes no self-respecting American vagrant would be caught dead in. And my expression... I could only guess on that. Hammond or Frasier or Landseth must have called ahead, telling them to let me out before I did some real damage.
The cool air touched my face; it felt and smelled /wonderful/. Crisp, bracing, and with just enough diesel fumes to remind me of where I was. Stepping onto the pavement, I craned my neck upward, staring up into the nighttime sky and wondering, perversely, if Ma'at'a was anywhere within my sights.
I demanded the time of a sergeant wandering by: it was half-past-nine, probably about twelve hours off what my body had become accustomed to. That meant, of course, that getting back on track biologically speaking would be hell on Earth... but then again, at least it was hell on /Earth/.
Two dark sedans were parked under a bank of lights: /real/ cars, not Humvees. I jogged toward them, waving to alert the nearest driver, glancing surreptitiously behind me.
Not that I expected to see Sam following.
I watched the car pull away from the curb, maneuvering slowly across the lot to the guard station at the entrance. I could have caught Jack's attention from where I was standing, just as I could have caught his attention at any time as I'd tailed his retreat to the surface. That wasn't the point. I couldn't talk to him right now, not that everything that had happened today... tonight. We both needed some time to cool down and to think. I just prayed that when I /had/ thought it all through, I wouldn't end up regretting my actions too horribly.
I'd known that lying about Bridget would offend him, and by all outward appearances it had, but I also knew that there was a lot going on beneath the surface that I wasn't even seeing. He was /past/ offended now, into a anger so base that he couldn't safely express it.
Nothing had gone as I had expected it to, and I was disappointed in my own actions.
I shivered, even though Daniel had lent me his jacket. I was a bit let down that he hadn't offered to drive Bridget and me home, or even walk us up top. That could be attributed to Janet, I supposed, though it bothered me that he was that attached to her that he couldn't bother to... detach himself for one moment. Not even for me.
Already, I was suspecting this world of drastic changes since I had visited it last, and I didn't like what I was seeing.
"That's fine with me, sir," Landseth assured Hammond, somehow still brisk and professional at the late hour, and after an emotionally-draining escapade. "I'd welcome Colonel O'Neill's presence on the team." She glanced sideways at me, and smirked. "Not that I wouldn't miss Doctor Jackson here."
I ignored her. "Talk about timing. Rothman's been on my case for months about those engravings. It'd be great to have a couple of weeks off."
Hammond, stationed comfortably behind his desk, nodded at us. "My thoughts exactly, Doctor. Colonel... I can't promise you what Colonel O'Neill's return means for your place on SG-1."
She cocked her head at him. "It's his team, sir. Was for two years before the 983 incident. I'm not going to contend for it."
"I'm not completely certain he's going to want his old place back," Hammond pointed out. "Especially the situation with Captain Carter being what it is."
"Situation?" I blurted, hearing Landseth echo me a beat later.
"With her daughter. I highly doubt she'll ask to be placed back on SG-1. Or reinstated in the SGC. It would be a damn shame to lose her, but I wouldn't be surprised at all."
I swallowed against a sick, hollow feeling that spread in my stomach, but Landseth only chuckled through her nose. "I'll be sure to tell Ian he's got some job security."
I blinked rapidly at the verbal explosion, realizing only then that I'd been staring at Kathryn Landseth ever since we'd left the General's office, and punched in the call button for the elevator. "Nothing."
"What?" she repeated, the word sounding more like a demand than an entreaty.
The doors parted for us, and I followed the Colonel inside, watching her warily. "You've just been... too nice lately."
She glared at me as the car began to move, and I immediately regretted the close quarters. "Well... thank you," she sputtered, her voice laced with sarcasm. "I suppose."
"Oh come on... I've never seen you so friendly." I pressed, growing bolder at her professed ignorance. I challenged her: "Stand there and tell me you weren't putting on a show for Jack and Sam."
She raised her eyebrows nearly as high as they could reach, all the way up to her hairline, and cocked her head at me as she'd done at the General. Then, with lightning reflexes I'd seen often in action but that never failed to startle me, she reached across and hit the /stop/ button on the elevator panel.
"You listen to me, Daniel," she said, not with anger but with vehemence, stressing my name. "I don't 'put on shows'. I don't misrepresent myself. I especially didn't lie to anyone, not like..." She paused, and began again. "If anyone's been acting strangely it's you. I'm starting to wonder if we brought back the right people after all."
"So am I," I muttered, reaching for the panel.
Landseth slapped my hand away. "What's that mean?"
"What do you mean, 'what's that mean'?"
Her eyes lasered into my skull. "I mean, what're you talking about? After everything I've seen over the past three years, everything I've heard about your great friendship with O'Neill and Carter, I expected you to be doing... cartwheels around the Gateroom. Throwing a party, laughing in the General's face. Being /happy/. But you /aren't/." Her expression softened, somewhat, and she focused on the back wall rather than on my face. "It's been a long time, Daniel. They aren't going to act exactly the same. And you can't expect them to jump right back into their old lives after everything that happened to them on 983."
I angled my body away from her and flapped my arms in a helpless shrug. "Well, you just answered your own question," I said defensively. "Are you going to answer mine?"
"Maybe I was trying to impress them," she rebutted, not missing a beat. "But I was trying to impress you, too."
I glanced back at her, distrustful, but curious despite myself. "Me?"
Landseth tilted her chin. "Yeah. I figured you'd expect me to see them as a threat to my position on SG-1 and be awful to them. I wanted to show everyone, including you, that I'm not that petty. Now, if that means I've been coming across as too nice..."
She let her voice trail off and shrugged, much as I had, before depressing the /stop/ button. The car began moving, the numbers counted down; I kept my eyes on the digital display for the duration of the ride.
Earth had never seemed to alien to me.
I fit in better now, donned in my leather jacket and jeans that didn't seem to hang quite right, but the illusion of acceptance was just that: an illusion. I felt myself apart from the taxi driver, the people I met on the streets, the entire atmosphere. The lights were too bright and the cars too fast and the music and horns and voices too loud. I walked briskly, not out of confidence but out of fear. Fear of the world around me.
It seemed Daniel had also confiscated my credit cards and most of the cash he'd found laying around my house, for 'safekeeping' no doubt. Even the crumpled dollar bills underneath my mattress and inside the TV stand were conspicuously missing. He'd missed, however, the twenty-dollar bill stashed between the cardboard pages of "I Am A Bunny", one of Charlie's old books, and it was those twenty dollars that took me within a few blocks of Carter's apartment.
Even if I hadn't been broke, I might have enjoyed the walk, the stroll through an alien environment. Of course, I would have enjoyed it more if I'd been in full mission gear complete with an HK... but that was just another part of getting my confidence back up.
The buzzer came at a bad time.
'Bad' being relative, anyway. It had been a long time since I'd even seen my niece and nephew, and even longer since they'd been this age. I'd forgotten just how much... equipment was involved with babies. How much crying. How much cajoling and running around and physical and mental exhaustion. And I supposed I'd forgotten just how much Jack /had/ helped with all of that.
Not that I couldn't do this without him, I could. It was just...
I wasn't terribly surprised when the call buzzer sounded, and Jack's voice floated through the entryway and into my room. For the last fifteen minutes I'd been tearing through my sparse apartment, searching for bedding and blankets, and realizing there was virtually nothing in my fridge, and trying to remember where I had put things, and realizing that Dad /must/ have been here because everything seemed just a little askew... all to the tune of Bridget's plaintive wails. But I stopped my mad rushing when I heard his voice, and strangely enough so did Bridget.
First it was a soft "Sam... it's me. Can I come up?" Which eventually escalated to an irritated "Come on, Sam, let me in. /Sam/." Which rapidly slid into an almost panicky "Please... Sam, we need to talk... /please/."
I couldn't say no to /that/.
She took her sweet time answering the door. I waited out in the hallway so long that I started wondering if I'd gone to the right apartment number, or if Sam was just playing head games with me, or if, God forbid, something had happened to her...
When she /did/ open up, it was with the security chain engaged, which only served to further annoyed me. She peeked out through the narrow crack, looking up at me boldly through her bangs. "What is it?"
I'd actually planned out an entire recitation, about how Hammond knew, and how I was straight-out not going to lie to her dad, and... well, I was going to tell her a whole hell of a lot of things, most which I'd reasoned on my way over here, most of which I knew would surprise her. But at her icy reception all of that went right out the window. I moved in closer and said flatly, "I'm tired of being treated like a stranger, Sam."
Her gaze flickered in intensity and dropped to the floor. "Jack, what do you want?"
I considered the use of my name a step in the right direction. At least she wasn't calling me 'Colonel' anymore. "I want you to let me in. And I want to be able to talk this over like two adults instead of running away from it. Because if we don't do it now, you know damn well we never will."
Frowning, she pushed the hair from her eyes. "I'm tired... I don't really want to get into this right now."
I glared at her. "Too bad."
The door slammed, almost taking off my nose, but before I could raise my voice or my fist, it open again, the chain disengaged. Technically, it was thrown open, and Sam, still dressed in her Ma'at'an clothes, stood just beyond the threshold with her arms crossed, as though challenging me to enter.
Making yet another impulsive decision - yes, the same kind I was infamous for - I took one large step through the doorway, grabbed her shoulder, and yanked her towards me. Her arms uncrossed and she threw them out for balance. They landed on my arms, clutching the leather.
It wasn't an '"I'm sorry" kiss'. It wasn't a '"Remember this?" kiss'. It was a '"You're going to kiss me and you're gonna like it, damn it" kiss', the first in far too long. And if I hadn't been so busy enjoying myself, enjoying the taste and texture of her, I would have been elated that she /was/ liking it. She was responding to it, to me, kissing me back, gasping into my mouth, bringing me down closer with one hand on the back of my neck. I wrapped my arms around her waist; she seemed so tiny and light, so slender... I felt like I could embrace her twice around. I shuddered at the sensation of her nails against my skin, at the rough joining and rejoining of lips and tongues, at the sensual power of it all... and then I did one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. I pulled away from Sam, peeling her off of me, watching the blush in her cheeks change from arousal to ire as she fought to catch her breath.
"Ha," I said, figuring it was quite self-explanatory.
"Ha?" Sam repeated, slamming the door shut and then wincing at the sound. She fastened the deadbolt. "What does 'ha' mean?"
I smirked. "It means you still have feelings for me."
She planted a hand on my chest and forcibly pushed me out of her path to the living room; only then did I see Bridget squirming around on a blanket between the couch and television, naked except for her diaper. An unfamiliar carrier sat a few feet away, and I remembered Teal'c saying something about 'borrowing' a car seat from someone upstairs in NORAD. The apartment's furnishings were meager, but that wasn't a result of Daniel's cleaning house; Sam had always lived on the bare minimum... like she was trying to prove to herself that she didn't need comfort, soothing amenities. Or maybe it was deeper than that. Daniel had told me once that there were still boxes in the study, old things from Washington, she hadn't yet unpacked. And even before we'd gone AWOL, it had still been almost two years.
"Of course I still have feelings for you," Sam exclaimed, all but adding 'You idiot.' "That isn't the point."
"Then what is the point?" I asked, careful to regulate my voice for Bridget's sake. I hadn't realized until that moment how odd it had felt not having her around, how useless I had felt sitting alone in my stuffy house.
"The point is that I'm trying to protect you. And me. And Bridget."
"By shutting me out of your life? And hers? How is that helping anyone?"
She scowled at me. "How did Sara do it, Jack? Especially after Charlie was born. How'd she do it? How'd she learn to live with not knowing where you were, when you were coming back... /if/ you were coming back? How did she handle your... your state after the Gulf, not knowing what you'd been through, not knowing how to help? God, Jack, what did she tell your /son/ when you were gone for months at a time for some classified mission? How did he even begin to comprehend that?"
My throat tightened at the mentions of my old life, my old family, my ex-wife and my dead son. How dare she bring them into this, after all I'd done to keep them out of it, to not look back, to be the kind of guy I felt Sam deserved to have in her life. Exactly what did she hope to accomplish? "I don't know."
"Neither do I," she answered sadly.
The ground was suddenly the only safe place to look. "You're leaving the SGC."
"And you're not," Sam agreed, suddenly amicable. "And I'm not blaming you for that. I'm not saying that it means you love Bridget any less."
"Liar," I murmured.
She spoke over me. "/But/... I don't want to have to live that kind of life. Not knowing where you are or when you're coming back or what I could do to help. Just look at this mission. We're lucky to be standing here right now having this conversation. I don't think either of us realize /how/ lucky. We could have died several times over on Ma'at'a. We could have died a hundred times over since we joined the SGC. It's a noble cause, of course, an important one, something I will miss with /all/ my heart, but... but I've got to look at what is most important in my life and take care of /that/ first. And that's Bridget." She paused, but continued when I said nothing. "Hammond needs you. Daniel and... and Colonel Landseth and the whole program need you."
"What about you?" I queried, genuinely curious, all traces of sarcasm gone. "You think we don't need you? You think I don't? Can you really do this by yourself? When Bridget asks where her dad is, /who/ he is, are you going to be able to explain to her why you've lied to her from the very beginning?"
"It's not uncommon these days."
"It's not /fair/. To any of us. And me... you're asking me to chose between what I want to do and what I /have/ to do. My duty, or my family."
She was almost indignant. "I'm not doing anything of the sort. I'm telling you... that you don't have to feel trapped. You don't have to feel responsible for us any more."
"I already /do/."
"Then you can stop!" The anger in her voice was bleeding into a kind of weary desperation; she swayed unsteadily on her feet. "Jack, I'm tired, and I'm hungry, and there's hardly anything to eat and no time and I have /things/ to do. I want you to go."
And what? Never speak to me again? Never have anything to do with any of us, ever again? Hole up in here and never come out? "Fine," I said promptly, and in relief she put a hand to her forehead and sighed. "But I want to take Bridget with me."
The hand seemed to freeze to her face. "What?" she queried, suddenly nervous, suddenly vulnerable.
I narrowed my eyes. "I'm not going to leave the country with her or something, Sam."
Dropping her hand slowly over her eyes, she answered in that same tone, "I know."
"I just want to spend some time with her," I proceeded in my most neutral voice. "I've got some errands to run... I can even pick up some things for you while I'm out."
Sam was reluctant. I wondered if that was because she didn't trust me not to make a break for the Canadian border with my daughter, or if it was just maternal instinct, or if there was some other reason she looked positively ill at the suggestion. "Don't you need a ride?"
"I can call for one. Assuming your phone..." Mine had been disconnected; I wasn't sure whether to blame Daniel or the phone company for the three-block walk to the nearest pay phone.
She nodded. "Yeah, looks like Dad's been keeping it up."
Time stretched awkwardly between us. I don't know what Sam was thinking, but I was stuck on that whole "Dad" thing. And Hammond's words. And how much I knew them to be true. And I was remembering all those promises I had made myself on the walk from where the taxi had dropped me off. As painful as this little visit had been, it had also been quite enlightening; at least now I had a vague idea of what Sam was thinking, how she was justifying acting like this, what she wanted or needed or expected of me.
She was in culture shock, like I was. She was afraid, like I was. Afraid that we'd come home to a place that didn't want us, to friends who wouldn't accept us, to a situation that would make being ourselves impossible. In those respects, we were on our own here as truly as we'd ever been on Ma'at'a, two people isolated from the rest of society because they didn't belong there. We were on the outside looking in on an unfamiliar world, a world that had changed without our permission. And that was scary.
And so we looked for other excuses for our fear. We clung to each other while knowing full well that our customary interdependency wouldn't fly here. We searched frantically for a place back in the old order of things, tried to make the best out of a bad situation, tried to reconcile all that was expected of us. We whirled frantically, madly, acting irrationally, making mistakes and not knowing how to apologize for them, self-destructive.
Confusion wasn't just not knowing what to do, or what to say. It was also not knowing how to feel, and already we'd made too many mistakes out of ignorance. I refused to make another.
Sam, however, was another story altogether.
"I don't want to talk about it any more," she all but whispered. "I'm not asking you... I'm telling you."
I left Jack alone to use the phone, claiming that I needed to clean up Bridget and taking her into the bedroom to do it. I left the lamps off, working by the light that spilled down the hallway, wrapping her securely in one of the smallish-sized blankets I'd uncovered in my mad search. I'd begun composing a mental list in my head of things I'd need for both Bridget and myself. Its size was daunting.
Setting my daughter on the bed and leaning over her, I caught a reflection of myself in the mirror, a dim and silvery image on the opposite wall. My hair hung lank and dirty around my face; my eyelids were drooping. I hadn't had the time to change clothes, much less shower, and so every time I happened to glance down at myself I was confronted with the alien material, the garment from another world, another planet... yet one that had seemed no less welcoming than this one. I looked angry, I looked exhausted, I did not look like the kind of mother I wanted to be to Bridget. Like the kind of person I wanted to be to my fellow Earthlings.
The change that had so perplexed Daniel and Janet was starting to catch up with me.
I straightened, and the image in the mirror shifted with this new angle. I could see Jack now, outlined in the slender rectangle of light from down the hall, the phone handset to his ear, looking so good, so human. The jeans, the jacket, the way he stood, shifting his weight from one foot to the other periodically, letting his gaze drift unfocused around the room, more at home in my apartment than I could ever imagine being. Like back in Depa'ma: he fit in, I did not. He was adapting. I felt out of place.
I wondered who he was calling. The base? Daniel? I wondered about his motives, too, but only for a second. Then, as he replaced the handset into its cradle, I lifted Bridget to my shoulder and took her out to her father.
As I strolled the sidewalk, I wondered if Sam was watching me right now, at this moment. The living room window in her apartment did face this direction, so I guessed that she was - I certainly would - and I resisted the temptation to glance back up over my shoulder.
Bridget lay surprisingly still and quiet in the pilfered car-seat/carrier. The most likely reason was that the rhythmic motion of my walking had lulled her to sleep... or at least into a tranquil state. But her silence seemed ominous somehow, like she was upset at being separated from her mother, as though she was as distrustful of me as Sam was.
I wondered, if Sam was monitoring my progress to the street corner, what she thought when a gray SUV pulled up to the curb and opened one of the rear doors. It was an unfamiliar vehicle to both of us, but I was the only one who could make out the driver.
Without acknowledging the driver, I placed the carrier on the seat, facing towards the back, and fitted the belt lap through the corresponding slats. I buckled the belt on the far side, leaned over to make sure it really was fastened, and took one last careful look at a passive Bridget before closing the door and climbing in up front.
"I'm not really sure why I called you," I admitted. I fastened my seat belt and looked back over my shoulder at my daughter again. She seemed so /alone/ back there, alone and defenseless...
The driver smiled. "It's not a problem. I knew you wouldn't be able to stay away," she confided.
"Really?" I asked, uncomfortable that she was able to discern so much about me.
Landseth nodded, casting one slight, nervous glance at Bridget before putting the Durango into gear. "Well... I guessed... And please tell me I'm not the getaway car."
I smirked at the insinuation. "No, I got permission from the warden."
The Colonel pulled into traffic. "She's just looking out for herself, you know. I don't think she /wants/ to put you on the spot like this... it's just happening. Situations like this can get pretty out of hand. You don't know what you want or how to get it, even if you did."
I took a moment to marvel at this almost preternatural understand that existed between women; Kate Landseth had known Sam for, oh, about an hour, and she had figured out in five seconds what it had taken me all evening to drag out of her. It must be a conspiracy. "You talking from experience?"
She grinned wickedly, her teeth flashing in the darkness. "Personal experience? Not really. I'm just another pop psychologist... mainly because it bugs the hell out of MacKenzie. But," she added smoothly. "If you're talking about my experience as a member of the fairer sex... I suppose I know a thing or two."
Landseth was a perfectly good driver, but I still felt my arms tense around Bridget as she made turns. "What about your experiences on SG-1?"
She didn't look away from the road, but I saw her eyebrows lift. "It's been busy," she said bluntly. "Never a dull moment."
She paused, perhaps waiting for me to speak, but I didn't, I just stared out into the night, and she plunged ahead. "We've made allies. Strengthened relationships with many of the species your team discovered. We even met the Asgard... on Cimmeria." I perked up, recognizing the name. "One of them's even taken a real shine to us... um, well, me. I guess. And we've made enemies. Killed off some Gou'ald. Amonet being one of them. Sha're. Daniel's wife."
Blood was replaced by ice water, and it trickled in my veins. I was gaping at Landseth before I could stop myself.
"Not only that... Daniel did it. He shot her. She'd already killed one member of the team, and would have turned my brains into scrambled eggs if he hadn't..."
I closed my eyes. God. Sha're, dead. And Daniel...
I needed to have a talk with Spacemonkey, pronto.
The Colonel cleared her throat. "Um... let's see. We've had to deal with the government types quite a bit. ATF, NID... not pleasant people. Had a run-in with Apophis, the man himself... he might be dead. We're not quite sure yet. That's the thing with these Gou'ald, you know? They hardly ever /stay/ dead. We actually had an encounter with an alternate reality... a different one then Daniel wandered into. This time it was Major..."
I listened to Landseth prattle on, paying some attention to her but not all, letting myself drift in and out of her words. For some strange reason, it sent chills up my spine just thinking about all that had happened /here/ while Sam and I had been out /there/. For a long time, we'd put our lives on hold trying to get back, ignoring all our desires, all our impulses, concentrating everything on that goal of homecoming. I kinda supposed that back home, they'd been doing the same thing. Pausing everything. Floundering in the wake of our loss. Refusing to give up. Certainly I hadn't expected them to be successful in their exploits and explorations. Hadn't anticipated them simply replacing us, putting our cars in storage, and moving on. Moving on without us. Without me.
Christ. I was a cocky son of a bitch, wasn't I?
The soft knock at the open door was one of Janet's trademark signs; I didn't even bother to look up from my text. Of course, part of the reason for that was my reluctance to face her, to face the world around me. A world that had perished 2,500 years ago was much easier to deal with.
"What's wrong?" she asked, right off the bat. No time for lead-in or platitudes, not her.
Alien characters appeared to swim around on the page before me. "'What's wrong?'" I echoed, not without bitterness. "The Colonel's right, that's what's wrong."
She pulled up a chair next to me, but I still refused to look up from the desk. "Colonel O'Neill?" she asked, puzzled.
"Kathryn," I corrected her flatly. "She said that even after I found Jack and Sam, I wouldn't be able to stop looking for them. She said it's all I've been doing, and it's all I can think to do, and I wouldn't be able to stop. And I haven't. I'm still looking. I still can't believe that the people we brought home are really them."
She gave the expected response. "Daniel, things like this /do/ take time. You have to give them more than one night. And you have to accept that they /did/ change and it /is/ going to be hard getting back into their old lives."
"I guess that's it," I admitted, raising my eyes halfway, focusing on a bookshelf across the room. "I'm worried that's never going to happen. Sam has a... a baby to take care of now. She's not going to want to come back. And Jack..."
Janet reached over and gently closed the open book, letting her hand drift from the ancient cover to my hand. "Bridget's his, isn't she?"
"Of course," I said without pause, surprising myself with my calm certainty. "You saw the way he was acting. He was angry about what Sam told us. But... sad-angry. Do you really think they would have been that calm if she actually had been..." I couldn't say the word, couldn't finish the sentence, so instead I thanked whatever gods were listening that it /hadn't/ happened.
"You see?" said Janet softly. "If you can read them that well, then they haven't changed all that much."
I shifted my focus to her shoulder. Her shoulder... it was a safe place to look. "But nothing's... ever going to be the same again." Jesus, could I sound any more pathetic?
"Things are never the same," Janet sighed, squeezing my hand. "That's just the way it works. I wish... I wish we could have the old Jack and Sam back. Of course I do. It would make everything so less complicated, it would be so comfortable and familiar and like the last year never happened. But I'm not sure I want to pretend that. I don't know about you, Daniel, but I don't consider this last year to be a total loss. Not everything that happened was a mistake."
I finally met her eyes, and was relieved at what I saw in them: the compassion, the trust... not the slightest hint of annoyance or regret. She was so strong. And she was so right. We'd long passed the threshold, the point of no return for making things 'normal' again. All we could do now was... hope for the best.
All we could do was sit back and watch helplessly.
"Thanks for the ride."
Landseth turned off the engine, merely shaking her head. The recount of the past year's events had sobered her, and I hoped my insistence hadn't soured her towards me. That was the last thing I needed.
"Still wondering why I called you?" I asked, lightly, mildly.
"Not really," she replied, in the very same tone, opening the car door and swinging her legs out to the pavement below.
I sighed and climbed out my own side. Opening the rear door, I left the carrier where it was, simply lifting Bridget from it. Trying to shield her from the night air with my arms, I followed the Colonel to the entrance. "Are you sure?"
She looked over her shoulder, and gave me a little smirk that was a true pleasure to see. "Yeah. Hell, I did the same thing. When I joined the SGC... SG-1... the first thing I wanted to do was find out all about you, and your missions. So I read the reports and asked around and in the process pissed off Daniel. He seemed to think I was some kind of... gossip monger. That I was getting off on the facts the both of you were... well, dead, and I was there to replace you."
"And you weren't?"
"No," she answered, not sounding /too/ offended. "I was genuinely curious. But it was hard for me, filling your shoes. Everyone missed you so much, wouldn't stop talking about what a great officer and friend you were, all these great thing you did... Everyone but Daniel, anyway. But his /not/ talking... well, it said a lot, too."
Landseth flashed her pass at a guard, who didn't look at me or the bundle in my arms twice. I tried not to blush at what the colonel had said. I wasn't that great of an officer, or I would have been able to get Sam and me off that planet long ago. I wasn't that great of a friend, or I wouldn't be in the situation I was now, with her. And great things... what great things? What exactly had I brought to the program? What had I done that Landseth hadn't done just as well? "Yeah," I muttered. "Well, you're real popular all of a sudden when people think you're dead."
I checked the deadbolt on the door - twice - before shedding my clothes across my bedroom floor and stepping into the shower. The hot water and stinging spray were almost as startling as disconcerting as the ride from the base had been. We'd been moving so /fast/...
I turned my face towards the shower head, eyes tightly closed, breathing through the steamy drizzle, blowing water off my lips. The droplets prickled on my skin, sluicing down my neck and chest, stripping away the dirt and sweat and the smell of Ma'at'a. Erasing any evidence that I had been there. Washing it all away.
A travel-sized bottle of shampoo sat on the thin plastic shelf, another piece of evidence that dad had been here. But when? And why? I hadn't even seen him since I started working at the SGC... from what I knew, he'd been spending most of his time back east, in Washington. What reason would he have for coming to Colorado, especially after he'd been notified that I was MIA? Why would he even care?
At the SGC, we'd frequently forgone family for work, and so those we worked with had become a kind of surrogate family. General Hammond had been more of a father than my own had in decades, and I was closer to Daniel than I remembered ever being to Mark. There were times that I'd been pleased with my lack of family ties, because I didn't have to worry about obligations to my relatives, just to my friends and my general and myself. I didn't have to be concerned about alienating my family, because I had already done that a long time ago. Mark had made his feelings for me clear after I joined the Air Force, following in my father's footsteps, in the shadow of the man he blamed for Mom's death. And Dad... the relationship that had been rocky to begin with lacked a stable foundation of any kind. He saw my turning away from NASA as giving up, an admission of weakness... and no daughter of his could ever be less than perfect. He'd promised to try and pull strings, to try and get me back in, but I had wondered at the time and since if that seemingly genuine helpfulness didn't have a hidden agenda.
And what about Jack? An only child, his parents dead, everyone else gone except for a cousin living in Minnesota who was still mad at him for divorcing Sara. And Sara... what about Sara? How much had he been keeping in touch with her before we were stranded? Had she even noticed that he was gone... had she tried to get a hold of him, only to find out that he was nowhere to be found? Vanished again, like he'd been so often during their marriage?
Any anger or envy I might have felt towards the woman at one time or another sort of fizzled out. Where did I find myself now but in her shoes? Faced with many of the choices she had made. Forced to decide things that I didn't even want to contemplate. I didn't want to think about any of it, about anything past tomorrow, past waking up next to Jack as it seemed I'd always done. I didn't want to think about the change in my life, removing him from it, not because I felt any differently about him, not because I was angry or afraid or disappointed, but because despite all of this I had to do what was right for my daughter. And that was sparing her heartbreak.
Oh, I tried to make myself believe that. I tried so hard, standing there in the shower, the bottle of shampoo clutched in on hand. I put out of my mind how he must be feeling. Back on Ma'at'a, we had made each other all of these plans and promises, and now I was yanking the rug out from underneath him, doing a complete one-eighty, taking his daughter away from him for doing nothing more than following his heart. And why? So Bridget wouldn't be aggrieved when, five years down the road, he didn't return from a mission? So I didn't have to impart that news to her, see that look in her face, to know exactly what she was feeling...
I put one hand against the shower wall to steady myself. It wasn't about that. Jack could resign tomorrow and a week later walk out into the street and get hit by a bus. He could have an aneurysm out of the blue. He could get in a car wreck. Jumped by someone at the ATM. Shot down for no apparent reason by a member of one of the sleazy downtown gangs. On Ma'at'a, he could have been killed by one of the militiamen, could have been dead a hundred times over in that Godforsaken war. This wasn't about my being afraid to lose him to the SGC, to the Gou'ald, to death. This was about the reset button that had seemingly been pushed as we'd stepped through that Stargate.
Different world, different circumstances, different rules, so didn't it follow that we had to act differently? There was no way that I could hang on Jack's arm here. I couldn't hold his hand. I couldn't even look at him for too long because then, /then/ everyone would know. They'd be able to see, with their own eyes, that I wasn't the same person who had left them a year ago on a routine exploratory mission. They would be able to see that I had done something very against regulations and fallen in love and into bed with a man who was my commanding officer, exiled or otherwise. They would see it, and they would probably all have heart attacks. And they would never look at me the same way again.
Was that it, then? Was the need to have a strong front, even for my best of friends, the very thing that had lead me to reject Jack? Was I really that afraid of being a woman, being seen as a woman, a woman in love with the wrong man? Why was everything feminine and human considered unmilitary and unprofessional and un-me? And was I really that worried about what other people /considered/?
The hot water trickled away, leaving me with a lukewarm spray that went cold before it touched my skin. I didn't move, not so much apprehensive of climbing out of the stall and into real life as I was determined to make sense of this all before I made another decision, another choice, another step. There were questions that needed to be answered. Why had I done it, why had I lied, why had I been so cold?
/You know, I only have one regret./
/That we didn't do this sooner./
/You mean two months ago?/
/I mean sooner./
I pushed my wet hair away from my face, remembering the conversation in the dark warmth of that first night, that only night, the only time I had let him get that close to me.
/What about military regulations?/ I'd asked him. /Rules we... pledged to follow?/
/I don't know if you've noticed, but even since that first Abydos mission I haven't been... all that fond of rules. In fact, it seems that I've been bending them wherever I could. I guess that was just a warm-up for this./
/And if we get back home?/
//When/ we get back home... I don't see why anything has to change. Okay, okay, maybe things will have to change. But not us. If the United States military wants us bad enough /they'll/ have to change. Take us together. As an item./
We'd been so confident, so certain that we'd never have to change, that we'd take Earth by storm and mold it to fit our needs and wants. But instead, we'd run from the challenges it'd imposed. No... /I/ had run. Because I'd convinced myself that things could never be the same here, things could never be as good or as right here as they had been...
... on Ma'at'a.
With a swipe of my hand, I turned off the water and stood in the stall, cold and dripping and only half-washed.
That was it.
I was homesick.
Landseth offered to find Teal'c and round up what he had bought Bridget, peeling away from my path long before I reached the General's door. It wasn't so much that she didn't want to be seen with me... well, no. That was probably exactly what it was. She was friendly, she wasn't nuts.
At least I looked more... human now. More normal. Marginally more in control of my faculties.
I found myself bypassing the door to the General's office, which was closed, continuing on toward the conference room. Mindful of the adjacent transparent wall, I hung back in the doorway and looked over the long, polished table, the perfectly positioned chairs. There was a glass pitcher of water and a quintet of glass tumblers on a desk beneath the window, just within view; the American flag and the flag emblazoned with the SGC logo were as I remembered them, standing motionless in the corner. At five places on the table, before five of the chairs, lay folders imprinted with the same emblem. Mission briefings. Obviously there was a team going out shortly, a mission in the works, another planet to chart, a new world to explore. I expected the familiar feeling of impatience, annoyance that it wasn't me, wasn't my team, the old anticipatory eagerness to get out there and do our stuff. But it never came.
I turned at the soft click of an opening door and saw General Hammond poking his head out of his office. Whether he had spied me through the map or had simply had a hunch, he seemed pleased to see me. "Jack," he greeted, with just enough amiability to get me worrying. "Why don't you and Bridget come inside?"
I nodded, unable to refuse, and Hammond held the door open as I entered.
Two men already sat in the stiff-backed chairs, both with ram-rod posture, both dressed in layers of a beige material that looked almost like sheepskin. Clothing was where the similarities ended, however; the man in the far chair was young, with pale skin and pale blue eyes to match, a wide forehead and close-cropped dark blonde hair. His comrade was an older man, hair dark gray and far less abundant, eyes intensely hazel. Both looked up as I stepped into the room, blinking without recognition at me and with some surprise as they noticed Bridget. Apparently, it was unusual to see guys walking around the base with infants.
Hammond walked in behind me and gestured to the men, who stood in concert and dipped their heads at me in what could only be considered a respectful manner. "Colonel Jack O'Neill, I'd like you to meet our contacts from the Tok'ra."
Tok'ra, Tok'ra... boy, that sounded familiar. Little more than a distant memory; Teal'c talking to me, telling me about... about a Gou'ald resistance, and then walking into the room and seeing Sam. No, not Sam.
"Jolinar," I blurted, caught in the memory, and the young man straightened even more, something akin to longing in his eyes. His colleague cast a sympathetic glance over his shoulder.
"These would be her people," the General explained delicately, rushing on before I could inquire about the 'she' thing. Wasn't a snake a snake? "This is Martouf," said Hammond, nodding at the blonde man. "He knew Jolinar quite well."
'Quite well'. Yeah, I knew the tone, I knew the phrase. There'd obviously been history there. It occurred to me then that it might look good to say something, something about, "Well, even though your *friend* infested Sam against her will, she also saved her life, which was real swell, thanks a million." But the poor guy already looked so ill-at-ease that I couldn't even bring myself to meet his eyes, so I looked towards the other man instead.
Other man... other Tok'ra. And weren't Tok'ra Gou'ald anyway, albeit with a different name and perhaps a better conscience? Which meant that Hammond and my daughter and I were standing in a room with two snakeheads without any way to really defend ourselves. On one hand, that was extremely frightening. On the other, it was interesting to note that the General trusted them so much.
The other, older man, his face lined with age and experience, preempted the General's introduction. In a surprisingly human gesture, he thrust out his hand to shake my own. "Colonel, it's great to finally meet you. I've heard some wonderful things about you from your friends," he added, reminding me of my earlier comment to Landseth. "And I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for getting my little girl home safe and sound."
Little girl? I cast a quick glance at Hammond, at his expression, and then it dawned on me. "General Carter," I gulped, hoping he wouldn't notice the hand he was so enthusiastically shaking had just gone cold and clammy.
Sam's father merely laughed; he had a good, hearty chuckle. "'Jacob' will do just fine," he assured me. "Well, Selmak's up here too, but try not to think about that too much. You'll just confuse yourself. Trust me."
And I did. While Mr. Martouf over there was still a big question mark, my first impression of Jacob Carter was a favorable one. Which was good. I hoped. Again, I looked at Hammond. "Have you filled them in? Um, sir?"
"Not everything," the General replied, almost gleeful.
Meanwhile, Jacob's gaze had traveled back to Bridget, and perhaps there was a bit more confusion and guarded wariness in his expression now that he knew who I was. I began to worry about my defenselessness again, not from Gou'ald but from angry parents. "Am I to take it that this is... Bridget?" he inquired with more composure than I had expected; obviously, he remembered the name from when Hammond had used it just now. He hadn't been told any specifics.
I looked down at my daughter and saw that she had, in fact, drifted off to sleep. Ha! I'd been able to do something Sam hadn't! Sure, maybe the walking and the car ride had helped a little, but still I was proud, and that pride gave me new boldness. "That's right, sir," I announced resolutely, figuring that a little politeness couldn't hurt. "Your granddaughter."
At the very least, I hoped he wouldn't try to kill me while I was holding his child's child.
But Jacob didn't move to strike me. In fact, he didn't move at all - not a flinch, not a tic, not a muscle - and I started considering calling up his snake... Selmak... and asking if everything was all right in there and if perhaps I could get a head start.
Martouf took a curious step forward and peeked over Jacob's shoulder like he'd never seen a baby before. Looking up, he saw me watching him, glanced quickly away, and stepped back to his prior position.
Hammond crossed his arms casually and watched General Carter for any signs of life. I was rooted to the spot, my bravado wiped away by the expectant lull, hoping I didn't look too impudent, too scruffy, too... me.
But then Jacob's mouth gave a little twitch, first on one side and then the other, and the lines around his eyes, still trained on the sleeping Bridget - lifted just a bit. He raised those eyes to my face, meeting my own squarely and cocking his head in a strangely apologetic manner. "I'm sorry... sometimes Selmak and I get talking and I completely forget about the rest of the world." Did this mean any murderous impulses were only delayed? I hoped not. I /thought/ not, because he continued without the slightest hint of animosity in his voice. "And I agree with what she told me. Bridget is yours? Yours and Sam's?"
My voice panicked and tried to slip away, but I caught it before it could go too far and cleared my throat nervously. "Yes, sir." He nodded once and opened his mouth, but I found myself rushing ahead defensively. "And sir, it's not what you think, I..." I clamped down on the words and paused to collect my wits. "Sir... I'm in love with your daughter." Whoa. Was that a trip or what? Saying those words, hearing how they sounded, feeling how right it all was... "I know I'm not supposed to... not supposed to have feelings like this for personnel under my command, that is. And I'm definitely not supposed to..." Okay, bad topic. "What I mean is, I'm willing to leave the SGC to be there for her. In fact, I'm going to. I'm going to resign. I'm going to retire, um, again. For her. And for Bridget."
I found myself unable to look at Sam's dad, at the General, at the far wall - even /it/ seemed a little annoyed with me - so instead I looked at Martouf... towards him, anyway. Sure, he was kind of an imposition, and this would have been a lot easier without a spectator standing by, but at least he presented somewhere safe to look. And I'd be damned if he didn't look even paler than usual. Sure, Sam had been Jolinar's host for a day or two or three, but that didn't really account for the wounded, kicked-puppy look on his face. Sam didn't even know this guy, had never even seen him, so if he'd thought that he could come and moon over her now that she was back, well... he was wrong.
"Selmak likes you," said Jacob neutrally.
I snapped out of the death-glare I had been sending at the other Tok'ra and back into relieved reality. "Really? Oh... that's good. I'm glad."
"Your friends have spoken highly of you as well," he commented. "Although they didn't say anything about you and Sam."
"Well, sir, there really wasn't a me and Sam last time we were here."
Another nod, and the Tok'ra liaison look the opportunity this time to look me up and down. "I want to talk to my daughter," he said calmly, voice laden with an definite undertow: 'About /you/.'
"I understand," I said eagerly. "I'm not really sure this is the best time, though."
"She's kind of mad at me."
"And why's that?"
"Honestly, sir? I'm really not sure. But if I had to guess... I'd say she's upset because... because I love her too much to walk away from her."
Dressing seemed much too difficult and complex at the moment, so I merely wrapped the towel tighter around my body before making my stumbling way into the living room. This was how I got - /had gotten/ - at the SGC as well; when I had something on my mind, everything else just faded away, and the trivialities of life suffered as a result. I had the presence of mind to close the curtain over the window before sinking down onto the couch.
Homesick for Ma'at'a? For my former prison, the home of my captives, the planet I had been marooned on for little over a year? I'd heard of Stockholm Syndrome, of hostages coming to identify and sympathy with their abductors, but this was ridiculous. Miss the cramped and dangerous housing developments, the tyrants, the militia, the rules and inane laws? Miss people like Clera and the Accountant, like Emiko, like Jerdess and Krivin, Anaree and Deedra, Halsi and Bob?
Maybe I was homesick for them, homesick for the cozy nights at Krivin's, where Deedra instructed Jack in the local language and the good doctor wrote in his journal. Homesick for the independence we had felt, just us against the world. Homesick for a life where no one cared if we were together, where they congratulated us instead of passing judgement, where I was just "Sam" without "Carter" anywhere near, where there was no traffic and light industry and a real sense of neighborhood with your neighbors.
What was that damn saying about the grass always being greener?
I would get over it, that much I knew. I had missed D.C. desperately when I'd first relocated from the Pentagon to Cheyenne Mountain, even though I'd fought tooth and nail for the transfer. And somehow, Ma'at'a had become home, even though Earth was still my most fervent goal.
/Earth will always, /always/ be our goal. But home... home will be wherever you are./
Water accumulated at the tips of my hair and ran down my neck and chest, absorbed by the thick terrycloth. I shivered.
So I'd get over this... but what damage had I already done in my panicked attempt to make everything 'normal' again? How far had I distanced Jack? How angry had I made him and how hard would it be to say "I'm sorry"? I would say it, though, I'd do it and just about anything else, because there was one thing I didn't want to put him through. Something that hadn't occurred to me as I'd stood there and declared that I didn't want him to be a part of Bridget's life.
I didn't want him to lose another child.
I had been prepared to deny him the chance to see his offspring grow, to be there for his daughter, to learn and live through her and with her. I'd been ready to take away from him everything that had been taken away when Charlie had died. First curious encounters with the opposite sex... high school... sports and trips and the rise into adulthood. And he would have let me. If I hadn't come to my senses, hadn't realized the way and how and stashed all of that away, he wouldn't have contested me. It would have killed him inside, but he would have obeyed my wishes. And he would have missed it all.
Dripping shower water mixed with salt tears, sliding down my cheeks and chin and dropping soundlessly onto the towel. I leaned my head back against the couch, knowing that the my waterlogged hair would be soaked up by the fabric but not caring, too caught up in my own misery and guilt to care.
What had I almost done?
"Here, let me take that."
Landseth relinquished one of the paper bags she had been carrying; I peeked inside and smirked. Diapers. Lovely. "Hard to believe this is happening," I commented, quickening my pace to keep up with the Colonel as she traversed the lot to her SUV.
Balancing her own bag and fishing around in her pocket for the remote keyless entry device, she still managed to cast a questioning glance my way. "That you're carrying a bag of Huggies Supremes meant for your best friends' child born on another world, or that you're doing it with me?"
I took the other bag, and she located her key ring. "Both," I said honestly.
Landseth opened the back driver's side door and waited until I had loaded the bags onto the bench seat before responding. "Daniel... I know we got off on the wrong foot... and I'm sorry."
I shrugged, letting my gaze drift to the night sky. It was hard to see the stars with all the bright lights ringing the compound, but I was comforted by the knowledge that they /were/ up there. "Not your fault. I was mad at the General for giving up, and I was mad at myself for... for a lot of things. And I took it out on you. I'm the one who should be apologizing."
"I wasn't exactly understanding," she reminded me, shutting the door. "Those first few months... those were hard. Mostly because I wouldn't cut you any slack. So I think we're even on that count."
Even... I guessed that it was even, that it had all worked out. My friends had endured trials and pain and separation, but in the process they had fallen in love and conceived a child. A new human life. And as for me... well, I wouldn't wish my heartache on anyone, and those long months of waiting and not knowing remained some of my most awful memories. But Janet had been right to say that the year hadn't been a total waste. It hadn't been at all. I had lost my friends, I had lost my wife... but in the process I had found a new love that I hadn't even noticed or even dreamed of before. And I had made a... a friend. I guessed that made us all about even.
I looked down from the night sky to see Landseth watching me, smiling at me, vague and pensive, her green eyes glittering in the light. I chanced a nervous grin back at her. "What are you thinking?"
The smile hardened, and her eyes dropped to the ground, but just as I was getting worried she started to laugh. It was a soft, tired chuckle, but a laugh all the same, and when she looked up at me again there was a new understanding in her face. Like she had just realized something and catalogued it away, to be reviewed and dealt with properly at another time.
"I was thinking about what a lucky woman Janet is," she said.
She turned and walked back toward the compound then, but any dramatic exit she had planned was ruined before its execution.
Who should be walking toward us but Jack, Teal'c, and two Tok'ra.
One was Jacob Carter.
"I feel like I'm on a mission or something," I remarked.
"Really?" quipped Landseth. "I feel like I'm conducting my very own tour of Colorado Springs. Not that I mind ferrying you boys around, of course, but gas prices being what they are..."
"Next time we'll take the bus," Jacob promised from the back seat. Bridget's car-seat had been moved to the middle to make room for extra passengers. Every time I glanced behind me I was pleased to see that neither her grandfather or Uncle Teal'c could keep their eyes off her.
The speed at which the terrain was flashing by was making me queasy, so I made a point of looking directly across the console at Landseth. "I really appreciate this," I said quietly.
"It's no problem," she replied at the same volume, and then, louder, for the benefit of the others in the back, "It's too bad Daniel couldn't join us."
"It appeared that he was busy restraining Martouf," Teal'c commented.
Jacob gave an explosive sigh. "Martouf and his symbiote and Jolinar and her host were together for a very long time, according to Selmak, and they had a very intense relationship. Martouf knows that she's dead, but I wouldn't be surprised if he still thought there'd be something left of his mate in Sam. Memories, personality... something, anything."
"And how do you feel about that?" I asked, afraid to voice my own opinion.
"The Tok'ra part of me understands perfectly. But the part that's Sam's dad thinks it would be best to keep them from meeting."
"That confusion thing again?"
I snorted. "I don't know what I'm going to say to her. She made it crystal clear earlier that she didn't even want to discuss this - us - anymore."
"That's my daughter," Jacob informed me. "One second, she's absolutely sure about something and will defend her position to the death. Next second, she figures out something new, makes some discovery, and everything's different. That's how it was with... with her mother's death. At first it was all me, all my fault, me and my work, and she hated both of us. But when enough time had passed, she was able to forgive me... and she went and joined the Air Force herself. There's Samantha for you."
I smiled into the darkness of the car, remembering her flip-flopping attitudes towards 'us' back on Ma'at'a. "That's true, I guess. Are you saying I should just wait her out?" I asked, wondering if this was some kind of fatherly test.
"I'm saying you should do what you feel comfortable doing," was the response. Yeah. It was a test all right.
I shook my head. "No. I've got to talk to her. She's got to at least know that I /care/ and I'm not going to let her do this to me. To us."
I didn't realize that I had fallen asleep until I felt warm breath on my skin and realized that I was waking up. My heart lurched at the unmistakable sounds of life coming from mere inches away from my face; when a hand touched my cold, still-wet shoulder, my eyelids flew open. I gasped.
At some point, I had nodded off and slid into a horizontal position on the couch, self-conscious even in sleep, one hand holding the towel over my chest. I registered all of this before the features of the man before me even unblurred, and when those eyes and that nose and mouth finally solidified into something recognizable, I almost started crying again.
Jack's eyes were full of concern and sympathy, and when he sighed "Sam" and touched my head, I felt the hot tears reforming along my lids.
Although my breath shuddered and my hands shook, my first question was, of course, a practical one. "How- how'd you get inside?"
"Your dad's keys," he said gently. "He's outside."
Dad... but he was alone. "Well where's Bridget?"
"With him. And Teal'c and Landseth."
I shook my head against the couch cushion, weakly scrambling my way towards a sitting position. "I didn't hear you buzz... how'd you get inside. How..."
"Sam," Jack said again, knowing that I was only stalling. /I/ knew I was only stalling, and the mild rebuke still stung harshly. The tears refused to be denied any longer.
"I'm sorry," I whispered between pitiful sobs. "I don't know why I said what I said... I don't know what I was thinking. This is just so... so /hard/."
Anxiety still etched into every line of his face, Jack rose from where he'd been stooped in front of the couch. Almost delicately, he took me by the arms, righted me, and then sat down beside me on the damp cushions. Seemingly drained off all energy, I leaned against him, and he supported me, putting one arm a little awkwardly across my shoulders. He'd taken off the jacket; the shirt underneath was soft and gray and smelled like laundry detergent. I didn't think twice about my near-naked state.
"I'm just being selfish," I lamented, unable to look him in the eye, pressing my hot, wet face into his chest. "I just... I miss Ma'at'a, not having the competition of the SGC. And I know that when I resign regulations won't matter, but I'm still scared. And I /hate/ being scared. I wish, I really wish that I could do this without you... but I can't. I need you. And I want you. And I'm so sorry for what I said... I don't want to take her away from you, I don't."
"I know," I professed in a near-whisper. Her skin was cold beneath my fingers, and she was almost dead weight against me. This had taken its toll on her big time, just since I'd been here last. "Me too."
"I just want something..."
"Normal for a change?" I supplied, holding her tighter against me. She was shaking.
Sam almost laughed. "Yeah. I guess so."
"Same here," I confided. Living on Ma'at'a had in some way been the most normalcy I'd enjoyed in some time. No intergalactic travel, obviously, but also no loneliness, no failed dates, no stewing over Sara and the many wrong turns in my life. I'd been peaceful. I'd been happy. "That's why I'm retiring."
Her head whipped up and she stared at me with swollen, tired eyes. "You can't," she said pleadingly. "You can't throw it away like that... they need you."
"No, they don't," I disagreed. "You want to know how I know?"
I helped her stand, and on impulse put my discarded jacket across her bare shoulders. Then I lead her to the nearby window and pushed aside the curtain.
The twilight sky hovered over the city blocks, midnight blue and impossibly vast, melting into a deep indigo near the horizon. The crescent moon was just visible over the roof of an adjacent building, embellished with nebulous wisps of clouds and pinpoints of starlight. Below us, streetlights and lamp-lit windows burned into the night. Cars turned into driveways and stopped at traffic signals that were glossily reflected on the paint. Even at the late hour people still walked the sidewalk, crossed the street against traffic... faint drifts of raucous music could be heard through the glass.
"Ya see?" I prodded. "We were in this big old rush to get home because we thought /they/ needed us. That we were the only ones who could do it right, and so we had to get back and save the world. But Landseth and Kelly and them... they've been doing that. They've been doing a good job. And they're good people. And as for them..." I gestured to the cars and buildings and pedestrians. "Well, while we've been gone, they've been doing the same things they always do. The same things we've been doing. Fighting and falling in love, making a living... making babies," I grinned. "They've been living, Sam. Life has gone on without us overseeing it every step of the way. The Earth /did/ continue to turn without us. And it'll keep turning."
"I still feel... like we're abandoning them. That we're shirking our duty."
"Hammond accepted my resignation."
"Listen," I implored her. "He also offered me a job. Civilian advisor. I wouldn't be working in any military capacity... I'd be S3, just like Daniel and Teal'c. And I wouldn't be going off-world at all. Add that income to what the government owes us, and I might actually be able to pass up that job at Burger King."
I could see Sam's rueful smile reflected in the glass. "You're going to miss it."
"I'd miss you more. Come on, Sam... I love you."
She tilted her face up towards me, still leaning heavily against my side. And while she didn't smile, or nod, or make any outward appearances of agreeing with me, I could still tell that she did. That she accepted what I had told her - everything that I had told her - even if she wasn't completely prepared to make her own decisions right now.
"You're exhausted, Sam," I said gently, closing the curtains again and leading her back past the couch, towards her bedroom. "Why don't you get some rest... I'll bring up your dad and when you wake up we'll all have a nice little chat, and you can assure him of my honorable intentions."
"Oh, can I?" she mocked.
Into the bedroom we went; I didn't bother turning off the lights. "I sure hope so," I remarked.
Like she was a baby, or a doll incapable of moving on her own, I sat Sam down at the edge of her bed, then turned and rifled through her dresser drawer. It was hard to make out the various items of clothing in the dim light, but eventually I surfaced holding an oversized gray tee-shirt. Holding it up, I saw the words "AIR FORCE" emblazoned across the front in black block letters and smiled.
Moving back to Sam, sitting down beside her on the bed, I pulled off the damp towel and put it in my lap. Fumblingly, she helped me pull the shirt over her head, working her arms through the sleeves and yanking it down over her waist. Using the towel, I squeezed some of the moisture out of the ends of her hair, brushing it out of her face with my other hand. She smiled faintly, not looking at me, not showing much reaction at all to my ministrations, but her hand was resting on my knee; I could feel the warmth of her skin through the fabric and it reassured me.
Wordlessly, I reached behind Sam and pulled back the blanket and sheet. Just as silently, and with a languid pace, she slipped between the bedclothes, stretching out her legs gratifyingly and arching her head back into the yield and comfort of the pillow. I smiled as I watched her, thinking not of Sara or any other woman in my past... but of Charlie. Of how he would play so hard during the day that by bedtime he would be almost comatose. I'd give him a bath, put him into bed, and he'd wriggle down under the covers and sigh and smile like it was the best place in the world to be. Like the day had been fun, but no fun could compare to the serenity of security of his own bed.
I put one knee on the bed and leaned toward her, over her. "Hey Sam."
"Hmm?" She was already half-asleep.
"One more thing?"
"What?" she prompted, sounding a little irritated.
She snorted, and gave a tired little chuckle, opening one eye to peer at me, maybe to see if I was serious. "This isn't exactly the best time to ask," she said drowsily, closing her eyes again.
I leaned closer. "Well, you see, that's just it. Consider it my last act as your C.O. I'm not asking you... I'm telling you."
The sky was bright, but the foliage cast shadows on the ground and darkened the day with weird patterns. Looking to my left, I saw Landseth, and motioned to her. 'They're still out there. Keep your eyes open.'
She nodded back to me and turned the corner carefully.
I skittered across the open terrain, following her, squeezing myself against the building's wall in order to stay hidden in its shade. Taking stock of the surrounding area and catching no trace of my other team members, I tightened my grip on my weapon. Captured, no doubt. Not that that was very surprising, considering Daniel, but I'd really expected more out of Teal'c then such quick capitulation.
I quickened my pace and caught up with Landseth easily. "I'll go first," I whispered as we reached the next corner. "If they get me... I want you to get the hell out of here. No heroic rescue attempts, understood?"
Her lips quirked in a wry half-smile. "Perfectly, sir."
Using a line of small pines to hide my way, I crept along the far side of the building, my back pressed up against the wall and my eyes rapidly scanning the territory for any sings of life, friendly or otherwise. When I reached the end of the line, I threw myself behind a small thicket, crouching behind the brush, weapon at the ready.
"Hold it right there, mister."
"Throw it away," warned the voice. Grimacing, I did as he demanded, tossing my weapon away but just out of range. If I could distract my captor, just for a second, I could lunge for it and be right back in the game.
"We've got your friends," said the voice. It hadn't come any closer; my captor was staying at a safe distance. Unfortunately, he didn't /need/ to come any closer; he was a great shot. "So you might as well tell us what we want to know."
"You don't have all of them."
"Just wait. We will."
I licked my lips nervously, eyes trained on my weapon and the rest of my senses on my foe. What was he waiting for? Backup? If he /did/ have the others, it would be here soon, and then... game over. Figuring I had little other choice, I gathered my legs up under me and leapt for the gun.
But before I could get my hand even near the barrel, I felt it: he'd shot me in the back, below my neck, right between the shoulder blades. I seized up and grabbed for the point of contact, feeling cold liquid beginning to trickle down my spine.
"Nick!" I yelped, falling on my back and gasping. "What'd you put in that thing?"
He looked down at his water gun, pushed his glasses up his nose, and grinned at me with typical 6 year-old spunk. "Ice water, what else?"
I got to my feet, brushing the dirt and dust off my pants, and glared at the congregation on the lawn. "And whose idea was that?" I demanded.
"Mine, O'Neill," said Teal'c almost proudly, pulling a soda out of the cooler where Nick had apparently 'reloaded'.
"Well that's great," I scoffed, even though the breeze on my damp shirt was a nice respite from the endless summer heat. If I hadn't wanted to get wet, I wouldn't have agreed to play... but still...
"Where's Kathryn?" called Daniel from behind the barbecue, looking at me through the waves of heat off the grill. Ian Kelly stood behind him, just watching. Not that I didn't trust Daniel to do the burgers right... but another pair of eyes couldn't hurt. "And Bridget?"
A shrill female scream from the other side of the yard answered that question. Janet, lounging in a lawn chair near the cooler, burst into laughter as Landseth came tearing around the corner of the garage, hair hanging around her face in dripping strands. Following closely, merciless, was seven year-old Bridget, giggling delightedly and keeping her own water pistol trained on Kathryn.
"Not near the barbecue," I warned the kids before trekking back inside the house.
Sam was sitting at the kitchen table, head resting in her hand and the phone pressed to her ear. I showed off my wet shirt and she smirked before returning her attention to the call. "You know you're perfectly welcome... no, I'm not... He doesn't!" I paused in my exploration of the refrigerator and looked back at her. "Okay, now you're just being stupid." She rolled her eyes at the caller's response. "Fine... I said fine, okay? All right. Bye." Reaching behind her to the counter and replacing the handset on the cradle, she sighed and shook her head.
"Should I take it Mark's not coming?" I asked, turning back to the fridge and spying something encouraging.
Sam stood. "Are you really surprised? And keep your hands off that pie. That's for dessert."
Shoulders slumped in defeat, I closed the door. "What's his problem now?"
"Same thing it always is," she said, crossing her arms across her chest. "We're too cliquey. He doesn't feel comfortable around the group. Teal'c scares him."
"Well, you have to give him that. What about Cass?"
"She's having dinner over at a friend's house tonight. She said she might come over later, but I think she's afraid of getting stuck babysitting or something. Besides, I think she welcomes the chance to get away from Nick for a while."
Looking out the back door, I saw that Kathryn had taken refuge behind the barbecue and Ian, and Bridget had taken to chasing Nick instead. She was relentless, blonde hair flying out behind her, firing at her playmate even when he tried to hide behind his mother. Janet screeched in protest.
Daniel had seemingly given up control of the grill to Major Kelly, and was carefully watching the kids as he slowly backpedaled towards the house. Glancing at Teal'c, I noticed that he was slowly and inconspicuously emptying the cooler, one can at a time. "Uh-oh," I muttered, grinning, and sure enough, as Daniel neared Teal'c, the Jaffa picked up the container of frigid water and half-melted ice cubes and dumped the contents over the archeologist's head. Daniel let out an impressive shriek and almost fell on his face trying to protect himself from any following attacks, and stumbled toward the garage. Nick, meanwhile, had dropped to the ground, laughing uproariously at his father's fate. Teal'c looked quite pleased with himself, but then again, he couldn't have known that Daniel was going for the garden hose.
I felt movement against my side and instinctively draped one arm over Sam's shoulders. Okay, so maybe we weren't saving any lives this afternoon, or fending off planetary assault, or making first contact with other cultures. Maybe we weren't being heroes in the normal sense of the word... or any sense of the word. We hadn't for almost seven years.
And the world was still turning.
SG-1 had checked in on the inhabitants of Ma'at'a only that morning; it had been deemed a safe and even friendly world ever since the Council had been removed from power. Bob, Halsi and family had sent their best wishes. It was nice to know that they were still living life without us, too.
Okay, maybe things weren't perfect. Sam hardly ever saw Jacob these days, and Mark was visibly, painfully uncomfortable around us. Hammond had stepped down a few years ago, and none of the members of SG-1 got along well with the new boss-man. I avoided him whenever possible, wondering how much they actually disliked the man and how much was just... well, what Daniel had put /our/ replacements through.
The fight against the Gou'ald had become one of willpower and stamina, of allies and supplies, and information from the Tok'ra and Tollan came so sporadically that it was impossible to know who was winning. We would only know, in fact, when we had lost, when the bolts of energy came crashing down upon us, when the sky darkened with alien vessels and the lights went out.
Which was why we tolerated Teal'c warped sense of humor, and Daniel's cooking, and why we had these get-togethers even though, for Ian and Kathryn at least, it sort of went against the regs. It was why we did as much living as we could, despite the circumstances, despite all the bad things, because if our... extended stay, our exile on Ma'at'a had taught us nothing, it was that life didn't sit back and wait for you. You had to come and get it. You had to hold onto it with all your strength and enjoy it with all your might.
Like I had done with my wife and daughter, like Daniel had done with his wife and son. Like we'd all vowed to do until the day we died.
Okay, maybe things weren't perfect.
But perfect was overrated.