And so it begins. Again.
Another round of shouting, another round of blame. Another pointless argument started for a reason she can't seem to find or remember, but one she knows will end unresolved. They always do.
She buries her head further into the pillow, letting the material muffle the sounds of the fighting in the room across the hall.
'Please take me away from this,' she pleads to a powerful being she isn't quite sure exists. 'Please just make it stop.'
There is a slightly warm feeling in her stomach and a vaguely tingling sensation starts to spread through her entire body.
Suddenly the fighting stops. It is replaced with another sound and she almost wishes she could hear the angry voices once again.
Her body betrays her, surrendering to the serenity before she can truly regret her wish.
The arguments are rare now. Definitely less frequent than they used to be. There isn't really a point anymore, not that there really was before but now they don't even have her as a catalyst. They can't use her as an excuse.
Now she's gone, they can't argue about which school she goes to, about who she friends and brings home. He can't criticise his wife for buying clothes she doesn't need and she can't chastise her husband for spending too much money on more toys and games than she could possibly desire.
Now their daughter is gone, and there's not a lot left to say. She was the glue holding them together, and they can feel themselves coming unstuck.
Concern, and a grief that is almost entirely for the sake of appearances, keeps them together now. In a few months, when the attention of the press dies down and is nothing more than smoking embers of a once burning fire, they go their separate ways and begin new lives apart.
'Torn Apart by Tragedy' is the theme of the article, featured on the third page instead of the first. 'The grieving parents of Elena Rose Jordan, abducted from her home at the tender age of seven, parted ways yesterday citing grief and irreconcilable differences as their reasons.'
It goes on to say how distraught they were, how they'd tried to save their marriage but that the guilt at being unable to save Elena, that the memories of happier times had simply proved too much for them to bear.
If they are honest with themselves, her parents are relieved at her abduction, and their willingness to accept that she is lost to them is almost as baffling to the police investigating the disappearance as Elena's vanishing act itself.
Eventually, the police do what her parents ask of them and let the matter drop. It isn't as if they have any new leads - or any leads at all for that matter. The crime scene analysts had found nothing, no traces of another person being in the room, no sign of a forced entry or forced exit. No sign of a struggle. One or two of them suspect her parents are somehow involved but usually dismiss that idea on meeting them. For any parent to do something like that, it would have to involve a great deal of emotion, a negative emotion but one nevertheless. Meeting Elena's parents, it is pretty clear to see they couldn't even work up that much for their missing child.
And so it went unsolved. Little Elena Jordan had simply vanished, leaving not so much as the smallest clue behind. Within a matter of months, she was almost entirely forgotten about, having disappeared in the mere blink of an eye.
Three states away, one of the investigators involved in the case admitted to his girlfriend over coffee that he, too, was ready to admit defeat after having investigated the case for over three months. Pete Shanahan leaned back in the chair on the porch of Sam Carter's house, surveying her with critical eyes as she digested his monthly updated on what he did for a living.
He knew she wouldn't return the favour. Ever since he'd been shot, ever since he'd been taken to the base and told about the SGC, she had let her military training reassert itself once it was clear he was going to be okay and to this day remained tight-lipped about what she did all day.
It was almost like she regretted telling him in the first place although somewhere deep inside he knew that wasn't true. God knew he could feel the strain her decision to keep quiet was putting on their relationship, and he wasn't fooling himself. If she'd chosen differently and hadn't fully explained the situation to him all those months ago that would have been it for their relationship. It would have been over before it had even had a chance to begin.
And begin it had, which was why he spent every other weekend with her in Colorado Springs - assuming she wasn't busy with 'work stuff'. It was also why he noticed the strain on her face, the pallor of her skin and the way her smile didn't quite reach her eyes these days.
Something was wrong, he could practically feel it. The tension rolling off her in big tidal waves was the first major clue. Then second was that she left him alone in bed most nights when she thought he was sleeping, wrapping a patchwork quilt around her shoulders and curling up in the chair she was sitting in right now. He saw her there at night sometimes when he was brave enough to follow, staring up at the stars with an expression so lost on her face that he just wanted to take her in his arms and tell her everything was going to be okay.
He didn't, though. She wouldn't want him to. If she wanted his comfort, his sympathy, she wouldn't leave him every night in favour of spending time on her own. So instead he crept back into her room and lay staring up at the ceiling, waiting patiently or her to return. Sometimes she would, and sometimes he'd be able to tug her back into his arms and other times she'd stay on her side f the bed, almost clinging to the edge of the mattress. Sometimes she didn't come back to bed at all and he'd find her asleep outside, curled up in her chair in the exact same place every time.
She cried, too. Not that he ever actually saw or heard her but he could see it in her blood shot eyes. He could tell by the angry red tracks marring her skin and it broke her heart to know he couldn't help her.
To know she wouldn't let him help.
He thought for a while he could change her mind about where their relationship was going. They were both married to their jobs, both committed to other areas in their lives. For him, that was slowly changing. His priorities were shifting and he found he wanted to see more of her, wanted to know more about her.
Wanted her to feel the same way about him.
"Sam?" There was a concerned smile on his face, a warm look in his eye ready for when she glanced up at him. If she ever did glance up at him. These days it seemed she rarely met his gaze and even when she did, he had the disturbing feeling she didn't see him at all, that she saw straight through him. It was almost like she was permanently in another world and sometimes that made him wonder just what was distracting her. He tried breaking through the haze that was surrounding her again, holding little to no hope that the attempt would be successful. "Are you okay, hon?"
He watched her blink and move her heard slightly, the smile on her face faint but present nevertheless. "I'm okay," she answered him in a quiet, softly spoken way. "Just thinking about that little girl."
The lie came to her easily, the words springing to her lips and being pushed into the air between them before she could have second thoughts. She knew her smile was forced and hoped it didn't show too much.
He didn't deserve to take the brunt of her mood and it was times like this when she thought that maybe she didn't deserve him.
Here he was, Mr. Wonderful. Funny, sweet, charming, dependent and loyal to a fault. He travelled almost every other weekend to see her yet the number of times she'd travelled to Denver because of him was still a big fat zero.
It wasn't a perfect relationship and he wasn't the perfect man by all means and that made her feel just a little bit better about the way she was behaving towards him. Their first - and so far only - major argument had been about the all-important trust issue and the fact that he'd confessed to her that he'd carried out a background check on her at the beginning of their relationship. It had taken a lot of apologies - and a house full of flowers - before she'd come to realise he'd be following his instincts as a detective, having sensed she was holding something back and it took her a while after that to realise that his concern for her well being had been the only motivating factor involved.
Besides, she was guilty of doing a similar thing, of abusing the fragile trust between them. She knew General Hammond and Colonel - now General - O'Neill had done a thorough check on him before allowing her to offer him a full explanation of what he'd witnessed and lived through. And then there was no, when she was holding back. She knew she could tell him limited details about what she did on a day to say bass - everyone at the SGC thought she already did anyway - but she didn't feel entirely comfortable divulging that kind of information to anyone who wasn't directly involved with the programme. Even when that someone was Pete.
It wasn't that she didn't want him to know, it was more to do with the fact he probably wouldn't understand half of what she was talking about anyway. And he wouldn't agree with the danger she was in every other mission - even though he was put at a similar sort of risk in his chosen profession.
And what if they broke up? What if he told someone one night after one too many beers with his friends?
And if she told him what was bothering her, if she explained why she was so easily distracted at the moment.. It wouldn't exactly be something he would want to hear. Most men would have a problem with their partners being involved in an intense relationship with another man, let alone three of them. And if not one but two or - God forbid - all three of those relationships was in jeopardy, how would most men react? Sympathetically? Or secretly relieved?
She didn't know, and it wasn't something she wanted to find out.
It wasn't as though she wanted to remember what had happened, either. But she did, almost every night since. In her dreams when they turned into nightmares whenever she gave in and slept beneath the glow of the stars.
"..Her parents really couldn't care less," Pete was saying in disgust as she tuned back into the one-sided conversation. "It's like they're pleased it's happened. They don't give a damn about their kid or where she is."
"Maybe they're very good at hiding it," she contributed, knowing the moment she opened her mouth to speak that his attention would be solely focused on her. "I can't imagine anyone for not being devastated at the loss of their child."
Pete saw the flash of sorrow cross her face but didn't know the reasons behind it. Passing it off as a general sympathy for any parents in that situation, he smiled at the compassion on her face. "You wouldn't have to imagine it if you'd met them. Did I tell you they're getting divorced? Seems the kid was the only thing keeping them together."
"Maybe they loved her too much," Sam said thoughtfully, her mind drifting back to another time, to another couple facing the pain the loss of a child invokes. She kept telling herself to speak aloud instead of just thinking it. Pete might not realise who or what she was referring to but at least he wouldn't feel as though she was ignoring him. "Maybe it's too hard for them to be together now."
"You're too nice, Sam. If you knew these people.." He shook his head, sensing they might have to agree to disagree and searched his brain for another topic of conversation - now that she was talking to him, he didn't want to give her a reason to stop.
Fortunately for him, Sam was relieved to have something to talk about that was in no way connected to the SGC or the dilemma she had found herself in. "Did you say the investigation was over? That they're not going to do anything else to find her?
"Not officially," Pete hedged, shrugging when she gave him what passed as a quizzical glance. As quizzical as a glance from someone who still seemed miles away could be. "I'm going to do some digging, see if there's anyone in the Jordan's past who might want to use their daughter against them. Something just doesn't sit right with me. How can a kid just disappear from her bedroom one night? Her parents were in the house, they claim they didn't hear a thing.."
"You think they might have had something to do with it?" She tilted her head to one side, her brow furrowed as she blinked as if to clear her vision and focus more on their conversation.
Pete's reply was accompanied by a quick shrug and a lopsided smile. "At this state, I think it's either that or alien abduction. Hey, you don't happen to know where that friend of yours was at the time, do you?"
The strained smile slipped from her face in spite of her attempts at keeping it there. "I'm pretty sure he was busy that night."
'Hating my guts and deciding to leave the team,' was the part to the answer she deliberately forgot to add.
That was the end of their conversation that night as Sam once again drifted off into her own little world, reliving the night that shattered so many lives.
It was mid-morning on Fina and her teammates were showing signs of being jetlagged of sorts - gate-lagged, as they liked to call it. They'd left Earth through the Stargate two hours ago on her third mission as CO of SG-1 and at that time, they were serving a late supper in the commissary.
They had completed a preliminary search of the land nearby and finding nothing out of the ordinary, had proceeded to set up the camp. Sam stood near the tent she would share with them and watched as Daniel and Teal'c conferred quietly about something she couldn't quite hear even if she tried. As it was, she was too wired to pay them too much attention, focused entirely instead on their surroundings, her hand resting on the butt of her gun just in case the need to use it arose. It was only the third mission she'd been in charge of and the thought of commanding these people, the thought of being responsible for the lives of her friends was one damned frightening prospect.
It wasn't that she didn't think she could do it. She knew, on some level, that she was capable of leading them much in the same way their former commander hand. It was just that she'd never done it before and it was still a nerve-wracking experience to step through the Stargate and know she was in total charge of the people travelling with her.
Colonel O'Neill - General O'Neill now - had understood. He'd taken her to one side just before SG-1's second mission without him and compared the experience of command with that of breaking in a new pair of boots. The first couple of outings were uncomfortable and you might come home with blisters but by the fifth or sixth time, the responsibility was a comfortable fit, having been moulded around the person wearing it.
His reassurances had made her smile but they weren't enough to make the apprehension inside of her go away. It was still there, as strong as ever.
Especially on this mission.
Why, she wasn't sure. It was her gut, she supposed, an instinct deep inside that made her uneasy. The General always said he trusted his gut instinct and as far as she was concerned, that was some of the best advice he'd given her.
So she stood back from the others instead of joining in the usual lunchtime banter, and that was why she saw it coming.
The Jaffa was silent in his approach. Very cautious, very focused on his mission. His Staff Weapon was already charged so there would be no telltale hiss just before he fired, giving his intended target no advanced warning of what was coming to them.
She acted on that instinct that had been driving her, and called out a warning even as she lifted her weapon and her finger found the trigger.
She heard Teal'c should out, a fact that was registered by some part of her brain but by that time it was too late.
The damage was done.
The Jaffa stumbled at the first bullet, fell at the second and was dead by the third.
Only then did she look at him clearly. Only then did she see his face and recognise him as being a friend, an ally. Not a foe.
She registered the look of anguish on Teal'c's face and opened her mouth to speak, to apologise..
.. Then all hell broke loose.
The Jaffa, a man she now knew to be Pae'san, had apparently not been alone on the planet. A group of five other Jaffa came at them from the same direction as Pae'san and they weren't the friendly variety.
They were out for blood.
Sam and Teal'c fell into their old routine of providing cover while Daniel gathered their GDO and anything else he could see that they didn't want the Goa'uld getting their hands on, stepping over the glassy eyed body, ducking and weaving to avoid the weapon fire coming from all directions.
How they made it back to the SGC in almost one piece was still a mystery to her, and something she was still very much grateful for.
Daniel had escaped with a few cuts and bruises, gained after he tumbled non-too-gracefully through the Gate.
Teal'c was slightly less fortunate - a cheap burn to his arm where he'd narrowly missed a staff blast in the chest and an ankle that had been sprained while running to the Stargate.
As for Sam herself, a dislocated shoulder was the worst of her injuries, something she received in the same way as Daniel received his - by an impromptu return on legs that were far from steady.
It wasn't her injury that kept her away from the SGC, though. She was in her third month of downtime, not because she wasn't able to work but because she wasn't able to look them in the eye anymore.
She'd been given a month's medical leave - for stress, Doctor Warner had said, a diagnosis supported by Doctor's Smith and McKenzie. She knew they were of the opinion that it had only been a matter of time before the events of the last year caught up with her but in all honestly, that wasn't what drove her to add another two months onto her downtime by pleading with General O'Neill - threatening to hand in her resignation when he'd been about to refuse her request for the fourth time.
She thought about that day now and regretted it, remembering the hurt on his face, the flash of pain in his eyes when she'd told him - lied to him - and said she wanted time off to spend more time with Pete.
Pete didn't even know she was on long-term leave. She hadn't told him any of what had happened. When he asked her how things were at work she gave him a vacant smile, a non-committal answer of some sort and either changed the subject or distracted him in other ways. It wasn't fair to him and she knew it but he didn't seem to mind. He had, more than once, used her and their relationship to forget momentarily about some of the things he saw on a daily basis and that's all she was doing, too.
That's what she tried to tell herself, anyway.
The truth was that she was running away, hiding from herself, her teammates, and the reality of what had happened. The guilt at having murdered an innocent man and having destroyed in that one moment eight years of time and effort and trust that had gone into making SG-1 the close-knit team they once had been was too much to bear. She'd taken over from O'Neill after his promotion and she'd failed. She let them all down, their expectations of her being just that little bit too high.
For the first month, Daniel had kept her up to date. He'd told her Teal'c had also requested leave and as far as she knew he was still splitting his time between worlds - and between his son, Rya'c and his lover, Ishta.
Because he couldn't stand to work with her anymore. Because she killed one of her friends, a brother. He couldn't look at her anymore, would never be able to meet her eyes or trust her with his life and the lives of others gain.
So she'd taken that initiative and decided she should be the one to leave. Teal'c deserved to stay and fight the good fight. She, on the other hand, had let her own team down so what good would she be when fighting against the Goa'uld? She didn't deserve the honour, she deserved only the guilt she was already dwelling on.
After the first month, just after her conversation with General O'Neill, Daniel had stopped calling around and phoning just to check she was okay. Sam assumed the General had told him what she'd said and that he was respecting her right to some privacy by staying away.
Sam stifled a sigh and glanced down at her wristwatch.
Another night gone by with the barest of sleep. She'd made her excuses with Pete, begged off their plans for a night out by saying her shoulder was hurting, leaving him in the dark once again where the real reasons for not wanting to go out was concerned.
He'd tried to change her mind, of course, but fortunately for her, his pager had gone off and he'd had to leave to attend to something work-related - she couldn't quite remember what but he had told her.
After he'd gone, she'd had a quick shower and changed into a pair of comfortable old sweat pants and a very faded, very loose Air Force Academy t-shirt. Whenever Pete was in town, she liked to make an effort - it made a girl feel special when she had someone other than herself to dress up for. Then she'd curled up in her chair on the porch outside, her thin quilt the only the only company she had and thought back over the events that had brought her to this point in her life.
That was where she was at 0200 hours and that was where she was five hours later when Doctor Daniel Jackson arrived, the bearer of news she really didn't want to hear.
He sat watching her for a few minutes before the urgency of the situation came back to him. The line so her face, the shadows under her eyes.. it made him feel bad he'd not been around to make sure she was doing okay but then he remembered the reason why he hadn't and forced himself to move.
As gently as he could, Daniel shook Sam awake, managing a small smile at the bewildered expression on her face. "Hey, Sam."
"Hi." She pushed herself up into an upright position. "Daniel?" Squinting in the sunlight she was unaccustomed to, Sam stared at him in obvious confusion. "What are you doing here?"
The smile he'd been wearing and all remnants of it disappeared, replaced by an apologetic, not to mention grim look that had her heart rising to her throat. "It's Jack, Sam. He's had some sort of relapse. Doctors Warner and Smith have done everything they can think of but nothing works. We've tried to get in touch with the Asgard but.." He took a deep breath and looked away, unable to bring himself to watch the light in her eyes fade away. "I don't think they're going to get here in time, Sam. I left a message for Teal'c with Ishta and Bra'tac and I tried contacting your Dad. General Hammond said he'd try to make it back but he's in San Diego on vacation with his grandkids.. Sam? Are you okay?"
The look she threw him was incredulous and it took several minutes for her to be able to regain control and speak. "How long?" She asked eventually in a voice that wasn't quite steady. "How long has he been..?"
Daniel shifted uncomfortably but she felt no pity for him, instead choosing to up the heat in her glare a level or two. "Almost two months. It wasn't serious at the beginning, he was just tired and Doctor Warner treated him for anaemia. Then it started to get worse.. I found him slumped on the floor of his office three weeks ago. He'd tried to get out of his chair but he'd fallen over and couldn't get back up."
"Why wasn't I told?" Sam demanded, getting to her feet a little to quickly but ignoring the shower of lights that swam before her eyes. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Jack asked me not to," was his simple answer. The explanation was far from simple. "He told me how you'd asked to take time off to be with Pete, he said he didn't want to bother you when it was probably just a temporary thing. If it makes you feel any better, he didn't want Teal'c knowing, either."
"That doesn't make me feel any better," she murmured hoarsely, letting herself fall into the chair she'd so recently vacated. Not only had she driven Teal'c away and destroyed their team but she'd isolated the one person who'd brought them all together in the first place, making him feel as though he couldn't ever let his friends know that something was wrong. "Does he know you're here now?"
"He asked to see you," Daniel answered eventually. "Right before he passed out, he asked to see you."
"Me and Teal'c? All of us?" She was on her feet again, stretching her legs as her mind worked overtime to create a mental to-do-list of tasks she'd need to quickly complete before heading to the SGC: wash face, change clothes, leave message for Pete and try not to break too many speed restrictions on the way there.
The look on Daniel's face was one of sheepish embarrassment. "He asked specifically for you, Sam. He asked for you both, for all of us, then he got very.. insistent.. and said he had to talk to you. I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner. Or maybe I should've called but I thought you'd want to hear it in person." 'And I didn't think you'd be able to drive yourself to the base safely,' he added silently.
At his answer, she straightened her shoulders and started moving briskly towards the door. "Screw it," she muttered under her breath as she ran a brush through her hair. "There isn't time to change."
So without washing, without changing - and without calling Pete - Sam left her house, reluctantly letting Daniel drive though urging him mentally to drive faster.
They arrived at the SGC as a very sombre threesome, the subdued child standing between them but also standing further back so that neither could take her by the hand.
A man in glasses approached them and spoke to Teal'c in quiet tones he obviously didn't want her to hear. She heard the words 'Jack' and 'Sam' and 'serious' followed by questions about who she was. This was Doctor Jackson, she realised, the man Nesa had described to her as being the friendly one. Daniel Jackson, a man she could trust.
He didn't look very trustworthy, she decided with a grimace. His hair was out of place, pointing in all directions, his gestures were frantic and all over the place and he started at her with suspicious eyes.
The woman she knew to be Ishta moved closer to her and she flinched when the female alien put her and on her shoulder. Usually when someone did that it meant she'd done something wrong and that the fingers would soon start digging in to leave a bruise. But Ishta didn't hurt her and after a few moments she started to relax, sensing the reassurance emanating from the older woman.
She looked up when Daniel moved closer and Teal'c stepped aside, meeting his curious gaze with her appraising eyes.
Maybe he was the type of man Nesa had built him up to be. She started at him unblinkingly for several minutes and it was only when she noticed his lips were moving that she concentrated on the words coming out of his mouth.
"..won't hurt you. Thor wouldn't have sent you here with Teal'c and Ishta if he didn't trust us and want you to trust us." He spoke in a soft, warm voice but she knew he wanted to be somewhere else. He wanted to be with his friend, the one who was ill. And he wanted to be with his other friend, the one she thought might be the woman called Sam. "Can you tell us your name?"
She could, but instead she stayed silent, blinking up at him with big brown eyes. Her name was too important, Thor had told her not to tell anyone but O'Neill or Carter her name - and only then if she thought she could trust them. He said he'd come for her again soon, and that if she wasn't happy with these people, he would find her another home.
She thought maybe that would be a good idea. Although the world she was on didn't look like Earth, she knew it was and didn't feel confident being there. She didn't feel safe.
The man called Daniel realised she wasn't going to say anything let alone answer him and straightened with an almost inaudible sigh. He motioned to her with the tilt of his head and spoke above her to Teal'c and Ishta. "We'll take her with us to the infirmary. Doctor Brightman can check her out at the same time."
"I must speak with Major Carter," Teal'c interjected. Daniel appeared slightly confused by the request but she wasn't. She knew Teal'c had feelings of guilt and concern for the one called Carter, something to do with a past situation but one that didn't interest her much.
"She'll be in the infirmary. She wanted to try using the healing device on Jack but Doctor Warner said she couldn't. Not till she can prove she won't make herself ill." Daniel looked uncomfortable at the questioning glance he as given and she noticed he couldn't meet Teal'c's eyes when he continued. "She hasn't been in for almost three months, Teal'c. The Doctor wanted to run some tests and the blood work showed she's slightly anaemic again. I'd say she's been working too hard.."
"But she has not been here to do so," Teal'c finished for him with what passed as a grimace. "I will endeavour to talk with her, Daniel Jackson. There is something she must know."
They started to move towards the big doors Daniel had entered through but she didn't, knowing it would be pointless to do so. Just as the two men turned back to question it, Ishta spoke, reminding them she was there. "I must return to my people," she said in the quiet yet firm manner she had come to expect. "Thor may return to my planet for the child and I will need to be there to explain we have done as he requested. I will also endeavour to tell him of O'Neill's condition."
She turned out the conversation then, focusing instead on the gestures and looks, speculating on the emotions behind them. Teal'c and Ishta said goodbye and kissed to seal their farewell. Daniel looked awkward again but she didn't know why. It was obvious to her that Ishta and Teal'c were in a relationship, the feelings and looks they shared were pretty hard to miss.
Ishta left shortly afterwards and she found herself walking in the middle of two tall men, feeling as though she was being escorted somewhere like a prisoner, rather than as the guest Thor intended her to be.
Even the iciest glare she could manage couldn't sway the determined doctor. Sam stubbornly held onto the Goa'uld healing device, trying to intimidate him into letting her use it.
"For the last time, Colonel, the answer is no. There is no guarantee you'll be able to help the General and given your current physical condition. I'm not prepared to take the risk and end up with two patients."
Sam scowled at him but it did no good. She felt a small pang when she realised he could almost match the late Janet Fraiser in stubbornness but quickly shook the thought away.
Not quick enough.
The newcomer watched her with an obvious curiosity, her young face alight with the prospect of finally having met the much talked about Sam Carter. Ishta, Nesa and the others all spoke highly of the female member of SG-1 and she was beginning to understand that their praise was warranted.
The woman standing defiantly a few feet away was everything she'd been told. Strong and independent yet at the same time kind and caring. She could sense the array of feeling emanating from her, she felt the momentary sadness the woman had felt a few minutes ago and wondered what had caused it.
At that moment, Colonel Carter realised she and Doctor Warner weren't alone with the patient in the bed they were standing next to and turned to look at them.
In an instant, the fierce expression changed. The determination was replaced by surprise, which was then replaced by a fleeting expression of guilt when she saw Teal'c and then there was the surprise again when the Colonel's gaze fell on her.
"What's going on?" Sam asked immediately, her gaze flickering from the two men standing either side to the young girl between them. "Daniel, Teal'c? Where did you find her?"
"Find who?" Daniel asked with a raised eyebrow, giving his charge a quick glance before looking back up at Sam, noticing how her gaze couldn't quite stay focused on Teal'c for more than a few seconds at a time. "If you mean our guest, you're going to have to get the details from Teal'c. He's the one Thor spoke to."
"Thor?" Sam's eyes narrowed and she studied the girl, who she noticed was watching her with interest, absorbing everything that was being said and done. When Sam gave her a smile, the girl couldn't help but return it - a feat no one else had managed to achieve. "Hi. You're Elena, aren't you? Elena Jordan?"
Elena nodded, suddenly feeling shy. She knew now why Thor had said she could trust this woman and she found herself wanting to believe that she could. She needed to trust someone and when he looked at Sam, she didn't feel threatened. She didn't feel the resentment or the impatience she usually did when in the presence of an older female, even the nice one s like Ishta and her sisters.
Meanwhile, Daniel and Teal'c were staring at Sam as though she were either crazy or keeping something from them. Elena found their confusion amusing, almost as interesting at the Doctor's utter bafflement at the bizarre reunion taking place before him.
"How did you know her name?" Daniel asked eventually.
"She has not spoken to anyone since Thor left her in my care," Teal'c informed Sam. "He gave me instructions to bring her to Earth, to protect her, but said nothing further, only that the child would explain in her own time. He stated that I should bring her to you and O'Neill."
Sam nodded even as a thoughtful expression crossed her face. Elena watched curiously, feeling everything Sam was feeling and trying to categorise and catalogue them all but struggling to keep up. "Elena Jordan went missing from her parents house three months ago. She was taken in the night, apparently, and there was nothing left behind for the cops to work with." She paused, shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest. "Pete was involved in the investigation, he joked about an alien abduction but he didn't mean it. Thor better have a damn good reason for this." Sam paused again, almost as if remembering Elena was in the room. She fixed a warm smile on her face - a genuine one, not at all like Elena was used to - and crouched down till he was at the same eye level. "Can you tell us anything, Elena? Where've you been for the last three months?"
Elena said nothing, just looked at her with big brown eyes, searching for something but Sam didn't know what. She couldn't have known what, she had no idea that the child sizing her up, measuring her intentions was not your average seven year old.
Instead of speaking, Elena acted. She moved from the relative safety of the two men and walked confidently to Sam as the older woman straightened. She reached up and grabbed her hand, latching onto it.
"Déjà vu," Daniel murmured, breaking the silence that had fallen over them. Elena didn't know what he meant by that but she could tell that Sam was vaguely embarrassed though mostly flattered that she'd been chosen to be the one Elena trusted. His face clouded over then, though, even as Elena watched, and his gaze moved to the prone figure in the bed Sam was standing beside. "How is he? Has their been any change?"
"You were gone for ten minutes, Doctor Jackson, if that." The disapproval in Doctor Warner's tone was audible but it wasn't because he didn't understand why they wanted to be there, it was because he was concerned they would neglect their own well being, a concern that was probably warranted if the pointed look he threw Sam was any indication. "The only thing you missed was Colonel Carter almost being escorted to her quarters by security." He fixed the woman in question with a stern stare and Elena felt her stiffen. "I mean it, Colonel. If I hear so much as a rumour that you're even thinking about disobeying my orders, I'll have you confined to quarters."
The threat wasn't an empty one and Elena noticed that the others seemed to know it. Doctor Warner noticed it, too, as he gave them a satisfied nod and walked out of the room.
Failing to realise that Colonel Carter still held the healing device.
Failing to realise like Elena did that his warning would most likely go unheeded.
When it came for Elena's check up with Doctor Brightman, the young girl held tight to Sam's hand, silently insisting that she go along too. Teal'c followed, while Daniel stayed with Jack, keeping up the tradition of at least one of them maintaining a bedside vigil in the unlikely event that he would wake up and need some help.
If Teal'c thought going with Sam and Elena would give him the chance to talk to the Colonel, he was mistaken. Sam spoke quietly to Elena for the full forty minutes, assuring her in a calm voice that Doctor Brightman could be trusted, explaining everything that the young Doctor was doing even when it wasn't necessary.
Elena suspected it was because she wanted to avoid talking to Teal'c but she wouldn't complain. She enjoyed the company, enjoyed having someone fuss over her. Even if Sam did mention her parents, even if she did talk about getting in touch with them and letting them know she was okay.. Elena shook her head vehemently at all suggestions, tempted to talk to Sam then but for some reasons the words wouldn't come.
For some reason all she could do was sit back and stare and try to take in everything that was going on around her.
"Colonel Carter," Teal'c spoke up finally. "I need to speak with you."
Sam opened her mouth to make an excuse but Elena caught her eye. And she smiled. There was something in the little girl's smile, something that made Sam sigh and straighten. "Okay. Elena, I'll be right back, okay? We'll just be over there if you need us."
Doctor Brightman rolled her eyes but Sam didn't see. Elena stifled another grin, sensing the doctor's annoyance at apparently not being trusted to take care of her charge.
The little girl watched as Sam walked away with Teal'c, knowing that although she couldn't hear the conversation taking place she would still be able to keep track of it in her own way. She watched as Teal'c moved closer, invading Sam's personal space. Watched as the Colonel crossed her arms across her chest in a typically defensive gesture.
The situation hadn't interested her before but it did now.
And so she watched, ignoring Doctor Brightman, gathering what information she could about the people Thor had entrusted her to.
"I have news about Pae'san," Teal'c said bluntly, knowing that if he didn't start the conversation directly as he intended Colonel Carter would try to make excuses and back out of it before he could say what he intended to.
"Teal'c.." Sam cut in, shaking her head and look at his shoulder. "I can't tell you how sorry I am. I swear I didn't recognise him, I wouldn't have shot him if I'd known who he was.."
"Then he would have succeeded in killing me before no doubt turning his attention to you and Doctor Jackson," Teal'c interrupted, deciding that if she could interrupt him he could do the same with her. He waited until she looked up, her expression one of complete surprise before continuing. "When I returned to see my son, Bra'tac took me to one side. He could sense I was troubled and asked me to share it with him. I explained what had occurred on Fina and to my surprise, he seemed pleased."
Shaking her head again, Sam started to speak only to be cut off by the look he was so well known for on base. A look that had been known to freeze SF's and officers alike in their steps if they were to encounter him on a bad day.
"It appears that Pae'san was not as trustworthy as we were led to believe. He had been discovered as a spy amongst our people but had escaped the planet before anything could be done." Teal'c appeared troubled, his gaze locked onto hers. "He was aware we were to be on Fina at that time, Colonel Carter. I had mentioned it to Rya'c when he asked me why I could not visit more often. If you had not acted when you did, I would have been unable to see my son again. He would have killed me, Colonel Carter, and then he would have killed you and Doctor Jackson."
Sympathy flooded her features, replacing the guilt that had been there for so long. "I'm so sorry, Teal'c." And she was. Losing a brother was painful but being betrayed by one, especially to a Jaffa, was worse. "I don't know what to say. Do you know if he was the only traitor among the Jaffa? There might be others who plan to do the same thing.."
"That is why I have remained for so long," he responded, pleased to see the self-recrimination had faded from her eyes though his pleasure didn't show on his face. "It is also why I must return to my people. Ishta and her sisters had asked to join forces with the others but I cannot allow it until I know we are free of betrayers. But first I had to talk with you, to explain. Daniel Jackson has implied that it is perhaps my actions that have resulted in your absence from the SGC, that you believe I blame you for Pae'san's death. This is not the case, Colonel Carter. Although at the time I did disagree with your actions, I understand now that it was the only choice you could have made. You saw a threat to your team and destroyed it as any commander would do."
She swallowed the lump in her throat and managed a small smile. "Thank you, Teal'c. It means a lot to me." Her gaze moved from his face and lingered on the prone figure of their base commander, of their former teammate. "So that's one thing I screwed up fixed. Now I've got to take care of the second."
Teal'c watched her steel her shoulders and felt as though he should stop her. He knew what she was going to do but he stood by and let her do it anyway.
He knew her well enough to know that once she had an idea it was usually best to let her get on with it. Especially if it concerned one of their friends.
So instead he followed her at a slower pace, noticing as he did so that the child now known as Elena jumped off the bed she was the second Doctor Brightman turned away and also followed Colonel Carter to the General's bed.
A sense of concern was rising inside her but she didn't know why. She didn't like it when that happened, hated it in fact. It was one thing to be concerned with good reason, another to be concerned and not know why.
Maybe it was because she could sense Teal'c's trepidation as they followed Sam to General O'Neill's bed. Maybe it was because she could see Daniel's surprise at having company so soon.
Or maybe it was because she could feel the determination and anxiety racing through Sam's body at that moment in time. Maybe it was because she watched the older woman slip the alien device over her hand and felt the power that swarmed through her as the light began to glow.
Elena could only watch as Daniel and Teal'c moved to stand either side of the Colonel. She could only watch and feel as the light grew stronger, as the heat of the device spread through the General's body even as Doctor Warner stormed into the room and demanded she stop.
She couldn't stop, though.
Elena knew she couldn't.
It wasn't the first time Sam had used the device but Elena knew it was the first time she'd lost control of it. The first time it had taken over her instead of the other way around.
So she watched with wide eyes as Sam was slowly weakened even as the man she was helping grew stronger.
She watched as he opened his eyes and coughed, not completely healed but better. She felt his confusion, his surprise, and then felt his panic mingling with that of the rooms other occupants as the consciousness fled Sam's body, leaving her limp in the strong arms Teal'c had thrown out to catch her.
Elena watched and felt the tears sting her eyes. She took one step forward, took one glance at the face of the woman she'd begun to trust and started to cry.
"If you knew what she was planning, you should've taken the device off her," Jack glared at Doctor Warner as he sat up in bed, still too weak to stand but strong enough to argue with the other man standing at the side of his bed. "And you," he added, glaring at Teal'c and Daniel. "You should have stopped her. You should have interrupted."
"Interrupting could have killed you," Daniel responded weakly, shrugging his shoulders and casting a quick glance to the curtained bed where Sam had been carried after collapsing on the floor. Doctor Brightman and Elena were with her, the young girl having latched onto Sam's hand after she'd been put on the bed, refusing to let go. "And it could've hurt Sam."
Jack continued glaring at them, even as he felt what little strength he'd been holding onto desert him. "She's already hurt."
Doctor Brightman chose that moment to open the curtains, exchanging an exasperated look with Doctor Warner. "She's not hurt, General, she's just exhausted. She wasn't strong enough to work the device and you're right, *they* should have stopped her." She threw Teal'c and Daniel a pointed look, one Daniel looked away from and Teal'c passively ignored. "But she should be okay. She just needs some rest and some peace and quiet."
Elena Jordan peaked out from behind the doctor, still holding onto Sam's hand.
Jack frowned. "Who's the kid?"
Daniel looked to Teal'c, seeing from the expression that passed briefly over the Jaffa's face that he wasn't the only one to have momentarily forgotten about the young girl's presence. "Ah, this is Elena. Elena Jordan. Thor.. Thor left her with Teal'c and Ishta, asked them to bring her to us."
"Well. To you." Daniel corrected, shrugging under the General's hard stare. "And Sam."
Jack glanced from them to the little girl, smiling slightly when she smiled shyly up at him. His smile faded when his attention returned to his two former teammates and an eyebrow rose. "Why?"
"Thor was under the impression that she needed to be protected." Teal'c responded calmly, his gaze never leaving Jack. "He said she would explain to us in her own time what he meant."
"Yeah, but the problem is she's not talking," Daniel picked up where Teal'c left off and continued. "We only know what her name is because Sam recognised her. She's from Earth, Jack. She went missing three months ago."
His attention once again wandering to the small child, Jack gave them a distracted nod to show he was listening. "And Carter recognised her?"
"Yeah." Daniel squirmed uncomfortably but Jack didn't notice. Elena did. He could feel her curious eyes burning into him. "Through Pete. He was one of the guys investigating her disappearance."
"Oh." Jack nodded again and tore his eyes from her. "Right."
Elena tilted her head on the side and watched O'Neill, the leader of these people. It was funny, she thought, to be with these people, the ones Thor thought of so highly yet had she stayed on Earth, with her parents, she would never have known they existed.
And it was funny, she thought, that she already knew so much about them when they knew next to nothing about her.
This man, O'Neill, he didn't like it when the man called 'Pete' was mentioned. Thor hadn't told her anything about someone called 'Pete' but she'd been able to pick up since being there that whoever he was, he was someone important to Sam. Someone important to them all in a way, his life was inexplicably tied to theirs. And O'Neill didn't like it. He didn't like the man, she couldn't find anything to suggest that O'Neill - Jack - thought that Pete was someone they should be wary of. He just.. He felt sad when the man's name was mentioned. Sad and lonely.
Elena felt sorry for him; she'd felt that way before.
Usually when her parents ignored her in favour of arguing with each other. Sometimes she felt it off her mom when her father came home after spending the day with female friends - female friends she and her mother had never met. 'Colleagues', her father would say breezily. 'I just had a few drinks with some colleagues.'
Her mother had once felt the same way about those colleagues as Jack O'Neill felt about Pete. The only difference was her mother's feelings had changed, she'd found 'colleagues' of her own.
Jack O'Neill hadn't. Not yet.
She let go of Sam's hand, sensing the older woman was on her way to making a full recovery, and took a few hesitant steps forward in the direction of the General. She waited until his eyes were on her, until all of their eyes were on her, and stared at him solemnly. "Will you protect me?"
Her request, so simply said, brought back thousands of memories. Jack fought the urge to close his eyes against them and did his best to keep his face blank. So sweet, so innocent. So much like his son at that age.
"We'll protect you," he found himself say. "But you have to tell us what we're protecting you from."
Elena didn't say anything more. She took another step towards him and stood beside the bed, staring at him with eyes that were too wise to be those of a normal child.
Jack stifled a sigh at her silence and looked to the two doctors lingering between his bed and Sam's. "So when can I get out of here?"
He almost rolled his eyes when they exchanged a look before answering.
"You're not recovered, General," Doctor Warner started to explain. "It's possible that if we release you, you'll suffer another setback."
"Doctor Warner and I have decided it would be better if you stay here," Doctor Brightman continued firmly. "At least until we've been able to get in touch with the Asgard and have them check you over in case there's something we're missing that would explain your condition."
Jack just stared at them. "I don't have a 'condition'," he told them bluntly. "I feel fine."
Again, the two doctors exchanged a look. "I'm afraid you do, Sir," Doctor Brightman spoke again when Doctor Warner remained silent, shooting him a dark look out of the corner of her eye. "If Colonel Carter hadn't used the healing device you would still be unconscious. Your vital signs aren't what they should be. Your blood pressure fluctuates between being too high and too low, your current heart rate is that of someone who's recently suffered from a serious heart attack.. If we release you and let you go back to work you'll just end up back here, Sir. And Colonel is in no shape or condition to help you again."
"We think we missed something when you were first checked over after being revived. Either that or the treatment you had was a temporary measure that needs to be repeated again, maybe more than once more, to have a permanent effect." Doctor Warner squared his shoulders against the outburst he and Doctor Brightman were expecting. "I'm afraid we're confining you to the infirmary until further notice, General. You can do a limited amount of work here but we will both be checking to ensure your workload is kept light."
They were expecting him to argue. Even Teal'c and Daniel had embraced themselves for the fireworks.
Elena stood beside him, her small hand working its way into his.
Jack fell back against the pillows, rolling his eyes heavenwards and staring up at the ceiling with grim acceptance written all over his face. He wasn't feeling one hundred percent, and lying to them would be pointless. His head was starting to ache and he felt tired.
He felt old.
"Fine," was all he said.
Surprised but convinced it was proof that he wasn't feeling himself, Doctors Warner and Brightman ushered Teal'c and Daniel out of the infirmary. They were about to do the same of Elena but Jack just looked at them, stopping them.
"Let the kid stay," he told them quietly. "She's not doing any harm."
Again, the two doctors looked at each other but they shrugged and let it pass. Doctor Brightman brought a chair across the room, settling in between the two beds for the small child to climb up onto then left with Doctor Warner to get on with their other duties.
Elena climbed up on the chair, sat on it and smiled at him.
"So it's just the two - three - of us," he corrected, glancing passed her in concern at the sleeping woman on the bed just a few feet away. "How about you tell me why you're here, hmm? Why does Thor think you need protecting."
Elena opened her mouth and for a moment he thought she was going to talk to him. Then she closed it again and looked away. Her eyes were focused on Sam as she slipped off the chair she'd so recently climbed on and padded quietly over to the blond Colonel.
Jack watched from his own bed in curious fascination as she reached out and took Sam's hand in hers. And he watched in amazement as she turned back round to face him, her small fingers still wrapped around Sam's as another smile lit up her face.
"Sam will wake up soon," Elena told him softly. "Then I can tell you both."
She stood there for all of five minutes, confidence radiating off her. Jack was about to tell her to sit back down, that she could tell him and then they could tell Sam together when a low groan silenced him before he could open his mouth.
He eased himself up in his bed, studying Sam as her eyelids fluttered, studying Elena as she beamed when the Colonel finally opened her eyes.
"I told you," Elena said simply.
"Hey." Noticing first the little girl and then her commanding officer, Sam frowned as she tried - and failed - to push herself up in a sitting position. "Sir? Elena?" She closed her eyes for a few seconds and opened them again just as Jack was about to hit the call button at the side of his bed. "When the room stops spinning I'll try that again."
"That's what you get for disobeying doctors orders," Jack chided her but was unable to get his words to sound as stern as he wanted. "How you feeling?"
"Like I haven't slept in days," she answered honestly, managing to sit up a little. Elena let go of her hand then, adjusting the pillows behind her to support her slightly more upright position, earning a smile from Sam as she did so. "Thanks, Elena."
"It's okay," Elena replied with a smile, giggling at the astonished look that appeared on Sam's face at the sound of her voice.
Jack grinned at the questioning glance he was thrown by his former Second and shrugged in answer. "She was just about to explain why she's here. And she's going to tell us how we can help, aren't you, Ellie?"
Elena's face lit up at the sound of her new nickname and she shuffled away from Sam to climb up on her chair again. "I like that," she said softly, her shy smile returning. "My name is Ellie."
"Then it's nice to meet you, Ellie," Sam took over the questioning side of the conversation, casting General O'Neill a concerned glance when his eyes slid shut, his face adopting a slightly grey hue. "You seem to already know who we are. Did Thor tell you?"
Elena nodded. She reached out while Sam watched and let her small hand rest on Jack's arm. Almost immediately, the General's eyes opened and the colour returned to his face. He stared down at her hand in confusion and then back at her, then passed her to Sam. "He told me you would help me," Elena replied softly, taking her hand away only when she was certain the General would be okay. "He said you would help protect me."
"Who do you need protecting from?" It was Jack's turn to ask, his gaze holding Sam's for a split second before returning to the child between them. "We can't help you if you don't tell us how."
"They'll hurt me if they know," Elena said in a quiet tone that made her sound much older than she really was. One that made her sound so very sad, and so alone. "Thor took me from my parents because they don't love me. Because they would let the bad people have me for the right price."
"Who are the bad people?" Sam wanted to know, unable to believe that any parent would willingly let their child go to someone who would hurt them. She made a mental note to do some research on Mr. and Mrs. Jordan when she was released from the infirmary and noticed Elena watching her carefully. "Who do you think wants to hurt you, Ellie?"
Elena shrugged and looked down at her hands, feeling their concern, their surprise - and their doubt. "The Goa'uld, the N-I-B? No. NID. Thor said they would all try and get me, that they would hurt me if they did because they'd want to know why. Because they'd want to be like me."
Sam and Jack stared at each other above her head. She could tell what they were thinking, what they were feeling. They were surprised, a little nervous, worried - both for themselves and for her - and they were starting to believe her.
They both wanted to know, though, and it was with a deep breath that Elena looked up from her hands and looked first at one and then the other.
"You want to know why they want me," she voiced their thoughts aloud. "You want to know why they want to hurt me." She chewed nervously on her bottom lip, a gesture she noticed Sam do, too, until the Colonel caught herself and stopped. "They want me because I'm special. Because I'm not normal."
She looked Sam straight in the eyes, and then turned her head to look directly at Jack. "They want me because I'm like you."
She registered his surprise, his confusion, felt the same coming at her from Sam's direction and tried to tune them out.
Tried to keep a grip on her own thoughts and feelings instead of taking advantage of the situation like she usually would and taking the opportunity to learn about them.
She didn't need to learn, she thought miserably, her bottom lip jutting out and starting to wobble even as she tried not to cry.
She didn't need to because she already knew.
Jack stared at her as she started to cry. He wanted to comfort her, to tell her they'd help her but he wasn't sure he could. He didn't understand what she meant - and he wasn't sure he wanted to know.
He watched numbly as Sam got out of bed, opening his mouth to order her back but the look on her face stopped him. So instead he watched as she knelt on the floor beside the little girl and took Elena into her arms, wrapping her arms around Elena's back when Elena moved fully into the embrace.
He didn't know why he thought it or how he knew but he suspected he was witnessing the first genuine embrace Elena had ever had.
And then he was moving, sitting up on the bed.
Something was happening. The air around the woman and child started to move, started to heat up.
It started to glow.
Elena wound her arms around Sam's neck and hung on tight, burying her head in the blond woman's shoulder as she cried silently. Her mother had never hugged her. Her mother had never even seen her cry.
When Elena was three, she'd known there was something different. She had known she was special but when neither of her parents acknowledged it, she'd realised that they didn't know.
That maybe they were her parents but they didn't want to be. They didn't want a child to love and care for, they wanted something that would help them keep up with their circle of friends. All of their friends were having children so why didn't they?
When she was four, she'd had a birthday party. A real party, with a party dress her mother had spent a small fortune on - accessorised by the real gem tiara her father had bought her to get one up on her mother, the shoes her mother had bought in retaliation that really weren't comfortable and the necklace her father had sprung on her as a surprise during the party - again, to try and score points against her mother.
She hadn't known anyone at the party. They were the children of her parents friends and at first she'd hoped they'd be like her, that they'd either be special or they'd know what it felt like to be treated like an ornament, like something to use and display, not something to love and care for.
She'd been disappointed to find they were different.
All of them.
There had been four girls and three boys at the party and she'd read them all as easily as her father read his morning newspaper.
They were all happy, all loved. They didn't know what it was like.
She had spent the remainder of her party sitting alone in the corner of her playroom, the other children playing amongst themselves and the parents all downstairs being entertained by her mother and father.
Her mother never noticed the tear tracks on her face when she'd forced her to say goodbye to them all, to thank them all for coming.
Her father hadn't noticed the way she didn't answer when he asked out of necessity not out of interest if she'd enjoyed her party.
Neither of them had noticed the year after how she'd slipped into her room and stayed there until her fifth birthday was over. Neither had noticed that she wasn't even in the room when they'd cut her cake and distributed it to all of their guests.
If they'd noticed, she would have known.
She would have been punished.
Her mother had never held her the way Colonel Carter was. She'd never felt her mothers need to protect and love and care for her. She'd never known her mother to care for anything or anyone else but herself.
She could feel General O'Neill's eyes on her back; feel his concern and his need to comfort her. She knew he was conflicted; that he didn't know what to do so did nothing. But she knew he wanted to. And she knew he'd noticed her tears.
Unlike her own father, who barely noticed her at all unless he could use her to upset her mother or impress his colleagues from work with the "doting daddy" routine as she'd secretly termed it.
So Elena allowed herself a comfort she didn't often have. A luxury most children her age took for granted.
She let herself relax, let her guard down and enjoyed the sensation of just being held.
She felt warm and safe, and with her eyes closed she could almost envision a golden glow around them, protecting them. Keeping them safe while she shared with Sam everything that she was, and everything that she could be.
'Where am I?' was the first thing that came to mind, quickly followed by - somehow - realising where they were. Sam looked down at her clothes - the same sweat pants and baggy t-shirt she'd been wearing earlier that day, or the day before, whenever it was - and then looked around at her surroundings.
The last thing she remembered was being in the infirmary. Elena had been crying and she'd gotten out of bed to comfort her, ignoring the look on the General's face that told her he'd rather she'd stayed put and let him handle it..
Well, she definitely wasn't in the infirmary anymore.
She was somewhere else, somewhere she'd only imagined before.. How she'd come to be there, however, was a complete and utter mystery.
There were trees all around and four separate buildings each a small distance apart. There was the sheltered barbeque area, that was the one furthest away from where she was standing. Then there was the garage - she knew that because she recognised the car parked outside of it. Her car. And then there was another building, a small wooden cabin - considerably small than the one she was closest to, probably a guesthouse or a studio or storage unit.
And then there was the fourth building, the biggest building. The cabin she'd heard so much about but had yet to see. In reality, anyway. Until now.
It wasn't what she'd pictured it to be but somehow she knew it was an accurate image of the place Teal'c had described to her once during a conversation in which he'd asked her how the then-Colonel could like fishing so much when he got bored so easily when sitting by a camp fire off world.
It was small but comfortable looking. She walked around it, from the side to the front, smiling at the sight of the porch swing. She liked that. She could easily picture herself sitting there, reading a science journal or one of the romance books she had hidden behind other books on her shelves at home..
.. But she wouldn't be sitting there.
She would never be going to the General's cabin, not in reality.
Not while she was with Pete.
Disturbed by the direction her thoughts were taking, Sam wandered further around, stopping when she reached the other side of the cabin.
She laughed. She couldn't help it.
So this was the big lake the General boasted about. The one in which he could catch fish the size of small children.
Yeah, right. If it was big enough to be classed as anything other a pond on even a local map she'd eat field rations for a month.
It was beautiful, though. The way the water reflected the sun, the way the trees sheltered it from prying eyes. She moved closer, seeing the dock she'd imagined Jack - the General - sitting on as he fished and smiled again. It was a lot smaller than what she'd pictured but she could still easily see him there. She tried to imagine him there with Teal'c, teaching the Jaffa how to fish, explaining why they were doing it and laughed again.
The sound of her laughter surprised her. She felt like she hadn't laughed in so long.
Sam blinked suddenly, the empty dock no longer empty.
Elena sat there, curled up at the end of the wooden planks, staring down at the water with an expression Sam couldn't see on her face.
The reason she was here, though how the child had managed it Sam didn't know.
"Ellie?" She kept her voice gentle, slowly making her way towards Elena. The child didn't look up, she didn't even stir. Moving closer, Sam waited until she was sitting on the dock beside her before trying again, letting a hand fall to rest on Elena's shoulder. "Are you okay, Ellie?"
Elena lifted her head and stared at Sam's hand. She glanced from it to Sam's face, amazement and more than a little fear showing on her face. "I can't feel what you're feeling," she said quietly.
"That's okay," Sam murmured, not knowing why that thought would cause the fear on the young girls face. "You're not supposed to feel what I'm feeling."
"Yes, I am," Elena sniffed and wiped at her face. "That's one of my gifts, it makes me special. But we're here and I can't feel it anymore. I don't know what you're thinking or feeling and I'm supposed to. Thor said I was."
Her mind supplied her with words and Sam went with it, pleased at least part of her brain was working while the rest of her fell behind a step or two. "Maybe it's because we're here. Maybe because you brought us here, you can't do that anymore. Maybe that's why you brought us here."
"I don't know where we are," Elena admitted with a heartrending sigh. "I probably brought us here but I don't know how. And I don't know how to take us back."
"You'll know when you're ready," Sam murmured encouragingly, wrapping her arm around the young girl's shoulders and drawing her close. "In the meantime, you can tell me a little bit more about yourself."
"About why I'm special?" Elena asked softly.
"No." Shaking her head, Sam gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze. "More about you. Like.. what's your favourite colour? What do you like to do? Favourite movie, favourite animal.. That kind of thing."
Elena moved away slightly, staring at her with surprised eyes. "I don't have a favourite colour," she answered, biting her lip as though she were afraid Sam would be disappointed in her. "I don't have a favourite anything."
Her heart breaking for this child, this girl who had been forced to live the life of an adult at such a tender age, Sam forced her feelings of anger at Elena's parents to the side and smiled again. "I think it's time you did. Why don't you think about it for a while and let me know when you're ready? It's a nice day, take as long as you want."
Part of her was anxious to get back to reality, to the infirmary where she knew she should be. But she felt happy here, content, and there was nothing pulling her down. No guilt, no self-doubt, no expectations to meet so no sense of exhaustion at having to try her best constantly.
Eventually they'd have to go back. Eventually she'd have to make Elena figure out how she'd brought them there - and why.
But that was eventually.
She didn't want to leave when part of her believed she'd never be back.
Jack hit the call button the moment he realised something was wrong, jumping out of bed and then leaning heavily against it when the blood rushed to his head. Doctors Warner and Brightman raced into the room, followed quickly by two nurses they were quick to dismiss on seeing the child and Colonel Carter seemingly surrounded by a golden bubble.
Doctor Brightman reached out her hand to touch it but Jack grabbed her hand before she could. He gave her a look and dropped her arm. "Don't. It might hurt them."
"It might hurt you, too," Doctor Warner added in a slightly softer tone. "I'm guess this is some kind of energy field but it's not my area of expertises.. Maybe we can get someone from the lab to have a look."
"No." Jack shook his head and walked slowly around the perimeter of the golden bubble. "The fewer people who know about this the better. Elena already believes she's in danger, if word of this gets out.." He shook his head and stared at the embracing pair inside. Neither looked as though they were hurting. In fact, they both looked peaceful. More peaceful than he'd seen Carter look since, well, since he'd known her. "Besides, Carter's our expert and there's not much she can do at the moment."
"Is the child creating it?" Doctor Brightman followed Jack's steps around the field, staring at it in amazement. "Nothing came back in the tests to suggest she was capable of doing anything like this."
"If we ran a CAT scan, we'd probably find something," Doctor Warner chimed in, staying where he was but studying the bubble all the same.
"There'll be no more tests." Jack's words were firm, his expression determined. "Not until we find out from Thor what's going on. I don't want to put the kid at risk more than she already is."
Doctor Warner nodded in understanding but Doctor Brightman frowned, still staring at the woman and child in front of her. "How do we know it's not harmful?" She asked aloud, almost forgetting she wasn't alone. She wasn't paying attention to their conversation anymore, just staring at the people trapped inside the bubble. "For all we know this is doing Colonel Carter some serious damage. We have to try and get them out of there, Sir. We have to find a way to break through."
Grudgingly, Jack agreed with her. He stood up, ignoring the throbbing in his head and the exhaustion he could feel pulling him down and focused on Elena and Sam, looking passed the bubble to their faces. "If Elena's creating it, if she's somehow created a connection between the two of them.. We could try to break it, maybe disturb it and let Elena know we're here so she turns it off or stops doing.. whatever it is she's doing."
"How do we do that?" Doctor Warner wanted to know. "How do we get her to lose concentration?"
Jack shrugged under the doctor's watchful gaze and took a step closer to the golden sphere. Then, without giving either of them any advanced notice, he lifted his hand and set his palm against the surface.
It was so peaceful, so quiet. Sam had closed her eyes several minutes ago, just enjoying the sensation of the sun on her face. She and Elena had both taken off their shoes, letting their feet dangle in the cool water below the dock. The little girl was curled up against her, and Sam thought that maybe she'd gone to sleep because she'd been so silent.
She knew she was wrong the moment Elena bolted upright, her eyes wide with what could only be described as fear.
"What is it, Ellie?" Twisting her upper body, Sam moved so that she was holding the startled child at arms length. "Is something wrong?"
"General O'Neill's hurt," Elena's answer was released on a breath, her eyes wide and filling with tears - almost as if she expected Sam's anger. Almost as if she expected her blame. "I didn't mean to hurt him. I didn't know I could. I knew he was going to touch it but I didn't know it would hurt him. I didn't know, I promise."
"Calm down, Ellie, I'm not blaming you for anything and I'm not angry." Concern was building up inside her but Sam did her best to keep it under control for the sake of the distressed child in front of her. "Tell me what happened, okay? You said you knew what he was going to do. Does that mean you could still feel what he was feeling?"
Elena blinked and nodded. "I can't feel what you're feeling but I can feel what he's feeling. And the two doctors, too. I can feel them. They're close. General O'Neill reached out for us, he was curious and worried. Thought maybe we were being hurt. And then he was pushed back and he fell over. He's not very well. I didn't do it. I didn't mean to do it."
Pulling the girl towards her, Sam held on until she sensed Elena was beginning to calm down. "We know, honey. I know you didn't hurt anyone on purpose, okay?" She kissed the top of Elena's head without realising it. "Now if you can still feel them close by, I'm guessing that we're not really here. Maybe our conscious minds are but I'm betting we're really back in the infirmary with General O'Neill and the others. Maybe you can't feel what I'm feeling because we're here and you can't do that in this place."
"Maybe I'm not special here," Elena mumbled, leaning against Sam, hearing the sound of the Colonel's heartbeat and letting it soothe her. "Maybe I can be normal here. Maybe I brought us here so we could talk and be normal."
"Maybe you did." Sam ran her hand over the child's back, comforting her. "Now can you think of how to get us back? Maybe if you concentrate really really hard we can go back home."
"I'll try," Elena promised, pulling back so she could stare up at Sam earnestly. "I'm sorry for not being normal."
"You have nothing to be sorry for," Sam assured her, hugging her once again. "And no matter where we are, no matter what you can or can't do, you'll always be special to me, okay? And get thinking about your favourite things. I really want to know."
"Thank you." Elena closed her eyes and let herself relax. She thought about what she'd seen in her mind, thought about seeing the General move closer to her and Sam. She pictured the bubble that surrounded them and focused on it, concentrating, imagining it getting smaller and smaller and smaller until eventually it disappeared.
Sam watched as the view in front of her faded and changed and was somehow unsurprised to find herself back in the infirmary, staring at two surprised doctors and one sickly pale General.
She glanced down at the child in her arms and saw Elena blink sleepily back up at her.
"Did it work?" Elena asked with a yawn, lifting her head from where she'd been cuddled up to Sam. "Are we back?"
"We're back," Sam told her softly. She stood up carefully, the muscles in her legs protesting at the movement after having been in the same position for so long. "Why don't you get some sleep now, Ellie? I'll stay with you, I promise."
"Okay." Elena yawned again and left Sam's arms willingly when the Colonel carried her over to the bed she'd vacated some hours - minutes? - before. Sam tucked her in, ever mindful of the three pairs of eyes watching her every move and waited until she was sure Elena was asleep before moving.
She moved to the General, rolling her eyes when she noticed the two trained doctors still standing rooted to the spot and knelt down beside him where she assumed he'd fallen. "Sir?" One of her hands came to rest on his knee, lingering there for a few seconds until he blinked and looked up at her. "Are you okay?"
Jack nodded and reached out a hand, grasping her arm and letting her help him stand. "Shouldn't I be asking you that?" He asked as he sat down on the edge of his bed. "What happened?"
Sam shrugged and glanced at the sleeping child before looking back at him. "I honestly can't answer that. How long were we gone?"
"You weren't gone at all, Colonel," Doctor Brightman answered as she and Doctor Warner moved forward to assist their two patients. "General O'Neill hit the call button five minutes ago. When we arrived you were surrounded by some sort of energy field.."
"A gold bubble," Jack supplied helpfully before glaring at the doctors, both of whom had unconsciously nudged Sam out of the way so they could check on his condition. "I'm fine, both of you. Just had the wind knocked out of me. Why don't you check out Carter since you were so worried the bubble was hurting them?"
"We weren't hurt," Sam responded quickly as both doctors turned to her expectantly. "Honest, I'm fine. Better than fine, actually." She crossed her arms over her chest and sat back down in the chair she'd recently vacated. "It felt like we were there for at least a couple of hours, though. Are you sure we were only gone for a few minutes?"
"Positive." Jack nodded and swung his feet back onto the bed, leaning back against the pillows. "So where were you? What were you doing for what felt like hours?"
Shrugging again, Sam deliberately avoided his gaze. "We were somewhere safe," was all she said. "Sitting and talking. It was nice. It felt real."
"Whether it was nice or not I still want to check you over," Doctor Brightman interrupted firmly. "And General, I think you should let Doctor Warner check you over, too. You were pushed away with some force and given your current condition, it's better to err on the side of caution." Obviously deciding not to take no for an answer, the doctor stood beside Sam and stared at her expectantly until the Colonel stood up. "There's another bed over here. Once we're finished, I want you to follow Elena's example and get some sleep. You, too, General. There's been enough excitement for today and I think Doctor Warner would agree with me that you both need your rest before this discussion continues."
Doctor Warner nodded in assent and drew the curtains around Jack's bed. Sam smiled on hearing the patient sigh dramatically and allowed herself to be led to a bed on the other side of his.
She lay down and let Doctor Brightman fuss over her, barely registering it when the doctor jabbed a needle in her arm and took some blood. Her eyelids felt heavy and she decided to heed the doctor's advice. Within minutes she was sound asleep, dreaming of her safe place, wondering if she would ever go there in reality.
A few hours later, a persistent tugging on her arm woke her up. Opening her eyes, Sam blinked groggily then smiled at the little girl staring up at her, her face lit with pleasure at something.
"Blue," she told Sam in a whisper, altering the Colonel to the fact the curtains were still drawn around her bed and that the lights were still switched off.
"Blue?" Sam repeated, her sluggish mind failing to understand the significance of the word.
Elena smiled up at her and started climbing onto the bed. She was pleased when Sam didn't protest, curling up against the blond woman as she slipped under the sheets. "My favourite colour," she answered, still keeping her voice as low as she could. "It's blue."
Sam smiled and wrapped her arms around her sleeping companion, letting her eyes slide shut as realisation dawned on her. "That's nice. Blue's nice."
"What's your favourite colour?" Elena questioned, her words already slurring with sleepiness. "I told you mine."
"Orange," Sam murmured quietly. "My favourite colour's orange."
"Oh." Elena was silent for several seconds, then she yawned loudly. "Night night, Sam."
"Good night, Elli. Sweet dreams."
And then they were asleep again, curled up together, sharing the same dream but neither of them realising it.
Back beside the pond, sitting with their feet in the water, talking about favourite things and laughing and joking, Elena squealing as someone from behind them lifted her up and teasingly threatened to throw her in.
It was a nice dream, one that had a smile appearing on both of their faces. Smiles that were still there five hours later when morning broke and Doctor Brightman pulled back the curtains, acting on a hunch after finding the little girl missing from her own bed.
The doctor paused before waking them, a small smile arranging her own lips but she quickly pushed it aside. They needed to be woken up, no matter how sweet they looked together apparently without a care in the world.
It was time to get some questions answered. Time to find out the truth.
Thor had arrived and he wanted Elena.
He wanted to take her away.
Sam stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at the little grey alien as he stared curiously back. Somewhere in the back of her mind she was aware that her appearance was the reason for his curiosity - he'd never seen her with hair quickly brushed with her fingers and a crumpled t-shirt and baggy sweat pants before - but she didn't feel like being rational as she stood behind the curtain of General O'Neill's bed. Five of them had crowded into the small space and she knew that although they were all doing their best to keep their voices down - herself included - it was pointless. Elena would know what was going on no matter if she heard them or not.
"You're not taking her," she argued with the black-eyed alien, vaguely aware of the others staring back and fourth between them almost as if they were watching an intergalactic tennis match. "She's starting to trust us. That's what you wanted, isn't it? You wanted us to protect her, to earn her trust and take care of her. How do you expect anyone to earn her trust if you keep taking her away?"
"Do you not intend to return her to her parents, Colonel Carter?" Thor stared at her and she felt the eyes of General O'Neill, Daniel and Teal'c return back to her as well. "I cannot allow that to happen. They are inadequately prepared to care for and defend the child."
"The child has a name," Sam snapped impatiently. "And it's not up to you to decide whether they can or can't look after their own daughter. That said, it's up to Ellie - Elena - where she wants to go. If she doesn't want to go back to her parents but wants to stay here on Earth, I'm sure something can be arranged. Right, General?"
Jack raised his eyebrows, surprised the conversation had turned to him, almost having enjoyed the sight of her arguing with the little grey alien. "I'll have to brief the President and the Joint Chiefs. See if I can get authorisation.."
"They've granted permission for identities to be created for people before," Sam interrupted, crossing her arms defiantly over her chest.
"In those cases, the people in question had no relatives on Earth. They were not from this world, Colonel Carter, therefore they did not run the risk of being recognised." Teal'c spoke quickly, before Jack could, earning himself a grateful look from the General and a glare from Sam.
"If Elena - Ellie - stays here, we'd have to find her parents," Daniel joined in, giving Sam a sympathetic look that only served to frustrate her further. "She'd have to learn to trust them so.. It doesn't matter if that happens here or if Thor finds her parents on another world."
"Another world might not have the facilities to protect her," Sam muttered darkly. She chewed on her lip for a few seconds, her mind racing. "If she stays here, she can stay with me. I'll take her. Then she won't have to bond immediately with anyone else."
Daniel and Jack stared at her in stunned silence. Thor tilted his head to the side in consideration but Teal'c shifted uncomfortably.
"Colonel Carter, would that not be difficult given your relationship with Pete Shanahan?" He hated himself for voicing the problem, for seeing the flash of defeat in her eyes. "He was involved in the investigation regarding Elena Jordan's disappearance. Will he not recognise her and insist you alert her parents?"
Sam uncrossed her arms and shrugged her shoulders, fighting the helplessness that threatened to overwhelm her. She didn't know why but she desperately didn't want Thor to take Elena. She wanted to keep her, wanted to protect her. Maybe it was because of what she'd shared with the little girl the day - and night - before but she didn't want to let her go. She already cared about her and didn't know if she could stand losing someone else she loved. "I'll explain the situation to him. He'll understand."
"And if he doesn't?" Daniel pressed her gently, taking a step closer and putting what was meant to be a supportive hand on her arm. "What if he tells them anyway and they take her away?"
"He won't." Her answer was confident even if she'd hesitated before giving it. "Not if I ask him."
"Will it not affect your relationship?" Teal'c asked in concern. "What if he asks you to chose between him and the child?"
"The child has a name," Sam repeated quietly, her voice firm. "And if he asks me to choose, I will. I'll make the right choice. But we're getting carried away with ourselves." She turned back to Thor, filing away that part of the conversation to dwell on at a later date. "Will you give us a few days to sort something out? If we can prove to you then that we'll be able to keep her safe, that I'll be able to protect her, will you let her stay?"
Thor studied her. She could feel his gaze burning her, searching her. She fought the urge to hold her breath and held her back straight, her shoulders squared.
Eventually he nodded. "If you can prove you are able to personally take responsibility for her, if O'Neill can make the appropriate arrangements, we will allow the child to stay with you. You must give me your word that if you fail to convince us of your ability to protect her you will not attempt to stop me from removing her from my custody."
"You have my word. I won't stop you from taking her if I can't convince you she belongs here with me." Sam gave him a sharp nod in return, crossing her arms defensively across her chest.
"I will return in two days. O'Neill, I will bring the methods of treatment for you then." Thor blinked out in a flash of light, his words seeming more like a threat to Sam.
She didn't turn to look at her teammates. She didn't need to; she could easily picture the expressions on their faces. Daniel would be stunned, Jack would be surprised - and confused - and Teal'c.. Teal'c would be Teal'c.
"I know you probably think I'm being emotional or making a rash decision," she told them quietly, still not facing them, still not looking away from where Thor had been. "But I can't let him take her."
"Do you wish to be Elena's mother, Colonel Carter?" Teal'c moved closer to her and spoke quietly, so quietly she wasn't sure Jack and Daniel could hear. "Or do you simply wish to be a mother?"
She did turn then, meeting his gaze and smiling softly. "I want to be her mother. I want to give her the childhood she deserves and protect her for as long as I can from anyone who would hurt her."
Teal'c nodded and held out his hand, waiting for her to take it before he spoke again. "Then I will assist you as much as I can. However," he turned to face Jack, his hand still holding hers. "I wish to return to my son tomorrow, O'Neill. We plan to reveal any betrayers amongst our people and my presence has been requested."
"How are you going to do that?" Jack asked curiously, hating the fact that he had to watch the action from his bed, that he couldn't be standing eye-to-eye - eye to almost eye - with his friend. "You going to interrogate them?"
"In a manner of speaking." Teal'c inclined his head. "A Goa'uld device similar in design to the Tok'ra zatarc detector was recently acquired by my people. We believe that the Jaffa who acquired it may have done so in order to gain our trust. He shall be among the first we test."
"How did they 'acquire' it?" Daniel regretted the question the moment it left his mouth. Teal'c didn't answer, though the look on his face spoke volumes. "Okay, we won't talk about it."
"Are you going to share it with us?" Jack wanted to know. He met Teal'c's gaze evenly and tried to appear like the intimidating General he tried so hard to be. "The technology? When this is over?"
"The others will ultimately make that choice, O'Neill, however I will do my best to influence them in our favour," Teal'c answered smoothly, choosing his words carefully so that he both answered the question and reminded them who he'd pledged his alliance to. "I would have requested that you allow Daniel Jackson to join me to assist but given the circumstances I believe he may be needed here."
"I don't know about that." Jack glanced at Daniel, then at Carter who shrugged, then back to Daniel. "It's up to you. If you want to go help Teal'c, feel free. Carter and I will manage here."
"I think I'll go with Teal'c," Daniel replied slowly. "You guys can handle it here and I can be there if Teal'c needs back up."
"So it's decided. Teal'c, Daniel, you guy's ship out whenever you're ready. Carter.. Get me a phone, will you?" He gave her a lopsided grin when she shot him a questioning glance. "Might as well get the ball rolling and let the President know what's going on."
SG-1 went their separate ways, leaving Jack behind. He wasn't alone, though. As soon as Teal'c and Daniel had followed Sam out, he leaned over the side of his bed and stared down at the young face staring guiltily back up at him.
"Are you mad at me?" Elena asked as she crawled out from under his bed. She ducked her head when he grinned at her and clasped her hands together. "I just wanted to know if I could stay."
"I'm not mad, kiddo." Jack moved his legs to the side as she climbed up on the bed to sit beside him. "Did you hear what you wanted to?"
Elena nodded, a smile spreading across her face. "Sam wants me to stay with her."
Jack studied her expression carefully. "Is that what you want, too?"
Elena nodded again and Jack wondered if it was the first time in her young life she'd actually got what she genuinely wanted - and not what everyone thought was best for her. Elena watched him carefully, her eyes taking in every little thing that showed on his face. "Sam's different, too," she said softly, catching him off guard. "She's not like us but she's special, too. I don't know if she knows it yet, though."
Making room on the bed for her to crawl up and sit side-by-side with him, Jack looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "When you say she's not like us.. What do you mean? Why are we special?"
"Because we're closer to them than everyone else," she answered matter-of-factly. "Thor said we were special 'cause we were one step closer to the fifth race than everyone else. I don't know what the fifth race is but that's what he said."
Jack didn't bother to correct her on her mistake and instead thought about her words, considering them. "Are you closer to them than I am?"
"Yes." Again, she nodded and answered in a voice that implied she was more knowledgeable than someone her age should be. "You weren't born special, I was. That's why the bad people will want to hurt me. They'll want to know why I was born differently. Thor said it's just 'cause it's time, that more children will be born special, I was just earlier than they expected." She twisted to face him then, her eyes locking with his and holding his gaze. "Do you think Sam will want the other children, too, if they need protecting? Or will she just want me?"
"I think you're special, Elena," Jack answered seriously. "The other children might not need protecting, we don't know when they'll be born or what their homes will be like but you.. You're special. Sam loves you, that's why she wants you."
To his disbelief and mounting discomfort, tears began to fill her eyes. "I've never had someone love me before. What if I do something that makes her stop?"
The question had been asked with such sincerity that Jack found he had to swallow the lump that had risen in his throat before he could answer. "I don't think it's possible for you to do anything that'll make her stop."
Elena looked up at him with hope in her eyes and Jack opened his mouth to say more, only to close it again when the woman in question pulled back the curtains around his bed. "There you are." Sam's gaze fell immediately on Elena and she smiled, a smile Jack had only ever seen her use with Cassandra Fraiser. "I've been looking for you."
"I know." Elena grinned mischievously and held her arms up, indicating that she wanted to be lifted from the bed.
Sam was all too happy to oblige her, scooping the child up and holding her, balancing her on her hip as she turned her attention to the man who remained on the bed. "I asked Doctor Brightman about getting you a phone, she's going to see if she can bring one through for you."
"That's good. Sooner we get this sorted the better." He managed to give her a reassuring grin, sensing - maybe in the same way Elena did - that she was feeling nervous that she wouldn't be able to prove herself to Thor, and to the people that mattered. "So did the Doc say when we were being sprung from this place?"
Sam gave him an apologetic smile, tightening her hold on Elena when the little girl let her head rest on her shoulder and yawned. "She said I could go and take Elena with me, with your permission. But you're going to have to stay here until Thor comes back and treats you."
Jack sighed dramatically, rolling his eyes and letting his head fall back against the wall he was leaning against. "So that's it? You guys are going to desert me? First Teal'c and Daniel, now you and Ellie. Does no one have a sense of loyalty anymore?"
"We'll come back and keep you company, Sir." Sam responded with a small smile as she felt more than heard Elena giggle into her shoulder. "Actually.. I was wondering if you'd keep Elena here with you for a few hours. There's something I need to sort out before I can take her home with me, again with your permission, Sir."
He got the message loud and clear - and knew Elena probably did, too. "No problem, Carter. Take all the time you need. Ellie and me have a conversation to finish, anyway. Then when you come back you can take her home, enough of all this permission crap. I'm not going to keep the two of you confined to base just because I am.. Although the thought is pretty tempting.."
"Is that okay with you, Ellie?" Sam asked the child in her arms when Elena started to pull away. "I promise I'll only be a few hours."
"Then you'll take me home? Where we're going to live?" Elena asked with a look of excitement on her face. "You really want me to live with you?"
"Of course I do." Sam smiled back at her and gave her another hug before setting her down on the bed beside the General. "I think we might end up moving into a bigger house eventually but for a few months at least, it'll be our home. Well, I better go so I'll see you later." She turned on her heel and started towards the door to the infirmary. "Oh, and Sir?"
Jack looked up from staring down at Sam. "Carter?"
"If the answer you get isn't the one I want.. You can tell them from me that I'll have my resignation ready for them by the end of the day if that's what they want." Her expression was determined, her voice serious.
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," was all Jack could think of in response. Together with Elena, he watched Sam nod and walk out of the infirmary, wondering what else she might have to sacrifice to get custody of the child she wanted.
"Do you think her boyfriend will like me?" Elena piped up from beside him, reminding him of her presence and shaking him from her thoughts.
"I'm sure he will," Jack found himself saying - and surprised himself by hoping it was the truth. He knew very little about her relationship with Pete - out of personal choice, Daniel and Teal'c would be more than willing to fill him in on the details if he asked - but he knew Sam had started to care, quite deeply, for the man she was dating. And he didn't want to see her get hurt, not again. He'd do anything to make sure she didn't get hurt, remembering in some distant part of his mind convincing General Hammond to get Shanahan the clearance he'd needed for Carter to tell him about the SGC.
"If he doesn't like me, can you be her boyfriend?" Elena asked innocently, once again catching him unawares. "You like me. And you like Sam, I know you do."
"It's a little bit more complicated than that, Elli." He hoped the hot flush he felt wasn't showing on his face - the last thing he wanted was for Doctor Brightman to assume he wasn't well enough for visitors. "You see, Carter - Sam - she's involved with this other guy, and there's reasons why.."
"Why you can't be together," Elena finished for him, a mischievous glint in her eyes. "I know that. But she likes you, too. I know she does," she added confidently. Then she tilted her head to the side and stared at him speculatively. "What's your favourite place in the world, Jack?"
Relieved though confused at the apparent change in conversation, Jack let his mind drift. "I think I'd have to say my cabin," he answered eventually, glancing down to see her reaction.
To his surprise, Elena smiled at him. Conspiratorially. She then leaned into him, against his chest and let her eyes close.
Then she started to glow and Jack found himself leaving the infirmary behind, travelling instead to a place where he'd much rather be.
"I've been here before," Elena told him when they found themselves standing on the wood decking at the back of his cabin. "I came here with Sam." She looked up at him curiously, sensing his confusion - and his hope. "She doesn't think she'll come back but you'll let her, won't you?"
"Ellie.." Jack let his voice trail off, his eyes lingering over their surroundings, over his lake, over his cabin, before slowly travelling back to her upturned face. "You and Sam are welcome here anytime, okay? Maybe you should tell her that when she comes back."
"Okay." Elena smiled and took his hand. "Can I see inside?"
Only too happy to oblige, Jack turned and led the way inside, marvelling to himself at how real it felt. On how natural it felt.
But it wasn't real. None of it was real.
He was sitting on the porch when she got home and it was with more than a little bit of guilt that she realised she hadn't called him to let him know she was going into work.
"Your message said it was important." Pete greeted her with a smile. He got to his feet and moved to embrace her, taking a step back when she stayed tense in his arms and studied her expression more closely. "What's wrong, Sam?"
Sam shrugged uncomfortably "Let's go inside," she told him quietly. She managed to give him a small smile before brushing passed him and unlocking the front door. She walked straight ahead, turning into the kitchen and standing on one side of the bench in the middle of the room. "Can I get you a drink or something?"
Pete moved to stand beside her, taking her fidgeting hands in his. "Tell me what's wrong, Sam. It doesn't fill a guy with confidence to get a message from his girlfriend saying 'we need to talk' and 'it's important'. Do you want to break up with me? Is that what you're so nervous about? Because we can talk about it, we can try and sort it out.."
"I.. You're not going to like what I have to say." Sam managed another smile and laced her fingers with his, pulling him towards the table. "It doesn't feel like I saw you two days ago. So much has happened since then, I don't know where to start."
Lifting their joint hands to his lips, he kissed her knuckles as they sat down. "Just start where it feels right and we'll take it from there."
For a long time, Sam didn't say anything. She looked at their hands, then back up at his face and took a deep breath. "You weren't so wrong when you joked about Elena Jordan's disappearance being linked to aliens. Not entirely. She turned up at the SGC, Pete. Elena isn't your average little girl. She's special, she needs protection as well as love and affection and I think you'll agree she wasn't getting any of that from her parents." She lowered her gaze to their hands again, noticing his fingers tensed around hers. "It's a long story and some of it's classified so I can't tell you it all but Elena needs to be with someone who can protect her and love her and give her everything her parents have deprived her of. You said it yourself, they don't even care that she's gone. It would be better for all concerned if she, if Elena stayed missing to them and was adopted by someone else. Given a new life, maybe a new name.."
"A new life?" Pete repeated incredulously, withdrawing his hands and getting to his feet. He walked away from the table, raking his hands through his hair as he turned back towards her. "With who?"
Sam met his gaze evenly, bracing herself in preparation. "A new life with me," she answered clearly. "I want to adopt Elena, Pete. I've spent some time with her over the last few days and it's what I want. I can protect her, I can love her.. I just need your help in keeping her true identity a secret. I need you to promise you won't let it slip who she really is."
Pete stared at her in stunned silence, his jaw clenching and unclenching every other second or so. "If you wanted me to keep it a secret you shouldn't have told me," he said eventually, letting his arms drop to his sides. "I can't help you keep this a secret, Sam. I love you but I can't lie for you. Not about this. It's my job to reunite that kid with her parents. It's where she belongs."
"I understand you feel an obligation to them but you haven't met her." She got to her feet and approached him, flinching when he took a step backwards. Away from her. "Just promise me you won't say anything to anyone until you've had a chance to meet her. Until you've talked to her and heard her side of the story. She doesn't want to go back to them, Pete. You'll understand that when you meet her."
"But she wants to stay with you, is that it?" He continued to start at her, folding his arms across his chest. "Or is just that you've grown attached to her and don't want to let go?"
"If she wanted to go back to them I'd let her. She wants to stay with me." Sam forced a smile. "She feels safe with me and I love her so much already. I just want to protect her and give her the childhood she.."
"And what about us? What about me?" His questions stopped her mid-explanation. "Did you stop to think about how this would affect us? Assuming you get to go ahead and keep her.. Don't I get a say in this? Or is that it? You get me to keep your secret, maybe even sign a non-disclosure of some kind and then you show me the door to make room for your newly invented daughter? Is that how it's going to work?"
Sam faltered and shrugged. "I hadn't thought about it. But just because Elena will be in my life it doesn't mean that you can't be, too. I'm sure she'll like you and I know you'll like her.."
"I don't want children, Sam."
Five devastating words.
"I haven't been completely honest with you," Pete started to explain. "You never asked why my marriage broke up so I never told you. Melissa, my wife, she wanted children. She knew I didn't but she thought she could change my mind. She couldn't. It's not that I don't care about kids but the thought of being a father.. It scares the hell out of me, Sam. She said I was being selfish and maybe she was right but I'd made it clear before she married me that I didn't want kids. So she eventually gave up, stopped pressuring me. I thought it was over until she told me she was pregnant. She was leaving me to be with the father of her child because he could give her what I wouldn't."
"I'm sorry, Pete, she must have really hurt you." Sam bit down on her lip and took another step forward.
"She chose children over me, over what we had." Pete's expression carefully concealed everything he felt but his eyes reflected his hurt. "Are you doing the same thing? Because if you are, I need to know now. I need to know before I fall any more in love with you."
"You're asking me to choose between the two of you," Sam realised with a start. When he only stared back at her, confirming her suspicions, she moved back towards the table, sinking down into her chair. "I can't do that. I love you both."
"I can't be around you if you have a daughter, Sam. I'd screw it up, it would bring back too many memories." He softened his voice and gazed at her tenderly - hopefully - waiting for an answer.
"You don't want children?" She asked quietly, her eyes slowly rising to lock on his. "Not even if they're ours?" His expression was all the answer she needed. Swallowing hard, breaking eye contact, Sam shrugged helplessly again. "I do. I want children.. Someday I want to have children of my own and right now I want to make Elena mine." Her gaze flickered upwards, an apology for an answer she couldn't voice. "I'm sorry, Pete."
He nodded, unable to speak passed the lump in his throat and turned, walking out of the kitchen, out of the house.
Out of her life.
Sam held it in until the door closed behind him. Then she let her head fall forward to rest on her hands, her shoulder shaking as soundless sobs wracked her slender frame.
She had showered and changed her clothes in preparation for returning to the SGC. Sam gave herself a cursory glance in her rear-view mirror before sighing to herself and telling herself it would have to do.
At least her eyes weren't red and puffy - thank god for makeup.
Her shoulders squared, she sent the guards and SF's and various SGC personnel she passed on her way fake smiles, fake smiles they either didn't see through or weren't feeling brave enough to question her on.
But one person at the SGC would, she knew, and it was that person she was going to see.
The infirmary was quiet when she got there. The curtain still drawn around General O'Neill's bed. She approached it quietly, listening for the expected voices but hearing none and wondering why.
Her curiosity was satisfied when she pulled back the curtain enough to slip inside and a small, genuine smile broke out across her face.
Both of them were sound asleep. Both wearing peaceful smiles, leaning into one another.
She swallowed the lump rising in her throat and looked down at the floor, taking a few moments to compose herself before intruding on the moment. When she looked up she was relieved to find she wouldn't have to wake them both up - one of them was awake, staring at her with concerned eyes.
"Everything go okay, Carter?" She watched as he carefully disentangled himself from the young girl's embrace, swinging his feet over the side of the bed and standing up. He adjusted the sheets over Elena's form and motioned for her to follow him out from behind the curtains. When they were both standing next to one of the other beds, Jack sat down on the edge of it and stared up at her. "I take it Pete didn't react how you wanted. Does he have a problem with not telling Elena's parents he knows where she is?"
Sam shook her head and found herself pushing yet another lump down as she wrapped her arms around herself. "It's the whole having a child he has a problem with. Pete doesn't want children," she clarified on seeing his raised eyebrow. "Apparently he's never wanted them."
"And you do?" Jack lifted a hand at the surprised expression arranging her features, holding back a response until he could continue. "You've never said anything to us before, about wanting to have a family. I know you were tempted to adopt Cassie but there's been no indication since then that it was something you wanted."
"I guess not." She shrugged and let her arms drop to her sides. "I guess it was something I thought everyone already knew - that everyone expected it so I didn't need to say it. I thought it was something Pete would want, too, so I never said anything to him but I guess I should've done. It would've saved us both a lot of time.."
"A lot of heartache?" He finished for her and when she glanced up again she was surprised that the sympathy in his eyes was genuine, matched by the concern still showing on his face. "Do you love him?"
"Obviously not enough." She took a step forward and turned, sitting beside him on the bed. "If I really loved him, I'd have chosen him over Elena, wouldn't I?"
Jack looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "Did he ask you to choose?"
Sam nodded and stared down at her hands. "He basically said it was him or Elena. I chose Elena. I love her. It's strange to think that I love her more than the guy I've been dating for the last eight months when I've only known her for a few days but that's the way it is." She turned her head, meeting his gaze evenly. "Doesn't say much about our relationship does it?"
Unsure of what she wanted him to say, of what she wanted to say, Jack shrugged and looked away. "Maybe he'll come around. He might change his mind, especially if he meets her.. I can't imagine anyone not falling under her spell."
"He won't change his mind," she answered softly. "And to be honest I don't think I want him to." At his quick, surprised glance, she mimicked his shrug and glanced back down at her hands. "I've been wondering about breaking up with him for a while. Maybe this is how it's meant to be. It wasn't right, it didn't feel right.. We didn't have enough in common, there were things he'd never be able to understand about me and I can't be with someone who would never be able to see how important what I do here is, or how it's changed me as a person since I joined SG-1."
"I've been meaning to talk to you about that." He cleared his throat, avoided her gaze - and avoided the topic of conversation they'd both become experts at avoiding. "When you get custody of Elena, what are you going to do about your job here? You still want to stay on SG-1 or do you have something else in mind?"
Sam sighed heavily and curled her legs up on the bed beside her, unwittingly leaning into him slightly in those moments it took for her to regain her balance. "I'd like to stay on SG-1 full time but that wouldn't be fair to Elena. I can't be leaving her every other day for God knows how long knowing I might not come back.. I was wondering if I could cut down on my hours in the field, maybe split it half and half between SG-1 and the lab? That is if you'll agree to it. You are the one in charge now."
"I'll agree to it, if it means keeping you here." He grinned at her when she turned her head slightly to look at him. "The Joint Chiefs and the President kept me on the phone for a while. They're not completely enamoured with the idea - and they haven't signed off on it just yet, they said they'd need to do some thinking, but when I told them you'd consider leaving if they said no, they said they'd talk about it some more and get back in touch."
Especially when he'd threatened to leave as well but that was something she didn't need to know. Just like she didn't need to know that they were almost completely opposed to the idea - until he'd mentioned casually that he'd lose both her and himself if they turned her down without at least considering the possibility.
"Thank you." A voice at the back of her head told her she should add 'sir' to her statement but she ignored it. She wasn't thanking him as her General, not entirely. She was thanking him as her friend, as everything else he meant to her but that she couldn't acknowledge. "It's nice to know I'm not completely alone on this."
"You'll never be alone, Carter." His grin relaxed into a smile, a warm, supporting smile that made her feel better and helped heal her bruised heart just that little bit more. "You've got me, you've got Teal'c and Daniel.. And if I'm not mistaken, you've got a really cute little girl who's spying on us from between the gap in those curtains."
Elena giggled even as Sam's gaze flickered in her direction and she slipped between the curtains with a smile on her face. "You're back!" She grinned up at Sam and walked towards them, climbing up on the bed and managing to plant herself between the two grown ups. "Can you keep me now?"
Sam chuckled and wrapped her arms around the child, holding her close and reminding herself just what she'd chosen over a future with her lover; reassuring herself she'd made the right choice. "I'll do whatever I have to to make sure I can, Ellie."
Elena tilted her head backwards and stared up at them. "I'm not Ellie. I don't want to be Elena anymore."
"Oh?" Trading a glance with Jack, Sam took note of the surprise on his face and knew that Elena's decision was not one of the things they'd discussed in her absence. "Then what do you want to be called?"
"Grace," Elena supplied immediately, her smile widening at the look of surprise that spread across their faces. "You like that name," she said to Sam when the Colonel remained quiet. "It's one of your favourites, isn't it?"
Instantly, her mind filled with the image of another child, of a little girl who didn't look that different from the child in her arms. Could it be..? No. The Grace in her subconscious had been a hallucination. She wasn't real. The Grace - in her arms was. "It's a lovely name," Sam managed after a few moments. "It is one of my favourites.. How did you know that?"
The newly named Grace smiled knowingly and cuddled further into the woman holding her. "I felt it really, when we were on the dock. You asked me what my favourite colour was, and my favourite food and you were thinking about favourite names and things and Grace was one of the names you thought of. Do you know a Grace? Or can I be Grace?"
Ignoring the look she could feel being directed at her from the General on hearing Elena let it slip where they'd been, Sam instead focused on answering the question the best she could without giving too much away - she'd told her teammates and General Hammond about her hallucination of the child but she hadn't told them her name. She hadn't been able to for some reason, just as she had told her teammates they'd all featured in her hallucinations but hadn't been able to tell them just what 'they' had said to her. Especially not the General. She didn't know if she'd ever be able to tell him - not with a certain kiss still burning in her memory.
Elena - Grace giggled and she felt herself blush, knowing she wasn't the only one aware of the thoughts going through her mind. "I once knew a little girl called Grace," Sam answered eventually. "She looked kind of like you, actually. It suits you. If that's what you want to be called, that's what we'll call you."
"Good," Elena sighed softly and closed her eyes, not tired but wanting to focus on the feelings around her - on her own feelings of contentedness. "Then I'm Grace Carter," she murmured. "Your daughter."
Neither Sam nor Jack could think of anything to say to her, neither of them wanted to tell her it wasn't certain that Sam would be allowed to adopt her, both knowing that if she really wanted to know the truth she'd be able to sense it.
So instead they sat there, listening to her occasional chatter, letting themselves be lulled into the false sense of security Elena was creating.
Letting themselves believe, just for a moment, that it was that easy.
"The answer is no, General. I'm sorry but Colonel Carter is needed at the SGC. We need her to give her full time and attention to her work there She can't afford a distraction like Ms. Jordan if her career is to progress the way we plan for it to."
Jack stared at the receiver in his hand, fully aware that the person on the other end was waiting for him to agree. He didn't. Clearing his throat, he held it back to his face, his features set in grim determination. "With all due respect, Sir, you can't dictate what Colonel Carter does in her personal life. If she wants to have a family, a life away from the SGC, that's her right. You can't stop her."
"Perhaps not but we can stop her from adopting Ms. Jordan. If you had her best interests at heart, General, you would be discouraging her from this line of thought. Colonel Carter cannot follow in your footsteps and take over from you as base commander if she cannot commit fully to the SGC."
"You want me to groom her for General?" Jack shook his head, already feeling it begin to pound. "It's nice you have that kind of confidence and expectation in her but she's entitled to make up her own mind. The SGC isn't everything, there's more to life than careers and working your way to the top."
"Colonel Carter may later decide to leave the SGC and have children of her own and we will be able to do anything to stop her. However, due to the complications involved in his situation, we can't allow Colonel Carter to adopt Elena Jordan."
"Then you realise what you'll be losing," Jack responded quietly. "Carter will hand in her resignation the moment she finds out and I'll not be far behind. And you can bet that will follow suit and Teal'c will ask to go live with his son. You're prepared to accept that? You're prepared to lose us all because of this?"
"Is that a threat General?" The voice on the other end was smooth and calm.
"It's a warning," Jack muttered, his eyes moving to toe door when he heard a giggle he was quickly learning to love hearing. "You have one day to reconsider."
He hung up just as Grace Carter bounced into the room, a brown paper bag in her hands and a mischievous look on her face. "We have something for you, General Jack!"
"Really?" He grinned at her but his eyes stared passed her at the woman lingering in the doorway. He could tell by the expression on Sam's face that she'd overheard some of the conversation - or that she had a sense of how it had gone, anyway. "Can I see what it is?"
"Sure!" Grace handed him the bag and stared at him expectantly. She grinned when he opened it and took out first the French fries, followed by the burger they'd brought for him. "Mom said you didn't like the food Doctor Brightman tried to give you," she told him matter of factly, grinning again at the look Jack gave her.
"Mom?" He repeated, his gaze once again finding Sam's. Sam flushed but smiled, stepping further into the room. "It kind of fits."
"Thanks." Sam hesitated, her gaze falling on Grace before travelling back to his face. "I'm guessing it isn't good news."
"It's what we expected," Jack answered after a short pause, giving her his best reassuring smile. "They'll get in touch with their final decision tomorrow, after Thor's been and agreed to let Gracie stay."
Sam raised her eyebrows. "Gracie?"
"It kind of fits." Jack shrugged, his attention distracted by the little girl who pinched one of his French fries and giggled guiltily. "Hey, you. I thought you brought those for me."
"We did," Grace answered smartly. "But it's polite to share."
Jack rolled his eyes and pinched a fry before she could steal another. "That's right, it is."
Sam sat down in the chair next to the bed, opening her arms to Grace when she moved to sit on her lap. She wanted to say more, wanted to ask what exactly had been said on the telephone but didn't want to do so in front of Grace.
She didn't want to upset the little girl or dash her hopes.
She should have realised that Grace already knew.
"It's going to be okay," Grace murmured encouragingly after a long pause. She ducked her head when she felt Jack and Sam look at her, focusing instead on the floor as she tried to ignore the anxiousness she could feel from both of them. "You'll think of something," she continued, lifting her gaze to meet Jack's. "You'll make it so they let me stay, I know you will."
Jack smiled thinly at her, wishing he could feel her confidence.
Wishing he could be certain that his two companions wouldn't both be nursing broken hearts in twenty-four hours time.
When Sam got home that night, it was to find she had a visitor sitting on the porch chair. Cassandra Fraiser stood up to greet her but barely reacted when Grace introduced herself as being Sam's daughter.
"You can explain later," Cassandra said to her surrogate godmother as the two embraced on the porch. "Right now, I'd kill for a long hot bath and a night on your couch."
"I think we can arrange that." Sam looped her arm around Cassandra's waist and led the teenager into the house on the heels of the seven year old. "And I will explain everything. Tomorrow morning. I promise."
She was too exhausted to even try to put the situation into words that evening, though when morning rolled around nine hours later, she didn't feel any better.
Today was the day.
The day Thor made his mind up, the day her superiors reached a decision.
The day Grace could be taken from her.
As Grace splashed around in her bath, Sam and Cassandra sat on the porch sipping coffee, with the younger woman listening intently as the story unfolded.
"Wow," she said when Sam was eventually finished. "I go away for a few months and come back to find you've got a seven year old daughter."
Sam shrugged and smiled softly. "It's a strange world, what can I say?"
Cassandra studied the expression on Sam's face; saw the contentedness, the hope - and the fear. "She's cute. So.." She paused when Sam looked at her, staring deeply into her cup. "Can I ask you something?"
Sam set her cup to one side and leaned back in her chair. "You can ask me anything, Cassie, you know that."
"Do you ever regret it?" Cassandra forced herself to meet Sam's gaze. "Not pushing more to get custody of me?"
"Honestly? Yes. Sometimes. But it would've been selfish of me." Sam shrugged and sighed softly, casting her mind back to her various arguments with General Hammond - arguments that had all been shot down. "I wasn't ready to take care of someone else back there, I wasn't even sure I could take care of myself. Besides, you had a great Mom." A sad smile tugged up the corners of her mouth. "Janet was much better at it than I would or could ever have been."
Cassandra sighed, her eyes misting over as she stared at Sam's small garden. "I still miss her."
"Me, too." Sam reached out and took her hand, lacing their fingers together. For several minutes, they sat in silence, remembering the woman that had meant so much to them both. Eventually, Sam broke the silence with another heavy sigh. "I wish she was here. She'd know better than me how to handle this."
"How to handle what?" Tilting her head to the side, dragging her thoughts back to the present, Cassandra stared at her curiously.
"They don't want to give me custody of Grace," Sam explained softly. "General O'Neill's pushing it but I'm not sure they're going to say yes."
Cassandra bit her lip, trying and failing to think of something reassuring to say. "Well.. They're not that important. Jack will probably be able to convince them.. What about Pete, though? What does he think?"
"What he thinks doesn't matter anymore," Sam answered with a distracted sigh. "We broke up."
"No. Really?" Staring at her in surprise, wondering why it hadn't been mentioned before, Cassandra leaned forward slightly in her chair. "Why?"
Shrugging casually, Sam did her best to fix a reassuring smile on her face. "He didn't sign up to be a father, not that I'd asked him to or had any intention of asking him to be a father to her. He asked me to choose between the two of them. I chose my daughter."
Cassandra thought over the answer and nodded decisively. "Good."
Rolling her eyes at the teenagers answer, Sam untangled their hands and picked up her lukewarm coffee, sipping it tentatively. "I thought you liked him."
"I did. But I think you can do better." Cassandra hid a smile of her own and motioned the to the vehicle travelling up the road towards Sam's house. "Hey, look, isn't that Jack's truck? I thought he was still confined to the SGC."
"He was." Her breath leaving her lungs in a rush, Sam felt the colour drain from her cheeks. She got to her feet, rising on shaky legs. "That must mean Thor's back. They must've made a decision." She took a deep breath and glanced distractedly at Cassandra. "Would you mind getting Grace ready? In case she has to leave?"
"It's not a problem." Cassandra stood and reached out to hug Sam quickly. "It'll be okay, Sam. Jack won't let them take her away from you."
Managing to force a smile at the teenager's words, Sam stepped out of the embrace and walked down the first two steps of her porch, her stomach tightening at the expression on the General's face as he walked towards her.
The decision had been made. And it wasn't the one she wanted.
"They don't want me to keep her, do they?" Sam asked before Jack even had a chance to speak. "Are you here to take her back to the SGC?"
"That's why they think I'm here," Jack answered with a shrug. "Thor's perfectly happy with you having Grace. He even approves of the name. But the President and the Joint Chief's don't think it's a good idea. They think she belongs with her parents, that she'd only distract you from your career.."
"Distract me from my career?" Sam's eyebrows rose and she folded her arms over her chest defensively. "Isn't it up to me whether I want to focus on my career or not?"
"That's what I said, Carter, they just wouldn't listen." Jack shrugged his shoulders, his hands in his pockets. "They said I either take Gracie - Elena - back to the mountain within the hour or they come here and get her."
Sam nodded, feeling much too cold in the light summer breeze. "Are you going to take her away?"
"I don't know." He met her gaze and motioned to the chairs. "I've had an idea, Carter, but I don't think you're going to like it. Maybe we should sit down.."
"Okay." She led the way, the knot in her stomach growing bigger as the seconds ticked by. They wanted to take Grace away from her. They were going to take Grace away from her. No matter what his idea, she had a sneaking suspicion she'd go along with it if it meant she was able to keep the little girl she'd become so attached to. "What are you thinking?"
Jack took a deep breath and looked away, grasping his hands together in his lap. "I left both of our resignations on my desk so they won't be able to charge us with going AWOL," he started softly, bringing his gaze back to hers. "If we leave now, we'll get a good start on them. I don't know where we'll go but disappearing for a few days should be enough to prove to them that we're serious."
"Wouldn't it also be classed as kidnapping?" Sam asked slowly, her mind pondering the suggestion even as the rational voice at the back of her head said it was stupid idea. "Grace doesn't belong to us, wouldn't we be kidnapping her?"
"Elena Jordan has already been kidnapped," Jack reminded her with a shrug. "And Grace Carter doesn't officially exist, though if she did, she'd be with her mother so it wouldn't constitute as kidnapping."
"We could go to the cabin," Grace chimed in from the doorway. Cassandra stood behind her, watching them with obvious interest. "They'd find us there eventually but it's your safe place," she addressed them both. "Can we go to the cabin? I'd like to go there for real."
Sam sighed and looked to Cassandra, who smiled and gave her a small nod. "I'll cover for you here," Cassandra added calmly. "If they come looking, I can send them in the wrong direction. That should give you plenty of time to get there and like Jack said, it'll show them you're serious about wanting to keep Grace, that you're serious about giving up your career for her."
"Okay then," Sam said after a long, tense pause. "I should go and pack some things.."
"There isn't time for that, Carter," Jack reminded her softly. "We'll stop somewhere on the way and get supplies. It'd be best if we go now."
"He's right, Sam." Cassandra smiled again and took a step forward, holding Grace's hand in hers. "You guys go ahead, I'll tell them you're heading to your brother's house.. That should give you a day or so at least."
"Right. Okay." Her expression stunned, Sam stood up. "Then we should go."
Grace slid her hand out from Cassandra's and wrapped her small fingers around Sam's. "It'll be okay," she promised the older woman, tugging gently to follow the General down the steps towards the truck. "We're going to see the cabin. For real. Aren't you excited?"
Excited was one word for it, Sam thought wryly.
After eight hours of driving with only one stop to buy the clothes and supplies they needed, Jack decided to pull over at a roadside café, insisting that they all had something to eat and drink before continuing their journey.
"It's another seven hours, Carter," he reasoned as the threesome got out of the truck. "If we have something to eat now, Grace can sleep the rest of the way."
"Only if you agree to switch places for a while," Sam responded evenly, holding Grace's hand as they entered the café and found themselves a booth. "I know you're protective of your truck but I'm a good driver, I promise. I won't crash or scratch it or anything like that."
"If that's the only way I'm going to get you to eat something, then fine." Jack shrugged and slipped into the opposite side of the booth. "But we stop again after five hours and I take over. You'll never be able to find the way otherwise, even if I did try to give you directions."
"Fine by me." Satisfied that she'd won part of the argument - that she was able to regain some degree of control - Sam leaned back and let her eyes slide shut. "I can't believe we're doing this."
"We're doing it for the right reasons," he reminded her quietly, nudging her foot under the table to remind her of Grace's presence. "So, Gracie, what do you want to eat?"
"Ice cream and jello," she piped up immediately, her eyes alight. "Please can I have ice cream and jello? Please?"
Just as Jack was about to answer with an indulgent 'yes', Sam threw him a look across the table. "You can have ice cream and jello afterwards but you need to have something proper first."
"This from the self-confessed junk food queen," Jack muttered not-so-quietly, earning a smile from Grace and a glare from Sam. "You said it yourself, you can't cook."
"I said I don't cook," Sam corrected haughtily. "Besides, what's to cook when you're fixing a salad?" Turning her attention back to Grace, she studied the menu and inwardly grimaced at the lack of healthy food available. "How about.. Macaroni and cheese?"
The expression on Grace's face was identical to the expression on Jack's. "I don't like macaroni."
"Have you ever tried it?" Sam raised a sceptical eyebrow at her, earning an innocent smile and unconvincing nod in return. She heard a muffled chuckled from the other side of the table and kicked the shin she found with her foot - hard. "Okay," she admitted defeat with a sigh. "How about chicken nuggets?"
"And French fries?" Grace pushed, giving her the sweetest, most hopeful expression she could muster. "Please?"
"And French fries but you can only eat the fries once you've eaten the salad it comes with," Sam added sternly.
Grace nodded in acceptance. "Okay. But not the onion. I don't like onion. It makes your mouth taste bad."
"Totally agree with you there, kid." Jack threw her a wink from across the table and leaned back in his seat. "So, what'll it be, Carter? Can we tempt you with a burger? Steak? Lots and lots of fries?"
Sam gave him a withering glance and primly lay the menu on the table in front of her. "I'll have the lasagne, with salad."
Jack grinned at her and slid out of the booth, motioning for Grace to join him. "Come on, kiddo, let's go order before your mom here decides to make us both eat vegetables."
Giggling again, Grace followed him, taking his offered hands and walking with him to the food counter. Sam watched them go, shaking her head, trying to shake the feelings of unease she had at being there with them - instead of back at home following orders.
"You've got a great kid there," a voice from behind her said and she turned to see an elderly couple staring at her with indulgent smiles.
"Takes after her father, though," the elderly woman said with a chuckle as she and her husband moved out of their seats. "You'll have your hands full with those two."
Sam smiled at them but made no move to correct them as they left the café. She leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes again, trying to relax, trying to convince herself they were doing the right thing.
Trying to convince herself it wasn't going to end in tears, more than likely her own.
It was dark by the time the truck finally crunched over the loose gravel next to the garage. Sam strained to see anything familiar from Grace's earlier vision of the cabin but it was too dark and her eyes were too tired to make out anything but the vaguest of shapes in the distance.
"I'll take the bags in and put the lights on. Can you manage Grace?"
Sam nodded sleepily, only taking in part of what he'd said. Grace was lying between them, her head on Sam's shoulder, her feet resting against Jack's thigh. Her expression was calm, her eyes moving under her eyelids as she dreamt, her mouth slightly ajar. "Okay."
She barely noticed him moving until his door was open and she was hit in the face by a blast of cool air. Then she blinked, waking up a little, and looked down at the sleeping child to make sure she was undisturbed. v Jack closed the truck down behind him as quietly as he could and Sam opened hers, carefully lifting Grace and holding her close, tentatively stepping outside into the cool night. She nudged the door shut and followed him across the path towards the main building on the grounds, stepping up onto the porch and waiting patiently.
He unlocked both the inner and outer door, holding them open so she could proceed him into the cabin. Sam stopped just inside and surveyed the cosy living room - wooden floors, a splash of colour where there was a well-worn rug in front of a stone fireplace. There was a couch at the far end of the room in front of a door that led somewhere, and opposite that in the corner of the room near the window was a small TV and VCR. In the opposite corner, there was a bookshelf stacked with faded books, magazines and even some comics, next to a small table and two padded chairs. Her gaze wandered and fell on the open doorway into the kitchen, to the bench that separated the kitchen from the main room and she smiled.
"It's nice," she murmured, knowing he was waiting for a response, feeling his gaze on her. "Very comfy."
"Glad you like it." There was a note of pride in his voice and she smiled again. "The bedroom's through there," he motioned to the door she'd spotted earlier. "It's the first door you come to, the bathrooms the second and the third on the end leads back into the kitchen. You guys can take the bed if you want and I'll grab the couch."
"There's only one bed?" Sam asked curiously, shifting Grace in her arms as they began to ache.
Jack seemed to flush under her gaze, no doubt remembering as she did the many invites she'd had to vacation there with him. "There's a guest house, too. A small open layout building just opposite the garage. I'll see about fixing it up when it's light. T complained about it being damp when he came fishing. Come to think about it I don't think there was anything he didn't complain about."
"Are you sure you're okay on the couch? It looks a bit small.." Sam eyed it critically.
"Positive. Go get her settled." He dropped the bags on the floor and looked around. "You want a coffee or tea or hot chocolate or something?"
"Hot chocolate would be nice." She had to smile again at the nerves he was displaying and started towards the door. "Could you bring Grace's things through? I want to try and get her in her pyjamas before she goes to sleep."
Together, they managed to get Grace changed from her day clothes into her pyjamas and settled in the bed - somehow without waking her. Lingering for a few moments to watch and make sure Grace was comfortable, Sam went back through to the living room and settled in front of the fire Jack had started on hearing him moving around in the kitchen.
Five minutes later, he was nudging her to get her to open her eyes, holding a steaming cup of hot chocolate out for her to take. "It's hot," he warned when she went to sip it immediately. "Careful you don't burn yourself."
"Yes, Sir," Sam retorted automatically with a smile on her lips as she rolled her eyes. Her expression grew more distant as her gaze returned to the fire and Jack sat down on the arm of the couch so he could face her. "Are we doing the right thing in bringing her here?" She voiced her doubts eventually. "Do you think it's going to help me get her or make it worse? Honestly?"
"I don't know, I don't know if it'll make a difference but I was thinking about it on the way here.." He stared down into his cup, feeling her gaze move to rest on him. "We could just disappear. Leave the cabin tomorrow, get jobs, change our names.. Be the Johnsons from Chicago with their daughter Grace or Abigail or whatever name she wants. I have contacts, Carter. It could happen if you wanted it to."
Sam stared at him. She considered it - seriously considered it, surprising herself. "It would mean leaving everyone else behind," she mused quietly. "Cassandra, Daniel, Teal'c.. My father, my brother, your family and friends.."
"Outside of the base I don't really have friends, and I'm not that close to my family." Jack shrugged. "Plus one of the contacts I'd go to happens to be a cousin so.." He shrugged again and lifted his head to meet her gaze. "It's a thought. One you should bear in mind if the worst does happen."
"I will," she murmured softly, returning her attention to the flames in the fireplace. They were quiet for a while, and then Sam sighed softly. "In all of the situations I imagined us being here I never once thought it would be like this," she told him honestly, her gaze fixed on the fire. "Maybe with Teal'c and Daniel, more often than not alone when the Goa'uld and Replicators are no longer a threat but never like this. I didn't once think that I'd be able to regret it, or that it would feel wrong to be here."
Not knowing what to say to her, Jack chose to say nothing. He sat on the arm of the chair, occasionally sipping his drink but more often than not just staring into the cup. He was saved from having to endure too much of the awkward silence by Sam standing and taking her cup through to the kitchen. When she returned, her gaze was fixed to the floor as she walked towards the door through to the bedroom, hesitating beside him.
"Thank you for understanding why I have to do this," she muttered quietly. "And for helping." She leaned down and kissed his cheek gently. "Good night, Sir." Sam straightened and turned on her heel, disappearing through the door before he could speak.
Sam and Grace were awake and out of the cabin before he got up the following morning. Jack had tossed and turned on the couch, falling off on more than one occasion so he'd slept through his guests getting up and helping themselves to breakfast.
Knowing they were outside, he headed through to his bedroom and started gathering his clothes, glancing out of the small, slightly open window to see Sam and Grace on the dock, with Grace sitting with her back to Sam between Sam's legs as the older woman tried to braid her unruly hair.
He was pulling on a clean pair of jeans when he heard the telltale crunch gravel outside. He glanced out of the window at Sam and saw by her tensed shoulders that she heard it too. The giggling stopped and Grace twisted in Sam's arms, looking up at her for reassurance.
Jack pulled on his t-shirt and started towards the door when he heard a surprised voice he recognised say a name he hadn't expected to hear uttered on his property.
"Pete." Instinct had him moving back over to the window, watching as Pete Shanahan approached the dock as Sam got to her feet.
He tried to study her expression, tried to gauge how she was feeling but he couldn't. He watched as Sam greeted Pete cautiously, as Grace said something to her and was introduced to the newcomer.
Deciding he couldn't watch anymore, Jack wandered through the cabin out onto the porch at the front. He sat on the porch swing catching only faint snippets of the conversation taking place just a short distance away.
Grace smiled politely at Pete but soon turned her attention back to the turtles swimming around in the pond. Pete motioned to Sam that they should go somewhere more private to talk but Sam shook her head.
"I can't leave her by herself by the water," Sam explained softly. "It isn't safe."
"Right." Pete shrugged, his hands in his pockets, and Sam couldn't help but fail to notice how uncomfortable he appeared with Grace in such close proximity. "Cassandra told me where I could find you," he said awkwardly, answering the question she hadn't asked. "She didn't want to but I told her it was important."
"You didn't tell anyone else did you?" Sam asked with a nervous glance to the gravel drive leading off of the property. "Have you told anyone about Elena..?"
Pete shook his head, his eyes straying to the little girl he knew was listening to every word he said. "I wrote a report and printed it." He took his hand out of his pockets and reached into his jacket, pulling out a blue floppy disk. "I put it through the shredder, Sam, copied it to this disk and deleted it from my hard drive." He held it out to her, his eyes locking on hers. "It's yours. Do what you want with it. I won't tell anyone about Elena.. Grace. Your secret's safe."
She took the disk he offered her and stared at it, then lifted her gaze back to his face. "This doesn't change anything, does it? You haven't changed your mind?"
"Even if I had I think you've changed yours." Pete returned with a shrug, looking around. "Cassandra said you came here with General O'Neill."
"He's not a General anymore." She smiled humourlessly, purposely avoiding giving him the answer he was fishing for. "I guess I'm not a Colonel either. The Air Force, our superiors.. They wouldn't approve my request to adopt her so we resigned. Or went AWOL if they didn't see the forms.."
"She means that much to you?" Pete took a step away from the dock - and from Grace. "Your career.. I thought it would always be your number one priority. Even before us."
Sam shrugged and glanced at Grace, an indulgent smile she wasn't aware of playing on her lips. "Things change. Grace is special."
"Obviously." Pete looked at her through serious though tender eyes. "I'm sorry I can't be the guy you want me to be, Sam. I've gone over it in my head so many times.. I've been trying to figure out if I could change how I feel but I don't think I can."
"I'm not asking you to," Sam replied quietly. "I don't want you to change. You're a great guy.."
"And you're sure one day I'll make some woman very happy but that woman isn't you." Pete mimicked her humourless smile from earlier. "It's good that we found out now and not a few years down the line." He shrugged and his smile turned depreciative. "That's what I keep telling myself anyway."
They stood staring at each other for several minutes. Sam couldn't help thinking to herself how strange it was to be saying goodbye to her lover at General O'Neill's cabin. She stiffened at first when Pete drew her into his arms and then recognised the gesture for what it was.
Relaxing against him momentarily, Sam let him tip her face upwards, closing her eyes as their lips met for one final time in a bittersweet kiss.
"Goodbye, Pete," she murmured when they pulled apart, pulling her arms from around him and wrapping them around herself. She saw him smile sadly and watched as he turned and walked away.
She stared down at the disk in her hand, glanced at the child staring up at her curiously and make a decision.
The disk landed in the water with a small splash, sinking slowly to rest on the mud at the bottom of the pond.
"She's a great kid." The voice took Pete by surprise. He turned and saw the owner of it and the property he was walking on sitting on the porch swing, his expression carefully neutral. "Give her a chance, get to know her. You'll learn to love her, probably before you realise you're even capable of it."
"Are we talking about Grace or Sam?" Pete asked conversationally, crossing the grass to stand beside the raised porch. Jack shrugged easily, fighting to keep his face neutral. "Both, I guess. What I'm saying, Pete, is that if you love her, you'd be willing to at least give it a try. Take a few days, get to know Grace before you decide fatherhoods not for you."
"Whether or not I want to give it another try is irrelevant now." Pete shrugged and glanced back in the direction he'd come from. "I guess I don't love her enough, didn't love her enough. I couldn't even try to give her what she wanted but you.. You gave up your career, whisked her away from the people wanting to take Elena - Grace - whoever she is - away from her.. Why would you do that if you don't love her? More than I do."
An uncomfortable shrug was the only response he got for several long moments. "I've known Carter - Sam - for a long time," Jack eventually answered. "I care about her and she knows that. I've watched her go through things no one should have to go through. I've seen her laugh and I've seen her cry, I've seen her happy and I've seen her heart break. I've never seen her as at ease as she is when she's with Grace. And I've never seen her as happy with someone as she was when she was with you. Now if the three of you could make it work.."
"It can't work," Pete cut in. "Sam was content with me, not happy. She wasn't as happy as she could or deserves to be. Three people could make up a nice little family unit, I'll give you that, but I can't be part of that picture. She doesn't want me to be, not really." Pete smiled slightly at the look of astonishment on Jack's face. "I don't expect to see either of you again, General, but I'll probably hear how Sam's doing time to time from Mark. Make sure she's okay and that she gets to keep the kid."
His piece said, Pete walked back to his car. He got inside, turned the key in the ignition and started back up the drive, glancing back in his rear-view mirror. He caught a glimpse of Sam and Grace joining Jack on the porch and tore his eyes away.
He wouldn't look back again.
"You okay?" Jack asked Sam as Grace joined him on the swing.
Staring after the disappearing car, Sam just shrugged noncommittally. "I will be," she sighed softly. "Can you take care of Gracie for a while? I'm going to take a walk, clear my head. Is that okay?"
"Take all the time you need." Jack gave her a small nod and made room for Grace to climb on his knee. He held the little girl as Sam turned and walked away from them, resisting the urge to go after her and make sure she was all right.
"She'll be okay," Grace murmured quietly, resting her head against his chest so she could listen to the soothing sound of his heart beating beneath her ear. Grown ups were weird, she decided. All of them. They never understood each other so se doubted she'd ever understand them herself. "She just wants to let go," she continued wisely. "Then she can move on and be happy with us."
Jack tightened his hold on her and kissed her head softly. "I hope so, Gracie. I really hope so."
They arrived two hours after she had left and the rain followed suit ten minutes later. Daniel and Teal'c had burst through the door having returned to Earth to find themselves interrogated by General Francis Maynard and the men on his team. They'd been asked dozens of questions, all pertaining to the possible whereabouts of Sam and Jack and had been kept on base for over an hour before they'd finally been allowed to leave.
They had headed straight for Sam's house where they had finally been told the entire story from Cassandra, who had encouraged them to head to Minnesota to warn Jack and Sam that the military was closing in.
"They'll be here soon," Daniel finished, finally managing to catch his breath as the rain lashed down against the windows. "They probably followed us. You guys should go. We can tell them we found the place deserted.."
"Colonel Carter should be on her way back," Teal'c added. "As soon as she arrives you must depart with Elena Jordan."
"Grace," Jack corrected, earning a smile from the girl in question. "Her name is Grace Carter." Teal'c inclined his head in recognition of the correction. "Carter should've been back an hour ago. She doesn't know the area, she shouldn't have gone far."
"We will look for her," Teal'c decided with a look in Jack's direction, reassuring him that the missing Colonel was capable of looking after herself. "Then you will depart."
Jack was about to agree when Grace sat upright and a worried look flittered across her face. "Grace? What is it, honey?" He moved away from the door to sit beside her on the couch, just as the door to the cabin burst open.
General Hammond and General Maynard walked into the room, both soaked to the bone, accompanied by three armed men. "General O'Neill," General Maynard greeted him grimly. "You have a lot of explaining to do. You've disobeyed a direct order, kidnapped a minor and went absent without leave."
"It's just Jack," he responded mildly. "My resignation was with Carter's on my desk. We're not AWOL, we didn't need your permission to leave the area."
Choosing to ignore him, General George Hammond glanced at the quiet child beside Jack and signed heavily. "Where's Colonel Carter, Jack? The two of you are to be taken into custody immediately."
"And Grace?" Jack tightened his arm around the little girls shoulders when she cuddled into him. "What about her?"
"Elena Jordan will be checked over by Doctor Brightman. If she is special as you say, she will be adopted by someone from an appropriate background with the necessary clearance level." General Maynard answered calmly.
"You mean like Carter," Jack interrupted sarcastically.
"If we find nothing abnormal with her she will then be reunited with her parents," General Maynard continued as though Jack hadn't said a word. He instead looked at Grace and gave her what passed for a friendly smile. "You'd like that, wouldn't you, Elena? To go home to your parents?"
Grace simply stared at him. "My name is Grace Carter."
General Maynard stared at her in obvious discomfort. "You'll be okay, Elena. You're not in any trouble. Now where's Colonel Carter, General? The sooner we're all back at the SGC, the sooner this situation can be resolved."
"Carter's gone for a walk," Jack answered shortly, giving nothing away with his tone or expression.
"In this weather?" General Maynard looked sceptical, General Hammond looked concerned.
"It wasn't raining earlier," Grace piped up innocently. "She'll be cold when she gets back," she added with a glance at Jack. "Should we light a fire? She'll be wet and cold and.." her voice trailed off and her eyes grew glassy. Her hand was cold and clammy when it found his, her short nails digging into his flesh.
"She's hurt," Grace whispered, her eyes wide, her face draining of colour. "She's hurt and she's alone and it's after her."
Grace pushed herself up, slipping out of his grasp and passed two of the three men. She kicked the third in the sin when he grabbed her and threw the door open, running out into the unnatural darkness the rain clouds above created.
Jack wasn't far behind her and the others weren't far behind him, General Maynard and his men confused by knowing that they had little choice but to follow or run the risk of losing the people they'd been sent to find.
The mud beneath her feet was thick and wet and her foot slipped as she tried once again to regain her balance and climb up the drop she'd fallen down.
It wasn't easy.
Her clothes clung to her skin, weighing her down. The mud clung to her clothes ad hair making her limbs heavier and harder to life and her fingers couldn't get a grip on anything
And of course it didn't help that her recently healed shoulder had become dislocated again. That had happened when she'd first felt the ground give way beneath her and had tried to grab for something to keep falling further.
She slid back down the incline and ducked her head against the shower of loose dirt and small rocks that rained down on top of her. She closed her eyes and wiped at her face with dirty hands, only managing to smear more mud over her face instead of successfully managing to clear any of it away.
Shivers wracked her frame and she wrapped her arms even tighter around herself, trying to keep warm. "This is what you get," she murmured to herself, the sound of her own voice offering little comfort.
Her teeth started chattering and mud - maybe tears, too - stung her eyes. She blinked furiously, wiping her face with the back of her hand, curling her legs as far up as she could.
She forced herself to try and be positive, to think that Jack and Grace would come looking for her when she didn't go back, that if she could just be patient and wait a little bit longer they'd find her.
Then she heard it, the sound somehow cutting through the sound of the wind and the rain. Sam looked in the direction of the disturbance and shrank back against the wall of mud keeping her from climbing back up to the path.
A pair of green eyes glowed, a low snarl reaching her ears.
They would find her eventually, she thought with a shudder, but there wouldn't be much of her left to find.
She could hear them behind her, could hear Jack call out her name but Grace kept running, ducking and dodging and weaving her way around the undergrowth she wasn't strong or big enough to break through.
Her feet slipped in places and got stuck in others but she kept running, only dimly aware of the shoe she'd left behind, of her torn clothes and tangled hair catching on branches and bushes.
She focused on Sam, conjured an image of her in her head and she forced herself to run faster.
She could see the attack although she knew it hadn't yet happened. The gray wolf would stalk her first, pace the ground around her, sniff her, drawing the moment out for as long as it could, toying with her.
Then it would attack.
It would go for her throat with its teeth, clawing at her arms when she tried to defend herself. Then it would tear her apart, piece by piece, leaving very little behind for them to find.
Unless she got there first.
Grace ran on, running blindly through the rain. She had to get there on time, had to save her.
She had to.
The wolf snarled at her again and stepped out of the bushes, growling low in its throat before sniffing the air. It pawed the ground in front of it and paced in front of her, back and fourth, back and fourth, growling in warning if she so much as moved an inch.
Sam swallowed convulsively, as far back as she could get. Of all the ways she'd imagined dying, of all the deaths she'd pictured for herself.. Being mauled to death by a wild animal was not one of them.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, opening them again to stare her killer in the eye.
The wolf snarled again, baring its teeth at her and then it moved, taking a slow step closer.
There was a yelp and a gasp and something soft but at the same time heavy fell down the incline, rolling down over her and landed with an 'oomph' between her and the wild animal.
Grace sat up dizzily, facing away from the wolf. She didn't see it move, didn't see it rise up on its hind legs and get ready to pounce.
Sam did, though. And in the few seconds before the animal struck, she dived on top of the stunned child, sheltering Grace's body with her own, willingly taking the brunt of the attack.
A scream cut through the air, echoing through the trees, taunting him. He wasn't sure who it belonged to but he knew it was either Grace or Sam and he knew it wasn't a good sign no matter who it came from.
He quickened his pace, following the trail Grace had left, skidding to a halt just in time to stop himself from careening over the edge and tumbling down on top of the two people below.
At first he couldn't see why one of them had screamed. Then he noticed the gold light around them, heard Grace's sobs and saw the awkward angle of Sam's body, saw the blood that soaked through the clothes on her back and forced himself to tear his gaze away.
He saw the wolf pacing the perimeter of the shield, battering it with its bloody snout and felt the ice run through his veins. He glanced away when Daniel and Teal'c and the other arrived, giving himself no time to think twice as he snatched a gun from one of the armed men.
He took aim and fired at the wolf, missing the animal but managing to move its attention from the two women below. Two more gun shots rang out as the other two armed men followed his lead, one of them catching the wolf's shoulder, making it cry out and run off into the undergrowth.
Jack slid down the embankment towards the two women, mindful of the two General's arriving at the top. He got on his knees in the mud beside Grace, his gaze locking with that of the frightened child. "Let me in, Grace. It's okay, the wolf's gone."
Grace shook her head, the tears continuing to fall from her fearful eyes as she looked up at the people watching them, cradling Sam's head in her lap as well as she could. "They want to take me away," she cried softly. "They want to take me from her and I don't want to go."
"I know you don't, honey, and I promise we'll do the best we can to make sure that doesn't happen but right now Sam needs help." Jack edged a little closer, the light fading slightly. "You love her, don't you? You want her to be okay?"
Grace nodded and pouted, the light fading completely. "She loves me, too," she sniffed, letting Jack wrap an arm around her trembling shoulders as he reached out to check Sam's pulse with his other hand. "She got in the way," Grace explained. "She made it hurt her instead of me. Why would she do that if she doesn't love me?"
Relief radiated from him and Jack signalled to Teal'c and Daniel that he could feel a pulse. "She loves you very much," he addressed Grace, doing his best to comfort her at the same time as assess Sam's injuries. "That's why she did it. She didn't want you to be hurt."
Grace sniffed again and wiped at her face, blinking as they were joined by the other two members of SG-1. "No one's ever loved me that much before," she said in a voice that reached the ears of General Hammond and General Maynard. "No one's ever loved me that much."
Sam opened her eyes, blinked to clear her vision, then groaned and let her eyes slide shut again. "Why do I keep waking up here?"
"Because you keep getting yourself hurt. Everyone's starting to think you've got a thing for Doctor Warner," came the smart reply.
She opened her eyes again to glare at Cassandra, noticing the teenager was the only person other than herself in the familiar surroundings of the infirmary. "What are you doing here, Cass? Don't tell me they sent you to tell me I'm being arrested and court-martialled. That would be low, even for them."
Cassandra smiled. "You're not being court-martialled. You're still Air Force, whether you want to be or not."
Sam felt an eyebrow raise in surprise, but was saved from speaking when Daniel stuck his head around the corner of the doorway. "Hi Daniel."
"Hey." He grinned and waved, stepping fully into the room with Teal'c close behind. "I heard voices."
"How did you know I wasn't talking to myself?" Cassandra quipped, earning another glare for her troubles. She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "You guys really are no fun, Jack was right."
"Are you feeling well, Colonel Carter?" Teal'c ignored the teenager and crossed to stand beside the bed, staring down at her.
Sam paused, taking a few minutes to assess the various aches and pains she felt and eventually nodded. "I'll be okay," she answered quietly. "Where's Grace? Did they take her away?"
"She's.." Daniel's voice trailed off as he was interrupted.
"Carter, finally." Jack stood in the doorway in civilian clothes. "Thought you were going to make us wait another day."
At the sight of him, Cassandra stood and exchanged a look with Daniel, the two of them quickly ushered towards the door by Teal'c. "We will return later, Colonel Carter," Teal'c told her with a nod, looking at Jack once before following the others out of the room.
Satisfied that they were alone, Jack sauntered casually over to her, making himself comfortable in the recently emptied chair. "So. How you feeling?"
"I'm fine," Sam answered instantly. "Now where's Grace? Did they make her go back to her parents? Or has she been adopted by someone..?"
Jack looked away, staring at the space behind her. "The adoption process is underway. There's just a slight hitch."
"A slight hitch?" Sam felt her a little piece of her heartbreak away even as it started to rise in her throat. "Who's adopting her?"
"Well, that's the thing." He leaned back in his chair and brought his gaze back to her face. "The President ended up involved in the whole situation. General Maynard apparently had a change of heart and he and Hammond went to Washington to review the situation. They decided it would be best if Grace was adopted by both parents, so that she has a Mom and a Dad and they decided they could only do that if at least one of those parents could provide her with a stable environment to grow up in."
"You mean someone who doesn't work at the SGC," Sam finished for him, swallowing the lump that rose in her throat. "Someone who isn't me."
"Kinda." He shrugged when she looked at him. "I resigned my commission, Carter. They couldn't talk me out of it.. The way they acted when you first made the request.. Well. Let's just say I had to have a long not to mention boring talk with the President before he agreed to let me go."
"You can't do that, Sir, not because of me. It's probably for the best anyway," she protested, unable to look him in the eyes as she lied. "Grace deserves more than I could give her.. You can't resign over this, it isn't worth it."
"I beg to differ," he responded calmly. "And so does she."
"She?" Sam looked at him with a familiar expression on her face - only usually it was one he wore when she was trying to explain something scientific to him in a briefing.
"Gracie," Jack called out. "Come on, kiddo. Your Mom's awake."
Grace bounded into the room, a piece of paper in her hand. She grinned and climbed up on Sam's bed almost instantly, pushing the piece of paper under her nose. "You've gotta sign it," she said happily. "If you sign it it means you're my Mom and Jack's my Dad and no one can take me away."
Sam looked from the child in her arms to the man at her side and raised an eyebrow. "You..?"
"In name only," Jack shrugged. "I'm going to have a lot of spare time on my hands so I thought I'd take care of her and keep her occupied while you were at work. A glorified, live-in babysitter if you will."
"Live-in?" Sam repeated, struggling to take it all in, watching Jack flush and hearing Grace giggle.
"We'll be living with Jack at his house," Grace announced matter-of-factly. "His house is bigger and I get to have my own room and everything," she continued happily. "Please sign it," she added, imploring Sam with big round eyes. "You do still want me, don't you?"
Sam stared at her and felt a small smile spread over her face. "Of course I want you. But I can't sign it without a pen."
"I'll get one!" Grace volunteered, bouncing off the bed and bounding out of the infirmary, giving them a few moments alone.
"Are you sure it's what you want, Sir?" Sam asked cautiously, telling herself not to let her hopes get too high. "It's a big step down, going from General to 'glorified babysitter' in the space of a few days."
Jack shrugged and stared at her, a look in his eye she'd seen many a time before but had never let herself dwell on. "Glorified babysitter's fine for now, Carter. Hopefully the role will change a bit. In time."
Sam held his gaze for several seconds, her smile slowly widening as his meaning became clear. "In time I'm sure it'll change quite a bit," she agreed, breaking eye contact only when Grace reappeared with a biro she'd managed to talk someone into giving her clutched in her small hand.
Grace climbed back onto the bed and held out the pen, giggling as she watched her new mother sign her name next to that of her new father.
'Thank you,' she thought happily, directing her thanks to the little grey alien who'd first come to her aid. 'Thank you, Thor.'
She giggled again when she heard his reply, the familiar voice a comforting presence at the back of her mind, heard only by her as her new parents started discussing - arguing playfully - about their new living arrangements.
'You are welcome, Grace Carter. Be happy. We will meet again when it is time.'
When it was time for what, Grace didn't know. She didn't care, she'd worry about it later. For now she just wanted to enjoy what was left of her childhood, to enjoy being with parents who loved her.
To just be a normal little girl.