"It hasn't worked."
Standing on the familiar metal ramp, staring down at a more than startled SG-1, Sam realized that their plan had failed. She still held Jack's note in her hand, his blood sticky under her fingers, and in that awful moment she knew that something had gone wrong. If the plan had worked her timeline would have ceased to be and she would no longer exist. But she was still here, which meant that Joe was still there. Joe, and his Aschen friends.
"Um, hello." The voice that broke the stunned silence was Daniel's. Of course. Shaking herself a little, Sam took a couple of steps down the ramp, keenly aware of the SF's and their raised weapons. No one gave the order for them to stand down.
"I'm from...the future," she said, rather lamely. Then, holding out the note she added, "This is for you, Jack." Maybe he had to read it first? Maybe the timeline wouldn't alter until he'd read the note? She watched as he exchanged a brief, puzzled glance with his own Sam Carter and then, taking a couple of steps forward, he reached out and took the paper from her fingers. He read it quickly and passed the note over to Carter. She was the one who asked the obvious question: "Why can't we go to P4C-970?"
Sam smiled to herself - literally. "You know I can't answer that." But her smile was brief. She was still here, which meant her timeline still existed. Why? This should have worked! Why the hell was she still here? Unless...? Oh no. She looked around at the frowning, suspicious faces and understood. "You don't believe me," she realized, suddenly starting to feel sick. Had they all died for nothing?
"You gonna give us a reason to believe you?" Jack asked. He was wary, she could see it in his eyes. And, if she was honest with herself, she didn't blame him. They only had her word that she was who she appeared to be, and his note was certainly ambiguous. But how much could she reveal? How much would change if she told them everything? Who knew what the repercussions might be?
"Colonel?" The voice was Janet's and Sam almost smiled again to see her friend at work once more, no longer obsolete, studying Jack's note. "That looks like blood," she said. "I can have it analyzed."
He nodded. "Do it."
"I can tell you whose blood it is," Sam interjected, taking another step forwards. "It's Jack's...." The memory of him dead on the steps to the gate suddenly flashed into her head and she had to swallow hard before she carried on speaking. "It's Jack's...and mine."
"Are you injured?" Janet asked, casting a quick glance at Jack for his permission before she stepped up onto the ramp.
"It's just a scratch," Sam told her, barely even feeling the wounds of the Aschen weapons through the adrenaline flooding her system.
But Janet was unconvinced as she started to examine her. "I need to take her to the infirmary, sir," she told Jack.
"Go ahead," he said, stepping out of her way as Janet guided her down the ramp. "And, Doc?" he called after her.
Janet stopped and turned around. "Sir?"
"You might wanna run a blood test on our guest? Just to make sure she is who she appears to be."
Out of the corner of her eye Sam saw Jack nod to Teal'c, who detached himself from the little group and followed them down to the infirmary. She didn't miss the fact that he kept his weapon poised the whole time.
It had been so long since she'd been stuck with something as old-fashioned as a needle that Sam couldn't help but wince as Doctor Fraiser withdrew the blood she needed. "This won't take long," she assured her, before she turned and left Sam alone, cooling her heels in Teal'c's silent company.
She'd forgotten how serious Teal'c had been, she realized, as she watched him stand guard; he was still so caught up in the war with the Goa'uld and his personal guilt about abandoning his family. So much had changed in the past ten years, she'd almost forgotten the urgency of their battle. She offered him a tentative smile, but he did no more than incline his head as if curious about her motives.
When Janet at last returned to them her face was troubled. "Doctor Fraiser?" Teal'c asked, a hint of apprehension in his voice.
"Oh, it's okay, Teal'c," she assured him, forcing a smile. "She is who she says she is; she's Sam Carter." Her face clouded again. "And she was right about the note too - the blood is mostly Colonel O'Neill's."
Sam nodded grimly. "Thanks, Janet," she murmured quietly. "Maybe now they'll believe me."
"Maybe," Janet agreed. And then, with a glance at Teal'c, she said, "They're waiting for you upstairs."
As Sam walked into the briefing room it aroused memories so poignant that her heart flipped over. Those years at the SGC had been the best, no doubt about it. The bond she'd shared with these people, the friendships she'd thought unbreakable, had imbued the days with a warmth and enthusiasm she had never managed to recapture. Life had become much simpler, and a whole lot more comfortable, since their alliance with the Aschen, but it had never been as interesting. Or as fun.
It was almost like looking at a photograph, she thought, as she stopped in the doorway; Jack lounging back in his chair, Daniel leaning forward intently, and herself, ten years in the past, watching with unveiled curiosity. But the sight that really tugged at her heart was General Hammond, sitting squarely at the head of the table. He stood as she entered and, unable to contain her flood of emotion, she rushed over and pulled him into a fierce hug. "It's so good to see you, sir."
"It's, um, good to see you too, Major," he said, sounding at once surprised and rather pleased by her outburst of affection.
But his awkward patting at her back reminded her that she hadn't been in the habit of hugging her CO back in 2001, and she stepped out of his embrace feeling a little self-conscious. She cleared her throat and said, "Actually, it's Lieutenant Colonel now, sir."
He gave an appreciative nod. "Glad to hear that, Colonel."
Turning back to the others, she just caught the smile Jack had flashed at Carter. The look that passed between them sparked a surprisingly sharp jab of regret, and she realized how much she missed that unspoken bond they'd once shared. She felt a momentary, irrational jealousy, but quickly repressed it. He wasn't hers to envy. She'd had her chance, made her choices and lived with them.
"Take a seat, *Colonel* Carter." Jack nodded at a chair opposite him, but there was a twinkle in his eyes as he spoke that made her smile. She'd missed that. How long had it been since they'd talked without bitterness? She didn't even want to count the years.
As she sat down, Jack leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. "So," he said, "what's so terrible about '970?"
Taking a deep breath, and deciding to get straight to the point, she said, "If you go there, the end result will be the annihilation of the human population on Earth."
Carter let out a low whistle. "Wow!"
"Yeah," Sam nodded grimly. "Wow."
"How?" Jack asked, as direct as ever.
Sam was silent, and Carter answered for her. "She can't tell us that, sir," she said. "It would risk altering the time-line."
O'Neill frowned between them. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Carter-s," he said slowly, "but isn't that why you're here in the first place? To alter the time-line?"
"It is," Sam agreed, quietly. "But only the part that relates to P4C- 970."
"So then, tell us," Jack persisted, "what *happened* on P4C-970."
"It doesn't matter," she told him. "All you have to know is that you can't go there. Ever."
But he shook his head. "That's not a lot to go on," he said.
"Why can't you just believe me?" she snapped, beginning to lose her patience. She'd been dealing with Jack's intransigence for the best part of ten years, and she didn't know how much more she could take! "Just don't go there, and everything will be fine!"
There was an uncomfortable shifting around the table, and at last Daniel gave it voice. "Taking a decision to alter the future of the entire planet is quite an undertaking," he said slowly. "Do we have that right? Do you?"
"Don't you think we've thought about this?" she snapped. "Damn it, Daniel - I'm trying to *save* the entire planet!"
Across the table, Carter picked up a pen and started twiddling it between her fingers. "Daniel has a point, sir," she said to Jack. "What if the consequences of not going to P4C-970 are worse than if we went?"
"Worse than the destruction of humanity?" Sam butted in. Carter flashed her a troubled glance, but Sam ignored it. "With respect, Major, none of you know what the hell you're talking about! I've *lived* this life - so trust me, you don't want it." She let her angry glance rest on Sam, "Especially you."
"Maybe if you told us why?" Jack suggested.
"What difference would it make?"
"Well, call me a spoil sport, but if we're gonna change the history..." he frowned, "...the future...of the planet, then I'd kinda like to know why."
Shaking her head, she let out an exasperated sigh. "Why do you always have to be so damn stubborn, Jack?"
His eyes widened in surprise at her words, but she thought she could detect a slight twitch around the corners of his mouth that spoke of pleasure. "Always?" he asked mildly, but there was a sudden, intent curiosity in his eyes.
Ignoring the question, she sighed. "What will it take to convince you?"
"How about the truth?"
"Don't you trust me?" she asked quietly.
"It's not a question of trust," he said. "It's a question of facts. And right now, we don't have any." He paused, glanced at Carter and then back at Sam. "I don't believe you'd make this kind of decision without all the facts," he said. "Do you really expect us to?"
It only took her a moment to consider the question before she answered. "I guess not."
"And the fact that you're still here implies that the time line hasn't changed," Carter added. "Which, in turn, implies that we - or at least one of us - doesn't believe you. If you tell us what will happen, then maybe we'll understand." Her eyes strayed momentarily towards O'Neill as she spoke, and Sam knew that they were both in agreement; Jack was the one who needed convincing. She smiled at the irony. They'd all tried so hard to convince him to trust the Aschen, and how she was going to have to try even harder to convince him not to! But if that was what it took to put things right, then that's what she'd have to do.
"Okay," she said quietly. "Make yourselves comfortable, because it's a long story."
They all listened intently, and with increasing wonder, as she described their encounter with the Aschen and all that had followed. She kept the story as concise as possible, concentrating on the facts and ignoring the more personal aspects of the past ten years. She made no mention of that dark day when Jack had stormed out of the SGC, never to return. Nor of the painful meetings afterwards. They didn't need to know about that. All that mattered were the facts; that the Aschen were too good to be true and that meeting them would inevitably lead to their own destruction. However, to her dismay, her narrative seemed to be falling on deaf ears.
"I can see why you'd want these guys on your side," Daniel said, when she'd finished describing the defeat of the Goa'uld. "Without them you wouldn't have stood a chance."
The room fell into a sudden silence as the import of his words sank in. "Without them," Jack said pointedly, "we *won't* stand a chance."
"You don't know that," Sam replied quickly. "But I can tell you for sure that the Aschen are no better."
"Seem okay so far," Jack told her. "Anti-aging vaccines? Beam-me-up-Scotty technology? Sounds kinda cool."
Clasping her hands together on the smooth surface of the table, Sam said, "That's just what they wanted us to think. And we were all taken in. Well," she spared him a quick look, "most of us."
"So, what went wrong?" he asked. As he spoke she couldn't help but notice the way his eyes were darting down towards her clasped hands, and back to her face. And when she met his eyes he gave her a slight, uncertain smile.
"What went wrong," she said, puzzling over his behavior, "was that the Aschen lied to us. Big time."
Okay, this was it. She let her eyes drift down to the table as she considered how much to reveal. She was reluctant to bring her own situation into the story, but could she avoid it? Would they believe her without the evidence of her own body? As she debated with herself her gaze came to rest on her hands, clasped tensely before her. Her carefully manicured nails, so different from her days as a serving soldier, were turning slightly white under the tension of her grip, and in the harsh lighting her wedding band glinted dully on her finger. Sam's breath caught in her throat at the sight, as she suddenly realized what Jack had been staring at. Oh no, he was wondering if they were married. That tentative smile, half-hope and half-expectation, had been a question. Shit.
Glancing over at Carter she saw that her gaze was fixed in the same direction, and her racing heart stopped dead at the sight of the small smile she saw playing over her features. Now what the hell was she supposed to do?
"Carter?" Jack raised a questioning eyebrow as she lifted her eyes to his face.
Letting out a deep breath, Sam pushed the problem away and forced herself to concentrate on the task at hand. If she could convince them not to visit P4C-970, they'd never need to know the truth about the painful destruction of their friendship. Clearing her throat she began to speak. "Two days ago," she said, "Janet and I discovered that the anti-aging vaccine the Aschen had given us had decreased the world population growth by over ninety percent in the last two years."
There was a moment of silence as her words sunk in. And then General Hammond spoke. "How was that possible?" he asked. "Didn't anyone notice?"
Sam shook her head. "You have to understand how it was, sir," she said. "We all thought the Aschen were our saviors. They destroyed the Goa'uld - they had technology so far advanced it was breathtaking." Shaking her head she added, "They were planning to turn Jupiter into a sun...."
"What?" Carter asked. "Turn a planet into a star?"
"I know it sounds incredible," she admitted. "But it's true."
Jack ran a hand through his hair and frowned at her. But it was a frown of concentration, not irritation. "How d'you find out? About the birth rate?"
The question was a little close to the mark, and she skirted it as best she could. "I saw their central computer records. The stats were in there."
"So," Daniel said, pulling his glasses from his face and rubbing at the bridge of his nose, "they were using the anti-aging vaccine to sterilize the population?"
She nodded. "Exactly. A bloodless coup. Within a couple of hundred years the planet will be theirs."
"That's a long wait," Jack pointed out.
"They're a patient, farseeing people."
"Who are capable of destroying the Goa'uld," Jack added. He shifted forward in his seat as he spoke, keeping his eyes on the table top. Her heart sank. This wasn't working; she knew what he was thinking. Damn it!
"Jack," she said, letting the urgency show in her voice, "don't even think about it."
His eyes flashed to hers. "Think about what?"
"Using the Aschen to help destroy the Goa'uld."
Again, that small smile she'd missed so much. "They could help us," he said.
"Yes," she agreed. "And then they'd destroy you. Just like they did to us."
"Ah," he said, picking up his pen and starting to tap it against the table. "But we know about them now, don't we? We'd be ready. Forewarned is forearmed, right?"
Sam shook her head. "Hubris," she told him.
He scowled, and Carter leaned in towards him and murmured, "It means arrogant pride and...."
Raising an irritated hand he cut her off. "I know what it means, Carter." His attention returned to Sam. "You don't think we can handle them?"
Oh, the irony of the situation! If it hadn't been so desperate she'd have laughed. "I used to," she said quietly. "I thought they were exactly what we'd spent four years looking for - the answer to our prayers." She stared right into his face, fixing him to the spot with the strength of her belief. "But you never did, Jack. You warned us against them. Fought us tooth and nail." She swallowed as the bitter memories rose in her throat. "You warned us away from them, but we shot you down. We ignored you, and the whole planet paid the price for our mistake."
Silence fell again. Jack's pen still tapped out a staccato rhythm on the desk, while Daniel slowly cleaned his glasses. Even General Hammond seemed nonplussed. In the end it was Carter who spoke. "Are you sure the Aschen did this on purpose? It couldn't have been an accidental side-effect of the anti-aging vaccine?"
There was hope in her eyes as she spoke, and Sam saw it mirrored on O'Niell's face as his pen fell still and he raised his head to listen to her answer. She gazed between them for a long time, trying to remember how life had been back in 2001; Apophis massing his army, the Asgard preoccupied with the Replicators, Kinsey breathing down their necks.... They'd been afraid that the thin line they were holding wouldn't be enough to defend Earth against its enemies; she could understand their hope, their desire to believe that their salvation was only days away. They were vulnerable, just as she had been ten years earlier. And she knew that her talk of a bloodless holocaust that wouldn't manifest itself for two hundred years was pale in comparison to imminent destruction by the Goa'uld. She had to tell them more.
"It was no accident," she said at last. "It was part of the treaty."
Jack's eyes widened. "You agreed to this?"
"Not me," she assured him. "I only found out a couple of days ago. But...President Kinsey knew...."
That caught his attention. "*President* Kinsey?"
She nodded. "Yes. The whole delegation knew. According to Joe they agreed a figure of thirty percent, but obviously the Aschen wanted to move a little faster."
"Who's Joe?" Oddly, it was Daniel who asked the question.
"He's...," she paused, swallowed, and continued. "He's our ambassador to the Aschen."
"And what? He just told you that? He had an attack of conscience and confessed?" Jack asked, obviously suspicious. "Maybe he had some other agenda? Some personal reason to stir up trouble...?"
Sam shook her head slowly. "No," she said, watching her fingers curl into fists on the table. "He only told me after...after I found out that I can never have children." Even now, when it was meaningless, she felt as though she'd been violated; her sacred right had been silently destroyed and her husband had been complicit in the act.
"And you confronted him about it?" Carter asked, visibly shaken by the revelation.
"No," Sam told her quietly. "I had no idea he knew." She paused, but kept her eyes on Carter as she said, "I told him because he's my husband."
The surprise on her face was stark and bleak as her head turned automatically towards Jack. Sam followed her gaze, and her heart sank. His face was stony and unrevealing, but the mask was a familiar one; she'd seen little else for the best part of ten years.
"He was your husband and he let them do this to you?" Daniel's voice was incredulous. "Why?"
"I can't answer for him," she said quietly. "But I understand. We were all taken in by the Aschen, seduced by their smooth words and slick technology. The Aschen knew best, they were smarter and more advanced than us; they were Earth's protectors and saviors." She shook her head at the memory, and her voice sank as she continued to speak. "I understand why he did it and, deep down, I'm afraid I might have done the same thing in his position. If the Aschen said that the population growth had to decline by thirty percent, who were we to argue? No one believed the Aschen were capable of such deception, of such malevolence. We thought they had our best interest at heart. We *trusted* them." Looking at each of her stunned friends in turn she asked, "Now do you understand what they're capable of?"
No one answered. Jack was slumped back in his chair again, staring unseeing at the table. At his side Carter was scribbling angry little doodles on the paper in front of her, while Daniel was just shaking his head in disbelief. Clearing his throat, Hammond said, "This is a hell of a lot for us to take in, Maj...Colonel."
She nodded, but said, "All I'm asking is that you *never* go to P4C-970."
"I know," he replied. "But there are a lot of pros and cons to consider here - the fact that we know about the Aschen's plans changes things. It puts the advantage on our side."
"And one thing's for sure, sir," Jack added, avoiding her gaze and turning his eyes on Hammond instead. "The Goa'uld are coming. And these guys could save our asses."
Sam's heart sank towards her toes. Shit.
Sam stalked around the VIP quarters they'd given her like a caged tiger. This had been a mistake, another in a long line of mistakes. She should have known that the impending threat from the Goa'uld would have blinded them to her warnings - just as she had been blinded all those years ago. She'd been a fool to think she could change things, and now she'd lost everything; the past and the future. Daniel, Teal'c and Jack were dead. And Joe? She wasn't sure she cared what had happened to him. She'd heard him calling off the attack, understood the depth of his betrayal, and the rage it provoked took her breath away. How could he do it? How could he betray them all like that? She'd thought he trusted her, that he'd loved her enough to put his faith in her, but when it came to the crunch he'd chosen to side with the enemy....
Her breath choked in her throat as other memories slammed into her mind, stunning her with a sudden revelation. "Oh God," she murmured, breathless under the assault and sinking down onto the edge of her bed. "This was how Jack felt." The realization hit her like a sledge-hammer, and she was sickened. She'd known he was angry and bitter, he'd certainly made no secret of it, but this gut-wrenching sense of betrayal was something new. She let her head sink into her hands as she remembered the hurt hidden behind his anger, the confusion lurking behind his bitterness. 'Everyone, including you, shot me down.' He'd said that to her, just a couple of days ago. And yet the hurt, hardened by the years into cold anger, had been as sharp as ever. She'd betrayed him, failed him, and he'd never forgiven her. And now, for the first time, she understood the acrimony he must have felt.
"I'm sorry, Jack," she whispered into the silent room, wishing he could hear her. "I'm so sorry."
It was late, and Jack sat staring unseeing at the notes scattered across his desk. He had a meeting with the General early the next morning, to discuss the whole '970 thing. And he was meant to be trying to get his mind around the strategic advantages of using the Aschen to get the Goa'uld off their backs, and thinking about what secret countermeasures they could deploy to thwart the Aschen's plans for earth - two hundred years was a long time, he figured, there must be *something* they could do.
He'd scribbled a few notes, toyed with a couple of ideas, but however urgent the problem, he couldn't stop his mind from returning again and again to one simple fact. And it wasn't the fact that a Goa'uld attack was imminent. Or that, within ten years, the Aschen had effectively laid the seeds for humanity's destruction. It wasn't even the fact that his own blood had stained the warning note sent from the future. No. The fact that was so preoccupying his mind, as he sat in his softly lit office, was that Sam had married some guy called Joe. Joe! What the hell kind of name was that anyway?
When he'd seen the ring on her finger he'd been so sure what it meant. It had confirmed everything he'd hoped for the future, and now, knowing the truth, he felt like an idiot. He'd barely been able to look at Carter as they'd left the briefing, he felt so exposed. She knew exactly how he felt, thanks to the whole Zay'tarc fiasco and the bitter-sweet Jonah/Thera incident, but her own feelings had always been more guarded. And now he knew why; if she felt even half as much for him as he felt for her there was no way in hell she'd be married to Joe. Whoever the hell he was.
The world seemed suddenly gray and hopeless; the light at the end of the tunnel had gone. No, worse than that, now he knew it had never really been there. Wearily, he picked up his notes again and started to read, trying to decide how to make this impossible decision. Turn away a race of people who could - no, would - defeat the looming threat of the Goa'uld, and face the enemy alone? Or try to use the Aschen to their own advantage, and buy Earth a couple of hundred years of extra time? How the hell was he supposed to chose?
A light, tentative knock at his door interrupted him. "Come in," he sighed, dropping the papers back on his desk. To his surprise, when the door opened it revealed Sam, her slightly unusual clothing marking her apart from the Carter he knew.
"Are you busy?" she asked.
He shook his head, "Just trying to decide how to save the world."
"Tough decision," she replied, still hovering in the doorway. "I could come back...?"
"No," he said slowly, "I could do with a break." He gave her a tight smile. "I can't seem to concentrate, anyhow."
The look she returned him was eloquent, and surprised him with its mixture of regret, sadness and resignation. "No," she said quietly. "It's a lot to...deal with."
She looked uneasy, as if she could understand how he felt. Perhaps she did. Perhaps they'd discussed it before...in the future. "So," he said, ignoring the complexity of the time paradox, "what can I do for you?"
Taking a couple of steps into the room, Sam gazed around her and shook her head. There was an air of melancholy about her as she said, "Nothing really, I just wanted to talk."
She shrugged. "We haven't seen a lot of each other over the past few years," she told him quietly. "I just wanted to catch up, so to speak."
"Oh," he said, unsure how to respond. "Well, take a seat, Major.... Sorry," he smiled, "Colonel."
Her own smile was broad. "Thanks, sir."
"So," he said slowly, leaning back in his chair, "when did they finally wise up and promote you?"
"Soon after the treaty with the Aschen - just before the SGC went public."
"And that would be?"
"October 2003," she replied. "The negotiations were long..." She shook her head. "And pointless, as it turns out."
"You were involved with them?" he guessed, sensing a certain pride in her voice.
She nodded. "It was my life for almost two years," she said. "I put everything into it - I was so certain it was the right thing, that they were going to save us, teach us - transform us into something almost undreamed of!" She shook her head. "What an idiot."
He was silent for a moment, watching the regrets play over her face. And as he studied her features he realized that, anti-aging vaccine or not, she was different. Something in her eyes had changed; the fire of enthusiasm had been tempered, and in their depths he saw a pain to match his own.
"If you were taken in, Carter," he said, "then they must have been damn convincing. You're no idiot."
But she shook her head. "I was blind, they showed me exactly what I wanted to see and I believed them. I put my faith in them instead of...," she stopped, and looked away. "Trusting the Aschen wasn't the only mistake I made."
The silence that grew between them was heavy with unasked questions. Looking at her sitting there, his equal in age and experience now, trying so hard to undo the life that she'd led, he suddenly lost his reserve. He had to know, he couldn't ignore the question that was burning on his lips. Whatever the answer, it couldn't be worse than the agony of ignorance. "Carter?" he said, drawing her eyes back to him. He gestured briefly between them, "What happened?"
Her eyes didn't leave his, but they widened as her lips tightened. "Nothing," she said at last. "Nothing happened."
He shook his head. "I don't understand. Nothing? What do you mean?"
"It's complicated," she whispered, her eyes shining with an unusual brightness as she looked away again.
"I'm in no hurry," he told her, refusing to be palmed off. "Tell me."
"Why do you want to know?" she asked, her eyes dropping to the hands clasped in her lap.
He gave a short, dark laugh. "Call it morbid curiosity," he replied.
That earned him a watery smile. "It's not a nice story," she warned.
"Given the ending, I can't say I'm surprised."
"No," she sighed. "I suppose not."
She turned back to face him, perhaps assessing his motives as she studied his face. Whatever she saw, it satisfied her and she leaned back in the chair, still watching him. "Things were never the same after we met the Aschen," she began. "Like I said before, you were the only one who didn't trust them....."
"Colonel, just calm down!" Hammond's voice rang out over Jack's ranting, bringing the whole room into silence. He glared and said, "Take a seat. Now."
Still fuming, Jack sat stiffly. But Sam could see he was poised to continue and sighed. "Colonel," she began, assuming as conciliatory an air as possible, "I really think Daniel's right. There's not a shred of evidence that the Aschen are anything but what they say they are...."
"Evidence?" he snapped. "That's the whole point! There *is* no evidence! Damn it, Carter, are you just gonna believe them when they *tell* you they're nice guys?"
"We've looked at their records," Daniel chimed in. "They've been completely open with us...."
Jack scowled. "For crying out loud, Daniel! *Our* goddamn government is 'open' isn't it? And *it* hides the whole damn Stargate project! Just for starters!"
"But, sir," Sam protested. "They've already given us so much! The medical technology...." She smiled. "They fixed your knee, didn't they?"
He shook his head. "So?" he asked. "What the hell difference does that make? They've given us a few toys and in exchange they want...what?"
"Nothing!" Sam exclaimed. "They don't *want* anything."
Jack glared, shaking his head. "Don't they?" He asked. "You sure? There's no such thing as a free lunch, Carter. It won't be long before they start demanding things in return for all their 'help'."
"I don't know!" he snapped. "But trust me, the way they're worming their way into every aspect of our lives, we won't be able to say no when they tell us to start paying our debts!" He was on his feet again now, the chair scraping shrilly across the floor. "Why are you all so blind to this?"
"To what, Jack?" Daniel asked. "The Aschen are what we've been looking for - what *you've* been looking for. A people willing to help us in the war with the Goa'uld."
He nodded, eyes fierce. "If they're so damn noble, if they're willing to put their smarmy little asses on the line to fight the Goa'uld, how come they haven't done it before?"
"They're willing to do it now," Daniel pressed. "That's what matters."
"Is it?" Jack snapped. Then he turned to Sam, "Come on, Carter, you must feel this too? It's wrong." He slapped at his stomach. "It's wrong here. I *feel* it."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry, sir," she replied. "But I don't."
His anger seemed to fade a little, turning into something more intense, more personal. "Then I'm asking you to trust me," he said quietly. The words were spoken to the room, but she knew they were aimed at her. "I'm asking you to take a leap of faith."
She met his dark, unwavering stare for a long time before she slowly shook her head. "I'm sorry, sir," she said quietly. "But I think you're wrong. This treaty is our best hope."
He closed his eyes, his jaw tightening into controlled anger. And when he looked at her again, she saw nothing but ice in his face. "Then there's nothing I can do," he said. "If you're all determined to go down this path, that's your choice. But don't expect me to go with you."
There was an awkward silence around the table, and then General Hammond spoke. "I expect you to follow orders, Jack," he said.
Turning to him, Jack shook his head. "I won't have anything more to do with this, sir," he said. "It's wrong, it's dangerous, and," his eyes sparked, "I'm gonna resist it with my last breath."
"That sounds damn close to insubordination, Colonel."
"Close?" he growled. "More than close, *George*."
"Sir?" Sam protested, alarmed by his words. But when he turned his angry eyes on her, she found she had nothing to say.
He nodded at her silence, as if it revealed more than any words, and she couldn't help but notice the flash of grave disappointment in his eyes. "If these treaty negotiations go ahead," he said quietly, "I'm outa here. For good." He paused, and looked around the room. "Anyone else?"
There was a deathly silence. Daniel frowned down at the table, Hammond watched the Colonel with an angry stare, but Sam found her eyes locked with Jack's. "No," she said quietly, and the word was spoken for them all.
He held her gaze for a moment longer, angry and hurt, before he turned on his heel and strode out of the room without waiting to be dismissed. As the room rang with the slamming door Daniel murmured, "Oh boy." And that was all that was said.
Jack let out a long breath as Sam lapsed into silence. She was unhappy, he realized, and the memory obviously disturbed her. "That wasn't the first time we've argued," he pointed out, his voice loud in the quiet of his office.
"No," she sighed. "But...this time none of us could climb down. It was too important."
He nodded. For him to threaten to resign, he must have felt strongly. "What happened?" he asked.
Sam shrugged. "We went ahead with the treaty. I spent the best part of the next two years working on it with...." She faltered to a halt.
"With Joe?" he guessed.
"Yeah," she sighed. "With Joe."
And that was it? He'd just walked away from it? From the SGC, from SG-1 - from Sam? He shook his head in disbelief. "What did I do?" he asked her.
"And then what?"
Her eyes darkened to the color of a stormy sea. "You disappeared." She paused, and he was about to ask her to elaborate when she continued of her own volition. But she didn't look at him as she spoke, and her voice was distant and sad. "None of us saw you for almost a year after that. We all tried to contact you, but...," she shrugged, "you didn't want to be found. But then, one night, you turned up at my apartment...."
Three loud raps on her door startled Sam from the sprawl of papers that surrounded her on the floor. Pushing herself slowly to her feet she padded across the carpet, pen in hand, and opened the door. The shock of seeing Jack O'Neill standing before her left her speechless for a moment, until she took in the bruised eye and the nasty cut just beneath his hair line that was trickling a thin rivulet of blood down the side of his face.
"God, what happened?" she blurted.
Jack made no reply, but glanced past her into her apartment and said, "You gonna invite me in?"
Silently she stood back to let him pass, and he took a couple of steps inside. It had been over eleven months since she'd seen him, and more than a year since he'd visited her apartment. "Go on through," she suggested and he nodded, stepping over the mess of papers, but not sitting down.
Instead he turned to face her. "It's good to see you, Carter," he said.
"You too," she nodded, meaning it despite the smoldering anger his disappearance had left in her heart. "Where've you been?"
"Here and there," he said evasively, and with a frown he touched his head. His fingers came away bloody and he muttered a curse.
"Sit down," she suggested. "Let me take a look at that before you...."
Suddenly a voice rang out from the kitchen. "Samantha? I can't find matching glasses so I'll have to... Oh." Joe stood in the doorway, a couple of wine glasses in one hand and an open bottle in the other.
Sam felt irrationally flustered as Jack froze and stared at her guest. "I didn't realize you had company," he said at last, his eyes still fixed on Joe. "Who is he?"
"He," Joe answered for himself, "is Joe Roberts. A friend of Samantha's. And you are?"
Joe raised an eyebrow. "O'Neill?"
Jack made no reply, just stared. But Sam knew him well enough to recognize the way his weight was shifting subtly forward onto the balls of his feet, poised for a fight or a quick exit. She wasn't sure which. "Joe and I work together," she explained, endeavoring to ease the tension.
"Doing what?" he asked, casting a suspicious eye over the smart shirt, loosened collar, and tie at half-mast.
"Joe's in the diplomatic corps," she explained. "We're working on the treaty...."
He stiffened. "I see."
"I hear that you have your reservations about the Aschen?" Joe said then, not unfriendly but distinctly curious.
"Reservations?" Jack's voice was frighteningly calm. "Is that what they call them?"
"Joe..." Sam warned, "maybe we can finish this tomorrow?"
"But Samantha," he protested, raising the bottle he held, "I just opened it."
"It's an eighty-seven Cabernet...."
"Hey!" Jack suddenly snapped. "I'm not here to break up the party. I'm leaving anyway." And with that he strode rapidly towards the door. But Sam was quicker.
"Oh, no," she said, standing between him and the door. "Not so fast."
"Carter," he growled. "Get out of my way."
"Carter...!" There was a definite impatience in his voice, but the slightly unfocused look in his eyes only served to strengthen her determination.
"Joe," she said. "I'm really sorry, but would you mind? I need to deal with this."
She heard the clink of glasses as Joe set the wine down, but her eyes were fixed on Jack's. His expression was fervent, but unfathomable. "Are you sure?" Joe asked as he walked back into the room and cast a distrustful look at Jack.
"You want me to call Daniel, or someone?"
"No," she replied. "It's okay. Just go. I'll see you tomorrow."
Reluctantly, he picked up his jacket from her couch and walked towards the door. As he passed Jack the men's eyes met and Sam almost shivered at the iciness of the silent exchange. "If you need anything...?" Joe offered as he reached the door.
"Thanks," she replied, turning away from Jack at last and opening the door so that Joe could leave. "I'll be fine."
He nodded, and with a final, warning glance at Jack, he left. Sam closed the door behind him, pausing only to take a deep breath before she turned back towards O'Neill. He was watching her with dark, hooded eyes. "He seems like a jerk," he said immediately.
Sam felt her hackles rise. "He's a nice guy," she told him. "We make a good team."
He flinched at that, which was what she'd intended. "So," she said. "Are you gonna sit down and let me take a look at your head, or just stand there and bleed on my carpet?"
He let her treat him in silence. She fetched ice for his bruised eye and dabbed gently at the cut on his head. It was a deep one, and probably needed a stitch or two. Then again, with some of the medical technology the Aschen had demonstrated, it could have be healed in a matter of moments. She shook her head, in awe at all that she had seen; at all that would soon be theirs.
"You should see a doctor," she told him as she did her best to clean the wound.
"Whatever," he muttered. Then, pushing her hand gently away he shook his head and said, "This isn't why I came here."
Leaning back where she sat next to him on the couch, Sam frowned. "Then why are you here, Colonel?"
He nodded, acknowledging her right to ask the question, and then turned away. Leaning his arms on his knees he gazed down at the papers all over the floor. "I saw Kinsey today," he said quietly.
Sam's eyes widened. "*President* Kinsey?"
"There's another one?"
She smiled slightly. "How on earth did you manage that?"
"Let's just say, we have an understanding," Jack replied. "We go way back."
Well, *that* was something she didn't know! "What did he say?"
"Pretty much what everyone says," he sighed. "You're wrong, Jack, you're nuts, you're endangering the future of the planet...."
"You tried to talk him out of signing the treaty," she realized, astonished that he'd go to such lengths. "You must have known he'd never agree?"
He shrugged. "I'm desperate," he said. "I thought it was worth a try."
"And was it?"
"He kicked me out of the Oval Office." And then, with a dry smile and a brief gesture at his injuries, he added, "Threw in a couple of souvenirs for free though."
"He did that?"
Jack's look of wounded pride was almost comical as he said, "Not him. His secret service guys."
She nodded and was silent, watching him stare at the floor. It occurred to her then that the documents scattered across the rug were secret and that he shouldn't really see them. If he was so opposed to the treaty, he might use something he'd seen here to... No. She forced the thought back. This was Colonel O'Neill, the man she'd followed without question for four years. And she trusted him still, albeit not on this particular issue. She sighed, and the sound broke the silence, drawing Jack's eyes to hers again. But he didn't speak, just looked at her, as if assessing her for the first time.
"So," she said, refusing to back away from his intense gaze, "why *are* you here?"
He kept his eyes fixed on hers as he said, "To ask for your help."
Help? Jack O'Neill was asking for help? That was a first! She was half amused and half dismayed, afraid that she would be unable to do what he wanted. "With what?" she asked quietly.
"I need you to get me through the Stargate," he said.
"To go where?"
Silence again, and that intent, measured look. "To the Aschen home world."
Sam found her head shaking even before she spoke. "Why?"
"Because I have to know," he said. "I have to know if I'm right about them. I have a really bad feeling about this whole thing," he touched his chest, "right here. But I don't have a shred of evidence - yet."
"Even if I got you to the gate," she said slowly, "the Aschen would stop you the moment you arrived. You know that, sir."
"Damn it, Carter," he said, his voice losing its quiet edge and sharpening into anger. "I have to try." He turned towards her again, shifting slightly where he sat so that he could face her. His eyes were dark, angry and grave. "I'm not your CO anymore," he said, biting off each word, "I can't give you orders. But...Sam...I'm asking you, as a friend, to trust me. Please. I can't do this without you."
She didn't reply immediately as she considered how best to phrase her response. What he was asking was crazy, impossible. But the way he asked her...? The look in his eyes as he spoke revealed the implicit trust he still had in her. It was almost enough to make her want to help him, just so that she could prove that his trust was not misplaced. Almost. "Sir," she said quietly, "perhaps if you got to know some of the Aschen a little better you might learn to trust them more?"
He blinked. "I don't *want* to trust them."
"I know," she replied. "But if you did...."
Jack shot to his feet. "Damn it, Carter!" he snapped. "You still don't get it, do you? They *want* us to trust them, to listen to them without question, to let them run our lives.... *That's* the problem! There's too much damn trust!"
His face was red with anger and his sudden movement had started the cut on his head bleeding again. The blood ran towards his eye and he swiped at it with one hand, smearing it across his forehead. Sam stood up, offering him the sterile gauze she'd used to clean the wound. "Here," she said as she held it out, but he didn't take it. Instead he grabbed her wrist, pulling her closer.
"You have to believe me," he told her urgently. "You, of all people, Sam. You have to help me."
His fingers were warm around her wrist, holding her tight but not so tight it hurt. And he'd pulled her close enough that she could feel his rapid breath against her cheek. The experience was overwhelming and disconcerting, and she felt her pulse quicken beneath his touch. "Colonel," she whispered, "you're wrong. The treaty with the Aschen is the best thing that's ever come through the Stargate - it will be our salvation! You can't ask me to help you destroy it!"
"I'm asking you to trust me," he said, his voice harsh with unspent emotions. "But if you can't do that...."
"It's not a matter of trust," she assured him.
"Isn't it?" he replied. "You trust the Aschen, don't you? Why them and not me?"
She shook her head. "I..." But she didn't have an answer and after a moment he dropped her hand and turned away.
"So," he said sharply, "you won't help me?"
"I will," she replied, "with anything but this, sir. You know that I trust you."
He shook his head. "I don't," he told her coldly. "I don't even think I know you anymore, Carter."
His words cut deep, but she refused to let it show. Swallowing the abrupt pain that had risen from her heart into her throat, she forced herself to speak normally. "What will you do now?"
"Me?" he asked, turning and favoring her with a bitter smile. "Oh, I guess I'll just wait for the whole thing to fall apart - and for you to come running for *my* help when it does."
"It won't," she assured him.
"Good," he snapped. "Because don't think I'd help you if it did. You're on your own now, Carter. I wash my hands of the whole damn mess." And with that he turned away and stalked towards the door, but at the last moment she called him back.
He stopped at the sound of his name, but didn't turn to face her. "What?"
"Where does this leave...us?" Her voice wavered slightly as she spoke, the first tentative mention of all those unresolved emotions that had complicated things between them over the years.
She watched as his back stiffened and his head came up straight. But still he didn't turn, and when he spoke his voice was cold and flat. "Us?" he asked bitterly. "I don't think there ever was an 'us', Carter."
Sam couldn't answer right away; she felt as if she'd been punched in the gut, and closed her eyes against the pain. But there was anger there too, its icy edge numbing the ache; anger that he could abandon them like this, that he could try to force her to act against her conscience, and that he could deny what they had meant to each other. And she grasped onto it, using it like a shield against the wound he was inflicting. "No," she said at last, pleased that her voice was even colder than his, "I suppose there never was. Sir."
His head sagged slightly at her words, but he said no more, and after a moment he started walking again, trampling her papers underfoot as he went. Without a backward glance he flung open the front door and left, not bothering to close it behind him. Perhaps he thought she'd follow, and she even considered it for a moment. But pride intervened. He'd made his choice, he'd left for a second time, and despite the hollow feeling in her heart she let him go. She wouldn't beg.
Jack's head was in his hands by the time Sam finished speaking. The scene had played out in his mind as vivid as a TV show; he heard his angry words spoken in his own voice, could imagine how he must have felt to say such things to her. "And was that it?" he asked quietly. "Was that how it ended?"
He wasn't looking at her, but he heard the rustle of her clothing as she shifted in her seat. "Not exactly," she replied. "We met again. Only once alone, and a few times...with the others."
Raising his head from his hands he looked at her face, drawn and sad, her eyes bright with pain. His own face must have looked equally ragged, because she said, "I told you it wasn't a nice story."
"Yeah," he sighed. "You were right."
Silence fell, but their eyes were locked. There was more to come, and although he wasn't sure he wanted to hear it there was something in her expression that told him, beyond doubt, that she needed to tell him. Putting aside his own feelings he sat up straighter, took a steadying breath, and said, "So, what happened next?"
Sam licked at her lips, nervous. She glanced away from him, and back again, obviously unsure how to continue. But she was brave, always had been, and in the end she quietly said, "Joe. Joe happened next."
"The treaty guy," Jack nodded, feeling a knot of jealousy build in his throat. It sickened him to think of some other man with Sam, sharing with her everything that he longed for, everything that duty and respect and honor had denied him. Even now, when the reality was in a sometime - maybe never - future, the thought soured his stomach and he felt the envy rise like bile in the back of his throat.
Sam closed her eyes, and he realized that something of his feelings must be on show. "Oh God," she murmured, passing a hand over her eyes. "It was so difficult. I was so angry, and you...." Her voice trailed away.
"I was what?" he prompted after a moment's silence.
Her eyes opened and she looked at him, a touch of accusation in her voice. "You weren't around - I had to track you down just to tell you."
She nodded, angry and hurt but obviously trying not to blame him. "About the wedding."
Glancing down at the address scrawled on the piece of paper in her hand, Sam checked it against the small, ramshackle house that stood in front of her. They matched, but even if they hadn't the old beat- up truck parked in the driveway would have told her she was in the right place. Typical that Jack would still own a car. With the advent of the Aschen transportation system the familiar gridlock and its attendant pollution had been virtually wiped out overnight.
Walking slowly up the driveway she trailed her fingers over the familiar angles of the truck. It had been a while since she'd seen one; in the cities they were virtually museum pieces. But out here, in the sticks, you still saw a few. It was probably one of the reasons he'd moved here, away from Colorado and all that they'd once shared.
She climbed the three small steps to the porch slowly, her fingers dipping into her jacket pocket to reassure herself that the neat little envelope was still there. No reason why it wouldn't be. Pausing in front of the door she listened, and heard nothing but silence. No TV, no radio. Maybe he wasn't home? Just because his truck was here didn't mean a thing. With a small shrug, she raised her hand and knocked.
At first there was no response, but then she heard the sound of footsteps, slow, measured and familiar. Her heart started to race and she wondered, if she started running now, whether she'd make it to the end of the drive before.... The door opened.
"Hi," she said as her stomach clenched tightly. Jack just stared and said nothing. He looked older, she realized immediately. A few more lines around his eyes, a touch more silver than gray in his hair. But it was a shock, because aging was another thing the Aschen had made obsolete. The anti-aging vaccine had been one of the first benefits of the treaty. Again, typical that Jack would have refused it. Her thoughts ran fluidly through her head, masking the silence that existed between them as she stood and looked at the man she'd once been so close to. She had never thought it would come to this.
Perhaps Jack's thoughts were equally absorbing, but he at least managed to speak. "What do you want?" he demanded.
Sam raised an eyebrow. "Nice to see you too, Colonel," she replied.
His expression didn't change as he said, "I didn't say it was nice to see you."
Zing! Great start. He hadn't mellowed a fraction in...how long? Almost three years! Well he might still be bitter but she wasn't. "How've you been?" she asked, determined to be civil. That was why she was here, after all. To try and make things right. Well, not right, but better.
He sighed. "What do you want, Carter?"
"I came to tell you something," she said. He was obviously not in the mood for small-talk, and her courage was beginning to thin in the face of his hostility. If she didn't speak soon she was afraid she never would. "Can I come in?"
He paused, glanced over her shoulder, almost as if he suspected her of some kind of duplicity, and then nodded and walked away from the door, leaving it open for her to follow. Closing it quietly behind her, Sam glanced around and found herself struck, as usual, by the meticulous order of his house. She followed him into the small living room, sparsely furnished and dominated by a large desk. A computer screen - the old fashioned sort - swirled a maze of colors at her, and open books were piled on either side. She glanced from the desk to Jack and back again. "Studying, sir?" she asked in surprise.
"Research," he told her ambiguously. "And Carter, it's been a while since I've been a Colonel."
She nodded. "I guess so."
He glanced at her then and his face softened a little. "You haven't changed," he said.
"It hasn't been that long," she reminded him, smiling a little.
For some reason her smile seemed to stun him for a moment, and something flashed deep in his eyes. It was momentary, but left behind it a warmth that reminded her of the man she'd once known. "Two years, ten months and two weeks," he told her. And then, embarrassed by the precision of his memory he added, "Roughly." He frowned then, and buried his hands deep into his pockets. The gesture was painfully familiar and provoked an avalanche of unwanted feelings in Sam; loss, regret, anger, affection, friendship...and something more. Something she had never dared name, even to herself. His eyes lifted to hers and the frown melted from his face, though the mask was still in place. But there was no trust in his eyes, despite their warmth. He watched her with obvious unease, mixed with something that might almost have been hope. "So," he said, "what do you want to tell me? If it's about your promotion, I already know, Colonel."
She smiled at the allusion, and nodded her thanks. But the smile soon faded as the next few words started to form on her lips. Looking at his guarded, wary face she wasn't sure how he'd take the news. Whether he'd even care. Perhaps it had been too long? Perhaps she was being foolish to think she had some kind of duty to tell him face to face? He was watching her intently now, the tension building with every silent moment that passed. There was nothing for it, she was here and there was no going back. Licking at her dry lips and taking a deep breath she blurted it out. "I came to tell you that I'm getting married."
She saw the hope in his eyes crumble to dust. The warmth that had touched them was extinguished like a frail candle in a storm, and his whole body went rigid, as if he'd received a physical blow. He stared at her for what seemed like forever, the mask slipping ever so slightly to reveal something dark and painful beneath. And then he turned away, a little too fast, and stared out of the picture window into the trees behind his house. "To whom?" he asked after a long silence, and even then his voice was a little husky.
Sam's heart was beating oddly and painfully as she watched him. Damn it, she had barely seen the man for almost four years, how could he still have this effect on her? Why did she still care that she'd hurt him? He was the one who'd left! He was the one who'd put his ridiculous obsession with the Aschen before his friendships, and before her. And yet, looking at him now, she forgot his relentless anger, his stubbornness, and his bitterness. All she could remember was the way he used to smile at her, the way his voice sometimes softened when he spoke to her, the glances, smiles and briefest of touches they'd shared. And beneath it all, the unspoken promise that one day, in some unknown future, things would change between them.... Well things had changed, only not in the way either of them had expected.
"Is it someone I know?" His voice, raw-edged with emotion, reminded her that she hadn't answered his question.
"It's Joe," she said.
"Yes," she replied. "Ambassador, now."
Jack gave a little grunt that could almost have been a laugh. "Never pictured you as an Ambassador's wife," he said. "Hope you've been practicing your skills with aperitifs and small-talk."
"It won't be like that," she assured him. "I'm keeping my job at the lab."
He shrugged as though he didn't care. Which, she suspected, he didn't. And he didn't turn around either, just stared out of the window, his hands still lost in his pockets. She doubted he'd say anymore, and so when he spoke again she was surprised; when she heard his question, she was stunned. "Do you love him?"
Her stomach turned over. "Yes," she replied quietly and honestly. 'But', her heart whispered in protest, 'but...'
Jack just nodded, but held his silence. She watched him for a moment longer, but he was lost in thought and she suspected he must want her to leave. And so, slowly pulling the small envelope from her pocket she took a step closer and said, "Jack?"
He turned. "Carter?"
Holding out the envelope she said, "I hope you'll come. Daniel, General Hammond, Janet, even Teal'c will be there. They'd all love to see you."
He stared at her blankly, then dropped his eyes to the envelope but made no move to take it. Eventually she just laid it on his desk. "I guess I should go," she said quietly.
"Yeah," he breathed. "You should."
"I hoped you'd be happy for me," she said then.
"Oh I am," he assured vehemently. "Ecstatic. Joe: Ambassador to the Aschen. I'm sure you're getting everything you deserve, Carter."
Wow! She could almost feel the sting of those bitter words hit her face. "Then I guess we both are," she retorted, hurting him right back.
He nodded. "Guess so." And then he turned away again and said, "Close the door on your way out."
It had taken her a while to get over that, over the meeting and the feelings it had provoked. But as the days and weeks had passed the memory had faded, helped along its way by the niggles and stresses of planning the wedding. And so, on the day, she was too busy worrying about flowers and caterers, and whether the band would show up on time, to spare a thought for Jack O'Neill. Well, okay, so maybe she'd spared him one thought. Maybe she wondered where he was, whether he'd even opened the invitation she'd left for him, whether he knew or cared that today she would be committing herself to another man for the rest of her artificially lengthened life. But she didn't dwell on it. He'd made his choice, and so had she. It was too late for regrets.
The service was short and sweet, attended by too many dignitaries for her taste, but required by Joe's status. And as she prepared to take her vows she saw Daniel and Janet smiling at her, Teal'c looking slightly confused, and George Hammond watching her with an oddly wistful expression on his broad face. But she had no time to ponder its meaning, for at that moment she was called upon to speak the words that closed, forever, the chapter of her personal life that had - or, more accurately, hadn't - included Jack O'Neill.
As is the way with these things, the day was a blur. People and events moved so quickly that she hardly had time to notice them, let alone enjoy them. The whole day passed like that, all but one very small, very unexpected part. She was standing in the reception line, smiling until her face began to ache at the people lined up to offer their formal congratulations. Some of them she knew, some of them she didn't. But she smiled, accepted the compliments and the good wishes, shook hands and kissed cheeks.
It seemed to have been going on for hours when, suddenly, everything stopped and all she could hear was the thudding of her heart. The music faded into the distance and the people around her blurred as she found herself staring at the one face she'd never expected to see. Jack. He was standing right in front of her, smartly dressed in a dark suit and crisp shirt, his hair cut short. Nothing inappropriate, nothing to draw attention. Her heart lurched as she met his eyes and saw, almost for the first time, the depths of emotion behind their dark surface.
He took her hand and leaned in to kiss her cheek. "You look beautiful," he murmured close to her ear, in a voice that shook slightly. She felt a light touch on her back as he pulled her into a gentle, but brief embrace. "I'm sure you'll both be very happy." And then he was gone.
Who the next person in line was, Sam had no idea. All she could think about was his lips softly brushing her cheek, the feel of his arm around her, and the fact that, despite everything, he'd come. He'd still cared enough to put the bitterness behind him, for one day at least. It confirmed everything she knew about him as a good, honorable and, above all, courageous man. And she was proud of him.
"Was that Jack O'Neill?" Joe asked, watching him disappear into the crowd.
"Yes," Sam replied, shaken and unwilling to let him see how deeply she'd been affected.
"I thought you said he wasn't coming?"
She didn't miss the note of jealously in his voice, but chose to ignore it. "I didn't think he was," she told him. Joe made no reply and they both returned to the endless-seeming task of meeting and greeting.
But when she was at last free, and found her way towards the little group of her closest friends, she realized that Jack wasn't with them. She asked Daniel where he'd gone, but the look she received in return showed her clearly that he hadn't made his presence known. He'd come to see her, and that was all. He was gone, and she knew for sure that only the most extraordinary circumstances would bring them together again.
Jack stared at her. He'd been at her wedding? Damn, he was braver than he thought! He couldn't imagine anything worse than seeing her, smiling and beautiful, on another man's arm. It must have been hell, he realized. Or, perhaps he should say, it would be. Because this was no alternate reality, no past that belonged to another man. This was his future. His destiny. Damn, he wished she hadn't told him. Sometimes the promise of what might develop between him and Carter was all that got him through the day, or the night. She was his hope, his future. Everything.
"I only saw him once more, before...this all started," Sam continued. "At George Hammond's funeral."
That news dragged him from his own self-pity for a moment. "George?" he asked quietly. "When?"
"About six years ago...." She gave him a flat smile as she realized her error. "In 2004."
Her eyes dropped back into her lap. "The Aschen doctor said it was a heart attack, but now we have our suspicions. We think he knew something...."
"He was killed?" Jack asked, blinking in surprise.
"I told you," she said, an edge of anger in her voice. "They're ruthless. Worse than the Goa'uld - at least *they're* willing to fight in the open!"
He smiled. "Yeah," he sighed. "They certainly are."
Sam rose slowly to her feet, glancing at her watch. "I should go," she said, but there was obvious reluctance in her voice.
"You don't have to," he assured her, also standing and coming around to the other side of his desk. He paused for a moment before he said, "Thanks for telling me all that...stuff."
She smiled at him. "Actually, it kind of helped me," she confessed. "Even at the end, Jack and I never talked about any of it."
"But he helped you?" Jack asked. "I mean, it was my - his - blood on the note you had...?"
She nodded. "He helped. I think, in a way, he even forgave me. Maybe."
"I'm sure he did," Jack told her flatly. "I'm sure he never really blamed you, he just..."
Sam held up her hand to stop him. "He did," she assured him. "He blamed me, and Jack O'Neill knows how to hold a grudge."
His mouth quirked into a smile. "He does," he agreed. "Not something he's proud of either, I might add."
A slight laugh escaped from her lips, but her voice was oddly unsteady when she said, "Can I ask you something, Jack?"
"Anything," he replied, perching on the edge of his desk, still watching her.
"Why do you think he did it? Walk away from us?"
He shook his head. "I don't know," he told her quietly. "I can't know what he was thinking, but I can tell you this...." He paused, summoning words he was unaccustomed to using, "he must have believed in what he was doing utterly, and beyond doubt. Because I can't imagine letting anything come between us. Between the team. And," her eyes were riveted on his, hungry for comfort, "I can't imagine anything changing the way I feel about Sam."
"But something did," she said, disappointed with his answer. "*I* did. I betrayed his trust and it destroyed everything between us."
"No," he said the word with surprising confidence. "I don't believe that. Not everything. However angry he was, it wouldn't have changed how he felt. Deep down."
"Then why did he stay away?"
"I can't answer for him," he told her gently.
"But he knew how I felt about him," she said, her words full of old, well-chewed pain. "He knew and yet it wasn't enough.... My betrayal was more important to him than my love."
The word hit him like a cannonball. Love? Love! "How...?" he muttered through a voice suddenly choked, "How did he know?"
Sam stared at him and frowned. "What?"
"How did he know that you...you loved him?" He could barely bring himself to say the word, as if it were so fragile that just the act of uttering it aloud might shatter it.
"What do you mean?" she asked, obviously confused. "He knew. Like *you* know." She paused. "Don't you?"
Dumbly he shook his head. "No."
"You do!" she insisted.
"How could I? You've never said..."
"But," she flustered, "it was obvious. It was so obvious I spent most of my time trying to hide it! And the whole thing on Apophis's ship...the Zay'tarcs? You knew!"
Her eyes were wide, shocked and distressed, and he tried to think of something to calm her. "I'm not saying I don't think there's *something* between us," he said slowly, "I mean a potential for something more. There's affection there, but.... Come on Sam, you made it pretty obvious that you didn't want to go down that path."
"I did?" She whispered the words in amazement.
Jack frowned. "What about all those times I wanted to take you fishing? You were pretty clear about saying no."
"I *had* to say no," she cried in disbelief. "You were my CO! What did you expect?!"
"I didn't expect anything, Sam," he told her. "I never have."
He shook his head, uncomfortable with the conversation but determined to continue; she seemed to need to know. "That's not to say I didn't hope," he replied quietly. "That I don't hope that one day something might develop between us, but I've *never* expected it." He cast her a quick, lopsided smile, "I may be arrogant, but I'm not *that* arrogant. It's hard to believe that someone like you would ever feel...could ever...." He sighed, and shook his head. "Look at you, Sam!" he said. "You're brilliant, beautiful - *young*! I'm just amazed you haven't hooked up with someone else already. I half expect to hear about it every time I come to work."
Sam stared at him for a moment, before her face crumbled and her hands came up to cover her mouth. "Oh my God," she gasped. "He didn't know! He *never* knew...." Her eyes screwed shut and tears squeezed between her lashes.
Awkwardly, Jack stood up and took a couple of steps closer. He'd rarely seen Sam in anything other than complete control, and he was unsure how to react. "It's okay," he muttered. "I'm sure he understood...may be he - I - figured it out. I mean, ten years is a long time....!"
"No," she shook her head. "Don't you see? I told you how it happened - after the day we went to P4C-970 we never...never spoke again, not really. Not like we used to...not like this." Her voice choked off and she buried her head in her hands, struggling to regain control. "And now it's too late, he's gone. And he'll never know. He died thinking that I didn't, that I'd *never*, cared...!"
Died? This day just kept getting better! "Sam," he said, reaching out and patting her arm. "Don't - it's okay...."
"No," she whispered, pulling her hands away from her desolate face. "It's not okay, it wasn't from the moment we met the Aschen. It was all wrong, Jack. All of it." And then, to his utter astonishment, she reached out and touched his face. "And I missed you so much - I should have known it was wrong."
Her caress was like wildfire, igniting the latent desire he kept so ruthlessly buried. His heart started racing in response, blood burning in his veins as he lost himself in her wide, sad eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered in reply.
Sam's hand drifted slowly away and she rested her forehead dejectedly against his shoulder. "Would you hold me?" she murmured. "Just for a moment?"
His arms were around her before he had time to murmur, "Sure." Sam sighed as she leaned into him, her own arms sliding around his waist and holding him tight. The sensations were gut-wrenchingly wonderful, poignant and painful. His heart swelled with the emotions her closeness provoked, and the tenderness he felt as her head rested against his chest was almost overwhelming. Without thinking he raised a hand to stroke her hair, glorying in the feel of it, soft and silky beneath his fingers. And then Sam spoke, and destroyed what was left of his reason.
"I love you, Jack," she murmured. "I always did, despite everything. I just wish I'd told you."
His arms convulsed around her, pulling her tight against him and his eyes squeezed shut. How long had he dreamed of hearing those words from her lips, of holding her like this? Forever, it seemed. "Sam," he managed to whisper at last, and she moved at the sound of her name. Pulling slightly away, she looked up into his face. Sadness and regret were etched into every feature, but it was laced with something brighter, and he realized that he saw the love she bore him shinning through her sorrow. His heart melted entirely and he was lost. Not allowing himself time to think, to debate or to worry, he bent his head and kissed her with all the passion he had so long felt and so long restrained. Her response was immediate and urgent, pulling him closer as her arms wound about his neck, her fingers tangling in his hair.
As the kiss slowly ended, Sam pulled him closer still, burying her face against his neck as she whispered, "This is how it should have been, Jack."
"Yes," he told her, catching her face in his hands so he could kiss her again. "I know."
Their lips met hungrily, as if every second were precious. "Jack," she breathed through the kiss. "Make it right."
Her words confused him for a moment, but he soon understood. Make it right. Change the future. She was asking him to trust her; to change the future of the planet for no reason beyond his faith in her. He felt a moment of uncertainty as the weight of the decision bore down on him, but in his heart he knew he had no real choice. A future where he was so alienated from his friends had to be wrong. The planetary considerations were almost incomprehensible in their scale – possible alliances, possible foes, conflicts that might be won or lost two-hundred years in the future? It was too much for one man to decide, and so he focused on the one decision he could make. One simple thing. Could he trust Sam? Would he take this leap of faith for her? It didn't take him long to decide. Holding her close he closed his eyes. "I will," he promised her. "I swear to God, Sam. I'll make it right."
He heard a single sob of relief as she clutched him tighter and tighter until...she vanished from his arms like a morning mist. Jack stumbled forward, stunned and disorientated. "Sam...?" he choked out, turning in a slow circle. But she was gone, disappeared entirely. His heart was thundering in his chest, his mind fogged with emotion, but he was on the ball enough to understand what had happened. The future had changed, and taken her with it. For good or for ill, his decision meant that her timeline had never existed.
Rubbing his hands over his face to try to clear his mind, Jack slumped down into the chair she'd occupied. The feel of her in his arms, on his lips, was overpowering and he was breathless with the violent sense of loss. 'I love you, Jack.' The words were burned into his soul, bitter and sweet. "I love you too," he told the empty air.
Suddenly his head jerked upright and a smile spread over his face as a new realization dawned. She loved him. Not just the woman he'd held in his arms, but the other one. The Sam Carter down the hall, serious and studious in her lab, the one doing such a good job of hiding her feelings.
Pushing himself slowly to his feet, Jack walked to the door and pulled it open, determined to start changing the future without delay. There was no way in hell he planned to attend Sam's wedding! Well, maybe there was one way.... He smiled slightly, but put the thought firmly aside. There were plenty of hurdles to jump before that became an issue. Hurdles? He let out a dry laugh. Make that mountains. Or maybe whole ranges of mountains.
It was after midnight by the time Sam was at last forced to listen to her weary body and decide to call it a night. She pulled the door to her lab closed quietly, but hesitated before she moved away. Her body might be tired, but her mind was still restless and she knew it would be pointless trying to sleep. It didn't take her long to decide where to go, and she soon found herself walking the familiar corridor towards the briefing room.
It was dark as she stepped inside, the only light a soft illumination from the gate-room below. It was calm and relaxing, and she sat down and gazed out at the dormant Stargate with a sigh. It was beautiful, she thought. The gun-metal gray of the naquada, the intricate chevrons, the symmetry of the design; its balance of grace and function were exquisite. Often, when she felt anxious or unsettled, she found herself here, drawing strength from its massive presence. But not tonight. Tonight the Stargate could offer her nothing - no answers to the questions that haunted her.
Why was Jack's blood mingled with hers on the note her future self had brought? And why hadn't he come through with her? Was this woman, apparently ten years her senior and yet unaltered by age, telling the truth? So much could have happened in ten years - for all they knew, she could have been brain-washed in some Zay'tarc fashion to prevent Earth from making an alliance that would destroy the Goa'uld. Could they trust her? Should they?
And then there was Joe. She frowned, trying to pretend that this particular question wasn't the one circling fastest or fiercest in her mind. But it was pointless to deny it. From her own lips she'd heard the words, 'he's my husband.' Some guy called Joe. Not Jack.
Damn. She ran a hand through her short hair and slumped lower in her seat. It wasn't as if she spent her days planning white picket fences or two-point-four children. In fact, marriage wasn't something she'd ever really cared that much about either way. If it happened it happened. If it didn't...? No big deal. But somewhere in the back of her mind she must have had some idea, some unconscious assumption, that if she *did* ever do it, Jack O'Neill would be the one. She must have, because it was the only explanation for the jolt of pain that had shot through her chest when her future self had spoken. Her eyes had flashed helplessly to Jack, but his face had been inscrutable. Thank God! At least *he* had the presence of mind not to act like a lovelorn teen! Everyone around the damn table must have know what she'd been thinking, and she felt like a fool.
"What did you expect?" she asked herself quietly. "Hearts and flowers?" This was reality, a difficult, complicated, dangerous reality. It was no surprise that in had ended with blood and violence.
Behind her the sound of a door opening disturbed the silence, and she glanced over her shoulder in surprise.
"Hey," came a soft voice. A soft, familiar and very appealing voice. "I've been looking for you."
Sam swiveled her chair to face him. "It's the middle of the night, sir."
Jack nodded. "I know." He closed the door quietly and walked towards her, taking a seat opposite and leaning his elbows on the table that separated them. He watched her for a moment, his dark eyes thoughtful. But when he spoke, all he said was, "So...?"
"So," she replied, resting her own arms on the table as they gazed at each other.
He nodded as if they'd shared something profound, and said, "I thought you'd want to know that Carter - the other Carter - has gone."
"Gone?" That was a surprise. "How?"
He shrugged, but looked a little cagey as he said, "Just kinda vanished. Right before my eyes - so to speak."
"Then," she frowned, "I guess that means that, whatever we do, we avoid her particular time-line?"
"You're the scientist," he reminded her. His fingers had found a paperclip on the table and he was twisting it slowly as he spoke, his eyes fixed on the tiny piece of metal. "She said some interesting things though," he said, his tone light and casual.
"Yeah," Sam agreed. "Very interesting."
He nodded, his attention still riveted on the slowly twisting paper-clip. "Made me think that you and I should probably...talk. About some stuff."
Sam's heart did a back-flip. Followed swiftly by a somersault. "Talk?" she managed to ask, hoping that she sounded more composed than she felt.
"About us I guess," he replied, looking up at last with a smile that was almost shy.
"I, um," she stammered, "I didn't know there was an 'us', sir."
He stiffened at her words, and something fierce flashed in his eyes. "Yes there is," he told her firmly. "There definitely is, Sam. It's just...it's not the normal kind of 'us'. It's more complicated."
Complicated? Well, that was the understatement of the decade! "What is it you wanted to talk about?" she asked. "I mean, about us? What's there to say?"
"I don't know," he sighed. "Maybe...maybe just that it means a lot to me that there *is* an 'us', however complicated it is."
She was silent for a long moment, watching him fiddle with the paper-clip, watching the dormant Stargate through the window behind him. It was quite something for him to have said this much, and although her better judgement told her to make an excuse and leave, she decided, just for once, to ignore it. And so, tentatively, she reached out and touched his hand. He went still under her fingers before he raised his eyes back to hers. "It means a lot to me too," she told him quietly. "More than it should."
Jack shook his head. "No," he said in the gentle voice he reserved for her alone, "not more than it should." She smiled at that, and his hand turned under hers so that their fingers entwined. "One day," he promised her quietly.
"One day," she agreed, giving his hand a little squeeze before she pulled away.
He nodded, both at her words and her gesture, and rose to his feet. "Don't stay up all night, Major," he warned her as he turned to leave. "We have a briefing at oh-eight-hundred."
"Yes, sir," she replied, returning her gaze to the window and the Stargate. And as the door clicked shut behind him, Sam smiled. Maybe it was whimsy, but she could almost feel events shifting around her, slipping into the correct alignment. She'd could never prove it, of course, but somewhere in her heart she felt that their quiet little conversation, their subtle acknowledgement of shared hopes for the future, had been significant. Perhaps, she reflected, it was the little gestures that mattered? The gentle words that moved mountains? And perhaps it was possible, in a world of war and chaos, that a few moments of tenderness and honesty between friends could change the path of history. Perhaps.