samandjack.net

Story Notes: Title: Exile

Author: Alli alli@ecis.com

Rating: PG-13 for language, violence

Archive: S&J, Heliopolis. Others please ask.

Category: SJ UST, SJR, drama/angst, alternate timeline

Spoilers: 2nd season

Status: Finished!

Disclaimer: This show doesn't belong to me. However, my birthday IS coming up in a couple months...

Notes: "Exile" is continued in the story "Suspension".

Feedback: Not an option.

~ Dedication: To Kelly, for EVERYTHING. ~


***

The world was all before them, where to chose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
-- MILTON, Paradise Lost (last lines)

***





A red, bloody darkness clutched at me, and I blinked it away, trying to stay awake and aware.

We'd been running for the Gate, pursued by a good two dozen armed men; too often our missions seemed to end like this. The citizens of P2F-983 were more advanced than many worlds that we had seen, and the Gou'ald had not visited the planet in a long while for reasons unknown. But time and knowledge had not diminished their fear and paranoia of anyone who spoke the names of the System Lords, and as soon as the Council heard that we were battling against Apophis and company, we were literally run out of town by the local militia.

The P2F-983 Gate was located deep in a wood about two miles from the city we had been chased from. The Council of the Ma'at'ans, as the natives liked to call themselves, were afraid of the vulnerability it created and the threat that was posed, but the Gate and the Gou'ald seemed still ingrained in their culture; basically, they were afraid to take the thing down.

Carter, Teal'c, and I laid down cover fire as we ran, shooting blindly into the all-concealing brush. Daniel ran ahead, leaping over boulders and slipping between close-growing trees, shouting out warnings to us of sinkholes, water-carved trenches, and treacherous, rock-strewn clearings that threatened to snap our ankles.

Sparks rained where the energy from Teal'c's staff weapon struck tree trunks. The bullets from my gun and Carter's let out sharp /pings/ as they impacted with unforgiving wood and stone, but that sound was nearly masked by the report of the Ma'at'ans' weapons. They were rifle-sized, gray, tubular, and didn't so much fire individual shots as periodically spray buckshot indiscriminately in our general direction.

Weird, I thought as I sidestepped a narrow ravine. I can understand them wanting to get us off their planet... but what exactly will killing us accomplish?

"Almost there!" I heard Daniel shout, and, against every instinct I slowed my pace, trying to find a defensible position. A small gully would do, or a boulder or thick tree trunk that I could hide in or behind, to hold back the Ma'at'ans and give Danny the time he needed to dial home. Teal'c and Carter shot past me, then hesitated, firing all the while.

"Go!" I yelled, waving them along that they should follow the archaeologist. The Jaffa obeyed unquestioningly, barreling after Daniel, getting a in couple more shots over my head. Carter, though, moved away from me, perpendicular to the direction of our flight. She caught my gaze and I nodded, understanding that she intended to fall back with me and help fend off the Ma'at'ans. I couldn't say I appreciated her ignoring my orders, but I did appreciate the help.

I had continued moving backwards, slowly, branches scratching my face and clutching at my jacket, expecting to be hit at any moment, when my heel finally gave a telltale slip. I looked down. Bingo. I'd found it: a small depression in the ground. It wasn't much, admittedly, but it was enough. I got down on my belly, right at the lip of the sunken spot, my gun peaking up over the edge. Looking to my right, I saw that Carter had taken position about twenty meters away and ten meters up, behind a cliff-like outcropping of mossy stone.

A Ma'at'an raced past the treeline, aiming his tube.

I squeezed the trigger. He fell.

Another, coming at a different angle through the tangled, vine-like limbs. I shot, missed, but didn't panic. Carter had a better vantage-point, and picked him off easily.

It continued like that for about thirty seconds... or an eternity, I'm not sure which. They would come through the trees, and we'd drop them at a safe distance. That wasn't to say that they didn't come close to hitting us... or rather, me. From what I could see, they weren't yet aware of Carter's presence; all fire was directed at my position. Buckshot kicked dirt into my eyes and chattered like steel raindrops on nearby rocks. But it didn't hit me.

Finally, the Ma'at'ans decided they'd be better off if they stayed where they were, shooting from the darkness of the brush. Hearing the strange, warped sounds of an opening gate somewhere behind me, I began to ease out of the depression.

"Colonel O'Neill!" It was Teal'c. I glanced over my shoulder. I couldn't see him, but judging by the sound of his voice he was maybe 60 meters away, hidden by the overgrowth. I could see a vague silver-blue shimmer glistening on waxy leaves and in puddles; the Gate was open.

Relieved, momentarily, I looked back.

Problem.

The Ma'at'ans had lost track of me, it seemed, and had found Sam. They were moving along the shadowy treeline, and the jutting rock that had been her defense was quickly becoming a trap. Moving forward to escape would give them a better shot at her, while moving back would require skirting a tree growing close to the rock, leaving her open and unprotected. But she had to do something. The Ma'at'ans were still moving. Carter would be pinned against the wall; the militia would become a firing squad.

Not under my command...

Not answering Teal'c, I abandoned my slight concealment in the brush and leapt back into the fray. The enemy noticed almost immediately and redirected their tube weapons at me.

Good, good...

Moving away from Carter, hoping to draw even more of their fire, I ran. Cover wasn't always possible but I took it where I could. Tree, tree, boulder, fallen log, watch that ditch, loose stones, don't trip, tree... whoa... another tree, turn and fire, start moving back again, back and right, towards the Stargate...

I saw a flash of blonde hair and allowed myself a quick grin. Carter'd gotten free; she was running for the Gate, full speed ahead. I did the same.

"Daniel, Teal'c... go!" I yelled to my unseen comrades. I was already composing my report to General Hammond: "Well, sir, we're never, ever going there again. /Ever/."

I swung myself around a tree trunk and the Stargate came into view. I saw Danny and Teal'c, silhouetted against it; not until they caught sight of us and saw me wave did they step into the shimmer.

A clearing. A short clearing and then we'd be there. I picked up the pace. Carter was right behind me.

And then...

And then...

I didn't so much see or hear her fall as I sensed it. I suddenly knew she wasn't running behind me, and I turned, and saw her laying there, crumpled on the forest floor. I wasted precious seconds waiting for her to rise, holding my breath, hoping against all hope that she had simply tripped.

She didn't get up.

"Carter!" my mind screamed. My mouth followed suit.

I was closer to the Stargate than I was to her, I realized frantically, as an unmanageable number of Mat'at'ans poured into the clearing. I could go through, bring back SG-3... then we'd be a match for them...

But I'd be damned if I was going to leave her behind.

I continued to hesitate, torn between duty to my general - to return with the minimum number of casualties, including myself - and duty to my team: to protect them, to bring them home.

Sam could be dead.

The Stargate beckoned.

I turned my back on it, and ran pell-mell through the clearing, back to Carter.

The Ma'at'ans ran towards me, trying to steady their tubes as they stumbled over fallen limbs and moss-smooth stones.

I dropped to my hands and knees next to Carter, and saw with an immediate wash of relief that she was breathing. Seeing her left side, however, filled me with new dread. Her fatigues there were so full of holes that they looked like lace... bloody lace. She'd taken a good dose of buckshot in her left arm, side, and outer thigh; my hands hovered over her, uncertain. "Captain," I began warningly, as though threatening her, as though telling her that if she died, she would be in some deep shit. She didn't answer. She didn't even stir. Her head lolled and I worried that she'd hit it when she'd fallen.

However, none of that mattered if the Ma'at'ans were about to pump us full of pellets.

I threw my nearly empty weapon away as three dark-clothed Ma'at'ans approached, wary, tubes aimed at our heads. One man, who sported dark, floppy bangs but was otherwise bald, plucked the gun from the ground and handed it to one of his companions. "Is she dead?" he asked, looking down at Carter expressionlessly.

"No," I growled, blood boiling. "She's unconscious. She -"

The man, seemingly unconvinced, kicked Carter sharply in the ribs... on her left side. I winced in sympathy; I didn't even want to think about what that felt like, and suddenly I was glad that she was unconscious. "Hey!" I shouted, ignoring the rest of the militia, which had started to surround us, looking down with a mixture of uncertainty and anger. "She's unconscious, didn't you hear me?"

The Ma'at'an grinned sadistically. "I had to be certain."

His colleagues, however, had begun to turn away from us. They had noticed the still-open Gate, and were walking toward it, brandishing their tubes.

My saliva suddenly cemented in my throat. *Close it, Hammond. *

One particularly brave - or foolish - man stepped up to the porthole, and tentatively brushed his hand across the surface. The others flinched, then drew closer, murmuring.

*/Close it/...*

The man at the gate looked over his commander, who still stood towering over Carter and me... and then walked through the Stargate, to Earth.

*Shit, shit, shit...*

The woods were silent and tense, and then...

The gate closed.

Carter moaned, but didn't wake.

The commander looked down on us, confused, as though he had forgotten all about us. His eyes quickly darkened with anger. "Where is he? Where did he go?"

The rest of the militia turned back to us, and I glared, resentful. "To my planet, Earth. Where I need to take my friend here." I touched Sam's uninjured shoulder.

The commander looked back up at the quiescent Stargate. He was silent for some time, his eyes darting, his mouth working. Finally, with deceptive calm, he said:

"No, I don't think so."

And he brought his tube weapon down hard against my skull.

And it was a lot heavier than it looked.





***





They told me to run, so I did.

Jack was right behind me; I could hear him crashing through the woods, as discreet as a bulldozer. Sam was right behind /him/, at least, that's what it looked like the few times I dared to peek over my shoulder. I knew Teal'c was still with us, too, but only because of the deadly flash-sizzle of his staff weapon that, along with the deafening roar of gunfire, shattered the forest's peace.

The ground was treacherous and I shouted back warnings where I could; the last thing we needed was for someone to get tripped up by an errant rock or shallow trench.

I stumbled down a small gully and my almost fainted with relief at the familiar landmark. The Stargate, our salvation, couldn't be much further. "Almost there!" I shouted jubilantly, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Jack slow. He knew I'd need time to dial home, which meant one thing: he needed to hold off the Ma'at'an militia for a while longer.

Even as I ran for my life, I had the time to wonder what had gone wrong. No, I /knew/ what had gone wrong. I just didn't know why. Why had the Council been so fearful of our goal to put down Apophis? Why had they been sufficiently rattled to run us out of their city? Why were they trying to kill us?

"Go!" I heard Jack shout; the comment was undoubtedly directed at Sam and Teal'c, but I wasn't surprised when the Jaffa was the only one to return to my side. No way Captain Carter would let the Colonel stay and have all the fun, I thought wryly.

The sounds of the fight receded somewhat as Teal'c and I reached the edge of the clearing that marked the final approach to the Gate. And there it was, only meters away, in all its glory, the two-story tall monument to everything good and alien in the universe. I sprinted the last distance, Teal'c having no problem keeping up, and all but threw myself at the DHD, punching in the memorized symbols, casting worried glances over my shoulder between glyphs.

Teal'c dashed back into the trees for a few short seconds, and I heard his shout: "Colonel O'Neill!" Turning back to the task at hand, I whipped out our GDO and sent the iris code through, just as the Stargate opened with a whir and a great gush of plasma.

There was no answer from Jack... still no answer... still no...

"Daniel, Teal'c... go!"

Teal'c reemerged with a nod; the others were coming. I allowed myself a brief smile - calamity had been averted once again - as he joined me in front of the shimmering Gate.

Suddenly, unannounced, Jack broke into the clearing. A glint of blonde that could only be Sam was right behind him; he waved us on.

Teal'c tried to tell me later that the Colonel would not have wanted us to stay behind, to wait for him and Sam to reach the Gate, for "it might have imperiled us all". But I couldn't forget /or/ forgive myself, because Jack and Sam, my friends, /had/ been imperiled. I had left them behind, too cocky in my self-made assurances that they would be all right, that they would always be all right. And now...

And now...

"Where are they?"

I don't know who exactly I expected to answer. If anything, Hammond and the others were looking at /me/ as if they were prepared to ask the same thing.

"They were right behind us," I sputtered, looking to Teal'c for confirmation, then back up at the Stargate, glaring at it, demanding answers. It revealed none. It didn't even reveal my teammates.

I backed down the ramp, hardly hearing Teal'c hasty report to Hammond about the situation we'd just escaped back on Ma'at'a. My gaze never left the portal; my eyes scanned every inch of the flickering surface, searching for some twitch in the iridescent event horizon that would signify incoming travelers.

Nothing.

"Is it possible they could have been killed?" I heard Hammond ask, voice pitched low as he held council with Teal'c several meters away.

I whirled and glared. "No! They were right behind us. There was no way the army could have caught them..."

Teal'c face was even more gravely set then usual. "I believe it is a possibility, General Hammond."

"Teal'c!" I exclaimed. He simply looked at me.

"Doctor Jackson?" queried Hammond, and I swear he was squirming where he stood. "Do you have the GDO?"

"Yes..." I answered cautiously

He nodded authoritatively and turned to the technicians behind the large window high up on the wall. "Close the iris!" he called, making a slicing motion across his neck.

"No!" I cried, and the men above us must have heard me, for they faltered, and looked back at the General for confirmation. "Sir, we have to wait!"

Before he could answer, something - someone - hurtled through the Stargate.

It wasn't Sam and it wasn't Jack. It was a kid - not more than 17 or 18 - dressed all in black and toting a long, tubular weapon in his trembling hands. He was colorless, eyes wide as saucers and dark as black holes. He rose from his knees, raising his weapon with sweaty hands, and I snapped from my reverie. "Watch out!"

My warning was entirely unnecessary. Teal'c already had his staff weapon split and crackling with potential energy; the security that populated the room when the gate was active already had their weapon trained on the militia member, who looked about three seconds away from passing out. Which was just fine with me.

I glanced sideways at Hammond, and he nodded tersely. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Airman Anderson trying to sneak around the perimeter of the room, where he could get a better shot at the intruder. It was important to keep the new arrival's attention off of him, and so I took a few admittedly foolish steps in front of the line of armed officers. "Please, lower your weapon," I said, holding my hands high to show that I was unthreatening... even though the contingent behind me said otherwise. "We don't want to have to resort to violence, right?"

Shaking, the Ma'at'an regarded me warily. "Who /are/ you people that you use the Sungate? Where am I? How do I get back?" His words became more agitated. "Send me back!"

"Please, calm down."

The young man's face contorted into an ugly, frightened snarl, and he redirected his gun's target, pointing it at me instead of at Teal'c and the General. "Now. Send me back."

"We-"

The man's arm tensed, and I realized that I would soon be finding out whether or not the colonel and captain were dead after all.

A single shot rang through the cavernous room... from Anderson's direction. The militia member sank back to his knees, and the surprise and sadness in his eyes was heartbreaking.

The metal tube slipped from his fingers and clattered on the ramp.

Choas ensued. I heard Hammond shout for Medical and for the "damn wormhole" to be deactivated, but I wasn't really listening. I was rushing towards the young man with single-minded purpose. Anderson's shot had been well-placed. There might not be much time...

Blood trickled down the ramp, but I ignored it, ignored Hammond's shouts, ignored Teal'c as he handed the tube weapon off to someone. "What happened to my friends?" I demanded, coming across as angry when I was really just scared out of my mind. "The two back on your planet? What happened?"

The young man smiled sickly. There was blood on his teeth. Frasier would arrive too late.

"Dead," he said. "We... killed them."

And then he too was gone.





***





"Sir..."

Sam Carter's voice was strained, pathetically weak, but nevertheless it was one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard.

I leapt up from my awkward position on the floor, startling the guard at the door. I ignored the threat of his tube weapon in favor of grimacing at the headache brought on by sudden movement. I had a nasty knot on my head where the militia commander had whacked me with his gun.

My painful and eventually successful struggle to remain conscious had amused the entire group of militia members... who seemed to forget their Gate-traveling comrade mere moments after he vanished en route to Earth. Then the commander announced that we -all of us - were returning to the city, and stalked off imperiously. He was followed by his subordinates, who watched me carefully, but ignored poor Sam, still laying in a heap, bleeding onto the forest floor. Glaring, I finally stooped down, scooped her up, and carried her back to the city.

She wasn't very heavy; my greatest fear was that I would succumb to the incessant dizziness, the constant darkness invading the corners of my vision, and fall with her in my arms.

The entire way back I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to see a silver-blue glow on the late-afternoon horizon, and SG-5 or 3 crashing through the brush to us. I planned my moves, always keeping an eye out for a shelter of any sort that I could dive into once the shooting started. But the shooting never started. No one ever came.

We were taken to Ankh'ij, one of the major cities on the major continent of P2F-983, the same city that Daniel, Teal'c, Carter and I had been run out of perhaps an hour or two ago.

Like a parade we were lead down the main street, which I hadn't seen before; our first time into Ankh'ij, we had been a little more discreet, picking our way carefully through the townspeople until someone finally noticed that we were strangers and directed us to the Council building. Unlike most planets we'd visited, the main thoroughfare did not appear to be a marketplace or a high-traffic area. It was empty and peaceable - perhaps the natives were enjoying the evening meal - but now and then someone would peek out a window at us, their bronze faces filled with curiosity and alarm.

Ankh'ij didn't so much sprawl over the terrain as it towered, five and six stories over our heads in some places, lording over us on every side of the gravel road. Buildings, I noticed for the second time around, seemed to be made of equal parts stone and metal. The Ma'at'ans had their own versions of lightbulbs - and therefore electricity - but no automobiles; the only transportation seen was horseback. Even Danny had had trouble placing these people's technological level. "If you want an Earth equivalent," he'd said as we'd made our way through Ankh'ij the first time, knowing how much I appreciated equivalents, "then I would probably have to say American colonial period, around the time of the Revolutionary War. Or just about any European city in the same era. Their weapons /look/ fairly sophisticated," he'd remarked, spying two black-garbed, armed militia members chatting in a doorway. "but I bet if you got a good look at one, you'd find that it's not... maybe on par with George Washington's musket."

Unfortunately, we'd gotten a little /too/ close of a look. And while their weapons might not have been as advanced as a machine gun or Teal'c's staff, they were plenty advanced enough to wound Carter.

Carrying her back from the Ma'at'an Stargate was hell. The trip seemed to take twice as long. Every few minutes the scenery proved insufficient to distract me and I would wonder what I would do if Sam awoke before we had a chance to pump the Ma'at'an version of painkillers into her. Her spine was as limp as overcooked spaghetti; her head, resting over my right arm, bounced with every step I took. The blood from her injuries had soaked through both her fatigues and mine before we got to the Ankh'ij version of an infirmary.

It was a whitewashed, featureless building, seemingly identical to all the others that created the man-made canyon on the main road. No windows, one door, tall and thin and squished between two other structures in such a fashion that it brought San Francisco, California to mind. The homes there were arranged in a similar fashion, built with space in mind rather then style, exterior walls so close that fitting a single sheet of paper in between the two was nothing short of a miracle.

The majority of the militia halted outside the building, but the commander - the one with the ridiculous bangs - motioned brusquely for me to follow him inside. I did, maneuvering Sam carefully so that she wouldn't bang her head on a corner, through several empty rooms that were as unmemorable as the building's exterior... until we reached a larger room I instinctively knew had to be a surgical bay.

Thankfully, Ma'at'an medicine seemed more advanced than that of the late 1700s, if only slightly. From what I could see, there were bright lights, clean beds, drawers and cabinets and small black bottles on uncluttered counters. The head doctor - the only soul there, it seemed - was a skinny, copper-skinned man about a decade or two younger than me, dressed in gray pants and a long gray shirt, with dark eyes and a full head of blue-black hair... who promptly refused to treat Sam.

The commander nodded his agreement. "You don't have any papers," he pointed out loftily, as though it was a crime... which it just might have been. Daniel hadn't exactly had a lot of time for cultural analysis.

Over the doctor's half-hearted protests, I carefully set Sam on one of the beds. She didn't move, stir, anything. I was no medical professional, but I knew it had to be a concussion. "Yeah, well, you know, we're kinda new around here," I spat. The commander's hands tightened on his tube, but he did no more than scowl at me. I was betting on the fact that he wouldn't try to beat on me here, not with the doctor a potentially sympathetic witness. We /were/ prisoners, this was true, but the commander's own restraint proved that he planned on maintaining at least a modicum of civility towards us.

Daniel, I was sure, would have something to say about how that reflected on the Ma'at'an culture. Me... I was just relieved to know I wouldn't be ducking blows for our entire stay.

"You need to go to the Accounting Office," said the doctor. He kept glancing down at Carter, nervous, and I knew that his instincts where screaming at him to help her. So were mine. "You'll have to fill out papers, and sign as her guardian. Otherwise, any debt incurred might be lost or misplaced, and then you'll have proceedings and /those/ can get ugly."

"Fine," I snapped. I didn't really care what I had to sign, or what he meant by 'debt' and 'proceedings'. I'd do just about anything if he'd just shut up and start patching Carter up. All of a sudden, she looked very small, pale and defenseless lying on that bed. "And you'd better bring your Accountant - or whatever - /here/, because I'm not leaving." I clamped a hand onto a nearby counter, just in case they tried to drag me outside.

The commander's face grew tight and angry once more; I rather assumed he wasn't used to complete strangers - and off-worlders at that - ordering him around. But he looked at the doctor, and the doctor nodded, and the commander left.

That had been hours ago; exactly how long, I'm not sure. There were no windows in the surgical bay and I hadn't ventured outside; hadn't been willing to leave Carter's side. I'd stayed with the doctor - who revealed his name to be Krivin - the entire time he'd worked on the Captain: cutting off her fatigues, cleaning the blood and dirt out of her wounds, and then painstakingly removing every piece of buckshot. He had me hold a cloth drenched in something akin to chloroform under her nose and mouth, but when I saw the damage that single shot had done to Sam's entire side, I had to resist a strong urge to take a whiff of it myself.

Her shoulder, outer arm, hip and leg were pockmarked with uncountable, miniscule bullet holes, all with tiny bullets that had to be extracted with nothing more advanced than a pain of skinny tweezers. And while I would have liked to be critical of his technique, I couldn't ignore the fact that, back home, Doc Fraiser would have been performing very much the same procedure. In fact, the methodical, repetitive process - clean the wound, probe it, pull out the buckshot, clean, and bandage - was calming, and kept me from noticing all of Carter's exposed skin, flesh I'd never seen before... and /that/ would have been nothing short of sick.

Krivin also talked as he worked, which kept my attention occupied. I...I inherited this facility from my father about 800 Rys ago. He passed away last winter, but I know it made him proud to see how well I'm doing. I'm paying off my mother's debt and my own...

"...Well, I told Emiko that we just wouldn't work out. Can't say that she believed it and I know that I didn't, but there are just times when it seems that breaking things off quickly will be easier for everybody in the long run...

"...It rained for five Rys straight! I didn't imagine that it could rain so much, so hard. Some expected a flood, and down the street, in the fishing district, there was about a foot of standing water. I think my little brother was actually /hoping/ for a flood, one that would drown every tutor in the city..."

It was nothing more than pointless, easy banter, but I was thankful for it. It helped me forget that I was virtually abandoned and almost alone on a planet halfway across the galaxy from the one that I called home. Krivin's leisurely drivel was comforting in its own mundane way. Career, women, the weather... all favorite and natural ice-breaking topics back on Earth. And Krivin seemed to require no replies to keep the conversation alive; he answered his own rhetorical questions, and maintained a ceaseless dialogue with himself.

I found myself drifting back to our madcap dash through the woods, towards the Stargate. Was there something I could have done differently? Was there anything that I, as the commanding officer, should have seen, should have noticed? Should Carter and I have found a better position to hold off the Ma'at'ans? Should we have skirted the clearing and come at the gate from the side, rather than dead on, or would that have simply given the militia more time to pick us off at their leisure?

"Well, that just about does it."

My head snapped up, my mind jerked back into the present situation and the reality that no amount of wishing things had been different would change the past to any degree. "Done?" I asked dumbly.

Sam's side didn't look much improved. In fact, the skin that showed through the overlapping bandages was even more red and inflamed than it had been before, as a result of Krivin's probing.

"I'm afraid there's nothing much more that I can do," the younger man said, perhaps sensing my disappointment. "The discharge of a Slade /does/ inflict many injuries, but they are small, and they usually heal quickly. I do think that your friend's arm might be fractured, but not badly, and I'd like to wait until she wakes up to try to do anything about that."

"Slade? You mean those tubes?"

Krivin nodded vigorously, then continued with his diagnosis. "She's got a bump on the back of her head; she probably hit something when she fell, which is why she hasn't awakened yet. I'm confident that will happen in her own time. The only thing that I'm truly worried about is a Second Sickness." I raised my eyebrows, and he hurried to explain. "Um, hot skin, shaking, hallucinations..."

Ah, I thought. Fever. Infection. That was a problem that could be all but solved on Earth with a healthy dose of antibiotics, but judging by the worry in the doctor's voice, I judged that Ma'at'an medicine wasn't quite /that/ advanced.

It could have been worse, though, I admitted to myself, reluctant to find anything positive about this place, out of nothing more than my own stubbornness. At least these people had rudimentary understandings of cleanliness and infection and comas. Most of the worlds we'd visited had been /much/ less advanced. In a way, we'd been lucky.

On the other hand, if the Ma'at'ans hadn't been so advanced, they would never have been able to take down Carter.

Krivin had left then, explaining that he had other patients that he needed to check on, and if I needed anything, his assistant would be happy to help. His assistant also looked suspiciously like a militia member, half-shaved head, black garb, Slade and all. Krivin gave an apologetic shrug as he left. He was just as unhappy about this as I was. More importantly, he wasn't stupid, and he didn't consider /me/ stupid.

I settled down to wait for Carter to wake.

Initially, I took a seat on the foot of her bed, every few minutes leaning over and placing the back of my hand against her cheek or forehead, wincing each time in anticipation of a temperature that would indicate an infection... one that the Ma'at'ans possibly had no cure for. I tried a couple times to start up a conversation with the 'assistant', but gave up quickly; he was more stoic than Teal'c, and besides, I was wary of provoking his anger.

Approximately two hours after Krivin had left, I was sitting on the floor, leaning against Carter's bed to give my poor back some relief. dozing on and off and opening an eye every now and then to glare at the guard. After the first hour, I stopped listening for sounds of approaching rescue; even if a team was coming for us, we'd never hear them in the surgical bay, insolated as it was from the street. That didn't keep my half-asleep mind from toying with me, though. I could swear that every time I began to drift off, I could hear Danny calling me.

*Jack!*

The air was as heavy and lifeless as a corpse.

And then came that faint, pitiable "Sir?"

"Carter?" I jumped up, startling the guard and giving myself a headache. I honestly don't know what I was happier about: that Sam was awake or that I finally had someone to talk to.

She was pale. Her eyes kept drifting between focused and not, but I had seen her in worse ways than this. She was lucid, which was always a good sign, and didn't appear to be in intense pain (although I wasn't a doctor and couldn't make an accurate diagnosis if my life, or anyone else's, depended on it). /And/ she seemed to realize that, under a thin brown blanket, she was, well, naked.

Not that I found that distracting or anything.

Sam looked up at me, blinking several times as though needing to assure herself of my reality. "Sir?" she repeated tentatively. "We're still on P2F-983?"

I suppressed a grin I knew wouldn't exactly be appreciated. The woman had been shot at, knocked out, poked and bandaged... and she still managed to call the planet's exact designation without even missing a beat. "Yeah," I conceded softly, glancing over my shoulder to find the guard missing from his post. Hopefully to get Krivin, I thought, and looked back at Carter. Her blue eyes were wide.

"What happened to Daniel? And Teal'c?"

"They're fine," I said, doing my best to be soothing, although it wasn't exactly my strong suit. "They went through the Stargate."

More awake and aware with every second, she started to sit up, and then winced, letting out a little gasp of pain and sending a glare down her left side. It was all I could do not to grimace in sympathy, but I'm sure it showed on my face. "They shot me," she said, with a venomous edge in her voice.

"Yeah, they did." I rolled my eyes at my own lame response and wished that I could speak somewhat more intelligently. "How are you feeling?"

Carter didn't answer immediately, in favor of using her good right arm to push herself into a sitting position. Her teeth were clenched and her brow knit, and I found myself holding my breath, not just against her pain, but against the slightly sagging blanket.

*You are a sick man, O'Neill. Sick, sick, sick.*

Sam held the sheet against her chest, seemingly not even noticing my conflicting emotions of excitement and embarrassment. "My arm hurts," she said grudgingly, as though simply admitting that one injury was conceding a great weakness.

Forcing my eyes to stay on her face, I nodded. "The doctor said it might be broken."

"Doctor?" She glanced furtively around the room, as though expecting someone to jump out from underneath the counter or perhaps spring from one of the cabinets. "Sir, you have to get back to the Stargate," she said decisively, and I realized she had been scanning the room for anyone who might prevent my escape.

"If I leave, you're coming with me, Captain," I said with a little shrug. I wasn't going to bring up that I'd /had/ a chance to go through, but had stayed behind for her, instead. I knew she would instinctively accuse that I was being a male chauvinist, a muscle-flexing machismo maniac, and think that I didn't consider her capable to taking care of herself. Untrue... still, there was something about Carter that, from our first meeting and despite her brash attitude, had engendered an immediate sense of protectiveness.

Carter narrowed her eyes, giving a tense, exasperated sigh. "Sir, I /can't/..."

"Exactly," I said vehemently. "We stay here until you're well enough to leave."

She pressed her lips together in a tight line, and stared at me so long I wondered if she was trying to bore a hole into my skull with her eyes. She was unhappy with my decision, I could tell, but I think that deep inside she was relieved that I had stayed. We both knew what it was like to be left behind, to be abandoned, to be given up on.

Finally, she nodded tersely, and I nodded back, trying to convey strength and assurance with the simple gesture, though comforting was something I'd always been uneasy doing. I'd always counted - depended - on my subordinates being strong and morally sound. This was usually no problem with an all-male team because even if one of them /did/ need a shoulder to lean on, they would refuse to seek one out. They would hide their feelings, bury them deep at least until the end of the mission, if not longer. I was a man, after all. I knew all about that.

But Carter was a woman, and, in many ways, largely enigmatic. She'd always seemed strong, right from that first acerbic conversation, and that was what I adored about her: her willpower, her stubbornness, her tenacity, and her amazing ability to suffer in silence.

If there was one thing I couldn't tolerate, it was clinginess. Neediness. It made me nervous.

"Well, Colonel? What now?" Sam's voice was soft, her expression hesitant. I wondered if she was simply curious about the reverie I had drifted into, or if she was actually, visibly worried about our present condition.

I thought about her questions, considered our situation. We were trapped on this planet until Carter was well enough to escape back to the Stargate with me, or until Hammond sent a rescue team through. It was the two of us against a somewhat hostile native population that was more advanced than we were accustomed to and already had a grudge against us. They were also more than mildly trigger happy, and we were unarmed.

No witty reply seemed appropriate -

- "Just play nice, I guess."

- "Ask if they know a good motel in the area."

- "We wait. And wait and wait. And hope we're actually waiting for something."

I sighed, opting for honesty. "I don't know, Captain."

I'm not sure if that particularly concerned her, but personally, I was worried.





***





When I came back to myself I was sitting on one of the beds in the infirmary. I don't think I'd actually been unconscious, but my senses had most definitely left me for a time. And now they were returning to me. So, that wasn't a clich after all.

*No, not again...*

"Daniel?"

Janet Frasier was standing in the doorway, and I nodded shakily to tell her I was alright and it was okay to come in... not that she really cared to have my permission one way or another. I blinked. The world was blurry. Where were my glasses?

The doc pushed the frames into my hands, and when I slipped them onto my nose, I could see her round face was more sober than I had ever witnessed. "The boy from P2F-983 died," she said flatly, not wasting any time getting to the point. "And your blood pressure dropped pretty drastically. I-"

"That 'boy' was the only link we had to Jack and Sam," I reminded her tersely, feeling a blush creeping onto my cheeks. Why did I always have to be so sensitive? "General Hammond has to send another team through," I said determinedly, and hopped off the bed, staggering slightly as dizziness overtook me.

"Daniel." Janet grabbed my arm and I looked back at her, irritated.

"You came back from P2F-983 almost three hours ago."

"No..."

"Yes, Daniel." She bit her lower lip. "The General sent a probe through just a little while ago, or he tried to..."

Her eyes suddenly filled with tears, and that frightened me more than anything that had happened so far did. Janet Frasier, M.D. ... crying, or nearly so? "What?" I asked, not sure I wanted to know the answer.

At the trepidation in my voice she seemed to pull herself together; the moisture drained from her eyes and she was left looking as fresh and professional as always. "The Stargate on P2F-983 is obstructed by a pile of stones. The natives must have put them there before-"

"They wouldn't do that," I blurted out. "The people on that planet... I don't think they really remember the System Lords but they're afraid of them. That's why we had the firefight all the way back to the Stargate... they were paranoid that because we had used it, the 'demons' would return. They wouldn't /dare/ touch the gate."

"Would you like to see what probe data we got?" she asked quietly.

I flinched. "No, I trust you."

Frasier crossed her arms uncomfortably, and I wondered if she was going to start crying again. I sincerely hoped not. "I'm giving you a clean bill of health. Just make sure you tell me if you start feeling dizzy or nauseous."

I slid off the bed, unworried about my own physical condition. "What now?" I asked.

Ill at ease, Janet looked down at her feet. "Maybe you'd better see General Hammond about that."





***





The silence seemed to last forever, and I don't know how long we would have sat there, caught up in our disparity, if we hadn't been interrupted by a young, bronze-skinned man dressed in loose gray garb. As he opened the door, his dark eyes darted from Jack to me, and he smiled. "Captain Carter. You're awake!"

I held the sheet more tightly to my chest as he approached. "Have we been introduced?" I asked, addressing the Ma'at'an but looking at the Colonel, hoping my trepidation didn't show through.

To my relief, my CO seemed at ease with the young man. "Sam, this is Krivin. The doctor. He, um, patched you up."

"We're back in Ankh'ij?"

O'Neill nodded.

Tentatively, as though feeling a bit of apprehension himself, Krivin stepped closer, across the bed from Jack. He pulled out a penlight and flashed it into my eyes, then held his fingers against my neck to gauge my pulse. I marveled at that- electricity but no such thing as a stethoscope?

He quickly checked on the bandages down my side and then, with a mockingly authoritative air, announced, "Well, for someone who came in, in your condition, just a couple of hours ago, you look good. Much improved. Shale weapons usually take a month or so to heal fully, but in my professional opinion, you won't have any scarring. Or if you will, it'll be minimal. As for your arm," he continued before I could bring it up, "It might be broken, or the joint may only be strained. I think you might feel better with it in a sling, or even splinted, but..." His eyes flitted nervously to the ground and he turned towards his cabinets again, rummaging through a drawer.

"But what?" asked O'Neill, a hard edge creeping into his voice.

Krivin sighed and closed the drawer, then turned back to us. "You just... might want to talk to the Accountant first."

O'Neill crossed his arms and advanced on Krivin, slowly but not without a somewhat menacing aura. I glanced nervously at the door, relieved to see that the guard hadn't resumed his post. "Explain something to me, Doctor. What the hell does an accountant have to do with the Captain's medical treatment?"

"That's..." Krivin gestured futilely with his hands, then let them drop back to his sides. "You'll have to forgive me. I've... I've never had to /explain/ this to anyone before. But... that's how you pay for things. Through the Accountant. Labor. You incur debt through your life and you work it for over the years."

"Years?" asked the Colonel, his brow creasing.

"Yes, cycles... around the sun," the doctor elaborated, misunderstanding the question. "I only have 22 years to work off. Well, I'm trying to work off my mother's as well, but that's only 12 years more."

"I don't understand," I spoke up, although I was beginning to; that was the hell of it. "How did you get this debt?"

"Everything," said Krivin, seeming perplexed that I couldn't grasp the concept. "Um, good, services, penalties..."

"They don't have money," said the Colonel suddenly. His voice was flat. "Their currency... they barter in..."

"In labor," I supplied. Krivin nodded emphatically, pleased that we had finally caught on.

O'Neill quirked an eyebrow. "So how much... or should I say, how /long/ has this little operation cost?"

Krivin squirmed. "Well, you haven't signed any papers yet, so of course none of it is official, but..."

"How long?"

The Doctor sighed. "200 Rys." He arced his arm over his head, one hundred and eighty degrees. "From rise to set is a Ry."

Ry. R, if I remembered correctly, was another name for Ra, the Sun God. 200 rises and sets of the sun. 200 days. I did some quick math.

"Seven months," I whispered, and Jack's eyes grew wide.

But before I could even begin to process the information myself, there was a sharp rap on the door, so loud and crisp that all of us, even the doctor, jumped.

The door opened.

The Accountant had arrived.

I half expected him to look frightening or in some way threatening, as menacing as Krivin had pronounced his title. Instead, he was a short, mousy little man with scraggly black hair pulled back in a stubby braid, wearing a flowing gray robe and carrying a black embroidered tote. He looked like someone who, had he been Terran-born and raised, would have grown up to be a lawyer or an IRS agent... or an accountant.

Noting the color of the Accountant's robe, remembering the Ma'at'an members' black uniforms and the Council's white garb, and seeing Krivin's dark gray matching set, I wondered if they colors symbolized anything special in their society, or if it was just coincidence.

Daniel would wonder the same thing, I thought. It was exactly the wrong thing to think. The throat constricted to hold in a little sob. Daniel... Teal'c...

The Ma'at'an gate was only two miles away. In effect, Earth and my friends were only two miles away. But with my left side - which was in so much discomfort as to be nearly useless - it might as well have been over a mountain range, beyond an ocean, across a burning bridge. I /couldn't/ do it, and that was hard to admit, even in my own head.

Jack could do it, I thought, irked. He could escape, but instead, he's here. The Colonel didn't even seem to be injured, except for the welt on his temple.

"You can use my office to talk," said a flustered Krivin, hurrying to the doorway where the Accountant lingered and pointing down the hall, glancing back at O'Neill and pointing again. Uncertain, looking back at me as though asking permission, the Colonel moved in that direction. I admit that I was worried, too; I didn't like the idea of them separating us.

"And I'll go get you some clothes, Captain," the doctor continued, looking a trifle embarrassed. "And if you think you can walk satisfactorily, please, feel free to join them."

I nodded, watching as the Accountant and my CO - still looking at me fretfully - exited the room, followed by Krivin.

I wasn't sure I /could/ make the walk. Just thinking about putting weight on my left leg made me cringe. Krivin surely wouldn't care if I told him I was still in too much pain to move normally, to go traipsing through the halls...

But what would O'Neill think?

I'd spent years in the military doing everything I could to prove to the 'boys' that I was no pushover. As a woman in the Air Force, the attitude was a necessity- either you were a bitch or you were a sweet little thing that had inadvertently wandered into the wrong occupation.

In an occupation full of potential bastards, however, it was usually better to be a bitch.

I knew women in the military who used their gender to throw men off. Fellow officers initially considered her no more a threat then a water pistol... and when she proved otherwise, she proved in a dramatic way that left her CO's mouth wide open. It was a nice bit of theatrical flair but I'd never been one for theater. I'd worked damn hard to get where I was, and I didn't want to be underestimated, not for one second.

Hence, many people found me disagreeable upon introduction, when all I really was... was defensive.

No act in the world, however, theatrical or not, could mask pain. No matter my attitude, I couldn't change the fact that I was injured, badly enough that I was preventing our safe return home. Inside, that hurt.

Krivin returned shortly with an armful of light blue fabric. "There's a breeze out tonight," he said, stuttering slightly. "The- the gowns we usually give patients are so thin... so I got this... it was Emiko's... um, my old girlfriend's."

I was touched by the gesture. Simply judging by the look on his face, this Emiko was still a special person to him. "Krivin, I can't-"

"No, no, I want you to have it." He dumped the pile into my arms and then turned towards the counter, to give me some privacy while I changed. I dropped the blanket and slipped into what proved to be a loose, knee-length dress that came with a narrow belt and soft white shoes. I stepped into the slippers and had just tied the belt around my waist when the doctor turned around. "No."

"No?" I echoed.

Rather than explain, he stepped closer - not without a pause, I noticed - and untied the sash, then moved it higher up, just beneath my breasts, and tied it in the back. I looked down. The dress looked better this way. It actually looked somewhat like a nightgown; like the pajamas Wendy had worn in "Peter Pan", only the neckline was higher.

Krivin stepped back and smiled at me. "You are... beautiful," he breathed. I tried to smile back, but I was plagued by less than pleasant memories. The last time I had been called beautiful, I'd ended up tied to a horse and traded like property.

Looking embarrassed by his declaration, Krivin crossed his arms over his chest. "Would you like to see your Colonel?"

Just the mention of O'Neill made me anxious. I slid gingerly onto the bed. "Actually, if you didn't mind, I wanted to ask you some questions."

The doctor's entire face seemed to brighten, and he nodded eagerly. "I had a couple for you as well. What's your world like? And what are you doing here? Why Ma'at'a of all the places in the sky?"

"We're..." I wavered, remembering the reaction we had received from the Council after stating our intentions. "Krivin, have you ever heard of the name Apophis?" I flinched, awaiting some intense backlash.

But Krivin simply frowned, thought, and shook his head. "No... I don't believe so."

"What about 'Ra'?"

"There is the word Ry," he said helpfully. "The sun in the sky, how it travels from the land to the land. And... and the darkness of the sun... when it vanishes in midday, when it is covered, that is called Apept. Is that the word you're looking for?"

As clearly as though he was standing right beside me, I suddenly heard Daniel's voice. I wasn't in the Ma'at'an clinic any longer; I was in the Gate room, and he was running through a quick mythology lecture while we waited for Hammond to give us a final "ok" to go.

"Ra and Apophis's names /did/ change over the years, and they differed slightly from sect to sect. For example, Ra was often called R, and Apophis is more commonly known as Apep. However, no matter the /name/, the god's role pretty much stayed the same. Ra or R was the sun god that traveled across the sky each day in his royal barque, and Apophis or Apep was the serpent who tried to swallow the barque as it moved across the sky. When there was a storm, or an eclipse, it was considered a temporary victory for Apep. He never triumphed, however, because of the prayers of those loyal to Ra."

So that made sense, that Ma'at'an words, every-day words, had developed from the names of ancient gods. But why didn't Krivin, obviously an intelligent, learned man, know the /names/ of these gods?

Why had the Council known... and reacted so violently?

Krivin was still waiting for me to speak.

"Ra and Apophis are the names of dangerous men," I said, choosing my words carefully. "Ra is dead, but we've been fighting Apophis for some time now."

"Fighting? Fighting one man?"

"And his army. They're more advanced than we are, but," I shrugged. "So far we've held our own."

The doctor smiled appreciatively. "Then you're also brave, as well as beautiful."

I held in a laugh. "Really, you've never heard those names?"

"No. How could I have?" He began to busy himself again, stripping the sheets off the bed and tossing them into a pile by the door, and then pulling out a new set from a cabinet. "According to the Scrolls, we haven't had any visitors through the Sungate for thousands of years."

Sungate, I thought. The sun... Ra... Ra's gate. I began to understand why Daniel found this sort of interaction absorbing. I began to wonder exactly what the Scrolls were, and what they contained.

"Your Council knew the names," I said softly.

Krivin paused in the process of tucking in a sheet.

"When we told them of our fight against Apophis, they called out your militia and chased us back to the St- the Sungate. That's when I was shot."

The doctor rubbed the back of his neck, his expression full of wariness. "We're not all like that," he promised. There was suspicion in his eyes, and I just hoped it was not directed at me, but rather, at his Council.

"I know," I said, "Thank you."





*





"Welcome to our world," said the Accountant.

I regarded the man doubtfully. He was curiously laid back, calm and collected, maybe even just a little bit jaded, bored with his job, which was not a reaction I was accustomed to seeing. I'd been shot at, screamed at, and bowed to. It was nice to finally meet someone a little more subdued. I might even be able to start liking this culture... except for one small fact.

"We're not free to just get up and walk out, are we?"

"No, you're not."

We stepped into Krivin's office. It was a small, neat space with beige walls adorned with plaques, written in an alien language that looked curiously like simplified hieroglyphs. The Accountant took his seat behind the doctor's desk, which was small and covered with stacks of paper and thick-spined books. There was a small chair with a padded cushion by the door, but I opted to stand. "You're... not really that impressed by the fact we come from another planet, are you?"

The Accountant leaned back in his chair. "Truthfully? No."

"And why is that?"

He shrugged. "So you came through the Sungate. So what?"

Sungate, huh? I thought. "Do a lot of people come through the Sungate?"

"No." He stood. "Frankly, O'Nell..."

"O'Neill," I corrected sharply. "With two Ls."

"You may be from another world, but you look like us. And therefore, you work like us."

"Work..." And then it began to fit together as perfectly as two halves of a royal sarcophagus, and I felt like an idiot for not realizing it sooner. These people bartered in labor. The '200 Rys' that Krivin had charged for the procedure on Sam... that was what we owed him, or perhaps what we owed the government. That was the debt that had been mentioned constantly since our arrival. "We... we have to work for 200 Rys?"

The Accountant sat and dug into his tote. "Is that the debt incurred?" He rifled through his papers. "Yes, yes, I believe it is." He produced a pen, seemingly from thin air, and held it over a pad. "Now, your full name, age..."

"Wait a minute," I snapped. "We wouldn't /have/ any kind of debt if your army hadn't fired on us, or if your Council had allowed us to return peaceably back through the... the Sungate."

The Accountant shrugged. "I understand, but that's really not my problem. You incurred a debt, and it needs to be worked off. /When/ it is, then you can return through the Sungate."

"200 Rys," I repeated dumbly. Seven months?

"For starters," agreed the Accountant, his pen scratching across the paper. "Add the housing you'll require, food, supplies..."

My shoulders slumped. I couldn't imagine this getting any worse. Why couldn't they have just stuck us in a nice jail cell or something? "That adds to our debt?"

"Of course."

"So how long are we going to /be/ here?"

He continued to scribble on his paper, mouth moving silently as he talked - or perhaps counted - to himself. Obviously, Ma'at'a didn't have calculators.

"651 Rys. Well, that's only the estimation, of course, but..."

I didn't hear the rest of it. All I could think was: 651 days. Almost two years.

Two years.

My prior strategy of playing it silent, safe, and subservient went right out the window. I started wondering exactly how Carter and I could get back to the Stargate, when we would make our escape, how many people we would potentially have to kill. There was no way in hell I was going to live here for two years, paying off a debt I never would have had if not for these people's actions.

Carter...

"This is my debt, right?" I asked, noting the desperate edge in my voice. "Carter's free to leave, isn't she?"

"Carter?" asked the Accountant, shielding a yawn with the back of his hand, then continuing to write, his eyes riveted on the paper.

"Yes, Samantha Carter," I snapped, angered by the man's nonchalance, wishing for once the ability to put the fear of God into these people. Any god; I wasn't particular. "My friend. The one injured by /your/ militia."

If the man had any remorse at all over what his people had done, it didn't show in his face or his voice. "No. She stays. It is her debt as well. In addition, we learned something today about the other's culture," he said, finally looking up, eyes cold. "You learned that here, ignorance of the ways of our people mean nothing. We learned that you are a warlike race. If we let your Carter go back, it increases the chance of a rescue party coming here to 'save' you. We can't allow that."

/We/ were warlike? I could practically /hear/ my blood pressure rising as I remembered the indiscriminate, graceless Slade weapons carried by the militia. "But I'm prepared to /sign/ as her /guardian/."

The Accountant's mouth suddenly curved into a hard, unconvincing smile that immediately made me nervous.

I decided then and there that I wished Daniel had also been stuck on Ma'at'a. It was a horrible, selfish wish, and I felt awful just thinking it, but I had the distinct feeling that Danny would have had better luck dealing with these people. I was a military man, not a negotiator, and here, now, a negotiator was what we needed. We needed to understand how these people thought, what they wanted. After all, we could offer them virtually anything. Anything except two years of our lives.

And if Teal'c was here, we probably wouldn't be on this planet, I realized. He was a better fighter than Carter; more than likely, we would have made it through the Stargate. No offense to Sam, of course, but Teal'c had been raised a warrior, /and/ he had that nifty little Gou'ald larva in his stomach. If only he'd stayed back with me during the firefight.

If only Daniel had.

Anyone but Carter...

"Guardian," murmured the Accountant. "That /would/ make things easier for the two of you. It would reduce your debt... it'd be a lie, but I'm willing to work with you."

I finally realized who the little weasel reminded me of: Samuels. Snide, reveling in his power, but underneath it all just a little, petty man. "What the hell are you talking about?"

He crossed his arms over the desk and smiled smugly. "You and your 'Samantha Carter' are not committed, are you?"

The first image that sprang into my head was Carter and me in straitjackets. "Committed?"

"Bonded. Pledged." He scowled, and I congratulated myself for forcing him to show some emotion. "Has she promised to carry your children?"

I didn't think it was possible to choke on the air you breathed, but somehow, I accomplished it. "Uhh! You mean married?" I asked incredulously, once I was able to suck in a lungful of oxygen.

"If that is your word for it."

"No!"

When he smiled, he reminded me of a sick cat. "Say that you are."

"Excuse me?"

He frowned. "In Ma'at'an housing sections, there are three major zones. Areas for single men, for single women, and for committed couples. 'Married' people. If you tell the truth and say you are... friends... compatriots... than They will split you up, place you in separate homes. This will add to your collective debt. I should also mention," he said with a simpering grin, "that the women's zone is not the /safest/ place in the world." He nodded meaningfully.

My guts did a triple-axle. "Fine," I growled. When Carter was well, and we were ready to make our escape, I didn't want to have to go searching all over the planet for her. I didn't want to get split up. And I didn't want to think about what this asshole meant by 'unsafe'.

The Accountant nodded, and I resisted the urge to just reach across the table and grab him by his pathetic little braid. "Your full name then?" he queried again, raising the pen, ready to write.

Why did I feel like I was making a deal with the devil?





***





"You can't be serious."

"I'm afraid I am."

I simply stared at the General. "Well, you have to do something."

Hammond just sighed and plopped down behind his desk, resolute. "Colonel O'Neill and Captain Carter are officially Missing In Action... but I'm afraid we might be updating their status fairly soon."

I cocked my head. Had I heard right? "They aren't dead."

"The evidence seems to suggest otherwise, Daniel."

Daniel? So now, now that he was sentencing my friends to death, /now/ I was Daniel? "What evidence is that, exactly? The probe footage? It was very short, very fuzzy... and it showed nothing. No bodies... nothing. The militiaman? He could have been lying."

"And what would he have gained from that?"

"Some last satisfaction, maybe. We... killed quite a few of his comrades, sir."

Hammond's face remained imperturbable.

"You don't even have to be afraid of these people, General," I pressed, my voice raising in pitch pathetically. "The Gou'ald haven't been to that planet in a good long time... developmentally they're a century behind us, give or take a decade."

"With the Stargate blocked on that side," Hammond repeated, slow and loud. "I cannot do anything more than periodically send probes through and see if you're right about this... cultural taboo."

"Don't report them as KIA," I pleaded.

His eyes narrowed.

"There's no proof," I persisted.

A long moment... and then he nodded. "This isn't any easier for me than it is for anyone else on this base," he reminded me. "But we've been through this before, Doctor Jackson."

I left the General's office and leaned on the wall for a moment, catching my breath. The soldier at the door gave a sympathetic nod. Everyone on the mountain probably knew by now that SG-1 had returned short two members. If nothing else, Anderson was probably bragging his ass off. After all, in the eyes of anyone who hadn't been there, he had done a wonderful thing. Eliminated an alien threat. Saved lives.

Only by his lie and subsequent death, he had condemned by friends.

We were cut off from Sam and Jack, but I was convinced they were still alive. I had convinced the General of the same thing, for the time being, anyway, and we would keep trying.

It was a start, at least.





***





"Well, it turned out that the Touched were really just infected with a very contagious virus."

"A virus," breathed Krivin, entranced. "I never would have guessed."

"It fed off histamines... chemicals in the blood. Janet and Daniel weren't affected because they took medicines called /anti/-histamines, for their allergies."

"And your Jaffa friend?"

"Oh, Teal'c was fine. Not much can beat that little infant Gou'ald."

"But you and Jack were..."

I felt a blush emerging, and wished I had recounted a different mission. "Well, we were affected... /and/ General Hammond, and a /lot/ of the people at the base. We took a look at the blood of the Untouched, and we found out about how the virus fed of histamines. Janet knew that somehow or other, we would have to starve the virus."

"Let me guess: strong doses of these anti-histamines?"

I grinned at Krivin. I really had found a kindred spirit in the young doctor. His culture was perhaps not as advanced as mine, but he was clever and caught on quickly; was curious and intuitive. I had done no more than mention my role on SG-1 - and the fact that I was a doctor - than he began to enthusiastically pump me for information. I told him about some of our more unusual missions, and I have to admit that it was nice to brag a bit to someone who wasn't part of the project. On Earth, it was all classified and all potentially damaging, not to mention the fact it wasn't exactly a dinner-table discussion topic. But remembering only made me long for Daniel and Teal'c - and home - even more.

"There was one time when-" I began, but then there was a quiet 'click' and I broke off, looking over at he opening door.

The Accountant strode into the room, followed by Colonel O'Neill, whose shoulders were rounded. He didn't just look tired - he looked defeated, and my somewhat-good mood evaporated.

Lingering in the doorway, the Accountant beckoned to Krivin, and they left the room, closing the door firmly behind them. Apprehensive, I turned to the Colonel, wondering what could be so awful, and agonizing over the possibilities.

"Two years," he said simply.

I gaped at him, as my mind reeled, unable to imagine spending two years on this world, cursing myself for being so careless as to get shot, cursing O'Neill for staying behind with me when he could have escaped. "Whatever happened to seven months?"

"When you add up the supplies - food, housing - that we'd need over the seven months, that's the new total. 612 Rys." His voice was cold, his gaze distant.

I closed my own eyes and shook my head. "That ridiculous."

"That's how this society works."

Glancing back up, I found him leaning against the opposite wall, arms crossed, jaw set, eyes focused on an imaginary point a million light years away. I recognized the signs of his rage, and caught my breath, instinctively shrinking away. Oh God, what if I was the one he was angry at?

"You can escape, sir," I began, my voice firm, but he cut me off.

"I'm not abandoning a member of my team," he said in that calm, numb voice that didn't quite fit with his expression. "You'll have healed in a couple months, right?"

I studied the floor in earnest. "Right, sir. I mean, that's what the doctor said."

A deep, aggravated sigh. "And no more of that 'sir' stuff either, ok?"

I kept my head down, unwilling to look him in the eye, but my curiosity was piqued. "What do you mean, Colonel?"

"And no more 'Colonel'," he said, more sharply this time. When I looked at him, his scowl had grown even deeper. "From now on, it's 'Jack'. We're... married."

I nearly fell off the bed.

I would have laughed if the mood hadn't been so somber. The Colonel and I, married? Proposals, rings, 'I do's'? Inconceivable. "What?"

He actually seemed to flinch . "If we don't say we're married, they'll split us up."

"Oh."

The Colonel looked less than thrilled with the entire scenario.

We lapsed into silence.





*





The Accountant had places to go, people to see, lives to screw up, but he'd brought along an assistant to lead us down the street to the temporary housing zone. It was evening, he said, and offices would be closed, but he could arrange for shelter for a night or two... free of charge. Lucky us.

The assistant's name was Mari'ga. She was pretty in an aloof, silent way, with silky black hair, small, dark eyes, and smooth, coppery skin. She was so tiny and delicate that she seemed to float into the surgical bay, beckon us, waif-like, and drift along the empty road like a ghost or apparition.

The walk to the housing zone was nothing short of embarrassing. We'd hardly left the building - Krivin looking on rather sadly - when the pain had simply become too much to bear. With every step I took, it felt increasingly as though a school of ravenous piranhas was feasting on my side. The second time I stumbled, too proud to ask for help, O'Neill had wordlessly scooped me into his arms. I gave a little shout, not so much out of surprise as fear that my skirt would fly up. "Colonel, you don't-"

"It's not a problem, /Samantha/," he drawled, and I realized that out of habit I had called him by rank. "If I keep this up, I'll never have to weight-lift again."

I couldn't help but smile, if only for the way he had pronounced my name, rolling it around his mouth.

I felt ridiculous, being carried like a child, exposed to that dark, vacant street, surrounded by towering buildings full of blank windows. Mari'ga would sometimes look back at us, smiling slightly. I wondered if the Accountant had told her we were married. I hoped not. The Colonel's cavalier, almost annoyed attitude about /that/ was upsetting enough.

But Krivin had been right: it /was/ chilly out. And Jack O'Neill was firm and warm and reassuring. I shifted slightly, hooking my right arm around his neck, to try to take some of my weight off his arms. He said nothing and so, expecting a reprimand or at least a caustic comment, I rested my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes. My skull seemed to throb in concert with my side. God, it hurt, and I was so tired...

So tired and warm...

So tired...





*





I knew the moment Carter fell asleep; it was the moment she became dead weight in my arms, and her breath against my neck slowed and steadied. Good. She needed the rest. We both did.

"Not much further," said Mari'ga softly, and I nodded, looking up around me. The windows of these imperious buildings were like empty eyes, staring down at us arrogantly. The street was utterly deserted, silent except for the rustling of paper and wind around corners. It /was/ nighttime, but still, it was damn weird.

I hefted Carter into a more secure position. This was becoming all too familiar. "Hey, uh, Mari'ga?" I called, knowing I was probably mispronouncing her name. My voice seemed to float forever on the dead air.

"Yes?" She didn't turn her head or even slow her pace.

"How long is your debt for?"

/That/ made her falter. She lifted her chin. "57 years... cycles."

"57 years? Why so long?"

"My mother... died... giving birth to me," she tossed over her shoulder. Her tone was light but I could hear the tremors in her voice. "And my father left us before I was born, when she became ill. So... the Council had to find a family to take care of me. I had a very high debt before I could even work."

"They charged you for all that?" What kind of screwed up planet was this that they made orphans pay for their own foster care?

"Of course," she answered, sounding surprised I should even question her world's methods. "Oh, here we are."

She pointed to a gate set into a wall that ran against the road, a tall, tan, concrete-looking wall that I'd hardly noticed. The gate was even taller than the wall, and from what it looked like, a meter thick. And, it appeared locked.

"What is this?" I asked, looking up, and up, and up. "A prison?"

Mari'ga pulled what looked like a key ring from the pocket of her skirt, and laughed. "It's the housing zone, actually."

"Ah."

She unlocked the gate and, with a great deal of grunting, managed to pull it open. It was hollow, then, I realized, ever vigilant. If it had been solid concrete or, God forbid, stone, she would have never been able to move it. I stepped through, and she pushed the gate closed.

A street ran against the inside of the wall, and branching off from it were other roads, all lined with... well, they reminded me of condos, actually, or maybe apartments. It was hard to see in the near dark, but there were lamps lining the streets that shed some illumination.

"This way, please," said Mari'ga, and without waiting for an answer she started down the nearest column.

These 'houses' were arranged in much the same fashion as the structures on the main road: squished together in the interests of space, three stories high, tall and narrow. I didn't want to think about how small they had to seem inside... not like I wasn't used to cramped quarters, not with all the time I spent at the SGC. They were tan, and seemed to be made of the same material as the wall, and the gate. Stairs led up to the second and third floors, which were laced with rickety balconies.

We passed dozens of homes, and realized that there were rows as well as columns; that the entire 'housing zone' was split into blocks. Not exactly an Earth-shattering revelation - or a Ma'at'a-shattering one, for that matter - but it was always good to know your environment. I peeked surreptitiously into open doors and windows, and more than once I saw a pair of eyes, bright in the darkness, staring back at me.

"Here," said Mari'ga, going to a set of second-story stairs. I grimaced as I followed her up them, carefully balancing Carter as she unlocked the door and stepped aside, allowing us in and then following. "Watch your eyes," she warned. There was a 'click' and light flooded the darkened space.

Yep. Reminded me of my quarters back on good old Earth. A couple end tables, some lamps, a bed, a door that probably led to the bathroom, a closet... nothing much more than was needed for sleeping. Of course, there was no time to lounge around the house when you were out all day, working off your damn /debt/. There wasn't even anything passable as a kitchen so meals were probably already /prepared/... we'd ended up in a fucking planet-sized commune.

Wait a minute.

Yep. Bed. Singular. And not all that roomy.

Oh, this was going to be /fun/...

"I have to go," said Mari'ga, already half out the door. "The Accountant will send your representative by tomorrow morning."

"Um, alright."

And then she was gone, her feet tapping down the stairs, not even bothering to close the door on her way out.

I made a face at the woman's back as she retreated down the street, and then turned, setting Carter carefully on the bed, hoping not to wake her up. Then I pulled down her skirt a little.

As I straightened, I couldn't help but notice Sam's face. It was totally... relaxed. I'd never seen her like this. It wasn't as though she was in a constant state of stress, but...

She was always thinking. /That/ was it.

With Carter, the gears were always turning, and you could always /tell/ they were turning. Whether the issue was how to get the Stargate working, or if she wanted a beer or a Coke with lunch, she was always thinking. Her nose crinkled and the intelligence just about shot out of her blue eyes. Now, though, her nose was still and her eyes were closed. The tension was gone from her face... from her whole body.

And once I started thinking about her body...

She did look nice in that dress, though. In fact, right now, just lying there, indefensible, unmilitary, soft and feminine... she looked... beautiful.

"Oh for crying out loud," I groused, and moved towards the doorway. Just because she was out of her fatigues was no reason to start having these kinds of treacherous, traitorous thoughts, I told myself sternly. No matter what she wore, she was still Captain Samantha Carter.

Samantha Carter.

Samantha O'Neill.

"Oh for Pete's sake," I muttered, lacing my fingers behind my head and stretching my back. But the thought was like quicksand and it sucked me in. Marriage. A ring offered from my knees. White dress and black tux. Mr. and Mrs. Jack O'Neill. All the memories I had made with Sara, but with Sam there instead. Oh God...

"Colonel?"

I jumped. She was right behind me. "Yeah, uh, Captain?"

"What are you doing, sir?"

The 'sir', the 'Colonel's ... they made me wince. She didn't feel that way about me. She never would. "Looking at the stars," I said, trying to sound offhand and casual.

She moved up beside me, limping a bit. I put an arm around her... just to support her, of course.

"When we were on Abydos," I continued. "I looked up at the sky... more than once." I shrugged. "There were basically sandstorms 24-7, but that didn't really matter; it was my first alien planet."

"We've come so far," she told me softly.

I smiled, despite myself. "I kept wondering, if it had been dark and clear... if I would have been able to see the sun... our sun."

"Depending on the season, you probably could have," said Carter, always thinking.

"Yeah, well, after we got back, I... really got into stargazing. I spent so much time up there... and not all of it was peeking into neighbor's windows, either. I kept wondering if maybe Skarra and... and Sha're and Daniel were looking back at me. You know that whole mantra of the sci-fi wiz. When we look up at the night sky, wondering if someone's looking back..."

"Is there anyone out there doing the exact same thing?" finished Sam.

"Yeah." I craned my neck. The sky was positively alive. I would have given anything for a telescope... and probably all it would have cost me was a couple more years of my life. "No one's looking back, are they?" I asked. "No one from Earth, I mean."

Carter froze beside me, and pulled away. "We're pretty far away from Earth, sir."

I nodded, and closed the door. "Yeah. We are."





*





The bed looked ominous.

Never had an approximately-queen-sized mattress seemed so very small.

I glanced up at the Colonel. He wore the same 'oh Jeez, get me home' expression that I was sure I did. At the very least, he looked a little wary. "What side?"

"Excuse me?"

"What side do you want?"

"Doesn't matter," I answered quickly.

Shrugging, Jack moved around to the other side of the bed and sat on the edge, pulling off his boots. I sat also, my back to the Colonel, ever mindful of my injuries, tense and unwilling to slide between the sheets with my commanding officer just yet, thinking how annoying it was that he didn't seem in the least affected by this development.

The mattress shifted as he stood and walked into the bathroom. I heard water running. "No toothbrush... or towels... but hey! We got soap."

It wasn't like O'Neill and I had never slept together before. Well, technically, we had. We slept in the same vicinity on overnight missions, after all, sometimes even side by side on our rolls. But this was different. No Daniel, no Teal'c... just the two of us in a cozy little cubicle with sheets and pillows and running water.

O'Neill came out of the bathroom, water droplets running down his face, and paused at the closet, which looked like wood but, when he opened it, sounded like plastic. "Empty." He shut the doors. "We really need to talk to the manager."

I stood and pulled back the sheets, then sat back down, kicking off the slippers. Carefully, as though expecting to have my toes bitten off, I slid my feet under the sheet and blanket, and turned onto my right side, facing the center of the bed. "So this is it, huh?" I asked, looking up at the ceiling.

"Yeah." I didn't allow myself to look at the Colonel but I knew with absolute certainty that he was watching me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him take off his jacket, revealing the black undershirt. "Hey, I know it's not much to look at, but I DID carry you over the threshold."

I rolled my eyes.

The Colonel got into bed. As if by habit, he turned onto his left side. Facing me.

We stared at each other for an indeterminable length of time, indeterminable because I completely lost myself in his eyes. It was embarrassing, humiliating, actually, but it was so /easy/, just to stare at him and wonder what it would be like to fall asleep with and wake up to those eyes, every night, every morning.

Then I tore my gaze away, focusing on the bed between us instead. I couldn't turn away; I would have if I could lie on my other side, but I couldn't. The ball, as they said, was in his court.

O'Neill turned onto his right side.

I reached back and turned off the lamp.

Some wedding night.

I didn't really expect to get any sleep that night, not with the pain, not with everything that had just happened to us, and not with Jack O'Neill sleeping mere inches away. But the bed was surprisingly comfortable and I was totally drained. I dozed off almost immediately.





***





The base seemed quieter without Jack and Sam. Without his jokes, her ramblings, their banter. Then there was the fact that their absence subdued everyone else.

I refused to leave the base; no matter how late it got, I refused to go home until my friends returned, safe and sound.

SG-5 was due back from their mission to P6C-854 - a routine trip - and so I waited with Janet in the infirmary for them to return. All too soon, they did, with only minimal scrapes and bruises, injuries she was able to quickly treat, which unfortunately left the rest of the night for us to kill... no macabre pun intended.

Teal'c finally emerged from his meditation and we went to the cafeteria to get a bite to eat... though I felt horribly guilty wolfing down my sandwich and Coke. For all I knew, my friends were being starved to death in some Ma'at'an jail.

My brain was woefully disobedient; I would have thought I had more control over the damned thing. I'd be munching away, perhaps engaging in some stupid small talk with Janet or explaining something to Teal'c - all of us carefully avoiding the important topic - when something... a scene, a sound... would pop into my head. Shackles. Oozing blood. Indignant shouts, desperate pleas, mournful sobs. Two broken, bloody bodies...

I jumped up from the table so quickly that my chair tipped over and ran for the bathroom.

After emptying my stomach, I found Janet waiting for me by the door of my room. I fidgeted, wishing for Teal'c instead. Teal'c was the best guy in the world to have around during tough times. He didn't joke around to try and lighten the situation. He didn't tell you everything would be all right. He just sat, and listened, and dispensed his most logical advice, surprising you now and then with insight into human character that you hadn't known he possessed.

When I saw Janet, I put a hand up to my stomach. "I'm fine, Doc," I began, wondering if she was after me for a checkup after my little bout of nausea, but she shook her head.

"I didn't come here to..." she sighed shakily, trailing off, seemingly unable to finish, and crossed her arms across her chest restlessly. "Do you really believe that they're alive?"

"I know it," I said, with more confidence than I actually felt.

"But what Teal'c told the General... if the natives really were firing that indiscriminately..."

"If they were dead, I would know it," I said emphatically. She regarded me warily. Wary of my strange words, I wondered, or wary of letting herself believe in what I said? I easiest thing to do right now, I realized, would be to admit that chances were they were dead, or dying, and give up hope, count our losses, hold our services. To find out later that we were wrong would be a boon; to never find out anything again would not be unexpected.

Letting blind faith lead you, setting yourself up for what seemed like inevitable disappointment, was infinitely harder.

"Do... do you want to talk some more?" I offered, and Frasier looked surprised. Sure, we didn't spend a lot of downtime together, at least not without respective best friends Jack and Sam to bridge whatever gaps were there, but this was an instance when none of that mattered.

She seemed to realize the same thing.

"I'd love that," she said.





***





"Hey Carter, wake up."

I yawned and rolled over on my back, raising a hand and shielding my eyes with it. The world beyond my closed lids suddenly seemed unbearably bright and loud; much too /awake/ for my liking. Hadn't it been just moments ago that I'd drifted off to sleep? And what in the world was Jack O'Neill doing in my -

Oh, damn.

My eyes flew open wide as I remembered everything my unconscious had preferred that I forget: the chase back to the Stargate... getting shot... getting left behind... Krivin... the apartment... I pushed myself into a sitting position.

Jack, standing at the foot of the bed, raised an eyebrow at my abrupt reaction, and smiled nervously.

I hardly noticed him. My side spasmed and twitched with my sudden, surprised lurch, and I groaned, both in pain and frustration. Why couldn't it just have been a dream? Why couldn't I simply have made it up in my mind? Why did it have to be real? And why did it have to hurt so much?

I fell back on the bed in the fetal position, clutching at my side. I was being skinned alive. I was being burned. I was being torn apart, piece by piece.

The mattress shook and I felt O'Neill's hands clutching at my shoulders and back, as though trying to steady me. "Carter? Carter, I have the pain killers the doctor gave me, but I need you to sit up."

I couldn't sit up. I couldn't stop imagining the tiny holes drilled into my flesh. I couldn't even take a breath without sending my entire nervous system into a frenzy. I heard myself cry out, but I felt disconnected from the sound, as though someone else, someone far away, had made it.

"Captain! Come on... Sit up, right now, and take these pills."

Unfortunately, the Colonel's commands worked no magic. I knew what he had expected: that the order would shock me and snap me back into military training and out of the pain, at least long enough to swallow the medicine. Instead, I was trying to work up the strength to tell him to go to hell. The command hadn't shocked me. It was exactly what I had expected of him.

O'Neill took me by the shoulders and pushed me onto my back. I bit my lip to keep from crying out again, too much in agony to feel the embarrassment I knew would hit later... if there ever was a later, if this torment didn't just go on forever.

"Sam? Come on, Samantha, work with me here."

That /did/ shock me, and I opened one eye. The Colonel was kneeling on the bed, leaning over me. It wasn't simply his use of my first name that had surprised me; it was the tone of his voice, and the expression on his face. Was that tight, desperate look simply the cast of a man concerned and sympathetic for his friend?

Well of course it was. What else would it be?

"Sam," he said again, and the word wavered like the air over the desert.

I grabbed his wrist and he pushed the small white pill - a bottle of which Krivin had slipped to us, free of charge, before we'd left the clinic - into my hand. I stuffed it into my mouth.

"Swallow," Jack said, as much of a plea as an order, and he produced a cup of water seemingly from nowhere ... though it must have come from the bathroom. He put it to my lips, and I drank, long and deep, feeling the medicine slide and scratch its way down my throat. Then I let my head fall back on the pillow, trying to keep my moans trapped in my throat.

"Lie still," I heard O'Neill say, finally slipping more into a commanding position, his voice was still soft, although he expected me to slip into hysterics again. "Just don't move. Don't move."

I swallowed what little moisture remained in my mouth, and licked my lips. "I felt fine... yesterday," I panted, letting my eyes close. "Well, not fine... but better... than this."

"Drugs must have worn off some time during the night," the Colonel said. His voice was more soothing than I thought it had the capacity to be. It was also very close, and I was tempted to open my eyes and see exactly where he /was/. But that temptation was no match for my sudden fatigue.

Time passed, as it had a habit of doing.

"I'm going to fall asleep," I muttered, and even in my own ears my voice sounded terribly slurred.

"It's okay. Go to sleep."

His voice sounded slurred, too, so I decided it was my sense of hearing... or maybe the drugs slowed my brain down a little. Everything seemed a little off. Moments crawled and leapt. Warmth brushed across my forehead like fingers. And I could have sworn that I heard Daniel's voice, clear as day. "Jack! Sam!"

His was a study of despair and rage.

I blacked out.





*





Not until Sam's tense muscles slackened and her breathing slowed did I let myself relax, letting my body go limp there on the bed beside her, more debilitated emotionally than physically.

So far, upon arriving on Ma'at'a, I had fought an army, been smacked around, and been treated like crap by some asshole of an 'Accountant' who expected me to work for his people for two years despite all they had done to Carter and me. All in a day's work. But by far the worst part had been having to listen to my Captain moan and gasp in pain, while there was nothing I could do but play cheerleader, trying to cajole her to cut through the agony and take the medicine.

Sam made a soft, throaty sound in her sleep.

I propped myself up on one elbow and looked down at her. Her vulnerability no longer seemed so endearing... instead, it was worrying. There was her, and there was me, and if something happened to one of us before we could escape, the other was on their own.

Guilt flittered around the peripheries of my mind like an irritating mosquito, thirsty for my blood, and I brushed it aside, if only for the moment.

Her eyelids flittered and her lips moved, as though caught in a dream. I held the back of my hand light against her cheek, still wary of signs of fever and infection... but her skin was cool under my touch. Unable to resist a sudden, foolish urge, I brushed a few strands of hair off her forehead. The skin there was cool, too, and soft...

Her lips moved slowly. "Daniel?" she whispered searchingly.

My heart did some impressive acrobatics

Daniel?

Oh, who was I kidding? I wanted him to be here, too. Less than 24 hours and I was already missing the kid.

When Hammond had officially designated Carter, Danny, Teal'c, and me as SG-1, I had been happy, but I hadn't been pleased. The two emotions were decidedly separate. Carter was clever and a good soldier. Teal'c was strong and imposing and represented our first steal from Apophis. I'd worked with Daniel before, and knew he was smart and, eventually, very likable.

But I was accustomed to all male, all military teams. Carter was a good fighter, but she was a woman, and I'd had less than great luck with women. Teal'c was an alien, which was almost as bad. Daniel was a civilian, and a doctor, and he sneezed a lot.

As for me... a more screwed-up officer you couldn't hope to meet. Originally chosen to go through the Stargate because I was just depressed enough to be suicidal. Hauled back because no one on the planet knew as much about Abydos. Brought out of retirement and paired with an alien turncoat, a doctor, and a woman - in today's Air Force, today's army, all misfits.

But that band of misfits had accomplished more than any other 100% military SG team. We'd brought back medicine and technology. We'd saved uncountable lives. Hell, we'd saved the world once or twice. And we'd grown closer than I had ever thought possible. It was maddeningly trite, but damn it, we were a family now, with all the rights and responsibilities thereof. I saw myself in the father's role, Danny was the prodigal son, Teal'c the strange but altogether amusing exchange student, and Carter...

Carter as the mother figure?

As my wife?

I certainly didn't look upon her as a daughter, after all; she'd made it immediately clear upon our first meeting that she wasn't prepared to be taken under anybody's wing. And from the way things had turned out...

But no matter their exact role, SG-1 was my family. They kept me in line. They kept me sane. I needed them. All of them.





*





Leaving was harder than I'd expected it to be.

In a way, I was eager to leave, to get out into our new world, learn more about it, continue my half-hatched plan of escape. I could hear voices calling in the street, and I knew I had to get moving. The Accountant's assistant, a gaunt, shabby creep named Loddert, had already been by with our work instructions. I knew what I had to do, and I knew I had to do it.

But actually leaving was a different matter.

Carter sat on the edge of the bed and watched me stall. She hadn't been asleep very long, but when she'd awoken she'd claimed to feel 100% better. I reminded myself to save on of those pills and take it back to Earth with us... at least then the mission wouldn't be completely botched.

I'd given Sam the rest of the medicine, and I made her promise to take more if she'd felt any pain. Rolling her eyes at my concern, she'd nonetheless promised.

Still, I lingered by the door.

"What's the matter, Colonel?" Sam asked, genuinely curious.

I tried not to flinch, because there should be no reason to, but I was bothered all the same. Why could Doctor Jackson be Daniel, but I couldn't be just 'Jack'? Was it all military habit, or was it just her own personal preference? After all, I knew tons of COs and 2ICs who addressed each other by first names on a regular basis... and a few choice nicknames to boot. Was it another one of those male/female military things again? "Don't get too friendly", "Remember Tailhook", "Watch that sidearm, Mister."

It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps attractive women should only be placed in teams with me who were either neutered or had other 'preferences'.

"Sir?" ventured Sam.

"I'm..." I hesitated, then... aw, the hell with it. "I'm just a little uncomfortable with leaving you here... alone."

She smiled at that. I enjoyed the smile, even though I suspected it was, to some degree, at my expense. "Actually, I was thinking about going down to the Central Hall, to see if I could find Loddert... convince him to let me start working a little sooner."

"Nope," I said flatly. "Main priority is getting you well again, so we can get the hell out of here. I don't want you working in any Council member's house until you have to."

She made a face. "But the way I understand it, sir, if I'm not working your days only count as /half/ days."

It was an inane, frustrating rule, only one of many inane, frustrating things about this inane, frustrating culture. "I don't care," I said evenly.

It was a perfect - or at least adequate - parting line, and I forced myself to leave then, stepping through the doorway, tossing a stupid wave and a humorless smile over my shoulder, and shutting the door behind me.

I descended the stairs carefully, one rung at a time, trying to ignore the fluttering feeling in my stomach. For crying out loud, wasn't I too old to get butterflies in my stomach?

I tried to focus my mind on what the day would bring, but my mind wouldn't behave. I couldn't stop agonizing over the fact that the door didn't lock; Sam was injured and alone. We'd be separated for the entire day.

More than once, Sam was hurt on one mission and was forced to sit out the next, and although I always missed her presence, I never actively worried about her. Not when there were people like Doc Frasier and Hammond, people who liked and cared about her, there with her. But here, now, she was on her own. With the exception of Doctor Krivin, no one on this damn planet liked us /or/ particularly cared about us.

There was a steady flow of people - men - walking down the road to the cross street, and I merged right in, casting a nervous look back at our little apartment.

Sam was standing at the window.

I turned around sharply, feeling a blush rise up on my cheekbones, heating me around my collar, and I bumped into the back of the man walking in front of me. He turned and, instinctively expecting a confrontation, I tensed and put my hands in front of me. "Sorry."

"It's not a problem," said the man, and then he gave my fatigues a double take. "What in the world are you wearing?" he exclaimed.

These people sure had problems with privacy and politeness.

The guy looked harmless enough - chubby, middle-aged, and bald (though that was probably more a result of fashion trends than age) - so I indulged him. "I'm new around here."

"Ah," he said, nodding as though that explained everything. Fashion, so far, seemed to be somewhat strictly dictated: the men wore loose pants and shirts in varying shades of gray, while the women donned mid-calf dresses of subdued blues and greens and pinks. Hair was also specific - dark brown and black by genotype, long and straight on the women; braided or strangely shaved on the men. There really was no hope of Carter and me ever fitting in. But that was all right. I wasn't planning on hanging around long enough to worry about /that/.

"I'm Jerdess," said the bald man. "Me and Ciarrah live third floor, end of the street." He pointed behind him.

"Jack O'Neill," I responded, uncomfortable with the sudden sharing of information but feeling obligated to supply something. "My - Sam -" I took a deep breath and started over. "I live back there." I gestured down the street vaguely. All the buildings looked the same, anyway. "With Samantha."

"Newly committed?"

Did that mean 'newlyweds'? I hazarded a guess that it did. "You could say that."

We reached the huge gates, which stood open, unlocked at dawn and locked after nightfall. A man stood in a small booth against the wall, dressed in black... security. Militia. Jerdess flashed his work order at the man. I mimicked him with hardly a falter.

"Where did They assign you to work?" asked Jerdess. 'They' was actually pronounced 'They', as a proper noun. I wondered just who They were - perhaps the Council? - and what They had done to earn Their capital T.

I glanced down at the work order. I couldn't read a word of their language, of course, but I remembered what Loddert had said. Our temporary housing arrangement would become more or less permanent, thanks to a rash of new construction only a few miles away. "They've got me dismantling some buildings down by the... the River of the Scales." Wherever /that/ was.

Jerdess grinned. "What luck. My friends and I are working on that very project." He picked up his pace. His body jiggled slightly under his dark gray shirt and pants. "Let's hurry, Jack. If we're late, They'll add to our debt."

"We wouldn't want that, now would we?" I muttered, hurrying after Jerdess, thankful at least that he got my mind off Sam Carter.





*





There was a knock on the door and I froze in the process of making the bed.

Who could it be? O'Neill wouldn't knock; not even Loddert had bothered when he'd stopped by earlier. Wavering with indecision, I knew that if it was anyone with 'ill intent', I wouldn't be much of a match for them.

"Jack O'Neill? Captain Carter?"

I sagged in relief, actually feeling my knees go weak. Hobbling across the room, I threw the door open. "Krivin!" I said, delighted.

We grinned at each other like long-lost friends who hadn't seen each other in years. Quickly, I ushered the doctor, weighed down with two brown bags, inside, and shut the door. "How's the pain?" he asked, setting them on the bed.

"I had to take a pill this morning," I admitted, watching him curiously. "But I feel fine now."

"That should last you until tonight, then. Don't take another before dusk." He loosened the cinches on the two cloth sacks. "These are for you and Jack. Where is he, anyway?"

"Work," I said, peering eagerly into the bags.

"Already. My, They don't mess around, do They?"

I reached inside of the of the sacks and pulled out what could only be called a gown... light green, embroidered with long sleeves. I dug deeper. Another, peach-colored, with a tight bodice. A whole bad of dresses, flimsy bits of cloth that had to be undergarments, and soft slippers. I looked up at Krivin with a slackened jaw. "There are for us?"

"They were Emiko's," said the doctor with a shrug. "I don't know how long they've been hanging in my closet. You looked to be her size... she's never asked for them back, and this is for a worthy cause."

"And these?" I asked, touching the other bag."

"Some of my clothes, for Jack."

"Krivin... Jack and I got a ticket for /free/ clothes. We can't take yours."

"The clothes They'll give you will be issued by the Council. They are poorly made and will not keep you warm when the after-harvest cold comes. Besides, only the first set of clothes is free. They will charge you for any more you need while you are here. My mother, a seamstress, made my clothes, and Emiko is the daughter of Council member Clera... only the best for them." He looked sad at the mention of his old girlfriend.

"You'll have to buy more for yourself," I insisted weakly. "Your debt..."

"My debt isn't important to me," he insisted, with more conviction. "Really. I love my job, my people, my planet. Even if I did not have to, I would still work. But you and Jack O'Neill... you have your own jobs, your own people, your own planet to get back to, and I want to help."

Did he, I wondered, feel guilty for having to charge us for my surgery, trapping us on this planet? Was he trying to gain favor with us for some reason? Or was he just trying to do the right thing?

You didn't see a lot of that these days, no matter what planet you happened to be on. The entire universe seemed to be in a state of social and moral decline.

"I should be leaving," said Krivin reluctantly, jabbing a finger at the door. "I'll see you sometime... though in a good context, I hope."

"Yeah. Me too."

"Tell Jack that I said hello," the doctor said, smiling shyly at me, and then he was gone.

I watched from the window as he walked down the street and through the gate.

Then I tried on the dresses.





***





Lunch hour. Meals, of course, were provided.

Jerdess introduced me to his friends.

There was Brandal, who rivaled Teal'c in the 'big and beefy' category. Seeber was small, birdlike, and full of annoying questions. Jaldebay was a slouch, a lazy bum who would stop working as soon as the supervisor's back was turned. And then there was Bob. His name nearly sent me into hysterics. Two cultures, millions of light years apart and even more different on a developmental scale, and they both ended up coming up with the name Bob. He was short and introspective, with big eyes and a soft voice, and I found him the most tolerable one in the group.

One of the supervisor's assistants came by, handing out lunch - some kind of beef wrapped in something similar to flatbread, and mugs of cold water. The six of us broke off introductions immediately in favor of wolfing it down.

It wasn't that the work was /hard/, though it would have been easier to simply demolish the building rather than carefully dismantle it, piece by piece. "Supplies are hard to come by," Seeber had explained.

The supervisor soon announced that lunch was over. We stood from the shade of a pile of metal parts and continued our work, taking apart the dusty, nameless structure bit by bit, plank by plank, bolt by bolt. In a way, I was thankful for the menial task. I could invest all my energy into /doing/, instead of thinking.





*





When I simply couldn't stand it any longer, I went for a walk through the housing zone.

It was midday and all who remained were women and children. On Ma'at'a there were strict rules about who had to work and who didn't -- not just strict but confusing and case-specific. Loddert's explanation had been - probably intentionally - perplexing. He spoke in circles, quickly and haughtily, and I was left with the impression that both O'Neill and I were expected to work. But that obviously wasn't true for everyone.

Maybe women with children were allowed to stay home, I surmised, watching a woman in a billowing doe-colored skirt and blouse, holding the hand of a bumbling toddler with jet black locks.

At the back of the enclosed housing zone, against the rear wall, was a long, low structure. It was made of the same material as the apartments, but was windowless. I expected there to be a guard or two at the wide-open door, as there was at the front gate, but the threshold was empty, so I tentatively stepped through.

The single room was vast and impressive. The ceiling was higher than looked possible from the outside, and the floor covered with plush carpet. Everywhere were tables, chairs, and couches. Nothing was in the best condition, but it wasn't glaringly decrepit.

Women and young girls sat in the chairs, talking with great animation was plenty of smiles. Little boys dressed in dull gray ran around, whooping and yelling, chasing each other, their mothers, and, occasionally, a girl.

The Central Hall, I remembered Loddert saying, was a place of recreation for the people living here, a sort of casual meeting place. It was no Central Perk, but it at least provided a place to sit, talk, and relax. And, it seemed, for the mothers, a place to spend the day.

Be an anthropologist, I thought, and affixed myself to a nearby group of women.

They noticed my clothes before they noticed me. That was to be expected, of course. If these were the clothes of the daughter of a Council member, they were bound to be nicer than anything these people owned.

"Hello," said one tall, thin woman. She hesitated, looking first at my gauzy dress, than at my obviously different hair, but her friendly smile never faltered. She seemed younger than I - perhaps in her mid-twenties - but retained a gentle, matronly air. "I'm Arlow. Are you new here?"

"Um... yes." My first instinct was, of course, to introduce myself as Captain Carter, SG-1, but I pushed the inclination away. The last thing I wanted to do here was come across harsh and unlikable. If I could get to know these people, I reasoned, I could talk with them, and maybe uncover something that could aid in our escape. "My name's Sam. My..." I cleared my throat. "Jack and I moved in last night." Saying the Colonel's first name aloud felt odd, though I had said it many times in my own mind.

Another woman, one with startlingly beautiful hazel eyes, admired my hair. "How do you get it that color?" she asked wonderingly.

I absentmindedly fingered a blonde strand. "Runs in the family."

Hazel-eyes raised an eyebrow. "Really? Your family must be from very far away."

"Yeah. They are."

A young girl, perhaps five or six, raced by us. Like a fisher with a net, Hazel-eyes expertly plucked her from the floor. Placing the vigorously squirming child in her lap, she asked sweetly, "I saw you come in, Sam. You don't have a child?" I shook my head. "Then why are you here and not working?"

I hesitated, looking around the room cautiously before discreetly lifting up the lavender skirt to mid-thigh. The women all murmured, catching sight of the bandages. "How in Ma'at's name did /that/ happen?" asked a stout, dimpled woman lounging beside Arlow.

"Long story," I said, knowing the Central Hall was nothing but a haven for gossip-mongers and whatever I told these people would have circulated the room before I could reach the door. "But the debt for this is the only thing we have to pay," I said determinedly. "612 Rys and we can leave."

The mothers all looked at each other meaningfully, frowning slightly. I squirmed, feeling like I was caught on the wrong end of a bad joke. "What?"

Finally, the woman sitting beside me spoke. She had a slim, girlish figure and long bangs that dangled into her eyes. "That's what They always say. What I mean is, this is Ankh'ij, City of the Heart. I am from the City of the Feather, only a few hours from here. I was visiting relatives here when I fell off a balcony and broke my leg. A doctor had to set it. "Only 95 Rys," the Accountant told my committed and I. That was three years ago. Things happen. Things always happen. They make things happen. They need the labor here and are not willing for us to leave, so we never do. No one ever leaves."





*





"Come to the Hall with us," cajoled Jerdess.

"I can't. I have to get home. Sam-"

"Oh, come on," said Brandal, giving me a push past the apartment staircase. "She's probably at the Hall anyway."

I shrugged, then winced, wanting to rub the spot Brandal had playfully shoved. Sam actually wasn't my main concern at the moment. Over the course of the day I had managed to convince myself that nothing bad could happen to Carter because too much bad stuff had happened to us in so short a time... we were due for a spell of good luck in a serious way. My focus now was on my sore back, neck, and arms. In the Air Force, in the SGC, you were undoubtedly /active/, but there was a difference between being a soldier and being a construction worker. Manual labor wasn't really my thing.

Besides, at the moment, I wasn't really up to getting into an argument with Brandal... or, for that matter, Jaldebay, Seeber, Jerdess, or Bob. I nodded and let them steer me down the street.

We entered the Central Hall, which was a bright spot in the dusky twilight. In my fatigue, none of it seemed as grand as it probably should have. Big room, I thought. Big deal. Lots of people, women and children, lights. So what? What were the others so excited about?

I watched as Jerdess, surprisingly spry, dashed into the center of the room, making a beeline for a circle of jabbering women. He came up from behind one dressed in cobalt blue and kissed her on the cheek. She turned around, beaming, and they hugged enthusiastically.

The other four took off in different directions. Bob did an amusing run-walk across the floor to another huddle, to a woman with long legs and big, pretty eyes, who pulled her committed into an eager kiss.

Standing right beside them, talking to a skinny woman with ridiculously long bangs, was Sam.

For a second I just stared. Somewhere, somehow, she had found herself a new outfit, and she looked... great. The fabric hugged all the right places and the soft purple shade made her hair and eyes stand out dramatically.

I was very happy to see her, I realized. Happier than I had expected. I hurried over.

Bob, still in his wife's arms, saw me before Carter did, and he smiled.

Then, finally, she caught sight of me threading my way through the crows. Her lips turned up and the corners of her eyes crinkled, and my heart ran through every emotion it knew, just to show off. All these people have is each other, I realized, watching Brandal embrace a plump, laughing girl.

When I reached Sam, I knew there was one thing I had to do, not only because my hormones demanded it, but so no one - not Sam's new friends or my own - could question our marital status.

I pulled her close and kissed her.





***





It seemed like three million years had passed. In reality, it had only been a little more than a day.

For the first time in a long time, I felt very... violent. Capable of causing damage and pain, if only I had someone to inflict it upon.

But there was nobody. Hammond wasn't at fault here. Despite seeing the red phone in my 'dream', the president and those higher level players couldn't be blamed, either. Everyone wanted to go pack to the planet and rescue Sam and Jack. But we couldn't.

MALP telemetry showed that the pile of rocks around the Stargate wasn't very big, but it was there, and anyone who went through would be crunched and crumpled like the poor MALP had been. And even I didn't expect anyone to volunteer for /that/.

Still, I looked for someone to blame, someone I could point at and say "Hey, you! This is your fault!" Someone, anyone. There was the kid from Ma'at'a, the one Anderson had killed, but he was dead and that made it harder to hate him. So instead of directing all my fury and angst at a single target, I spread the resentment around.

I tried to be nice to Teal'c and Hammond and Janet, I really did. Teal'c because he was my friend, and all that remained of SG-1 on this planet. Hammond because he was the CO, even if I wasn't military. Janet because... because I liked her.

I spent most of the day skulking around the infirmary. "When the Gate went nuts that one time, and deposited Jack and Sam in Antarctica, the whole time I had this feeling that I was /missing/ something. That the answer was staring me in the face the whole time and I was too dumb to see it. And I was right."

"And do you feel that way now?" Janet asked. She was in an equally morose mood; she didn't even have any teams to patch up.

"No. And that's almost the worst thing about all of this. I know where they are. I know - I /know/ - that they're alive. But we can't get to them. There's absolutely nothing we can do about it." I shook my head. "I misjudged them... the natives. I didn't think they'd attack. I didn't think they'd mess with the Stargate. I didn't think... that they could do this to us; on a whole they're a century behind us, give or take a few decades."

"So we're sitting around here," Janet summed up. "With nothing to do except try and live our lives and wait until they unblock that Stargate, while Sam and the Colonel are subjected to who-knows-what..."

My anger grew exponentially until all I could see was that moist darkness from my dream. I hated doing nothing. I hated feeling helpless. I hated not having anywhere else to place the blame expect for on my own head.

But that was before I heard the name Kathryn Landseth.





***





He kissed me.

I kissed back.

It was horribly awkward, tense and strained for the both of us. There was nothing romantic about it; in fact, it was probably the most /neighborly/ kiss I had ever given or received, lengthened only to look a bit /less/ neighborly.

Sure I was disappointed. I guess I'd always expected that when - /if/ - Jack O'Neill and I ever kissed (under our own power, not under the guise or influence of anyone or anything) it would be a mind-blowing, show-stopping, earth-shattering event of epic proportions. I'd found myself idly watching his lips from time to time, when he talked, when he smiled, wondering what it would be like to kiss him. The ground would split beneath our feet, perhaps. Extinct volcanoes would roar to life. Maybe the sun would go nova.

No fireworks went off. But when he pulled away, I saw that the throng surrounding us, which had been watching our embrace initially, had wandered off in other pursuits. Convince the natives, I realized. Okay, I could do that. Wake up, dress, eat, talk, kiss O'Neill. Give me a second and I'll write up a checklist, I thought wryly.

The next thing I knew, he was introducing me to his new friends, and the group I had spent the day with were also exchanging pleasantries.

Arlow's husband was a jovial, grinning guy named Kennol who poured concrete, or the Ma'at'an equivalent of it. They had two sons, Nesly and Simuel. Halsi, with the pretty hazel eyes, had, to my amusement, a committed named Bob. The girl that Halsi had been looking after was the daughter of a friend whose committed worked in the militia. The woman was alone, but still made to work, and needed someone to... to baby-sit.

There was Seeber and Regia, chubby Mantrioe and burly Brandal, Jaldebay and Danae, long-haired Dawnielle and charming Avriel, Jerdess and Ciarrah... all with a plethora of running, romping, yelling children, children who I couldn't even count, much less assign names to.

All with an obvious feeling of connection of community, if not family.

Could they be our family? I looked out across the room, at the smiling husbands, wives, and children - the zone, to my estimation, housed no less then eight hundred people - and wondered if they could ever be like the family we had left back on Earth.

Of course, they couldn't /compare/. The mere thought of replacing my father, brother, Daniel, Teal'c, and all the others made me sick. But could these people, these friendly, hard-working people... could they stand in? Could they substitute? Or were the Colonel and I truly on our own?





*





"How're your injuries doing, Captain?"

"Hm? Oh, fine. Fine."

Dinner had been served, as expected, in the Central Hall. An entire wall of the structure rolled away to reveal a food-preparation area not unlike a cafeteria. Diner had consisted of a pale, chicken-like meat, funny yellow peas, and something similar to mashed potatoes, though they tasted grainy, like they had come from a box. There was nothing but water to drink, but Jaldebay assured me that every now and then someone sneaked in some liquor of questionable origin. I'd forced a smile and told him "Looking forward to it."

O'Neill and I had lingered behind with our new clique for a while, but I could tell that he was tired. I made up a lame excuse about needing my rest, to let him save face, and we left.

O'Neill was silent for a long time after asking my condition, as we shuffled back to our little apartment, but finally, he blurted out what I knew had been on his mind all night. "That's some dress. Where... where'd you get it?"

Out of reflex I looked down at the gown. Lavender-gray, with a V-neck, tight sleeves and bodice, and a rather flouncy skirt made of a light, gauzy fabric. Not exactly the camouflage jumpsuit I was accustomed to. I still wasn't even close to becoming comfortable with my new wardrobe, but at least this dress covered more than the blue one had. "Krivin... he made a house call," I said, and proceeded to explain about the doctor's visit, and his reasons for giving us the clothes.

"Sounds like someone's got a crush," smirked Jack. I elbowed him in the side. He winced.

"Are you okay?"

He waved my concern away. "Just all the lifting today," he explained, rolling his shoulders. "I'll be feeling it in the morning, that's for sure."

We reached the stairwell and started up. "It looks like you're feeling it now," I mentioned, watching as he favored one leg, just a bit.

"Thanks, Doc."

He insisted on going inside the apartment first. After all, he reasoned, the door didn't lock. "Just about anyone could be inside right now, trying on our clothes."

There were no /human/ surprises in store for us, but Jack's eyebrows raised when he opened the closet doors. His garments were on the right, mine on the right, but there was no need to announce whose were whose, thanks to Ma'at'a handy gender-based color coordinating. "Fashion emergency," he muttered.

I pointed out the clothes I had deduced were nightclothes - they were lighter and thinner than the normal variety - then grabbed my own nightgown and escaped to the bathroom to change.

I was washing my face when it hit me.

I was getting used to this.

Or more technically, I /could/ get used to this. It was seemed like a dream now, a strange mission or a bizarre vacation, but day after day of this? Week after week? Even months before I was recovered enough to escape? How could I even dream of letting my guard down? How could I betray my family and friends like that?

How?





*





For the second morning in a row, I was the first one awake. I didn't mind. There was no real reason for Sam to be up at the crack of dawn. She needed rest, and besides, it gave me a chance to watch her sleep.

I nearly felt like a voyeur doing it, watching her move beneath the sheets, twisting her nightgown this way and that. The garment was blue, satiny, obviously a little shorter than she was comfortable with. The night before, upon exiting the bathroom, her jaw and been clenched and she'd refused to look at me.

"Nice PJs," I'd quipped, grateful for my concealing shirt and pants.

Sam had colored. "I'm not sure I could get used to wearing this stuff," she'd mumbled stiffly.

That was too bad, because I could easily get used to seeing her wear it.

I didn't say that, of course, but Carter was no idiot. She knew what I was thinking.

I now pulled on my new pants and buttoned my new shirt, watching out the window as the sky began to brighten. I strapped on my shoes and then went to Sam, shaking her shoulder. "Hey, Carter," I said, trying to force some of my old briskness into my voice.

She opened her eyes and looked at me sleepily. "What?"

"I'm leaving... I wanted to make sure you were... okay."

"I took a painkiller before I went to bed last night."

"Oh. All right." Mentally, I chastised myself. What had possessed me to believe that she could take care of herself? "Sam?"

She'd already closed her eyes. "Hm?"

"After I leave, I want you to push the tables up against the door, so no one can get in."

She opened her eyes and looked at me, not saying anything, just looked. Measuring, evaluating, deciphering. I held her gaze, unwilling to look away, afraid she'd find what she was looking for in my expression, afraid that she wouldn't. Her eyes looked even bluer, which I attributed to the pale nightgown. Was this why Carter'd never affected me so deeply, so completely, before? Her clothes? It sounded brutish and sexist, but frumpy jumpsuits and jackets didn't exactly accentuate anything on a woman.

Which was probably the point.

"Okay," she said.

I nodded and moved to the door. "Um, see you later, Sam," I blurted, stepping outside.

"See you, sir," she said, and the door closed.





*





"Jack O'Neill, my friend, you look like a man with a problem."

I glanced up at Bob, trying to seem incredulous, then looked down at my work. Bob, Seeber and I were taking out bolts from thick metal pillars - what had been the building's infrastructure - while Brandal and a couple other big guys carted them outside. "Problem, huh?"

"Yeah. Let me guess what it is. Sam?"

I glared at him. He laughed from his perch on the ladder. "Ha! So I'm right?"

"Right about what?" pestered Seeber, who was just barely in eavesdropping distance and not afraid to admit it.

Bob ignored him. "Now, what could it be? Are you having a fight?"

"No." I loosened another bolt and tossed it into a bucket at my feet.

"Is it the pressure of your debt?"

"Nope."

"Her parents demand to visit?"

I smiled at that. Were in-laws a hassle on every planet? "Not even close."

It was impossible to explain my problem when I didn't even allow myself to think about it.

"Is it because you have not gotten her with child yet?" piped up Seeber.

"Hey!" I exclaimed, indignant despite myself.

Bob frowned at the other man, but nodded in agreement. "I was surprised to find that you hadn't any children," he admitted. "Around here, most people of your age have several."

Another bolt came free. I supported the pillar while Bob and Seeber finished up top. "Really?" I asked testily.

"Well, yes. Have you been together long?"

In one sense, yes. In another, no. I settled for: "Over a year."

"Have you been at least /trying/?" groused Seeber, as though it was his plight. I considered going after him with my wrench-like tool.

"I'm sorry, Jack," Bob soughed. "I know this is in no way our concern, but... I like you. And I like her. But the two of you don't seem very... very..."

"Affectionate," Seeber supplied happily.

"Exactly."

I considered that, as two men came and hauled off the pillar. I'd kissed Carter the night before, but it had been somewhat brief and definitely embarrassed. I'd stayed beside her the entire night, but I hadn't embraced her; in fact, I had hardly touched her. If I wanted to avert suspicion, I realized, we'd better start acting more... familiar.

'No problem,' I thought to myself, as we moved to the next pillar. 'You've been married before, remember? This should be a walk in the park compared to /that/. And you're /friends/, for crying out loud.'

'Remember the time after P6T-107?' asked the same little voice. I did. Sam and Daniel wouldn't stop arguing over the significance of the inhabitants' reverence of - of all things - my sunglasses. It had been a stupid, pointless debate, and at first Teal'c and I and even Hammond had thought it was hilarious... after all, how often did those two really /fight/? Eventually, however, it just became annoying. I'd looked over at Teal'c; somehow, he'd understood exactly what I was thinking, that these two needed to cool off. I grabbed Sam, he threw Daniel over his shoulder, and we hauled the still-arguing scientists into the locker room. Fortunately, it had been empty. Teal'c successfully dropped Danny into one of the showers and turned on the faucet. I pushed Sam under another shower head and turned on the water, but she was quicker than Daniel had been. Drenched, she'd grabbed my jacket and pulled me under the spray as well. Surprised by the coldness of the water, as well as my captain's actions, I slipped, toppling against Carter, and we'd ended up sitting beneath the focused downpour, laughing hysterically. Daniel, with a gasp, turned off the faucet over his head, looked at us... and cracked up.

We must have made some sight when two airmen entered the locker room to see what all the commotion was.

"What the hell?"

"What's going on?"

I had been too winded by laughter to speak. Carter was still caught in a fit of giggling, and Daniel had tears rolling down his already-wet face. Teal'c had responded in his typically-dry, confusing to most, Jaffa sense of humor.

"I was hoping that you could explain it to me, Airman."

Which, of course, had only sent us into more paroxysms of laughter.

"Are you sure you don't want to tell me what's wrong?" asked Bob, interrupting the fond memory.

"Nothing is wrong," I insisted, setting to work again, tenaciously, furiously, regardless of my sore spots.

Nothing /was/ wrong...

... Except for the fact that I was falling in love with my 'wife'





*





Life slipped into a pattern.

I hadn't thought it possible but it was.

Every morning, I woke at dawn, and left, catching a bite to eat at the Central Hall. I met up with Jerdess, Seeber, Jaldebay, Brandal, and Bob at the gate, and we walked to work together.

Once we arrived on site, the supervisor would assign us a task and we would set to it. At vaguely noonish - by the position of the sun - we'd break for lunch. The six of us sat around together to eat, and to talk, and I ended up finding out much more about their lives than I had expected.

Seeber was part of a large family - nine brothers and sisters - but his parents were dead. Since the delivery of a baby in hospitals or clinics was very costly, and the parents' debt was passed on to the children, it was obvious that Seeber and his siblings would be working until they were physically incapable.

Brandal and his wife, Mantrioe, had three young daughters, Randan, Tilly, and Sonalee. He'd once sneaked out to another city - which was illegal - to get a pet dog for his children. Perhaps it was my friendship with Teal'c that made it seem not so surprising that such a big man could have an equally big heart.

Jaldebay had debts posted - warrants out for his arrest - in five cities across the continent.

Jerdess claimed to have been part of a colony in "the King's Woods", one which did not use a debt system, but instead traded specially engraved stones for goods and services. The Council, he said sadly, had destroyed the colony when 'They' had learned of it, and sent the colonists to different cities. None of the other four believed him. "Such a society," exclaimed Brandal, "is impossible."

Bob refused to reveal anything about his own past, which suited me just fine, because it made it easier for me to do the same.

After lunch, we'd work again until sunset, when the supervisor gave us clearance to leave. The six of us would walk back to the housing zone, going to straight to the Central Hall to eat and greet our wives.

Sam would be with the other women, near the door, waiting for me. When I saw her, I'd give a smile of genuine relief, genuine /happiness/, put my arms around her, and kiss her. I tried to keep from being so enthusiastic about it, but I could only restrain myself so far . I /missed/ her during the day, and I was also paranoid that when I returned, she wouldn't be there… when my fears were dispelled my joy was irrepressible.

It was still awkward, of course. After all, -I- enjoyed it, but I didn't want to seem like I enjoyed it, just in case /she/ wasn't. And it made me nervous, too. Bob would always watch our embrace, and I instinctively knew he wasn't the only one. I often wondered how long it would be before the axe fell, when someone finally realized that we weren't married, before someone said something, before our playacting was uncovered.

But was it /really/ playacting?





***





He waited a month before doing it. A month. That's all. That's all he felt he owed to Sam and Jack.

"No. No, no, no."

I wondered if I had gotten my message across.

Beside me, Teal'c simply stared; I envied his ability to simply retreat into himself at times like this. Across from me, General Hammond scowled, matching my expression tic for tic. And standing at the head of the table, Colonel Kathryn Landseth tried very hard not to fidget.

I tried to feel bad for making this difficult for her, and quite possibly hurting her feelings. I tried to feel apprehensive of Hammond's wrath. But the truth was that I didn't care. I just didn't. I was numb and cold and dead inside.

Losing loved ones does that to you. And it never, never gets any easier.

Because despite all the time that had passed, despite what I had been told and what I knew that I had to accept, my friends weren't dead to me. No matter what that Ma'at'an had claimed and no matter what conclusions the rest of the SGC had come to. They would never be dead to me.

Of course, there was no proof at all that they /were/ dead. As I had told Hammond a thousand times over, the militia could have captured them. They could be rotting in some Ma'at'an jail, while we sat around and discussed who should take their places on SG-1.

Never.

"I. Can't. Believe," I panted, so enraged that fury filled my lungs and made it nearly impossible to breathe. "That you. Are even /considering/. Replacing them."

Hammond stood, and I tensed, wondering if we were going to get in an actual, honest-to-God shouting match. "I will /not/ have this argument with you again, Doctor Jackson." His voice was rough, his fuse so short as to be nonexistent. "And I would /hate/ for the original SG-1 team to lose a third member."

The implied threat was clearly understood. And I still didn't care... that in itself should have worried me. I rocketed to my feet and noted with some pleasure that I could look down on him. "You want me to leave the SGC, General? Well, that's just fine. Maybe that's what I want, too. Maybe I don't want to be a part of an organization that /abandons/ its people at the drop of a hat!"

We'd been over this before, him and I. He said he wasn't giving up on the Captain and Colonel, but there was just nothing he could do due to the blockade; if they were going to get back, they would have to do it on their own. I reasoned that if he declared them KIA and went looking for replacements, that was just as good as giving up on them altogether.

Hammond's face was an interesting shade of red. "/Is/ that what you want, Doctor? To leave this program?"

I was shaking so hard that I could barely push my glasses up my nose. "It'd be no great loss, General. I'm sure you could easily find a /replacement/!"

Landseth's eyes kept darting from one of us to the other, and I was getting the distinct impression that this command was looking less and less appealing to her.

/Good/. It was my intention to scare all possible team leaders away, far away, scare them badly, make a reputation for myself as the guy who knew no boundaries! Who had no respect! Who screamed down all opposition!

Who got yanked out into the hallway by a very irked Jaffa.

Teal'c clamped onto my jacket and didn't let go until he had me out in the corridor with the door closed. "Daniel Jackson, you are behaving inappropriately."

"In- inapprop-" I sputtered. "Teal'c, how can you be okay with this. They're replacing Jack and Sam! They're giving up all hope- no, forget that; they never /had/ any hope."

"You are embarrassing Colonel Landseth," pointed out Teal'c.

I gave a short, angry laugh that sounded more like a bark than anything else. "Not to sound rude, Teal'c, but do you think I give a damn?"

I understood what he was trying to say: it wasn't Landseth's fault that she was in this position, yadda, yadda, yadda. At the moment I couldn't have cared less. I would not work with that woman, would not call her Colonel while my /real/ Colonel and our captain was out there somewhere, waiting for us to rescue them. How could we move on with our lives? How could we just forget about Jack and Sam?

Teal'c's scowl deepened; I hadn't even thought that possible. "I thought that I knew you, Daniel Jackson. Perhaps I was mistaken. You are a different man then I met on Chulak."

"Very observant, Teal'c," I snapped, more harshly than I had intended. "Losing your friends does that... it changes you."

"I /know/ what that is like," said Teal'c, hotly, stunning me. I'd never head such raw emotion in his voice before, and I stared. "I have lost many comrades in battle, and each of their deaths has changed me. Do you think I am not affected by the loss of Colonel O'Neill and Captain Carter? Do you think the General is not?"

I had to look down, and I pulled my glasses off my face, wiping the bridge of my nose. Was Teal'c right? Had I really been so selfish to think that I was the only one suffering? I remembered Jack telling me once: "We all have our orders." Hammond had his orders, after all. I rested against the hallway wall, my anger gone and my energy spent.

"Will you leave the SGC?" asked Teal'c, more quiet now that he saw I was defeated.

I shrugged pathetically. "How can I stay, Teal'c?"

Silence.

"Colonel O'Neill and Captain Carter would have wanted you to stay."

I closed my eyes and felt a tear form at the lid. Quickly, I wiped the damnable thing away. "They aren't dead, Teal'c."

"And one day we will prove that," promised Teal'c, his deep, rich voice soft and somber. "But now it is time to go inside and welcome Colonel Landseth to our team."

And it was.

So we did.





***





We'd been on Ma'at'a for about a month and half when it happened.

I was almost completely healed. At night, Jack would tell me what he'd seen of the outside world, and we'd try to figure out how to use the information to our advantage, to escape back to and through the Sungate. Er, the Stargate.

This particular day, as always, Jack woke and left early. I bathed, dressed, and walked down to the Hall, noting the cool wind and low, dark clouds. It smelled like rain.

I arrived at the Central Hall and forgot all about the weather, until about a half-hour later when Regia mentioned how cold it would be once night fell, and the likely probability of an equally icy rain. I decided to go back to the apartment and get something warmer to wear. Krivin had provided us with no coats, but we still had Jack's SGC jacket.

I threw on the jacket and hurried back down the street. It was empty and quiet; everyone was in the Hall or in their homes, out of the storm's way.

I was walking across the street to the door of the Hall when I heard footsteps on the road. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a man, dressed all in black, walking towards me. I hesitated, intimidated, wanting to flee but knowing that it would be as foolish as running from a police officer. I recognized the garb as that of a militia member, maybe even one of the men that patrolled the front gate.

Pausing, at first I thought he would walk right past me, because he didn't even slow as he approached. I turned away, putting him from mind.

An arm wrapped around my throat -- followed closely by a sharply gleaming knife.

"Don't move. Or speak."

I froze.

My mind snapped instantly into combat mode.

His hand grabbed my arm hard through the Colonel's jacket as he push-pulled me down the street. They always told you never to go to the secondary crime scene, but in this case, it was unavoidable. My assailant was big enough to pick me up and carry me, and could surgically remove my vocal cords if I made so much as a peep.

After all, he didn't need my voice to get what he wanted from me.

There were no alleys to speak of between apartment buildings, but there /was/ one between the fence and the Hall. This was where the man pushed me, and then advanced, like a predator stalking his prey, calculating, cold. The alley was a dank, dark dead end.

I felt the jacket pockets for anything I could use as a weapon. Of course, they were empty. The militia had taken away both our guns and knives when they'd captured us.

The man advanced, glowering.

I had nothing to defend myself with but my own stiff, sore body, and my mind.





*





We were halfway to work when I decided I wanted to go back and get my jacket.

The others regarded my strangely. I'll admit, it was an odd announcement. If I went back, I would be late to the site, and tardiness was not looked upon kindly. Besides, it was cold, but not /that/ cold. I could tough it out.

But something within me demanded, /insisted/ that I go get that jacket.

Bob offered to go back with me, for what reason I couldn't imagine, other than out of the goodness of his heart. It was strange - I'd expected to bond more closely with Jerdess, my first real friend in this group, and certainly the most amiable, agreeable of the lot. Bob was nice, but he was guarded about his past, a little wry, sincere beneath it all.

Yeah, he reminded me of someone. Myself.

We jogged all the way back to the apartment. I hardly noticed that the front gate was not patrolled.

The jacket wasn't in the closet.

"Sam must have it," said Bob, rubbing his arms and looked nervous at our lateness.

So now Sam was wearing my clothes?

I shook off the frivolous thought. "She's probably at the Hall," I reasoned, and he went back outside and hurried down the street.

But at the Hall's door, I stopped.

"What is it?" asked Bob.

"I heard something."





*





"Just do as I say and I'll let you go."

I gritted my teeth at the bastard. "I bet you will."

He leapt at me, and he was quick.

He was also sloppy, and I knew that a couple of months ago I could have had him on the floor, knife in my hand, in maybe ten seconds, but now...

He slammed me up against the wall of the alley; I skipped 'Playing Fair', going right to 'Playing Dirty', and kicked him in the groin. While he backed off, doubling in pain, I started to run for the street, but he recovered too quickly and pushed me onto my stomach. I yanked myself back to my knees but he caught me by the arm, shoving me onto my back and standing over me, holding the knife so close I could almost feel it piercing my skin.

I didn't want to die on this planet. Not alone and not like this.

"Now I promise to kill you," he swore, breathing hard in my ear.

You know the old clich about your life passing before your eyes? It's untrue. When you think you're going to die, when you /know/ with total certainty that it's all almost over, you don't see what you've been through. You don't see the past. You see the future. You see all you didn't get to do. All that could have been, that would have been.

I saw some pretty interesting things.

I started shaking and couldn't stop.

Then I kicked in the asshole's kneecap.

He fell, howling, and I scrambled away, hauling myself to my feet and booking for the entrance of the alley--

Two figures appeared there, blocking my escape. Horrified, I skidded to a stop. Christ. He had backup?

I could hear the militiaman, closing in behind me. Limping, cursing.

"Sam?"

I started, shaking again, this time in abject relief. It was Jack. And Bob. I ran for them, and Jack hastily pushed me behind him.

My attacker - still hobbling and breathing heard - paused when he saw the two men. "You two... get out of here..." he puffed. "That bitch... has something... coming to her."

Jack stepped forward.

"You know, that's my wife you're talking about."

He slammed the militia member in a face with truly frightening force. The man dropped instantly, crumpling into a pathetic heap, and didn't move.

I continued to shake.

"Sam, what happened?" Jack. "Are you okay?" He stood right in front of me, hands on my arms, but I couldn't answer. His face blurred and wavered.

"Sam, are you injured?" Bob.

"What's going on out... Oh, Ma'at! What- what the... oh my..." Halsi.

"Let's get her back to your apartment." Bob again.

They pointed me in a direction and I started walking. I could still function, it seemed. I could hear and recognize and move. But I couldn't react, I couldn't interact. It was like my body was here, but that was all. Like the rest of me was lying dead in that alley.





*





I told Bob and Halsi I'd be out soon and closed the door.

Sam stumbled over to the bed, tried to sit on the edge, missed, and landed on the floor. She stayed there. "That man," she said, voice trembling noticeably. "He tried to-"

"I know what he tried," I said softly; I didn't need to hear it. I lowered myself to the ground beside her and tried to get her to look at me. "But he didn't; you're okay," I reassured.

Finally, she turned to me, blinking. Her gaze was rather vacant, as though she was seeing me - seeing everything - from some great distance. "Why'd you come back?" she demanded suddenly.

I smiled. "I just wanted my jacket."

The moment of attempted levity was over before it began.

Shuddering, Sam leaned in closer to me, and, unconsciously, I put my arms loosely around her. It felt good, to hold her like this. A guilty pleasure. Forbidden fruit. I wondered if there was indeed a serpent hiding in the grass, ready to trick us, ready to strike, and then decided that I didn't care. This felt too right.

"I didn't think..." she started, and then let her voice trail off, her eyes searching my face, willing me to understand what she seemed afraid to say. Then, hesitant and ethereal: "Jack..."

I liquefied inside. Bingo. Magic word. Not 'sir'. Not 'Colonel'. Just Jack. For the first time ever, just Jack. My rationality exploded with the sound of her lips forming that one syllable. My joy overflowed and short-circuited every reason, every reservation, every self-made promise of self-control. At least that was the excuse I gave myself as I lowered my mouth to hers.

The kiss was warm and trembling, nothing like our nightly pecks in the Central Hall. No, this was a kiss in a class of its own. Not planned. Not /fake/. This was a real, eager, golden kiss, spontaneous and scared.

And the really wonderful thing? She was kissing back.

I was afraid to move, to deepen and strengthen the kiss, but I was also afraid not to. What if she pulled away? What if-

Sam took the initiative, leaning in closer to me, her mouth opening under mine. She raised one hand to my face and steadied herself with the other on my leg, movements quick and a little erratic in what I well recognized as the thrill of sudden, frivolous passion. Enjoying myself immensely, I tighten my hold on her, pulling her half into my lap, hugging her close, closer, until I could feel her heart racing beneath her ribcage.

And then she pushed me away.

I opened my eyes - when had I closed them? - and gaped at her like fish plucked from water.

"No," she said.

No? I thought, my brain still muddled with desire. No? No was bad. I was all for yes, yes, yes!

"No," she repeated, flushed and flustered, tense but making no move to escape my embrace, as though she didn't expect me to let her go. "No, Colonel, we can't. Wh-"

"Sam--"

"What if we do this?" she hissed, fierce, real fear in her eyes. "What if we do this? What happens when we get back home?"

I entertained a brief flight of fancy. What /would/ happen if we did this, threw caution to the wind, said 'screw the regulations', took full advantage of our distance from those binding rules? What? We'd eventually have to return to the SGC and sweep it all under the rug, never speak of it again, certainly never let it happen again. Why? Because I'd picked the least convenient person in the galaxy to fall in love with, that's why. Because this /was/ the forbidden fruit I had envisioned it to be, and tasting it now would only lead to heartbreak later, when we'd learn firsthand whether or not that quote about loving and losing being preferable to never loving at all was really true.

"Sir," she pleaded. The rank was an ice-cold stiletto in my stomach.

I let her go. She stood, turned away, and I backed towards the door, remembering Bob and Halsi. "I'll... I'll be right back," I promised, turning the knob

Back still turned to me, she nodded.

Bob and Halsi, still on the balcony, were huddled together against the cold wind. "I think she's going to be alright," I told them shortly, keeping my voice down. "She's just a little... freaked out right now."

I turned around to go back inside, but Bob's voice stopped me. "Jack O'Neill, I need to talk to you."

"Now?" I asked, looking back. He nodded gravely.

"I'll stay with Sam," offered Halsi, and I nodded my thanks.

"Will the two of you be okay?"

She smiled, understanding my implied concern, and from the folds of her gown pulled a sharp, serrated knife. I raised an eyebrow. "Dare I ask where you got that?"

"For some reason," she said with mock thoughtfulness. "They don't count the silverware."

I gave an appreciative nod, filing the information away, and she slipped inside.

Bob started down the staircase wordlessly and I followed, uncertain. "Hey, aren't you worried about running into that guard again?"

"Him?" Bob gave a barking laugh. "Not only is he probably still sleeping in the alley, but I highly doubt he'll ever show his face to you or Samantha again. I don't think he'd want it to be made widely known that he attacked a committed woman, and lost."

"You've got a point there," I admitted. We reached the street and started walking in a slow, meandering way in the direction of the front gate. "So... what was it you wanted to talk to me about?"

He didn't answer immediately, and I started wondering if he had even heard my question. Then: "SG-1?"

I froze in mid-step, mind whirling. What? How could he have possibly known? There was the patch on my jacket, but he shouldn't be able to understand written English any more than I could translate the characters of his native alphabet. "How did you..."

Bob kept walking. Bewildered, I followed. "Halsi is with child again," he said proudly.

I blinked hard at the non-sequiter. "Um... congratulations."

"We went to our doctor five Rys ago," he continued. "He's a family friend and he helps us out where he can. You see, doctors, assistant accountants, supervisors... they aren't watched as closely as up laborers. That's because they inherit their trade through the family line. I guess They figure their jobs take more brains, more talent ... whatever Their reason, the Council isn't so hard on them. And sometimes you'll meet someone who takes advantage of that." He paused in his monologue, waiting for me to catch up.

"Krivin," I guessed.

"He's one of the greatest men in Ankh'ij, you know; though no one of power will ever realize it. The risks he takes for us, simple people; the things he gives... he told me that he would have charged you a reduced debt for Sam's procedure if the militia hadn't been watching him. He kept what he told me was Sam's jacket... at least, he kept the symbol from the sleeve. It was in his office. I saw it; I recognized it from what you wore your first day here. So I asked Krivin about it. He said how you came through the Sungate, how you and your people fight an army to keep your world safe." He hesitated. "What exactly IS SG-1? He refused to say."

The wind picked up, ruffling our clothes, making the air feel heavy and ominous. "It's a team," I said, purposely non-committal.

"A team?" He stopped, and took a step back. "A team in your militia?"

"Well, Air Force, but yeah, pretty much."

Bob made an awful face. "Your Council makes women join the militia?"

I sighed. "First off, we don't /have/ a Council. And no one /made/ Sam join the military. She did because she wanted to."

That was a hard concept for him to swallow. "But /why/?"

I shrugged. "She wanted... to see the stars."

Bob regarded me carefully, as though reassessing me, then nodded, continuing his walk. "The two of you are not committed, then?"

"No," I coughed.

A faint smile played on his lips. "That's why you have no children; the rules of your militia, your /military/, they forbid it?"

I scratched my neck. "Well, no, not exactly. I mean, Sam and I are friends. That's all," I emphasized, wondering if I could make myself believe it. "Even if there were no rules, we... We just said we were committed so they wouldn't split us up. We want to get back to the Sungate, to return to our planet, and so we play the part. /I'm/ not enjoying this. I know /she's/ not."

If the expression on Bob's face was any indication, he believed none of it.

I couldn't blame him. It was a thin lie, badly conceived, badly delivered. Hell yes, I was enjoying playing house. I was enjoying sharing a bed with Sam, enjoying waking up with her every morning. Enjoying coming home to her every night, kissing her, feeling the awkwardness of our situation recede with each passing day. How could I /not/ enjoy what I had logged countless hours fantasizing about?

More then a little defensive, I crossed my arms over my chest. "So now what?"

"What do you mean?"

I worked my jaw. "We're cheating on our debt, right? Don't you get some of yours taken off if you turn us in?"

Bob cocked his head. "Yes, but..."

"But what?"

"I wouldn't do that, Jack. None of us would. We take care of our own here."

Remembering Brandal and Jaldebay's easy admittance of their own lawbreaking, their own confidence that I wouldn't turn them in, I knew this was the truth. "Thank you."

Again, he nodded, and then broke into a smile. "I never thought I would ever meet a traveler from the Sungate, a man from another world, especially one who looks so much like us..."

"Actually," I said, figuring I couldn't do too much harm, "Most of the worlds we've discovered though the St- Sungate are populated by people like us, humans."

"I can't blame you for wanting to get back," he said wistfully. "It's incredible. So much... so much more than any of us on this planet have ever known."

"We're lucky to have the opportunity," I agreed.

"You know what you're lucky to have?"

I knew, but decided to play along. "What's that?"

"Sam," he said, eyes shinning. "/This/ opportunity, to be here with her away from the rules of your militia. This world, Jack, this life, is not an easy one, no, but at least here there is nothing to keep the two of you apart."

"We're friends, Bob. Teammates. There's nothing there to keep apart!"

"I saw the two of you through the window," he said gravely.

I narrowed my eyes at him. Peeping Tom... "For crying out loud, listen-"

"You love her, Jack," pushed Bob. "You love her like I love Halsi; I know how these feelings manifest themselves in a man's face. You know it's true."

I shook my head, prepared to refute the accusation as fully and formally as I would had I been on earth.

But I couldn't.

I did love her. Despite all my efforts to keep from falling for her, a captain under my command, an officer in the U.S. Air Force, I HAD fallen, and fallen hard.





*





"I shouldn't be acting like this."

Halsi was incredulous. "You were just ATTACKED. How SHOULD you be acting?"

I rested my head in my hands so I wouldn't have to look at her. What was I supposed to say? How was I supposed to explain to this woman that I was USED to fighting, USED to combat, USED to being attacked? That it was a regular part of my life where I came from? That I shouldn't be acting this way because I had been through worse, and now, like then, I was okay. I was fine. I shouldn't be shaking. I was a captain in the Air Force. I shouldn't be acting like this.

But I was.

And I wasn't certain that my condition was solely the result of the attack... or if what had happened later had also played a part.

Which was simply foolish. I'd kissed O'Neill for a second or two... so what? Should it really be affecting me so deeply?

Try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to anger over what we had done, what I had done. I couldn't wish it hadn't happened, because I wish it hadn't ended.

But I couldn't do this. For every reason in the book, I couldn't do it.





*





"I'm sorry."

I rolled onto my back and looked over at Sam. She was on her side, turned away from me. We slept like this every night: on the edges of the mattress, backs turned, afraid of touching, afraid of becoming comfortable like this, afraid of hating a lonely bed once we returned to Earth. I wondered how it had happened... how my feelings for her had strengthened so drastically, like my heart had been making deals when I wasn't looking.

Moonlight - Ma'at'a had two large, luminous moons - sifted through the window and illuminated the rises and dips of her figure, subtly sheathed in fabric. "Sorry for what?"

When she spoke, her voice was thick, throaty. "For being the weak link."

"Huh?"

She turned onto her back and glared at me for not understanding. "We wouldn't even /be/ on this planet still if it wasn't for me. I wasn't careful and... and now this."

I rolled my eyes, knowing she couldn't see me that well in the dark. "Sam... you couldn't have prevented any of that." Not now, I willed her. Don't become a martyr on me. Don't give into the guilt, because it's always there, making you reconsider, rethink, reassess everything you could do differently. But you can't do anything differently. It's a deathtrap.

I leaned closer, trying to see her face so I could gauge her reaction to my words. "Me, Danny, Teal'c... any of us could have been hit by that militia. If you hadn't stayed back with me, I probably wouldn't have been able to hold them back long enough anyway. And as for the guard today... /you/ got away from him, remember? And I'll bet he'll never bother you again." My reassurances sounded thin and hollow in my ears. I wondered how much of it she would acknowledge.

"I just..." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "From the first time we met, I knew I had to do something, prove myself to you. And..." She looked back up at me. "I don't feel like I ever have." A pause, and a shrug. "I don't even know why I'm telling you this-"

"Why did you think you had to prove yourself?"

Sam gave me a level, challenging look, a look I had seen a lot of back home. "If I hadn't gone into that briefing like I did, /acted/ like I did, you wouldn't have taken me seriously. You wouldn't have accepted me. I know you. Come on. An outsider, a scientist? A woman?"

I didn't need anything to remind me of /that/. "I recall telling you that I /like/ women, Captain." This time, her rank was used in a playful, mocking context.

"I'd read your files, and I'm a pretty good judge of character," she reminded me, smirking.

Shrugging, I admitted. "I don't know... I guess you kinda impressed me with the whole commando act... standing up to Kawalsky and everything." Remembering, I winced. "The reproductive organ thing, though... wasn't that a /little/ much?"

She tried not to smile, but a snort of laughter cracked her somber mask.

"And besides, if you really did think you had to prove yourself to me, in battle, well, you've done it. How 'bout with Hathor?"

"That wasn't really me... it was more like a biology thing..."

"What about the Mongol guy? What was his name... Turgin? That was one of our first missions together, wasn't it? You didn't just take care of yourself, you... you're a paragon for oppressed women throughout the galaxy!"

She cracked a smile. I pressed on. "I mean... I can't think of a time when you've even come close to letting me down, Sam. You've made mistakes... we all have. We learn from them. Daniel learned to pack extra Kleenex in his bag. I learned not to tell knock-knock jokes around Teal'c because he just /does not/ get them. You learned not to give strange men from strange planets unprotected mouth-to-mouth."

She smiled at that, too. I was glad... I wasn't sure how sensitive she still was over the mention of Jolinar. But the memory of the Goua'ld - or Tok'ra, or whatever - seemed, like everything else, very far away. "Have I been acting like an idiot?" she asked ruefully.

"An idiot? Naw. Everyone needs a little ego boost now and then. Tomorrow it's my turn, okay?"

She sobered again. "In any case, I'm still sorry."

I gave her a questioning look.

"For what happened today." By the intensity of her expression, I could tell she was no longer talking about the attack... but rather, what had transpired afterward.

It occurred to me that I had uncountable options here. I could remain silent. I could accept her apology and leave it at that. Make a joke. Change the subject. Take responsibility. Promise it would never happen again.

"I'm not," I said.

God, it felt good to tell the truth.

Sam let her eyes drift from my face, but otherwise didn't move a centimeter.

There was so much I wanted to say, so much I longed to tell her. I love you, Sam. I realized that today. I love you. I tried not to, but it happened anyway. I think you know what I'm talking about, but I know you aren't ready. I know you aren't willing.

"I'm not sorry," I repeated, knowing what I could settle with revealing. "And I don't think you are, either. But I'm not going to push you."

She stiffened, and turned her head away.

"I'll wait," I promised.

The silence was long and palpable. Sam didn't speak; I could hardly hear her breathing.

Holding in a sigh, I slid back down under the covers and closed my eyes, hoping unconsciousness would stave off an inevitable wave of humiliation.

"Promise?"

Eyes still closed, I smiled to myself. "I promise."





*





I woke the next morning to find O'Neill's front pressed up against my back, one arm lying limp over my stomach. By no means was it an uncomfortable situation. Warm and sleepy, I burrowed even further underneath the covers. How long had it been since I had come awake entwined with another human being, sharing body heat, sharing bedclothes, feeling his breath ruffle my hair? And what was wrong with me that, even though I'd reacted to Jack's admission so callously the night before, I was so pleased to find myself in this... predicament?

It had been cold, I told myself, compelled to find some excuse, some /reason/, that would make this less than what it was. All night the same wind that had whisked the clouds away had played around the building and whistled around the door and window; we'd merely needed the warmth the other provided.

In more ways then one.

Sunlight abruptly glinted off the nightstand lamp. My eyes went wide - damn - and I looked back over my right shoulder. "Sir? Jack?"

One eye opened blearily. "Huh?" he mumbled into my hair.

"Don't you have to be at the site?"

He pulled his hand off my side but didn't move away. "I'm not going in today."

"But-"

"What are they going to do? Fire me?"

"Good point," I yawned, letting my eyes drift shut. I wasn't in the mood to argue, anyway.

As I drifted back to sleep, my mind began to wander, meandering aimlessly through corridors of thought my conscious mind had been loathe to even approach. I was happy. For the first time in over a month, perhaps even longer, I was happy. I should be able to let go of my reservations, forget the rules and regulations we were subjected to on Earth, which, this morning, seemed particularly far away.

Jack curled his arm around me again, tense, tentative. I settled into his embrace.

If we returned home after this long period of time, in which obviously no one had come looking for us, and announced that we were... involved... would the consequences really be as severe as they would have been under normal circumstances? After all, the powers that be wouldn't want our abandonment made public - even within the military - for the slightest bit of publicity - even if it was regarding officers' personal lives - would be unwelcome. Didn't that give us a bit of leeway? A bit of job security?

How bad could it be, to start this relationship? Jack wanted it. I wanted it. We had a friendship I believed could survive anything. And he would not, would /not/ be a repeat of Jonas. I flatly refused to allow that to happen, to let myself get so overwhelmed as to give up, get scared... which was essentially what had happened with him.

And, most importantly...

Jack was worth the risk.

"Five days," he said suddenly, directly into my ear, and I jumped.

"What?"

"Some holiday... 'The Day Of The Weighing" ... I think Jerdess called it. No one's allowed to work and the gates are open for everyone; there's some kind of all-day block party. We'll be able to sneak out... it's perfect. No one will miss us."

"Perfect," I repeated, feeling my heart soar with new hope and then plummet as I remembered the decision I had just made. Did I have the guts to go for it?

I could step away, step out of his arms, I reminded myself. Detach my emotions. Refuse to acknowledge them. 'You chose this life', I thought tersely. 'You can make another decision. You can choose not to fall in love with this man'.

If only it was that easy...





*





"From what Bob told me, the streets will be open to /here/ for the celebration, which means for this last quarter mile before the city outskirts we'll have to be..."

"Sneaky."

"Right."

Jack and I lay across the bed, side by side on our stomachs, tracing our escape route on a crude map the boys at work had helped to create. "Are there guards at the outskirts?"

"There usually are, but if we're lucky, they'll be partying hardy instead."

"If we're lucky."

"Don't sound so pessimistic."

"Now why in the world would I be pessimistic?"

He ignored my sarcasm this time.

I ran my finger down the map to the Stargate's approximate position. "Then a mile and a half to the gate." Excitement turned my blood to pure lava. Home. I'd hardly allowed myself to think of it for the last month, for the memories always switched on my emotions, and I hadn't been homesick since 6th grade summer camp. "Jack... Daniel had the transmitter."

"I know," he said acidly. "We'll just have to hope that Hammond'll recognize the glyphs and open the iris for us."

"If I had to guess, I'd say that if we dial Earth, he'd wait us out, until the wormhole closed. Then he send a probe through to see if it was us... or someone else."

"I can live with that," said Jack. So could I, I though, smiling as I imagined waving at the MALP as it exited the Stargate.

Providing the MALP /could/ exit the Stargate. "What if they Council buried the gate?"

"You ARE being pessimistic."

"No, I'm being thorough. Thinking things through. If we're going to risk our lives doing this, I want to make sure we don't get killed."

"What? You think I can't plan an escape that /won't/ get us killed?"

There was still a hint of playfulness in our voices but it was fading with every word. For a second we glared at each other, and then, almost in unison, sighed and looked away.

"I know you're the military mind-" I began.

"But you're a lot smarter than me," Jack finished. I raised an eyebrow at him. "Or so I've been told," he amended.

The temptation to just lie here and flirt was great; only with effort did I return to the situation at hand. "What if the gate is buried? Or blocked in some way? Guarded?"

"Then we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

"/Great/ plan."

"But I doubt there'll be Ma'at'ans anywhere near it," he continued without missing a beat. "The Council is terrified of the Stargate, or at least what came through it at one time. If you'd forgotten," he added caustically, "That's why we ended up here in the first place. They're afraid that messing with any abandoned Gou'ald technology'll make their 'demons' return."

"Even though no one in the general populace has even heard of Ra and Apophis," I murmured. Jack shrugged.

"I leave the cultural analysis to Danny," he reminded me.

"But don't you think that's important at all? Why the Gou'ald stopped visiting this planet... why their existence isn't known by anyone expect the leaders? Who this Ma'at is?"

Jack seemed to consider. "No, not really."

I glowered devilishly. "Well, I do."

He leaned closer. "Well then, you should have gotten stuck here with Daniel."

/That/ prompted a laugh out of me. "Can you see Daniel and I pretending to be married?"

"Yes, and frankly, I don't like it," he growled.

"You're jealous!" I declared, delighted, elbowing him in the arm. "You're jealous of a man hundreds of light years away who I never had any romantic interest in!"

He busied himself with the map, pretending not to hear me, and I chuckled. "It would be helpful to have him here, you have to admit."

"At least his brain," Jack acquiesced. "Something pocket-sized."

"Pocket Archeologist?"

"Something like that," he agreed.

"When your team returned from the original Abydos mission, and I read your report, I went out to the library and got every book I could find about ancient Egypt... Egyptian mythology... I wanted to be prepared in case there was ever another mission."

"But Ma'at doesn't ring a bell?"

I shrugged. "Well, when I got to the part in the report about how you blew up the Stargate and everything else on Abydos, I figured there wouldn't really be another opportunity to put that knowledge to use. And by the time I realized that wasn't true, we'd brought Daniel back, and he knew thousands of times more than I did about the subject."

"Had to free up room in your mind for more important things, huh?"

"Exactly."

"Like the glyphs to get home?" he questioned.

"I see them in my dreams," I reassured.

Silence ensued.

"Just think, Sam," said Jack, his voice surprisingly plaintive. "Television."

"Showers," I said with an equal measure of longing.

"Junk food."

"Books. /English/."

"Restaurants."

"Movie theaters."

"Chocolate."

I laughed. "Pants."

He raised an eyebrow and looked me up and down. "Maybe we should stay here after all."

I rolled my eyes. "Right. Real funny."

"Colors other than gray," said Jack, continuing our list.

"Computers."

"Hockey."

"My father and brother."

"Danny," Jack said with a fond smile.

"Teal'c."

"General Hammond."

"The SGC."

Jack swallowed. "The military."

"Ranks and regulations," I said quietly.

We looked at each other.

I moved a little closer, so that our legs touched... and then forced my eyes back to the map. "And what if we do come across some of the militia?"

"I don't know," he admitted, watching me closely. "But we can handle it."

Inwardly, I smiled at the strength of conviction in his voice. "I guess I'll miss this place, in a way. Krivin, Halsi..."

"Bob and Jerdess," Jack agreed.

The silence stretched, like rubber, like dough, tangible, discernibly on the point of snapping.

"This," I breathed, and brushed my lips across his.





***





"Is he always this much of a pain in the ass?"

"Yes."

"Thank you, Teal'c," I snapped. "Always great to have a friend like you."

Landseth made no move to hide the long-suffering glance she shot at Major Aaron Barrette. Barrette had taken Sam's place on the team - thus becoming just as much of an intrusion as Landseth - but he was quiet and mediocre, just another soldier, and I generally found him tolerable. Not so much a replacement as a stand-in, just keeping Sam's place warm until she got back. He was tame and just /there/: brown hair and eyes, olive-hued skin, medium height and weight, an okay face and a modest sense of humor.

Kathryn - Kate - Landseth was a different story altogether. With her dark red hair and wide, hazel eyes, not the mention her boisterous attitude and subtle grace of a bullet train, she seemed to have been specifically designed to drive me insane. To make things worse, she was an inch taller than I was and built enough that not even Makepeace would challenge her to arm wrestle. Not that she was a butch or anything... she was certainly attractive. Which only made me dislike her all the more.

She wasn't like Barrette, just a substitute, just a place-holder. She carried the distinct impression that, like it or not, she was here to stay. She latched on like a leech, sucking away everything that SG-1 had once been.

She didn't ruin the team; Teal'c was right when he noted that she was almost as 'competent of a warrior' as Jack. But she /wasn't/ Jack, and here she was trying to be him.

I abided by Teal'c unspoken rule - that I refrain from making Landseth's life a living hell - but I did make her existence somewhat unpleasant. She was touchy, and feisty, and /bitchy/, leading to her query to Teal'c: "Is he always this much of a pain in the ass?"

To which Teal'c had answered, dryly, "Yes."

We paused for a break; P2I-579 was a hot, unshaded planet, which led to many such rests, as well as many snippy little arguments.

It was Landseth's first real mission on the other side of the Stargate, and I was determined to make her look as bad as possible. And I wasn't going to let Teal'c or anyone else stop me.





***





He didn't respond immediately, whether from confusion, surprise, or a mixture of both I don't know, but on the second pass he hungrily captured my mouth with his own.

He was unhurried, even hesitant, but I had tired of taking things careful step by careful step. I was sick of thinking, planning, every move programmed, every risk weighed. I had already thought too much about this. I wanted to /feel/.

I rolled onto my back and pulled him with me. Jack obliged willingly, though his amazement was apparent in everything, even the taste of his lips, as he braced himself over me. One hand behind his neck, I kissed him hard and rough, too caught up in the moment to bother with technique, and he responded in kind, seeming to let go of his reservations. His hand was running up my thigh, under the skirt of my dress, and I decided that maybe the fashion wasn't so intolerable after all.

"Whatever happened to not rushing?" he murmured into my mouth, pulling away enough to show me a soft, absentminded smile.

"I got tired of waiting," I said flippantly, and took his hand in mine, guiding it behind my neck, to the buttons that ran down my back.

With one hand, he began to fumblingly unfasten them. "Are you sure about this, Sam?"

"I'm not going to have any regrets, if that's what you mean," I said distractedly, wondering if there was any possible way to remove his shirt without making him let go of me.

He let go of me.

I pushed myself up on my elbows and frowned. What had just happened? "What's wrong?"

Still hovering over me, his face twisted in consternation, I doubted I had ever seen him look so uncomfortable, or more awkward. "It's just that... this is a pretty abrupt change of heart for you, Sam. Last night we... figured out something important, and this morning was great, but... I just didn't expect to act on it so soon."

"We only have five more days-" I started to point out.

"I don't want that to be the reason we do this," he interrupted. "I wanted it to be more meaningful then that. More thought out."

"What if I said I'm sick of thinking about it?"

"Then I'd /know/ we couldn't do this, because I'd /know/ that you'd regret it later." He backed off of me, and grudgingly, I sat up. "You /think/. You reason, you... evaluate. It's not just your job; it's what you do. We... need to wait... a little longer... get some perspective."

I glared at him, but the expression was half-hearted. "Since when are men the voice of reason when it comes to sex?"

He smiled, then motioned for me to turn around, so he could button up my dress. "Hardly ever," he admitted, his breath shaky and hot on the back of my neck. "But age has taught me... it's taught me something. And my instincts are telling me that we-"

"-Should wait. I get it."





***





"Hey, Jackson."

I ignored Landseth, pretending I hadn't even heard her voice as I closed my locker door. I turned, intending to brush straight past her, but she stood in my way and wouldn't move.

"What?" I finally snapped. "You want another congratulations? You didn't get enough from the General? In that case, Colonel, 'Job Well Done'." I wrinkled my nose at her bland expression of pretty confusion. "You know, when Jack and Sam and Teal'c and I came back from Chulak, that first mission together, we didn't get /praise/. We didn't get any applause for keeping ourselves in one piece. Enjoy it, Kathryn," I huffed, disliking the feel of her first name on my lips. "People around here tend to forget the great ones pretty quickly."

I led with my shoulder in another attempt to go around her, but she caught my collar and anchored me there in the doorway. "Jackson, I just want to talk."

I made my most disagreeable face. "Then talk."

She gave me a dirty look. "I want to... to have a discussion, okay? About Jack. Colonel O'Neill. I'm obviously being compared to him... I can already tell that every little thing I accomplish is going to be put up against what he did, measured against this great legend. All I know about the man is what I learned from reading the reports. I want to hear it from you; you were his friend. And I want to hear about Captain Carter, too. Come on, Jackson, I'm trying here. Give me a chance."

I held her hazel eyes for a long, long time. Just enough time to make her think that I might be considering giving into her wishes.

Then I swept past her.





***





Three days later, they came in the middle of the night.

It was all just a show, a big production to put on in front of the entire housing zone, to intimidate them, frighten them back into submission, away from any idea of revolution. After all, the site by the River of 0f the Scales - where Jerdess, Bob, Seeber, Brandal, Jaldebay and I had been working for a month and a half - had been completed early the previous morning; coming at night was only a scare tactic.

They pounded on the door, loud and rude, while the moons were still up; I estimated we had only been asleep for a few hours. They didn't come in, but demanded that we dress, gather up what we could carry, and report to the front gate at once.

We looked out the window and saw who 'they' were. The militia. Perhaps fifty of them, parading up and down the street like trick-or-treaters at Halloween, all dressed in dark, identical costumes.

And, standing amidst the growing chaos: a tall, reed-thin woman on a horse, dressed in billowing white fabric. One of Them. A Council member. She looked familiar in a distant way, and I decided she must have been one of the members Sam, Danny, Teal'c and I had met on that fateful day. Kelly? Cara? Something like that.

We stuffed our clothes and our map into the two brown bags that Krivin had brought, along with some of the toiletries supplied for the apartment, just in case. I felt like I was raiding a motel room, and said so, to lighten the mood, but Sam remained stiff and silent.

Each carrying a sack, we hurried down the street under the watchful and imperious eyes of the militia members. I looked for familiar faces and found none; apparently not everyone was being called out.

A crowd of no less than one hundred stood at the gate, milling, wary, looking this way and that, as though they expected their gaze to fall upon some unspeakably horrible creature.

"Your attention, please!"

From the crowd's reaction, /this/ was who they had been looking for.

A diminutive man with flowing hair and a long white robe - Ma'at'an Council - approached the threshold of the gate on horseback, like the woman. This man I clearly remembered: he was Bellent, the man who had given the order that SG-1 be 'removed' from Ankh'ij. Grasping Sam's hand, I elbowed my way further into the congregation, so as to effectively glare at the man.

"Those of you who were asked to come here are being relocated," he said loudly, painfully enunciating each word as though he were speaking to children. "Men who were working on the Accession River dam project will meet in the Central Hall, where I will personally give you and your committed your assignments. Men who completed the irrigation system in the southern fields yesterday will exit this zone and proceed down the street to the open market. Those working on the offices near the River of the Scales, please stay here, and Clera will see to you."

I turned in a full circle, looking with renewed interest for my friends. By all rights, they should be here soon... unless... unless they were being reassigned somewhere nearby, meaning Sam and I were being relocated in the truest sense of the world. Taken from Ankh'ij, stuck somewhere else, somewhere probably even further from the Stargate.

I looked down at Sam and saw the same near-panic in her eyes.

"Can we get out of here now?" she murmured, eyes darting.

Black uniforms and slade weapons were everywhere. "We'd never make it."

Bellent rambled off a few more meaningless platitudes, then gave his mount a sharp kick, walking straight through the center of the crowd with the air of a king, bringing to mind a line from a movie about a horse having two rear ends. My nervous companions parted for him like the Red Sea, but I simply refused to act so subservient. I stood where I was until the last minute, so long that Bellent's gaze actually descended to me. He looked at me for a few seconds, and I thought I detected a flicker of recognition in his dark eyes, but he didn't stop and then he was gone, followed by a large percentage of our group. I looked after him with a sneer. It seemed that a man who had changed your life should at least be able to recall your face... especially when it was so unusual.

Twittering apprehensively amongst themselves, another slice of the assembly sheared off and uncertainly exited the zone, presumably towards the 'open market'. This left about twenty of us standing distressed, at the gate. I started recognizing a familiar face here and there, men that had also worked on the site with me but who I'd never bothered to speak to.

The 'clop' of horse hooves on the street made all of us turn as one, and the tall Councilwoman I had seen from our apartment window greeted us with a regal nod from her perch atop her white mare.

"That's Clera," whispered Sam. "Her daughter is Emiko."

"Krivin's ex," I muttered, understanding. We'd certainly come full-circle. "What a coincidence."

"I just hope she doesn't recognize her kid's wardrobe."

Clera's face was smooth and beautiful, but colder and more impassive than Teal'c had ever been. "You will follow me to the Council building, where you will be given transportation to your new assignments." She shook her head, and her dark hair rippled down her back, but I recognized the motion as one of nervousness. "You are being relocated to Depa'ma."

I'd never heard the name before. It meant nothing to me, and judging from the expression on Sam's face, I hazarded a guess that she was just as confused by the collective murmur that went up from the crowd. I looked to my left and saw the woman there looking positively sick. The man beside her was oddly pale, and it wasn't simply an effect of the moonlight. Forbidding launched an attack on my stomach.

"There's only one reason they would send us to Depa'ma," whispered a man behind me, frantic. Sam and I turned in concert.

"What's that?" she asked. "What's Depa'ma?"

The man looked at her strangely, but just about everyone in the zone knew that we were strangers from 'far away' and our peculiarities were tolerated.

"Depa'ma is the City of the Crossing," he said quietly, and his slim wife burst into tears, holding a dark-eyed toddler close. "The militia for this division of land is based there. If They are sending people there... it must be because we're going to war." He became even grimmer, if that was possible. "A war They want us to fight."





***

The End.

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