SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
SalR323
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Future Imperfect (and the Baby Piglet)

For anyone who wants to download the whole story, and has been having problems accessing my site, I've now hosted this story on two different sites! Yay - thanks Ness and Mem.

You can get to them via my site, and it's worth taking a look to check out the wonderful cover art Mem kindly created. Sam on the beach - I think it suits the story perfectly:)

Sorry this post is so late, but I've been busy with Jessica and Ben in the Nativity today - I think, at eight months, Ben was probably the youngest shepherd there! But he did look sweet with a tea-towel on his head, and even managed not to eat it until we got off the stage. Jess, of course, was an angel in every sense. And also the loudest singer of Away in a Manger! And since we got home she's been constantly re-enacting the Nativity, with herself staring as Mary and Piglet debuting as the Baby Jesus (spending most of the time stuffed up 'Mary's' top while she's 'pregnant'). Tom has been drafted in as Joseph, and I am... of course, the donkey. So I've spent a good deal of the afternoon crawling around the living room with 'Mary' on my back off to Bethlehem...again. And again. And again...!


Enjoy the story.



Chapter 9

A slight unease chased Daniel down the corridor as he headed towards the General’s office, a pile of unfinished work under one arm. It wasn’t often that General Taylor summoned him. In fact it was so rare he couldn’t remember the last time, and so he couldn’t help the disquiet the curt message from Taylor’s assistant had provoked in his mind.

The door was slightly ajar as he approached and he could see Sam’s team inside. But as he stepped into the office he realized that Sam had yet to arrive. “General?” he asked as he tapped politely on the open door. “You wanted to see me?”

Taylor turned and Daniel saw he was on the phone. He motioned for Daniel to sit as he listened, and then talked into the phone, “No. Thank you, Captain.” He hung up and shook his head slightly at Sam’s team.

“What’s going on?” Daniel asked, his skin prickling with the tension in the room.

Taylor looked at him grimly. “Colonel Carter didn’t report for duty today. According to her husband she went out yesterday evening but didn’t return. He’d assumed she’d been called into work.”

Daniel’s stomach sank, vivid memories of Sam’s last disappearance springing to mind. “The NID?”

“Perhaps,” Taylor nodded.

And then another thought crept into Daniel’s mind - one that was only slightly less discomforting. “Ah, there’s another possibility,” he said, wincing at the thought. “An, uh, old friend is in town. She might have decided to stay over at…at their house.”

Taylor frowned. “Check it out. And if it’s a no go, I want you to head over to Carter’s house and see what you can find.”

Daniel nodded. “On my way.”

***

Jack slept the black sleep of misery, an engulfing dreamless void from which he was reluctant to emerge. But the shrill ring of his phone was incessant, followed by the click of his answer-phone and a burbled message. He had almost allowed himself to sink back into the emptiness of sleep when his cell phone started to chirrup right next to his ear. Cursing, he reached over and switched it off.

And a moment later, his phone started ringing again.

“Go away!” he groaned out loud, and covered his head with his pillow. But the phone wouldn’t be denied and along with the constant ringing another possibility crept into his foggy mind - what if it was Sam?

The idea charged through him like an electric shock, jolting him out of bed and sending him stumbling into the living room. He snatched up the phone, eyes still bleary, with hope pounding hard in his chest. “Hello?”

There was a pause before an acerbic Daniel Jackson said, “Did I wake you up?”

Disappointment and irritation swept through him as he sank into the couch. “Yeah.” Damn it! “This better be damn important.”

There was another pause, longer this time, before Daniel said, “Is Sam there with you?”

“What?”

“I need to know if Sam’s there Jack, it’s--”

“It’s none of your damn business!”

“Just tell me if she’s there,” Daniel insisted hotly.

Jack was on his feet, confused and angry. “I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing, but you have no right to poke your nose into--”

“Let me speak to her, will you?”

“What? No. I mean--”

“Jack! I have to speak to her it’s--”

“She’s not here!” he barked at last. “For crying out loud, Daniel.”

Silence. “Don’t lie to me, Jack.”

He sighed, slumping back onto the couch. “I’m not lying.”

To his surprise, Daniel didn’t sound relieved. If anything, he sounded more anxious. “When did you last see her?”

Cold fear splashed over his anger, extinguishing it. “Last night. Why?”

“When last night?”

“I don’t know. Late. We saw a movie, had dinner and she gave me a ride home.” He was starting to feel nauseous. “Daniel, what’s going on?”

“She’s missing, Jack.”

The moment pulsed long and icy in his head, draining everything but fear from his mind. “What do you mean missing?”

“Matt says she never came home last night. Her car’s missing and she hasn’t reported for duty. She’s just gone.”

Into the emptiness of his mind flashed their painful parting the previous night. She’d been upset, crying. Maybe more upset than he’d realized? He’d been so caught up in his own anger and longing, had he failed to notice hers? Could she have-- Would she have done something stupid? “Oh God.”

He didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until Daniel said, “Did something happen last night? Jack, do you know where she might be?”

“No,” he replied. “I don’t know. I-- She was upset. It was--” He squeezed his eyes shut. Had he done this to her? He’d never forgive himself. “I don’t know. She was upset when she left.”

Daniel’s voice was accusatory. “You argued?”

“No. Nothing like that. We--” He pressed a hand over his eyes, unable to blot the memory of her wide, tearful eyes from his mind. “We said goodbye.”

Daniel sighed heavily. “Oh.” There was an awkward silence before he added, “I, uh, have to go check out her house. See if I can find anything that might explain--”

“I’ll see you there.”

“Jack, I don’t think--”

But he refused to listen. “You can’t stop me.”

“Jack…”

“Don’t!” he warned, feeling his anger surging back to life. “Don’t try and stop me. I’ll be there in fifteen.”

With that he hung up and charged back into his bedroom in search of clothes. If he’d done this to her, pushed her too far and made her so miserable that she’d-- He refused to think about it. He’d find her, and she’d be fine. It was the only acceptable outcome.

He’d find her and then he’d get the hell out of her life - and this time he’d stay out for good. Because one thing was clear; from Sara and Charlie to Sam, all he ever brought the people he cared about was misery. And sometimes worse.

***

The midday sun was hot in the back of the car, beating against Sam’s face as she sat awkwardly bundled into the corner of the seat, her ankles and wrists bound. She was hot, thirsty, and needed the bathroom. But she didn’t dare move, for there on the seat next to her, and on the floor at her feet, crouched a dozen multi- legged replicator bugs. All staring at her with hunger shining in their metallic eyes.

They swarmed in the front of the car too, controlling the vehicle as it sped down the highway, while Fifth sat motionless beside them. His right arm was missing, its constituent parts being the bugs that crawled through the car.

Sam repressed a shiver and stared out at the speeding landscape. They were heading south-west, right out of the state. Already the mountains were giving way to arid, red desert.

“Where are we going?” she asked at last, her voice scratchy from lack of use.

“Somewhere quiet,” Fifth replied. “Somewhere they’ll never find you.”

Her courage quailed, but didn’t fail her. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Will that make me less angry?”

To Sam’s surprise, it was a genuine question. And she saw her opening, “I understand why you’re angry, Fifth. You have a right to be - we deceived you. But if you’ll listen I can--”

“No,” he corrected, turning to face her. “*You* deceived me. I trusted *you*, Samantha.”

She flinched at the accusation, knowing it was true. “I had no choice,” she said lamely. “I’m sorry.”

Fifth gave a small, cold smile and turned back to the road. “You will be.”

***

Jack all but jumped from the cab as it pulled up outside Carter’s house, pushing the money at the driver and not waiting for change. The front door was open and he could see two cars in the drive. Neither were Carter’s.

He slowed as he approached, conscious that he’d never been inside her house - the house she shared with her husband. And despite the situation, it still made him uneasy. He knew there’d be things in there he wouldn’t want to see, things that would ram home the fact that she wasn’t his to care about. Not that that stopped him from caring, it never had.

He took the steps two at a time and knocked briefly on the open door as he stepped inside. “Daniel?”

His friend emerged from a doorway just to his right. “That was quick.”

“Have you found anything?”

He shook his head. “No. Uh, come in. Matt’s here.”

Matt. Shit. Suddenly he couldn’t get the memory of holding Sam out of his head, and he was sure the guilt showed in his eyes. Intrepidly, he followed Daniel into the room and saw Matt perched on the edge of the sofa; he looked like his world had ended.

Jack understood the feeling all too well.

Matt jumped to his feet as soon as Jack entered the room. “Any news?” And then, recognizing him, his expression turned to confusion. “Jack O’Neill, right?”

“Yeah,” Jack nodded.

Matt shook his head. “I-- I’m sorry, I can’t think straight. What are you doing here?”

“I thought I could help,” Jack told him, unable to meet the man’s earnest gaze. “I was in town.”

“Thank you,” Matt nodded, so sincerely that Jack cringed inwardly.

He glanced over at Daniel, who was studiously looking through some papers on the nearby sideboard. God, he felt like a heel - he was the cause of this whole damn mess. He cleared his throat, desperate to get out from under Matt’s stupid, trusting gaze. “I’ll, uh, take a look around,” he offered, and left before either man could respond.

The first room he came across was, of course, the bedroom. At first he balked at the door - no *way* was he going in there! But then he heard the sound of Matt and Daniel emerging from the living room and tucked inside the doorway, just to escape. And since he was there…

He looked around uneasily, taking in the minimal furniture, the neatly made bed and the his-and-her dressers. It really wasn’t how he’d imagined Sam’s bedroom. Not that he’d spent a lot of time imagining it, but if he had this wouldn’t have been it. He moved further into the room, glancing around for anything useful. But nothing seemed out of place and he assumed Matt would have mentioned it if any clothes had been missing. He was about to leave when the toe of his boot touched something that scuffed across the carpet. He looked down and saw the tip of a white piece of paper sticking out from beneath the bed, as if it had been dropped there.

Crouching down, he picked it up and his heart missed a beat. It was one of the photos from Florida - Sam sitting on the boardwalk, gazing out over the ocean. He turned it over in his hands, and then his eyes fell on something that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Scratched into the paper, as if done with a fingernail, was a single barely-visible figure.

5

He knew instantly what it meant and the realization was horrifying. He slammed out of the room, “Daniel!”

Daniel was at the other end of the hallway, near the front door. “Found something?”

Matt’s eyes were on him too and Jack swallowed his instinct to blurt everything out. Matt couldn’t be told the truth, not this truth. “Maybe,” was all he said.

But Daniel’s shrewd gaze told him his friend understood. “Take a look at this,” he said, brushing his finger over some scratches on the door lock. “Matt says they weren’t there before.”

Jack nodded and the look he shared with Daniel was weighty and significant. “We have to get to the SGC.”

“What?” Matt said, seeing the look and not understanding. “What is it? What have you found?”

Thankfully, Daniel took over. “We’re not sure, Matt. But I think-- There’s a possibility that Sam’s been taken against her will.”

“Oh God, no!” All the color drained from his face, and for a moment Jack thought he might actually faint. “Oh, Jesus. Sam…”

“We’ll find her,” Jack told him gruffly, wishing that the man’s horror didn’t so closely mirror his own. And hoping that the truth wasn’t written plain on his face; he loved her, and worse than that, this was all his fault.

***

They’d know she was missing by now. The thought kept her moving as she climbed the scalding, sandpaper rocks with her bare and bleeding feet. Still dressed only in her pajamas, the tank-top did little to protect her from the desert sun and her throat was roar with thirst.

But they’d know she was missing by now. They’d search her house, and if they were smart, if they were looking hard enough, they’d find the pathetic note she’d left. She hoped they were smart.

She hoped Jack was looking. He’d understand. And once they found her car, he’d see her marker. She knew he would. Her fingers tightened around the small stone she’d managed to pick up after deliberately stumbling as she got out of the car. Its thin scratches against the rocks as she climbed was the only trail she could leave. She just hoped it would be enough. For Jack, it would be enough. She just prayed he’d come after her.

“In here,” Fifth’s voice cut harshly across her thoughts, his hand pushing her roughly towards a crack in the rock.

“What…?” she protested, but he was unrelenting.

“Get inside.”

Squeezing through the fissure, she found that it opened up into a wide cave. And it was at least cool, a blessed relief from the heat of the sun. But it was dark and she stumbled over the rocky ground, falling painfully hard onto her knees.

“I can’t go any further,” she grated, the pain of her bruised and swollen feet lancing through the length of her legs with a white heat.

Fifth’s hand on her arm was unrelenting as he dragged her upright. “You are weak,” he said, his face barely visible in the faint light filtering in from outside.

“I’m human,” she countered, fixing him with a look. “We are weak. And sometimes we make mistakes.”

Something flickered behind his alien eyes, something human. Regret? “I am weak. First was right. Trusting you was a mistake.”

His hard fingers were digging into the flesh on her arm and she tried to pull away. His grasp tightened. “Please,” she said quietly. “You’re hurting me. I won’t run, I promise.”

“Your promise means nothing,” he snapped. But nonetheless he let her go. “I do not believe you are capable of running - your feet are damaged.”

Sam sank to the ground. “Yes,” she nodded, “they are.” Looking around the barren cavern she said, “You understand that to live I need water and food, don’t you?”

“You will live long enough,” he said, moving closer to where she sat, but not bending towards her. “Long enough for my needs.”

Her voice was dry when she asked, “What needs?”

“Only one,” he told her, a hand reaching out and gently sweeping the hair from her brow. “The truth.”

And with that his fingers shot into her head. She felt a skull-numbing agony in her forehead, and a scream ripped from her throat as the world exploded in to a blazing, blinding white inferno…

***

It was strange to be back. The corridors seemed smaller and the people unfamiliar, as Jack followed Daniel towards General Taylor’s office. He was acutely aware of the Visitor’s Pass clipped to his jeans, and with it an odd sense of impotence.

He should be giving the orders. He should be marshalling their forces, sending them out to look for her. For her and for It. Fifth. A monster made flesh, with the capacity to destroy their world - to take it apart piece by piece. Starting with Carter.

But he was no one now; Colonel Jack O’Neill, retired. And he was only here at all because Daniel could talk the hind legs off a donkey and had managed to persuade General Taylor that Jack had something to contribute.

“We’re here,” Daniel said, stopping in front of the office that had once been Hammond’s. He knocked and Jack felt stupidly nervous.

“Come,” came a gruff answer, and they stepped inside.

Jack had met General Taylor once before, at George Hammond’s retirement party. And he hadn’t changed in the years since; tall, powerfully built, with silver hair and blue eyes as sharp as steel. “Doctor Jackson,” he nodded, his eyes fixing on Jack. “O’Neill.”

Jack offered him his hand. “Good to see you again, General.”

Taylor nodded, shook his hand briefly and sat down. “I hear you have some information?”

He exchanged a quick glance with Daniel who nodded. “Yeah,” Jack said, pulling the picture from his pocket. “I found this.”

Taylor looked at it carefully. “I don’t understand.”

“Look closer. She scratched a number into it. Number five.”

“Fifth,” Daniel clarified. “We think she was leaving us a clue.”

But Taylor was shaking his head. “This could have been done at any time, how do you know--”

“I found it by her bed,” Jack told him. “On the floor, and--”

“That proves nothing.”

Jack grimaced, unwilling to say more but knowing had no choice. “The photo - I gave it to her yesterday evening. And this wasn’t on it then.”

Taylor’s sharp gaze flicked from the photo to Jack and back again, and Jack had the uncomfortable feeling that his darkest secrets had just been X-rayed. He looked down at his hands, guilty and anxious.

“And we found some scratch marks around the lock,” Daniel added. “They look consistent with replicators.”

Taylor’s jaw tightened. “But… He hasn’t come through the Stargate, no ships have been detected in orbit and--”

“I don’t care how it got here,” Jack butted in. “Fact is, it’s here. And it’s got Carter.”

“We need to find her car, “ Daniel suggested. “It’s missing from Sam’s house, and so far it’s our only lead.”

Jack nodded. “But we can’t let the police get too close. We have to handle this ourselves, sir.”

Taylor let the photo drop onto the table as his eyes fixed on Jack. “Normally Colonel Carter would run an operation of this scale,” he said. “But in her absence, and since you’re the only one here with direct knowledge of Fifth, consider yourself recalled to active duty. Colonel.”

***

Sam span around, blinking in the bright sunlight and cold mountain air. “Where are we?” she asked of Fifth, dizzily disorientated.

“You know where we are.”

And he was right, she did. “Cheyenne Mountain. How?”

“We are in your unconscious. You brought us here,” he glanced around, as if seeing more than the scenery. His face twitched into a sneer. “Your mind is full of it.”

“Full of what?”

“Betrayal.” He spat the word. “It runs through your life like poison.”

She glared. “Are you just going to insult me to death or are we here for a reason?”

His flat, inhuman eyes turned on her. “You do not like hearing the truth. That is too bad. Because the truth is why we are here. I want to understand you. I have to understand how you could abandon me.”

“I told you, I didn’t have--”

He cut her off. “Do not speak.” And then suddenly, with a sharp gesture of his hand…

“My code is in sir,” she said. “I just need to set the timer. It'll take at least two minutes at a dead run for us to get to the ship and two more for the engines to fire up.”

Behind her, Fifth spoke. “That is far too long. If I leave the others will know. They will return before the device activates.”

“Then we set it off now,” O’Neill decided, ruthlessly pragmatic.

“No,” Fifth objected, scared. “We will be trapped with the others.”

She glanced over her shoulder at him. “You can probably make it to the ship at lot faster than we can, right?”

“Oh yes,” he agreed, “in a fraction of the time.”

“Give us a head start. If you arrive at the ship just before we launch, your absence won't alert the others until it's too late for them to do anything about it.”

The Colonel was looking at her, dark eyes skewering her, voice flat. “So set the timer for five minutes.” But as he spoke, she saw the subtle hand gesture. Three minutes. Set it for three minutes.

Shit.

She swallowed hard. “It's cutting it awfully close, sir.”

His determined stare didn’t waiver. “I know that Major.”

Reluctantly, she turned to Fifth. Guilt made her nauseous as she said, “Thank you.”

“You won't leave without me?”

God, he was like a child. How could they do this? How could he make her do this? “No,” she lied. “Head for the ship in a little over three minutes.”

And then she turned to the device, deliberately concealing it from him. Her hands didn’t shake, didn’t hesitate as she set the timer. But her conscience cringed and anger flared in her heart. How could he make her betray him like this? “Three, two, one. Mark. Timer's running.”

And with a soul squalid with betrayal, she left him. Left him to die at the hands of his brothers.

Sam sucked in a breath of air, collapsing to her knees on the grass of the mountainside. “God.”

Fifth stood watching her, his face impassive. “So you knew,” he said softly. “You knew what they would do to me. You knew that you were wrong. But you still did it.”

She looked up at him, struggling to recover her equilibrium. “I was following orders.”

His eyes narrowed. “But you felt they were wrong.”

She nodded. “Yes, I did. But that doesn’t matter. You don’t question orders, you follow them. That’s how it works.”

He moved, circling her where she knelt in the wet grass. “O’Neill is important to you. I sense that.”

She didn’t answer, just stared at him, a new dread creeping into her throat. Would he go after Jack too?

Fifth smiled. “Yes. Very important.” He crouched suddenly, looking her straight in the eye. “You blame him for what happened to me, but--”

“No! I--“

He talked right over her. “You blame his orders, and yet… You’ve betrayed him too, haven’t you? I can sense it. It taints everything.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I would never betray my team, I’ve--”

Fifth slashed down hard with his hand…

“You look beautiful, Sam,” her father told her, holding her hand as they stood waiting outside the church. “Look at you. My little girl.”

She laughed, but felt tears bunching in her throat. “Dad…stop. I can’t go in there with mascara running.”

He smiled. “I just want you to know how… How proud I am of you Sam. Of everything you've done. And I hope you and Matt--” He faltered and cleared his throat, “I hope you’ll be as happy as I was with your mom.”

She did feel the tears then, pricking in her eyes. “I wish she was here.”

“So do I, honey,” he smiled, pulling her into a warm, firm hug.

They were interrupted by Mark, who popped his head around the church door. “They’re ready for you now, Sam.”

Her Dad moved away and she ran her hands over her dress to smooth the cream silk. “I’m ready.”

With a final smile, Jacob turned and took her arm and they walked together into the crowded church. It felt like an odd sort of dream as the music swelled and all her friends rose to their feet and turned to look at her. She couldn’t see Matt standing at the alter, her eyes were too busy scanning the crowd for friends and family, blinking at the flashes of photography.

But then she saw Jack, sitting towards the back on the far left side. He rose to his feet with the others, his eyes fixed on her with a look she would never forget. A regret so deep it seemed endless, a warmth, affection and sorrow so powerful she could hardly breathe. He gave her a small, sad smile as she slowly walked past him and her heart clenched so painfully it took her breath away.

He loved her.

She’d never known for sure until that moment, when it was far too late to matter.

He loved her and she hadn’t waited for him. She’d betrayed the unspoken promise that some day, somehow they’d be together.

He loved her and in her heart she knew that she loved him too.

Dear God, she thought as she looked towards the altar where Matt was waiting, what am I doing?

***

Chapter 10

Daniel watched from the edge of the room as Jack took command. Power was a subtle thing, he reflected, an aura which surrounded the man - confidence, resolution and an expectation that his orders would be followed without question. The uniform helped too.

Jack dispatched his orders with easy efficiency, sending men and women scurrying from the room to contact the police, co-ordinate the defense of the base, monitor Sam’s house, try to triangulate her cell phone and more.

But as Daniel watched, he realized that Jack was working on an assumption that he didn’t entirely share. Unwilling to voice his disagreement while they had an audience, Daniel waited until the last serviceman had left the room before he moved over to the table where Jack was studying the map of Colorado. He took a seat and said, “Where do you think he’s heading?”

“Anywhere were there’s technology,” Jack replied, his attention not leaving the map. “Something to make more replicators. Increase their numbers, create a power base. Somewhere safe where it can…” His voice trailed off, but Daniel didn’t need him to complete the sentence. He knew Jack was thinking about Sam, and imagining the worst.

“Do you think that’s what he’s here for?” he asked carefully. “To create a power base? Take over the planet?”

“It’s a replicator. It’s what they do.”

“Is it? He came here for Sam.”

Still Jack didn’t look up. But Daniel suspected his determined survey of the maps was a bluff, a way of avoiding eye-contact. “I don’t care why it’s here. It’s here and we need to eliminate it.”

Daniel blinked. “Ah…eliminate it?”

“Oh here we go…” Jack’s clipped tone held more than a hint of warning.

But Daniel refused to be intimidated. “No. I just… We’re going to kill it? Just like that?”

“Just like what?”

“Well, without even giving him a--”

“A what?” Jack looked at him at last, his lips twisting angrily as he stood up. “You want to put it on trial first? Hire it a lawyer?”

Refusing to rise to the bait, Daniel just said, “We don’t even know why he’s here. Or why he’s taken Sam.”

“Right,” Jack nodded sarcastically, “maybe its taking her to Disneyland? It’s a *replicator*, Daniel! Why the hell do you *think* it’s here?”

“According to Sam and Jonas, Fifth was more human than--”

Jack’s fist slammed down hard on the table, making Daniel jump. “You,” he growled, “weren’t there.”

“I read their reports,” Daniel countered calmly. “Fifth appeared to be gentle and empathetic. Human. Maybe he’s just come here to talk? Or to--”

“It took Carter.”

“Or to understand why she had to leave him like--”

“It *took* Carter.”

“He might just want to--”

“Daniel!” Jack barked furiously. “It *took* Carter. *I* pissed it off, and now *it* *has* Carter!”

“And you just assume that he’s going to hurt her?”

Jack shook his head and turned abruptly away. “I don’t have time for this.”

Daniel stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Then make time! You can’t go thundering around like a bull in a china shop without any idea of *why* it’s here! Or *what* it wants!”

“She betrayed him,” Jack said, angrily shaking Daniel’s hand away. “It wants to hurt her. Hurt all of us.”

Daniel said nothing for a long time, pondering his answer. But in the end he had to point out the obvious, even if it was painful for his friend. “Just because that’s what you wanted to do, Jack, it doesn’t mean that’s what Fifth wants to do.”

Jack half turned, his face in profile - all hard angles and guilt. “Excuse me?”

“She betrayed you too, didn’t she?” Daniel said quietly. “And you wanted to hurt her. You *did* hurt her. You cut her dead for four years, and don’t pretend you didn’t know how much that hurt her.”

Jack’s jaw twitched, his mouth compressing into a tight line. “That has nothing to do with--”

“I think it does. Everything we know about Fifth suggests that he’s non-violent. But you assume he’s here to hurt Sam and wreak his revenge on the planet.”

Slowly, Jack turned. His dark eyes glowered like storm clouds, bruised and angry. “He trusted her completely,” he grated. “He let her inside his head, made himself completely vulnerable. And in return she promised him a future. A life.” His mouth twisted into a sour grimace. “Then she stabbed him in the back. Trust me on this one Daniel, he *will* want to hurt her. Badly.”

Daniel swallowed, Jack’s impassioned conviction undermining his own. “Jack…”

“He’s only ‘human’, right?” Jack added bitterly. “Isn’t that the point?”

Daniel said nothing. What could he say? Truth was, he didn’t know if Jack had been talking about himself or Fifth. Perhaps both. Either way, his argument had been convincing. Revenge was indeed a very human emotion.

***

Sam sat on the dewy grass outside the Cheyenne complex. And although it was cool and the sun was warm, she was simultaneously aware of her desiccating thirst and the icy chill of the desert night. If they don’t find me soon, she thought bleakly, I’ll be in no shape to be found.

“You have great faith in them,” Fifth observed from where he stood some distance away. “Despite your betrayal, you trust them.”

“That’s another aspect of humanity,” she told him. “Forgiveness. And loyalty, no matter what.”

“Ha!” Fifth barked, his laughter sour and disillusioned. “Loyalty?” He turned and walked back towards her and she was struck by the disgust in his eyes. “You expect loyalty, yet you give none!”

Shaking her head wearily, she sighed. “That’s not true.”

“Isn’t it? You valued O’Neill above all other men and yet you gave yourself to another!”

“We weren’t *allowed* to be together!” she countered. “You don’t understand.”

He crouched again, close to her face. “Don’t I? I think perhaps I understand more than you realize. Remember that First was inside O’Neill’s head. And I shared all that First saw.”

She stuck her chin out, defiant. “Then you know he understood.”

Fifth looked at her strangely, tilting his head as if to see her better. All he said was, “I understand *this* ….”


They were coming! He could hear the stomp of armored feet. They were coming and he couldn’t get through the force shield. He couldn’t get to her. He started beating the control panel, the shock of each blow jarring his shoulders numb.

“Sir, there’s no time!”

He ignored her. There had to be time! He glanced up, at her and beyond. He couldn’t see anything, but he could still hear the sounds. They were getting closer and she was alone, unarmed and helpless. Something in his chest spasmed with desperation and he turned his manic, futile attention on the force shield, attacking it with a ferocity that blinded him. He *had* to get her out! He couldn’t leave her here. Not like this. No way.

“Sir…”

“I know, I know!” She was right, he should go. Deep down he knew that she was right, but that knowledge was insignificant compared with the absolute need to save her. The thought of leaving her there, of losing her…His fear made him desperate, irrational.

“Sir! Just go….”

God damn it! “NO!”

Breathing hard, sweating and angry, he found himself trapped by her eyes. And for the first time he understood the truth. He saw it reflected in her face, a truth that neither of them could admit. And now, a truth that neither of them could deny. She said nothing, she didn’t need to, imploring him silently to save himself. But he couldn’t leave her. Something was resonating between them, a joyous, anguished, hopeless acknowledgement of the feelings they’d been carrying for so long.

Love.

He felt the word brush his lips with an amazement that defied a lifetime of experience and disappointment. After everything - here, now, at the end - he knew that he’d found the center of his life again. He* loved* her, and he saw that love mirrored and returned in her wide, anguished eyes.

Everything faded. The lies, the denials and the insecurities were all burned away by the certainty that this was the end. All that remained was the truth. He loved her. And suddenly he didn’t care that the shadow of death approached.

He’d rather die than lose her.


“Oh God!” Sam sucked in a shuddering breath, Jack’s violent emotions leaving her wrung out like a wet rag. She pulled her knees up to her chest and pressed her face against the thin cotton of her pajamas. He felt so *much*, so terrifyingly deeply, so completely. It was overwhelming.

“He would have rather died than leave you,” Fifth said, his cold voice dropping like broken ice into the darkness of her mind. “You knew that when you left him.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, willing the images out of her head. But she could *feel* his love for her, burning with a heat that left her shivering. And now, when she remembered the aching look he’d given her as she’d walked past him in the church, she understood for the first time the depth of the pain she’d inflicted; he’d have rather died than lose her.

He’d have rather died, and yet she’d walked away from him. Left him. Her throat constricted with guilt - Fifth was right, she had betrayed him. Time and distance had covered their wordless pledge with a thick regulatory dust, and she had forgotten the fire in his eyes that day when everything had been revealed. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the man in her head, the man whose feelings still resonated through her heart.

Fifth’s laugh was bitter. “And yet it doesn’t end here, Samantha. Does it?”

She looked up, weary stinging eyes staring at her tormentor. “What do you mean?”

“O’Neill is not the only one you have betrayed.” His eyebrows rose slightly at her confusion. “Do you forget your husband, Samantha? Do you forget your treachery towards him too?”

***

Jack emerged from a restless night, full of fears, regrets and guilt, into a blue morning that was too bright for his eyes. It was early and cold, but the tents were already busy and he saw Daniel drinking coffee and talking earnestly with someone Jack couldn’t quite see. Probably a cop, he guessed. The ‘incident’ was being managed from the surface, given that Carter was missing on Earth and not off-world. And given that they had no choice but to ask the police to locate her missing car, it meant liaison between them and the Air Force was easier than it would have been twenty floors beneath the mountain behind layers of unexplainable security.

Stomping through the dewy grass, Jack ducked under the tarp that covered their equipment and headed for the coffee. “Any news?” he asked Daniel, interrupting his friend’s conversation.

“No,” came the quiet reply. Followed by, “Umm, Jack… Matt’s here.”

He turned so fast he spilled hot coffee over his hand, and cursed under his breath as he looked over and saw that the man Daniel had been talking to was in fact Sam’s husband. Matt’s eyes were blood-shot and ringed with dark weariness, his face pale; it was a face of devastation and loss. “Matt,” Jack nodded, shaking the coffee off his hand before wiping it on his BDU’s and then extending it to Matt. “How are you holding up?”

Matt shook his hand firmly, but there was no life in his blue eyes. “Barely.”

“We *are* going to find her,” Jack assured him, hoping his determination came across as professional concern and not desperation.

“They won’t tell me anything,” Matt complained, sitting back down and folding nervous hands together. “Just like all the other times.”

Jack exchanged a wary glance with Daniel, who gave a small shrug. What the hell was he doing here anyway, Jack wanted to know. Husband or not, this was no place for civilians.

“Once,” Matt continued, “she came home with burns all down one arm. She said she’d been working in a lab in Russia, but…” He glanced up at Jack, mildly accusatory. “We both knew she was lying. I mean, I get it. What she does is secret. National security. But I’m her *husband* and if she’s in danger--” His voice cracked and Jack was disconcerted to see tears spill from his eyes. Good God, he wasn’t born to deal with crying men! He flung a helpless look at Daniel who, with a roll of his eyes, laid a sympathetic hand on Matt’s shoulder.

“It’s okay,” he said. “We’re going to find her. You need to get some rest, Matt. I’m going to have our doctor take a look at you. Maybe proscribe something to help you sleep.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” Matt choked out between tears.

“I know,” Daniel agreed. “But you really need to. Lets go and--”

“Colonel O’Neill!” A young lieutenant Jack didn’t recognize skidded under the tarp, flushed and excited. “Sir, they’ve found her car!”

Relief and fear crashed hard together in Jack’s chest, and only years of experience kept his voice level. “Where?”

“Utah, sir.”

“Utah?” What the hell? “Where?”

“Just off Highway eighty-nine, other side of Lake Powell.”

Jack turned to the map spread across the nearby table, quickly finding the road. Okay, that made absolutely no sense at all. “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” he said, looking up at Daniel in confusion. There was no technology there. Nothing that could help Fifth. It didn’t make sense. Daniel raised his eyebrows at a distinctly ‘I told you so’ angle. Scowling, Jack was about to speak when Matt butted in.

“What about Sam?” he asked the lieutenant. “Is she there?”

The kid glanced at Matt, then back at Jack, obviously unsure if he should answer this unknown civilian. “Go ahead,” Jack nodded gruffly.

“This is Colonel Carter’s husband,” Daniel explained.

“I’m sorry,” the lieutenant said to Matt. “There was no sign of Colonel Carter.” And then he turned back to Jack, “Sir, the police have the area cordoned off and they’re awaiting further instructions.”

“Tell them we’re on our way.” He dismissed the kid with a curt nod, before turning back to Matt. “You stay here,” he said, deliberately injecting more than a note of command into his voice. He had no time to argue and there was no *way* any civilian was getting close to Fifth and his replicators buddies. “Daniel, with me. We’re leaving in five.”

“Jack?” Matt called after him, before he’d even left the tent. Slowly Jack turned. “Bring her home safe. If I lost her…”

Jack nodded slowly. “I know,” he said, fully understanding the pain of losing Carter. And sickened by the fact that, given the opportunity, he knew damn well that he’d steal her away from Matt in a heartbeat.

What the hell kind of guy did that make him?

***

The land sped beneath the beating wings of the helicopter, transforming gradually into the red alien landscape of the Utah desert. It was too loud for conversation, so Daniel occupied himself with alternately watching the scenery and studying the man sitting opposite him.

Jack was brooding. His face was as hard as iron as he glared at the world speeding past, as if by willpower alone he could make them move faster. But as he watched him, Daniel realized that once they’d found Sam - and he refused to contemplate any other outcome - Jack’s suffering would not be over. There was no doubt in his mind now that Jack’s feelings for Sam had never waned, despite the four years they’d spent apart. In fact, if anything, he suspected the absence had only added a gloss of nostalgia to the relationship. Sam was the love he’d lost, the unrequited, unresolved could-have-been. That wasn’t something you easily forgot. And now, having rediscovered his feelings, Jack had to return her to the arms of her loving husband. He shook his head, turning back to the red rocks below. That had to hurt.

“Colonel O’Neill?” the pilot’s voice came through the ear-piece Daniel wore. “We’re approaching the co-ordinates now, sir.”

“Understood,” Jack replied. “Take us in.”

Daniel’s stomach lurched as the helicopter banked and started its decent. Jack gave him a reassuring nod as he started barking orders through the radio to the other men aboard. Daniel said nothing, staring out at the rapidly approaching ground and wondering whether they were about to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

***

She left the engine running, afraid to take her hands from the steering wheel and the key from the ignition. The temptation to throw everything aside, just to have that one single moment of release with him, was almost overwhelming. And she didn’t trust herself to be strong enough.

By her side she heard him sigh and say, “Thanks for the ride.”

“Thanks for the photos,” she said quietly, for want of anything better to say. “I had a nice evening.”

“Yeah,” he replied, his voice clipped and short. “Me too.” She looked over at him, doubting the truth of his words. He looked as miserable as she felt. “Seriously,” he assured her, although his gaze was just shy of meeting hers. “I had a good time. And I’m glad we had a chance to, you know, catch up.”

*Had* a chance? She watched him closely, seeing a resolution in his face that turned her cold. “That sounds final.” He looked away, brow contracting in thought as he struggled to find an answer. He didn’t need to bother. “You’re leaving?”

“I guess,” he sighed, looking up sadly. “It’s probably a smart idea.”

“Probably.” But she almost spat the word. She was sick of smart ideas and doing the right thing. She felt trapped by duty, tied down by honor and she longed for the freedom to just be herself. For once in her life, couldn’t she do what she wanted instead of what was expected? But she couldn’t say any of that, could she? It wasn’t who she was. It wasn’t who they were. So all said was, “You’ll keep in touch though?”

He hesitated. “I--”

“I don’t want this to be goodbye!” she snapped, her control fraying at the edges. “I can’t--” She was sick with repression, her whole life with Matt felt like a lead blanket pressing her into the dull mire of conformity and duty. She hated it! She wanted to be free, to live and love as she chose. The effort of keeping herself constrained within the lines of duty she’d delineated for herself turned her fingers white where she clutched the steering wheel. A tear escaped her ridged control and went sliding pathetically down her cheek. She wiped it away, angry with herself and the choices she’d made - the choices she was still making.

But then, through her claustrophobic misery, she felt the unexpected touch of his arm sliding around her shoulders. Two quiet words left his lips. “Come here.”

She felt like she was moving in restraints, her limbs leaden with self-control as she peeled her fingers from the steering wheel and turned into his embrace. His arms went around her and she buried her face against his shoulder, a temporary respite from her life of denial. “It’s not fair,” she whispered brokenly. “It’s not fair.”

“I know.” He stroked her hair, bringing her alive with every touch. “I’m sorry.”

All she wanted was to kiss him, to loose the leash that held her in check. Just once. Her voice shook with the effort of not acting on her desires. “For what?” she managed to whisper.

“Everything.”

She laughed hollowly and pulled away, but he wouldn’t let her go and trailed his fingers down her arms until he held only her hands. He looked as anguished as she felt, unreachable and irresistible. It took all her strength not to press her lips against his mouth and throw off the caution that bound her life. “You can’t blame yourself for this one,” she sighed. The blame was hers alone. If only she’d had the strength to wait. If only she had the courage to leave… Guilt sickened her, rising through her frustrated desire like an oil slick. “You’d better go,” she whispered, afraid of what she might do. “Before…”

He looked away, and she didn’t miss the beat of disappointment in his eyes as he dropped her hands and reached for the door handle. “I’ll write, or something.”

Sam laughed bitterly at the empty promise. “Thank you.”

And then, without a backward glance, he pushed open the door and climbed out of her car. And out of her life.

She threw the car into gear, stepped on the gas and sped away into the darkness. It was over. He was gone. And all she could think of was Matt, and the oppressive weight of the chains that bound her to him.


Tears stood in Sam’s eyes as she left the memory behind, and she gazed through them at Fifth who still crouched before her. “You’re right,” she said softly. “I’ve screwed up. I can’t deny it. What’s the point? But…” She looked away, out over the dreamscape of the mountain. “Don’t you see? I’m not special. I’m just human. I’ve made mistakes. Big ones. And I have to live with them.”

Fifth’s face softened slightly, showing a flicker of the curiosity and innocence that had first drawn her to him. “How do you bear it?”

“It’s difficult. It hurts,” she explained. “You try and do what’s best. Sometimes you get it wrong, but you can only try.”

“When you left me,” Fifth said, his anger reasserting itself, “you thought it was wrong. But you did it anyway.”

“Yes,” she agreed, so weary now it was becoming an effort to talk. How long, in the real world, had this been going on? How long since she’d had anything to drink or eat? “I didn’t want to use your trust against you. But Colonel O’Neill was right - if he hadn’t made that decision, we’d all be dead and First and the others would be-- They’d be destroying our galaxy. I didn’t want to leave you. But it was the right decision.”

He looked away from her, staring down at the dewy grass. “I was worth sacrificing.”

“It wasn’t personal,” she said softly. “Colonel O’Neill would have sacrificed himself - all of us - to achieve the mission.”

“He wouldn’t have sacrificed you!”

“Yes he would,” Sam countered. “You know he would.”

Fifth’s eyes were on her again, turned inward. “When you were possessed by the computer entity,” he said thoughtfully. And she nodded, silently praying that he wouldn’t take her back to the horror of that memory. “He would have killed you.”

“He thought he had.”

“And you forgave him?”

He was sitting on the grass now, his angry eyes confused with emotions she doubted he had the experience to understand. But she knew that this was important. This was vital. If she stood any chance of escaping with her life, he had to understand this. “Here,” she said, reaching out and taking his lifeless fingers in her own, “let me show you.”



She could breathe again, the rise and fall of her chest was a relief beyond words. She could move, touch, feel. Above all, feel. She could feel the cool cotton of the bed sheets on her legs, the slight scratchiness of the blanket under her fingers. She could feel the brush of air on her face as someone moved past the bed and the comforting rush of breath in and out of her lungs.

She could hear too. Low voices talking in the distance, too soft to be understood, but familiar nonetheless. One was Janet, and the other…

Her mind flashed back to the moment it had happened. Seeing through another’s eyes she’d watched him raise the zat, aiming at her without a tremor in his hand. She’d wanted to scream, “I’m here! Don’t shoot!” But her voice had not been her own, her limbs channeling agonizing power had not been her own. She’d felt the impact of the first shot, the fear of oblivion close on its heels. He was going to kill her. Of all things, she’d never imagined dying at his hands. There had to be another way. Surely there was another way!

And then she’d seem him make the decision, raw controlled pain splintering in his eyes as his finger squeezed the trigger for the second time. “Noooooooooooooo!” she’d screamed silently as the energy bolt sheered through the air towards her. She’d seen it coming, knew that it brought death and-- And then all had been dark, silent, senseless night.

I’m in hell.

It had been her first thought. He’d killed her, and sent her to a sensory-deprived hell. And she’d hated him. She’d screamed and raged and hated.

“Carter?” His soft voice reached her and she opened her eyes. She could open her eyes. Thank God.

And there he was. Her killer. Her friend.

“Hey,” he said quietly, edging closer to the bed. “How you feeling?”

She smiled at the word. “I’m *feeling*.”

He returned the smile, barely - a small, tight expression. And then he pulled up a chair and sat down, perching on the edge with his elbows on his knees tapping his fingertips together. “So…”

It was an effort to turn her head and look at him. “So…?”

“Not a great day,” he sighed, staring at her bed but not at her.

“I’ve had better,” she admitted.

He nodded. “I know it’s probably too early to tell,” he said, still staring at the bed, “but I want you to know that if you-- If you find that working with me is difficult, Carter, you’d have my backing in requesting a transfer.”

After days without feeling, the jolt his words caused in her chest was almost overwhelming. “You…” she stammered, confused. “Do you want me off the team?”

“No!” he exclaimed, then with a self-conscious glance over his shoulder he lowered his voice. “No, of course not. But Carter… I *killed* you today! I shot you.” He frowned and looked away, “Don’t pretend that won’t affect things between us. Things like…like…trust. For one.”

She looked at him, tense shoulders, bowed head where he once more stared at her bed instead of her face. If she’d had the energy she’d have reached out to touch his hand, but moving was almost impossible. Talking was effort enough, but an effort worth making. “I was scared,” she admitted quietly, figuring he wouldn’t believe her if she tried to lie. “I didn’t want to die. And I was angry. I kept thinking there had to be another way, a better way. But I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move.” She closed her eyes, swallowing the remembered terror. “I saw you raise the gun and I knew what you would do. I knew.”

“Carter,” his voice was cracked and wretched. “If I’d had any choice. *Any* other choice…”

“I know,” she murmured, opening her eyes again. He still sat perched on the edge of the seat, his fingertips tapping against the side of the bed in time with his misery. Summoning all her strength she moved her hand, just enough that she brushed her fingertips against his. His hands stilled. Everything stilled. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “I understand. You had no choice.”

Silently he closed his fingers around hers; his hand felt strong and warm. “If I could have traded places…”

“I know,” she whispered, squeezing his hand with what little strength she had. “You did what you had to do, sir. I couldn’t have forgiven you if you’d done less.”

His dark eyes met hers, full of questions. “You couldn’t?”

“When you shot me, I hated you,” she whispered, softening her words with a thin smile. “But I understood. If you hadn’t done it… I couldn’t have forgiven you for endangering the base just for me.”

“Then you forgive me?”

“You don’t need my forgiveness, sir. You did what--”

“I do,” he said abruptly, his finger tightening around hers. “I really do, Carter.”

She smiled again, exhausted now and barely able to keep her eyes open. “Then I forgive you, sir. I forgive you…” The words slipped out as sleep claimed her, but even in the relative emptiness of sleep she could still feel his hand holding hers.

And into her dreams his quiet voice crept. “Thank you.”


She returned from the dream to the cool morning on the mountain, her fingers still clasped with Fifth’s. But the remembered exhaustion didn’t fade, and she knew that whatever was happening inside her mind, outside her real body was starting to fail.

“You hated him,” Fifth said quietly. “And yet you could forgive him.”

Too weary and sick to argue, Sam just nodded. “I understood him. He did the right thing, even though I hated it. There were bigger things at stake than me.”

He looked at her, his once angry eyes now clouded. “There were bigger things at stake than me.”

Slowly she nodded. “Yes,” she said, “there were. And I’m so very sorry.”

Fifth said nothing more, his gaze turning inward. Exhausted, Sam sank down into the wet grass. She was growing colder, despite the warm sun. Back in the dark desert cave, she knew her body must be shutting down - parched and hypothermic. “Fifth,” she said quietly, her eyes drifting closed, “if you aren’t going to kill me, you’ll need to help me.”

Whether he heard her she didn’t know, because darkness was descending as fast as a tropical sunset and smothering light and consciousness as if they were one.

***

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