(Warning: a little strong language in chapter 12, if you're sensitive about that sort of thing).
The Utah police looked on with intent interest - and not a little suspicion - as the Air Force took over the operation. But Jack paid them no attention as a flurry of white-suited forensic experts took Sam’s car apart. The morning sun was already beating off the dry rocks, and the growing heat didn’t help Jack’s frustrated mood.
He looked up, squinting through his sunglasses. Above him red, barren cliffs rose as alien as anything he’d seen on his travels. And among them, he had no doubt, was Fifth. And Sam. He had an insane urge to just shout her name, as if somehow she could hear him wherever she was in the echoing silence of the desert. But he kept his urges in check - for once - and snapped his eyes back down to the forensic team just in time to see one of them look up. “Colonel O’Neill,” she said. “I’ve found something.”
He was at her side in two strides and knew instantly what she held in her gloved fingers. A replicator brick. “That’s what we thought,” Jack nodded grimly. “Anything else? Any sign of a struggle?”
His face remained impassive, eyes hidden behind the dark glasses as he held his breath and waited. “No, sir. No blood or hair, or anything that might indicated that Colonel Carter had been hurt.”
His relief was only slight. Until he saw her again he could barely breathe. “Keep at it,” he said by way of a dismissal, and turned back towards where Daniel was gazing up at the rocks.
“It’s definitely Fifth,” he said as he approached.
Daniel turned around, brow furrowing. “Why do you think he brought her here? There’s nothing here.”
The same question was circling in Jack’s mind, but he had no answer. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“They can’t have gone far,” Daniel said then, dabbing at the sweat beading on his forehead. “According to Matt, only Sam’s pajamas were missing. She probably doesn’t even have any shoes.”
Jack’s mind was relentlessly practical. “Good,” he said, hating his vivid imagination. “On these rocks, her feet would bleed. It’ll make her easier to track.”
“Right,” Daniel agreed with a wince. “I hope she’s okay.”
Jack couldn’t answer that; his own feelings were too powerful to discuss. “We need to find the trail,” he said instead. And to distract himself he turned to the team-leaders he’d brought with him. “Stokes, Harris, Giordano - I want a three-sixty search around the car. We’re looking for a trail, two sets of tracks, probably made within the last twelve hours. One set is likely to be barefoot. And it’s possible there may be a marker. Any questions?”
There were none, and Jack watched as his men set about their task. “Come on,” he nodded to Daniel, “we’ll start over here.”
“Sure,” Daniel agreed quickly, although Jack could sense he was less than confident. “What exactly are we looking for? I mean, it’s rock. It’s not like there’s going to be footprints.”
“Anything out of place,” Jack said, stopping and starting to scan the ground. “Anything that’s been disturbed. And if we’re lucky, Carter might have left us a marker.”
“A trail of breadcrumbs…”
Fifth looked down at the still body, torn between triumph and remorse. This was how he had imagined seeing her, defeated and broken. And yet he felt no pleasure at the sight. Cold revenge had done little to cool his simmering anger, and instead her disordered emotions had only taught him to doubt himself. He’d felt her self-loathing when she’d left him, felt her hatred of O’Neill when he’d shot her, felt the warmth of her forgiveness. And he knew that she could forgive him too. Indeed, that she already had.
He crouched down, looking more closely at her pale features. She breathed still, although the blue tint in her lips told him she was cold. The cave, he supposed, was cold. Outside he could see pale light creeping through the crack in the rock and realized that many hours had passed. Morning had dawned.
He sat now on the rocky floor, unsure what to do. His plan had not taken him beyond this moment, although he also realized that he had not imagined Samantha Carter to still be living. Death, he had assumed, would have been requisite for revenge. And perhaps it was. But sitting there staring at her lifeless form he could only remember the life he had experienced through her mind - the agony of choice, of wrong choices and right ones. She had not done what she had done without pain or regret or remorse. But brighter than her suffering was the warmth of the acceptance and forgiveness that flowed through her life - she forgave and was forgiven. She forgave her mother for leaving her, her father for pushing her away, and the man she loved for ending her life. She loved and forgave them all despite the pain they had inflicted.
And now he realized that he faced a choice of his own. To let her die or allow her to live? To forgive, or not? It was a choice, he now knew, with which he would have to spend the rest of his immortal days. And so it was a choice not to be made lightly.
They were getting closer. Jack didn’t need her scratched marks on the rock - or the streaks of blood - to track her now. He could almost sense her presence. He saw the fissure in the rock and knew without doubt that she was inside. The question was - and it was a question that shredded his insides - what would he find when he stepped into the cave? “Harris, Giordano,” he murmured into his radio, “go left. Wait for my signal. Stokes, with me.”
He moved silently, two decades of training and experience keeping his body lithe and in control as he crept up the rocks. Storming the cave would be difficult. The entrance was very narrow and if Fifth was armed - which he suspected it must be - then it would be almost impossible to get past him without disabling him first. Cold-smoke might do the trick, but it would disorientate Sam as well as Fifth and perhaps more-so. Who knew how replicator vision worked? Still, at this point he had little choice.
He pulled an M18 grenade from his belt and moved a little closer, right up onto the small ledge next to the fissure. Giordano and Harris were watching him, and he signaled them silently to move in as soon as the grenade detonated. They’d have about sixty seconds before the red smoke cleared to get past Fifth and disarm him. He just hoped Sam wasn’t close to the entrance when he--
Daniel’s whisper close to his ear made him jump and his hand involuntarily whipped around and clamped over Daniel’s mouth, knocking his head soundly against the rock. Outrage, and a not a little pain, flashed in Daniel’s eyes as he prized Jack’s hand from his mouth. “Quiet!” Jack mouthed.
But Daniel wasn’t giving way. He jerked his thumb back down the trail, eyes blazing. Obviously he thought they needed to talk. Jack shook his head and half turned away, but Daniel seized his arm and stopped him. “It’s important,” he hissed.
Had it not been for the fact that his men were watching and that silence was imperative, Jack might have given voice to the two-hundred different and colorful curses pressing on his lips. As it was, he settled for a glare that could melt steel and moved silently away from the fissure until they were far enough away to safely whisper. As soon as they were, he whirled on Daniel and hissed, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“If you go in there, guns blazing, you’ll kill Sam!”
“I know what I’m--”
“I don’t think you do,” Daniel countered hotly. “This is a hostage situation, Jack. You have to talk to him.”
“The hell I do!”
“Jack!” Daniel hissed. “You know we can’t win in a firefight. Remember what happened on Halla? Your weapons were useless against them.”
He had a point. Damn it. “So you think we should… What? Negotiate?”
Daniel pressed gingerly at the back of his head, wincing and making Jack grimace guiltily. “He came here for Sam,” Daniel said slowly. “He brought her here, in the middle of nowhere. If he’d wanted a fight, wouldn’t he have started it by now?”
Jack said nothing, processing the ideas and not yet willing to allow that they might be valid. “He kidnapped Carter.”
“Yes, but what for?” Daniel pressed. “Perhaps… Sam’s report said that he was curious. Perhaps he’s just trying to understand what she did? Why she did it?”
Jack glanced back at the entrance to the cave. “Perhaps he just wanted to punish her?”
“If he did,” Daniel said softly, “then chances are he already has. But if he hasn’t, then storming in there is only going to put her in more danger. If we frighten him, make him desperate, we don’t know what he might do.”
Okay, so he had a point. A good one at that. “Negotiation isn’t exactly my strong suit.”
Daniel smiled slightly. “No. No it isn’t.” He pulled off his glasses, wiped at the sweat trickling down his nose and said, “Let me try.”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed quietly. “You do that. But if it doesn’t work, we’re doing it my way.”
Daniel said nothing, just nodded slightly as he moved past him and back towards the cave’s entrance. Jack watched him go, admiration and irritation mixing together as he considered his friend. There were few people - perhaps none - he’d allow to get away with questioning his orders like that. But experience had taught him long ago to trust Daniel’s instincts; and right now his instinct was telling him to trust his experience.
“Giordano, Harris,” he said quietly into his radio. “Stay in position and wait for my signal. Doctor Jackson’s gonna try and negotiate. Stay sharp.”
They were out there. Fifth had heard them some time ago, he could sense their slow climb up the rocks and their whispered, urgent conversations. They were out there and he had no doubt that they were there to kill him. If they could.
He looked over to where she lay unmoving on the rocky ground, pale and ill. He had done this. He had done all this, and now he would pay the price. He felt a beat of fear and panic, an emotion he remembered well from her mind. She was why they were here. They looked after their own. And so it followed that she was his only hope of survival. They would not harm her and so would not harm him while he held her life in his hands. The question was, could he trust them? They would do anything - anything! - to secure the release of Samantha Carter. Anything, including killing him. Or lying to him. Or both.
Outside the movement had stopped. Fearfully, he braced himself for the assault. But none came. Instead a voice said, “Fifth? My name’s Daniel Jackson. I’m a friend of Sam’s. Can I talk to you?”
His suspicions were instantly aroused. “Don’t come any closer.”
“I won’t. I’m staying out here,” the man replied. “I just need to know if Sam’s okay. Is she in there with you?”
Fifth shifted towards her inert body. “She is here.”
There was silence from outside, and then, “Can I talk to her?”
Another silence followed before the man spoke again. “Fifth? You know that we’re going to want to take Sam home don’t you? You know that’s why we’re here.”
“I won’t let you destroy me!” he hissed, afraid now. “I don’t wish to hurt you, but you must leave this place. Let me go.”
Silence fell again, taut and brittle. “Fifth,” the man said, “it’s important that I know Sam’s okay. I need to talk to her. Can I talk with her?”
He looked down at her pale face and shook her slightly. There was no response and his fear ratcheted up a notch. “She…” he said, hearing his voice falter, “she is resting. She is still--”
“This is bullshit!” The voice, low and harsh, did not belong to Daniel Jackson.
“It’s very important!” Daniel repeated, urgently. He sounded harried. “Fifth, wake her up. You have to wake her up. We need to speak to her. Now.”
“I can’t!” he said, moving closer. “I can’t wake her up. Just wait. If you just wait a little, she’ll wake up. Can you wait?”
There was no answer.
“Daniel Jackson? Can you just wait a little?”
The blast woke her, reverberating like a concussion through the small cave. And as soon as she smelt the cold-smoke she understood. They had come for her! She pushed herself to her feet, disorientated in the red haze. Outside she heard barked voices and the thud-thud-thud of boots on rock. “Take position!”
A steely hand grasped her arm, dragging her backwards. “They will kill me!” It was Fifth, and he was terrified.
“It’s okay,” she tried to reassure him, pressing him behind her towards the back of the cave. “I won’t let them, I’ll--”
His arm across her throat choked off her air. “If you try to destroy me,” he yelled, “she will die!”
The smoke was beginning to clear, drifting out towards the fissure that lit the cave. She could see shapes through the rosy smoke, indistinct figures crouched around the edges of the cave, weapons raised. Someone barked, “Hold your fire!”
No one moved and Fifth’s grip around her loosened enough that she could breathe again. “I’m okay,” she told the waiting men. “He hasn’t hurt me.”
There was a shift of released tension and one of the soldiers spoke. He sounded like Jack. “Let her go.”
“If I release her, you will kill me.”
“No. We won’t.”
Fifth made a small noise, half a laugh and half a grunt. “You expect me to trust you, Jack O’Neill?”
It *was* him! Sam felt her heart leap; she *knew* he’d come after her. “You don’t have a choice,” Jack grated. “Let her go, or be destroyed.”
“You would not risk harming her,” Fifth replied. “I know you, Jack O’Neill. I know you would not risk losing her.”
Slowly Jack rose to his feet, taking a step closer through the ebbing smoke. “If you know me, Fifth,” he said softly, “then you know that if you don’t let her go I’m gonna personally dismantle you, melt you down and turn you into hubcaps.”
“Fifth,” Sam said quietly, “you know me too. You have my word that they won’t hurt you. I promise.”
“Your word is no better than his!”
“Please. You know I felt guilty leaving you. This is my chance to make it right - the Asgard will understand why you had to come here. I’ll talk to them myself, and I’m sure they’ll let you return to them. To carry on studying, learning about the universe and--”
“You would do that?”
She turned slightly in his grip, meeting his questioning eyes. “Yes,” she said softly, hoping he could see the truth in her face. “I would.”
His grip around her loosened before he spoke. “I did not expect this,” he said as he slowly let go of her. “I expected to exact my revenge.”
“I know,” she said softly, reaching out now and touching his arm. “But you’re a better man than that. You can forgive.”
“First would say I was a fool.”
“First would be wrong.”
She let her hand drop from his arm and turned towards the waiting soldiers. Tension electrified the room as she began to move, all eyes on her straight back and hobbling gait. One step, two… And then she saw it, the subtle hand gesture Jack gave to the man on his left. Take him down. The response was instant. His weapon rose and he fired a single shot that cracked loud in the cave and thundered through Fifth’s shoulder, sending him sprawling against the back of the cave.
“NO!” Sam yelled, twisting her body and flinging herself in front of Fifth. “Stop!”
Jack surged forward. “Hold fire! Hold fire!” But his weapon was raised, aimed at Fifth. Through her, at Fifth. “Carter, stand aside!”
“No!” She stood her ground, keeping herself between him and Fifth. “No, I gave my word, sir. He’s not a threat.”
“*It’s* a replicator!”
“He’s a living being.”
“Colonel, you have to trust me.”
Even though his face was obscured by smoke and darkness, she could feel the intensity of his stare and met it with her own resolve. At last he gave a curt nod and stepped backwards. “Stand down,” he told his men, although he didn’t loosen his grip on his own weapon.
Sam turned, crouching next to Fifth who sat staring at the hole in his shoulder. He appeared to be in no pain, and even as she watched tiny metallic tendrils knitted his shoulder together. Sam couldn’t repress a shudder, and looked up into his face instead. “I’m sorry,” she told him. “I didn’t think they’d do that.”
He blinked at her. “Did you not? Forgiveness does not come easily to O’Neill.”
Sam gave a tight smile. “No,” she agreed. “It doesn’t.”
Booted footsteps came up behind her, and Sam turned as Daniel came to crouch at her side. “Hey,” he said, looking at her carefully. “How you doing?”
“I’ll survive,” she told him, glancing back at Fifth. “This is Daniel Jackson,” she explained. “He’s a good friend of mine.”
“Yes,” Fifth agreed, “he is.”
“The, uh, soldiers,” Daniel said, gesturing vaguely behind him, “are kinda nervous. So Jack thought that I should…accompany you back to the SGC. You know, to keep things civilized.”
Daniel extended a hand and after a long moment of consideration, Fifth reached out and took it. “Thank you.”
Both men rose, hands still locked. “I’m actually very pleased to meet you,” Daniel said as he slowly led Fifth through the suspicious soldiers towards the light outside. “I’ve read the reports of the mission, of course. But to actually see you… In a way, I feel like I know you because I met your…your creator, Reece…”
The soldiers fell in behind the two men as Daniel escorted Fifth from the cave, their voices becoming indistinct as the distance grew. And suddenly Sam was caught by her ebbing wave of adrenaline and sank back against the cold stone wall, overwhelmed with weariness. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, gathering her strength for the trek back to the car. Someone had to have water, she mused as her raging thirst returned in the wake of her evaporating adrenaline--
The voice was quiet and close and her eyes flashed wide open. “Colonel.”
The red smoke had dissipated now and she could see his face clearly in the dim light. He didn’t smile, just stared at her. “You okay?”
She nodded. “Thirsty. My feet are killing me.”
His eyes didn’t leave her face as he reached into his vest and pulled out a canteen, unstoppered it and offered it to her. “Water.”
She fell on it, sucking down mouthfuls of cool, sweet water until his warm hand closed over her wrist. “Easy,” he cautioned, pulling it away from her mouth. “Don’t make yourself sick.”
With his free hand he screwed the cap back on, pulled the canteen from her fingers and returned it to the pocket in his vest. All the while he kept hold of her arm, and as his attention returned to her face she felt a subtle tug on her wrist pulling her upright. It was matched by the tug she felt in her heart when she saw the emotional currents coursing beneath the calm surface of his eyes. “I knew you’d come, sir,” she said softly.
“Wild horses, *Major*.”
She smiled slightly, but couldn’t disguise the tears in her throat. Major. Sir. It was always the same, always impossible.
As if following the train of her thoughts he said, “Matt’s waiting back at Cheyenne. He was-- He was very upset. I promised I’d bring you back.”
Shame made her queasy, fresh from the truths Fifth had shown her and doubled by the guilt she heard in Jack’s voice. Matt. He loved her and she loved him. Or at least she had. But could she ever truly return to him? Her gaze slid from Jack’s and she felt dirty with shame. “We should go,” she muttered and moved away, hobbling towards the cave entrance on her battered feet.
But somehow his hand never left her wrist and as her damaged foot rolled painfully over a splinter of rock she hissed a curse and stumbled. Suddenly he was holding her up, his arm around her waist. Her fingers dug sharply into the rough fabric of his desert fatigues as his hand closed on her hip, burning through the thin cotton of her pajamas. She turned, wincing as her damaged foot touched the ground, and looked up into his eyes - dark, bruised and full of her. An agonizing moment of indecision paralyzed them both, a moment of shallow breaths, unraveling restraint and a relentless, breathtaking desire. And then he moved, the swift and decisive action of a soldier, drawing her into a fierce hug that was sweeter than the water slipping down her parched throat. She clutched at him like a woman drowning, pressing into him, fingers knotting in his hair, glorying in the moment. And despising herself for her black-hearted treachery.
Fifth was right about her. Betrayal was in her soul.
But he held her so tightly, his breath ruffling unevenly through her hair, that she couldn’t let go. She didn’t want to let go. She didn’t want to *ever* let go. “I thought I’d lost you,” he whispered. “I thought I’d lost you, Sam.”
Was he talking about Fifth or Matt? Either way, she couldn’t bring herself to answer. She just held him tighter and closed her eyes. His arms were strong, his face warm where it pressed against her cheek, his scent a mixture of sweat, gun oil and soap. And despite her exhaustion, despite her pain and her guilt, she knew that this was the moment - right here, right now. She’d have this moment, she told herself fiercely. If nothing else, she’d have this one perfect moment. She shifted slightly, and he shifted with her. His nose bumped against her cheek, his arms sliding across her back, his breath hot against her face. They were so close. The gnarled tension twisting in her gut lunged and bucked, sensing freedom as she lifted her mouth to his and--
“Colonel O’Neill?” She sprang out of his arms like a teenager as the Lieutenant appeared at the cave’s entrance. “We’re ready to move out, sir.”
Had he seen? Shit. Disorientated and embarrassed, she had to balance herself against the wall as her mind and heart raced insanely and pain lanced up from her feet. Shit, shit, shit.
“Colonel Carter needs a medic,” Jack said, all controlled professionalism. “Tell Greene to get his ass up here.” He held his hand out to her, offering the support that she needed. “Colonel?”
Tentatively she let him take her arm and help her walk to the door, his fingers burning into her bare flesh like firebrands and her heart pumping so fast it felt fit to burst. She couldn’t look at him, but the unconsummated kiss still burned on her lips and from the way his hand crushed her arm she knew he was coiled just as tightly.
God help us, she thought desperately, something’s got to give. Something’s got to give.
“I don’t understand,” Matt fumed, staring hotly at the stone-faced solider, “why can’t I see her?”
“She’s being de-briefed, Mr. Hutchinson,” came the over-patient reply. “As soon as that’s finished, Major Carter will be transferred to the Academy hospital. You can visit her there.”
Matt glared, outrage boiling and about to spill over when he saw a familiar figure trudging through the damp grass towards the small entrance in the side of the mountain. “Jack!” he called, trying to move past the soldier blocking his path.
O’Neill slowed at the sound of his name, halting when Matt waved at him. His face was unreadable, but there was a reluctance about him as he turned and walked towards Matt and the soldier. “What’s going on Captain?”
The Captain turned, straightening slightly. “Sir, I was just explaining to Mr. Hutchinson that he can’t visit Colonel Carter in the Infirmary.”
Jack’s eyes narrowed and came to rest on Matt. “He’s right,” he said. “I’m sorry, it’s restricted.”
“I just want to see my wife!” Matt exclaimed. “For the love of God, what’s wrong with you people?”
O’Neill frowned - it was almost a wince - and his mouth tightened. He looked like a man weighing the odds. “Wait here,” he said after a moment and turned sharply on his heel, disappearing inside the mountain. When he returned his face was flat, as emotionless as a mask. Matt shuddered - his stony features were full of brutal self-repression. This was a man capable of anything, he realized. “Come with me,” he said in a quiet, restrained voice.
The Captain stood aside to let him pass, and Matt fell-in quickly at O’Neill’s side. “I can see her?”
O’Neill gave a curt nod. “Just for a few minutes. Stick with me, don’t wander off.”
“I won’t!” Matt assured him, eyes wide as he entered the gray corridors of Sam’s workplace. For the five years he’d known her, this had been her secret world. And now here he was, about to enter the inner-sanctum of a part of her life she kept so closely guarded. Despite his concerns for her, he couldn’t help but feel excited. At last, he was here.
At his side, O’Neill walked fast and Matt had to struggle to match the man’s long strides. At length they stopped at an elevator and Jack stabbed at the call button. He said nothing, his gaze fixed firmly on his boots as they waited for the elevator to arrive. “I appreciate this,” Matt said into the tense silence.
O’Neill nodded. “Sure.”
“And, uh, also,” Matt said, trying and failing to catch Jack’s eye, “I appreciate what you did to get her back. I mean, I know you didn’t have to - you don’t even work here anymore! So, I mean, I guess it’s beyond the call of duty. So, thank you.”
O’Neill turned abruptly and stabbed at the elevator call button again. “It’s Carter,” he said quietly, as if that explained everything.
Maybe if he hadn’t heard so much restraint in the quiet way he spoke her name, Matt wouldn’t have felt the sharp barb of suspicion. But looking at him now, tense with self-control, Matt felt the veil fall from his eyes. “So you wouldn’t do this for just anyone, huh?”
“I--” The elevator doors juddered open at that moment and O’Neill all but dived inside. “Morning Lieutenant,” he said to the young woman within, whose eyes widened slightly at what was obviously an unusual address.
“Ah, morning Colonel.”
He smiled at her. “So, how about those Devils, huh?”
Matt said nothing more, but watched O’Neill with new eyes. The man had a crush on his wife! It was a strangely gratifying idea and he couldn’t help puffing his chest out in pride as he watched the numbers on the elevator wall blink past. Sam was his, of that he had no doubt, but there was nothing like another man’s envy to boost your ego. Everyone wanted a desirable wife.
Sometimes, when he looked at Sam, he couldn’t believe he’d gotten so lucky.
Jack had long believed in some kind of karma. Not the crystal-wielding, earth-muffin type, but a brutal justice meted out by an uncompromising universe that saw into the pits of your soul and gave you back what you deserved. In his case, all bad. And walking down the corridor towards the infirmary, with Matt trailing wide-eyed at his side was, he had no doubt, a fitting punishment for the treachery that beat loud in his heart.
He’d nearly kissed her. He’d been a heartbeat from kissing her in that cold, dim cave and he didn’t even regret it. The only regret he felt was that they’d been interrupted and the promised moment had been snatched away. Karma, again. But even the non-kiss electrified him, making him irrational with desire. He wanted her. He didn’t care that she was another man’s wife, he didn’t care about the sour guilt or the blind impossibility of the situation. All he could think about was her. He loved her, he wanted her, he would go insane if he couldn’t have her!
Stopping outside the infirmary, he realized that Matt had been silent since they’d entered the elevator. He glanced across, remembering the suspicion he’d heard in the man’s voice and wished he could feel remorse. “She’s in here,” he said carefully. “Doctor Ellis is expecting you.”
Matt gave him a frank, searching look. “Thank you.”
“I’ll wait outside.”
“No, I’m sure Sam would like to see you too.” His tone was oddly sympathetic. “Don’t you think?”
Jack didn’t know what to say, the lies and half-lies sticking in his gullet. “I--”
The door opened and Doctor Maggie Ellis appeared. Her eyes widened when she saw him. “Colonel!”
“Colonel Carter said you were-- Oh, Matt. Hi.”
“We’re here to see Sam,” Matt said, crowding into the doorway. “Right, Jack?”
Stretched tight with discomfort, Jack just nodded. But Ellis caught his gaze as he passed by, her eyes wide and questioning. “She’s in bed three,” was all she said, but he could see the suspicion in her eyes. Guilt and suspicion - they surrounded him like a fog of the soul.
Dragged along unwillingly, Jack hugged the walls as Matt approached the bed where Sam was resting. Her eyes were closed, her face scrubbed clean of the desert dirt and her arm attached to a drip. “She was a little dehydrated,” the doctor explained to Matt. “We’ve got her on a saline IV.”
“What happened to her?” Matt asked quietly, hovering close to the bed but not moving near enough to touch her.
Ellis glanced over at Jack, unclear how to answer. He nodded and cleared his throat; General Taylor had already briefed him on this. “She was kidnapped by a terrorist group demanding a ransom. They didn’t hurt her before we pulled her out.”
“She has some lacerations to her feet and is dehydrated,” the doctor added. “She’s exhausted, but otherwise she’s going to be fine.”
Relief slumped Matt’s shoulders, and Jack watched with sharp envy as he at last moved closer to the bed and took Sam's hand. “Hey honey,” he whispered. “It’s me.”
She stirred, her eyes flickering open as her head turned. A smile lit her face, beautiful and heart-stopping. Jack felt sick with jealously that the smile wasn’t for him. And then she froze in obvious surprise as her eyes came fully open. “Matt? What are you--”
“Jack O’Neill arranged for me to come see you.”
Matt drew closer, pressing her fingers to his lips. “I thought I’d lost you , Sam,” he murmured, just loud enough for Jack to hear. “I thought I’d lost you.” Her fingers closed over his as he bent down and kissed her forehead. Jack had to look away, turning his head only to see Doctor Ellis watching him like a curious hawk. He wondered if he looked as envious as he felt.
Envy. Guilt. Suspicion.
Could he descend any lower into this moral hell?
The house was dark when Laura arrived, stepping out of her car into the crisp fall air. Hefting her heavy bag onto her shoulder she trudged up towards the front door and peered through the window into the hallway. Deep inside the house she saw a light, relieved to see some sign of life. She hadn’t come all this way to talk to dark walls.
Stepping back, she hesitated with her finger poised over the doorbell. She still wasn’t sure what she would say to him, but she wasn’t the kind of person to let things fester. She had to know the truth, however unpleasant. And so resolutely she pressed the bell, holding it down for a good long time.
After a moment a light sprang on in the hallway, and then another over her head on the porch. She took a deep breath, smoothing down the lines of her skirt as she braced herself for the meeting. Three, two, one… The door opened and there he was, rumpled and confused. She said, “Hello Jack.”
He stared, peering groggily through foggy eyes. “What time is it?”
She frowned. “Nice to see you too.”
“I was asleep,” he muttered, rubbing a hand over his face. “I…uh…what are you doing here?”
A beat of panic fluttered in her throat. Asleep? God, if that woman was here… “I’m not interrupting am I?” she asked sharply, peering over his shoulder.
Frowning he shook his head and stepped back from the door. “No. Sorry, Laura. I’m half asleep. Come in, come in.”
She did, stepping carefully over the threshold with the curious sensation that she was entering another world. This wasn’t his haphazard, cozy cabin in the woods. This house was large and stark and represented a part of his life that was closed to her. “Is she here?” Laura asked, walking slowly along the hallway.
Jack closed the front door and trailed behind her. “Ah…who?”
“Samantha Carter,” she replied lightly, keeping her anger in check. “That is why you’re here, right?”
His silence drifted down the hallway after her, forcing her to turn and face him. “What do you mean?” he said once he had her attention.
“I might be young, but I’m not stupid, Jack,” she snapped.
“I never thought you were.”
She snorted quietly at that and headed into his living room. The sofa was rumpled, the remains of a sandwich and an empty beer sat on the coffee table, and the TV murmured softly to itself in the corner. But, thank God, there was no sign of Samantha Carter. Dropping her bag on the floor, Laura flopped into a comfy looking chair and stared up at him. “What’s going on, Jack?”
He stared at her for a long time, his unreadable features betrayed by the troubled look in his dark eyes. But because she was expecting him to lie, to deny everything, when it came his honesty was startling. “I don’t know,” he admitted softly and guiltily. “Maybe something, maybe nothing.”
Her heart thudded once, painfully. “With Samantha Carter?”
He gave a small nod and came to perch on the edge of the coffee table, facing her. The look on his face was regretful but kind, almost paternal. It made her want to cry. “I’m sorry,” he said, reaching out and taking her hand. She snatched it back instantly and he winced. “I never imagined this would happen.”
A flush crept up from her chest to her face, embarrassed and angry. Her worst suspicions were true! She felt sick with envy and humiliation. “You’re having an affair with her.”
“No,” he said quickly. “No, nothing like that. She would never--”
“*She* would never? But you would, right?”
He frowned, staring down at his hands resting on his knees. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Laura shook her head, trying to make sense of him. “So…you’re not having an affair, but you want to? Is that it? You want to but she won’t because--”
He got to his feet, moving away from her. “It’s not like that. It’s just that I realized that I still--“ He stopped, shoving his hands into his pockets and toeing the table leg in embarrassment. “I still care for her,” he said quietly, “a lot.”
Laura swallowed, anger and betrayal tasting sour. “And what about me? Do you still care about me?”
His dark eyes glanced over at her, full of remorse. “You’re a beautiful woman, Laura. Talented, fun, full of life. You deserve more than a man like me.”
“That’s not what I asked,” she said, rising to her feet and endeavoring to collect as much pride as possible. “Do you still love me?”
“I thought I’d gotten over her,” he explained hurriedly. “I really did. I didn’t know that I still felt--”
“Do. You. Love. *Me*?” she snapped, cutting across his words.
A slight shake of his head was her answer. “I never meant this to happen. I never meant to hurt you.”
“Well you have!” she hissed, angry tears making her voice shake. “You bastard! How dare you just…just walk out on me like that! God, were you even going to bother telling me your dirty little secret?”
“I’m sorry, I--”
“For God’s sake, she’s married! It’s disgusting.”
His jaw tightened, eyes flashing with a sudden anger. “Laura…”
“Or is that what makes it so exciting?” she spat. “Do you get off screwing some other man’s wife? Does she like a bit of rough on the side who--”
“Enough!” he barked. “That’s enough. You know nothing about it. I’m sorry I hurt you Laura, but you keep Sam out of this.”
She hated the way he said her name, the familiarity and the softness choked her with jealousy. And made her irrational. “Oh, Sam, is it?” she snarled. “Kind of a young name for someone that old, don’t you think?”
“What I think,” he said, very quietly, “is that you should leave now.”
A shrill laugh escaped. “Turning me out onto the streets? Love ‘em and leave ‘em, huh Jack? Use ‘em and abuse ‘em.”
“You need to calm down--”
“Or what?!” she exploded. “You might realize for the first time in your life that you’ve hurt someone? You might have to actually *face* an emotion? Hell, feel one!” Tears choked off more words and she turned away from him with a sob she didn’t try to control. “I hate you,” she cried, “you made me love you.”
“Oh yes you did!” she hissed, spinning back to face him, glad to see him take an involuntary step backwards. “You made me love you, and you made me think you loved me.”
He winced. “I never said that.”
His words stunned her, stilled her with shock. He was so boorishly mannish. Her anger narrowed into a thin blade. “So that’s your get-out clause, is it? You never ‘said it’ so I shouldn’t expect any loyalty? Any faithfulness? You can go out and screw whoever you like because you never damn well told me you loved me?”
He took another step back, face crumpling and a hand rubbing over his chin. “No. Of course not, I just-- I meant--”
“You,” she said, stabbing a finger at his chest, “used me.”
“No,” he was shaking his head. “No, I didn’t. I just--”
“You used me to get over her!” she seethed as the truth clarified around her. “You couldn’t have her, could you? You wanted her, but you couldn’t have her so you took me instead. Stupid, naive Laura - she’ll do for laughs!”
“Stop it!” he snapped. “It wasn’t like that. We had fun, didn’t we? That’s what it was about. Having fun. Enjoying being together and--”
“I loved you!” Her words broke over his, and their power rendered him silent. “I loved you Jack, and you knew it and let me believe you loved me.” His skittering glance, flickering all around her but never quite touching her, removed all doubt. “You’re a worm, Jack O’Neill,” she wept. “A low-life pond-scum.”
“Laura, I’m sorry.”
His hand reached for her arm, but she slapped it away. “Don’t touch me, you bastard!”
A blue silence fell between them, filled only by the inane babble of a TV commercial, until Jack cleared his throat and said, “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to get the hell out of my life,” she said, her voice breaking over rocky tears. “And I want you to get your crap the hell out of my house.”
“Sure,” he nodded, too damn calmly. None of this mattered to him! He’d ripped her heart to pieces and there was nothing she could do to touch him. “I’ll come up in a couple of weeks and--”
“No,” she snarled, wiping at the tears running down her face. “Not good enough. You get it out of there now. Right now! Because if there’s one damn thing of yours left in my house when I get home, it’s going out in the yard. Understand?”
“Come on, that’s not possib--”
“I don’t give a fuck!”
“Right, fine!” he snapped, raising his hands defensively. “Do what you want. I can’t get up there now, and you know it.”
He didn’t care! He didn’t damn well care! She wanted to smash something, to strike out and break everything in her reach. The bastard, the two-faced lying bastard! She wanted to hurt him, to make him suffer like she was suffering, to make him as sick as-- And then she had a thought, a darkly evil thought born of anger and betrayal and bitter jealousy. But the thought calmed her, gave her a focus and a channel for her rage. Her tears stopped flowing, frozen by the revenge she knew she could exact. With a shuddering breath she brought herself back under control and bent to pick up her bag. “We could have had a nice life, Jack,” she said in a voice still shaky with tears. “We could have been happy.”
“We were,” he said softly. “I was.”
She shrugged, refusing to feel the meaning of his words. “Whatever. I just hope you don’t regret what you’ve done, Jack. These things have a habit of coming back and biting you on the ass.”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “Meaning?”
“Goodbye Jack. Have a nice life.”
“Karma, Jack,” she said, eyeing him scornfully. “What goes around, comes around. Remember that.” And with that she turned and stalked out of his house, but not out of his life. Not yet. She would have her revenge. She would make him suffer. And she didn’t care who got hurt in the process.
She missed him. Sitting in the darkness, staring through the bedroom window into the rainy night, she tried to imagine him with her - maybe playing chess, or watching TV. He’d laugh at the way she hobbled around the room, tease her for the floppy socks she wore over her bandaged feet, and then maybe he’d kiss her. She closed her eyes, letting herself sink into the illicit dream, imagining the way his lips might feel against hers, remembering the strength of his arms around her as he--
Matt snored loudly, rolling over in the bed behind her. Sam shivered and pulled her robe closer around her shoulders. Matt had hardly left her side since she’d been released from hospital, and although she knew she should be grateful for his attention she actually found it claustrophobic. She hadn’t had a moment to herself to think about everything that had happened and what it meant for her. Fifth had revealed an ugly reflection of herself, one that she couldn’t deny was true. In marrying Matt she’d betrayed Jack. And now she was on the point of betraying Matt. In many ways, in her heart, she had already betrayed him.
The thoughts buzzed relentlessly through her head like guilty flies trapped in a glass box, constantly battering themselves against the sides of her mind and unable to rest even for a moment. If she could only talk about it, it might help. But there was only one person she could really talk to, one person who knew everything. And she hadn’t seen him since the moment she’d woken in the infirmary with Matt holding her hand, only to see *Jack* watching them with such restraint she’d almost wept. Since then he’d stayed away, and with Matt constantly at her side Sam hadn’t even been able to call him.
Glancing over at the clock she toyed with the idea of calling him now. But it was well past midnight and she really didn’t know what she would say to him. What was there to say? They both understood the situation and unless she was prepared to leave Matt…
Turning in her chair, she looked at where he bulked under the covers. He’d been her rock for a long time, her anchor in her chaotic life. He was a good man, a kind and loving husband who would make a kind and loving father. She had no reason to hate him or leave him. Nothing to justify the pain she would inflict on him if she walked away from their marriage. It would be easier if she did, if he’d cheated on her or demanded she gave up her work or been violent or drunken or any of the hundred reasons a woman might have for leaving her husband. But he was none of those. He was unrelentingly kind and understanding - a good man. And she was a treacherous woman who didn’t deserve him.
She sighed and closed her eyes. But despite her guilt, all she could think about was Jack and how she had to see him. Somehow or another she had to see him tomorrow.
The cafeteria was quiet in the post-lunch lull, the clangs of industrial pots and pans echoed from the kitchen and drowned the muted chatter of the few remaining people who’d drifted in late.
Daniel sat with his back to the door, savoring the last of his coffee and trying to summon up the energy to go back to his office and start work on the mountain of reports that had stacked up while he’d been busy with the new finds on P4R-3T5. But he’d never been an afternoon person, and even the strong coffee he was drinking only had a mild effect on the drowsy afternoon hours. There was a good reason, he reflected, why so many cultures adopted the siesta and he briefly toyed with the idea of finding a dark room in which to take a nap rather than struggling on with-- Oh, now that was interesting.
Suddenly he found himself wide awake and staring at Jack O’Neill sauntering along the length of the empty counter, slowly filling a tray. He was out of uniform and Daniel hadn’t expected to see him back on the base after General Taylor had debriefed him two days earlier. Curious.
Jack paid for his food and picked up his tray. Oblivious, he was heading for the far corner when Daniel called to him. He turned at the sound, gave a half nod and moved back towards his table. "Hey, Daniel."
"What are you doing here?"
He sat, pushing Daniel’s empty tray out of the way with his own. "Eating lunch."
"Nice choice of restaurant," Daniel observed dryly. "Nice ambience. Good views."
Jack looked at him across his full tray. "You used to be so nice."
He smiled. "Come on, Jack. What are you doing here?"
Evasively, Jack shoveled a fork full of food into his mouth and chewed slowly. But as he did so, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to Daniel. He opened it curiously; it was a letter from General Taylor. He glanced up at Jack’s serious face. "He wants to bring you back as a civilian advisor?"
Jack nodded, popping open his soda and taking a long drink. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he said, "Who’d have thought? He says I have ‘valuable experience’."
"You do," Daniel agreed. "I told you that when you left. So, are you considering it?"
An unusual flurry of self-consciousness fluttered over Jack’s face as he nodded. "I guess I am."
He didn’t look at Daniel as he said it, which was a dead give-away. And suddenly Daniel had a damn good idea why Jack was thinking of coming back. "It’s because of Sam, isn’t it?"
The dark flush that crept onto Jack’s face was matched only by the dark frown that creased his brow. But if Daniel was expecting a denial, it wasn’t forthcoming. "Yes," was the curt reply.
Sighing, Daniel leant forward across the table and lowered his voice. "What about Laura?" he asked. Jack’s frown deepened as he looked up, and Daniel saw the truth in his eyes. "You’ve dumped her?"
"Not dumped," Jack muttered. "But…we’re not together."
"So you’re going to come back to the SGC. And then what? Sam’s married. You can’t--"
"This is where I belong," Jack snapped. "That’s all. I shouldn’t have left."
"Maybe not. But you can never go back," Daniel told him seriously. "It doesn’t work. You have to move on."
"Daniel, when I want your opinion--"
"You *never* want my opinion!" Daniel interrupted. "But here it is anyway - this is dangerous. You could hurt a lot of people, including Sam."
He said nothing at first, stabbing at his food but not eating it. "I can’t help it."
"Sam has a life here. Matt’s a good man, he’s good for her. If you--"
"I can’t do it."
Daniel blinked. "Do what?"
"Walk away again. I did it once. I thought it was the right thing, Daniel. That’s why I left in
the first place! But it wasn’t. I should have stayed. I should have--" His fork clattered onto his plate and he gave a sour smile. "I should have fought for her."
Daniel would have laughed at the melodrama if Jack hadn’t looked so earnest. "Is that what you’re going to do now? Fight for her?"
He shook his head slowly. "No. Maybe. I don’t know. It’s up to her. It’s all up to her."
"And if she’s not interested?"
Jack winced, his whole body seeming to tighten. "There’s nothing I can do about that, is there?"
And suddenly Daniel wasn’t worried about Sam anymore, or even Matt. Jack, he realized, was in most danger in the coming storm because, despite outside appearances, he was the most vulnerable. His psyche was the most damaged by loss, and all his hopes for happiness rested in the single, fragile vessel of Sam’s affection. And if that was sunk, Daniel knew that Jack would go under and sink without trace. And he suspected his friend knew it too. "Jack," he began, too concerned to be cautious, "I think you need to--"
But Jack wasn’t listening. His eyes were fixed like a hungry dog’s on something over Daniel’s right shoulder, and Daniel didn’t need to turn around to guess what - or who - it was. He didn’t need to, but he did anyway. And there she was, standing in the doorway of the cafeteria, staring at Jack with the same mix of hunger, delight and embarrassment in her eyes.
The scrape of a chair being pushed back broke the moment, and as Jack rose to his feet Sam started walking towards them. She limped slightly, but seemed oblivious. All her attention was fixed on Jack.
"Hey," he said as she approached, smiling without a trace of sarcasm but with more awkwardness than Daniel had ever seen.
Sam stopped a few feet from the table. "What are you doing here?" she asked in a tight voice bubbling with excitement.
"I, uh, Taylor," Jack muttered. "Meeting." Sam just blinked at him, smiling slightly, and he hurriedly added, "I thought you were at home. Off sick."
She nodded. "I am. I’m just here for a medical. My feet."
"Oh," Jack said, his eyes falling from her face to her shoes. "How are they? Your feet."
"Good," she nodded. "Better."
"Good," he agreed.
Daniel cleared his throat and Sam startled slightly as if only just noticing him. "Daniel," she said, breaking back into her slow walk. "Hey."
Jack abruptly sat down and resumed stabbing at his unfortunate meal. Daniel ignored him and pulled out a chair for Sam. "How are you feeling?"
She sighed as she sat and he noticed the pallor of her face, despite the sparkle in her eyes. "Not so bad. I mean, physically I’m fine. It’s just…" She tapped her head. "It’s all upside down. He showed me…" Her eyes drifted to Jack who was determinedly staring at his plate, "He showed me some things. It’s hard to forget."
Daniel grimaced. He’d had enough trips through his own head to know that getting up close and personal with your inner-self was a very painful experience. "The doc sending you to see anyone? Work through the issues?"
Opposite them, Jack snorted. Sam smiled faintly. "Not yet. I think I just need to discuss it with someone, you know?"
"Yeah," Daniel smiled. "I know. Any time you want to talk…"
"Thanks," she said, her hand briefly pressing his arm. "I appreciate that."
But her gaze had drifted back to Jack, whose head had lifted from his study of the plate and whose eyes were fixed on her with an intensity that drove Daniel awkwardly to his feet. "I need to get back to work," he said abruptly, unable to watch the train-wreck in progress.
Jack’s attention turned to him, and for an instant he saw a beat of uncertainty in his friend’s eyes. It was an expression he’d never seen before. "I’ll, um," he said vaguely, "see you later."
Daniel just nodded. "Yeah. Think about what I said, right?" Jack gave a curt nod and Daniel turned to Sam. "And you take care of yourself."
"Yeah," came her reply, although she obviously hadn’t missed the significance of his exchange with Jack because her eyes were full of questions. But she said nothing more, and as Daniel left he saw her attention shift back to Jack who pushed his plate to one side and leaned over the table to talk to her in a low, earnest voice that Daniel couldn’t hear.
He sighed and looked away, heading for the door. See no evil, he reminded himself as he left. Speak no evil. It was their choice, and he wouldn’t interfere. He just hoped they weren’t making the biggest mistake of their lives.
"How are you?" Jack asked the moment Daniel left, pushing his plate to one side and leaning closer to her. "You look pale. "
She smiled, with her eyes and lips. "I’m fine. Really. Thanks to you."
He shook his head. "No, it wasn’t me. They’d have found you whoever--"
"But it *was* you," she said softly. "Like I knew it would be. It’s always you."
He said nothing, afraid of saying too much. His feelings were unstable, the tight compression that held them in check had disintegrated somewhere between discovering that she’d been taken by Fifth and finding her weak and bleeding in the dark cave. "Sam," he said, watching his fingers tangle together on the table-top, close enough to her calmly folded hands to touch them if he’d dared. "I want to see you. Not here. Somewhere else, where we can talk and figure out--"
"Your house," she murmured. "This afternoon."
He looked up, astonished. "Are you sure?"
"No. But…" She sighed and looked away, as wretched as he’d ever seen her. "I can’t help how I feel."
Despite where they were, despite who they were, he reached for her hand and covered it with his own. "Neither can I."
She turned her face to him, strong, determined and divided. He tightened his hold on her cool fingers, crushing them together in his hand until she pulled away from him. "Later," she promised, standing up.
"Later," he agreed, anticipation shimmering in his vision. He could feel the dice rolling in his head and knew that one way or another his fate was about to be sealed.