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Sam I Am

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Al grinned at Sam and waved a hand. "Say good-bye, Sam," he said, and Sam felt the Leap take him.

The sensation was a familiar one by now, the sudden cessation of sight, smell, hearing, and touch, the abrupt disorientation as he was whisked out of time and sent to another time, another place. Then, almost before the panic had had time to formulate, the Leap was over. Sam took a deep breath, closing his eyes against the brief swell of nausea, not willing quite yet to confront whatever awaited him. He breathed again, and opened his eyes.

He was outdoors, standing in the middle of a misty field. It was early dawn, the sun barely beginning to peek over the horizon, and everything was quiet and still. The air felt crisp and cold, surprisingly thin, but bracing. Sam took another breath, enjoying the clean air, and glad, just this once, not to have Leaped right into the center of the action.

"Captain Carter?"

Sam jumped, and whipped around reflexively in the direction of the voice. It had been so quiet, so peaceful, that he'd assumed that he was alone. The soft voice in his ear had nearly made him jump out of his skin, and he whirled to find a tall, lean man in green fatigues staring at him expectantly. A heavy weight in Sam's hands nearly made him lose his balance, and he looked down to find himself holding what looked like a small cannon in his arms.

"Captain?" the other man prompted gently, pulling Sam's attention away from the deadly weapon in his hands. He let his eyes grope frantically over the uniform, searching for something, anything to suggest what he should do. No help there. The other man's jacket was completely bare of insignia, nothing to identify his rank, his unit, or even what branch of the military he served in. Even the tag over his pocket that should have spelled out his name was disappointingly blank. Sam had wished many times that people on his Leaps wore name tags. Too bad he hadn't also wished for the names to be on them.

"Yes, sir?" he tried, taking a stab at which of them was the ranking person, and got a long-suffering look of patience for his efforts.

"You were saying," the stranger said, "about the sunrise." He was cradling a gun that was the twin to Sam's own, and Sam watched nervously as he casually propped his wrist over it, letting his hand dangle next to the barrel. Sam wasn't sure where he was yet, or what he was supposed to be doing, but the firepower that they were toting around was a hint that this was no casual stroll.

"I was?" With an effort, Sam recalled himself to the conversation. He turned and squinted to where the sun was climbing from the distant hills, trying to figure out what to say next. "Oh, yes. The sunrise." He cleared his throat. "Um, it's a very...nice sunrise. Sir."

"Uh-huh." The other man regarded him for another long moment, his eyes dark and inscrutable. "Anything else?"

Sam swallowed. "No, sir."

He scratched his head thoughtfully, squinting past Sam. "Okay. Well, if we're finished sightseeing, Captain, what say we get on with the mission? Just a suggestion."

"Uh, yes, sir."

While his companion strode on ahead, Sam took the opportunity to assess himself. He was wearing a uniform identical to the other man's, a basic heavy green jacket and pants, large black boots on his feet, and a weighty pack slung on his back. The only incongruities were the badges affixed the shoulders of the jacket, and the oversized wristwatch-like device strapped to his arm. The right badge, after some surreptitious study, revealed the initials SG at the top, an abbreviation Sam's spotty memories couldn't place even with his years associating with the various elite and even classified branches of the military. There was a large numeral one displayed prominently at the center, but nothing to tell him what he was number one of.

The object on his arm looked very sophisticated, obviously modern technology. More than modern, Sam realized with a twinge, and wondered with a fleeting stab of panic if he'd managed somehow to end up in his own future. It wasn't supposed to be possible, theoretically, but he'd learned long ago that "impossible" wasn't a word that held much weight while quantum leaping. All the same, he told himself firmly. There's no need to panic. One high-tech...whatever-it-is does not change anything.

"Come on, Carter, step it up."

Sam came out of his musings to find that while he'd been lost in thought, the other man had outpaced him by a good hundred yards. He was standing on top of a small rise, hands on hips while he looked at Sam. "Something the matter, Carter?"

"No, sir." Sam said quickly, and picked up his pace. "Sorry, sir."

"Well, come on, then. You know how Daniel and Teal'c worry if we're not home to roost."

"Yes, sir." Sam shifted his gun and set off after him again. He guessed the other man's age to be approaching fifty, probably a few years short of it, but over the next hour it was Sam who toiled in his wake, watching as his lean figure paced relentlessly over the rough plain. Sam had kept a careful eye on the surrounding terrain, trying to pick out landmarks, seeing if he could identify any of the local plants and trees. But as they walked on, he failed to see anything at all that was familiar. About then, he realized that there was something else subtly wrong. It took him another ten minutes or so to pin it down, but when he did it made him stop in his tracks, his blood suddenly freezing in his veins.

The sun hadn't risen.

The other man turned at Sam's gasp of shock, and swiftly followed his gaze to the horizon. "What is it?" he asked, and Sam could only gape, waving a feeble hand to the thin sliver of brilliant light, still fixed exactly where it had been an hour before.

"The sun," he said at last. "It's standing still." Even as the words left his mouth, Sam could hardly believe them. This couldn't be real. It had to be a dream. A dream, or some unknown property of the Leap. What if he had ended up in the future? What if all this time travel had caught him up at last, and he was somehow trapped in a strange timeless limbo, where time seemed to pass, but didn't?

"Yeah. So?" The other man's voice broke through his panic, and Sam forced himself to calm down. If he was trapped, at least he wasn't trapped alone, and maybe this stranger had some idea about what was going on.

"So, it's been sunrise for the last hour," Sam said.

He was saying the wrong thing. He couldn't imagine how pointing out that the sun was sitting perfectly still in the sky could be an error, but his companion was looking at him now as though he'd completely lost his mind. "It's been sunrise since we got here, Captain," he said. "You tell me after two days you're just now noticing?"

Got here? Got where? Where the hell was he? Sam didn't dare ask, but some of his confusion must have leaked through.

"Carter, are you sure you're okay?" He stepped back towards Sam, searching Sam's face with worried eyes. "You seem a little out of it."

"I'm fine, sir," Sam said quickly. Rule number one of Leaping: Play along. No matter what happens, no matter how bizarre or strange, humor them and play along. "I guess I just forgot."

"Forgot." He wasn't convinced. "Two hours ago I couldn't get a word in edgewise with the diurnal-thingy and the rotational-whatsis, and now you forgot?"

"I guess I was thinking about something else, sir. I'm sorry." Sam pointed in general direction that they'd been taking. "Let's go on, sir. We don't want to be late."

As they walked on, though, Sam's mind was reeling with innumerable questions, and most of the answers were even more ludicrous than the questions. No matter how much he'd like to convince himself otherwise, as much as his brain shrieked that it was impossible, his eyes were telling him that the sun was not moving. If his companion was to be believed, it hadn't moved for two days, and this was, somehow, supposed to be normal.

A speaker crackled to sudden life somewhere in the vicinity of Sam's left ear, and he quickly suppressed a loud noise of surprise. He glanced down, and located the two-way radio clipped to his jacket just before a voice spoke out of it.

"Jack? Jack, you there?"

Before Sam could even decide whether he ought to answer, on the off-chance that he was the Jack referred to, his companion gave a long-suffering sigh and depressed the button on his own radio. "O'Neill here. Go ahead, Daniel. Over."

At last, a name! With an inward sigh of relief, Sam filed "O'Neill" away, along with "Jack," and listened as the voice from the radio went on.

"I was just checking to see when you thought you'd be getting back." There was a pause. "Over."

O'Neill looked back at Sam, shaking his head. "What did I tell you? Mother hen." He pressed his button again. "We're less than half a klick from the camp. Our ETA is twenty minutes. Over."

"Okay. See you then."

"Yeah. Over and out." O'Neill took his hand from the radio, and turned to Sam. "Does he do it just to annoy me?" he asked. "He can remember how to say 'I'm sneezing' in six different languages that no one's spoken for a thousand years, but two years with the Air Force and basic radio protocol still goes in one ear and out the other."

"Well," Sam ventured, still gratefully filing away the sudden flood of useful information, "maybe with all those languages in there he doesn't have room."

O'Neill appeared to consider this seriously for a moment. "You got a point," he said. He straightened his cap and squared his shoulders. "Come on, Captain. Let's roost."

He'd said twenty minutes, but it was only about ten minutes later that they pushed their way to the top of another hill and Sam saw what had to be the base camp spread out before them. It consisted of four tents arranged in a rough quadrangle around a fire pit, and a fifth, larger tent set off to one side. A man was crouched by the fire, stirring something in a metal pot that hung over the flames, and another figure was moving back and forth in the large tent, making adjustments to the equipment stacked inside.

"Honey! I'm home!" O'Neill called, and the soldier at the fire straightened up, reaching for a tall staff that was propped next to him. He was big and broad-shouldered, and the solemn frown on his face remained in place even after he caught sight of them.

"Colonel O'Neill. Captain Carter," he said formally. "You have returned."

O'Neill trotted down the last hill to the camp, Sam following more cautiously in his wake. "Yep," O'Neill said. "And I'm starving. What's for lunch?"

"I do not know."

"Well, that's encouraging, Teal'c."

As they neared, Sam got a closer look at the new face, and suppressed a blink of surprise at the gold-filled tattoo that adorned his forehead. It was out of character for a military man, in Sam's experience anyway, and he studied him covertly as he and O'Neill approached. O'Neill hadn't used any rank to address him, which could mean a lot of things, none of them helpful to Sam at that particular moment. His uniform was just like the colonel's, and equally uninformative, so Sam merely stowed the name away and joined them at the fire.

It was beginning to occur to Sam that they were probably on some kind of covert mission, a secret operation for--what had O'Neill said?--Yes, the Air Force. That would explain the lack of identifying insignia, and also the fearsome weapon slung over Sam's shoulder. But the colonel's attitude was oddly relaxed for that, even cavalier, and if they were on some mission behind enemy lines, no-one seemed too worried that anyone was about to sneak up on them. Sam's head began to ache, and he only listened with half an ear as Teal'c informed the colonel, "Dr. Jackson says it is labeled 'Chicken Surprise.'"

"Goody," O'Neill said solemnly.

"Hey, that was quick."

Sam turned as a second man came out of the tent, busily polishing a pair of spectacles on his handkerchief. He smiled at them both and replaced the glasses on his nose, pushing his light brown hair out of his eyes. "Did you find anything, Jack?"

"Nada," O'Neill said. "Quiet as the proverbial tomb."

"I guess that's to be expected." He turned to Sam. "Did you get the samples you wanted, Sam?"

For a minute, Sam was so startled that he couldn't even speak, half-wondering for a shocked second if he'd somehow Leaped into himself again. But no, his name was Carter. Sam Carter, apparently. "Uh, sure," he finally said, hoping that it was the right answer. "Yeah, uh..." He sent his eyes swiftly over the other man's jacket, but was hardly surprised to find his uniform as blank as all the others. He had to be the "Dr. Jackson" Teal'c had referred to, but Sam decided not to risk it. "I've got them in my pack," Sam said, concluding that it might be best to avoid using any names until he figured out what was going on.

"Good." Jackson flashed a smile, and something began to nudge at the back of Sam's mind, something familiar. Before he could explore the thought, though, Jackson was going on. "Maybe the guys in the lab back home can figure out how anything grows on this planet with two straight weeks of darkness every month."

Sam almost missed the crucial phrase. He was smiling automatically, still trying to place Jackson's face, when "this planet" finally edged into his consciousness and knocked gently for his attention. He paused, and felt his lips move without any intervening signal from his brain. "This p--planet?" he repeated helplessly.

"Yeah. I mean, we've never encountered anything like this before. In the Land of Light, the planet's rotation was exactly in synch with its orbit around the system's sun, but this one is just a little off that. Instead of permanent sunlight and night on different sides of the planet, we have days and nights that last approximately two weeks."

Jackson might as well have been speaking Swahili, for all Sam heard. His mind had fixed on the phrase, "this planet," and wasn't about to let it go. This is impossible, he thought, but even as he did so, his scientist's mind was also edging in, quietly assessing the facts that he'd already unwittingly gathered, and letting them fall into place. He felt his stomach lurch. Oh, boy.

It all made sense now. After all, was there any better explanation for the fact that it had been dawn for nearly two hours? For the fact that he'd yet to recognize a single tree, plant or insect? The air, too, felt thin, like the air on top of a mountain, despite the fact that they were obviously on a low-level plain here, surrounded by distant mountains. Nothing here was like it was on Earth, therefore, logically, he wasn't necessarily on Earth. Sam gulped, and felt his knees get a little watery.

"I think I need to sit down."

Instantly, Jackson's face showed concern. "You feel all right? Dr. Fraiser warned us that the lower levels of oxygen in the atmosphere might catch up with us."

Sam leapt gratefully on the excuse. "Yeah. Maybe I'd better go lie down for a minute."

"Okay." Jackson reached up and started undoing the straps of Sam's pack. "I'll take those samples and get started on the analysis." He took the pack and put a hand on his chest. "Remember, deep, slow breaths."

"Uh, yeah. Thanks."

Leaving the others grouped around the fire, Sam wandered towards the other tents to face his next dilemma: Which tent was his? Normally, this was the sort of thing that he'd rely on Al to help with, but he was beginning to come to terms with the fact that he might have to do this one solo. He could hardly expect for Al to appear on an alien planet. Could he? Sam pushed that speculation aside and studied the four tents. One in four chance, he told himself. He chose one at random, and either he'd picked the correct one or the men sitting outside weren't paying attention, because no one protested as he slipped inside.

If he'd hoped for clues about his current persona, they weren't forthcoming at the first glance around. Everything was neat and bare and tidy, blanket folded at the foot of the cot, duffel tucked underneath, and only a small notebook on the folding camp stool to mar the bare space. Sam picked up the notebook and opened it.

It was a scientific journal of some sort, filled with notes and calculations and observations, all penned in a neat, compact hand. "Capt. S. Carter" was written in the front, so at least that quelled Sam's fears about choosing the wrong tent.

Quickly, he leafed to the back of the book and found what seemed to be the last entry. It was dated September 25, 1998, which was a relief. Not into his own future yet, thank God. All the same, the date also gave Sam something of a start. His memory wasn't what it used to be, but he was fairly certain that he'd never before traveled quite this close to what he remembered as the theoretical end of his life. Whatever was going to happen, then, was going to happen soon. But what else was new?

Returning to the journal, Sam scanned the last pages eagerly, and breathed a sigh of relief as he read over the careful, meticulous notes of this mission.

"Arrived on P2R-156 at 0900. Scouted a half-mile radius around the Stargate and set up camp at approx. 1500. Sun maintained relative position, was unable to detect variations with naked eye."

Stargate? What the heck was a Stargate? Sam flipped back through the journal, and caught the word again and again. Finally, he returned to the front and frowned at the first entry, dated three months before. There it was again.

"Arrived on P6X-309 at 1200. Made contact with local populace immediately, as the Stargate was set up in the town square. They spoke a variation on ancient Greek, and Daniel was able to establish communication easily. No sign of Goa'uld presence, and none of them recognized Teal'c as Jaffa. This supports our theory that the Stargate system was not built by the Goa'uld, but rather that the Goa'uld scavenged the technology and used it for their own gain."

Slowly, Sam shut the journal. Stargate. The word niggled at something in his tattered memories. The Stargate Project. Only it wasn't always the Stargate Project....

Hieroglyphs. Sam suddenly sat bolt upright, flashing on a sudden, clear memory. A man, showing him a rubbing of hieroglyphs, asking him if he was interested in...in.... Damn! Where was Al when he needed him? That was all Sam could remember, except for a vague certainty that he'd turned them down. He was already embroiled in Project Quantum Leap, so he'd turned them down, in spite of his old fascination with Egyptology. And Sam suddenly remembered where he'd seen Dr. Daniel Jackson before.

Good lord, how could he have forgotten? He'd only met him once or twice, briefly, but Jackson had been one of the most brilliant linguists Sam had ever known. He spoke more than two dozen languages, but his specialty was--

"Of course!" Sam clapped his hand over his mouth, hoping the involuntary outburst wasn't loud enough to have reached the group around the fire. Jackson had always been obsessed with ancient Egyptian, and while he was considered to be one of the finest young minds in the field, his career had always been hampered by his insistence that the...pyramids...hadn't...been...built....

"Oh, boy."

"Sam?"

Sam jumped, and put the notebook down as Jackson poked his head into the tent. "Yeah, still here," he said.

"You feel up to helping me with some of these tests before we start packing up? I can do some of the dating and chemical stuff, but you're the astrophysicist."

That was news to Sam, but it was, at least, good news. At last, something he could actually do. "Sure, I can do that. I'll be there in a second. Daniel," he added belatedly, taking a stab.

Jackson didn't seem to find anything odd in the address, just nodded. "Okay. Jack wants to be packed up and through the Stargate in four hours."

"All right. I'll keep that in mind." Thank God. If what Sam speculated was true, that meant that they were going back home. But even as the relief flooded him, he felt a small twinge of disappointment.

Once he'd grasped the idea, Sam realized that he'd actually started to get excited. He was on another planet. A whole other world, possibly hundreds of thousands of light-years from Earth, and Sam Beckett was walking around on it. Sam found himself itching to run the tests that he was sure Sam Carter had set up, measuring the orbit and rotation and distance from the sun that would calculate this planet's cycle down to the nanosecond. This was an opportunity that no scientist ever thought they'd have in a lifetime, and Sam meant to make the most of it. He slipped Carter's journal into his jacket, and followed Jackson out of the tent.

The setup in the main tent was surprisingly sophisticated, right down to the portable mainframe computer. This was the kind of equipment Sam had had to beg for when he was starting up Quantum Leap, but he supposed that the Air Force would spare no effort in its offworld exploration teams. The Stargate Project was little more than a name and a handful of hieroglyphs to Sam, but now he felt certain that he knew all too well what the Stargate was, and what it did. Somehow, someone had unearthed a means to travel to other worlds, and this team was dedicated to exploring and studying them. He could even feel a little jealous of Captain Carter. But, since he was here, he'd just have to do the best he could to fill Carter's shoes. Sam set eagerly to the tests that Carter had outlined in the computer, and the next three hours flew by.

-----

"Okay, kids."

O'Neill's voice pulled Sam away from his study of Carter's calculations, and he saw Daniel start and swivel around, as if he, too, had been lost in thought. O'Neill tapped his wrist significantly, and jerked his head in the direction of the still-rising sun. "Time to get packed, folks."

Daniel opened his mouth. "Jack--"

"Ah-ah." O'Neill held up a warning finger. "I've already given you an extra day, Daniel. Hammond says we go back today, and as I recall, the word 'order' was somewhere in there."

Daniel sighed. "All right. I guess we'll just have to apply for a return mission."

"Good. Now, if you two wouldn't mind, let's get this place loaded up."

To Sam's relief, the team was also equipped with an all-terrain cart, which was quickly filled with the contents of the lab tent, and then the sparser personal gear tossed on top. O'Neill raised an eyebrow as Sam threw his less-than-expertly-packed tent onto the heap, but made no comment. In less than an hour, they were trundling out of the little dale.

Sam wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. He'd been bouncing the word "Stargate" around his head for the last few hours, but until the moment he saw it, he really had no idea what it was or looked like. Even at first glance, he took the massive circle for some kind of native structure, part of a megalithic circle. Then he remembered that this planet was supposedly uninhabited, and gave the darkly carved ring a second hard look.

This had to be it. Even from a distance, Sam could pick out the symbols stamped into the inner ring, gleaming coldly in the weak morning sunlight. He was too far away to identify any of them, but he felt certain that he would recognize them as part of the same set of odd symbols that he had been shown years ago. But whatever he'd pictured in his mind, it wasn't anything like this. The thing was huge, probably two stories high at the least, resting on a long sloping mound at the center of the clearing. There was no other adornment, no structure or temple to indicate its significance, but it didn't need it. Sam was awed just looking at it, and felt a vague sense of disappointment that the other members of the team didn't even pause. How incredible, that they could have done this so many times that they weren't even amazed any longer.

But how did the thing work? Sam couldn't see any other kind of equipment, no propulsion system, no ship, nothing but a circular double-ringed dial buried in the grass at the side of the gate. The gate, too, was buried in the earth, so obviously it didn't move. But somehow, it had brought Colonel O'Neill and the rest of his team here, and Sam could only guess that it would also send them home.

Once they reached the gate, Daniel moved at once to the dial embedded in the slope. While Sam looked on, trying not to gape, Daniel confidently punched a seemingly random sequence of symbols on the dial, and the huge inner wheel of the Stargate began to turn. One by one, the glowing chevrons locked into place, and a few moments later Sam was staring in wonder at the shimmering surface of the Stargate.

"Okay, kids. Let's go home."

Sam glanced over, and watched as Teal'c guided the rover through the center of the Stargate. The machine's long probe disappeared into the circle, and a moment later man and vehicle were gone, vanished into the surface of the pool. Daniel walked through next, and Sam knew that now it was his turn. He pretended to be adjusting his pack, giving him some time to study the phenomenon he was about to walk through.

He had no idea what he looking at, if it was some kind of quantum field, or spatial rift, or even if it was the glowing pool of mercury that it appeared to be. Whatever it was, it seemed that Earth was on the other side. All he had to do was step through it. Aware of O'Neill's eyes on him, Sam took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and walked forward into the unknown.

It wasn't terribly different from quantum leaping, at that. There was the same moment of dizzying disorientation, then the sensation of being swept away, pulled along by forces too terrifyingly powerful to resist. And always, at the end, the blessed relief that it was finally over. Sam stumbled to a halt on a hard metal surface, gasping from the intense cold even as it dissipated. His stomach gave a single lurch, then settled down, apparently satisfied that the trip was over. Sam wished he could be so sure.

"Welcome home, SG-1."

Sam blinked, and focused on the figure standing at the foot of the sloping metal ramp. He'd just begun to thankfully decipher the insignia on his crisp white shirt when O'Neill strode forward, nodding. "Good to be home, General."

But Sam was no longer paying attention. Instead, he was looking back over his shoulder, gazing at the smooth rippled pool that filled the Stargate. Even as he stared, though, still trying to fathom what it could possibly be, the field disintegrated, dropping away with a small hiss of discharged particles. Incredible.

"Sam?" Sam turned to find Daniel standing next to him. "Sam, you okay?"

"Yeah." Sam tried a smile, and waved at the Gate. "It just never really gets old, you know?"

Daniel smiled, and a for a moment he looked almost wistful. "Yeah. Yeah, I know exactly what you mean."

"Sam!"

With an effort, Sam kept the smile fixed on his face, although he was sure that he'd just lost a year of his life from fright. After all this time, he ought to be used to Al bellowing in his ear without warning, but it still nearly gave him a heart attack. Oblivious to Sam's distress, Al was going on, talking a mile a minute.

"Sam, thank god. Where the hell have you been? We've been looking for you for days! I thought we'd never find you."

Even as Al babbled on, Daniel was turning away from the Stargate. "Come on. Let's get our gear checked in."

"Okay," Sam told him. "I'll be there in a minute."

As soon as Daniel had walked away, Sam turned his back on the knot of people still gathered at the foot of the ramp, and put his hand over his mouth, pretending to be lost in thought. "Al!" he hissed. "You'll never believe where I was!"

"Yeah, well, wherever it was, Ziggy couldn't find you, and she's been frantic."

"Al, I was on another planet! That's why Ziggy couldn't home in on me. I was..." Sam raised a hand to gesture, and at the last moment remembered that he wasn't alone. "Out there," he whispered.

"Out there," Al repeated. "On another planet."

"Yes!" Sam nodded. "I don't know how it works, exactly, but this Stargate goes there, and it brought us back."

"Stargate?" Now Al was punching at the handlink, muttering as the lights flashed and died, then flickered to life again. "Ziggy kept finding something about the Stargate Project while she was researching, but--"

"Al, that's it. This--" Sam wiggled a finger at the Stargate. "--is it. The Stargate Project has to do with exploring other planets. And I've Leaped right into the middle of it."

"Well, whatever it is, Ziggy can't find much about it. The project must still be active now, because even the name is classified. Ziggy was lucky to get that much."

"What does Ziggy know?"

"Your name is Captain--"

"--Sam Carter, yeah I got that much. And I'm in the Air Force and I'm part of something called SG-1."

Al shook his head. "Not according to your records. You are in the Air Force, but you trained as an astrophysicist, and until two years ago you were working at the Pentagon. Your current assignment is analyzing deep space radar telemetry here at NORAD."

"It must be a cover-up, a fake project to disguise what they're really doing here. Speaking of which," Sam looked around, and found the other officers still talking at the foot of the ramp. "What am I doing here."

"Uh, well, we're working on that." Al consulted his link again. "Have you met anyone called Jack O'Neill yet?"

"Yeah, Colonel O'Neill. He's my--Carter's--commanding officer."

"That jibes with the records we have. We couldn't find you, so we decided to do as much of a workup as we could on Captain Carter. Anyway, Ziggy thinks that you're here for Colonel O'Neill."

"Why? What happens to him?"

"We're not sure. Like you, most of what he really does is classified. All we know is that four years from now, Jack O'Neill is found dead in his home." Al looked up at Sam, his expression grave. "He kills himself, Sam."

-----

Somehow, Sam got out of the room where the Stargate was, and started looking for a place where he could talk to Al in private. "Here," he said at last, and pushed his way into the door marked "Locker Room."

"Sam--!" Al started to protest, but Sam was already inside.

He'd hoped to find the locker room empty, but no such luck. O'Neill was standing in front of an open locker, taking off his fatigues while he talked to someone out of sight in the shower room. "--so they get to Detroit, and the state police have to clear off the interstate so the team can get to the arena before--" He broke off as he caught sight of Sam, then hastily yanked up his trousers again, holding them up with one hand. "Captain Carter," he said formally. "Is there something I can do for you?"

"Uh, no. No, I just wanted to get...something...from my locker."

"Sam..." Al stepped out of the row of lockers next to O'Neill, and gestured frantically towards the door. "Sam, this is the guy's locker room!"

"Well, no offense, Captain, but this is the guy's locker room," O'Neill said at almost the same time. "Well, for the next fifteen minutes, anyway."

"Huh?" Gradually, Sam became aware that Al was making frantic signals towards the rear wall, and glanced over to see, for the first time, Captain Sam Carter reflected in a mirror.

"Oh, god," Sam breathed. "I'm a woman."

About the time that it sank in, Sam realized with horror that he spoken out loud. He gulped, and turned back to the colonel. "I'm a woman," he said more firmly. "And it's still fifteen minutes before this is the women's locker room. I must have misread the time. Sorry. Excuse me." Sam fled, leaving O'Neill staring after him.

Outside, Sam leaned against the wall, breathing deep, and then opened his eyes to glare at Al. "Why didn't you tell me?" he hissed.

"I thought you knew!" Al protested. "Didn't you look in a mirror?"

"I didn't have a chance. And no one said anything to make me think that I was a woman, so I just assumed...." Sam groaned. "The colonel's going to think I'm crazy."

"That, or that you have the hots for him," Al leered, and Sam glared.

"Come on," he said coldly. "Let's find a nice closet somewhere."

Eventually, they found an empty janitorial closet not far from the locker room, and Sam ducked in and turned on the light. "Now," he said. "What were you saying about O'Neill?"

"Just what I told you. On August 14, 2002, he shoots himself."

"But why?" Sam shook his head. "What do we know about him?"

Al punched at the link. "He's a career Air Force officer, been with the military for nearly thirty years. He did a tour in Viet Nam, and he's been dropped in the middle of every other hot spot since, mostly in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. He was caught in '87, spent four months in an Iraqi prison before he got out. Served in the Gulf War. Awards and commendations out the yin-yang, and then he retired in...1995?" Al frowned at the link.

"That doesn't make sense. This is 1998 and he's still here. Are you sure Ziggy's got the date right?"

"Yeah, he retired...Oh." Al looked up, his face falling. "He took retirement when his kid died. Charlie O'Neill, eleven years old. Shot himself accidentally with O'Neill's gun."

"Oh, god. That's terrible."

"Yeah. His marriage fell apart after that, wife left him. He only stayed retired for a few months, though, then he was...re-activated...." Al was poking at the link now, clearly not agreeing with the data he was getting. "Then he retired again, then he re-activated again...I'm starting to get dizzy here, Sam. Oh, but he stayed with the Air Force from '97 on." Al paused again. "At least until '02."

"So what happened?"

"No one knows, Sam, that's what I'm trying to tell you. If it had anything to do with this Stargate Project, we can't know because it's classified. And if it's anything else, we haven't been able to find that out, either."

"Then I suggest you get back and start looking. Maybe now that you know what the Stargate is, you can get Ziggy to start digging. Also, there were two civilians, I think, on the mission. You might have missed them. One of them is named Teal'c, I don't know his other name, and the other is Dr. Daniel Jackson."

"Okay, got it. I'll get Ziggy started on it right away." Al started punching the code to open to the chamber door. "And Sam..."

"Yeah, Al?"

"Stay out of the guy's locker room." Al stepped through, and was gone.

"Thanks."

-----

The rest of the day was, thankfully, taken up by routine. First they had to check in their gear, and every other piece of equipment that had been brought back. Then there were the samples to be deposited at the lab, and the data delivered to be analyzed by the base computers. Then there was a thorough medical exam, complete with blood and urine samples. Sam went along with it, because the last thing he needed was to cause a fuss and blow his cover, but he couldn't help but wonder how his results were going to compare to Sam Carter's.

The final ordeal was the de-briefing, but thanks to Captain Carter's notes Sam was able to scrape by, mostly by sitting back and letting Daniel do all the talking. The two questions General Hammond asked him directly were easily fielded by consulting Carter's notes, and by Sam drawing on his own expertise, something that didn't happen too often during a Leap.

"That's all for now," Hammond said at last, and rose from the table. "I believe your next mission isn't scheduled for another three days. Until then, you'll be on down-time. Have a good weekend."

"Thank you, sir," O'Neill said sincerely. "I'm glad that you recognize the importance of pre-season hockey to us all." The general merely looked blank, and O'Neill raised his brows. "What, you're not giving us leave just to watch the Hawks crush those snotty upstarts?"

"Which ones would those be, Jack?" Daniel asked.

"Whoever they're playing."

"Enjoy your weekend," Hammond said again, with a small smile, and left. Around Sam, the rest of the team got up, too.

"I'm serious, though," O'Neill was going on. "Everyone's invited to come over and watch the game tonight. Beer, pizza, and the Hawks. A perfect evening."

"Hockey?" Daniel looked about as enthusiastic as if Jack had suggested an evening of calisthenics. "I don't know, Jack, I was going to stay here and--"

"Burn your eyes out staring into a computer screen?" Jack pointed over at Teal'c, who'd sat silent and attentive through the whole conversation. "What about Teal'c? We promised we'd show him what Earth culture was all about, and now you're all backing out on him."

Earth culture? Sam supposed it was a good sign that he could still be surprised, even after a day full of nothing else. Before he could stop himself, he found his eyes swiveling to the big man across the table, his mind rapidly ticking over the implications of that casual comment. Not from Earth. Dear god.

"I appreciate your offer, Colonel O'Neill," Teal'c said, blessedly unaware of Sam's sudden scrutiny. "But I, too, had planned to spend the evening on the base. Perhaps tomorrow. You are driving me to Dr. Jackson's for dinner. You could show me your culture before then."

"Okay." O'Neill appeared to think about it for a moment, then a half-smile quirked at his mouth. "Okay," he said again. "It's a deal."

Daniel looked dubious, but Teal'c merely inclined his head and said, "I look forward to it, O'Neill."

"Great." O'Neill clasped his hands, rocking back on his heels in satisfaction, and Sam forced himself to return to his own mission. He realized, suddenly, that there was one member of the team who hadn't answered the colonel's invitation, and that this was an opportunity not to be wasted. "About the game tonight, sir," he said. "I'd like to come." Every face in the room suddenly turned toward him. "I like hockey," he lied, and watched as O'Neill raised a brow.

"Okay," he said presently. "There's one. Anyone else want to change their mind?" Neither man moved, and he shrugged. "Your loss." He pushed his chair back and rose. "Get your gear, Carter, and meet me up top. Game starts in an hour, and I don't want to miss them dropping the puck."

"Yes, sir."

-----

Sam hurried back to the locker room, and was relieved to find Al waiting there for him. "Find anything?" he asked, searching quickly through Carter's locker for something to wear.

"Yes and no," Al said. "There's nothing on anyone named Teal'c associated with the Stargate project."

Sam made a face. "Well, I can't say I'm surprised. I think he must be from another planet. Who knows how he ended up here, but you're not likely to find any records on him."

"Uh, yeah." Al shifted his eyes back to the link. "Not to sound skeptical, Sam, but there's nothing in any of the records about the Air Force exploring other worlds. Are you sure you--?"

"Al! I was on another planet, all right? You can trust me on that."

"All I'm saying is that sometimes the Leap can be a little disorienting."

"This wasn't disorientation. This was another planet. I stepped through a great big ring just like the one in the room where you found me, and a few seconds later I was back here. I'm telling you, the Stargate is real, and so is that other world and God knows how many other worlds."

Al still didn't look convinced, but he didn't press the issue. "Okay," he said, in a tone that stated clearly that he was going to humor Sam if it killed him. "I'll have Ziggy keep digging."

"You do that, Al. And you'll see that I'm right."

Al consulted the screen again. "We had a little better luck with Dr. Jackson," he continued, clearly determined to let the matter drop. "About the same time that O'Neill dies, he leaves the project--not that the project exists, mind you--and goes back to Egypt to work on a dig somewhere. Ziggy's still trying to trace him through his grants, but he hasn't been back to the States since."

"So the team splits up," Sam said thoughtfully. "Maybe a mission went wrong."

"I don't think so."

"Ziggy has a theory?"

"Ziggy has a possible theory." Al stuck his cigar in his mouth in order to punch at the link with both hands for a moment. "About six months before O'Neill dies, his ex-wife re-marries. No sign of them ever seriously trying to reconcile, so we can assume that this isn't a problem. But five months later, he finds out that she's pregnant. Ziggy thinks that there's a sixty-three percent probability that this brings up all the stuff about Charlie all over again for O'Neill."

"And that could lead him to kill himself?"

"Could be. Ziggy says that when his son died, O'Neill was a candidate for suicide, and rejoining the military probably saved his life. He got through it then, but he was also still married. The marriage was falling apart," Al added cynically, "but he wasn't by himself. Now, with his wife gone, and knowing that she's starting over again with a new family and another kid, Ziggy thinks it's bound to remind him that he's still all alone, that he lost the only family he had." Al tapped the link, clearing his throat. "Which brings us to Ziggy's first theory about why you're here."

"Oh, great. I can't wait to hear this."

"She says that there's a thirty percent chance that if O'Neill remarries, then he'll have something to hold onto, someone to pull him through."

"That makes sense. Get him and his ex-wife back together, let them both start over."

Al looked uncomfortable. "Well, uh, no. Not exactly. Remember, Sara's got a kid now with this other guy, and Ziggy says we can't mess with that."

"All right. Then who, exactly?"

"Well, Sam, Ziggy's got another theory about that. She thinks that O'Neill needs someone who knows him really well, someone who understands the work he does, and that he can talk to about what goes on."

"Uh-huh, and that would be...?"

"You, Sam."

The only thing that surprised Sam was how little he was surprised. Then again, why should he be? There were times when he felt that romance must be one of the primary motivators of the universe, to judge from the number of times that it was his mission during a Leap. "Me," he said flatly. "You mean Sam Carter."

"Yeah. That's what Ziggy says."

"Oh, great." Sam closed his eyes, praying briefly for patience. Or maybe praying that this was all just a crazy, bizarre dream. "That's just great, Al. How am I supposed to do that?"

"I don't know!" Al said defensively. "Look, I told Ziggy she was crazy."

"For once I agree with you. What do we know about her? Do we know that this is what she wants? She might have a boyfriend of her own, someone she might like to be with. We don't know if she's even interested in O'Neill that way."

Now Al was looking at him oddly, almost apologetically. "Are you sure that's what it's about, Sam?"

Sam frowned at him. "What do you mean?"

"Well.... " Al shrugged with he probably thought was nonchalance. "O'Neill's a guy."

"Yes."

"And you're a...a...." Al flapped his hands illustratively.

Sam could see, now, where all this was headed, and he felt an all-too-familiar exasperation rise in him. Along with something else that he was less eager to place. "Okay," he finally admitted. "Maybe that's a tiny drawback."

"Tiny! Sam!"

"Look, as far as O'Neill is concerned, I'm a woman named Sam Carter," Sam said firmly, doing his best to ignore the tiny voice of doubt that had crept into his thoughts. "Right now, that's all that matters, right?"

"Sam--"

"Right?"

The expression on Al's face was truly unreadable, a mix of so many conflicting emotions that Sam couldn't even begin to sort them out. "I guess so," he finally muttered. He shook his head. "This is nuts. I don't know what the hell Ziggy thinks she's--"

"Al, I'd be lying if I said I was crazy about the idea myself, okay?" Sam took a deep breath, surprised at how much better the admission made him feel. All right. So he wasn't thrilled about the prospect of trying to romance Jack O'Neill. But it's no different, he told himself firmly. You've done this hundreds of times, done your best to bring two people together so their lives would be better. Just because this is the first time you've tried to do it like...this... Sam took another breath. All your talk to Al about treating people the same no matter what.... Well, it's time to start practicing what you preach.

He said none of this to Al, though. Instead, he turned and faced him squarely, daring him to protest. "I'm not completely comfortable with this, and I'd be lying if I said I was." He paused. "But I'd hate to think I was so afraid of my own sexuality that I'd let a man die."

That got him. Al still didn't look happy, but he nodded. "You're right, Sam," he said after a moment. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay. Hey, you've come a long way from the guy who nearly went ballistic when I Leapt into someone who only might have been gay."

Al had the grace to look embarassed. "That was a long time ago, Sam," he said gruffly. "Besides...." He cleared his throat, staring down at the handlink. "I was wrong."

Not for the first time, Sam wished that Al really was there with him, that he could reach out and touch him, just to put a hand on his shoulder and let him know that everything was okay. But, as usual, he had to settle for words. "Thanks, Al."

"Ah, yeah." Al shrugged it off, but he looked pleased, and when he spoke again there was a new purpose in his voice. "So, I guess we've got a job to do."

"Yep. The seduction of Jack O'Neill." Now that the problem was in front of him again, Sam's initial doubts about the wisdom of matching Carter with O'Neill were starting to return. "Not to rain on the parade again, but aren't there regulations against this sort of thing?"

"Well, that's another little stumbling block," Al admitted. "If this works out, one of them will probably have to leave the project."

"Leave the...Al, that's terrible. This is Carter's life we're playing with. Her career."

"Or O'Neill's," Al said quickly. "He'll be hitting retirement age in another ten years or so, he might decide that he's got less to lose."

"Al," Sam said slowly. "I'm starting to think that this is a bad idea."

"Maybe. But it's the only idea we've got. Sam, you've got to try."

Sam paced slowly across the aisle, trying to think. "Ziggy's sure this is the only way?"

"Maybe not. But right now, it's the best chance O'Neill has."

Sam stopped pacing and squared his shoulders. "Okay," he said. "Then I guess I'd better get dressed for my date."

-----

Unfortunately--or fortunately, depending on how one looked at it--the wardrobe left behind in Sam Carter's locker didn't include much in the way of "date" clothes. A pair of jeans, a blue blouse, and running shoes would have to do. After dab of make-up, and a brush through his hair, Sam guessed he was as ready as he'd ever be.

O'Neill didn't even give him a second look. He was waiting at the top of the elevator, leaning against the railing that separated the elevators from the entrance to the underground parking lot. He'd changed somehow from his uniform fatigues into kakhi pants and a plain dark pullover, a black leather jacket slung across his shoulder.

"Still just us, sir?" Sam asked, and O'Neill shrugged.

"Sorry, Captain. Looks like you're stuck with the old man tonight."

Sam swallowed. First chance, Sam, he told himself. Now or never. "I don't mind, sir." Oh, nice start, still using his rank.

But O'Neill made no move to head for the parking lot. "Look, Carter, I appreciate you offering to come along. But you don't have to. I'll be just as happy watching the game by myself if you've got other plans."

"What, you think women can't like hockey?" Sam said, trying to tease and half-succeeding. "And you're not exactly a fossil, sir." Damn! Rank again. He tried once more. "But if you'd rather spend the evening alone, I'll understand. I know this isn't exactly what you had in mind."

"No, no," O'Neill protested quickly. A little too quickly, Sam's more cynical side might have remarked. But he was going on. "I just didn't want you to feel like it was required, or anything."

"Not at all, sir. I'm looking forward to it."

"Okay, then." O'Neill shrugged into his jacket and gestured. "Let's go."

The drive over to O'Neill's house was made mostly in silence. O'Neill didn't seem inclined to make small talk, and Sam was finding himself at a loss to fill in the gap. If his mission was, as Al insisted, to get these two together, then Sam knew that he needed to make some kind of overture, break the ice. It was hardly, after all, the first time that he'd tried to ensure that the course of true love ran a bit more smoothly. Just do what you've always done before, he told himself. It can't hurt.

"Actually, Colonel," he said presently, "I'm kind of glad that this happened."

"Huh?" O'Neill started, as if he'd forgotten that Sam was there, and shot him a quick look. "Oh," he recovered. "Really?"

"Well, yes. I mean, I've worked with you for a while now, but I don't feel like I know much about you." O'Neill shot him another look, this one filled with something that looked slightly like alarm, and Sam quickly took another tack. "Or you about me," he added hastily. "I just think it's nice that we can do something social once in a while."

"Yeah," O'Neill said, a little doubtfully. "Sure. I can see that."

Sam pushed on doggedly. "Sometimes all this military protocol can be a little stifling, don't you think? You and Teal'c and Daniel can call one another by your first names, and there aren't any rules about what you can say and how and when."

"I thought you were a fan of military protocols, Captain." O'Neill was silent for a moment. "But, for the record, when we're off-duty 'Jack' is fine by me."

"Well, that's kind of my point. We don't seem to be off-duty much. Together."

"True enough." O'Neill paused to make a turn, and drove in silence for a while. "Still, it's part of the job, even if you're the only one who has to say 'yes, sir,' and 'no, sir,' and 'with all due respect blow it out your ear, sir.'"

"That doesn't bother me, sir." O'Neill raised a brow, and Sam stopped. "Jack," he said firmly. "It's part of being in the military, and I accept that. But it is very formal, and--" Sam took a deep breath, sending a silent apology to the real Sam Carter, wherever she might be. "--and quite frankly, I think that it sometimes makes me sound like an ice queen."

"You?" O'Neill shook his head. "Never."

"You know what I mean, s--Jack. You said it yourself. I'm the only one on the team who's required to be that formal with you. I'm doomed to stick out."

"You look at Teal'c, and you think you stick out?"

Sam had to smile. "Point taken. But I think you take my point, too."

"Yeah, I guess I do." O'Neill glanced over. "Don't worry, Carter," he said sincerely. "To me, you'll never be an ice queen."

"Thanks. I think."

After that, the conversation lapsed again, and Sam let it. He'd done what he could to sow the seeds, and he was afraid to push it any more right then. Plenty of time to make a fool of himself later, after all.

-----

If he ever had to write a book on "How to Seduce in Two Days or Less," Sam knew already what would make number one on his list of "Top Ten Worst Dates." As a sport, hockey had a certain appeal. As a background for seduction, it couldn't have been worse. O'Neill spent the entire evening with his eyes glued to the set, not even looking away when he reached for his beer or the popcorn. They ordered pizza, which was probably a mistake because O'Neill kept the pizza guy waiting on the porch for nearly two minutes before a penalty call allowed him time to break free and dash to the door.

The intermissions were the only time Sam had to make his move, but by the end of the first one he'd made maybe a dozen attempts at conversation and been frustrated at every turn. O'Neill was by no means ignoring him, but every conversational sally was met with, at best, a one or two sentence exchange before the talk lapsed into awkward silence. The only time Sam got more than a few words out of him was when he asked a question about the game, but even that proved to be another mistake, as the entire remainder of the second and last intermission was spent talking about hockey and nothing else.

"How's it going, Sam?"

Sam gave Al a disgusted look, then glanced over at O'Neill. The game had just started again, and he probably wouldn't have noticed if Sam stood up and did a strip-tease next to him on the couch. "I'm going to the bathroom," he said, for Al's benefit as much as O'Neill's, and stood up.

"It's going terrible, Al," Sam said as soon as he was inside. "I'm practically throwing myself at him and all he's interested in is the game!"

"Well, it's a little soon to be expecting romance," Al pointed out. "Besides, you've got to remember that this is after that whole Tailhook mess. Any man in the military is going to tread very carefully around the women in his command."

"Then how the hell am I supposed to do this!" Sam nearly shouted, remembering barely in time to lower his voice.

"You'll have to be the aggressor, Sam. He won't make the first move, so you'll have to. Let him know, in no uncertain terms, that you want..." Al waved his cigar expressively. "You know."

"No, Al, I don't know." Sam paced to one end of the room and back, then stopped as a terrible thought suddenly occurred to him. "What if he takes me up on it, Al? How far am I supposed to go with this?"

"Ah." Al looked quickly at the handlink, mostly, Sam suspected, to avoid meeting Sam's eyes. "Well, Ziggy thinks that there's a...good chance that if you can get the colonel to kiss you, if you can just get him to accept the possibility of the relationship, then you'll Leap."

"'Good?'" Sam glared. "How good is 'good?'"

"Uh, well...." Al scratched his forehead. "Twenty-one percent?"

"Twenty--!" Sam groaned and leaned his head against the sink. "I'm never going to get out of here."

"Don't worry, Sam," Al said briskly. "We'll get you out of here, don't worry." He started punching buttons. "You just get back in there, kiddo, and I'll go see if Ziggy has any more brilliant theories."

"Thanks," Sam said sarcastically. "Thanks for all the help."

When Al had vanished, Sam took a long look at himself in the mirror. Samantha Carter's face stared back at him, blue eyes wide and round in a small, pretty face. "I'm sorry," he said to her, and saw her own lips shape the words. He sighed, and turned away.

There was a stop in play when Sam came back, and O'Neill spared him a glance as he moved around to take his seat again. "I was wondering if you'd slipped out the window," he said. "I had this date--" Sam gave him a sharp look at the word "date," but he went on, oblivious. "--do that during the Cup finals. Didn't notice she was gone until the second overtime." O'Neill glanced over, and a suddenly uneasy look passed swiftly over his features. "Not that this anything like that," he said quickly. "I mean, this isn't a date."

"No, of course not," Sam agreed after a beat.

They returned to the game. There wasn't much Sam could do except watch, and he forced himself to become re-involved in the game, keeping his eyes focused on the screen until it finally ended.

Sam blinked as O'Neill switched the television off, and rubbed his eyes as he reached up to turn on the light by the couch. "That was a good game," he said dutifully.

"Yeah. The Hawks won, therefore it was good," O'Neill said with a grin, and reached out to collect the empty popcorn bowl and beer bottles. Sam jumped to help, and got a grunt of thanks. He gathered up the pizza box and napkins and carried them into the kitchen behind O'Neill.

"Thanks again for letting me come over," he said. "I really enjoyed it."

O'Neill looked pleased. "I'm glad, Sam." He smiled. "I guess I enjoyed it, too. I didn't realize you were such a hockey fan."

Sam swallowed. "Well, the company had a lot to do with it, Jack."

The smile faded just a fraction, then returned. "Yeah," he said casually. "Well, like you said, we don't see each other much outside of work. Sometimes a change of pace is good."

"All work and no play..." Sam began, then stopped. "Well, I guess you've heard that about a thousand times."

"Only nine hundred and ninety," O'Neill assured him. "I've always been flattered to be associated with it."

"Well, I think it was probably made with you in mind. At least, I've never found you dull."

For the second time, the easy smile began to slip, and Sam was beginning to feel like he was banging his head against a stone wall. But O'Neill rallied again, even if the smile didn't quite return this time. "I'll remind you that you said that next time you start spouting quantum theory at me, Captain."

O'Neill knew. There was no longer any question in Sam's mind. He knew what Sam was trying to do, knew the subtle flirtation for precisely what it was. Knew it, and was backing away from it as gently and quietly as he possibly could.

This was wrong. Sam knew it, and yet he couldn't come up with a single cogent reason to justify that knowledge. A small part of his mind was timidly suggesting that the reasons might not have anything to do with the Leap, and everything to do with the fact that he couldn't even bring himself to imagine what it would be like to kiss Jack O'Neill. Could he really be that afraid of his own sexuality? Was he afraid of not being able to go through with it, or was his fear more because he was afraid that going through with it would be all too easy?

There's nothing wrong with kissing him, Sam told himself angrily. You've kissed a dozen women in the name of fixing history, women that you didn't love, not really. There's nothing different between that and kissing this man. Nothing.

O'Neill was looking at him oddly, and Sam realized that he'd been standing there, staring at him, for an awfully long time. He swallowed, and licked his suddenly dry lips. "Jack," he began, and had to stop. "Jack, I think I need to talk to you about something."

As Sam took a step forward, O'Neill stepped back, until he was standing with his back to the kitchen counter, hemmed in the corner between the stove and fridge. "Yeah?" he said warily, and Sam saw his eyes dart past, looking, Sam thought with a sinking heart, for an escape route. Sam ignored that, and moved forward again, until he was standing a mere breath away. He opened his mouth to speak, but the words wouldn't come. What could he say, after all? He remembered Al's advice, and decided that maybe it would be best to make the move first, and deal with the rest later. Steeling himself, Sam leaned forward swiftly and pressed his lips to O'Neill's.

It was surprisingly easy. Once he'd worked himself to the point of actually doing it, the reality was far from unpleasant. With his eyes closed, O'Neill's mouth was nothing more than soft, warm lips, at first still and stiff against his, then briefly yielding as the other man let out a short exhalation of surprise. Then O'Neill was jerking back, breaking the contact. For a long moment, they simply stood and stared at one another, breathing hard across the short space of the kitchen.

O'Neill swallowed. "Captain Carter," he said unsteadily, and Sam felt his heart sink. "Captain Carter," he said again, "I like you. I like you a lot. You're a fine officer, and you've become a good friend." He breathed deep. "And because of that, I'm going to do both of us a great big favor, and pretend that the last two minutes did not happen. Okay?"

"Jack...."

O'Neill lifted a finger. "I think," he said slowly, "that it might be a good idea for us to stick with 'Colonel' and 'Captain' for a little while." He began to move, edging out slowly from the corner, escaping into the center of the kitchen with palpable relief. "And I think," he went on, "that it might be a good idea if I took you home."

Sam closed his eyes. I'm sorry, Sam, he thought wretchedly. Please, forgive me. "Yes, sir," he said miserably.

-----

Sam had had worse rides in his life, but as they drove across town to Sam Carter's apartment, he couldn't for the life of him think of any of them. He couldn't think of anything to say, anything to do that would salvage what had turned into a disastrous situation. How was Carter supposed to even work with O'Neill after this? What had he done to the friendship that had, apparently, been progressing right along before he Leaped in and messed it up? He couldn't just leave it like this. He had to try and repair the damage. Somehow.

Unfortunately, none of this cycled through his consciousness until they were pulling up in front of the duplex that, presumably, was Carter's. O'Neill put the car in park, but didn't make any move to turn off the engine, a silent, pointed, hint.

"Colonel." Sam struggled to find something to say. "Colonel, I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. I've obviously made a mistake, and now I'm afraid it's cost me whatever respect you had for me. I might have been wrong, but I'd hate for you to be angry with me, too."

"Captain..." O'Neill sighed heavily, and looked away, turning his head to stare out the window at the dark street. "Carter," he said again. "I'm not--I'm not angry with you." He looked back, his face unreadable in the dimness of the dash lights. "And it'll take a lot more than one kiss to make me lose respect for you." He paused. "I meant what I said, Carter. I like you, I really do. I like you, and I respect you. But apart from everything else, I'm also your commanding officer. It would be wrong, and we both know it."

"Yes, sir. I understand, sir." Sam reached for the door. "Thank you for bringing me home, Colonel. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Okay. And Carter..."

Sam paused halfway out the door, his hand poised on the handle. "Yes, sir?"

"Tomorrow, it's still 'Jack,' if you want to. Okay?"

Sam felt relief flood through him. "Okay. Thank you. Good night."

"Good night, Carter."

-----

Al was waiting for him inside, his face set in a scowl as Sam walked through the door. "You're home early," he said disapprovingly.

"Yeah, well, it wasn't much of a first date." Sam shut the door behind him and plodded into the living room, flopping down on the first available piece of furniture. "It wasn't a date at all," he continued. "In fact, the word 'disaster' comes to mind."

"Hey, no one said it was going to be easy, Sam. All you have to do--"

"Al." Sam's tone stopped him short. "Al, forget it. He's not interested in me--in Carter," he corrected quickly.

"How do you know?"

"I know because I took your advice. It didn't work."

Al looked a little uncertain. "You kissed him?"

Sam sighed, and closed his eyes. "Yes, Al, I kissed him. He couldn't push me away fast enough."

"Sam, you've got to give this a little time. Maybe later--"

"There isn't going to be a later!" Sam propelled himself to his feet, pacing down the hall. "This isn't working. We're on the wrong track."

"Maybe," Al conceded, pacing along behind him. "But Ziggy still doesn't have any other ideas."

Sam's head was beginning to ache again. He started searching for the bathroom, hoping to find some aspirin. "Is she sure she even knows what pushed O'Neill over the edge?" he asked, opening doors and peering into darkened rooms. "Does she know it was Sara? It could just as easily be one of their missions that you don't know about because it's classified."

"Well, no, we don't know." Al glared defensively as Sam gave him a disgusted look. "Sam, we're doing the best we can with what we've got."

"Then you're going to have to try something else. Read my lips, Al: This is not working." Finally, Sam found the bedroom and navigated his way to the medicine cabinet.

"Well, do you have any better ideas?"

"Yeah." Sam found a bottle of aspirin and shook two into his hand. "Talk to the people who knew O'Neill best. Talk to Carter and Dr. Jackson and Teal'c, if you can manage it."

It took Al a moment to get it. "What? You mean now? Now now?"

"Yes."

"Sam, you know better than that."

"Well, why not? We won't be giving away anything about the future, you'll just be asking about things that have already happened." Sam swallowed the pills and chased them with water.

"It's against the rules, Sam, and you know it. We've never done it before."

"That's because Ziggy has always been able to get the information we need. Her hands are tied now because of the classification, and talking to the others might be the only way to find out."

"And what makes you think they'll even talk to me? If the files are too classified for Ziggy, then they won't be able to discuss them with anyone outside the project."

"Then get the classification. Go to the President if you have to, but find them and ask them why a man like Jack O'Neill would kill himself."

Al shook his head. "Well, Jackson's still in Egypt as far as we know, so it'll take some doing to get hold of him. Still no records of any kind on that Teal'c guy."

"What about Carter?"

Al consulted the link. "According to Ziggy, she's still in the Air Force, attached to the same bogus assignment, which probably means that she's still on the project."

"That's great. Then maybe she knows what happened to O'Neill." Al opened his mouth to protest, but Sam overrode him. "Al. You've got to try. I don't want to make any more mistakes."

"Okay," Al promised at last. "I'll try, Sam."

-----

Sam didn't go to sleep for a long time that night. He kept replaying the scene in O'Neill's kitchen over and over in his head, trying to decide what he'd done wrong, or if he'd done anything wrong. Could it be his fault? If he hadn't had his own hangups about approaching O'Neill, would the pass have been more successful? Maybe O'Neill knew, somehow. Maybe something had told him, during that brief moment of contact, that this was not Sam Carter pressing her lips to his. Or maybe that was Sam's way of justifying his own failure.

Finally, after more than a couple of hours of tossing and turning, Sam admitted to himself that the rejection had hurt. He'd been turned down before, more than a few times. While it was hard not to take it personally, in this case he'd expected to feel relieved. Instead, he was beginning to identify the vague, sick weight in his stomach as disappointment.

Perhaps it was only to be expected, at that. After all, he'd agonized about it for hours, overcome his own objections, his own admitted prejudices, and after all that soul-searching his only reward was a polite, gentle refusal. At the least, it would have been nice if his sacrifice, if he could even call it that, had been acknowledged with a little reciprocation.

Okay, Sam. Admit it. You liked it. When you kissed him, it felt good. There wasn't any cosmic revulsion field around his lips just because he was a guy, and when you kissed him you'd have liked nothing better than for him to start kissing you back. Congratulations, Dr. Beckett. You've just scored lower than a six on the Kinsey scale after all.

Oddly enough, the thought made Sam feel enormously better. Right. So he was attracted to Jack O'Neill, even just a little. That he could handle. It hadn't been his own fears, his own anxieties, that had ruined the moment in the kitchen. O'Neill wasn't interested in Carter, and that was that. Sam had given it his best shot, but clearly Fate had another destiny in mind for Sam Carter than becoming Mrs. O'Neill.

With that thought settling comfortingly in his head, Sam turned over, pulled the sheets up to his chin, and went to sleep.

-----

The next morning dragged by slowly. Al failed to appear, and Sam guessed that he was busy getting the clearances he needed from the President, and, hopefully, interviewing Carter and Jackson. It made him feel a little weird, to know that Al was more than likely having a conversation some six years from now, discussing things that wouldn't happen for another four years. But, after so many years of Leaps, it was a feeling Sam was getting used to.

He busied himself around Carter's apartment until noon, cleaning a little, doing some laundry, and finally, reluctantly, poking around looking for more clues about the life he'd fallen into. It always made him uncomfortable, prying into the private lives of these people, but he'd long ago come to terms with the necessity. Still, he couldn't say that he wasn't relieved when, as in this case, his efforts turned up little in the way of private papers. Like most modern people, Carter conducted her personal life over the telephone and in person, and as far as Sam could tell she didn't keep a diary. The journal he'd found in her tent was the closest he'd come to any personal writings, and there was no sign of any others in the apartment.

Of course not, he realized belatedly. Captain Carter was a member of a top-secret military scouting team. She would hardly leave what had to be highly-classified journals lying around the place. The Stargate project was her life, and Sam wasn't going to find evidence of that life here. Five minutes later, Sam was in Carter's car, heading back towards the base.

He was worried that he might have a problem getting back in when Carter was supposedly off-duty, but apparently it was nothing unusual for Carter to show up even on her days off. Sam signed in, flashing ID, clearance, and thumbprint, and was waved in with nothing more than a crisp salute and a brisk "good morning, Captain."

Sam had become acquainted with the general layout of the base during the flurry of the day before, and found what he had taken to be Carter's personal lab without much trouble. The small space was crammed with equipment and computers and electronics in various stages of construction, but there was a workbench near the far end that seemed to be Carter's workspace. Sam sat down, and started prying. Within moments, he'd hit pay dirt, a neat row of journals in the bottom drawer, arranged by date. Eagerly, Sam opened the first one and began to read.

He lost himself quickly in Carter's account of her first missions with the team, and was hardly aware of time passing until he heard a soft knock on the metal frame of the door. Sam looked up, startled, and was caught off guard to see Daniel standing in the doorway. It was a shock, and he had to take a moment to remind himself that Sam Carter had always known what Sam had read only moments before.

Sam Beckett knew Daniel Jackson as a brilliant linguist and archaeologist, focused to the point of obsession on his theories about ancient Egyptian culture, focused to the point where little else seemed to matter to him. But now, looking through the filter of Carter's words, Sam realized that there was another Dr. Jackson there, one that he'd never met, perhaps even one that hadn't existed until he'd gone through the Stargate to Abydos. A man who had found the love of his life, and lost her again in the most horrible way imaginable. I'm so sorry, he almost blurted, and only at the last moment stopped himself from saying the words aloud.

"Sam?" Daniel said hesitantly, and Sam realized that he was still staring.

"Oh, hi, Daniel." He cleared his throat, closing the journal on his finger and forcing himself to seem casual, normal. "I was just doing a little review. You know, looking over my notes to see where I've been."

"Oh. Okay." Daniel gestured vaguely down the hall, in the general direction of where Sam remembered his own office to be. "I was looking over some of those scrolls we brought back from P9T-559. I saw your light on and wondered who was still working on our day off." He smiled. "Besides me, of course."

Sam shrugged. "I wasn't really working. I thought I might...do a little housekeeping."

"Ah." Daniel smiled in understanding, and put his hands in his pockets. "So," he said. "You're still coming tonight, right?"

Sam would rather have had teeth pulled, but there was no way out of it now. "Yes. Of course," he said. "What time was that again?"

Daniel shrugged. "Oh, any time is fine. Jack's already picked up Teal'c, something about a 'field trip.' He'll be bringing him around six, but if you wanted to come earlier, anytime after five is great." He smiled again. "Just give me a chance to get home first."

"I'm looking forward to it," Sam lied.

Daniel seemed oddly relieved. "Good. I was worried that you--" He stopped, and shrugged. "Well, I'm glad that you'll be there."

A long, awkward silence settled between them, and it occurred to Sam, suddenly, that Daniel was behaving very strangely. He seemed almost embarrassed, clearly at a loss for words, a problem that hadn't seemed to plague him in the slightest the day before. Sam regarded him for a long, perplexed moment, then the truth hit him like the proverbial ton of bricks.

"He told you, didn't he," Sam said quietly, and tossed the journal aside as Daniel's silence gave him the only answer he needed. "Dammit."

"Please, don't be mad at him," Daniel said hastily. "He swore me to secrecy." That made him pause. "Which, I guess, is a moot point now."

"Great." Sam put his hand over his eyes. "So, who else did he tell? Teal'c? General Hammond?"

"Just me, Sam. I promise." Daniel hesitated. "Actually, he didn't even tell me, really. He came over last night, and I could tell he was upset, and, well, I sort of dragged it out of him. He would never have told me if I hadn't pushed him, so if you're going to be mad at anyone, be mad at me."

"I'm not mad at you," Sam said tiredly. "I'm just...a little embarrassed." He sighed. "Humiliated, actually."

"Oh, Sam." Daniel cast around for a chair, and settled for moving over and perching on the edge of Sam's table. "Sam, it's nothing to be embarrassed about. Things like this happen all the time. You've been through it yourself, remember? Lieutenant Simmons?"

"That was different," Sam said automatically, hoping that it had been.

"Maybe," Daniel admitted, to Sam's relief. "But we all know that it's impossible to throw several hundred people together in close quarters and not have us start to, well, interface a little."

"Interface?"

"You know what I mean. And Jack--" Daniel thought a moment. "Jack's easy to look up to."

"He is pretty tall," Sam offered, and Daniel grinned.

"You know what I mean," he said again. "There's a lot there to admire, and respect. He's strong, and solid, and caring, and he has a great sense of humor. He's saved our lives about a dozen times over, and he puts up with an unbelievable amount of crap from all of us--mostly from me," he amended with a smile. "And he never loses his head in a crisis. He might not know the difference between an alpha particle and a gamma ray, but he knows when something is likely to start shooting at people he cares about. He's helped us all through some rough times. I understand you...wondering."

"Yeah, but how does he feel?" Sam asked with a touch of bitterness.

"Flattered, mostly," Daniel said simply. "Sorry if he hurt you. He cares a lot about you. He's scared to death that he'll lose your friendship."

Sam looked at him wonderingly. "And he told you all this?"

Daniel had the grace to look embarrassed. "Well, more or less. You know Jack. He'll dive headfirst into a black hole, but say the word 'feelings' and he leaves a set of skid marks behind."

"So he didn't actually say it."

"He didn't have to. And he did tell me that he cares about you, and that he didn't want to hurt you. The rest, I could read between the lines."

"That he's flattered?"

"Sam, you're a beautiful woman. He'd be crazy if he didn't notice that. Who wouldn't be flattered?"

Sam ducked his head. "Thanks, Daniel," he said at last.

After a moment, he felt Daniel's hand on his shoulder. "Look, I understand how you're feeling. It can be hard, working with someone, going through hell and high water with them, and then finding out one day that you're wondering what it would be like to be with them, to be closer to them."

A terrible suspicion began to creep into Sam's mind. Slowly, he lifted his head and searched Daniel's face. Daniel was leaning close to him, his eyes worried behind his spectacles, his brow furrowed in sincerity. Sam swallowed. "Daniel," he managed to croak. "Daniel, you're not saying that you--I mean that you're feeling that way about--" He couldn't finish, could only gesture helplessly at himself, and after a moment saw understanding dawn in Daniel's eyes.

"Oh!" Daniel sat back, jerking his hand away from Sam's jacket as though it had burned him. "Oh, no. No, no, no, Sam. Don't worry. It's not you." Then, as if realizing what he'd said, he added quickly. "It's no-one. Really. I was just speaking...generally." He cleared his throat. "It's very common in closed communities like this one," he said rapidly. "When you see the same people every day, and especially when you can't really talk to anyone but them about what you do. You become closer to them than almost anyone else, and it's natural to form very strong relationships." He paused. "Very natural."

"Oh. Okay." Sam did his best to return the smile. "Thanks."

Daniel seemed relieved. "Anytime. And don't worry about Jack. He's a gentleman. He won't embarrass you with this, now or ever."

"Okay. I'll take your word for it."

"You do that." Daniel slid off the table. "Now. I've got to get to work, or you'll all come to my place tonight and find out we're having hot dogs and beer instead." But he made no move to leave, instead looking down at Sam with renewed sympathy. "You'll be all right, Sam?"

"I'll be fine," Sam assured him. "Thanks." He tucked the journal under his arm and stood up. "I'm going to do some reading, then I'll head over to your place, all right?"

"Okay. See you there."

-----

Sam stayed at the base for the rest of the afternoon, reading Carter's journals in the anonymous privacy of the comissary. Al remained conspicuous in his absence, and Sam began to resign himself to another long spell on his own. What could Al do, after all, except hang around to tell Sam that he still didn't know what to do? At least this way Sam could tell himself that Al was working on it, that he was trying hard to get him out of here. Sam could only do the same.

All that aside, he soon found himself absorbed in Carter's observations about the Stargate, searching through her journals and notes for references on what it was, and how it worked. Once Sam grasped what her notes were telling him, once he realized the sheer impossibility of what she described, all he could do was sit back in awe. To hell with time travel, he thought for a brief, blasphemous moment, then had to smile.

As he read the journals, though, Sam became aware of yet another niggling emotion, one that he wasn't proud of, but which he knew better than ignore. Reading through Carter's careful observations, her records and facts and data about the hundreds of other worlds she'd visited.... Well, who wouldn't be a little jealous? he rationalized. Sam had had nothing more than a taste of what it was like, studying a completely alien environment, and he could understand the passion for her work that underlaid Carter's words. This was her life, and Sam became convinced, more than ever, that if loving O'Neill meant leaving the Stargate Command, then it wasn't the right choice for him to make for her. There had to be another way. He only wished he knew what it was.

By the time Sam had returned the last of the journals to Carter's desk, it was past time to leave. Daniel had departed more than an hour ago, dropping by to tell Sam to come on whenever he was ready, and Sam realized that he couldn't put it off much longer. He wasn't looking forward to facing O'Neill again, but he owed it to Carter to do what he could to fix the mess he'd made.

Despite his lingering at the base, Sam was still the first to arrive at Daniel's apartment. "Jack's on his way," Daniel said when he answered the door. "Come on in."

"Thanks." Sam stepped in, shedding his coat gratefully in the warmth.

"Is it too hot?" Daniel asked, reaching his hand to hover next to the thermostat. "Jack's always complaining that I still live in a desert--" He stopped. "Sorry."

"Don't," Sam said firmly. "Look, it's okay. Really." He took a deep breath. "In fact, I think it's all for the best. You're right. I wondered what it would be like, and now I know for sure. So, I can stop wondering, and move on."

Daniel nodded slowly. "That's good. I'm glad to hear it." But he didn't look entirely happy, and turned away quickly to open the closet door. "Here. Let's put your coat away, and I'll get you something to drink."

As Sam followed him into the kitchen, he sniffed lightly at the smells drifting from the stove. "Mm. What's cooking?"

"My finest Abydonian meal," Daniel said proudly. "Well, my finest Abydonian meal with Earth ingredients." He lifted a lid and stirred a bubbling pot. "I didn't think General Hammond would authorize a return trip for me to borrow a cup of flour and some beans. So, instead of ssehou, goilu, and roast zhukr, we have corn cakes, lentil stew, and roast lamb."

"Smells delicious," Sam said truthfully. "I can't wait."

"Well, as soon as Jack and Teal'c get here, I'll serve the finest off-world cooking to be found on Earth." Daniel grinned again, and turned to the fridge. "Beer, Sam?"

"Uh, no, thanks. Maybe just some water for now."

"All right. Coming right up." Daniel poured a glass from the filter pitcher in the fridge, then re-filled the reservoir from the tap. As he turned, Sam suddenly started as the familiar outline of the waiting room door popped into place next to him, heralding Al's arrival a moment later. Daniel turned back as the door slid closed, and walked through Al, unconcerned, to return the pitcher to the fridge.

"Where have you been?" Sam couldn't resist hissing, and Al looked indignant.

"What was that, Sam?"

"Uh, nothing, Daniel." Sam thought frantically. "Can I use your bathroom?"

"Sure. You know where it is."

Sam didn't, but he was lucky enough that it was a small apartment. He stalked in and shut the door, then rounded on Al. "Where have you been?" he demanded again, and Al bristled.

"Hey, you try getting a top level clearance on two weeks notice, much less two hours. I had to fly to Washington, then to Colorado, and you're lucky I didn't go all the way to Egypt."

Sam relented. "Sorry, Al," he apologized. "It's just been a little tense around here." He ran his hand over his face. "Did you find anything?"

"In buckets," Al said, and started tapping buttons. "We broke every rule in the book, but I think it might have been worth it. First of all--" Al took a deep breath. "I owe you a big apology, Sam."

Sam couldn't help a smile of triumph. "Other planets? Aliens? Space travel?"

"Oh, yeah, Sam." Al wiped his face. "Oh, yeah. Some of it I wish I didn't know, let me tell you. You have no idea how close we've come."

"I've read Carter's journals. I have an idea."

"Then I think we both know how important this one could be." Al turned to the link again. "Speaking of which, believe it or not Ziggy was right in the first place about O'Neill's suicide. It was over his wife, or at least Colonel Carter and Teal'c think so."

"'Colonel' Carter?"

"Yeah, she was promoted when she took over command of SG-1. But if you ask me, Sam, she doesn't think the promotion was worth it."

But now Sam was confused, an emotion he was starting to get used to on this Leap. "I don't get it. If Ziggy was right, then why wasn't she right about how to stop it?"

"Because we missed one very important player in all of this: Dr. Jackson. He and Carter and Teal'c were O'Neill's closest friends, but according to Carter, Daniel was about the only person that O'Neill ever really talked to, the only person he trusted enough to open up to."

Sam was silent, thinking back to his conversation with Daniel. "Yeah. I saw that," he said slowly. "Last night, after he took me home, O'Neill went to see Daniel. When he's upset, I guess that's where he goes."

"Exactly. Carter told me that when O'Neill needed help, they were all willing to be there for him. Only thing was, it was usually only Daniel who knew that there was trouble in the first place." Al looked serious. "Except the last time."

"So what happened? Why didn't Daniel know?"

"Daniel didn't know because he wasn't there. He was in Egypt. A few months before O'Neill died, a team of archaeologists found some of the same technology from the people that left the Stargate. Jackson was the logical choice to oversee the dig, so he left SG-1 to go to Egypt for a year. While he was gone, O'Neill found out about his ex-wife's kid."

"And Daniel wasn't here."

"Teal'c says that they knew something was wrong, but O'Neill seemed to be handling it. They didn't know about Sara's pregnancy until afterwards. He didn't tell anyone, just kept it all inside until it got to be too much."

"Oh, boy." Sam ran a hand over his hair. "What happened to Jackson? Can you talk to him?"

"No. They said that after O'Neill died, there wasn't anything to keep him in the Stargate program anymore."

Sam frowned. "That can't be right. The whole reason he joined was to find his wife and get her back. I don't believe he would have given up."

Al looked at Sam with sympathy. "He didn't give up, Sam. He found her--finds her--jeez, I hate this jumping around stuff--about a year from now. She, or rather, that slimy thing inside her, tries to kill Daniel. Teal'c had to kill her to save him."

"Oh, god. God, that's awful."

"Yeah."

"And he stayed with the SGC even after that?"

"Apparently. At least until O'Neill dies." Al shrugged, then waved his hands. "But it doesn't matter, because you're not here for Jackson, you're here for O'Neill."

"Fine, great. So what does Ziggy say I'm supposed to do about him?"

"Well, you've got two options, according to Ziggy. Believe it or not, the first one is the one you had before: Get him to fall in love again, so he won't be alone when all this happens."

"Oh, well, that was a great one, Al. In love with who? Carter is out of the question, and there isn't anyone else." Sam glared. "What's the other option?"

"Make sure that Daniel doesn't go to Egypt. Ziggy says if he stays here, there's an eighty-five percent chance that O'Neill will talk to him about it and not commit suicide."

Sam blinked. "Al," he said evenly. "That's four years away from now. How am I supposed to stop something that isn't even going to be an issue for four more years?"

"Well, back to square one, then."

There were a lot of things Sam might have said to that, but a sudden muffled buzz from outside the door stopped him. "Great," he said. "They must be here." He turned back to Al. "I'll keep an eye on Jack tonight," he said. "You go back and see if Ziggy has any more options. Maybe we'll see some way out of this mess."

"Okay, Sam." Al didn't sound overly enthusiastic, but he went anyway, leaving Sam to go out into the hall on his own.

By the time he got to the front hall, Daniel was nowhere in sight, but O'Neill and Teal'c had finished shedding their coats and were heading for the kitchen. "Hey, Carter," O'Neill said. "You made it."

But Sam was staring at O'Neill's face, and the enormous shiner that was blossoming around his left eye. "Colonel? What happened to you?"

He grimaced. "Apparently on Chulak--" And he glared at Teal'c. "--cross-checking isn't against the rules."

"As I told you, O'Neill, we have no such game on my world. I was unfamiliar with the rules of play."

"Yeah, well," O'Neill grumbled, but Sam thought he looked more pleased than annoyed. He pushed his way past Teal'c into the kitchen, and Sam followed him.

"Okay." Daniel turned from the sink as they came in, a towel bunched in his hand. He lifted it towards O'Neill's eye. "Here, Jack, just put this on there for a minute--"

"Hey!" O'Neill jerked back as the ice touched his face, and scowled at Daniel. "It's only a black eye, Daniel. I think I'll live."

"Yeah, until the general sees that Monday morning." Daniel pressed the ice against his face once more, and this time he didn't protest. "Okay." Daniel grabbed O'Neill's wrist and slapped his hand on the towel. "Hold that there."

"Thanks, Daniel," O'Neill muttered, his face half-obscured by the ice pack. "This is much better, really."

"So, you two were playing hockey?" Sam asked, and O'Neill swiveled his head to bring his good eye to bear on him.

"I thought it might appeal to our staff-wielding buddy here. I thought I'd have to teach him how to skate first, but apparently they've got something similar that they do on glaciers or something."

"It is called tu'zuzhe atuuq," Teal'c supplied helpfully.

"Yeah, whatever." O'Neill pulled the fridge open one-handed and reached for a beer in the door, nudging it back closed with his foot. He tried twice to open the can with one hand, then finally Daniel took it away from him and popped the top himself. "Thanks," O'Neill said. "Anyway, let's just say that it's a good thing there's not a Team Jaffa in the NHL. Those guys wouldn't stand a chance."

"So, that was your 'cultural field trip?'" Daniel asked. "Hockey?"

"Yeah," O'Neill said defensively. "And?"

"Nothing, nothing," Daniel said quickly. He turned to Teal'c. "You want anything to drink, Teal'c?"

"I will have beer also," Teal'c announced. "Colonel O'Neill says that it is the traditional drink of sporting events."

"Well, okay, I guess I can't disagree with that." Daniel seemed bemused. "Why don't you all sit down, and I'll bring it out."

"Thank you."

Still holding the towel to his eye, O'Neill led them into the living room and flopped down on one of the easy chairs, propping his feet on the coffee table. He gave a soft groan as he relaxed into the chair, then winced as he shifted to put his beer on the table beside him.

"You all right, sir?" Sam asked, taking his own place on the couch, and saw him close his eye.

"Oh, yeah," he said airily. "Just peachy."

"Colonel O'Neill successfully defended his goal many times," Teal'c informed Sam. "He is a skilled player."

"That's Chulak for 'Jack fell on his ass a lot,'" O'Neill translated from his chair.

"But you won the game, O'Neill, four goals to three."

"Yeah, against a guy who'd never picked up a hockey stick before. Thanks, Teal'c."

"You are welcome, O'Neill."

"I was being--Oh, never mind." O'Neill let his head fall back and sighed. A moment later, Daniel came in with Teal'c's drink and took the chair across from O'Neill's, casting him a sympathetic glance.

"How's the eye, Jack?"

"Fine." To prove his point, O'Neill took the towel away and prodded gingerly at the reddened skin. "Be good as new in no time," he pronounced.

"Great. Then, if you're all ready, how about we eat?"

"Sounds good," Sam said, and stood up. "I'm starving."

As he ate, Sam followed his own suggestion and kept a close eye on O'Neill. But if he hoped to gain any stunning insights into his character, or any hint of what to do to stop the tragedy he was here to prevent, then he was disappointed. All he saw was that O'Neill seemed happy and content and relaxed around the other members of the team. It was Daniel, though, who made him laugh out loud, Daniel who made him smile, and Daniel's words that brought the spark of interest to his eyes.

Al was probably right. If Daniel could stay around long enough, if he was here when he got the news about Sara, then Sam believed that he would be able to help him through it. But how the hell was Sam supposed to make sure of that? He was used to working on a much more immediate scale, preventing something that was going to happen in the next day, or week, or hour. Four years was a little too far-reaching.

Something had to be happening now. Some significant event that Sam could manipulate to produce the desired result. Something, he thought in frustration, that would either make Jack O'Neill fall in love again, or cause Daniel Jackson to stay here in Colorado. But what the heck was it?

It wasn't until Teal'c asked, politely, if he was all right that Sam realized he was sitting with his fork poised over a hunk of corn cake, staring into space while his mind spun fruitlessly, desperately searching the possibilities. "Uh, yeah," he said quickly. "I'm fine, Teal'c."

"Is the food all right, Sam?" Daniel asked, a little anxiously. "The corn cakes may be a little dry--"

"No, no. It's very good," Sam said truthfully. "I was just thinking about something else for a minute. Sorry."

"Yeah, well, while you're thinking," O'Neill said, gesturing with his fork, "you can pass the Roast Beast back this way."

"Lamb," Daniel supplied helpfully while Sam handed over the platter. "They actually have a kind of sheep-like animal on Abydos, but the meat is very tough. They have to--"

"Yeah, whatever." O'Neill teased a slice of meat onto his plate and passed the platter on to Teal'c. "The only thing I remember being served was that big--" He waved his fork expressively. "--lizard-armadillo-chicken thing."

"Yes, that was ounash. It's actually quite a delicacy, Jack. It was a great honor for them to serve it to us."

"Oh, yeah." O'Neill poked at the food on his plate. "Great honor."

But Sam only listened to the exchange with a small part of his mind. The rest of his attention was focused on the more immediate problem of how the hell he was ever going to leave this Leap.

Not, he reflected with a touch of wistfulness, that that would be so bad. Traveling to different planets every week, doing the kind of work he loved, living the life of a scientist-explorer. A life, he had to remind himself, that wasn't his.

Somehow, Sam got through the rest of the meal, though if asked later he would have been hard-pressed to recall the taste of anything he ate. After dinner, Daniel shooed them into the living room to sit while he brought coffee. Sam wasn't normally a big coffee fan, but he sipped the sweet, hot liquid gratefully, welcoming the surge of the caffeine to his tired brain. This Leap was wearing him out. Normally he had a goal, something to focus on, but this time there was nothing. He was floundering in a sea of confusion, and it didn't look as though things were going to get better anytime soon.

By the time O'Neill finally stood up and announced that he and Teal'c were going, Sam had the beginnings of another raging headache. He followed the others glumly to the hall to fetch his coat. There was no reason for him to hang around, and the best thing he could do was go home, go to bed, and hope that things would be better in the morning. Tomorrow is another day, he thought tiredly, and reached for his own coat as Daniel spoke up behind him.

"Hey, Sam, hang on a second. I forgot, I've still got that book you leant me. I keep meaning to give it back."

O'Neill already had the door open to leave, and he merely waved to them both as he followed Teal'c outside. "Good-night, kids," he said. "Don't stay up too late watching scary movies."

Daniel said good-night, and before Sam knew it the door had closed behind him, leaving him and Daniel standing alone in the hallway.

"Come on, I'll go get that book."

Sam followed him back into the living room, yawning. All he wanted to do now was go home. He was so tired that he didn't even notice Al standing in the corner until he spoke.

"Hey, Sam. Got a minute?"

"Okay," Sam said without thinking, and Daniel turned around.

"What was that, Sam?"

After a moment of hesitation. Sam bent down and picked up his coffee cup. "Uh, mind if I get some more coffee while you look?" he asked.

"Oh, sure. Help yourself."

"Thanks."

In the kitchen, Sam dumped the last half of his cold cup down the drain and started pouring another. "What is it, Al?"

Al looked apologetic. "This may not mean anything, Sam, but I figure every little bit of information helps."

"What? Did Ziggy find something?"

"You mean does she know what you're supposed to do? No. But we found out what happened to Dr. Jackson. Or, more to the point, we didn't."

Sam closed his eyes. "Al, I'm too tired for riddles. Just spit it out."

"He disappeared, Sam. Poof. Vanished."

"Huh?" Sam set the coffee pot down. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I told you that after O'Neill's funeral, he went back to his assignment in Egypt, and we assumed that he'd stayed there. But Ziggy couldn't find any records of him applying for funds or publishing papers, nada. So finally I get the brilliant idea of asking Carter where he is. Turns out that two months after he got back, he walked off the dig. No one ever saw him again."

"What?" Sam craned his neck briefly to look through into the living room, watching Daniel pore over the spines of his books. "Why did he do that?"

"I don't know. I asked Carter the same thing. She said, and I quote, 'I guess with Sha're gone, and the colonel gone, it wasn't worth it for him anymore.'"

"Wow." Sam leaned against the counter, folding his arms over his chest. "Sounds like Daniel needed O'Neill as much as O'Neill needed...." He trailed off, feeling his brow furrow as something in that thought tickled the back of his head. "Hang on a second," he muttered, and put his hands on his temples, trying to will his tired mind to follow the sudden, clear chain of logic.

O'Neill needed to fall in love. O'Neill needed Daniel.

O'Neill needed to fall in love with Daniel.

"Oh, God," Sam breathed, and pushed himself away from the counter. "Al, do me a favor. Pull up O'Neill's chances for survival, and keep an eye on it. I'm going to try something."

"Sam?" Al stepped in front of him. "What's going on?"

Sam looked at him. "Trust me, Al," he said solemnly. "You don't want to know." He waved. "Just...follow me."

With Al muttering in his wake, Sam went back into the living room to find Daniel just pulling a bright-jacketed book from the top shelf.

"Found it," he said. "Sorry, I thought I knew where it was." He dusted it off and handed it to Sam. "Here you go."

"Thanks," Sam said automatically. He stared down at the book, not even reading the title, trying to find the words to begin. He could be wrong. He could be hideously wrong. But there was only one way to find out. "Daniel," he began. "I was wondering...Could I ask you about something?"

Daniel, bending down to gather up the last of the discarded coffee cups, barely glanced at him. "Yeah, I guess. About what?"

Sam took a deep breath. "About Colonel O'Neill."

That stopped him. Sam steeled himself as Daniel turned his head to look at him full on, but there was nothing in his eyes but mild confusion. "What about Jack?" he asked gently.

"Sam, where are you going with this?" Al asked warily.

Sam ignored him. "About you being in love with him."

"Sam! Have you lost your mind?" A withering glare from Sam shut Al up, and he turned back to Daniel.

Daniel's jaw had dropped, and for second he couldn't even seem to speak. "E--excuse me?" he finally stuttered, trying to smile, and failing. "Is this a joke?"

"No," Sam said, and gave Al another hard stare.

Slowly, Daniel put down the cups he'd just picked up. "What makes you think I'm in love with Jack?" he asked warily. His voice was painfully casual, the attempt to make light of it achingly obvious, but his eyes were less prudent, the sudden flare of vulnerability all that Sam really needed to confirm that he'd been right.

"You told me," he said, feeling the sudden, heady rush of certainty fill him, the words spilling out in front of him as easily as if he'd opened the page of a new book. "This morning, in the lab, you told me all about him. I thought you were saying it to tell me that you understood that I could be attracted to him. I didn't realize until later that you were talking about yourself."

For a long time, Daniel said nothing. Then he walked over and sat down heavily on the couch, rubbing his hands over his face. "Oh, god, Sam. This is..." he laughed harshly. "This is embarrassing."

"You're telling me!" Al growled. "Sam this is ridiculous. You're here to save O'Neill, not get him fixed up with...with...some guy. He's a colonel!"

Sam closed his eyes briefly, and prayed for patience. "Hey," he said to Daniel. "At least you didn't throw yourself at him and find out that it wasn't you he was attracted to. That's embarrassing," he added pointedly, sending another look at Al, and got a glare right back.

"Look, Sam, I'm telling you. Jack O'Neill is not gay, and neither is Daniel Jackson. This is..." Al stared at the link as it started blinking again, frowned, and hit it absently. "This is..." Al swallowed. "Impossible?" He gaped almost comically at the numbers for a long moment. "Sam," he said incredulously. "Colonel O'Neill's chances of survival just went up by ten percent."

Sam felt a thrill of triumph, and stopped himself just short of saying "I told you so," to Al. He settled for a small, smug nod, and turned his attention back to Daniel, trusting Al to keep digging.

"Sam, I'm sorry," Daniel was going on, oblivious to the debate raging just beyond his left shoulder. "Really, I am." His mouth twisted into a small smile. "I know just how you feel, believe me."

Sam's heart sank. "You do? You mean you told--"

"No!" Daniel looked at him in horror. "God, no. I can't."

Al swallowed. "Sam, Ziggy says that you're on the right track--much as I think you're both missing a few screws--but O'Neill still dies. She says..." Al grimaced. "She says that Daniel must never have told him that he--told him how he feels," he finally temporized.

"Why not?" Sam asked both of them.

"No idea, Sam," Al said, but Daniel was already answering.

"Well, aside from all the other reasons...." Daniel blew out a long, tired breath. "There's Sha're." Sam said nothing, and Daniel cast him a sidelong look. "Come on, Sam, what am I going to say to him? Jack, I love you, but I'm still going to do everything I can to find my wife? I haven't given up on her, Sam. What if I say something to Jack, and then I find her?"

"She dies, Sam," Al interjected. "He's never going to get her back."

"What if you don't?" Sam saw Daniel flinch at the words, but he went on anyway, pushing relentlessly. "I mean, how long are you going to wait?"

"As long as it takes, Sam."

"The rest of your life?" Sam paused. "The rest of Jack's life?"

"Sam, it's not fair to him!" Daniel suddenly shouted. "I love Sha're, too. How am I supposed to choose between them?"

"Who says you have to?" Sam insisted. He thought for a moment, choosing his next words carefully. "Colonel O'Neill knows how you feel about Sha're. He already knows that you love her, and that you'll do almost anything to find her. He wouldn't expect you to stop looking for her."

"Oh, so you think Jack will settle for being my second choice? Waiting for me to find Sha're so I can go off with her instead of him? I wouldn't do that to him."

"I didn't think you would. In fact, I don't think it's really O'Neill that you're worried about betraying."

The color fled Daniel's face as though he'd suddenly lost a pint of blood. "That's a cheap shot, Sam."

"Yeah, but looks like it hit home," Al said quietly. "Keep going, Sam. I think you found something."

"I'm sorry, Daniel. That was pretty harsh, I'm sorry. But it's been how long?"

"Over a year and a half," Al supplied at the same moment that Daniel said, "Almost two years."

"That's a long time," Sam said. "I know you haven't given up hope, but no-one--no-one--would blame you for thinking about getting on with your own life. I'm not saying," he added quickly, "that you should run out right now and declare your undying love to Colonel O'Neill. But if one day, maybe, you did stop looking for Sha're, he would understand why you waited to tell him. Up to a point," he finished.

"That's it, Sam. O'Neill's chances just got over sixty percent. You're doing it!"

"Just promise me this, Daniel," Sam went on. "When you do decide, no matter when, don't think it's too late."

"You say that as if it's not too late right now. Jack's my friend, but I don't know if he's that good a friend."

Sam let his eyes drift to Al. "I can't promise anything," he said, still holding Al with his gaze, "but I do know that he loves you. Maybe you're right, and he doesn't think about you like 'that,' but I think we both know that sometimes the colonel needs to be led to the water, if you know what I mean."

"You know what they say about leading a horse to water, Sam," Al said grumpily, but the protest was feeble.

"Yeah, that's really encouraging, Sam." Daniel looked at Sam curiously. "But I have to ask you. Yesterday, you were, well, not to put too fine a point on it, trying to seduce Jack yourself. Why are you suddenly so interested in fixing me up with him?"

"Because I made a mistake," Sam said after a moment of frantic thought. "I saw all the things that you did, Daniel. Colonel O'Neill cares about us, he takes care of us, he risks his life for us. I just made the mistake of thinking that it was directed at me."

"And you think it's me?"

Sam shrugged. "Some of it, yeah. But you'll never know for sure unless you take the chance. The worst that can happen is that he'll say no."

"Yeah, and maybe I'll change our friendship into something I don't want. I don't know if it's worth that, Sam."

"I don't think that'll happen." Sam smiled. "Trust me, I know from experience. It'll take more than a pass to change the way he feels about you."

Behind Daniel, Al gave a sudden strangled shout of triumph. "Sam! You did it! You changed history. O'Neill's still alive, and living here in Colorado Springs. Daniel stays with the SGC, and get this, after he gets back from Egypt he moves in temporarily with O'Neill."

"Temporarily?" Sam couldn't help asking aloud.

"Well, temporarily for three years. Somehow he never gets around to finding his own place."

"Ah." Sam looked at Daniel, who was staring at him oddly. "It'll take more than a pass," he said quickly, "to change the way O'Neill feels even temporarily."

"Oh. Yeah, I guess you're right." Daniel managed a smile. "Thanks, Sam. You've really given me a lot to think about."

"Yeah, well, what are friends for?" Sam smothered a huge yawn, and a moment later Daniel did likewise. "Guess it's getting late," Sam said. "I should probably get on home."

"Okay. Thanks again."

"Anytime. Just remember what I said, all right?"

"I will. Good-night, Sam."

-----

Monday morning, Sam stood at the foot of ramp, watching apprehensively as the inner wheel of the Stargate spun around. O'Neill, Daniel, and Teal'c were standing by the door, O'Neill and Daniel idly chatting, giving Sam the chance to mutter to Al without being noticed.

"Why the hell am I still here, Al?"

"Uh, well, Ziggy's still working on that, Sam."

"Well, tell her to work faster!"

"We're doing our best, Sam. Far as we can tell, everything with the team turns out fine. They're still together, still going on missions through the Stargate. Carter gets promoted in a couple of months to Major, and O'Neill eventually makes General."

"And he and Daniel are still together?"

"As near as we can figure, yeah." Sam gave Al a look, and he shrugged apologetically. "It's not like there are marriage records or anything, Sam, and they seem to be pretty discreet. But they're still sharing O'Neill's house, and they seem very happy."

"None of which explains why I haven't Leaped yet." Sam jumped as the Gate suddenly exploded to life, flinching back involuntarily as the shockwave sprayed out over the ramp.

"Well, Ziggy's just come up with another theory about that, Sam. She thinks that in order to Leap, you need to step through the Stargate."

"Why? I've always Leaped just fine all by myself before."

"Yeah, and you never ended up on an alien planet before, either." Al shook his head. "Wish I could have been there. I've been in space, but I've never foot on anything other than dear old terra firma." He sighed wistfully, then returned to the handlink. "Anyway, Ziggy says that all you have to do is go through...that, and you'll Leap."

"Let's go, campers," O'Neill said, striding past Sam and up the ramp. "Captain, you coming?"

"Yes, sir." Sam adjusted his helmet and took a deep breath. "Here goes nothing," he muttered. "I just hope this works." He joined O'Neill at the top of the ramp, and got a brief, almost appraising glance from the other man.

"You ready, Captain?"

"Yes, sir." Sam gave him a grin.

O'Neill nodded. "See you on the other side."

"Yes, sir," Sam said, and stepped through.

THE END