Jack struggled awake through a familiar narcotic haze, pushing himself stubbornly toward the pain. He found the stabbing light next, and right behind it was the thrumming anxiety that was going to explode into full-blown panic as soon as he remembered what the hell he was so worried about.
"Easy, Colonel, it's all right. You're safe. You're in the infirmary."
Jack's eyes only halfway focused, but he recognized Dr. Fraiser by voice and blurry outline. His mouth was dry, and he couldn't make a sound beyond rough breathing. The bright shape of the doc moved, and there was the smooth, solid edge of a straw against his lip. Jack sipped--water, pure cold water, nothing like it.
When Dr. Fraiser took the straw away, Jack tried again. "Team?"
He felt a light brush of fingers on his cheek--that was one spot he wasn't hurt, then.
"Just rest, Colonel."
The drugs rolled back in, and the pain and light receded, leaving nothing to hold onto--not even the knowledge that that hadn't been an answer.
Sam thought she was dreaming at first. She'd had dreams like this, where her guys were hurt or in danger while she was unable to move to do anything about it. It couldn't actually be happening. Teal'c couldn't be sitting beside her with tears on his face while she just lay still and watched.
She tried to reach for him, and felt the tug of an IV in her hand and the sudden reawakening of pain that had lagged a little behind consciousness. Teal'c's hand closed gently on hers, holding it to the bed.
"Be still, Major Carter," he said softly, but his voice sounded rough, and the tears were still there on his cheeks.
Sam was awake then, enough to recognize the fog of post-concussion and painkillers. She tried to sort nightmare from memory--there was nothing but silence as she lay unable to move. "Teal'c, where are Daniel and Colonel O'Neill?"
Teal'c's hand squeezed on hers. "Daniel Jackson is here."
He released her hand and slid his arm behind her shoulders to help her sit up. Daniel was lying in the next bed--lying perfectly, horribly still, his head swathed in bandages.
"Teal'c," Sam whispered, reaching for him with her free hand, clutching blindly at his arm.
"Doctor Fraiser believes he will wake soon," Teal'c said, but his voice was still unsteady, and there was still so much he wasn't saying--what kind of prognosis was that, just believing Daniel would wake up, and--
"Teal'c," Sam demanded, dragging her eyes from Daniel to look again at Teal'c's face, at the tears shining on his skin. "Where's the colonel?"
Teal'c just shook his head slowly, and Sam let go of his sleeve and banged her fist against the solidity of his arm.
"Teal'c, what--where is--tell me--" She didn't mean to be hitting him, really, but her fist kept rising and falling relentlessly. She saw him flinch, and fresh tears ran down his face, but Teal'c didn't say another word.
"He's not," Sam sobbed, and thought distantly now I'm crying too, what good does that do? "He can't be--"
Teal'c's arms closed around her, as much immobilization as a hug. He pressed her head down gently to his shoulder.
"He is gone," Teal'c said. She felt the damp pressure of his cheek against her temple, and that made it almost okay that the shoulder of his t-shirt was already soaked. "But we are here."
Jack woke up and knew that he was awake and that something was really wrong. He knew he'd been here a while, and though he was decently sheet-covered, the curtain was drawn around his bed.
He could tell that moving at all would hurt like hell, but he could and did look around. Hammond was standing at his left shoulder in full uniform, blue coat buttoned up, and Jack knew, right then. He knew.
He looked away from Hammond, up to the ceiling. He tried to fall down into the pain, willed the dogged push and pull of his lungs to stop, his heart to stop its heavy, aching beat. There was no point anymore, but his body had never been good at taking that kind of hint.
"Jack," Hammond said quietly.
"Tell me it was fast," Jack said, because he might as well use his breath for something if he had to have it. "Tell me how grateful the nation is for their sacrifices."
Hammond said nothing for a long time. His hand settled on Jack's shoulder, warm and steady, and Jack gritted his teeth against the ticklish feeling of water dripping into his ears.
"It was fast," Hammond said finally. "Too fast for you to have saved them, even if you hadn't been nearly gone yourself."
Jack shook his head the fraction that he could bear. Not goddamn near enough.
Sam had a feeling Teal'c had scared off the nurses. Janet checked on her, and checked on Daniel, but no one else came near them until General Hammond walked in. Sam straightened up automatically. She'd been leaning against Teal'c, both of them sitting sideways on her bed to watch Daniel's chest rise and fall.
"At ease, Major," Hammond sighed. "I just wanted to let you know we... we recovered Jack's body."
Sam flinched, and Teal'c's arm tightened around her. "Sir? Can you... I don't remember exactly what happened."
Hammond nodded and came a little closer, though he didn't step into the space between her bed and Daniel's, didn't intrude between the three surviving members of the team.
"We think it was the Goa'uld equivalent of a land mine, based on what we've found so far. Luckily Teal'c was able to dial back out and send a distress signal before he collapsed, so we got medical help to the rest of you in time, but--Jack died instantly, Sam. I'm sorry."
Sam nodded, turning her blurred gaze to Daniel again. A land mine. There was nothing any of them could have done about that, nothing they could have defended against. Just astronomically bad luck. She remembered the silence--she must have been half-conscious for a while, maybe deafened, or maybe there had been nothing left to hear after they all went down. Teal'c had gotten back up, though. Teal'c had saved them.
Most of them.
"May we be permitted to see Colonel O'Neill's body?" Teal'c's voice was steady, but Sam could hear the rasp in it.
"Not right now," the general said. "He's a mess. They'll clean him up. I'll let you know when you can see him."
"You have to wait," Sam said.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Hammond freeze, and Sam looked up, vaguely conscious that she shouldn't construct sentences that way in the direction of the base commander. But what she had to say was more important than remembering the right way to say it.
"Until Daniel wakes up," Sam said. "You have to wait to do anything with the--" colonel "--the body. Daniel will need to see, too. Sir."
Hammond looked from her to Daniel--so still on the bed, so quiet, just monitors beeping. If she was quiet enough, if she concentrated hard enough, Sam could hear him breathing. With the general here, talking, she'd lost that faint thread of sound.
"We'll wait as long as we can," Hammond said, and Sam accepted his promise.
"--Fuck, George, you tell me my baby girl's dead, and then you give me--"
Jack twitched toward motion--no one should be talking to his CO that way, not even--
Not even Jacob Carter, not even the father of a dead baby girl--Carter--Daniel--Teal'c--
Pain blazed up, pinning Jack in place, but he kept the scream silent. It wasn't only that he'd lost his team; he was--had been, at least--closer to joining them than he'd thought. Caught halfway to dead and dragged back over half a galaxy of rough road.
Hammond's voice. Focus on the CO's voice, not the pain, not the fear that this was going to be the last bad injury, the one that never went away.
"--Would have wanted you to have it. It belonged more to her than anyone, and if you don't take it it's going to an NID lab. Frankly, I think it'll help more people in your hands than theirs."
"I want to see O'Neill."
"Jake, he's barely been conscious--"
"You want this to help people, let me start with yours."
Jacob sounded vicious, but if he came through the curtain and put a pillow over Jack's face, Jack couldn't say he'd argue. Still, he closed his eyes. Played dead.
He couldn't help the flutter of his eyelids when the golden light struck them, warm and buzzing, vibrating his skull--but the resonance soothed the pain instead of amplifying it, knitted things back together that should never have been separated. By the time the light shifted lower, Jack's eyes were open. He watched Jacob wield the healing device with a look on his face like a man firing a gun, coldly focused.
Jack wasn't sure Jacob even realized he was awake, but he couldn't look away and feign sleep again.
Jacob whispered, "You get better, you son of a bitch."
Jack's eyes flicked from the light and Jacob's hand, to the place where Hammond wasn't standing, to Jacob's face. Jacob was staring at the device, speaking low and furious in the general direction of Jack's pancreas.
"You're going to live a long, healthy life, O'Neill, and every goddamned day of it you're going to remember that you're alive and my daughter isn't. Just like I will."
Jack closed his eyes. There was no way to argue with a curse that was already coming true.
Janet tried to draw the curtain between Sam's bed and Daniel's. Sam knew she still wasn't worth much in a fight--Teal'c wouldn't let her walk to the bathroom and back alone, and she needed his steadying arm more than she wanted to admit--but she felt herself bracing to do battle all the same.
"Leave it. I'll lie down. I'll rest. Just don't you dare split us up."
"Sam," Janet said gently. "Daniel's condition is--"
"Don't hide him from us," Sam snapped. "Whatever he needs, we're here with him."
Janet gave Sam a long, kind look. Sam wanted to hide from that, more than she would have from shouting, but it was Daniel on the line. She held her ground. Teal'c was standing between the beds--blocking the track of the curtain, in fact. He was a silent, steady presence, supporting Sam even when she was lying down.
"There's nothing we can do for him right now," Janet said finally. "It's just a matter of waiting to see how he does when he wakes up. But you need to rest, Sam. You need to take care of yourself--"
"I need my team," Sam said flatly. "I'll rest with my team. Turn the lights down, I'll rest. We'll all rest."
Janet sighed, and pointedly raised her hands in surrender before she turned the lights down--just a little, so it wouldn't be a hindrance if anyone had to rush in and help Daniel--and left them alone.
Sam closed her eyes in a show of obedience, and a while later she became aware that the infirmary had gone quiet. Graveyard shift, probably, so maybe she really had slept a while. She opened her eyes and found that Daniel and Teal'c were both right where she'd left them.
Sam knew what she had to do.
"Teal'c," she said softly. "I need the healing device."
She couldn't go get it herself; it would take her too long to walk to the safe and back, and anyway Teal'c wouldn't let her go alone, so they'd lose any semblance of stealth.
Teal'c gave her a thoughtful look. "It requires strength and concentration. It will be a strain on you, and you are not yet fully healed yourself."
"Teal'c, you heard Janet. He ought to be awake by now."
Teal'c was still for a few seconds, then said, "I do not know the combination to the safe."
"Two two three seven one," Sam said. Teal'c nodded, and Sam watched him walk away from her for the first time since she'd woken up.
Sam maneuvered herself out of bed--she wasn't in such bad shape, just sore and weak and tired, her vision a little blurred. No broken bones, no gaping wounds. She could do this. For Daniel, she could. She snagged a tall stool and rolled it to the side of Daniel's bed, and had herself perched on it by the time Teal'c came back and passed the device into her hand. He took up a position beside her, one hand on her back and the other on the bed beside Daniel's head.
Sam fitted the device over her hand and when she leaned forward, Teal'c's hand slid to her side to brace her. She reached inside herself for that point of focus and access. Daniel needed this. If she'd just been able to get to the colonel in time--no, Daniel, think of Daniel and focus--
There. Sam opened her eyes and watched the golden light pour down, shimmering over the gauze and tape covering Daniel's head, the livid scrapes and black bruises that covered his jaw and mottled his throat. She could feel the energy pouring out of the device, feel all the broken places where it was hungrily absorbed; all she had to do was hold it steady, keep the power lines open and aiming the right way.
"Samantha Carter," Teal'c said softly, his fingers digging into a sore place on Sam's ribs, and she let herself sway backward. Her trembling arms fell into her lap. Teal'c held her up as Daniel blinked, frowned, and raised a hand to rub his eyes, then prodded at the bandages on his head with shaking fingertips.
"Okay," Daniel said in a low voice. "This is bad."
She had to tell him how bad. She had to. Sam's throat closed up, and she felt unbearably tired.
"Sam," Daniel said, looking from her face to the healing device and back to himself, "I don't want to sound ungrateful or anything, but..."
She straightened up. Daniel. Daniel needed help. "Where does it hurt? I can do more."
"That's the thing," Daniel said, squinting down the bed. "It doesn't hurt. Um, my legs. They don't... I don't think I can move my legs."
Janet hadn't said anything about that. They would have checked, wouldn't they? They would have noticed a serious spinal injury. Maybe it wasn't that bad--swelling, nerves compressed, something--but whatever it was, the healing device could handle it. She was sure of that.
Sam shifted away from Teal'c's grip and said, "Hold still, Daniel. Teal'c, help him keep still."
Daniel said, "Sam, are you sure..."
"This is probably going to hurt," she said, because she wasn't sure about anything except that she had to do whatever she could for Daniel. When she looked to meet Daniel's eyes, she had to look over Teal'c's shoulder; he was leaning halfway across the bed, his arm braced over Daniel, steadying him.
Daniel nodded and leaned his head against Teal'c's arm, and Sam got to work again. She passed the healing device slowly down Daniel's body, searching for the place that cried out loudest to be healed--there, over his chest. Sam gritted her teeth and opened up wide, pouring power through the device, into Daniel, live, live, live--
There were more hands this time--Daniel must be sitting up to catch her like that--that had to be a good sign. Teal'c was behind her, shoving her up onto the edge of Daniel's bed as Daniel held her against his chest.
They were talking--she thought they were talking to her. Some half-heard question made her nod a couple of times. She felt the device leave her hand. Her fingers felt cold and small without it.
"--Jack?" Daniel said, and everything came sharply, suddenly into focus. She could hear Teal'c breathing, she could hear Daniel's heart pounding. "Sam? What--"
Sam shook her head. Teal'c's hand pressed against her back, and he said, only, "No, Daniel Jackson."
"No," Daniel said, in a calm, quiet voice. "No. Not Jack. No. There's a mistake, they--Sam, they must be lying to us, we can't--this can't be real."
Sam just shook her head again. "General Hammond said we can see him in the morning. Janet's seen him. We--"
"I saw him," Teal'c said, with horrible finality. Sam was suddenly, miserably glad not to remember anything like that, anything but the silence and the incongruously blue sky, after the dust settled.
"You didn't, you can't--no, I refuse--" Daniel snarled, pushing Sam away; she was so limp she'd have fallen off the bed if Teal'c hadn't caught her.
There was a silence, louder than a shout--nothing but Teal'c's arms, rigid around her--and then Daniel said, "Shit, Sam, Teal'c, no, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"
Sam nodded and closed her eyes, and let Daniel gather her in again, let Teal'c hold them together, let herself rest.
Dr. Fraiser checked him out after Jacob left. She made a lot of skeptical noises about Jack's exact state of health, but she let him have some fatigues to put on. They hadn't given him his boots, though, and when he stepped outside the curtain, there was an airman waiting with a wheelchair.
"If you want to," Dr. Fraiser said. "There's no rush."
Jack's legs--which had been feeling remarkably strong and painless a second ago--went wobbly all of a sudden. Still, he forced himself to walk the short distance to the wheelchair and to sit down smoothly.
"Now," he said. "Now's... now. Yes."
"Colonel, if you want me to--"
"No. I need to do this." Jack looked away and forced his voice to be neutral, steady. "Thank you."
Dr. Fraiser stepped back, and didn't say he was welcome. Jack closed his eyes as the wheelchair was turned gently, smoothly toward the door. It wasn't a long ride, even at the careful pace of a wheelchair, slow as a funeral procession.
He opened his eyes as the morgue-smell hit; the coroner was standing there, manning his post beside the three sheet-draped shapes on the tables. Jack felt an instant of idiotic, irrational hope: maybe it wouldn't be them, maybe they'd pull back the sheets and find aliens, imposters, robots, anything but his people....
But this wasn't that kind of day. He knew that.
Jack waited until the wheelchair had come to a full and complete stop, and then levered himself up to his feet, avoiding the hovering hand of the airman. "A moment alone with my team, please?"
The coroner and the airman both hesitated, and Jack said, "I can make it an order. Just give me a minute."
The coroner nodded, gathering up the young airman as he left, and then Jack was alone in the cold and quiet with the three covered bodies. SG-1, together again.
Jack peeled back the sheet slowly from the head-end of the nearest table, and stopped to brace himself when he saw blonde hair.
He'd seen dead people of all descriptions. On other worlds, on this one, for nearly as long as he'd been in uniform. Soldiers, civilians. His own people, the enemy, and way too many innocent bystanders. Women. Kids. Seeing kids had gotten worse after Charlie was born, and worse again after Charlie died (small body, huge pool of blood, blond hair black with it, spatter on the wall and the bed, Sara clutching his arm and screaming while a part of his mind just coolly observed that the first step was to secure any weapons at the scene--much, much too late).
But seeing women dead, that had always been bad; most of the ones Jack saw were more or less innocent victims, of their own people as much as of whatever--whoever--killed them.
Jack was an old-fashioned guy, anyway. Even though he knew perfectly well that he'd been taking Carter into a potential combat zone every time they stepped through the Gate... Well, he'd been taking Daniel, too, and Daniel was a civilian. But it was okay, because he was there to protect them. Until he wasn't. Couldn't. Didn't. And then this happened. To a woman. To Carter.
He peeled back the sheet a few inches and stopped again, stomach churning. Christ, he hoped Hammond hadn't let Jacob see her like this. Distantly it occurred to Jack that he shouldn't really be seeing her like this, either, but he had to. He had to know.
One whole side of her face was pulped, muscle and bone exposed and gruesomely misshapen. Jack squeezed his eyes shut and stepped back, so that he could look at just the clean side. He touched her cheek, where there was skin intact, and felt the cold solidity of the body--not her anymore, it. This wasn't the chill of mere room temperature death; she'd been kept cold for a while. Jack wondered how long he'd been in that bed, how long Hammond had held them--the bodies--already.
He could see stitches holding together a ragged gash on her throat, and told himself it was modesty--respect--that made him stop there, not a sick terror of what further damage he might find if he looked.
He covered her back up, as gently as he could with shaking hands, and moved to the next table, again slowly inching the sheet down. Dark skin, bare scalp. Teal'c.
This should be easier than Carter, or at least different--Teal'c was a man, a warrior, and Jack had never led him into anything he hadn't faced before on his own--but it wasn't. He felt as ashen and empty and cold as the body on the table. There should have been four. He couldn't think, couldn't feel, anything past the enormity of that. They were SG-1. There should have been four.
Jack eased the sheet down slowly, but Teal'c's face was unmarked, just still and cold, his skin gone grayish in death. The unmistakable emptiness of death was nothing like Teal'c's calm reserve. The body was just a shell now. For the first time, Jack touched the gold tattoo--it was colder than the skin around it, unyielding.
Jack thought suddenly--vivid as a flashback--of some archaeologist (Daniel, but not Daniel, not Daniel ever again) excavating a First Prime's grave, finding only dust, only bones that puffed into powder at a touch, and this gold emblem, unchanged.
Jack took the edge of the sheet and drew it down lower, past Teal'c's unmarked throat, his chest cut and sewn back together in a Y that ended in the X of Junior's pouch, now weirdly concave. Jack touched the skin cautiously, and felt more than the cold--the telltale squish of concussion, a body destroyed inside by the force of a blast. Teal'c must have been further away than Carter, or fell differently when he landed--dead instantly, maybe. At the very least Junior must have been, and then Teal'c wouldn't have lasted long with no one able to help him.
Jack turned away, toward the last sheet-draped table. It would be Daniel under there, dead like Carter and Teal'c, and Jack couldn't bear the suspense anymore. He grabbed the sheet in the middle and tugged it down, uncovering Daniel's body to the hips in one yank, like a magician's reveal.
His stomach lurched. He wasn't completely numb after all.
Daniel's chest was a blown-out mess, but Jack couldn't take his eyes from Daniel's face--mostly undamaged, but there were deep cuts all around his eyes, across the bridge of his nose and his temple. There were smaller cuts on his eyelids--the lenses of his glasses had shattered, the frames had been driven into his face. He'd had time to shut his eyes against whatever happened, or maybe just got caught in a blink.
Jack felt himself giving way--reached to catch himself against the table, and his fingertips collided with the cold of Daniel's wrist, the chill of the refrigerated corpse that used to be Daniel. He sank down to his knees and let his hands fall on his thighs, waiting for the warmth to seep back into them.
He waited a long time. Even after he'd been carted back to the infirmary and tucked into bed, the cold still clung to his fingertips.
Sam opened her eyes on a strange reversal. Daniel and Teal'c were sitting together on the bed across from her while she lay flat on her back. She felt exhausted and vaguely battered, like she was waking up two days after being trampled and then rolled down a hill. A steep one.
Daniel smiled and gave her a little wave, and Teal'c called out without really raising his voice, "Doctor Fraiser."
Sam kept still and didn't say anything, barely even breathing. The instant of confusion was already past, but there had been a split second when she thought she must have woken up out of a nightmare, that only she had been hurt and her guys were fine. And if Daniel and Teal'c were all right, why not the colonel? Why shouldn't he follow Janet around the curtain, as long as Sam didn't jinx him?
Janet stepped into view alone, and Sam let out her breath and looked away. Janet looked too weary and too grim for any of it to have been a nightmare--not only Sam's nightmare, anyway. When Sam looked back at her, Janet was standing beside her bed with her arms folded.
"Well," Janet said, looking from Sam to the other bed and back. "I gave this lecture once already, but since you three refuse to be separated and Sam was deeply unconscious at the time, I'll just have to repeat myself."
Sam snuck a glance over at Daniel and Teal'c. Teal'c had his head bowed, accepting Janet's scolding. Daniel's smile had shrunk into an apologetic grimace. Sam turned her attention back to Janet.
"Your initial injuries were much less," Janet said sternly, "but for six of the last eight hours your vital signs, including brain activity, were all weaker than Daniel's. Luckily you seem to be recovering now, but Sam, you are my patient. I am your doctor. I am also Daniel's doctor. I am well aware of our options for advanced life support and critical care. If the healing device had been Daniel's best or only chance of full recovery--and if that chance had seemed worth the risk to your health--I would have suggested trying it, with appropriate medical support for both of you."
Sam winced at that. She wouldn't have stood for such shoddy safety practices in a lab--but she remembered the urgency of the night before, the desperation. Daniel and Teal'c were her responsibility now. She had to do everything she could for her team.
"Sam, I realize you have to look out for your team," Janet said, and Sam tried not to let it show on her face, just how close Janet was to her thoughts. "But you're not alone offworld now. You're at home. You have the entire SGC to help you through this, and you need to trust us to look out for you, and look out for your team."
Sam nodded gingerly. "I do trust you, Janet, I just...."
Sam looked over at her guys helplessly. She just hadn't been able to wait when Daniel's life was on the line. Teal'c looked up and met her eyes.
"Yes," Janet said. "I know. I've already told Teal'c that I had hoped someone on this team would argue with you."
That had always been her job, Sam realized. Hers and Daniel's. They had argued with the colonel. Teal'c simply gave his opinion and then waited. She felt suddenly off-balance even lying down. How could they be a team if they couldn't even argue?
We'll figure it out, Sam told herself, refusing to think that far ahead. Teal'c was watching Janet like he was waiting for her to say something else, so either there was more to the lecture or the lecture wasn't all of it.
Sam looked up at her again, and Janet rested her hand on Sam's shoulder and said, "Since you're all awake at the same time, now, if you want to go down to the morgue...."
Sam had to look away. It still felt like a punch in the gut, even though there had only been one instant when she really believed it might not be true. But she caught her breath and then pushed up onto one elbow, raising her head cautiously. She waited until she was semi-upright before she said, "I can."
Janet gave her a slightly skeptical look, but said, "I won't insist on a wheelchair."
Sam nodded and pushed herself slowly the rest of the way up--it was just dizziness from lying down, and the heaviness of her body was probably mostly psychosomatic anyway. Daniel, ever the diplomat and an expert at drawing fire, meekly requested a wheelchair, and by the time Janet had gotten one and helped him into it, Sam was on her feet and more or less steady.
Teal'c pushed Daniel's wheelchair, and Sam walked beside them, into the chill of the morgue and over to the table. The shape under the sheet was unnatural, lumpy and discontinuous. Sam thought briefly of their robot duplicates; it looked like a jumble of spare parts under there. Not a body. Not the colonel.
"Jack," Daniel said, his soft voice like a shout in the stillness. Sam nodded to the coroner, and he gently pulled back the sheet to reveal the colonel's face, keeping him neatly covered up to the chin.
"Jack," Daniel repeated, and the word shook this time. Daniel was crying. Teal'c's hand was on his shoulder. Sam stood to one side of them and touched the tips of her fingers to the cold, still thing on the table. The hair that had gone silver at the temples, soft as silk--the scar cutting his eyebrow--a cold and bloodless cheek. Broken bone shifted sickeningly under the gentle press of her fingers, and Sam jerked back.
"Sam," Daniel said, and Teal'c's, "Major Carter," was just a beat behind.
"It's really him," Sam said, which was silly. She knew it was really him; it was Daniel who had needed to come and see. Sam already knew it, beyond mere belief, a fact as solid as a bulletproof vest and twice as heavy. She had never doubted it, not really.
But even if it had touched her, until that moment she hadn't touched the absolutely incontrovertible fact of the colonel's death, cold and broken and easily dislocated.
Daniel's hand caught hers, still hovering just above the colonel's face. Sam interlaced her fingers with his, pressing into the life-warmth of his grip. Teal'c's hand closed over both of theirs, but it was Daniel who said, "I think we're done here."
Sam nodded blindly as Teal'c bowed his head. Daniel even remembered to thank the coroner, who covered the colonel--the body--Jack--up again before they turned and left him.
Jack acted like he was respecting Rya'c's privacy when he stopped at the morgue doors and let him go in with Bra'tac alone. Bra'tac slanted a look at Jack like he saw through that one, but Jack honestly didn't give a sweet damn at that point. Anyway, Bra'tac just nodded and went inside.
Jack leaned against the wall with his eyes closed, listening and counting off the seconds in his head; he'd gotten to twelve Minnesota when the door burst open and Rya'c came barreling back out. Jack straightened up, hoping this was not going to be the day he had to chase a teenaged kid through the warren of the SGC, but Rya'c stopped and turned, arms crossed over his chest.
"Who did this?" Rya'c demanded. "Which of the Goa'uld--which false god has killed my father?"
Jack shook his head. "It was a mine, a weapon planted and left behind--"
Bra'tac, who had come back out at a more reasonable pace, rattled off something that went on for a while, which Jack assumed was the name of the thing. Rya'c looked like it meant something to him, at least.
"So we don't know who it was," Jack said, when Bra'tac seemed to be done. "It could have been Ra, or Apophis, or Sokar, or somebody we don't even know about. Whoever it was could already be dead."
"It does not matter," Rya'c said fiercely. "I will avenge my father. If we do not know which Goa'uld killed him, then I will not rest until every Goa'uld is dead."
Jack sank back against the wall. Why hadn't he thought of that?
But it was a stupid question, and most of the answer was that he was three times Rya'c's age. Killing a snake wouldn't bring his team back--even if he killed a snake and captured a sarcophagus, it'd been way too long now. And anyway, what were his odds of killing a snake without his team?
Though that wasn't to say that a suicide mission against the bastards didn't have its appeal....
"If that is the extent of your strategy, you will rest soon," Bra'tac said, sounding almost amused, in his old Jaffa way, "in your grave, forever."
Rya'c stalked right up to Bra'tac and gave him a two-handed shove that didn't budge Bra'tac an inch.
"You are a coward, old man," the boy screamed, and it occurred to Jack that Bra'tac was about three times older than he was. "You would let my father's death mean nothing--"
Rya'c went for another shove, and this time Bra'tac caught his wrists and did something Jack's eye didn't follow, twisting the boy down to his knees with his hands pinned at the back of his neck.
"Your father gave you into my care and teaching," Bra'tac said calmly. "He wished you to carry on the fight to free all Jaffa, not to throw away your life half-lived. As your father did when his father was killed by Cronus, you must bide your time, learn the ways of your enemy and strike only when you have such allies as will help you to victory."
Bra'tac shot Jack a look at that, and Jack's lips twisted into a half-smile, remembering the moment Teal'c had come over to their side. And maybe that advice wasn't just for Rya'c, though now probably wasn't the moment to tell Bra'tac that Jack was well beyond needing it.
Rya'c struggled against Bra'tac's grip for a second, and then said in a small voice, "My father is dead, and I never..."
Bra'tac's hands shifted from a pin to an embrace, and Jack slid down the wall to sit on the floor, listening to the kid cry.
"I never," he sobbed, like a skipping record, "I never--"
Me either, Jack thought, and then stared at the floor and tried not to ask himself what he was leaving unsaid at the end of that sentence. They're dead and I never. That was all.
Skaara grabbed Jack in a hug at the bottom of the ramp and wouldn't let go of him, so Jack wound up going into the morgue with him and Kasuf. Hammond had been the one to actually explain what happened, and Kasuf had seemed to age a couple of decades before Jack's eyes, nodding wordlessly as tears rolled down his cheeks. Jack had felt like he ought to offer the suddenly-old guy an arm, but Skaara didn't let go, and Skaara needed him. He was only just back to himself--he'd last seen Daniel at the trial against Klorel--and now this.
Kasuf and Skaara stared a long time at Daniel's body. They'd only uncovered him to the shoulders, but Jack still found it easier to watch their faces than to look down at Daniel again.
Kasuf bent and kissed Daniel's forehead, finally, and then gestured to Skaara, who did the same without quite letting go of Jack's arm.
"Goodbye, Daniel," Skaara said, his fingers digging in just above Jack's elbow, his voice shaking all over the place.
"Goodbye, good-son." Kasuf reached across Daniel's body to grip Skaara's shoulder.
"It is better this way," Kasuf said, in an insistent voice.
Jack shifted his gaze from Kasuf's desperate look, away from Skaara's tears, to the carefully blank expression of the coroner standing a little way away. Jack wondered how often he had to deal with people trooping in to see bodies and freak out over them. They had a pretty steady stream of funerals--more than most other commands their size, certainly--but if there was family, they usually saw the body somewhere topside.
"It is better," Kasuf repeated. The coroner flinched, and Jack gave up and stared at the wall. "He will be with Sha're now. They will be together."
It would be just like before, Jack thought, when Daniel was officially dead and really back on Abydos with Sha're, and Jack was sitting on his roof and stargazing, and Carter and Teal'c were nobody he'd ever met, not his problem, not his at all. It'd be just like that, if dead was the same as alive, if you believed any of the comforting shit people said about better places and angels looking down at you from heaven.
But Skaara said, "Yes, he will be with Sha're," and almost didn't cry, so Jack kept his mouth shut and held on to the kid like he was the one who might fall down.
"I'd like to host the wake, Major," the general said. "If you don't mind me stepping in."
Sam nodded mutely for a second before she managed to find her voice. "Thank you, sir. I don't mind at all."
It was traditional for the CO of the SG team in question to hold the wake when someone died. Hammond had hosted a few before, when most or all of a team was wiped out at once. He'd held the wake for Jonas and his two dead men--that had been the first time, and it had been mostly because Conner, the sole survivor, refused to have anything to do with it. After that, the SGC had latched on to it as a tradition.
As the ranking surviving member of SG-1, Sam was in line to host the wake for the colonel. She'd been worrying about it, in the back of her mind: where everyone would park, how many she could fit into her house at one time. Everyone was bound to show up for Colonel O'Neill. People would bring food and drinks, but then she had to figure out where to lay it all out--and she'd have to be there, hosting, letting everyone see her coping with it so they'd let her go back to work after the traditional seven-day stand-down, when all she really wanted to do was give Daniel another once-over with the healing device and then sleep for a week. Wake up, gear up, roll out.
The general nodded like he understood, at least a little. "I informed Sara O'Neill myself. I didn't want her finding out from the paper. She wants to come to the funeral, of course, so we'll need to have a public service. Jack's will hadn't been revised since he joined SG-1--it indicates that he wished to be buried here in Colorado Springs, at a civilian cemetery, beside his son. Did he ever say anything that indicated to you that his wishes had changed?"
Sam thought back rapidly over the morbid late-night conversations and her mental file of important things to remember about the colonel: never swipe the last piece of pie or risk his disappointed look, never criticize Daniel one inch further than he did, humor his dumb-officer act....
"No, sir," Sam said. She'd have remembered anything like that. Daniel wanted to go back to Abydos if he died, to be buried with Sha're--he'd talked about it after her funeral, and the other three of them had nodded and said nothing. "Cassie will want to come, too, and there are a lot of kids from her school who knew him."
"Of course," Hammond said. "I know Doctor Fraiser's told Cassandra; I'll check with her about the other children, and their families. It's going to be a circus."
"Just as long as there aren't any clowns," Sam said, fixing her gaze on the edge of the general's desk and saying what the colonel would have wanted her to say. "He couldn't stand clowns, sir."
"...And Jacob's petitioning to have Major Carter buried at Arlington, but it's not as if he's going to be turned down, it's just a matter of paperwork."
Jack nodded, staring down at his hands, not raising his gaze even to Hammond's desk. "Bra'tac and Rya'c want to attend Carter's and Daniel's funerals, sir. I checked with Kasuf about them coming to Abydos, and he said it was fine and then asked if he and Skaara couldn't come to Carter's and Teal'c's, as well."
"I can't see any harm in them traveling between Abydos and Chulak," Hammond said. "And they can all come through here and fly military transport with us out to Arlington. I'll have to get them authorizations--"
"And clothes," Jack murmured, rubbing his forehead and trying to picture Skaara in a suit; he just kept seeing the kid in fatigues, and that was wrong, wrong, wrong.
"We'll handle it, Jack. We'll take care of everything. Don't worry."
Jack nodded, and didn't think about the three bodies still side by side by side down in the morgue, about to be split up among three different planets forever.
"They wanted to be cremated, sir," Jack said abruptly. "We all did--we talked about it one time. They wanted to be cremated. Those were their wishes."
The hell of it was, Jack wasn't even sure if he was lying or not. He remembered the conversation, clear as crystal. Teal'c had said it was traditional for Jaffa, to be sure that death was final, and they'd all spent a few seconds contemplating their enemies and the damned sarcophagus and agreed that they'd all feel better being burned in the end. It was the only way to be sure.
Jack just wasn't sure whether it had happened, or whether it was one of those conversations he'd thought about having with his team and never actually had. He might be able to remember better if he'd slept a goddamn wink since Jacob had healed him, but he couldn't seem to really close his eyes. He'd just open them again to be told his team was dead, and that was nothing he wanted to wake up to.
It might have been one of those things they never talked about. There were a lot of things they never (I never) talked about, despite all the time they spent together. Because they spent so much time together. You had to keep your mouth shut on some things, when there wasn't going to be anywhere to get away from it if the conversation went bad, when you needed to know your team wasn't going to be thinking about anything but having your back in a fight, and that you wouldn't be thinking of anything but having theirs. Teams worked when they kept the peace, however they had to keep it--Jack was a little skeptical about whatever the hell was going on with SG-7, sure, but it seemed to be working for them, so who was he to say?
So maybe he'd talked about it with his team, and maybe he hadn't, but he knew what they would have said. He believed it.
Hammond nodded, looking through some papers. "Traditional for Teal'c, and neither Major Carter nor Doctor Jackson expressed strong feelings either way; I should be able to act on their wishes expressed to their commanding officer. God knows we won't be having open caskets."
Jack's mouth twitched into an automatic, awful smile, and then flattened out again. "No, sir. God knows."
It was easy. Hammond wasn't letting him off-base, and he wasn't sleeping. Jack went down at three in the morning to the lab where they'd rigged up a clean-burning part-time crematorium with one of Carter's sweet little naquadah generators. There was an airman standing guard at the door--and an airman trailing Jack, for that matter--but Jack just nodded and was let through to the room where three little boxes stood on a lab table, neatly labeled.
He closed the door firmly behind him, and nobody dared to argue with him. There were surveillance cameras, but it didn't matter; if anyone was watching, it'd be done and irreversible by the time they realized what he was doing. He really didn't care what they did afterward, and Hammond would know better than to make the kind of fuss that would end in Jacob finding out.
Jack rolled up his sleeves and found three more boxes, put a plastic bag in each, and copied each of the labels exactly. He opened up the box of Teal'c first, poured neat thirds into each of the new bags. He thought he saw the glitter of gold in the ashes; the reactor-burn had been enough to break up the symbol of Apophis until it was just a sparkle in the gray.
Carter went next, a third into each box. He'd thought there might be little pieces of bone, teeth, something, but it was just fine pale ash. She'd set up this rig, when they'd needed to deal with some contaminated bodies a couple of months back. She'd done good work.
Daniel last; Sha're would have a piece of him, but so would the Earth, and so would Chulak. Finally, he would get to go racing off in every direction at once, and he'd have the galaxy's best backup with him all the way.
Jack sealed up the bags just like they'd been, then sealed up the boxes. He gathered the old bags and boxes, with their faint residues of ash--locks of hair, nail clippings, nothing more--and popped them into the burn chamber, twisting the dials to full power. The paper and plastic flared up and disappeared in seconds, nothing like the persistence of bodies.
Jack wasn't sure whether there was really ash on his hands, or if he just felt it there. He scrubbed his hands through his hair--gray wouldn't show--and then carefully rolled down his sleeves, watching to see that his fingers left no pale marks. Less than ten minutes had elapsed when he stepped back outside and headed back to his quarters, trailing his airman again.
Daniel got the last of the bandages off his head on the morning of the funeral, leaving his freshly-scarred and half-shaved head on display. Sam tried to keep her face as still as Teal'c's, but Daniel rolled his eyes and disappeared for a few seconds into the locker room. Sam wondered if he had just gone for the nearest mirror to inspect the damage, but he came back wearing one of Jack's black stocking caps. The hat looked a little ridiculous with his funeral suit, but better than his bare head. Sam wanted to hug him, but her dress blues held her still.
Teal'c tipped his fedora, and Daniel tugged on the hat and shrugged. They caught an elevator up to the surface, and piled into the back of a car with an airman at the wheel.
It was just a funeral home in Colorado Springs, like the colonel had been just a person. It smelled the way funeral homes always smelled; the coffin was closed, flanked by the inescapable bare minimum of flowers.
The general was there already, talking to a civilian in a dark suit--the undertaker, of course. Leading them into unfamiliar territory, Sam had automatically taken point; now she looked back over her shoulder and saw Daniel size this up as a moment calling for diplomacy. He squared his shoulders and touched Sam's wrist as he stepped forward. She fell into step with Teal'c and followed him across the room as the general looked up.
Introductions had just begun when Sam heard Janet's voice--too low to make out words, but that meant--
Sam turned just as Janet and Cassandra reached the doorway; Cassie had her hair pulled back and was wearing a black dress Sam had never seen before. Her eyes were red and she was clinging to Janet's hand, though in the last year she'd really started embracing American teenagerhood and wouldn't be caught dead touching her mom in public.
As if she'd heard Sam think it, Cassie dropped Janet's hand, only to dash across the space between her and Sam; she felt Teal'c's hand on her back, bracing her, a second before Cassie hit her like a linebacker. Sam held on--wished for combat boots instead of heels, but at least she had her team to back her up--and hugged Cassie tight.
Cassie got out a muffled, "Sam" and then started sobbing, and Sam felt her own eyes immediately prickle. She forced herself to look up at Janet, who had followed Cassie across the room at a more sedate pace. Janet's eyes were pink, too, and she gave Sam a helpless look.
Sam understood the feeling; listening to Cassie wail, it struck Sam even more forcefully how silent Cassie had been when they found her. Her whole planet had been wiped out, including the family she'd gradually started to talk about in the last year: mother and father, aunts, uncles, cousins, doting grandma, annoying brothers. Her childhood friends, her teachers and classmates, her neighbors, that boy who pulled her hair, the boy she had a crush on who never noticed her, the girl who teased her, the kids who lived down the way who she never talked to--
They'd all died, all at once, and Cassie hadn't shed a tear. But now, for Jack, who'd been great to her when he was around but nothing like a parent, now Cassie was crying, shaking in Sam's arms like she was going to come apart. Sam stroked her hair and tried to murmur something soothing, tried to keep her mind focused on analyzing the behavior instead of just breaking down and joining in. It was maybe a little more in Daniel's line, or Janet's, but Sam was pretty good at pattern recognition, even when the patterns were people.
Sam found herself thinking of the other Sam Carter they'd met--a woman who'd lost most of her world, if not quite all of it. And yet it had been Jack she'd seemed to grieve, Jack she'd... well.
So maybe it was just that losing Jack was harder than losing anyone or everyone else. There was a part of Sam that supported the hypothesis, but she overruled it as irrational. If they'd lost Teal'c--if they'd lost Daniel.... Losing Jack was different, maybe, but it wouldn't be any easier to lose any of her guys.
So maybe it was just a matter of singular and plural, beyond plural, too-many-to-count. A planet--or every major city on Earth--that was just too much to take in. Too much to even begin to grieve. But Jack was just one man, and so goddamned human--fragile, Sam thought, thinking of the broken shape of the body under the sheet, thinking of a hundred other injuries--but he'd been the strongest man she knew, the best. One man, and now he was gone.
Sam pressed her face against Cassie's hair and joined in after all.
The wake was more private than the funeral and decidedly informal, and they all changed clothes at the Mountain before piling into Sam's car to drive to the general's house. No one wore black at SGC wakes, and definitely no uniforms.
As they were walking up to the door, Teal'c requested Sam's car keys. She handed them over without hesitation, but glanced at Daniel, who looked as baffled as she felt. It was Daniel who said, "Teal'c, what are you...?"
"It has been explained to me," Teal'c said, pocketing Sam's keys, "that it is considered an act of great friendship among the Tau'ri to prevent one's friend from operating a vehicle while intoxicated."
"Friends don't let friends drive drunk," Sam translated, an edge of hysteria leaking through her voice even as she mentally plotted the shortest route to the beer cooler.
Daniel caught her elbow and started towing her in that direction, obviously sharing her thought. Teal'c trailed them--Teal'c could drink whatever he wanted, his symbiote would sober him up inside about ten minutes--and Daniel added, with an only slightly wobbly lecturing voice, "The customary phrase is, 'I'll be the designated driver'."
"I will remember it," Teal'c assured them, and then they were in the thick of things and there were a lot of well-meaning people to shake hands with between them and the coolers, and no time to start laughing or crying. They formed up automatically, shoulder to shoulder, and got to work.
Jack attended the wake, of course. It was a command performance, and Hammond personally drove him from the base to Hammond's house for it. Jack was in jeans and a ratty old sweatshirt, which was about par for a sole survivor, and Jack didn't want to think about what the SGC was, that they had standards for these things. Showing up unwashed and already shitfaced would have drawn attention, but showing up in uniform would have been cause for an actual intervention. For better or worse, everyone around him understood this.
His dress blues were still in a plastic bag in his quarters on base, covered in Abydonian dust, awaiting another trip to the dry cleaner who would know to charge him triple up front this time. Three funerals on three planets inside of thirty-six hours hadn't exactly faded to a merciful blur yet, but Jack had absconded with a bottle of scotch from the bar set up on the kitchen counter and gone to ground in Hammond's spare bedroom. He figured he could make it happen.
You had to have a clear objective, that was the thing. He'd done all right with "get through the funerals without punching Jacob or anyone else" and now he was going to work on "get black-out drunk." After a few quick slugs straight from the bottle Jack leaned his head back against the wall. He savored the burn in his stomach and wondered what he'd like to forget about first.
Maybe the way Rya'c's voice had cracked as he read out his part in his father's funeral. Maybe the way they'd laid down that feather to represent Daniel's soul and it just blew away across the sand and everyone said that was a good sign. Maybe the goddamned lie of a headstone they'd be putting over Carter, that would never tell of the wars she'd fought and won.
The next swallow hurt--his throat was getting tight, his eyes watering all over the damn place--but fuck, he'd lost his team. They're dead and I never--but there was still no end to that sentence. He'd lost his whole goddamned team, was what he'd done, and he'd always thought (just a little, meanly, in an ugly angry place in the back of his head) that there was no respecting a man who lost his whole team and didn't have the decency to die himself. And when they were people like his--people who were going to leave a gaping hole in the world, in the fucking galaxy....
It was worse than losing a thousand ordinary officers and experts, worse than losing every other team under the mountain put together, and he could let himself think it even if he'd die before he'd say it or act on it. His people had been the best of the unimaginably best. They'd saved this world and a dozen others and would have saved it again and again and again, but he'd led them to their deaths on a standard recon, for nothing at all.
Jack's breath caught in his burning throat, nearly a sob, just as the door crashed open to let in a stabbing light and a stocky guy Jack didn't recognize. Judging by the way he froze and then said, "Oh, shit, Colonel, I'm sorry," he recognized Jack just fine.
Anybody with any kind of decency, or at least some SGC-trained survival instincts, would have followed that up with a hasty retreat, but this guy slumped sideways against the door jamb and kept talking.
"I'm really--I'm so sorry, so fucking sorry, you have no idea. I came to Major Carter's funeral, I don't know if you saw me? No, of course not--I can't believe she's gone and I never got to meet her. I mean, not that that's even the least of what she'll never accomplish now--not that she didn't accomplish amazing things, Christ, it's a crime she'll never have a Nobel. She really ought to, you know, when they finally declassify, posthumously, they won't dare give it to anyone else that year, once everyone knows. I'm writing a letter now, to have ready. More of a book than a letter."
The guy stopped for breath for the first time, and Jack heard himself say, "Who the hell are you?"
That wasn't really what Jack meant--among other things, he didn't mean for the guy to start talking again--but he stumbled into the room like he'd been invited, shoving the door half-shut behind him.
"Doctor Rodney McKay," the guy said, and made a sweeping gesture that Jack suspected of being self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating at the same time. Jack also suspected he needed to drink a lot more, urgently, right now. He raised the bottle again.
The guy seemed to take it as a toast, and raised his bottle of beer to Jack before taking a quick sip from it. "I work at Area 51--analyzing the stuff you guys bring back--God, it's amazing, even the tiniest things are so far beyond us. I still can't believe she ever made the Gate work, I can't even fathom how her brain worked, you know? The leaps she must have made, I can't--I can't--"
McKay lowered his face into his hands and said despairingly, "I can't do that."
"Course not," Jack muttered sourly. This guy was never going to be anything like Carter; Carter knew when to shut up, for one thing. Even Daniel wasn't this bad--even Daniel drunk and worked up about fascinating native cultures.
Fuck, he missed Teal'c.
"I mean, but I'm kind of it now," McKay said, picking his head up again and staring at Jack, wild-eyed. "Not to--look, Colonel, I may not be demonstrating it very effectively right now, but with Samantha Carter gone I am the smartest person left anywhere in the SGC's orbit, and I am just not that good. Not like her. Christ, why wasn't that stupid land mine laid down an inch to the left?"
Jack imagined Carter only half-maimed, alive with those injuries--but no, Jacob would have healed her, of course--once he got to her, anyway, once she'd suffered through the wait for help to come--if help came in time....
He made a sound something like a growl and McKay actually jerked back, like he'd finally realized that he was intruding.
But he still didn't run away. He said, "Colonel--you do know--I mean, we've been studying what we recovered of the mine, and it's a truly, deeply random device; our land mines have nothing on it for arbitrary destruction. No one was hurt at all, recovering you and the bodies, even though scans showed dozens of devices underground, all armed and active. We have no idea why we didn't lose an entire platoon going after you, and General Hammond's forbidden anyone from going back to find out. But an inch to the left and you might all have been fine.
"I don't believe in God, you know," McKay added abruptly, and Jack wondered if you could get whiplash sitting still--wondered why the hell he was still listening to this geek--wondered if anybody at the SGC hadn't suffered the horrible suspicion that maybe Jesus had been a snake, too, if he existed at all.
"But I believe in that mirror device, because I have read the reports and I have worked on it," McKay went on. "That requires me to accept the existence of alternate realities, infinite alternate realities, which means that we know--I mean it is proven, it is absolute empirical fact--that there are still infinite Sam Carters out there. Alive. Brilliant. Saving the universe. Just--not this one. Is that better than thinking she's sitting on a cloud somewhere?"
Jack stared at McKay, remembering Carter with long hair and envisioning Carter with wings and a harp. The two blurred together--a camouflage angel with an MP5 and a laptop--and Jack couldn't speak.
It hurt, suddenly. It hurt so much worse. I never--I never--
"It's true, though," McKay said firmly. "The truth has to be better than--than not the truth, don't you think?"
Jack was still trying to think of something to say--still trying to get his legs to move, because Carter, Carter and Daniel and Teal'c, saving the universe, just not this one, because he'd never but they weren't all dead--when McKay said, "No matter how long I talk this does not become the bathroom I was looking for."
He straightened up, bounced twice off the doorframe, and disappeared, leaving Jack to organize a rapid reconsideration of his objectives.
"You drive really fast," Sam called over the rush of air from the open windows as Teal'c moved through evening traffic. She and Daniel were in the backseat, leaning together; Daniel had lost the hat and was rubbing his head against her bare shoulder, the patchwork of hair and scars and stubble tickling her skin.
"So you have repeatedly observed," Teal'c called back. "And it remains the case that the velocity of this vehicle is negligible compared to other craft I have piloted."
"Just remember you have to pull over for red and blue flashing lights," Daniel called out, and Sam giggled at that but also glanced back to check that they weren't being pursued.
Not long after, they were in her driveway, and Teal'c was reversing the process of getting her and Daniel into the backseat. It was slightly complicated by both gravity and the fact that she and Daniel had gotten drunker on the drive home.
"Paradox," Daniel announced, when they were finally all upright and headed toward her front door.
"Only if you don't understand your own digestive biology," Sam said, as Teal'c opened her door with her keys and led them both inside.
"So, paradox," Daniel repeated cheerfully, and, as Teal'c shut the door behind them, "I think I need to shave my head and start over."
Sam tilted her head and looked, then glanced sideways and realized Teal'c was doing exactly the same thing.
It did look pretty bad. The right rear quadrant of his hair had been left alone completely, and the rest was a maze of clipped and shaved spots and the fresh red scars.
"I could assist you, Daniel Jackson," Teal'c offered.
Daniel's eyes lit up. "Yeah? Sam, do you have...?"
Sam grinned. "Sure. It doesn't even smell like flowers."
Daniel sneezed at the mere mention. He did that when he was drunk--Sam had discovered it two years ago and when she was drunk she couldn't resist setting him off just once. Even Teal'c almost cracked a smile.
They trooped into the bathroom, Daniel leading the way. He took his glasses off and set them beside the sink, then sat down in the obvious spot, on the closed lid of the toilet. Sam located a fresh razor and shaving cream and handed them to Teal'c, who looked bemused--at the pastels, probably, since he held the razor the right way around and popped the cap off the shaving cream easily enough. Sam dug through a drawer and came up with a pair of silver scissors.
"Trim first," she said. She hesitated a moment to check that her hands were steady enough not to cut anything that would bleed--they were, and it wouldn't matter what the haircut looked like--before she shuffled over to Daniel's side. Teal'c stood at the sink, experimenting with the shaving cream.
Daniel let his head fall forward and didn't move at all, except for an involuntary shiver sometimes at the touch of the scissors against the back of his neck, or the place behind his ear. Sam tilted his head back and forth with her free hand, and caught as much hair as she could, leaning over him to drop it into the little trash can. It didn't take long before his whole head was cropped unevenly short; Sam ran her hand over what was left of Daniel's hair, and he made a noise halfway between a chuckle and a moan, leaning his shoulder against her thigh.
"Your turn, Teal'c," Sam said, and looked up to find him standing very still with his hands at his sides, watching the two of them with an expression on his face that Sam couldn't quite read. She should be able to, she thought, but it got away from her. She felt a little dizzy, all of a sudden, in the small, warm confines of the bathroom.
The expression, whatever it was, vanished, and Teal'c said, "You should sit, Major Carter."
He caught her arm and eased her down to perch on the edge of the tub, and Sam went without resistance, though she did say, "Major Carter, ha. You should really call me Sam."
Teal'c's hand tightened briefly on her arm. "If you prefer it, I will."
"Hey, you should call me Daniel," Daniel said, and Sam saw something in Teal'c's eyes again before he blinked and straightened up.
"I will be glad to," Teal'c said, reaching for the razor and shaving cream and moving into Sam's place, standing over Daniel. Sam kept her hands to herself--though neither of them were actually out of her reach--and watched as Teal'c moved Daniel's head into the position he wanted. Daniel's eyes were closed, but his hands, resting on his knees, curled slightly with the effort of keeping still as Teal'c applied the first dollop of shaving cream. Sam's own hands were holding tight to the edge of the tub.
Teal'c worked even more quickly than Sam had, efficiently leaning over to rinse the razor clean under the sink tap, baring smooth pink scalp in neat swipes. Sam waited until Daniel raised a hand to run his fingers over the newly-smooth skin, forcibly interrupting Teal'c's progress, before she asked, "Is that all you were waiting for? Us to ask you?"
Teal'c glanced back at her, and Daniel's chin came up, his eyes abruptly open and riveted on Teal'c, who shrugged slightly and moved Daniel's hand off his head, getting back to work. "Among the Jaffa one does not assume familiarity. I am aware that the Tau'ri are different, but I keep my own custom."
Sam looked to Daniel, who was looking back at her sideways, keeping his head in the position Teal'c required. After a moment, Teal'c added, "I was confident that you knew how I valued your friendship."
"We knew--we know," Sam said immediately.
Daniel waited until Teal'c raised the hand holding the razor before he added, "Jack knew, too, Teal'c."
Teal'c went utterly still for a few long seconds, and then finished his reach over to the sink and rinsed the blade, and went on without further comment. Sam met Daniel's gaze, and he shrugged--a tiny, careful motion--and then raised a hand toward her; when she took it, their grip rested against Teal'c's thigh, and remained there until he finished. Though he leaned against their hands every time he reached over to rinse the blade, he said nothing.
It wasn't long before he'd finished, and Daniel dropped Sam's hand and popped to his feet--Teal'c caught him when he wobbled--to squeeze over to the mirror and see for himself. Sam levered herself up with the kind assistance of the wall, and leaned against his and Teal'c's backs to look over their shoulders.
Daniel immediately raised a hand to cover his bare scalp, and the contrast of fishbelly whiteness under his tanned fingers was as shocking as the alien nakedness of his head. He wrinkled his nose and smiled ruefully. "Well, I guess I'll be growing that out as soon as possible."
Sam laid her own hand over Daniel's, letting just her thumb brush over the weird smoothness of his freshly-shaved scalp. Daniel's reflection smiled. Teal'c's was watching them both intently. Sam set her chin on Teal'c's shoulder and decided to be drunk and assume familiarity like a silly human. She set her other hand on top of his head--his skin was slightly rougher than Daniel's, not shaved just this minute. Teal'c bowed his head slightly under the touch, but the corners of his mouth tucked up in the general direction of a smile.
"Right," Sam said, feeling suddenly decisive. First command decision, right here, right now. "My turn."
Teal'c raised his eyebrows. "Sam..."
Sam grinned to hear him say it, and then Daniel caught up. "Wait, your hair? Sam? You want to..."
"Why not, it can be SG-1's look." Sam reached down over Daniel's shoulder for the scissors. "We'll all match, at least until you and I grow ours back. Or Teal'c can grow his out, too. We can decide that later."
"Okay, well--hang on," Daniel took the scissors from her. "Let me do that, it's my turn. Sit down."
Sam sat, and abruptly realized that since she and Daniel were about the same height, he must have been more or less face-to-crotch with her, too. She bit her lip, didn't giggle, and didn't lean forward. Daniel hummed softly as he tilted her head and started cutting. Sam let herself go boneless under his hands, all tension disappearing from her neck. She got her hair cut often enough, but it was always strangers--she didn't have the time or attention to even have a regular stylist, she just went when she could get to a salon and took whoever was available, obediently making small talk through the trim.
It was different when it was familiar hands, a familiar body in front of her, a familiar voice making nonsense noise she didn't have to respond to. It was a lot more like ... well, like someone taking care of her, instead of just someone performing a service that happened to take place on top of her head. That, or she was wonderfully, blissfully drunk.
When Teal'c and Daniel changed places, Sam tilted her head back and opened her eyes just a crack, peeking up at Teal'c. He was looking down at her with one of his most indulgent expressions. "Are you not asleep, then?"
Sam smiled, but didn't open her eyes any wider. The bathroom light was too bright. "Of course not."
"Funny," Daniel said, from somewhere close by. "You don't usually make those noises when you're awake."
Her eyes did flash open at that. "I do not--"
She didn't even know what to deny. Daniel was grinning, and Teal'c's indulgent look had gotten even more indulgent, and Sam deliberately and with great dignity closed her eyes again and tilted her head toward Teal'c.
"You don't usually cut my hair," she pointed out, and Daniel spluttered beautifully. Sam was still smirking when Teal'c applied the first dollop of shaving cream, and then she went still again, biting her lip, keeping silent and still as Teal'c put the razor to her scalp.
She thought it took longer than Daniel's had--but then, she'd had all her hair. Daniel had had a head start.
She didn't make a sound, she knew she didn't, but before Teal'c was half done, there was a hand warm on her ankle. She reached down her own hand, and Daniel's slid into it. She opened her eyes to find him sitting on the floor, leaning against the sink cabinet, looking up past her eyes, to Teal'c's hands. Sam squeezed, and he dropped his gaze for a second and smiled, squeezed back, and then looked up again.
Sam closed her eyes and waited.
She knew she was finished when Teal'c's hand settled on the back of her neck and then swept slowly up over her bare scalp--she didn't bother to suppress the shiver, that time, but she smiled up at Teal'c when he lifted his hand. He gave her a hand up, and she pulled Daniel up by the hand she was still holding, and then three of them did a little shuffle around so they could all look into the mirror again.
Sam dropped both their hands, pressing them over her own mouth as she laughed. "Oh my God, that's awful, that's--"
She thought the colonel is never going to let me live this down and then it hit her all over again. Her laugh skipped into a sob, and just like that Daniel's arms went around her. She shook her head even as she hid her face against his shoulder, and for an awful second she thought one of them was going to tell her it was okay, it didn't look that bad.
But Teal'c just put his hand on her shoulder, and what Daniel said, when she'd mostly managed to shut herself up, was, "Cutting or shaving hair is a pretty common mourning practice through human history."
Sam had to laugh again a little at that--trust Daniel to reassure her with anthropology.
"I know," Sam said, straightening up and running the heels of her hands over her eyes, carefully not looking at herself in the mirror. "It was down to the middle of my back before my mom died."
Teal'c squeezed her shoulder, and Sam looked back at him and gave him a shaky smile.
Daniel let go of her, took a step back, and said, "Hey, um. I think I need a shower. Hair down my shirt."
As soon as he said it, Sam was aware of the little hairs that had gotten down the top of her dress, but Daniel had spoken up first, so he got first shower. Fair was fair.
"You know where everything is?" Sam waved vaguely toward the cabinet with clean towels, and Daniel nodded, running one hand distractedly over the top of his head. Sam and Teal'c shuffled out.
Teal'c led the way over to the couch, and Sam dropped onto it next to him. She thought she should turn the TV on, give them both something to stare at. She'd have to sit up and lean over to the coffee table to get the remote, though, and the whole day--the past few days--were weighing on her again, outside the bubble of the bathroom. It was back to just her and Teal'c, with Jack gone and Daniel out of their reach again.
Sam tilted her bare head onto Teal'c's shoulder, and Teal'c shifted toward her, laying his arm across her shoulders. Sam closed her eyes for a while and tried to be as good as a Jaffa at sitting still and saying nothing.
Jack considered stealth, but--as frantic and wounded as he suddenly felt, five days after the fact--he still wasn't quite blind enough to realize how badly that would turn out for him, or how much it would worry other people. Well, if by other people he meant Hammond, since there wasn't anyone else left who understood him well enough to get really worried, even among those who had the SGC baseline.
There wasn't anyone else left here. But they were out there, they were out there and he had to--it really did feel like an open wound, like he was watching his own blood drip out and knew that he only had so much time before it was all gone. They were out there, and knowing that hurt so much worse than surrendering quietly to the fact that they were dead. Knowing they were out there--knowing that he meant to do something about it--he was suddenly, acutely conscious of how short his future had been, an hour or so ago. The general had been right to worry about him.
Which meant Jack couldn't just disappear from his team's wake. He circulated quietly, hands in pockets and head down, letting himself be touched by people who realized there were no words, and listening patiently to the people who felt like they had to say something. He told a few stories, even dared to let himself smile and hoped the truth didn't show through. They're not really dead. They're dead but they aren't all dead. Some of them are out there, they're waiting, I can find them.
Hammond found him before too long. Jack knew perfectly well that the general had been aware of his plan to get wasted in private; now he might as well have been wearing a sign. Something Is Up. Hammond just raised an eyebrow at the half-eaten sandwich in Jack's hand, balancing the barely-tasted beer in his other, and said, "Jack. You're doing ... better than I expected."
Jack looked down and tried hard not to lie to his commanding officer's face, or to say anything that would get him locked up immediately. "I've been realizing some things, sir. If they--there are things they'd want me to do, and not to do, because they're not here to keep me in line."
Jack saw Hammond's slow nod in his peripheral vision, and dared to look up and meet his gaze, which was kind, and not completely disbelieving. Jack dared a small smile. "I guess even an old dog learns new tricks once in a while."
Hammond squeezed his shoulder, and Jack added, "Sir--I'd really like to go home, I--I have a lot to think about. I swear I will report in back at the mountain tomorrow--"
Hammond's hand tightened, and Jack stopped while he was, hopefully, ahead.
"You're on stand-down," Hammond said quietly. "But so help me God, Jack, if you don't answer your phone when I call to see how you're doing, someone will be kicking down your door inside two minutes."
Jack nodded. It wasn't an idle threat; Jack knew he had about a dozen SGC personnel living within a three-block radius. He would have gone and kicked down any of their doors on an order from the general if it had ever come to that, and he could have gotten there fast enough to--fast enough for most things, anyway.
"Sir," Jack said, and didn't bother trying to convince Hammond that there was really no danger of any of that now. He stayed put and ate the rest of his sandwich before making a break for it.
Alone at home, Jack stood still in the foyer for a minute, restraining himself from maniacal laughter or running around in little circles screaming. He had to find them, but he couldn't do it alone and he couldn't rush the process.
He was on stand-down. He needed the mirror, which had probably been destroyed and was at Area 51 if it hadn't been. There was a chance, after all; no real harm had ever come through the mirror, and Hammond didn't have final say over the disposition of tech. Hammond might have recommended they destroy it, and the mirror might have been locked up to keep geeks like McKay from playing with it, but there was a good chance that it was being kept somewhere, like the mothballed fleet of obsolete fighter jets out in the desert. The military never liked to throw things away that might turn out to be useful, and if Carter and Kawalsky's visit hadn't proven anything else it proved that the mirror made an even better point of retreat than the Alpha Site.
Unless going through the mirror to the wrong world made your face melt off and then killed you--how was he going to...?--no. It didn't matter. They were out there. He would find them.
But not tonight. Tonight he had to act like a guy on stand-down who'd decided his team wanted him to live. He paced around the room for a while, still humming with nervous energy.
"Okay," he said out loud to the wall, the one where he kept thinking about maybe hanging up some pictures, if he could get Daniel to give him some of the ones that turned out not-too-classified-looking. "Fine. I'll pack."
He wouldn't take much; the mirror was small, and Jack wasn't exactly sure how much it would take through along with a person. Still, he'd spent years traveling light, he knew his priorities when it came to objects.
It struck him like a physical blow, in the doorway of his bedroom. He crumpled down to his knees, down to the floor in a heap, suddenly gasping for breath.
Charlie. Charlie, alive, somewhere else, out of his reach. Infinite Charlies, alive and--not saving the universe, but happy, safe, in second grade--no, that wasn't right anymore. Jack squeezed his eyes shut and realized he had to actually think, calculate, to know how old Charlie would be now. Almost ten. How could he have forgotten? How could he not have thought of Charlie first?
Charlie was dead. Charlie had been dead nearly four years now, nearly as long as Charlie had been alive, and Jack realized suddenly that I got my son killed wasn't how he thought of himself anymore, not his last thought at night or his first thought in the morning. Not even my son is dead. He was CO of SG-1, he was can't let Daniel or Carter get kidnapped or seduced by alien artifacts, he was one of these days I'm gonna land a punch on Teal'c, he was I have a team and we have a mission and is today the day we have to save the world? Again?
He opened his eyes and realized he had a perfect line of sight to the box under the bed with the things of Charlie's that he'd kept. There was dust on it.
So there was something worse than burying his son and knowing it was his fault: there was knowing that it wasn't the most important thing anymore. There was a Charlie out there somewhere who was alive, whose father had gone away on a mission and never come home. If Jack could get to the mirror he could go find that Charlie about as easily as he was likely to find the team who'd lost him, whose mission he could step into as simply as he could step into that Charlie's life.
He wasn't going to do it. He wasn't going to go and find his son. He needed his team, and his mission. They were his future. Charlie was his past, a past he wouldn't give everything else up to change.
Jack pushed himself half-upright and scooted over to the bed and pulled out the box of Charlie's things, blowing the dust off the top before he opened it. He reached for the first photograph on the stack and his breath caught in a sob as he realized he was looking through these things for the last time. He wouldn't take them with him. He could cry tonight, one last time, for Charlie.
Tomorrow he'd start getting ready to go.
When Sam opened her eyes again it was because Daniel had said her name, softly and cautiously. She picked her head up to look--Teal'c didn't move his arm--and realized that Daniel was standing beside the couch wearing nothing but a yellow and pink striped towel.
"Oh," Sam said, rubbing her eyes and trying not to stare too much--it wasn't like she hadn't seen all of her guys in all kinds of states of undress, but she wasn't usually buzzed and half-dreaming and pressed up against Teal'c when she did. "Um."
Logically there should be a solution to this problem--Daniel did have clothes, and Sam had a washer and dryer, and....
Sam shook her head. "My turn for the shower. I'll think of something."
Daniel shifted from foot to foot and shrugged, but let her go without argument when she pushed herself up from the couch and headed to the bathroom. It occurred to her on the way that she had some ex-boyfriend sweats that might fit him, and she turned back from the door to say it.
Daniel had taken her place on the couch, with Teal'c's arm across his bare shoulders, his bare head pale against Teal'c's shirt in the same spot where hers had just been a minute ago.
So maybe it wasn't so urgent, and maybe... maybe it just wasn't a problem at all.
Sam stepped into the bathroom and shut the door, thinking it through. Daniel could have put his clothes back on--his boxers, at least, his pants, something. On the other hand, if taking a shower had just been a classic Daniel delaying tactic like hemming and hawing over a translation while he made up his mind about how he wanted to say what he had to say--if what he'd finally decided to say was best said by wandering out to the living room more or less naked....
Sam stripped quickly and stepped under the shower, rinsing off and taking her own moment to actually think about this.
She was the only member of the U.S. military on the team now (for now, until someone new was assigned, until everything changed all over again). She was the only one, now, with these reflexes programmed in. As far as Daniel and Teal'c were concerned the UCMJ's authority over them was pretty theoretical. Her authority over them was negotiable at best.
That was just the rules, though. The truth was--everything had already changed. She'd known that from the moment she knew Jack was dead, even if she couldn't have said what had changed, or how, and maybe this had been coming for days, and maybe for longer than that. She could see them suddenly--the three of them, the four of them, SG-1--as a non-Newtonian fluid. One sharp impact was enough to make them solidify, holding on to what was left.
It's not do I want to, it's do I dare. It was something she'd known a long time, she thought, about her and--her and Jack. It was why she'd done her goddamn best not to think about what she wanted, not to know, not to wonder, about him or anyone. Because anything that changed would be changing in her mind, in his, in theirs, much more than their bodies.
Her eyes welled up, thinking of how it didn't matter anymore. It had been direly necessary to ignore it right up until the instant he died and then suddenly it just didn't matter at all. It was unfair like life mostly was.
But every second she spent crying for Jack was a second she was leaving Daniel and Teal'c sitting on her couch without her. Sam let the water run over her face and then turned it off. She caught her breath while she was drying off, and didn't hesitate any more before rejoining her team.
She would have sworn her bare foot didn't make a sound on the carpet, but Teal'c turned his head when she stepped over the threshold, with a striped towel that matched Daniel's covering her from armpit to upper thigh. He tilted his head--not quite a nod, definitely not a headshake--and Sam kept walking. She'd nearly reached the couch, and was wondering what she would say, when Daniel picked his head up and looked at her.
He blinked slowly, his eyes bright blue without the protection of his glasses. Just as slowly, he smiled. "New team uniform?"
"To go with the haircut," Sam agreed, smiling back as her heart beat faster. Daniel was with her on this; she hadn't read it wrong at all.
Teal'c withdrew his arm from around Daniel. "It would appear that I am inappropriately dressed."
Sam hesitated for an instant, worried that Teal'c hadn't understood the team part of this, until she realized that the hand he'd taken back from Daniel was on the buttons of his shirt. Sam moved forward again, taking Daniel's hand when he reached for her and letting him tug her down onto his lap. She had to be crushing him, but he didn't seem to mind, and they wouldn't stay on the couch for long.
"I'm sure we can solve that," she said, and Teal'c nodded formally and then stood. Sam meant to watch, but Daniel had one hand on her thigh and the other on the back of her neck. Sam bent under the gentle pressure of his hands, folding sideways against his chest. Without any perceptible moment of decision, she was kissing him and he was kissing her. It was easy, drunk and tired and with every emotion in her pushing at her skin, easy to let just a little something escape through her mouth, and be transmitted back through her lips on his, his tongue on hers, to receive the same things back and find none of it strange. It was Daniel, Teal'c, her guys, her team.
No time at all seemed to pass before there was a hand on her back, above the towel and below Daniel's. Sam turned her head to find that Teal'c had gotten very appropriately undressed. She reached for him, and her hand stalled in the air just long enough for Teal'c to raise an eyebrow. Sam bit the bullet and laid her hand over the center of the X on his belly. His muscles tensed, but he didn't tell her no or pull away; Sam's curiosity took over, and she touched her fingertips lightly to the seam--it was muscular flesh at the edge, snapped tight shut like any entrance to the body that had to keep sealed most of the time.
Teal'c's breath caught and Daniel murmured in her ear, "Definitely an erogenous zone, remember that."
Teal'c gently pushed her hand away as he bent and kissed her, a little more roughly than Daniel, a little breathless even before their mouths met. Sam broke the kiss and looked curiously from him to Daniel--not that she'd mind too much if they only wanted to share her, but she was only human. Anyone would want to watch.
Teal'c smiled, nodded slightly, and let go of her wrist to cup the back of Daniel's head. Sam was sandwiched between them as they kissed, and she could only bear to watch it for a few seconds, feeling suddenly, desperately overstimulated. She pressed her face against Teal'c's throat, let her hand trail down Daniel's back. She listened to their kisses and felt the heat of their bodies surrounding her, and almost forgot there was someone missing.
Sam woke up very warm and slightly squished, skin pressed to skin on all sides. She felt like she should have a headache, but she didn't. She was interestingly sore in plenty of other places to make up for it, and remembered vaguely that Teal'c had insisted at some point on tall glasses of water for all of them.
As if the thought had summoned them, strong fingers closed on the back of her neck, rubbing at the muscles there with just the right pressure. Sam moaned at the touch and finally risked opening her eyes to find the back of Daniel's head, all starkly pale skin and bright scars.
"Oh, God," Sam said, blinking, and raised a hand to her own head, equally bare. "I actually did that."
"In point of fact," Teal'c corrected, his fingers stilling on her neck, "it was I who did that, if you are referring to your haircut, or all of us who did that, if you are referring to sexual activities."
Sam squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her hand across them. "The haircut, yeah," Sam said. "I'm clear on the sex, but I was hoping the hair was a dream."
"I am sorry to disappoint you," Teal'c said, brushing his lips across the back of her head, an apology of a kiss.
Daniel lifted his head abruptly and twisted to blink over his shoulder at Sam and Teal'c. Sam raised one hand and wiggled her fingers, a silly little wave.
Daniel tried to frown and smile at the same time.
"Let me just say first that that was amazing and I'm glad," Daniel said, "and also, oh God, we're one of those teams now."
Sam briefly considered pointing out that as an Air Force officer and member of the chain of command, she really wasn't supposed to know there was such a thing as those teams, and then gave up. They were in the club. She might be breaking frat regs six ways from Sunday, but she didn't need to be a hypocrite about it.
"Everybody already makes all the jokes about us," Sam pointed out, settling her head back down on the pillow and shifting her leg to a slightly more comfortable position, hooked over Daniel's.
"Ohh, yes," Daniel sighed, his hand settling on Sam's thigh. "Yes they do. We're probably okay unless we turn into one of those teams nobody jokes about. God, like SG-7."
Teal'c reached across her to squeeze Daniel's shoulder. "I find it highly unlikely that our team will enter into such an arrangement, Daniel."
Sam smiled at Teal'c's use of a first name, and then frowned. She'd never heard jokes, or anything, about SG-7. Not like that. They were all-male, which cut off one of her easier routes of gossip, but still. "Wait, wait, is SG-7--I didn't even think they were sleeping together."
Teal'c said, "Technically they do not," at the same time Daniel said, "They are so much freakier than that."
Sam waited for either one to clarify, but the silence got long enough for Daniel and then Teal'c to start fidgeting uncomfortably.
"I don't want to know, do I," Sam said.
"Oh God, I hope not," Daniel said. "Because I wish I didn't and I don't think I can explain it."
Teal'c squeezed Daniel's shoulder again and shifted--no, be honest, snuggled--closer against Sam's back. "Indeed."
Hammond glanced down at the envelope Jack had dropped on his desk and spread his hands, refusing to touch it.
"If this is your resignation, Colonel, you know full well I'm not going to accept it."
"Yeah," Jack said, and slumped into the familiar chair, trying to remember to look and sound plausibly tired and depressed, but not as bad as he'd actually felt before the wake. He'd made himself wait two days for this, and he knew it was still probably too soon, but he was about to start climbing the walls. He still couldn't sleep. They were out there. "I know, you have all those rules about not letting people make completely stupid decisions. Besides, what the hell would I do with myself?"
Hammond snorted, giving Jack a look that wasn't hard to interpret as I know exactly what you would do with yourself.
Jack shrugged and looked away. Hammond wouldn't have been wrong two days ago, but the strategic situation had flipped inside-out now. Jack had to keep his head down and play this out right. He had places to go. People to see.
He kept still, slouched in that chair, and listened as Hammond tore open the envelope.
"Transfer request," he said, but thoughtfully, like he wasn't dismissing it out of hand.
"Sir," Jack said, and kept his eyes down, ashamed. "I've thought about this a lot, and I'm not sure I can go through the Gate again. I'm pretty damn sure I can't lead people through it. And I will not send people where I can't go."
"I see," Hammond said slowly. It was a damned naked confession of cowardice, and there wasn't a lot else Hammond could say to it.
"I don't want to wait until a crisis comes up and proves that I'm as Gate-shy as I think I am. If I get out of the way now--if I were at Area 51, I could still do some good. Test pilot, maybe, or--"
"Come on, Jack," Hammond said, in a gently scolding voice, and Jack dared to glance up.
Hammond smiled a little, shaking his head. "You forget that as your commanding officer I've seen all your academic records. Test pilot, hell. They'd be lucky to have you in a lab up there."
"Yeah, well," Jack shrugged and reminded himself to sound like it didn't actually matter that much, like nothing mattered that much. "I just don't think I could work with that McKay guy."
Jack waved a hand vaguely. "I ran into him at the--at your place. We talked. He said he was the smartest guy we had left, after Carter."
"Did he," Hammond said, giving Jack a sharp look, and Jack looked down, reminding himself that that unspoken we'll just see who's smarter than you was, just this once in his long career, exactly what he wanted.
"Sir," Sam said, stopping just inside the door of the general's office. She was in civvies--there had been enough dress blues already this week, and she'd only come by with Teal'c and Daniel to get Teal'c more clothes. Well, and to check a few things in the lab, but they'd really, honestly, meant not to interrupt their mandated seven-day stand-down for more than an hour.
Sam had definitely not meant to find herself face-to-face with her CO less than two hours after she and Teal'c and Daniel had finally dragged themselves out of bed. Nonetheless, she'd been summoned, so here she was.
"Sam," the general said, with the grimace-smile that people were going to keep giving them for the rest of this week at least, maybe longer. Sam bit her lip, thinking of last night, telling stories about Jack and laughing themselves into and out of tears. Never mind where they'd been at the time.
"Have a seat." He waved her toward the chair in front of his desk, and Sam went and sat, telling her guilty conscience to knock it off. They were a good team, the best. (Seventy-five percent of the best.) They weren't hurting anyone. They were spending their stand-down coping as well as they could.
"I imagine you've been wondering about how I'm going to replace Colonel O'Neill on SG-1," the general said.
Sam's spine and shoulders tightened a little farther. She'd been trying like hell not to wonder, especially given what had happened in the last couple of days--trying not to wonder who would be put in command over them and what he'd think of it, or what they'd do if they were split up among other assignments.
"Yes, sir," Sam said.
The general nodded slowly, glancing down at some papers in front of him. "I've been thinking about it, Major, and I've decided I'm not going to."
Reassignment, then. Sam stared down at her hands numbly.
Sam's head jerked up. "Sir?"
The general gave her an actual smile, and that was even more stunning than what she thought he might have just said.
"You, Major Carter," he repeated. "You're going to replace Jack as commander of SG-1. God knows you're more suited to deal with Teal'c and Doctor Jackson than any other field officer we've got. I'll want you to choose a junior officer to take the fourth position on the team, but you don't need to rush that. You can work as a three-man team for a while after you come back. Do some joint missions with other teams, follow up with some of our allies. They're always asking to see SG-1."
Sam nodded. Part of her mind was already running through the missions they could start with, milk runs, just to get their feet under them, and the two-team specials that were always waiting for two teams to sync up properly to take care of them. Part of her was barely thinking at all.
"I wish I could have given you your first command under better circumstances, Major. But you've more than earned this. It'll mean promotion below the zone, in another year."
Sam blinked fiercely--she wasn't going to fall apart, she wasn't going to--command, promotion on the fastest track, and all because....
"Sorry," Daniel said from the doorway. "I just came up to--did you say promotion?"
Sam glanced toward the open doorway. Daniel standing there with Teal'c at his shoulder. Daniel looked faintly hopeful. Teal'c looked proud.
"Go," the general said. "Take your team and get off this base, Major. I believe you're all in violation of your stand-down."
Sam turned and nodded to the general without quite meeting his eyes, and she got her "Yes, sir," out without shaking. She stood up and walked out the door to join her team.
A couple of days after that Sam led her team on their first three-man mission: checking the colonel's house for anything incriminating before professional movers cleared the place out. Sam remembered with a disoriented jolt that they had gone through this with Daniel, had believed he was dead, held a funeral and a wake and went to clean out his apartment. None of it had seemed like the end of the world, and Sam wondered when that had changed, when they had become unable to endure a loss and keep going, mostly unchanged. Maybe the fact that they'd coped as well as they did was a sign that they'd known all along that it wasn't forever; maybe even then, they'd been SG-1 in the way that they were now.
But there was no knowing that, and they had a job to do. It should be relatively easy, since the colonel hadn't been big on bringing home offworld artifacts or notes, and hadn't kept journals like Daniel's.
Their first search had turned up a backup weapon in the bedroom and then another backup weapon in the bathroom, at which Teal'c had looked approving. Teal'c had also approved of the knife block in the kitchen--the knives had been kept quite sharp, apparently--and kept casting covetous glances back at it as they searched.
Sam had been first to recognize the photographs in the box under the bed as Charlie O'Neill; they'd all fallen silent at that, then agreed that the box should be sent to Charlie's mother. After that they'd all gone on wandering around the house, no longer even pretending to be searching. They just didn't want to leave, and so kept looking around and touching things, picking them up and putting them down.
Sam looked up from a worn stack of paperbacks half-hidden on the bottom shelf of an end-table to see Daniel standing by the coat closet, wearing Jack's leather jacket. He had his eyes closed, and as Sam watched he tilted his head to the side, rubbing his cheek against the shoulder of the jacket, then turned his head to sniff at it.
When he opened his eyes he was looking right at Sam, and caught her staring; he looked immediately for Teal'c, and Sam followed his gaze. Teal'c was watching him, too.
Daniel smiled a little sheepishly. "I was just thinking I wished he still smoked, or wore aftershave or something. It doesn't smell like anything."
Sam nodded, walking toward Daniel, but Teal'c's voice stopped her halfway there. "It smells quite strongly of him, Daniel."
Sam looked over at Teal'c, who was still out of arm's reach of Daniel, looking puzzled. Sam closed the distance and sniffed near the collar, but Daniel was right; the jacket didn't really smell like anything, except well-broken-in leather. She shook her head slightly, meeting Teal'c's eyes, and said, "The whole house...."
Teal'c shook his head, coming over as well and sniffing at the air above Daniel's shoulder. "He wore it last two weeks ago. You cannot tell?"
Sam shook her head, and Daniel did the same.
Teal'c started to say something and then stopped, studying them both intently. Finally he said, "There were things you seemed to be ignoring, in the past three years. I realize now that you did not know."
Sam opened her mouth to ask Teal'c what they hadn't known, when, and then shut it just as abruptly. She didn't know if she wanted to know, and when she looked at Daniel she thought he'd decided the same. He looked down and said, "I'm keeping this. We're keeping this."
Teal'c nodded and said, "And the knives. He would have wanted us to."
By the time his new orders came through--fast, for the workings of Air Force bureaucracy, but nothing was fast enough for Jack right now--he was down to a go-bag, uniforms, and stuff that could be sold with the house. It wouldn't stay on the market long; Jack's was one of the better neighborhoods for being able to get to the Mountain in an emergency, which was why he lived so near to so many other SGC personnel.
He'd updated his will--to be enacted on confirmation of his death or one year after he was reported missing--and left Charlie's things, packed and complete with a mailing label to Sara, at the bottom of his old locker. Eventually somebody would take over that locker, find the box, and send it to her. She'd know what it meant, but by then he'd be long gone.
Jack caught a transport flight out to Area 51, sitting in a jumpseat between crates of objects to be studied. He had a duffle between his feet, and if anyone had asked he'd have said he was having the rest of his stuff shipped out once he got settled in housing. No one asked, which just saved him the trouble.
They gave him a lab of his own. It was a concrete box on a sublevel, so he feel right at home--or as if he was hanging out in Carter's lab or Daniel's office, which was the same thing. There were a couple of computers on a counter but also an array of tools he wasn't embarrassed to know the uses of.
"Basically," his new--his extremely temporary--CO said, "if you can't get something to work, breaking it is going to be almost as informative. Everything's automatically monitored in the labs, so we'll get data off it no matter what."
Jack nodded, glancing around at the cameras, and said, "So, where do I start?"
One of the computers, the dedicated secure machine, accessed the catalog of random alien souvenirs Gate teams had been bringing home for the last few years, as well as the reports written on them by the Gate teams in question and by the geeks here and at the SGC. Jack's rank and clearance meant that he could commandeer just about anything he wanted--including junior officers and civilian scientists, if he felt the need for minions--and set it up in his lab. There were forms to fill out for everything, of course, but he had the run of the place, and he didn't plan on hanging around long enough for overdue paperwork (or questions about that box he'd left in his old locker) to catch up with him.
So all he had to do was find the mirror, and figure out how to get access to it, in the next two or three days. Jack started by downloading the reports on everything SG-1 had brought back. That turned out to be an alarming amount of data, so he went and found the nearest source of coffee while the computer was chugging along.
There were a couple of lab-coated geeks near the coffee pot halfway down the corridor. Jack didn't bother to remember their names and extracted intel on autopilot. The chow hall had decent pie, really good cake, and terrible Jell-O. They had no complaints about underfunding or interference with their work. They thought McKay was a smug bastard but admitted he was nearly as smart as he thought he was. The quantum mirror was one of those artifacts everybody had had a crack at and nobody had been able to get a handle on.
It hadn't been destroyed. No one could figure out how to destroy it. Everything they had tried to use on it broke before it did, although they hadn't gotten approval to go as far as dropping a nuke on the thing.
McKay had written the longest report on the quantum mirror, and it was waiting for him when he went back to his lab. It included the phrase we can only hope to contain it and a proposal regarding dropping the mirror into a volcano, along with a scathing critique of the nuke idea, and six different theories Jack couldn't follow about how nuking a quantum mirror might destroy the space-time continuum. McKay's report also included a second proposal--the one that appeared to have been actually enacted--in an appendix.
Only light in the human-visible spectrum is transmitted through the mirror, McKay's report stated, with a footnote that lead to half a dozen other test-reports. A mirror kept in total darkness will be indistinguishable to potential incoming travelers from a mirror at the bottom of the ocean or completely buried. Incoming travelers with any other option will go elsewhere. Incoming travelers driven to step into a black mirror will be safely contained in a secure storage room and may be dealt with however base command sees fit. May a nonexistent God have mercy on their miserable souls.
The quantum mirror was two levels away, in a secure storage locker without lights, with a door that locked from either side and would open, like just about every other door on the base, to Jack's top-level access code.
There was just one catch, down at the bottom of the even longer report McKay had written about the mirror's control device. They had been perfectly able to destroy that, and they'd tested it and all of its components down to the atomic level, leaving nothing behind. The quantum mirror couldn't be turned on, and couldn't be controlled.
Over the last forty-eight hours of their stand-down, Sam had convinced Teal'c and Daniel that they needed to take a methodical approach to returning to fully independent active team status. They'd developed a flow chart of mission achievements they'd have to demonstrate before Hammond was likely to agree to give them a go for any actually challenging independent mission.
They'd have to get through the gate and get back safely, demonstrating none of them had gone Gate-shy or developed any other basic problem with executing a mission. They'd have to go on at least one joint mission--preferably two, one in which they took a support role followed by one in which they took the lead--so that another team could independently confirm their ability to function in the field. It would also help if they could get in a multi-day mission, some sort of diplomatic negotiation, and some kind of shooting encounter with an enemy to prove they could cope with those situations. Those were harder to plan, but they could tilt their odds by their selection of missions.
By their first day back, they'd developed a prioritized list that ought to get them through the process in three to four weeks--as long as they really were just fine, and really didn't need any extra coddling. If something was wrong, they'd find out off-world and have the first chance to decide on their own what to do about it. Thinking ahead, they'd also made a list of the next few missions up once they were back on normal status. Once they'd worked through the flow chart they could send one up as a test balloon. If they were refused, they could figure out what needed to be added to the flow chart, or which steps they needed to repeat.
All in all, Sam was feeling like she knew what to expect when she walked into their first briefing with General Hammond, on their first day back. The feeling lasted until the general walked in with three copies of a mission briefing and handed them to her to hand around to her team.
"I'm sure you had other plans for your first mission," he said, sounding apologetic without inviting actual negotiation, "but we need SG-1 on this."
Sam looked down at the page, blinking, and read just one word. Tok'ra.
"Sir," she said, with no idea what to say next.
Her father hadn't come to Jack's funeral. She'd received a written message from him--condolences, an apology for being unable to get away from his work, an assurance that she would make him proud by carrying on. It would have been a Hallmark card if he could have bought one on the other side of the galaxy; as it was, she wondered if Selmak had written it.
"The Tok'ra have been carrying out a parallel investigation into the mines on 247, looking into whether it was intended as an attack--some kind of warning or attempt to destabilize us in advance of a major assault--or if it was purely a defensive measure by the locals. Selmak has requested that SG-1 meet him at a rendezvous point to receive his report on what they've learned so far, and to relay the intelligence we've gathered--which, for the record, is nothing but negatives."
Sam frowned down at the page--she should turn it, there would be actual information on the next sheet. She heard rustling paper from across the table, and knew that Daniel was skimming ahead for her.
Teal'c said, very neutrally, "Naturally Selmak has some reason for wishing to speak to SG-1."
"And not one of the teams actually conducting the investigation," Daniel added, sounding absent and rustling more paper. One of the traditional purposes of the seven-day stand-down was to make sure the affected team wasn't breathing down the necks of anyone working on finding out what had gone wrong. Sam didn't even know who was assigned to finding out what had happened on 247.
Sam looked to her guys first--Daniel was frowning at the page in front of him, but Teal'c met her eyes and raised his eyebrows slightly. Sam shook her head.
"My dad wants to see me," she said, keeping her voice even and leaving the without bothering to come to Earth unspoken. "We all know that's what's going on here."
She thought of the flowchart, and mentally inserted a step before go through the Gate and come back. It was labeled accept orders without actually yelling at the general. There was no need to yell, anyway. Not at the general.
"Sam," the general said gently, and Sam met his eyes for the first time. "Yes, I'm doing a favor for a friend. Yes, your father wants to see you. I'm also cooperating with an ally who is our best bet for finding out why Jack died, and whether we can safely continue our missions. I need you and your team to complete this mission for both of those reasons, and one doesn't cancel out the other. Is that clear?"
Sam pressed her lips together and nodded sharply. She could get through the first step of the flow chart. This mission would accomplish the basic go and come back objective; they could probably drop the visit they'd planned out for the Land of the Light and move this into its place. It would be fine.
Daniel, across the table, said, "This rendezvous is today. When are we being briefed on the intelligence we're taking to the Tok'ra?"
"As soon as I turn you over to the inquiry team," the general said. "If there are no further questions, I won't take up any more of your time."
Jack read--or at least opened and scrolled through--a lot of reports unrelated to the quantum mirror. He wasn't sure if he was trying to make this all look less suspicious to anybody monitoring what he was doing, or searching for improbable inspiration, or just killing time while he figured out what to do next. It didn't matter too much; he needed to do all three.
He went down to one of the big storage areas and wandered around when he got sick of scrolling through reports. The stuff that had already been identified as unlikely to explode or leak radiation (or people from alternate universes) was mostly just stacked on shelves and in bins. Jack wound up collecting a couple of broken staff weapons and some maybe-sorta-functioning Goa'uld gadgets, and sat around tinkering with them in his lab.
There was a whole form for artifact evaluation, a specified series of tests to run. They'd run all of the standard tests on the mirror and the controller and then on all of the controller's parts in the process of destroying it. Jack ran the same tests on a broken staff weapon, just for something to do.
He tested hardness of materials and reactivity with a range of chemicals. He evaluated the presence and apparent function of moving parts. He went down to the sensor lab to check whether the broken staff weapon emitted any energy or signals in a non-obvious range.
Back in his own lab, fiddling with the staff's on-off switch and looking at the readout that detailed the frequency and wavelength of the non-existent energy output of a broken staff weapon, Jack finally got it.
He dropped the staff weapon and just stood in the middle of the lab for a minute. It had taken him most of a day to figure it out. Most of a day, while his team--
Jack stretched ostentatiously. There were cameras everywhere. He windmilled his arms, swung his legs around until his knees popped, and then sat back down and methodically disassembled the broken staff weapon.
The on-off switch. All he really needed to get started was an on-off switch. He just had to produce one signal, a signal which had already been meticulously documented in a nice neat report.
The inquiry team was good, professional. They didn't flinch from the associations between their report and the three people they were briefing. The general's précis had been accurate: everything they'd found out was an absence of something. No one else had been hurt, not the first team that came to recover the three of them from 247, not the second team that recovered the colonel's body, which was also the team that had scanned the ground and discovered that there were still dozens of active mines beneath their feet, at which point they had prudently fled back to Earth and 247 had been locked out of the dialing computers.
Every team out on a mission at the time had carefully scanned the area around the offworld Gate before attempting to return, but no further signs of mines had been found. After forty-eight hours, when missions resumed, extra scans had been initiated. No mines had been found. There was no sign of a ship approaching Earth. There had been no special attacks, no messages or threats.
They still didn't really know what the mines were, either. They had the energy signatures from the mines detected in situ by the last team off 247. They had shrapnel picked out of the colonel's body, and Daniel's, and Teal'c's. Sam, hit only by the concussion blast, had not yielded any evidence, but that didn't make her feel any less sick looking at slides of twisted naquadah-rich metal that had been picked out of her teammate's bodies. She'd rather it had been hers.
Daniel and Teal'c, across the table, were as quiet and frozen as she was, and she wondered, staring fixedly at the screen, which piece had left which scar on Daniel's body, which invisibly-healed wound on Teal'c's, which man each fragment had been picked out of. It would be in a report somewhere, she knew from experience. Somewhere in the long string of the official item number would be a DJ or a T, or a JO. It wouldn't mean anything to the tech at Area 51 who would spend the next few months trying to reassemble the wreckage.
But the pieces didn't really matter anymore. The pieces were a dead end. Sam memorized everything she was going to have to repeat back to complete the mission, because what mattered now was her team, getting back to work.
It was sixteen hours after he'd first stepped into his new lab that Jack closed the door and headed over to an elevator that would take him down two levels, to secure storage. He signed in with the airman at the door to the storage area. He indicated that he would be going into Room 6-14-A, to see the quantum mirror.
"Here," the airman said, holding out a big yellow flashlight. "You'll need this."
Jack raised his eyebrows and didn't mention the handful of chemical lights weighing down the pockets of his fatigue trousers.
"No lights in that room," the young airman said. "But all sorts of people go in there to look at the thing. If we give them a flashlight they don't try to stand there with the door open and set off the alarm. Sir."
Jack nodded slowly. Yeah, that was him, just one more gawker. "Thank you, airman. Very efficient."
"Yes, sir. Your access code will let you back out when you're finished, sir."
Jack twirled the flashlight as he walked down the short corridor to the code-locked door. It swung open after he entered his code, and the room inside was pitch black, like they didn't just keep the lights off, like something in there absorbed light.
Incoming travelers with any other option will go elsewhere, McKay had written. May a nonexistent God have mercy on their miserable souls.
"Sounds about right," Jack muttered, and stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind him before the alarm went off.
He set the flashlight on the floor, just to one side of the door, and then reached into his pocket. He hadn't even bothered with a real housing for the little cobbled-together transmitter. It was just a crystal fixed to the necessary frequency and a tiny battery-powered amplifier.
Jack closed the circuit. The mirror lit up with a faint noise and showed him the medium-secure storage room, one level up from here. No good--he didn't want to end up as an unauthorized incoming traveler in some too-different Area 51. He broke the circuit and then squeezed again, repeating the same simple signal to shut the mirror off, plunging himself back into darkness. Turning it on again would lose the first connection and randomly select a different universe; even if he hadn't remembered that from Carter and Kawalsky's visit, it was explained in excruciating detail in McKay's report.
The mirror lit again, showing a dimmer light. It was a storage room at the SGC. That was more like it--a universe where the mirror had never been banished to Area 51. They'd still have the controller, probably somewhere close by. If he could get a controller, he could find what--who--he was really looking for, without just cycling through infinite other realities at random.
Jack dropped his on-off switch into his pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper, which he laid neatly on the floor next to the flashlight. His last mission report, such as it was.
He squared up to the mirror and forced himself to take a few seconds to stand still. He had time. It was graveyard shift, and nobody expected him to try anything like this. Blow himself up, sure, but not this.
No one who knew anything about him would ever expect Jack O'Neill to desert.
It was desertion, pure and simple. He refused to even try to hold his position in this hostile location, despite the lawful orders he'd been given. He was taking off for somewhere friendlier, and he was never coming back. He never could come back. He'd be as good as dead, and there was no excuse for his action. He just didn't want to do his job without his team.
They were out there somewhere. Somewhere there had to be a universe where that damn Goa'uld landmine had killed him and left Carter and Daniel and Teal'c alive. If he could find them, they might just let him stay. All he had to do to get them back was walk away from the world he'd have died to defend.
He could still walk this back. He hadn't done anything wrong yet. Hadn't broken a single order until he touched the mirror and found himself standing back in the SGC. No--until he didn't come back before he turned off the mirror and lost the connection.
His team was out there without him. There wasn't really a choice to make, or if there was he'd already made it more than a week ago, sitting on the floor of Hammond's guest bedroom during that godawful wake. It still hurt now as much as it had then, being away from them--but his chance was here, and he could finally, finally start to search for them.
Hammond would understand. Hell, George would probably kick himself for not predicting this, afterward. He'd understand exactly where Jack had gone, for all that Jack's message was only two words long.
Jack glanced back at it even as he reached out to lay his palm flat against the mirror's surface. The note was easily readable in the light from the mirror.
Sam watched the MALP telemetry over the tech sergeant's shoulder as they ran the now-standard extra scans. Even the rendezvous site her father had chosen might not be safe. This site especially might not be safe, with twice as many potential sources for security leaks.
But no one else had run into anything like what had happened to SG-1 nine days ago. The MALP showed nothing but blue skies and rolling sand dunes on P3X-252, and they'd already held the wormhole open for eighteen minutes while they checked. It was time to roll out.
Sam nodded a final goodbye to the general, who, along with half the senior officers at the SGC, was standing in the rear half of the dialing room, watching. Janet was strategically positioned on the edge of the crowd; she reached out a hand and Sam squeezed it without breaking stride. She trotted down the stairs to join the rest of her team in the Gate room, pulling on a baseball cap--Jack's--as she went. Teal'c was standing at the top of the ramp, ready to step through first, to take the brunt of anything they might find on the other side. The strings of Jack's boonie hat showed at the front of his throat, the actual hat dangling against his back.
Daniel stood at the bottom of the ramp, just staring up at the Gate. Sam stopped beside him. His arms were folded across his chest, his hands tucked in tightly. She couldn't read the look on his face. His eyes were wide, reflecting the blue of the event horizon, but she didn't know what he was seeing. Sam cursed herself for getting caught up in the fact that they were being dragged halfway across the galaxy to meet the Tok'ra--none of them had come in this morning expecting to step through the Gate today. She should have carved out time somewhere in the last few hours to make sure her guys were ready for this, no matter what timetable they'd been given.
He shook his head and looked down, dropping his hands and straightening his shoulders. He might have only looked pale in contrast to the black stocking cap, or the blue reflection of the wormhole.
"Nothing," he said, and the word was automatic, mechanical. He'd have said it to Jack. He'd have said it to her, ten days ago, before everything changed. If he was shutting her out now....
He looked up quickly, shaking his head as he met her eyes. "Sam, it's--I'll tell you when we're on the other side, all right? It's nothing serious. I'm ready."
Sam didn't see how it could be anything but serious today, but she jerked her chin up, leading off toward the Gate. She had to let Daniel make that call himself, and she didn't really mind making her father wait while they talked this out on the other side of the Gate, away from the watchful eyes of the entire SGC.
Raising her voice to carry to Teal'c, she said, "Come on, SG-1. We have a go."
Jack glanced around the storage room in the glow from the mirror, but it was otherwise empty--not even a shelf or a cabinet where they might be storing the mirror controller. No cameras, either, so he was unobserved for the moment. He clicked the transmitter to shut the mirror off, and then stood in the dark, considering whether to slip out into the SGC or just try another random jump.
He closed his eyes, listening. There was a hum of life and activity, faint voices far off. No klaxons and no screams, which made it a better-than-average moment on any given day--but if they'd never sent the mirror to Area 51, then this universe diverged a long way back, and it was hard to guess exactly what was going on here. They might not take kindly to his sudden appearance, and he'd have a hell of a time sneaking around for any distance. He didn't know what shift schedule they were running--didn't know what time of day he'd come to--didn't know who was likely to be on duty where.
Jack's eyes flashed open and he ducked behind the mirror a half second before the door opened, letting in a wedge of light from the corridor. But he recognized the stride, the sound of breathing, the quality of the silence with which the door closed.
Jack straightened up to look Teal'c in the eye as the light switched on.
Teal'c, wearing a First Prime's armor, stared back.
Jack stood very, very still for what seemed like a long time, and then Teal'c turned and closed the door behind him. He wasn't carrying a staff weapon, Jack noticed. In fact, he wasn't armed at all. The small object in his hand was the mirror controller.
Teal'c walked slowly around the mirror, and Jack pivoted just as slowly to keep watching him. When they were face to face, Teal'c bowed. Jack clenched his sweaty hands into fists at his sides and didn't move, didn't give an inch. The mirror was still at his left hand and he still had the transmitter in his grip.
"O'Neill of the Tau'ri," Teal'c said softly. "You have come, as I hoped. I see that I should not have doubted the power of Kekusatet's oracle; it has summoned you from the land of the dead."
Jack blinked. "Right," he said. "It sure did. As you... hoped."
Teal'c gave a slow nod, his face very still. Right, so this version of Teal'c had exactly as little sense of humor as the outfit suggested. He just wasn't killing Jack, because he thought Jack was already dead.
And he'd hoped to summon him here--and he thought the mirror was an oracle, which meant something really hinky was going on.
"So. You came here looking for me? Maybe something about this Cakey...."
Teal'c nodded again. "Kekusatet, the scourge of the Tau'ri. I hope that you will reveal to me her weakness. I know that she is a false god, but I do not know how she may be defeated."
Well, that didn't sound good.
"I was wrong to kill you," Teal'c continued, in the same imperturbable tone. Apparently nobody had ever told the Jaffa what you look like you've seen a ghost meant. Jack had to have it written all over his face, but Teal'c obviously wasn't getting the hint. "Perhaps all that has happened since could have been prevented if I had not. I wish to ask your forgiveness, and your counsel. You said once you could help the Jaffa to free ourselves from the false gods."
"Yes," Jack said. "I remember saying that, that was one of my better moments. Shame you didn't listen to me--"
Because if Teal'c had listened to Jack then, he'd be dead right now. Jack didn't let the thought register as more than a brief hesitation.
"But that's all subatomic particles through the Gate. So now you want my advice, but I'm not exactly up on your current tactical position. Last time I saw you, you'd never even met the Tau'ri, and now we've got our own scourge."
"As you say," Teal'c agreed. "Following your death, your friends gained the attention of the gods with their bravery and boldness. They were chosen by Amaunet and Apophis to be hosts to two of the children of the gods. The male became host to Klorel."
Jack's stomach turned. "Skaara?" he said unsteadily. "An Abydonian boy...."
Teal'c shook his head. "The Tau'ri, with the blue eyes. He was known as Daniel Jackson, before he was chosen to be a child of the gods."
Jack looked away for a moment, fighting to hold it together. Daniel, snaked. Christ, he was better off dead. At least that had been quick.
The more efficient part of his brain was piecing together what Teal'c had and hadn't said. "The other one who was chosen. You said she."
"Kekusatet. Formerly Samantha Carter."
Jack locked his knees and swallowed against bile. Carter, snaked--Kekusatet, the scourge of the Tau'ri.
"Kekusatet has surpassed all the other children of Apophis in her cunning. It was she who led the conquest of Earth, and many other worlds. She brought this device back from one of them, and uses it to speak to spirits which show her how to ensure success in her ventures. I thought to use her own power against her, but I had not believed it would be so easy to summon the spirit I sought."
"Easy," Jack repeated, swallowing a half-joke about how he was only easy for a few people and all of them were dead. Or snaked. Or standing right in front of him. Teal'c wouldn't get it anyway--not this Teal'c.
Jack shook his head, forcing himself to focus. Teal'c needed his help to defeat Carter, and Daniel was somewhere in the middle of all of this, too. Jack needed intel.
"So that's the scourge, okay, we'll get to her. What about Daniel--Klorel. What's he up to?"
For a fraction of a second, Jack could have sworn Teal'c had an expression. It looked... exasperated.
"Klorel has taken a much more traditional approach to the pursuit of power," Teal'c said. "He is very close to his mother, Amaunet. Recently they have begun to scheme against Apophis together, and Klorel sows discord between Kekusatet and Apophis, making each fear the other. For the moment Kekusatet takes her brother's side without openly breaking from her father, but anything could happen once Apophis realizes that the child Amaunet carries is not his."
"Daniel, you dog," Jack murmured, and decided not to think about the mother/son thing. It was Daniel and Sha're, for crying out loud, they were even married. And having a baby, apparently. Probably a freaky all-knowing Goa'uld baby, but still.
He should probably get them a present. And one for Carter. And something for Teal'c, too, all at the same time.
"Teal'c," Jack said slowly. "Have you ever heard of a little thing called Thor's Hammer, on a world called Cimmeria?"
"Cimmeria is a forbidden world," Teal'c said, tilting his head thoughtfully. "But I have never heard of this Hammer."
Their first trip to Cimmeria had been Daniel's idea, right. But Daniel was busy doing something other than geeking out over Norse legends these days, so they'd missed it.
"It's a weapon," Jack explained. "A really, really interesting weapon that Kekusatet would probably love to bring home and study. You should tell her all about how there's a weapon on Cimmeria so dangerous that Apophis refuses to go there. She'll go after it like a shot. And you could tell Amaunet and Klorel about it, too--tell them it's the perfect place to hide out from Apophis with their little bundle of joy. Just dial up that Gate address and get all three of them through."
Teal'c nodded. "And this Hammer will destroy them?"
"Not exactly," Jack said slowly, eyeing Teal'c and remembering. "You should go with, if you can. You and as many Jaffa as you can get together who agree with you about the false gods. The Hammer transports anybody carrying a snake into a labyrinth--Goa'ulds and Jaffa both. Inside the labyrinth, Goa'uld weapons won't work, so those three won't be able to do anything to you guys. And if you can dig up some old Tau'ri weapons from around here, those will work."
Teal'c nodded again, looking thoughtful. "I will speak to Kawalsky."
Jack stopped short, tactical plans collapsing into blankness in his head. "Kawalsky's alive?"
"Kawalsky is First Prime to Kekusatet. She stole the making of Jaffa from Hathor, and chose him from among her human captives to lead her forces. Apophis has not yet decided whether her presumption in naming a First Prime is an insult worth punishing fatally."
Jack's stomach heaved for real this time, and he had to turn aside to be sure he wasn't about to puke on Teal'c's shiny metal boots. Oh, God, Kawalsky had maybe definitely been better off dead. Jack's entire body rebelled against the sudden, visceral memory of being made into Jaffa by Hathor, and Kawalsky--and Carter had done it to him--but no, not Carter. The scourge of the Tau'ri had done it to him. Maybe Carter could find a way to fix it.
"Okay," Jack said after a moment, straightening up again, refusing to even think about the other implications of human captives. "Okay. Kawalsky's a good guy, you do what he tells you about the weapons. And listen, I know you think it's a fairy tale, but there's an Unas down there. Guns will put it down temporarily, but if you want the thing dead you'd better cut its head off, or--tell Kawalsky to bring C4, okay? C4 should do it, or a Claymore in the chest or something."
"The Unas may be killed by means of C4 or a Claymore," Teal'c repeated, starting to sound dubious.
"Yeah, look, I came from beyond to tell you this, all right? You summoned me, you have to listen to me. Now at the end of the Labyrinth there's a doorway, that's the real Hammer. You step through the doorway, it kills the snake but leaves the host alive--so you need to get all three of them through the doorway without any Jaffa going through, you understand? Pick them up and throw them if you have to, just get them through and do not let any of your own men step into that doorway or even reach through--especially you and Kawalsky. That's really important. If you bring a healing device, they'll be able to use it on themselves when they get out, so you can wound them if you have to, but you do not risk any Jaffa in that thing, nobody who wants to be free."
Teal'c frowned, but nodded.
"And after that, uh..." Jack patted his pockets, coming up with a pen and paper. "After that I'm going to write down the rest of the instructions, all right? You'll have staff weapons, won't you? They'd catch on pretty fast if you didn't. Okay."
Teal'c stood there and watched silently while Jack wrote:
I swear on a box of Kleenex and Skaara's life, it's me, Jack O'Neill, writing this note to you. You've gone through Thor's Hammer, a device which kills snakes to free their hosts, and now you need to let the Jaffa out. Teal'c is on our side and so are the guys with him, or he can tell you if they're not. You need to fire a staff weapon at the doorway from the outside to release the Jaffa.
As soon as you do, you need to have them block up the doorway with stones, and then you need to hightail it down off the mountain to find the settlement. Ask around for a woman named Gairwyn, she's in charge, or Kendra, she's a former host, she'll understand. You need to ask them to show you Thor's Chariot. Take Carter with you. The two of you will have to solve some logic puzzles--remember courage and pi--and then you'll be able to contact the Asgard.
Tell Thor you broke the Hammer to save good Jaffa, and that Earth has been overrun by Goa'uld in violation of their treaty. He should be able to clean up your messes on Cimmeria and on Earth. And once the Hammer's working again, Cimmeria's about the safest place you could want for that kid of yours. I'd say you should name him after me, but no kid should be stuck with Jack Jackson, so name him whatever you want--just be happy, and stick with Carter and Teal'c. You'll make a good team.
Jack folded up the page and handed it to Teal'c. "Once Daniel Jackson--Klorel--is through the doorway, once it's just the host, Daniel, you give him this. It'll tell him how to get the Jaffa out and save Earth and Cimmeria from Apophis coming after you all."
"I see," Teal'c said. He reached out to accept the folded note, and grabbed Jack's wrist instead. Dammit, now if Jack tried to bolt he'd probably take Teal'c along, and he'd have a hell of a time sending him back. "You are not a spirit."
"I came from the mirror," Jack said, "and I know what I'm talking about."
Teal'c squeezed and Jack held his gaze despite the feeling of his bones grinding together.
"I swear to you," Jack said steadily. "I know what I'm talking about. I want to help you."
"Why should you help your murderer," Teal'c growled.
"Because you didn't murder me," Jack snapped. "I'm not a spirit. I'm not dead. You didn't even summon me, I just needed a place to hide. This thing's not an oracle, it's a way of traveling between different realities--the places where things went differently. Every single what if is real somewhere. That's what she uses this thing for, to see how else it turns out."
Teal'c turned his head slightly, giving the mirror a look at least as dubious as the one he'd been giving Jack.
"Where I come from you're my friend," Jack said, trying to soften his voice, to speak like he really was talking to his friend. "I let you down, and you got killed. Now I'm trying to fix things, just like you are, so take the damn note, take them to Cimmeria, and fix this."
Teal'c let go, and snatched the note out of his hand. He turned to go, and then stopped and turned back. "What of your quest? How will you put right what you have done?"
Jack pointed to the controller, still dangling in Teal'c's hand. "Gimme that. It'll keep Kekusatet from guessing what you're trying to do, and it'll help me find the rest of my team."
"Your team," Teal'c repeated. "Daniel Jackson. Samantha Carter."
"And you," Jack said. "I know it sounds crazy but I swear to God. Actual God, not--I swear, Teal'c. You are part of my team and I am going to find my team, all of them, but I need your help, here."
Teal'c held out the controller and Jack took it with a nod. He switched the mirror on and gave it a quick twirl--the mirror showed him what looked like a cave, which seemed like a safely remote kind of universe.
"Good luck, T."
Teal'c bowed slightly. "And you, O'Neill."
Jack shoved the controller into his pocket and touched the mirror.
Sam turned to Daniel as soon as they were through to ask him what was going on, so she saw his face go white. She looked around for what might have set him off--there was nothing, no sign of Selmak or anyone else, just the same dunes and blue sky she'd seen through the MALP. She turned back to Daniel and then had to lunge and catch him as he turned and wobbled toward the open incoming wormhole.
The wormhole snapped out of existence in the next second. Daniel's knees seemed to give way, and he sat down in the Gate. Sam perched next to him, the curve sliding them together. Teal'c stepped up and stood with his toes touching theirs, keeping watch as Sam slipped her arm around Daniel's shoulders.
"Sorry," Daniel gasped. "Didn't expect--sorry--" His shoulders were heaving under Sam's arm, and the sound of his breathing got more alarming the longer he sat there. Sam eyed the terrain and calculated how long it would take Teal'c to carry Daniel to a clear spot while she dialed the Gate.
Five seconds before Sam was going to tell Teal'c to do it, Daniel put up a hand, index finger raised, and the horrible strangled panting started to even out into horrible but effective wheezing. He took his glasses off, wiped his arm across his face, and replaced them, and then coughed a few times and finally picked his head up. His face was red, and his breathing was still awful, but he managed to say in a hoarse whisper, "I really didn't think this would happen again."
"Again?" Sam demanded, trying to think of when Daniel had been away from her in the last week--he had to mean the last week, this had to be some kind of reaction....
Daniel shook his head. "First few months after my parents died. Panic thing."
Sam tightened her arm around Daniel's shoulders, remembering the day she'd watched Daniel watch his parents die, again and again and again. It was better, maybe, not to remember what exactly had happened to Jack. No image to haunt her.
"It's kind of what I wanted to tell you, I guess," Daniel said, his breathing slowly coming under control. "Maybe it's because I didn't see him die, I don't know, I just--I'm such an optimist."
He put the inflection on it that anyone else would have put on idiot. Sam looked up at Teal'c, who seemed to find this statement somewhat enlightening--Teal'c had also been in a position to watch Daniel's face as he stood there in the Gate Room, staring at the wormhole.
"I had to be," Daniel added, hunching his shoulders further, staring down at his boots. "I had to believe I was going to step through the Gate and Sha're would be there. And if not Sha're--there would be something wonderful, something fascinating, something we could learn, or an opportunity to do some good in the universe, even if we couldn't help her. And even--even after she died...."
Teal'c looked away and Daniel didn't look up. Sam reached out with her free arm and punched Teal'c gently on the thigh. He glanced down at her and nodded slightly, though his face was impassive as she'd ever seen it.
"It was why I wanted to leave. I thought it would be gone and I thought I couldn't do this job without that. But every time I stepped through the Gate I still had this instant where I thought Maybe today is the day we find her. And I just--today, I was standing there and I didn't think that." Daniel reached up and tugged on the black stocking cap. "Today I thought, Maybe today is the day we find Jack."
"Daniel," Sam said, but her voice came out too soft, too broken, and she had no idea what else to say. She twisted to hug him tightly. He squirmed a hand out to pat her shoulder in return.
"It just took me by surprise, that's all," Daniel murmured, half into her shoulder. "I thought--" He laughed a little, bitterly. "I thought one of these times I would learn."
Jack stepped into a cave. It was large and dry, with a sandy floor and the sound of the ocean outside, and nothing inside but the mirror and him. Of course, that was what he'd thought about the storage room, too. Jack took a longing look at the mirror and then shoved the controller into his pocket and went out to reconnoiter.
He followed the sound of water through a narrow tunnel off to the left from the mirror and located the opening to the outside, which let out on an equally empty beach. They seemed to be in some kind of harbor, with the beach curving around on both sides, though he could see water all the way to the horizon straight ahead. The sun was pretty near noon in a blue sky, and he had no idea where he was. It didn't look like anyplace he'd been in the last few years, but it could just as easily be Earth or someplace across the galaxy. He couldn't even try to recognize stars until nightfall.
There was no point hanging around, though. He had a mirror and a controller, and he had a plan. With a little luck SG-1 could be together again by the time those stars came out.
Back in the cave, Jack turned the mirror on and started twisting the dial, wincing at the ones on fire--how could so many of them be on fire at any one time?--and the ones that looked out silently over ashen wreckage. He got a couple of glimpses that looked like P3R-233 and then he got what he was looking for: a black mirror.
Jack reached into his pocket and pulled out a chem light, cracked and shook it until it was burning bright green, and then tossed it gently into the surface of the mirror. For a second Jack thought it had stuck and hung there--but no, it was on the other side, stuck flat to the surface of the corresponding mirror.
Jack jerked back as it rematerialized on his side of the mirror and fell to the ground, crushed and leaking fluorescent green.
"Buried," he said aloud, staring at the steady blackness. "Buried mirror."
And that right there was why he wasn't touching a dark mirror. Jack kicked sand over the crushed chem light until the glow disappeared, then scraped the whole mess off to one side of the mirror. He turned the dial past some more scenes of desolation, and when he found another dark mirror he gritted his teeth and pulled out another chem light and tossed it before he could think twice.
This one lost all its momentum and dropped straight down on the other side, but it was still enough to illuminate half of the secure storage area.
Someone had taken away the flashlight, but Jack's note was still there. He squinted at his own handwriting, which looked somehow alien in the lurid green light--but it was his own handwriting, his own note. So that was his universe, and that meant he was close.
Jack twisted the dial the tiniest possible increment to the left. Another dark mirror. Jack opened another chem light and tossed it through.
It was secure storage again, in darkness. No note. Jack took a deep breath and put his hand to the mirror.
When Daniel got his breath back completely, they set out to the Gate's ten o'clock. They'd walked about half a klick over the sand dunes when Teal'c raised a hand, halting all three of them. He pointed to something Sam couldn't see--a shadow on the sand, maybe--and a few seconds later a cargo ship decloaked.
Sam took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, and took the lead as the ramp came down, silently inviting them aboard. Her dad was waiting for them in the cargo bay, hands clasped behind his back, and Sam came to a halt well out of arm's reach and said, "So. Have you found out anything?"
He winced--oh, good, he understood that she was angry, that was something--and said, "Sam...."
"So no, then," Sam said, folding her arms. Teal'c's hand closed tightly on her shoulder. She clenched her teeth. No one actually contradicted her.
Daniel stepped around her and said, "Jacob, hi."
Her dad tore his eyes away from her to shake Daniel's hand, and as soon as he wasn't looking at her Sam wanted his attention back. That was stupid--she didn't even want to be here, she definitely didn't care who her dad looked at or talked to.
When Daniel stepped back, her dad was moving toward her, and he said, "Sam," again as he opened his arms. Sam was grinding her teeth so hard her ears were ringing, but she was blinking hard, too. This was her dad, and even if he was a week and a half late--even if she'd had to come to him, even if his work came first like always--he was here now.
Sam stepped forward into his arms, and he hugged her tightly, rocking from side to side like she was still a little girl, like he could fix anything. Sam took a deep, shuddering breath and held on.
Jack glanced down at himself after he stepped through to make sure, but he hadn't been wearing a sidearm in the lab. He was unarmed, carrying only a pocketful of chem lights and the mirror controller. He set the controller down by his feet and laced his fingers on top of his head.
"Ten," he said, looking up toward the corner where the camera would inevitably be. "Nine, eight, seven, six--"
There were pounding noises and gruff voices approaching.
"Five, four, three."
There was a faint electronic keypad noise outside.
The door swung open and Jack nodded as the MPs stormed in. "Not bad."
They pointed their rifles at him, but he already had his hands up and his possible weapon on the ground, which robbed them of their usual salutations. One of them darted in to grab the controller, and from outside the door a team leader called out, "Identify yourself!"
"Colonel Jack O'Neill," Jack called back, taking an easy tone just to throw them further off-script. "I came through the mirror, and if anybody's briefed you on this thing you know what that means and how it's possible. If nobody's briefed you you must at least have a procedure in place--"
One of them grabbed his wrists and twisted them behind him, and Jack let them cuff him. That was probably part of the procedure, and it made sense.
"I just need to know who died on 247," Jack said, in the most reasonable voice he could summon while being frog-marched through the lab where he'd been working, an hour ago and two universes over. "Just remember that, when you report this to whoever you report to--tell them I need to know who died on 247. I need to know soon."
All they did was move him across the hall, opening up another secure storage locker and shoving him inside, wrists still cuffed.
"Hey," Jack yelled as the door closed. "Hey! Who died on 247?"
They left him there long enough for the cuffs to get sincerely annoying, but not long enough for his hands to go numb--not more than an hour, he thought. When the door opened it was just a pair of MPs, and one of them moved immediately to free his hands, which was a good sign.
The other said, "Message from General Hammond, sir. No one died on 247, but you're urgently needed at the Mountain."
If no one had died on 247, then Jack was in the wrong place. He probably had about forty-seven hours to get back through the mirror before every molecule in his body started trying to fix the mistake. Still, Hammond had said urgent, so there wasn't really any decision to make.
"What are we waiting for?" Jack demanded, gesturing toward the door even as he rubbed at the marks on his wrists. "Let's go!"
It turned out to be urgent enough that Jack was hustled out to an F-16 and thrown into the second seat; he'd barely gotten strapped in when they were in motion. There was no time to object about not having a radio headset, and no one to object to without a radio.
He watched the sky go by at Mach 2 and wondered what he was being dragged into. If the local Jack O'Neill hadn't been killed on 247 but needed some parts--a heart, say, a lung and a couple of kidneys, maybe some retinas--then Jack was a living human organs cooler being rushed to the hospital. He couldn't decide if Hammond would do that to him. Or for him. Or to him, for him.
Jack shut his eyes and let the sky go unmonitored. He'd be there soon enough. Then he'd know.
Hammond was waiting for him at the ground-level elevator access, looking grim. Good sign. Bad sign.
"Jack," Hammond said, ushering him into the elevator and dismissing Jack's escort with a nod.
The doors shut behind them, the elevator started the first long drop and the general said, "You got my message?"
"No one died on 247," Jack said, leaning against the wall and bracing himself for the news.
"Thanks to you," Hammond said with a nod. "They left about forty minutes before you showed up at Area 51. It would have been five more hours before they missed a check-in, but when we got the message we sent back up through immediately."
Jack winced. "Was anybody else..."
"No. In retrospect we don't know why, but we didn't even realize it was a minefield until we'd already evacuated all four of them. Once we did a scan the whole area lit up with energy signatures and naquadah underfoot and we cleared everyone out."
"Someone told me it was really... random," Jack said. "When they go off and when they don't."
Hammond studied him. "You were there?"
Jack nodded, and fixed his gaze to one side of the general. "Sole survivor."
And now he was here, having deserted his universe, but if the general wasn't going to bring that up, Jack wasn't.
"Someone also told me I was urgently needed at the SGC, sir."
The elevator stopped, and the general led off, saying nothing as they went past the security desk and over to the other elevator bank. The general hit the button for 21. Medical level. Jack had a sudden, stark memory of lying in bed while Hammond stood over him in full dress uniform, waiting to tell him the news.
The general was in shirtsleeves now. Jack was on his feet. It still didn't feel different enough.
"It's Major Carter," Hammond said, keeping his back turned. "She's been in and out of consciousness, asking to see her team. We're trying to get hold of the Tok'ra, but Jacob's on a mission somewhere, and even if the message does get through, he's not going to be in time."
Jacob had saved Jack's life, but not his baby girl's. Jack breathed in and out, waiting for the gut-punch sensation to pass. "Carter's dying."
"I won't force you," Hammond said, like he hadn't already, like anybody could stop him, "but she should have someone from her team with her."
And the other three were alive but in no condition to hold her hand, apparently. So there was just Jack.
"Lead the way."
Hammond nodded and did exactly that as the doors opened to Level 21. They moved down the corridor--Jack registered and ignored the handful of double-takes from personnel as they passed--to the isolation rooms.
Dr. Frasier was in the one Hammond led him to, sitting beside the bed at the center of the room, and lying on the bed was Carter. Her face looked grimy, but as Jack got closer he realized it was scrapes, not dirt. He remembered his own Carter on the morgue table, her face smashed--but this Carter didn't look so bad. This Carter was alive. For now. He could hear the beep-beep from one of the machines, unsteady but persistent.
"Colonel," the doc said, standing up and wiping tears from her face. "Thank you for--"
"It's me," Jack said roughly, moving to the opposite side of the bed. "Don't thank me for being here for Carter, this isn't--I'm not doing anybody a favor. She's on my team."
Dr. Fraiser looked past him--he was vaguely aware that he'd shoved past Hammond to get to Carter--and then said, "We'll be just outside. I don't think it will be long now. She shouldn't be in any pain, but if she needs more medication, press that button."
No instructions about not pressing it too often. There was really no chance for her. Jack nodded once in acknowledgement, and didn't watch them leave.
He took Carter's hand in his--carefully, because there was a splint around her wrist, and no matter what drugs she was on he had no intention of hurting her.
"Hey," he said softly, trying to think of what he'd wanted most to hear when it was him in the bed. "Carter. I'm here. It's gonna be okay. Daniel and Teal'c are gonna be fine."
Nothing, just the beep-beep of the machine. But she wasn't alone, at least. He stood there for another couple of minutes, just holding her hand, and all of a sudden hit an adrenaline-cliff he hadn't thought to expect. His knees weren't going to hold him for more than about thirty seconds.
Jack laid her hand down as gently as he could, then turned away to grab a stool. When he looked back to her face in the process of sitting down, Carter had her eyes open, watching him.
She smiled a little. "Hey, sir. Janet gave me the good drugs."
Jack couldn't help smiling back, even though smiling right now hurt more than anything else he'd ever done in his life. "Glad to hear it, Carter. Nothing's too good for you."
Carter shook her head slightly, still smiling. "Means I'm dying, sir. I know that."
Jack had to look away for a moment, though he eased his hand back to hers. Her grip was weak. He held on too hard, probably crushing her fingers, but Carter didn't object.
"I'm sorry," Jack said. It was the one thing he'd never been able to say to them, the one thing he'd wanted them to know. "I should have--should have known. Shouldn't have led you into that."
Carter shook her head again, harder this time. "Couldn't know. You're okay? Daniel and Teal'c?"
"They're fine," Jack said firmly, because they would be, for her, for all she knew. "We're all fine."
Carter nodded and closed her eyes, and Jack knew he could sit here and hold her hand and leave it at that, let her die thinking she had her team with her. But Carter deserved more than that. Someone had told him once, the truth had to be better than not the truth.
"Listen to me," Jack said softly, squeezing her fingers. Carter blinked and opened her eyes. The sound of the beeping from the machine was getting more erratic, but her eyes focused on him. "Carter, your team's going to be all right. Don't you worry about them."
She frowned, giving him a slow, drunk blink. "Them?"
Jack nodded jerkily. "I came here through the quantum mirror. I lost everyone on 247, where you--where you went today. I'm looking for the team that needs me. I thought it might be this world, but your O'Neill's going to be fine."
Carter's smile changed into something real, something better--that Carter grin for something wonderful that Jack could hardly understand. This time she was smiling for what he'd said, and she was looking at him like he was some new wonderful thing she'd never imagined before.
The sound of the beeping from the machine was failing. Her grip on his hand was nothing now, and Jack was crushing her fingers together. He leaned forward, looking into her eyes even as her eyes stared through him into something infinitely more fascinating. "If you can't--if you have to go, Carter--you let go. It's all right. I am going to find you. Wherever I have to search, whatever it takes. I will find you."
Her eyes shifted, focusing on him. Just for a second, she came back from wherever she'd gone. She was suddenly right there with him, intently and completely. His Carter. Her fingers fluttered in his grip.
"Find you," she whispered, and then the light went out. Jack sat perfectly still for a solid minute, holding his breath while the machine let out a long monotone wail. It cut off abruptly and Jack finally inhaled in the sudden silence. It was over. Carter didn't need her hand held anymore.
Jack let go of her hand and got to his feet. He gently closed her eyes. He leaned over and kissed her forehead.
He couldn't sit still. No time to grieve. Nothing had really changed, had it? Carter had died, Carter was dead.
One down, something grim and efficient said at the back of his mind. Now you count to three.
Jack turned away and left her there--not the worst place he'd ever left anyone, not by a damn sight, clean in an infirmary bed, pumped full of good drugs and some last shining vision.
He'd lied to her to earn that smile. He wasn't going to find her, not the Carter who'd tried to squeeze his hand as she died, the one who'd looked at him like he was a fascinating new discovery. She was gone and not coming back. But it hadn't been only Carter he was looking for. Now you count to three.
Jack opened the door and Dr. Fraiser immediately brushed past him, headed back to Carter. Hammond was in the corridor, receiving a report from Makepeace.
"Turned up nothing," he was saying, "SG-5 and SG-8 are still holding position while we run scans, but they're the last ones left offworld."
"Nothing's going to happen," Jack said, and Makepeace spun around to face him, looking a lot less wary than Jack probably deserved. He was the interloper, this time around.
Jack shrugged. "Nothing did, anyway, where I come from. SG-1 got taken out on 247, then nothing."
"All the same," Hammond said, after a pause in which Jack said nothing else, because there was nothing else to say. "Continue the recall as we discussed, Colonel."
Makepeace nodded stiffly and headed off down the corridor, and Hammond turned back to Jack.
"I need to see them," Jack said. "My--SG-1. I need to see them."
Hammond nodded and gestured to a door across the corridor. Jack headed for it and let himself in, and no one stopped him.
It was the intensive care room, but Jack had never seen it set up as a ward before, beds lined up with critical patients.
Jack counted automatically. Self, two, three--four. But no, he'd counted himself twice. The life he saved might have been his own. That was Jack O'Neill in the furthest bed.
Jack moved to stand between the two nearer ones, with Daniel at his right hand and Teal'c at his left.
Teal'c was in restraints, and Jack's head jerked up, looking to Hammond for an explanation even as his mind filled with a jumble of images. The last Teal'c he'd met--the one his Teal'c, this Teal'c, had killed in another reality--the horrible early days when he'd had to fight to prove Teal'c was on their side....
"It's for his own protection, Jack," Hammond said, coming closer. "That arm was damn near detached when we brought him in. He couldn't get to kel-no-reem because he was in too much pain, and he can't be completely sedated without slowing down his symbiote from healing him."
Jack looked again and saw the bandages, saw that part of the strapping was holding Teal'c's arm in place at his side. Jack laid a hand on his undamaged shoulder, and Teal'c shifted restlessly. His eyes half-opened, and he murmured something that could have been, "O'Neill," before going still again.
"Candles," Jack said, looking around and not spotting any. "He should have those candles he likes for when he's hurt."
Jack looked around and spotted a guy in scrubs who didn't look like he was doing anything immediately necessary to keeping the team alive. "You, go and get them from Teal'c's quarters. Candles, about yay big, not the white ones, the ... not-white ones. They won't smell like anything to you, but Teal'c says he can smell them and they help."
The nurse, orderly, whatever, looked past Jack, nodded at what he saw, and took off.
Jack squeezed Teal'c's shoulder, and turned to look at the other bed.
Daniel's throat was heavily bandaged, and he had a blood pack hanging over him as well as the usual bag of saline. This one's glasses had gotten him, too, but not as badly--there was a curving gouge from the left side of his nose to his cheekbone, and a perfectly straight horizontal line carved into his left temple.
"He almost bled out coming through the Gate," Hammond said. "There was a piece of shrapnel in his throat, and it shifted when they moved him."
Jack touched Daniel's cheek, and then slipped his fingers down to the back of his jaw, just under his ear. The skin there was warm, and Jack could feel a pulse hammering away under his fingers--his own or Daniel's, he could never tell for sure. It was there where they touched, anyway, and Daniel was alive enough to be worth pumping blood back into.
"He's going to be all right? They're all going to be all right?" Jack heard the demand in his own voice, but couldn't soften it. He'd told Carter her team was going to be okay, and even if they were never going to be okay without her, some part of that needed to be true. He'd found Daniel and Teal'c--he'd even helped get them the backup they needed to survive--and he couldn't stand the idea that they wouldn't walk away from this.
"They're going to be fine, Jack. All three of them."
Jack dropped his hands from Daniel and Teal'c then. He folded his arms and walked around Teal'c's bed to the last one. O'Neill's.
If it had been anybody but himself in the bed, Jack would have been hard-pressed to identify him. Most of his face was covered in bandages, plus a ventilator tube that obscured what was left. Jack studied the array of machines--easily twice what Daniel and Teal'c were hooked up to--and then looked back at Hammond.
"Going to be fine?"
Hammond nodded. "Medically induced coma for head injuries. Once the swelling goes down, Dr. Fraiser will let him start waking up, maybe as soon as tomorrow. She's confident that his prognosis is good. He'll have a few new scars, but he'll pull through this."
Jack ran a hand through his hair, looking down at the poor bastard. He wondered what he'd looked like, two hours after they pulled him off of 247. "And if not there's always the Tok'ra."
Hammond didn't say anything to that, and Jack added, "Neither of you is going to be Jacob's favorite person, but he'll come. And he'll help."
Even as he said it, Jack remembered Jacob's curse, remembered the light going out of Carter's eyes--Carter's face in the morgue, pulped on one side--the same side of O'Neill's face that was covered completely in bandages.
Jack looked up and kept his eyes fixed on Hammond like a beacon.
"Sir," he said, fighting to keep his voice steady, "I gotta get out of here."
"I know," Hammond said. "Your ride's waiting."
Jack didn't look around as he walked out, didn't stop for a last touch of hands. This wasn't his team. He couldn't stay.
In the elevator, Hammond said, "I want to thank you, Jack. For everything."
Jack nodded and stared down at his feet. "Do something for me, George?"
"Of course," Hammond said, and Jack gave his toes a grim smile for that unquestioning support.
"Tell them the truth," Jack said quietly. "When they wake up--don't tell them it was fast."
"I'll tell them about you," Hammond said, but Jack shook his head. It wasn't about him. Hammond got it, because he asked, "Did she say anything?"
Jack shrugged, nodded, made his voice flat and cool as he gave one last report. "Asked about her team, wanted to know if they were all right. Said she felt fine, knew she was full of painkillers, knew she was dying. The very last thing she said was--I was telling her who I was, how I got here. I told her I was looking for--my team. She repeated back something I was saying. The last thing she said was find you."
The F-16 apparently had better things to do than wait for him; Jack took a normal transport flight back to Area 51. Just to complete his sense of déjà vu, an airman brought him a field pack and a small duffle bag before they took off, and he sat on a jumpseat with the bags between his feet. There were crates of artifacts to either side of him that could have been the same stuff he flew over with the day before, or a week in the future. In another life.
When he got back to Area 51 he was escorted directly down to secure storage, where an airman handed him the controller, undamaged, though he didn't actually need it. They'd held the connection open the whole time--just hours, really, even if it felt like days. The chem light was on the floor, still glowing weakly. The cave was on the other side waiting for him.
Jack didn't look back before he slapped his hand down on the gleaming surface. He shut the mirror off immediately and then dropped to his knees, dumping the field pack and the duffle bag on the ground.
He should turn around and head through the mirror again. Other teams were out there--his team was out there.
His vision blurred, and Jack raised a hand to wipe his face only to find it dry. Jack let his eyes close, finally recognizing the sensation of twenty-four hours with no sleep, no high-grade stimulants, and no team around him to keep him awake.
"I will find you," he muttered, lowering himself to the sand. "Hang on for a few hours. I'll be there."
He almost thought he heard them answer, but it was just the sound of the ocean outside and sleep crashing down.
"On the bright side," Daniel said, as they ran back toward the Gate on P3A-098, "you weren't sure we were ever going to get shot at, and it took less than two weeks."
Sam turned and fired a burst through the trees to cover them, listening as Teal'c and Daniel's footsteps retreated behind the next set of ruins. When she heard Teal'c start firing she turned and ran up to their position, only to find Daniel already running on ahead--this was the last set of ruins, the DHD was down at the other end of the colonnade. The top of the Gate was just visible from here, down inside the amphitheater.
Sam followed Daniel to the rim to get eyes on the amphitheater, but thankfully no one had beaten them back to the Gate to set up a firing position. She heard incoming shots behind her and turned to fire over Teal'c's head as he closed the distance. The Gate whooshed open and she heard the click of keys on Daniel's GDO as he called out, "This is SG-1, we're coming in hot!"
"Go," Sam yelled, because the locals were already coming around the last set of ruins, and it was just a matter of time before somebody got a lucky shot even if they were firing muskets. Sam really didn't want to have to kill any of these people. Daniel didn't stop to argue, racing down the steps toward the Gate, and Sam fired another burst toward the group who looked like they were going to slow down enough to aim, waving Teal'c past her and glancing back just in time to see Daniel disappear through the Gate.
Sam ducked below the rim and ran to Teal'c's position, flinching as shots ricocheted around her. Teal'c gave her a little push, turning to fire a few last shots, and Sam barreled through the Gate.
Daniel was standing with Janet just past the first rank of the security team, who all had their weapons up. Sam hurried down the ramp to Daniel, watching Janet watch him fail to breathe, since it had turned out not to matter to Daniel's panic thing which way he went through the Gate. Teal'c came through behind Sam just as she reached Daniel.
Teal'c charged down the ramp and then looked back toward the Gate, as Sam was looking back, and Sam thought hurry even as she realized, and turned to look up at the control room. "Shut it down!"
We don't count to four anymore.
The iris closed, and a few shots thumped against it as the security team backed away.
Sam turned back to Daniel, who was watching her as he gasped for breath, and Teal'c came and closed ranks with them.
"On the bright side," Sam said. "That took less than two weeks."
So Daniel couldn't breathe going through the Gate and none of them could remember under fire how many people were on SG-1. Today they'd gotten shot at and come home in one piece. Two steps back. One step forward.
When Jack woke up he checked his watch, and then realized he had no idea what time it had been when he fell asleep, or for most of the day or so he'd been awake before that. He didn't feel rested now, but he felt awake, and he didn't have time to waste trying for more than that. He took his pack and his duffle bag and walked out to the beach. The sun was lower in the sky out over the water, which told him exactly nothing about the passage of time. The water went on forever and had some nice waves going, but it wasn't salt--didn't taste like salt, anyway--so Jack dubbed it a Not Bad Lake and washed in it.
When he opened his pack with damp hands and reached inside, his towel was exactly where it was supposed to be. He got halfway through drying his face and then stopped, threw his towel--it was exactly his towel, too, thin scratchy standard-issue from the locker room--over his shoulder, and dug deeper. His fatigues were also where they were supposed to be, one change of clothes in green and one in blue, but these were brand new, without nametapes. Well, obviously. Somebody had dug all of this stuff out of stores for him; they wouldn't have given him their O'Neill's field pack. It was just packed exactly like his field pack.
On a hunch, Jack tipped the pack sideways and reached into the quick-access pocket for the first aid kit, and his breath caught. The weight of it was exactly right in his hand, and Jack's first aid kit was non-standard. They'd checked. They'd matched up everything.
He didn't have to open it to know, but Jack popped the lid open anyway. Right on top were two little off-white candles, wrapped in plastic so the smell--whatever the smell was--wouldn't get out. They were brand new, too, the sharp edges not dulled by knocking around in his pack for a year, no little crumbs of wax ground into the plastic. Under that were a couple of tampons--good for plenty of things, if anyone ever had occasion to ask--and two doses of Daniel's allergy meds. There was no good excuse for that.
Two weeks ago, it had been important to him to hide this stuff. He hadn't ever wanted any of them to see this, had wrapped the candles in plastic so Teal'c wouldn't even smell them. Until they died, he'd needed his team never to know that he'd have their backs in any situation he could think of, any way he could think of, any way he couldn't think of. Until they died he couldn't let them know that it went beyond being a team leader and into something none of them could ever talk about.
And now they were dead, so it didn't matter, so nothing mattered. Except they were alive somewhere, so it did, or it would, if he ever found them, if there was ever anyone to talk about it with or not.
Jack snapped the first aid kit shut and put it away, changed clothes--blue today--and made himself sit and eat an MRE. It was a nice one, brand new, with Skittles, and it could have been a K-ration for all he cared. He chewed, swallowed, stared at the water, didn't think. He had to eat like he'd had to sleep (although if he'd known he had his own first aid kit he could have popped a couple of things and gotten another twelve hours on his feet). He had to keep himself going for them.
When he'd eaten, there was only one thing left to check. Jack reached for the duffle bag they'd given him and opened it up. There were two factory-sealed boxes inside. Chem lights. One hundred each.
Jack knelt there on the sand, in the sunlight, and thought about making two hundred more trips through the mirror, two hundred more teams that were almost his but not quite. Two hundred teams of MPs, two hundred pairs of handcuffs.
Two hundred hands to hold while they died because he hadn't come soon enough.
He tipped over onto his ass and kept staring because he couldn't tear his eyes away. Carter, looking up at him as she died. Teal'c in restraints. Daniel, pale as the sheets but warm. Daniel, cold, Carter, cold, Teal'c, cold. Teal'c in First Prime's armor--the scourge of the Tau'ri--Klorel and Amaunet and impossible baby makes three. Ashes in boxes. Two hundred more random chances in the lottery of alternate realities, and half of them were always on fire.
They hadn't given him a sidearm. Jack hadn't brought one. Because this moment had always been coming, this moment when he would have put it to exactly the wrong use. Jack shut his eyes and covered his face with his hands and didn't walk into the water, didn't find a good use for some of the other contents of that first aid kit.
He couldn't do this. He was going to, because he had to, because he had promised Carter he would--he would do it if it killed him and he wouldn't care how much it hurt because his team was out there. But right now, at this exact second--he couldn't do this. Not alone. He'd always needed his team with him to do anything important, and he needed them now. He needed to know what that last smart thing was that Carter had thought of. He needed Teal'c believing in him, dead or alive, stronger than him and backed by a hundred years of knowledge about the bad guys. He needed Daniel to tell some long-winded story about how this worked out one time five thousand years ago and therefore they could, of course, make it work right now.
He needed his team and all he had was memories. Ghosts. And his team was out there somewhere, maybe lost, maybe dying, because he couldn't get up off this beach and go find them. He'd already failed them. He had so many more chances to fail them again.
The water would have covered the sound of sobs if there had been anyone to hear who wasn't Jack.
Sam was furious, but she had point and she was looking where she was going. She had her chin up and eyes front, and also her teeth gritted so hard her ears were ringing. Her clenched jaw felt right, though, as right as the stretch in her legs as she took ground-eating strides, not quite double time but almost. Behind her, Daniel broke into a jog from time to time. Teal'c moved soundlessly, as always, but Daniel's breathing was getting loud.
Sam did not care. The mission was almost over. Of course, if she went home, there they'd be, probably, unless they weren't blind and knew that they should stay the hell away from her for five minutes. So Daniel would be there, sure as the sun. They were almost home, though. She could hold it together till they were back at the SGC. She had to, so she could.
Two things happened at once: her foot going out from under her and the rock-solid grip on her arm. Her whole body pivoted from that grip, so that she swung around--her ankle twisted under her, sending a red-hot spike of pain halfway to her knee--to half-face Teal'c, who'd caught her. Well of course Teal'c had caught her.
Sam shoved him away before she'd even quite stopped moving, breaking his grip more with surprise than strength. She overbalanced immediately and landed on her ass on the path facing Teal'c and Daniel, who were on their feet and looking down at her. The shock of impact jarred her entire body, jarred her jaw loose and the words with it. "The hell with this."
Daniel furrowed his brow, and Sam wanted to claw out his pretty blue eyes, but settled for scrambling up to her feet and turning away from them both.
"The hell with it," she repeated, "this is bullshit, this is such bullshit, I cannot even believe this, this--what is this, diplomacy? Fuck it, fuck these people, we don't fucking need them--"
"Sam," Daniel said, and Sam whirled on him.
"I am in uniform, Doctor Jackson, and so are you, and it is Major Carter."
Daniel fell back a step, but his eyebrows came down out of curious and into something else. Sam turned again, finally looking down at the ground, and spotted the root she'd tripped over.
"God damn this worthless planet anyway, why should we pander to these backward assholes--just because they want to meet SG-1, the SG-1--but then it's all oh, where's O'Neill, where the hell is O'Neill, oh, well, which one of you men is in charge now, the big one or the chatty one, oh, who's that girl? Major who? Well the hell with them, the hell with--"
"Major," Daniel snapped, "we're really not that far away from the village, they're going to--"
"What? What? They're going to find out that I'm the goddamn CO of the famous SG-1? They're going to find out that I don't need anybody to goddamn help me over a mud puddle?"
Teal'c said nothing, but Daniel was getting a stubborn look on his face.
"You're being ri--"
"I'm being what," Sam snarled.
Daniel pressed his lips together and looked away from her, looked to Teal'c--like Teal'c would have an answer, like he would know what to do about her, like he was the one in charge here. Sam shook her head and fell back a step. "Fuck you. Fuck you both."
Daniel's mouth twisted as his gaze came back to her. "Well, actually you--"
Sam lunged at him.
She hit Teal'c's arm like a wall, and he pushed her back like the love child of the unstoppable force and the immoveable object. Even as Sam screamed in pure thwarted rage she was glad to see him pushing Daniel back in the opposite direction just as easily.
"Teal'c, if you don't--"
Teal'c's hand clapped over her mouth, and he put his other hand over Daniel's. Sam seriously considered biting him, and his fingers dug into her cheek like he'd heard the thought. She looked at his face, ready for one more reason to hate them both, but Teal'c had his head down and his eyes closed, and he looked tired.
Sam abruptly became aware of what had been happening--what she'd been doing--for the last few minutes. She shut her own eyes, feeling twice as tired as Teal'c looked. Her fingernails were digging into her palms. Her ankle hurt, and her entire spine from her tailbone on up, and she had a screaming headache.
Screaming being the operative word. Just how loud had she been yelling? God, they weren't more than half a mile from the village, and this planet was silent as a church.
"Major Carter," Teal'c said, in his measured voice. "I don't believe you are as angry at Doctor Jackson as you think you are. I believe you are angry at something else entirely."
Sam silently shook her head, even though Teal'c was exactly right. The anger was already draining away into something much scarier.
She hadn't been scared of anything at all, just for a minute there. Now her eyes were prickling, and if she broke down crying after everything else--well, what difference would it make to her guys? But she didn't think she could bear another storm of any kind at all, after that one. She had to hold it together for another mile. They just had to get to the Gate. But she wasn't even close to ready to turn away and start walking.
Teal'c shifted his hand to the nape of her neck, tugging her in under his arm. She hid her face against his shoulder and reached out left-handed to find Daniel on the other side, held just as close. She let her grip on his hand be her apology, and Daniel returned it hard enough to be an acceptance.
When he finally managed to stop Jack washed his face again, and opened up the first aid kit with unsteady hands to get a pill--just one--for the blinding headache.
He zipped the duffle up without touching the boxes, stuffed everything into his pack, and headed back into the cave. He couldn't see the surface of the mirror right away, but he heard some faint sound and started to run, and between one stride and the next Carter was standing there, wearing blue fatigues that matched his right down to being brand new, without even a nametape. Her hair was wet, slicked back, like she'd just washed--in the lake? There was a small thump, like something had fallen from her hand.
Jack didn't break stride until he reached her, grabbing her and getting spun around by his own momentum, but her arms went around him just as tight and she was moving with him. Even after they came to a stop, neither of them made a sound for a minute, just stood there on the sand and held on tight.
"Found you," Carter whispered, and Jack finally got it. Find you. She'd known what the other her would do. She'd done it. That had been Carter's beautiful realization.
"Were you," Carter said, not letting go, "Was it P5X-247? The mined gate?"
Jack nodded. "You--it's just you?"
He felt Carter nod back, her chin bumping his shoulder and her cheek sliding against his. "When I realized the rest of you were out there somewhere, I couldn't stay. I had to come find you."
Jack forced himself to let go and took a step back, though his hands gravitated to Carter's shoulders, still holding on. He had her nearly at arm's length. That distance used to be important, a long time ago in another universe. Now what mattered was Carter, alive.
Self, two. Halfway there.
"I didn't think you'd be here," Carter said. "I thought I'd have to go find the universe that just lost me."
Jack clenched his teeth, and told himself he wasn't jealous of some poor bastard in a coma with his face smashed to pieces.
Carter stepped back, looking around, and Jack shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from grabbing at her. This Carter didn't need her hand held. "But how did you get here? I had to build my own controller, and I wouldn't have thought you... could...."
Carter trailed off as Jack fished the controller out of his pocket and waved it at her.
"I just made an on-off switch," Jack explained. "Simple frequency duplication. I borrowed this one from the first Teal'c I met."
Carter's gaze snapped up to meet his. "Did you--was it--I met a Teal'c. A universe where I'd been killed on Chulak, and Colonel O'Neill and Daniel--"
"Yeah," Jack said, cutting her off as he pocketed the controller again. He didn't really wanting to hear that in her version it had been him who got snaked and then took over the Earth. "You tell Teal'c about Cimmeria?"
Carter nodded. "I had to write a note to Colonel O'Neill to explain about Thor's Chariot, so they can finish the job. I just hope he believes it. He only knew me for a couple of days."
"He won't have forgotten you," Jack said firmly. "Believe me."
Carter smiled a little. "I just can't believe this worked. I mean, I knew, logically, you had to be out here somewhere, but I just--you're--" Carter trailed off, then raised a hand cautiously and touched his temple, pressed a palm to his cheek. "It's really you."
"One of me, anyway," Jack said, closing his hand on her wrist that wasn't broken, reaching out with his other hand to touch her undamaged cheek.
But one of him wasn't going to be enough--he didn't come with a Teal'c, or a Daniel. Carter had to be looking for what he was looking for, or she'd have found it by now. She had to be looking for the one right universe, and Jack had already seen it. He was going to tell her that, any second now. As soon as he figured out how to let her go.
Carter shifted her weight and Jack dropped his hands, shoving them back into his pockets. Carter knelt to pick up her controller, a grey plastic rectangle with a nice little readout screen and a small keyboard. It was obviously Earth-made, just the kind of thing Carter would whip up while drinking her first cup of coffee one morning. She frowned, noticing the heaped up sand that covered the broken chem light from Jack's first attempt, and started brushing away the sand with her bare hand.
"Don't," Jack said, and when she looked up, startled, he dropped to his knees beside her and explained, "it's a broken chem light, you'll get it on your fingers."
"How," Carter said, and then stopped, looking from the chem light to the mirror.
"I got a buried one," Jack said. "Didn't you hit any of those?"
Carter looked up again. "You were going to get around the dark mirror problem by throwing lights through them."
Jack blinked. "Well. Yeah. How were you going to do it?"
Carter gave a sheepish smile and ran a hand through her hair. "If my theory about the original purpose of the mirrors is right, and if I can find the help I need with the engineering, I'll make a better controller so I can bypass them. I think we can get to the realities with dark mirrors without actually going through dark mirrors."
"Oh," Jack said, his heart beating quicker while a grin tried to stretch across his face, because that made no sense in exactly the way Carter usually didn't. "Well, obviously. If it's any consolation, I don't think McKay thought of chem lights either."
Carter's expression darkened, and Jack raised his eyebrows. "You met him too, huh?"
"He was really thrilled when I transferred to Area 51," Carter said flatly. "Said it was a much more logical use of my skills."
"Ah," Jack said, thinking of Carter offworld with an assault rifle in her hands. "Well, you showed him."
Carter flashed him a smile, and then looked around again. "Had you given any thought to how to identify the correct universe?"
Jack blinked. "Well, if I get there and I'm already there, it's the wrong one."
Carter looked a little horrified. "Sir, there are literally infinite variations out there. Trial and error could take years, if it ever worked at all."
Jack shrugged. Until he found Carter--or Carter found him, actually--that had been the best shot he had.
"I came up with some ideas on how to identify the reality I'm loking for--using ultra-sensitive detection of the early stages of entropic cascade failure and a life-form signature facsimile--"
"Oh, of course," Jack said.
"It's a little less theoretical than my plan for bypassing dark mirrors," Sam continued, blithely ignoring his interruption, in the grip of science. "I took a scan of the Teal'c I met which should be enough to go on as far as he's concerned, but we still need to find Daniel somewhere. In the meantime I need a lab where I can work without hiding what I'm doing--preferably one with some seriously advanced tech available, so I don't have to reinvent applied quantum physics on my own."
"Is that all," Jack said, but Carter was already getting to her feet and punching something into her controller. The mirror lit up on a sign that said WELCOME FRIENDS. Sam smiled as she looked down at him--he was still on his knees, still significantly more than a step behind.
"You coming, sir?"
Jack scrambled to his feet and reached out to put his hand next to Carter's, just shy of the surface of the mirror. Like hell was he letting her go anywhere without him.
"Ready," she said, and he said, "Go."
Sam grabbed the nearest thing she could reach and threw it at Daniel with all her might; she only realized as it hit the wall and fell in a flutter of yellowed pages that it was one of the paperbacks from Jack's house. Daniel looked away from her to see where it had fallen, and Sam's rage fizzled out instantly, leaving her stricken. Daniel dropped to his knees as she stood there helplessly by the couch, Teal'c's hand still gripping her left arm to keep her from getting any closer to Daniel.
"Is it okay?" Sam asked, and her voice came out sounding strange and small when she wasn't screaming.
Daniel looked up at her sharply, and she added, because nothing else was likely to be okay right now, "The book. Is the book okay?"
Daniel blinked at her for a few seconds, then looked down as he said, "You're asking me if the book is okay."
It was Jack's was the wrong answer on every level, though it was the first thing that popped into her head. She wasn't angry anymore. She didn't have to say that. She didn't have to hurt him, or herself. Instead she said, "That's what I'm asking you, yes."
Daniel looked up and flashed a little smile, and said, "I knew there was a reason I loved you."
He looked down again while Sam reeled--mentally, she thought, though the pressure of Teal'c's grip on her arm changed--at those words, and Daniel added, "It's fine, but I think there was a bookmark, and it fell out."
Daniel stood up with the book in one hand and a slip of paper in the other. He came around the couch and offered her the paper--Jack had doodled a series of stars of slightly different sizes on it in a curving line. Sam studied it for a moment and then it snapped into place: Antares and her sisters, all the way to Lesath, magnitudes indicated by size.
"It's the Fish Hook," Sam said, tilting it to show Daniel and Teal'c, trying to hold back a laugh that wouldn't only be a laugh. "Part of the constellation Scorpius. This asterism is called the Fish Hook."
Daniel traced a finger along the row of stars and smiled. "As always, he'd rather be fishing."
Sam looked over at Teal'c, who released his grip on her arm and put his arm around her waist instead, and she did have to say the next thing that popped into her head. "I love you guys."
Daniel and Teal'c both stared at her for a couple of seconds in a way that would have been hilarious, if she was a woman in a movie saying it (to one guy) in a normal way and not when she'd been yelling the things she'd been yelling two minutes ago. As it was, their reactions were probably pretty logical.
Then Daniel looked to Teal'c and said, "Yeah, I, me too--of course--" just as Teal'c said evenly, "I love you both," as though it were completely self-evident and perfectly easy to say.
"And I'm sorry," Sam added, because she actually did need to say that, even if it didn't make her feel any better than it had the last time or the time before that. "I don't know what's wrong with me, I don't know why I...."
They were both staring at her again, and Sam couldn't imagine circumstances where it was funny, this time. Struggling to keep her voice even, she circled back to the only thing she was sure of. "I'm sorry."
Teal'c frowned, looking from her to Daniel, and then turned, tugging them both down to sit on the couch with him. Teal'c wound up in the middle--as though she and Daniel still needed to be separated for their own safety.
"I forget how young you are," Teal'c said. "Both of you. I forget that you have not experienced this before."
"This...?" Daniel said, while Sam was still stuck on the sudden awareness that Teal'c was about a hundred years old and had probably experienced more or less everything before except as related to pop culture on Earth.
"This," Teal'c agreed, as though that were an answer. "The loss in battle of one so well-beloved. It is common among the Jaffa; our lives are long, and we do not normally marry until long after we have come to our adulthood. Many warriors form bonds among each other, and when one dies, the other grieves. The grief of a warrior is often very much like anger."
"Ah," Daniel said, packing an astonishing weight of bitter uncertainty into a single syllable. Sam tried to reach across Teal'c to touch him, but her hand landed on top of Teal'c's, already resting on his thigh.
"Grief is also like fear," Teal'c said patiently. "We all fear what has hurt us most. Warriors do not let their fear deter them."
And even if he stopped breathing every time he stepped through it, no one could call Daniel Gate-shy. No matter how much it scared him, Daniel would never back down.
"How did you," Sam said, and then hesitated, uncertain whether it was all right to ask. Teal'c turned his attention on her, and Sam looked down at her hand on top of his on Daniel's knee. "If you loved someone, and you lost them, how could you--how did you dare, ever again...."
"I avenged their deaths," Teal'c said calmly. "I went on, because the war does not end with the death of one warrior. I loved again, because I fought beside those I could not help but love."
Just like that they were standing in a well-lit and secure little concrete box of a room, looking back at the cave. Jack reached into his pocket and pulled out a chem light. He tossed it through, still wrapped, and watched the spot where it fell. When he glanced over at Carter, he could see her memorizing it the same as he had, so they would know the spot when they saw it again.
There was a little clicking noise, like a speaker turning on, and they both turned toward the sound an instant before Daniel materialized on the other side of the WELCOME FRIENDS sign, wearing civvies and glasses. He had that vague look on his face like he'd just been dragged away from his work and hadn't really disengaged his brain from it yet.
Carter said, "Daniel?" but Jack didn't wait to think about the fact that she sounded surprised before he lunged toward Daniel--Daniel alive and well, Daniel who'd never had his face shredded by his glasses.
The hug he went for was just air; his arms went right through Daniel, who backed up a step, looking kind of amused and puzzled.
Jack hadn't felt himself start smiling, but he felt when he stopped. He told himself the jolt in his chest was just from being physically off-balance, and backed quickly toward Carter.
Daniel, meanwhile, didn't seem to be bothered by being completely incorporeal. "Sorry, hi, O'Neill? Good to finally meet you. And--is it Captain Carter?"
"Major," Carter corrected, sounding wary, and Jack stole a quick glance at her. She was the one who'd brought them here. She'd seemed to think she could get help here, that this reality would be safe, but she was obviously having second thoughts. Jack's hand went down to his trouser seam, where his holster wasn't.
"Doctor Jackson," Carter said slowly, "if we're where I intended to bring us--last I knew, you weren't a part of the SGA. In fact, you were believed dead."
"Yep," Daniel said, nodding and rocking on his heels, hands in pockets. "Just missed it when the Goa'uld destroyed most of the Nile delta from orbit--I happened to be on a dig down south and survived. I was in the desert outside Abydos, actually, which I have since learned is fairly ironic."
Daniel glanced to his right--toward the solid concrete wall--and then back to them. "Oh! And also I'm just a hologram, in the room with you. We keep the mirror in a completely sealed room--no one goes in or out except with Asgard beaming technology--and to greet travelers it's safer and easier to just put a projection through. General Hammond asked me to come and greet you since we know that I should be a familiar face for the two of you and Sam's not here right now."
Daniel turned to face Carter and said, "I do know that we haven't solved entropic cascade failure, Major. You only have about forty-eight hours here in safety, so I hope we aren't your last refuge."
Sam shook her head. "Just a stop on the way. If I could speak to Dr. Carter--I need to borrow some lab facilities, and maybe some Asgard technical advice."
Daniel looked to his right again, then said, "Yeah, we can probably do that. Hang on, this won't hurt, but it's kind of weird."
The world dissolved in a wash of white light. When it reformed, they were standing in the familiar SGC conference room facing Daniel and, to his right, General Hammond. Another General Hammond--this one giving Carter a slightly bemused look. She was in uniform, and this Hammond had never been her CO.
"Okay," Jack said, stepping forward and offering his hand to Daniel to shake--Daniel, alive--miraculously alive like only Daniel could be, like Daniel always should be, but a Daniel who'd never met him before. "Hi there, I'm Colonel Jack O'Neill. I take it we're in the universe Dr. Carter and Major Kawalsky came from about eight months back to ask for our help."
"Nice to meet you, Colonel," Daniel said, shaking hands with a firm grip and palms no softer than (the real, his, their) Daniel's. "You know General Hammond, though I don't know if this you and this him have met."
"Only briefly," Jack said, trying not to remember watching the man die while (their, dead or dead or alive in intensive care) Daniel tried to explain the multiverse to Apophis. Jack turned to look Hammond in the eye and shook hands.
Hammond nodded and said simply, "Good to see you again, Colonel."
"Yes sir," Jack agreed promptly, and turned back to Daniel. "So if you don't mind my asking, how'd you get from Abydos--Earth Abydos, Egypt--to the SGC, after everything? Asgard beam you up?"
Daniel gave a brief smile and said, "No, no. No one knew to look for me and I had no idea they'd want me. I walked and hitched rides. Worked across the Atlantic on a freighter. I knew the ships had landed here, this was the center of the reconstruction efforts, and I wanted to come--"
Daniel cut off and looked away. "I'm not as unlike your Daniel Jackson as it might have seemed," he said to his shoes. Jack cut a glance at Hammond, who was watching Daniel tolerantly, without any evidence of surprise at what he was saying.
"I had the same theory about the purpose of the pyramids. But I wasn't as brave as he was. I kept my head down and my mouth shut. I knew everyone would think I was crazy, I knew I'd lose my job, so I just... I didn't even try. And then suddenly, on the worst day in the history of the Earth, I was vindicated. It was horrible, but I had to come here. I had to come to the place where it was proven, where the ship actually touched down on the mountaintop, and see."
Daniel looked up again toward Sam, smiling in her direction with a weird shyness that covered something else Jack couldn't quite put his finger on. "And then, completely by chance, Sam spotted me in the city and recognized me. She said I'd been important in your universe so I must be worth having around here. So here I am."
"But where is she?" Carter asked. "I could really use her help."
"Oh," Daniel blinked. "Didn't I say? She's at home, catching up on sleep. She was up all night with the baby."
Jack felt suddenly exactly like he'd touched a quantum mirror. There was no physical sensation of anything changing, but suddenly he was looking through at some other reality, and the people in front of him were all separated from him by an unimaginable, impossible distance. Carter turned to Hammond and asked about the Asgard, Daniel said something about calling Sam and going to relieve her, Carter suggested Jack go with Daniel. Splitting up in unknown territory and this Daniel more civilian than most; of course Jack would go with him. Even when Daniel said, "Hey, yeah, Sam said you love kids, don't you?" it was far away and meaningless, lost in the not-quite-rightness of the SGC's--SGA's--corridors as they headed for the surface.
Jack saw the reflection of his hand approaching his hand, and jerked it back for a moment, staring into that shining surface.
Then Daniel leaned across the passenger seat and said, muffled by the window, "It's unlocked."
Jack grabbed the door handle and jerked it open, climbing into the seat beside Daniel. Daniel driving, that wasn't right. But Daniel handled the SUV with calm assurance. Jack watched his hands, ignoring as hard as he could the endless orange barricades--construction, repair, who knew--in his peripheral vision.
"The baby," Jack said.
"Oh, you are still with us," Daniel said calmly, like they'd been talking all this time. "I thought we lost you there. She's Jack's, Sam's husband's, of course. Are you--is this going to be too weird for you? I can drop you off somewhere, if you'd rather not see her."
"Her," Jack said. A daughter.
"Ada," Daniel confirmed. "After Lovelace, or possibly just because it has no nicknames, gender ambiguous or otherwise. Ada Carter O'Neill."
Ada O'Neill, Jack mouthed. He'd met Samantha Carter (not, as far as he knew, O'Neill) eight months ago, just days after her husband died. She might not have even known then, or it might have been too much to tell some guy who was almost her husband but not quite. Maybe she'd had a surprise announcement planned for that first anniversary dinner, and then put the whole issue aside when the Goa'uld came. Sara had waited until she could tell him face to face, which had meant she was three months along before he knew there was going to be a Charlie (or Ashley--Sara had wanted to call the baby Ashley if it was a girl, and maybe if Charlie had been Ashley she wouldn't have been so curious about Daddy's gun--there was a desperate what-if he'd never considered).
"Also, I don't think it was intentional, but Ada was the first new baby the Asgard made for us--Ada, Adam, that was sort of serendipitous."
Jack slowly turned his head to stare at Daniel. "The first what now?"
Daniel glanced over, and then back to the road. "Oh, right, you guys just met the Asgard once, you don't have them hanging around being apologetic. With the depopulation and everything--I guess the Asgard themselves only reproduce by cloning, and they offered to help us the same way, but Sam managed to explain that, uh, that humans didn't really want clones all over the place, it would just cause more problems."
She hadn't wanted yet another not-her-Jack Jack around, Jack translated. Made sense.
"So then they said they could make regular newborn babies, instead. Women don't have to spend all the time and resources being pregnant, or go through the dangers of birth--just sign up with the Asgard, hand over the genetic samples you want combined, and wait until they get to you on the waiting list. Some people don't like it, of course, but there are plenty who are willing to accept the help. I guess it's getting pretty close to a nine month wait now, but Sam went first. She got Ada in about two weeks, after she decided she wanted her, and she's six months old now. Sam still had some things of her husband's; the Asgard found a viable genetic sample and that was all it took."
Jack leaned forward, nearly into the dash, to put his face in his hands. "Are you supposed to be telling me this stuff?"
"It's slightly less weird for me than it would be for Sam," Daniel pointed out, with implacable logic. "And Sam's not going to stop to explain anything when I wake her up to tell her the other her is here to do some really interesting quantum mirror navigation engineering, anyway."
"When you--" it occurred to Jack abruptly that Daniel was driving him to her home, where she and her baby daughter (Ada, the Asgard gift, Jack O'Neill's daughter) lived, to wake her up and take over minding the baby so she could go in to work. Jack had definitely fallen through the goddamn rabbit hole. Daniel and Carter--no, Daniel and Samantha.
"Yeah," Jack muttered, raising his head to look down at his hands, "yeah, she wouldn't."
It made sense, really, even if it looked upside down and backwards at first glance. It made all kinds of sense. Their Daniel had always wanted to be a family man--even after he lost Sha're he still meant to protect her child (would never be able to protect her child now, had died and left her child alone out there and Uncle Jack had finished the job by walking away). This Daniel had found a family waiting for him, a Carter who trusted him because she knew another Daniel, believed in him because of their Daniel, so there they were, two people (three) together at the end of the world and looking out for each other. Two geeks; they'd always understood each other better than he could understand either of them. They had a world to rebuild between them. It made as much sense as anything he'd run into out here.
But you were mine, you were mine first, Jack thought, and had no idea which one of which one of them he was even thinking about. For the first time since he'd realized they were out here to find, the same old words echoed through his brain again. I never, they died and I never.
Daniel didn't say anything more for the rest of the drive.
Jack didn't realize until Daniel pulled into the driveway that he'd been expecting to arrive at a familiar house--Carter's, or his own, or the one he and Sara had shared. But they were in a neighborhood he didn't recognize, in front of a house he'd never seen before. Jack followed Daniel up to the door, and Daniel let himself in and then went over to what had to be a security control panel near the door. Instead of punching in a code, though, he set his palm against the plate, which glowed blue and then faded gently.
"Okay," Daniel said, and waved, "Living room, bathroom, kitchen. I'm going to go get Sam, I'll be right back."
"Sure," Jack said, and watched Daniel jog up the stairs, listened as he headed down a hall and through a door without knocking. Then Jack followed him, moving quietly. The house had the special quiet of afternoon naptime, sunlit and still. The door Daniel had passed through stood slightly ajar--but the door just before it was wide open. Jack stepped through without hesitating, without slowing down to think about what he was doing and whether he wanted to. She was here. He had to see.
The crib was just to the right of the door, on the interior wall, and there was a baby in it all right, asleep on her back with her fist jammed into her mouth. She looked bald, like Charlie had for the first couple of years, the unavoidable fate of the blond baby. Other than that, she didn't look any more or less familiar than any other baby--she was just a baby, asleep.
He'd mostly missed Charlie at this age, only really knew him through photos and the occasional crackling phone call when Sara got him to babble loudly enough to be heard. He remembered feeling a little bemused by fatherhood back then; Charlie had seemed to belong entirely to Sara, someone (something, practically) he only loved because of Sara, because Sara talked about him. Charlie gave them something to talk about to avoid the long silences where "how was your day, dear?" should have been.
Ada wasn't his at all. She wasn't even Carter's, not his Carter's, not any Carter he really knew or had any business talking to about how his day had gone. And still, here he was, standing over her crib and watching her sleep. As slowly and cautiously as if he were reaching out to poke an unknown piece of shiny alien tech--no, much slower and more cautiously--Jack extended his hand into the crib and settled it gently, gently, onto the curve of her belly to feel her breathing and warm under his touch.
A little noise made him jerk his hand back and look up, and Carter--no, Samantha, but she'd cut her hair, just like Sara had when Charlie was about this age--Samantha was standing in the doorway with her hand to her mouth. Daniel stood just past her, hands at his sides, looking away. It wasn't the first time that Jack had thought that Daniel was, in his way, the bravest man he'd ever met.
"Sorry," Jack whispered, but Samantha shook her head and came into the room, reaching for him. Jack shut his eyes as he hugged her, not looking at the baby, not watching to see what Daniel did.
When she started to pull away, Jack said the only thing he dared to say. "He'd have been proud as hell."
Samantha nodded, scrubbed her hands over her face, and summoned up a smile. "Daniel--" Jack couldn't help looking, then. Daniel was gone. "--said you, you came through with Major Carter, and that means--"
"Yeah," Jack whispered. "Not much time."
Samantha nodded again, turned to the crib and brushed her hand over her daughter's head, and then moved toward the door. Jack followed her out, and back down to the kitchen, where Daniel was pouring coffee into a travel mug. Jack stopped short to minutely examine the photos on the fridge--there was a nice one of Hammond holding Ada--and ignored the quiet from the other side of the kitchen.
Samantha said briskly, "She's been asleep about an hour, so with any luck she'll stay down a little longer. I'll be in touch."
"We'll manage," Daniel said, and Jack turned to nod a goodbye to Samantha as she took her coffee and a shoulder bag and headed out the front door without another word.
He returned to staring at the fridge, rather than look Daniel in the eye, but Daniel said, "Why don't we go sit outside? I'm still not used to spending all my time under the Mountain. I hate to think how Ada's going to grow up, thinking 19 stories underground is just where Mommy works, but everyone has this aversion to being out under the open sky these days."
Jack nodded assent, and Daniel opened the fridge and took out a couple of beers without asking, handed one to Jack and turned to lead the way out the back door.
Daniel dropped into the chair on the porch that was obviously habitually his own; there was one beside it that must be Sam's, and a little way away a double porch-swing, perfect for rocking a baby on a summer night. Jack went and sat down on the top of the porch steps, his back against the railing, and twisted off the top of his beer.
Sitting carefully out of arm's reach of Daniel, he had a sudden visceral memory of hugging Carter--hugging Samantha--both, in less than an hour. It was definitely an alternate universe when it was Daniel who he had to keep away from. He and Daniel had never been big on personal space--he hadn't been sure at first that Daniel knew what it was. And it had always been safe to manhandle Daniel a little, unlike Carter. No one would see anything amiss between him and Daniel. Not him, not Jack O'Neill.
He glanced up at Daniel, who had frozen with his hand on the top of his own beer. Jack raised his eyebrows, keeping his face calm. Daniel didn't know what he'd been thinking--not this Daniel, anyway, not a chance.
"Sam has a picture," Daniel said. "Jack sitting right there. Just--just exactly like that."
"Right," Jack said, looking away as he took a long sip of the beer. "Because that's what's weird here."
"Touché," Daniel muttered, and opened his own beer.
Neither of them said anything for a while. Jack drank steadily in the silence--too fast, when he'd had maybe six hours of sleep in the last forty-eight hours and couldn't remember when he'd eaten anything before that MRE. He could feel the alcohol reaching his fingertips and the crown of his head, and tilted his head against the baluster behind him to look out at the grassy backyard, the perfect green canopy of the trees. It was a good place for a kid to grow up, and neither of Ada's parents carried a sidearm. No gunshot from the upstairs window would shatter the peace, not here.
Jack tipped up the bottle again.
"So Major Carter didn't really say," Daniel said. "What exactly brings you two here? I get the impression that it's not a, ah, large-scale emergency."
Jack snorted. "No. Not large at all. Three people dead, that's all. Six, I guess, if you count us separately. Problem is, I'm one of 'em, and so's Carter. And you, twice. Teal'c, too, but you never met him so you wouldn't understand."
When Jack looked over, Daniel was squinting at him like he'd started speaking some language Daniel didn't understand, which would be a hell of a trick.
"My whole team died," Jack said, making the words bald and flat. "Carter, Daniel, Teal'c. So I said the hell with that universe and went looking for one with them in it that had a spot for me. Same thing happened to Carter in her universe. We met up while we were looking."
"You..." Daniel trailed off, but Jack was used to letting Daniel organize his thoughts and waited for him. The beer helped with that. He drank the last of the bottle while Daniel's brain ticked over. "You and Major Carter both--because three people died, three friends of yours--"
"Not friends," Jack said sharply. "My team."
"Not friends," Daniel repeated dubiously.
Jack almost threw the empty bottle in his hands, then remembered there would be little hands and knees crawling around here soon and arrested the movement. It still made Daniel flinch in his peripheral vision.
"My team," Jack repeated. "We--Daniel and I saved the world together, crossed the galaxy. We found out it was even possible to cross the galaxy, that was us. Then Carter, and Teal'c--we were a team, and we did things together no one else could do. We beat the Goa'uld, do you get that? Four--three humans and one damn good Jaffa, and we beat the Goa'uld, no Asgard rescue required. We were the best, the best out of any possible universe, together. We were a team. We would've died for each other, but they were never supposed to die for nothing." Jack looked away, vaguely conscious of having said too much, but he couldn't help adding quietly, "And not without me."
There was a little silence, enough for Jack to wonder if this Daniel was completely different from his, and not interested in being anybody's confessor.
"Oh," Daniel said quietly, just as gently as his own Daniel ever would have. "Oh. I'm sorry, Jack. I didn't--I'm so sorry for your loss."
And the way Daniel said it--like he understood, when he couldn't possibly really understand--left Jack wondering what the hell he thought Jack had just said. But it wasn't worth arguing about, and maybe Daniel was just trying to shut him up, this crazy stranger half-drunk on one beer who he'd let into his house.
Jack remembered, and fought down a bitter laugh, gesturing with the empty bottle. "This went straight to my head. I don't even know--what time is it? I must have mirror-lag or something."
"Yeah, of course," Daniel said, still unbearably gentle and worlds away from getting the joke. "Come on, why don't you just lie down on the couch, it's all right."
Jack nodded, following Daniel back into the house. He set his bottle neatly into the recycling bin in the kitchen, then went to the couch and took his boots off. Lying down, it occurred to him all at once what Daniel had seemed to be offering condolences for, what that tone of voice had been, but his eyes were already closed, and he couldn't find it in himself to get back up and tell him he was wrong. He wasn't, anyway, not in the way that mattered--and they were dead, his whole team was dead, so it didn't make any goddamn difference what anyone thought anymore.
Sam sat sideways on the couch with her feet tucked between the back cushion and Daniel's hip. She was trying to read a journal article that seemed to promise some interesting approaches to refining naquadah, if she could concentrate enough to think through the application of the method.
But every time she looked around (so every time Daniel moved, and every time she felt herself sinking into her thoughts enough to automatically check her situational awareness) she found herself trying to count to three. And every time, she only made it as far as self, two.
Teal'c was offworld, and it shouldn't have been bothering her so much. He had a son, he was still involved with the Jaffa struggle for freedom. When they had been a whole team it hadn't bothered her, but when they had been a whole team she had gone home alone, and counting to one was easy.
She could have gone home alone--they did sometimes, if only to prove that they could--but she hadn't wanted to be alone tonight, and neither had Daniel. Still, being just two was lonelier than being one. Sam couldn't help wondering if this was how it would be--if anything happened to Teal'c while he was offworld--but it could just as easily be any of them. SG-1 had already gone from four to three, and that was just about survivable. What would happen when it was whittled down to two? Or one?
It could happen to any of them. It could happen at any time. If they kept going long enough, it would happen.
"So," Daniel said softly, and Sam looked up to find him slumped against the back of the couch, a journal closed in his lap. "You're not getting any reading done either."
Sam shook her head, and then gave up and tossed the journal to the floor, and turned around to lie curled up with her head on Daniel's thigh, blocking his access to whatever he wasn't reading. Daniel smiled down at her and moved it to the end table. Sam closed her eyes, and Daniel's hand settled to the top of her head, running gently over her hair. She had a relatively normal-looking buzz cut now--relatively normal compared to the guys who normally wore them, anyway, but everyone had finally gotten bored with GI Jane jokes--and since Daniel's was almost exactly the same, Sam knew how irresistible it was to touch. Daniel followed the grain of her hair, letting his palm run down onto the nape of her neck.
Daniel knew as much as she knew about what could happen. He knew what they should be doing about it. He'd seen the stack of personnel files she kept forgetting to review, bright-eyed lieutenants and even captains, looking to fill the open place on SG-1. He missed Teal'c as much as she did. He missed Jack as much as she did. He'd known Jack first of all of them.
Finally, Daniel said softly, "It's getting late, I should--"
Sam opened her eyes and said, "Stay."
Two was still better than one. Neither of them wanted to be alone tonight.
Jack woke up to the sound of a baby crying. His automatic attempt to leap up was thwarted by the discovery that he was lying under a blanket, which he got tangled in for about ten seconds, long enough to wake up all the way. Long enough to remember who that crying baby was, and to wonder if there was some kind of innate, genetic thing that made him especially attuned to that sound, and to wonder also when it had gotten dark and how long he'd been asleep.
And then there was a creak of floorboards and the sound of Daniel's voice, low and soothing, becoming increasingly audible as Ada's cries diminished into hiccups and whimpers. Jack moved toward the sound but hesitated on the dark threshold of the living room, looking up at the nightlight-illuminated stairs.
Daniel appeared, bare feet first, dressed in sleep pants and t-shirt. He had Ada perched on his left arm, his right hand spanning her whole back. Daniel stopped, four steps up, when he saw Jack. He wasn't wearing his glasses, and he looked exhausted.
"Hey," Daniel said, and continued down the stairs. "Hold her for a minute?"
Jack didn't get a chance to say anything before Daniel shoved the baby gently into his chest, and the rest was automatic. His hands knew what to do, even if the rest of him was overwhelmed by the thought.
Daniel continued past him into the kitchen, and Jack followed as far as the doorway, keeping his eyes on Daniel and trying not to think too hard about the weight in his arms, the warmth under his hands. Daniel, moving as smoothly as a parade drill, flipped on the coffeemaker, pulled a bottle from the fridge and put it in the microwave, and then turned and walked past Jack again, to the hall bathroom. He shut the door firmly, and Jack, left alone with her, finally looked down at Ada.
She looked back up at him, and the half-powered light over the sink was enough for him to see that she had tears wetting her eyelashes, and that her eyes were a deep, dark brown.
Jack pressed a kiss to the top of her head and bounced a little. Ada leaned into him comfortably. Probably just too young for stranger anxiety, that was all.
The toilet flushed, the sink ran briefly, and Daniel reappeared, wiping wet hands on his pants. He got to the microwave just as it finished, popping open the door before it could beep, set the bottle aside and fetched mugs, pouring two cups of coffee. Daniel obviously did this every morning, made breakfast for two adults and a baby while he was still half asleep. He turned to face Jack, with both mugs of coffee in one hand and the bottle in the other and stopped short. Not like he was surprised to see Jack there, but like the routine had just hit a snag.
"I don't actually know how you take your coffee," Daniel said. "Sam's never mentioned it."
"Sugar," Jack said, and Daniel nodded toward the sugar bowl, then walked over to the kitchen table and set everything down. Jack took one hand cautiously away from Ada to grab the sugar bowl and followed.
Daniel reached for the baby, nodding Jack toward the seat across from his where his cup of coffee awaited--Samantha's seat, obviously. Jack handed Ada over and stood still for a few seconds, watching as Daniel got her settled in his lap. Then he looked up, raising his eyebrows in unspoken question, and Jack sat down and dumped sugar into his coffee. Apparently neither of them customarily took the spot with the best vantage on both the front and back doors--that end of the table had books and papers stacked all over it, along with a burp rag and a couple of pacifiers.
Daniel took a long drink from his mug and then sat with his eyes closed, obviously waiting for the coffee to kick in. After a minute or so he said, "Breakfast, I think. You slept about fourteen hours, you must be starving."
"Oh," Jack said--fourteen hours, what had been happening for fourteen hours while he slept?--but he had to trust Carter, had to let her work. "Yeah, I could eat."
Daniel nodded but didn't move or open his eyes, and Jack kept staring at Ada, then forcing himself to look away, then forcing himself to look back.
"Sam called two or three times," Daniel went on quietly. "Time-sense is the first thing to go when she's excited about a project, and she sounded really, really excited. I'm not actually sure which one I talked to at three--"
Jack checked the microwave; that was a little over two hours ago.
"--but she sounded pretty confident they'd have something ready to go this morning. Later this morning. So I figure if you're up and Ada's up we might as well head over to the Mountain once we're all fed and dressed."
Jack nodded, unseen. Daniel took a sip of coffee and then set it down so he could tilt Ada's half-finished bottle up to a steeper angle, still without opening his eyes.
"You take her with you?" Jack asked, trying to make his voice neutral.
Daniel did open an eye for that, though just one, and he closed it after a couple of seconds and shrugged. "It's been about the safest place on Earth since before she was born. The Gate's completely disconnected and the iris is locked--we don't have the power to run the thing even if we felt like we were in a position to be fielding teams through it. The mirror is actually located about fifty miles away and half a mile underground, so if mirror-exploration ever gets to be a danger to us, it won't be in the form of a foothold situation at Cheyenne Mountain. Sam put wheels on a port-a-crib, and we trade off having her in our offices. It works so far. The labor market right now is kind of a hell for finding childcare, but Sam's hoping to get some kind of co-op nursery going at the Mountain before Ada starts climbing bookshelves."
"Oh," Jack said. He couldn't say what answer he'd been expecting, but not that.
"Yeah," Daniel said, blinked a couple of times, picked up his coffee and drank what looked like half of it in one shot. When he set it down he stared at the mug, frowning like the world depended on whether it was half-full or half-empty, and then said, "You and your team, you, you were--"
"Not like that," Jack said, and it came out more tired than defensive. Daniel glanced up without raising his head, such a familiar half-defensive posture that Jack had to look away.
"Yeah, I--I didn't really sleep last night and eventually that occurred to me. That the odds were against that. But I was wondering, I mean--I don't think I misheard the part where you said that everything would have been all right if you had just died with them, if you hadn't been left behind."
Jack felt his lips flatten into an irritated line, and he didn't look at Daniel.
"I mean--I'm not saying this well, Colonel, Jack, but I'm serious, and I'm taking you seriously. That was how it was with the four of you, wasn't it? You loved them like that, and it was the same for them. Major Carter demonstrates that, if you could doubt it."
"We didn't--" didn't call it that, didn't put words to it, didn't ever talk about it. Though it felt right that when someone did insist on talking about it, it was Daniel, even if it had to be some other Daniel who didn't really have any idea what he was talking about. Not knowing what he was talking about never quite stopped Daniel.
"I won't make you say the words or anything, okay, Sam's told me that much about you. But you cared about them more than anything else in your entire universe, or you wouldn't have left it behind to find them, right?"
Jack sipped his coffee, glanced at Ada and remembered Charlie, remembered the box at the bottom of his locker, and nodded warily. "Right."
"I just--I've been wondering. You loved them more than I have ever loved anyone--" Jack glanced over sharply, but Daniel was looking down at Ada, smiling a little and patting the soles of her feet with his free hand. "And you know there's a like that that you weren't, I didn't even have to spell that out, so I'm just wondering why not."
Jack stared for a second, and found that his automatic, ridiculous reaction was Not in front of the kid. But of course she was too young to understand any of this, too young even to realize he was a stranger. He looked down at his own hands. "What the hell kind of question is that, Daniel?"
"Well, Jack...." Daniel trailed off, and then there was a hollow plastic sound, and Jack looked up to see him set the bottle down and raise Ada up against his shoulder. He met Jack's gaze unflinchingly, patting her back as he said evenly, "Mostly it's a question from the guy who was on the receiving end of the look on your face when you first saw me."
Jack jerked backward, feeling like he'd been punched in the chest, like Daniel had once again proved untouchable and pulled away from that abortive hug, but Daniel was shaking his head.
"Jack, no, I'm--listen to what I'm saying, because it's not a bad thing. I wish to God I'd been the guy you thought you were looking at. I wish you'd found him already. In the last four months, I've heard so much about you. About Sam's husband, and about you, specifically you. You were heroes, both of you, Jack O'Neill--Jack loved Sam, Jack is Ada's dad, so Sam has pictures and videos and she talks about him, about you, and I listen. We both know that there's one of you out there alive and safe, somewhere better, and that makes it easier to accept that there's one of you who we--Sam and Ada, me, this whole world--just lost completely. I wish I'd ever known you, I wish I'd been the Daniel who crossed the galaxy with you--"
Ada burped. Daniel set her back down in his lap, and said more softly, to the top of her head, "What I've been thinking about all night is, I had--have--a crush on you. And I thought it was just one of those things--I knew people in grad school, on digs, who fell in love with somebody who'd been dead for three thousand years and became the repository of all knowledge about them. It was usually about six hundred words, if that. Maybe a grave painting. Never how they liked their coffee. Except here you are, and you're leaving in a few hours, and that's fine. But for the sake of any other Daniel Jackson who's not that different from me, and every Sam Carter who can't be that different from mine, and Teal'c who admittedly I never met, but I'm sensing a trend--just think about it, all right?"
Jack had been frozen by Daniel's words since sometime around Jack is Ada's dad, and the rest had been no easier to hear and no less true. He was goddamned if he knew what to say to any of it--I never--but he knew he had to say something.
"Daniel, I don't--"
Daniel gave him a smile, kind of sad or just sleep-deprived, Jack couldn't quite tell. "Ada needs a change. When I get back we can just pretend I didn't say any of that."
When Daniel was gone, Jack finished his coffee and then got up to look for the makings of breakfast. Whether he wanted to thank Daniel or shut him up, hot food would probably do the job.
They were halfway to the Mountain, with the sun creeping up on Daniel's side of the car as if Jack needed a reason not to look directly at him, and Jack couldn't hold back the argument anymore.
"It's dangerous," he said into the silence broken only by Ada's soft babbling in the backseat. "We have a job to do, and it's dangerous to be thinking about anything else."
Daniel didn't respond until they were stopped at a light, and then he said, "Not thinking about it didn't keep them from getting killed. When you find them again--even if I hadn't said a word--would you ever be able to think about nothing but the job ever again? They died, and you sacrificed everything to find them--you're already traveling with a Sam who lost you, you're looking for another Daniel who did, a Teal'c who did. They probably saw you die. You think everything just goes back to normal after that?"
"It did the first time," Jack muttered, but that was no answer. This time was different, worlds different, and he couldn't say Daniel was wrong. Nothing he had or hadn't done had kept his team from getting killed; maybe there was nothing he could have done, except knowing ahead of time that 247 was a death trap.
"It did the first time," Daniel repeated under his breath, shaking his head. "What are you people?"
"SG-1." It was the only answer that had ever made any sense.
Solomon hadn't really needed to go into all the gruesome threats about swords; he should have just taken the baby away for sixteen hours and then surprised both women by walking into the room with it. Jack had been a little worried that he'd confuse the Carters at a glance, but when he and Daniel walked into the lab Samantha's whole face lit up and her gaze focused, laser-like, on her daughter. She put down something she'd obviously been working on to come take Ada from Daniel.
Carter stayed where she was, her gaze passing a little warily over Ada before it settled on Jack. She gave him a smile, and if it wasn't the blazing look Samantha had for her little girl, it was his Carter's smile for him, and that was enough. "Hey, sir. If we can just scan you and Daniel, we should have the reality-identification problem solved."
"Good," Jack said, "because I've been wondering all morning."
Apparently no one but him thought that even could be a joke. Samantha, with Ada on her hip, came over to Carter's side and said, "We've produced a mirror controller that can also essentially fool string theory--it creates an atomic replica of the quantum signature of a complex life-form. The facsimile will then show signs of incipient entropic cascade failure if the corresponding life-form--a person, in this case--is present in that reality."
Jack squinted. "And we want to make fake entropy because...."
"We can use it to identify which people are present and absent in any given reality," Carter said patiently. "I scanned the Teal'c I met, and the controller tells me that the facsimile of Teal'c doesn't experience entropic cascade failure--which means there's no other Teal'c alive in this reality."
Jack leaned closer to Carter, and she tilted the device to show him where it said TEAL'C. The label was printed on plastic tape and stuck on, looking bizarre and incongruous on the shiny-smooth curve of obviously alien technology. There was a green light next to it. There was also a label that said SAM, with a red light, then JACK and DANIEL with no lights at all.
Jack looked up from the device to Carter. "You feeling all right?"
Carter nodded quickly. "Yes, sir. The controller detects entropic cascade failure long before the symptoms become evident at the level Dr. Carter experienced before."
"Still," Jack said. "We should be getting this show on the road."
Carter gave a quick sideways glance at Samantha and Ada, and Jack didn't think he was imagining her emphasis as she said, "Yes, sir. So if you could just go stand over there for a scan."
Jack went and stood near Daniel, and Carter reached down to touch something; there was a brief flare of white light, but when it faded he was still in the lab. Daniel, beside him, looked equally nonplussed. The Carters leaned together over a computer--Ada reached out for the screen and Samantha switched her to the other hip without looking away from the display.
Something chirped urgently, and Carter picked up the controller and then showed it to Jack. Three red lights, one green. "Got it."
Samantha took the device from Carter. "It has vastly improved function as a mirror controller, too. This is the best I can do with everything I've gotten the Asgard to explain to me about the quantum mirrors. It turns out that the way we've been experiencing them is actually a side effect of not knowing how to control them. It's like if we'd gotten the Stargate working and then only ever used it for time travel."
"Or as if we got it working but consistently got dumped out into inter-dimensional space halfway to a destination," Carter added.
Jack frowned and opened his mouth, and Carter said, "No, that's not possible with the Gates configured as they are now. But my theory was right--we can bypass the dark mirrors. See, the mirrors were intended for travel through space, not between realities--apparently for the ancients sometimes tunneling through the multiverse was as efficient as we find it to tunnel through hyperspace. The controller that we originally found with the mirror is obviously an entirely different kind of technology from the mirror itself, and it just never worked right. But you see what this means, don't you?"
She was grinning, now, nearly as brightly as Samantha at Ada--nearly as brightly as she had--as another Carter had, holding his hand and envisioning this moment as she died. Jack smiled back, because he couldn't not smile for Carter, and said, "Not a clue."
"There is more than one quantum mirror per reality, sir. The enhanced entropic cascade detection will work from anywhere instantaneously due to quantum entanglement, so we don't have to go back through to Area 51. With a controller that can use the mirrors to travel through space as well as through the multiverse, we can find the right universe through another mirror and then Gate home."
Jack stared down at the device--no, devices, because Samantha was offering him one identical to the one Carter held, and Carter said, "This is it, sir. This is what we needed to find. We can both go home."
Sam glanced at her watch as Daniel drew his first good breath--under two minutes. She mentally plotted that on the graph. If she remembered the line-of-best-fit correctly, he'd come in a little under it. He was getting better, and they were going to turn the corner on their flow chart any day now.
Sam turned her face up to P3C-487's sun and smiled. This promised to be another straightforward mission, and for as long as they were on a mission she had Daniel and Teal'c with her, and things were (comparatively) simple.
Sam heard footsteps, and since her hand was still on Daniel's shoulder, she knew it was Teal'c. She opened her eyes to see Teal'c striding purposefully away from the gate. Toward the DHD.
"Teal'c?" Sam called after him.
He didn't look back.
"Uhh," Daniel said, still catching his breath. "This is... weird."
Teal'c took up a dialing position at the DHD and started entering symbols. Sam's hand tightened on Daniel's shoulder--she and Daniel were still in the danger zone in front of the gate. She didn't move, and neither did Daniel. "Teal'c!"
He entered six symbols and then stopped, finally looking at them. "Move aside."
"Why?" Daniel shouted hoarsely.
"Move aside," Teal'c repeated, hand hovering over the seventh symbol.
"No," Sam shouted. "If you want us to move you're going to have to either tell us what's going on or move us yourself."
Teal'c unholstered his zat and said, "That could be accomplished very easily, without permanent harm to either of you."
Dammit, dammit, dammit. Teal'c certainly could zat both of them before she or Daniel could get a shot off now.
"Without permanent physical harm, maybe," Daniel said. "But what about our trust? What about our team?"
Teal'c didn't raise the zat.
"Teal'c, just tell us what's going on," Sam called out, and then, realizing Teal'c hadn't even bothered to make an excuse about Rya'c last time, "is this why you had to go offworld last week? and two weeks before that? We can help you if you'll just--"
"I must do this alone," Teal'c said. "It is the only way."
"Do what alone?" Daniel demanded. "We're a team, Teal'c, we can help."
"You would be killed," Teal'c stated implacably. "I cannot risk you. You must not return there."
"Return," Daniel said, "are you--"
"Teal'c," Sam shouted, and found that now, when she should be angry, she couldn't summon up anything but spine-liquefying fear, "if you're talking about going back to 247--"
"It is you who are talking. I am going. There must be vengeance for Colonel O'Neill, and I alone have a chance of surviving to find our enemies' weakness."
"A chance," Daniel yelled, arms waving, which indicated full recovery. Sam did not check her watch. To hell with the data. Clearly they weren't going to be all right at all; she'd been ignoring an entire dimension of the analysis.
"We can't risk you, either, Teal'c. You can't--"
"Not without us," Daniel interrupted, folding his arms. "If you're going back, so are we."
Sam turned to look at Daniel, who shrugged and said softly, "Are we going to talk him out of this? It's Teal'c. It's Jack. If we go with him, at least...."
"All for one," Sam muttered in agreement, thinking, One way or another, maybe it ends today, together. "One for all. You don't get to go off without us this time," Sam added, turning back to face Teal'c.
His zat hand raised slightly, and Sam added, "So help me God if you zat us there will be no end to the revenge we take, Teal'c. We're a team. The colonel meant as much to us as he did to you. Don't cheat us out of our share in this."
Finally Teal'c nodded and holstered the zat again, and Sam jogged down out of the danger zone to his side with Daniel at her side. The moment they were clear, Teal'c finished dialing, and she felt the breeze of the whoosh as she stopped and turned. Teal'c came up beside her, and she looked from him to Daniel, and back up at the wormhole that would take them back to the world where they'd been broken.
"Before we go," Sam said, keeping her eyes on the event horizon as her brain sketched out consequences, flow-chart branches marked in red.
Teal'c and Daniel kept still, waiting on her word, if only for a moment, only after the decision was already made.
"Just so we're clear," Sam said. "If anything goes wrong on 247 this breaks the team for good, and if we die there, no one will know where to look for our bodies after we miss the check-in."
She looked left, for Daniel, who shrugged and nodded. She looked right, and Teal'c looked back at her--at her, not through her. He was listening.
If she pushed, right now, if she said Jack would want us to do this right.... She could lay out a plan for going back to the SGC and getting cleared to go back to 247 on a properly backed-up mission--they had maybe 50/50 odds of selling the general on that. No one had been hurt after the first blast, after all. If he didn't categorically refuse, if the assignment wasn't taken away from them and given to another team....
If she put her back into it, she could get Teal'c to give this up, at least for this moment. She could command. Not the way Jack had done it, with pure unquestioned authority, but she could use the way they were, the way her guys felt about her, to keep control over them when she had to. If she chose to.
"Just so we're clear," Sam repeated.
"All right," she said, turning to look to the Gate again. "Come on SG-1, new mission."
The three of them walked back to the Gate shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, and none of them broke stride at the event horizon.
The world they stepped into was sunny and quiet, like a hundred other worlds they'd stepped into the same way. The Gate platform was the same underfoot, the sky a familiar shade of blue overhead--but the silence here made Sam's ears ring.
She wasn't breathing; this time she didn't think any of them were. She remembered things she thought she'd forgotten--the sight of the tree line, the way the Gate sat in a bowl-shaped valley. The grassy field before them, smooth-trimmed as any suburban front yard.
"But that can't be right," Sam said blankly, staring at the grass they had stepped onto before, the grass which had turned out to conceal a minefield. The colonel had died here, Daniel had nearly died, she and Teal'c had been wounded, but there wasn't so much as a divot out of the perfect lawn.
"Indeed," Teal'c said darkly, swinging his staff weapon down into firing position.
Sam looked over at Daniel, who was standing up straight, not doubled over in panic.
He gave her a wide-eyed look and shrugged. "No adrenaline left?" he suggested, and then "Teal'c, wait, what--"
Sam turned to look in the direction of Daniel's squint, the direction Teal'c had swung the staff weapon to aim, and saw a small figure moving rapidly toward them. After a few seconds Sam realized the small figure wasn't as distant as she'd first thought--it was a child, running toward them.
"No!" Sam shouted, waving her arms and taking a step down. Daniel and Teal'c each grabbed one of her arms at the same time, keeping her from stepping onto the ground, but Sam shouted, "No! Stay back, it's dangerous!"
"Stay still!" a small high voice shouted back, from the wrong direction. Sam turned and saw another child running down from a different part of the tree line--and another--half a dozen kids were converging on them from all directions.
"Oh God," Daniel whispered, and Teal'c's hand was painfully tight on her arm.
Sam squeezed her eyes shut as they reached the flat part of the grass--any second now, any second--but the only sound was the whispery impact of small bare feet on grass, and then a child's voice saying, "It's all right as long as we're with you! We didn't know before. We didn't know they would just go away."
Sam opened her eyes and looked quickly to Teal'c, who was holding his staff weapon upright, looking as disconcerted as she felt.
"You were here, before?" Sam said. "When we came the first time?"
The biggest of the kids--she couldn't have been more than about eight, with dark hair and striking pale eyes and freckles--said, "Our parents thought you were invaders, they wouldn't let us come down. We knew you weren't our Goddess, and no one else has ever come through the ring. Our Goddess told us not to let anyone come through the ring but her, for our safety. But you didn't invade, even after the Goddess's magic killed some of you, everyone just went away, and then all the elders had a big fight and said maybe our Goddess sent you after all, as a test, or maybe you were just ordinary people trying to be friendly. And they asked all the oracles but the oracles are never sure about anything, but they said it was all over so we shouldn't fight. But here you are again."
"So you're saying the--the things in the ground, the magic--your goddess put that here to protect you?" Daniel let go of Sam's arm to crouch down nearer to the kids' height. The smallest one was sucking his thumb and couldn't be more than four years old. They'd sent babies to greet complete strangers from offworld. It's all right as long as we're with you.
Sam hardly dared to look over at Teal'c, who had come seeking revenge. He wasn't going to take it from kindergarteners who could walk unharmed through a minefield.
All the kids nodded vigorously at that and one said, "From evil gods! Like Ra!" The others also started shouting out names, sounding like they were competing to show off how well they'd learned their Sunday School lessons.
Teal'c chose that moment to drop to one knee, and the nearest children recoiled as they got a look at his forehead. "Apophis!" squeaked the oldest girl, dragging two smaller children behind herself.
Teal'c shook his head slowly. "He enslaved me once, but I rebelled against him. My friends and I defeated him, and he will never trouble you again."
The children got wide-eyed and quiet, and Daniel added, "Ra has also been defeated. Humans rose up against him and killed him."
The children's eyes got wider, and one of them whispered, "Killed a god?"
Two other children burst into tears, and one turned and ran away.
"Okay," Daniel muttered, "that's... not the usual reaction."
Teal'c replied with a calmness Sam hadn't quite expected, "Their goddess has protected them. It is we who are the dangerous intruders."
"Yeah," Sam said, studying the faces of the kids--they were well-fed and fearless, not even glancing at the weapons she and Teal'c and Daniel held. They were even more innocent than kids on Earth, like kids out of some fairy tale. "But that's weird, right?"
"It is indeed," Teal'c agreed.
"We wouldn't want to fight against your goddess," Daniel offered to the kids, spreading his hands. "You said yourselves, Ra and Apophis were evil gods who hurt people. We only fought them because they tried to hurt us."
"If evil gods try to hurt us we should run away," the oldest girl said firmly. "I'm not telling you where."
"No, of course not," Daniel said soothingly. "That's good, you shouldn't tell us."
Sam shifted automatically to check their six and the hilltops, and realized that more people had come out from the tree line--adults, this time, most of them. One more kid came running down into the valley, maybe taking the place of the one who'd run away, but the adults all stayed where they were.
"Can you take us up on the hill?" Sam asked, waving toward the people up there. "Did you come down to show us the way?"
The oldest girl nodded, glancing over her shoulder. "My name is Bita," she said stiffly. "We came to welcome you. Please come with us. Hold our hands."
She offered her hand to Sam, and the tiniest boy came up on her other side and offered her the hand he didn't have plugged into his mouth. Sam took the offered hands and looked back only to watch as Daniel joined hands with two children. Teal'c, as she watched, extended three fingers of his right hand, holding his staff weapon with only thumb and finger, so that a little girl could hold his fingers while he held the staff between them.
She shifted her gaze to Daniel as they started walking across the grass--it was easier to watch her guys than watch where they were going, and the kids were leading her, anyway. Daniel just raised his eyebrows at her, and she gave him a small nod back.
Teal'c couldn't have been planning on this, and she was gladder than she could have imagined that she and Daniel had come with him back to 247. Revenge was going to be complicated.
Just like last time, once they'd decided to leave they found themselves being hustled back to the mirror pretty fast. Carter's clock was ticking, and Jack couldn't blame the locals for wanting them out of their hair. The conference room was apparently the standard beam-in/beam-out location for the mirror, so they all trooped back up there, where Hammond was waiting to shake hands and tell them goodbye again.
All the time, Jack was aware of nothing so much as the device in his pocket. He was going home. He and Carter were going home. Or if not home, at least they were going to where they belonged.
The Carters were exchanging a long hug, with whispering, so Jack turned his attention to Daniel. Daniel shrugged, gave a wry smile, and said, "Oh, come here," and, when Jack stepped cautiously into range, hugged him.
Jack's breath stopped for a second. It really was exactly like hugging Daniel, his Daniel. Daniel whispered, "Just think about it. You deserve to be happy. All of you."
Jack nodded, tightened his arms in a desperate squeeze, and then made himself let go.
Carter turned and said, "Daniel, I--it's so good to see you, you have no idea."
"Kind of confusing, but you too," Daniel said cheerfully, opening his arms, and Carter stepped into them like it was easy.
That left Jack with Samantha, who still had Ada on her hip. He moved hesitantly closer--there wasn't going to be any kiss goodbye this time, and Jack still couldn't look directly at Ada for long. She was like staring at the sun; his eyes prickled like they wanted to water. Samantha looked like she didn't have any idea what to say either, so Jack leaned in and hugged her, hugged them both, a little gingerly. No full-body press this time, no crushing the breath out of anyone. Just a last warm touch.
Jack bent a little to kiss the top of Ada's head, then Samantha's cheek. Samantha kissed his, and said, "Goodbye, again. Three times probably means it's final, doesn't it?"
He'd said goodbye to her twice, and his own Carter once, although he hadn't actually gotten to say it. He hadn't really said goodbye to the next Carter either. He flicked a glance toward Carter and wondered if he was going to get a chance to do it right this time, the third time.
"Could be," he said quietly. "Guess we'll see."
Samantha smiled. "How very scientific of you, Jack. Declining to reason in advance of the data."
Jack smiled awkwardly. "Probably your influence, then. One of you. Or all of you."
"Sir?" Carter said, coming mercifully to his rescue.
"Yeah," Jack said, quickly stepping away from Samantha to stand at Carter's side. Daniel made the opposite move, going to stand with Samantha, his arm around her and Ada--a picture-perfect little family with Hammond fondly looking on, only the brown-eyed baby with two blue-eyed parents hinting at what was missing.
"Hey," Jack said, "tell Kawalsky I said hi, would--"
The world dissolved in a flash of white.
"--you," Jack finished, back in the mirror room with Carter. "Well. They probably got that."
"I'm sure they did," Carter said absently. She already had her new controller in her hand, and only had to press one button to open the mirror up to the cave where the chem light was still on the floor, pointing toward two o'clock. Jack had a sudden strong memory of the first time he'd had a TV with a remote, and didn't have to get up and twirl a dial to change channels. Carter reached out her hand to the mirror's surface. "This should be us."
Jack nodded and reached out as well, and there they were. He turned around and picked up the chem light--no point wasting it--while Carter fiddled with the controller. When he turned back, slipping the chem light into his pocket, Carter had switched the mirror to something he'd never seen in all his controller-twisting here in the cave. On the other side of the mirror was an idyllic little forest meadow, lush and green. There was a hut on the edge of the clearing, maybe fifteen yards from the mirror, but no immediate sign of human presence.
"I think this is our next move," Carter said. "Unless the Asgard were leading us totally astray, this is the mirror on the Nox homeworld--same universe, different planet."
"Uh," Jack said, "Carter, look, I know going through at Area 51 involves a lot of yelling and guns pointed and everything, but the Nox aren't really our biggest fans."
"Not in our realities of origin," Carter agreed. "But this is a reality where this mirror never made it to 233 for us to find it, so the point of divergence is way back. They might not even know us here, everything might be completely different."
"We met the Nox before we found the mirror," Jack insisted. "And they told us not to come back."
"Sir," Carter said, and then stopped short. Jack waited, because she definitely had the not-done-yet look on her face.
Carter lifted her chin, and said, "We're not the same now. We're refugees, just like the Tollan. The Nox took them, and I think they'll accept us, too. We're no danger to anyone."
Jack looked from Carter to the oh-so-friendly what-could-possibly-go-wrong-here meadow on the other side of the mirror. The hut didn't look like it was made of gingerbread, but Jack was still wary and more, he still knew this wasn't necessary. "You're sure about that."
Carter shrugged, starting to look frustrated; she'd figured this all out in advance, while he was asleep on Daniel's couch, and she didn't want to wait around for him to catch up before she went off to prove her next big theory. "Even if I'm wrong, nonviolence and noninterference are the central principles of the Nox. In every reality where they're them enough to recognize us as us and have the same conflict with us, the worst they'll do is tell us to leave. That, I'm sure about."
Jack stood still for a minute, unraveling Carter's logic, and then gave in. They could always come back just as easily, and the Nox really weren't a threat to them, so why not. "Fair enough."
Carter turned and reached for the mirror, then hesitated with her hand just short. Jack immediately took his own hand back. "Carter."
"No, it's all right, it's just--" she turned to look at him, with that thrill of discovery in her eyes that hit him right in the gut. "When we touch the mirror, we'll become the first humans ever to use the mirrors for interstellar travel."
Carter had been shut out of the SGC's first Gate trip. And humans had been going through Gates for thousands of years. This was something really new, and Jack couldn't help thinking Daniel should be here, Teal'c should be here.
What he said, instead, was, "First humans in this reality."
Carter rolled her eyes, jerking her chin toward the mirror. Jack put his hand out again--and there they were, standing in lush grass and the familiar humid warmth of the Nox homeworld. They probably weren't more than a few klicks from where SG-1 had all died. Together. The first time.
"Carter," he said, looking around their little meadow, with dense forest on every side and no obvious paths out or vistas on anything, "Do you have any idea how far we are from the Gate? Just because we're on the same planet...."
"It's probably that way, walking distance," Carter said. She had stayed put facing the mirror while Jack looked around, and now she pointed up, past it, toward a tree that looked like every other tree--except that there was a smooth gray circle in the bark, just about at eye level. They parted around the mirror and walked over to the tree, and Jack reached up to tap a knuckle against the ring, then ran his finger over it.
"Yeah, feels like--"
The ring lit up, glowing like sunlight through thick ice. Further into the trees, another ring lit up on another tree.
"Naquadah," Jack finished.
"They're trail blazes," Carter said, staring in fascination. She was like the sun, too, hadn't he always known that? He couldn't look at her for long when she was shining this bright. "The Asgard knew of this as one of at least three interfaces between the ancient systems of travel, the mirrors and the Stargates. The P3R-233 mirror, which is also the cave mirror and the Earth mirror, is another--wherever the people of 233 found it originally, there must have been a Gate. There's another mirror in Asgard-controlled space. The Nox seemed the likeliest to let us alone to figure out our next destination."
Jack tore his gaze away from the glowing ring--the brightness stayed the same, but the longer he looked the more Gate-details he could make out--to look at Carter. Her bright look had dimmed, and she was staring down at the controller in her hand.
"Yeah," Jack said. "So about that. I guess we both need to ... figure that out. Next."
Carter nodded, and looked down at the device in her hands, identical to the one in Jack's pocket.
"Carter," he said, as gently as he could. "You made two."
She shrugged, looked at him, looked away again. "Two were as easy as one, we had the materials. And I couldn't choose for you. There are potentially infinite possibilities in play fanning out from 247--there must be universes where Daniel or Teal'c was the only survivor, and I don't think either of them would come through the mirror to look for the rest of us. If the two of us stayed together, we could...."
Jack could see it for a second. He wouldn't have to say goodbye again. He and Carter could go and find the Daniel and the Teal'c who are just like them, alone and adrift, make one whole team out of four broken people. That could work, except that Jack already knew that that wasn't how this was going to go.
"Carter," he said, "I've seen your team."
She looked up sharply, frowning slightly, not getting it. Right, she hadn't solved the dark mirror problem when she found him, so she hadn't gone to any other universes like their own. She hadn't seen.
"Your team, the team that's only missing you, after 247," Jack said. "I went through to Area 51 and I found them. I--" Jack choked back I saw you die, because it wouldn't help him remember that he had to let her go. "I met them. I know they're there, Carter, your actual team, not some infinite possibility. They're waiting for you. And if you go back to the cave and go through from there to a dark mirror, you can find exactly the right one. I dropped a chem light in front of the mirror and they left it there. Pointed straight to twelve o'clock. I will bet you--I will bet you--that it's still there."
Carter's eyes were impossibly wide, impossibly blue.
"They're waiting for you," Jack repeated helplessly, because he had to remember that she wasn't really his, that he'd only been a stop on her way back to them. "You can--you can find them. Chem light, twelve o'clock. There are two hundred chem lights in that bag back there, and you've got your new and improved controller. You can find them."
"Are they--you saw them, are they okay? Are they--" Carter looked lost, dazed, and Jack stepped forward and tugged her into a hug. Carter stood stock still in his arms, still talking. "Why didn't you--I can't--are you sure--"
Jack hugged her tighter and closed his eyes. "They're okay, or they will be."
They would be, too. They'd been stabilized, expected to recover even without special intervention--and if Jacob dropped the ball, Carter herself could patch them up when she got there. Carter's team would be okay because she could make them okay.
"You're going to be fine, all of you," he repeated, stepping back, holding her by the shoulders. "You just have to go find them."
"But you," Carter said, "you--"
"I've got a new and improved controller," Jack said, "I'll--"
He saw a flash of frustration on her face, right before Carter grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him into a kiss, rough and fast and long overdue. Once they started they couldn't stop, not for breath, not for anything. Jack's arms went around her, holding her close instead of keeping her away, and Carter's arms locked around his neck.
When they came to a shuddering halt, foreheads pressed together, breath mixing between their mouths, all Jack could say was, "Oh."
Carter got an arm free to punch him on the shoulder, hard enough to actually hurt, which was impressive when they were smashed so close together. The angle was terrible.
"Also ow," Jack said, but didn't loosen his grip on her. "Carter, you have to--"
"I don't have to do anything," she said fiercely. "Reality doesn't stop branching. There's a me who chooses you, and there's a me who chooses them."
"Oh," Jack repeated. He hadn't really thought of that, that there were all sorts of potential hims running around through the mirrors, turning left when he turned right, stepping through mirrors he'd never seen. He'd been too busy worrying about tracking down his team to think about what was happening to himself where he couldn't see.
"Right now," Carter said, "right here, this is a nexus of possibilities. We can choose anything. We can do anything."
"Anything." But doing anything was a choice all by itself--a choice she'd maybe already made by kissing him, because now whatever they chose, everything was different. For the better part of the last three years they hadn't talked about this, and now it was on the table, for them. If they stuck together, they weren't going to be the same kind of team they'd been before, and if they didn't then all of this was one long goodbye.
It didn't make him want to let her go, though. Her team would be fine without her for a little while longer, and his team could hang on, too. Those stray Daniels and Teal'cs out there somewhere with no idea there was a team coming for them, they could hang on one more night.
He kissed her again. They went slower now, deliberate, until Sam whispered, "Maybe--maybe inside."
"Yeah," Jack said, forcing himself to back up a step but then immediately taking her hand as they turned to cross the clearing toward the little hut. "Come on, Goldilocks, let's go see what kind of beds the Nox left us to sleep in."
After, Jack lay staring up at the ceiling--made of sticks, but that was a whole other fairy tale--with Carter cuddled up, fantastically naked, at his side.
"Wow," he finally said, because that was his entire train of thought. Wow.
Carter pushed up on one elbow, and Jack's gaze dropped automatically. She had to tap his chin before he managed to meet her eyes. She was grinning smugly. "Wow, huh."
"Yeah," Jack said, grinning helplessly himself. "That was really... wow."
"Ha!" Carter managed to sound triumphant and accusatory at the same time. She gave him a--completely symbolic, since he was already flat on his back--shove to the chest. "You didn't think I'd be any good in bed!"
"It's hardly even a bed," Jack argued reflexively, and Carter rolled her eyes. "I just, you know...."
Carter raised her eyebrows, waiting.
Jack shrugged as much as he could lying down. "Just thought you'd be kind of ... a geek."
Carter's eyebrows frowned, but her mouth was trying desperately not to laugh. "What does that even mean?"
"I have no idea," Jack muttered, slinging an arm over his face. "I spent a lot of time in the last couple of years trying not to think about it too hard."
"Huh," Carter said. "So if you haven't been thinking about it I guess it won't surprise you to hear that Daniel's not such a geek either."
Jack felt a disorienting surge of jealousy--in all directions, all universes--even as he opened his eyes to see Carter's scarily serious expression. She wasn't just teasing.
He closed his eyes again and said, "I guess you and Dr. Carter had even more to talk about than Daniel and I did."
"Well," Carter yawned suddenly, and squirmed around to rest her cheek against his shoulder. "We didn't sleep."
"Geeks ganging up on me across the multiverse," Jack groused, even as he shifted so he could put his arm around her, running his hand down her spine. "This is why I need Teal'c around. Teal'c's on my side."
His hand stilled as Jack realized what he'd just maybe said, but Carter just snuggled closer and muttered, "That seems fair," sounding already half-asleep.
Jack stayed awake for a while, keeping watch, but no one appeared in the doorway, and he never managed to count higher than two, and eventually the doorway disappeared in the dark.
The adults, once Sam and Daniel and Teal'c reached them, seemed a lot more nervous than the kids had. One woman had a shiny thing on her head and extra-brightly-colored clothing, so Sam pegged her as In Charge even before she opened her mouth, and thought, Well, at least we've come to a world where they'll believe I'm leading this team.
"Visitors, we welcome you," the woman said, making a hand gesture down at her side that made Bita drop Sam's hand and dodge around her to grab the little boy from her other side and lead him behind the line of adults. "We must ask... have you come from our Goddess? Have you any word for us from Her?"
Sam looked to Daniel--this didn't seem like a good time to bring out the False Gods talk, and she wasn't sure what else to say. If they upset these people too much to be trusted around their children, they'd never get back to the Gate alive.
Teal'c, behind her, said mildly, "We are sent by no god, but we know of many. What is the name of your goddess?"
"We are under the protection of the Goddess Iat, who is true and kind," the woman said proudly.
Sam turned to look at Teal'c, who stared at the woman with a really unusually frozen expression. Then he looked down, gently freed his hands from the grips of the kids at his sides, shouldered his staff weapon, and turned and walked away, back down the valley.
"Teal'c," Sam said, but Daniel caught her arm and kept her still, just as he had back at the Gate. Teal'c walked halfway down the hill and dropped to his knees with his staff weapon across his shoulders like a yoke to bear some burden.
Teal'c had recognized the name. It wasn't what he'd wanted to hear. That, combined with the fact that these people hadn't heard from their goddess in a long time, told Sam everything she needed to know, except what to do next.
"We have to leave him be," Daniel whispered. "He'll come back to us when he's ready."
He'd come back, or he'd walk down into the mines. For now he'd stopped halfway. If they chased him, would he run? Sam stared into Daniel's eyes and saw the same questions staring back. She nodded, and Daniel released her arm.
"I'm sorry," Sam said, turning back. "We have no news about your goddess, but we'd like to learn more about her."
Daniel stepped up close to her shoulder and added, "The children will tell you, we have met only the cruel gods who Iat warned you against. We have never met a goddess like Iat who protected her people so carefully."
The headwoman shook her head and said, "Your friend--is he not one of those who came through the first time and was wounded? Please tell him, we are sorry the others were killed. We did not know that you came in peace. The machine which came through first seemed to us like a weapon, a war machine, and so we hid the children and waited to see whether an army would follow. By the time we realized how few they were, it was too late. We sent some of the children down, to make it safe to see if any survived, but then the ring lit up again. The children hid, but the ones who came through only took the bodies away."
The woman wrung her hands. "Tell your friend, we are sorry. We meant no harm. We only wished to protect ourselves, as our Goddess taught us."
Sam did not look back at Daniel, whose scars were covered today with a boonie hat. She didn't reach up to touch her own velvet-short hair. She didn't think of Colonel O'Neill, but she couldn't bring herself to speak. In a minute she was going to be halfway down the hill with Teal'c.
Daniel said smoothly, as if it were true, as if it really had been some other people who died in the valley behind them, "We understand. Accidents happen. The team who came before wished only to meet new people who might like to be friends. We came in the hope that we might complete their mission, if you would allow us."
The woman nodded and spread her hands in greeting. "Please, come to the village. We are eager to meet those who travel as the gods do."
The first contact dog-and-pony show lasted nearly four hours. They met the oracles, who made vague but optimistic pronouncements on the value of making new friends. They ate a meal that did not hit Sam's top or bottom five things she'd been expected to eat offworld. They sat patiently through eighteen verses of a song about all the nice things Iat had done for her people, sung by a couple of dozen round-cheeked children who'd all been hastily stuffed into what looked like their Sunday best. None of the verses were about blowing up their enemies; it didn't seem like something that had come up very often.
Teal'c didn't come back.
Sam finally managed to extract herself and Daniel with promises to return sometime, and the whole gang of children went running ahead of them toward the Gate to clear their path.
"So it's really safe for the children?" Sam said, even though it clearly was, as she and Daniel and the headwoman walked through the trees toward the valley.
"Of course," the woman said. "Iat could never countenance any harm to the children. She said it was better that we be overrun, than that one of our children should die by her hand. If a child is near enough to be harmed, nothing happens. The children play down in the valley, and keep the ground neat in case the Goddess should come."
Sam didn't look at Daniel. Her fingers dug into her palms with the effort of not reaching out.
"That's good," Daniel said, and Sam could hear the shaking in his voice and kept her gaze straight ahead. "On our world there are such weapons, but without safeguards. Children are--are often hurt by them, by accident. It's good that Iat has been so...." Daniel trailed off, his voice gone very small.
Sam couldn't hear him breathing, but she cleared her throat and managed to finish his sentence for him. "So careful. Iat was very careful."
They broke through the trees just then, to see Teal'c standing at the DHD. He had his hands braced against the edges of it, and his head hung low. His staff weapon was propped against it, and a child--impossibly tiny at this distance--was sitting quietly in the DHD's shade, protecting the mighty warrior who stood helpless over her. The other children, running ahead, were reaching the Gate now, and lining up expectantly in neat lines, making a lane for them from the DHD to the Gate platform.
"Ah," the headwoman said, gazing down at Teal'c. "Well. I will leave you here."
Daniel stopped with her, saying polite good-byes. Sam managed not to run all the way down the hill to Teal'c's side, and that was the best she could do.
The girl sitting under the DHD was the one who'd held Teal'c's fingers, walking him out of the valley to safety. Sam couldn't remember seeing her among the singing children, and in fact she was still wearing a plain, dusty smock. She must have been there all the time Teal'c was sitting on the hillside, hiding from everyone and keeping him safe.
Sam knelt and hugged her without a word. The child allowed it, though she didn't hug Sam back. When Sam let go, she squirmed away and ran to join the other kids. Sam heard a few stage-whispers of "You missed everything" and "Come on, get in line!"
Sam stood up and leaned across the DHD to look at Teal'c's face. There was sweat beading along his newly-obvious hairline, rolling down his face like tears. If there were real tears, Sam couldn't tell. She could see that the muscles of his arm were tensed, as if he were trying to lift the DHD out of the ground or crack it in half. Sam didn't quite dare to touch him, but she slid her hands down to rest next to his on the DHD, leaning halfway onto it to reach.
"I remember this," Teal'c said quietly, and suddenly Sam remembered, too.
Teal'c was the one who'd dialed out to call for help. That was why the people here knew Teal'c was a survivor of the first visit, while they thought she and Daniel had died. Teal'c had gotten to his feet, however gravely injured, and had gotten here to dial out and send a distress call. Which meant that the last time he'd stood in this spot....
"You were there," Teal'c said quietly, and lifted his left hand to point to a spot a few yards to one side of the line of children. "Daniel--there. O'Neill was...."
Teal'c's hand moved in a short arc, and Sam realized with a sick lurch of her stomach that he wasn't uncertain about where the colonel's body had fallen. He was describing the distribution. It had taken them a long time to collect his body. Teal'c had never been uncertain that O'Neill was really dead. This was why.
"I'm here, now," Sam said, because it was the only thing there was to say.
"Me, too," Daniel added, making Sam jump. Daniel put his hand down, overlapping Sam's left and Teal'c's right on the DHD.
Sam could hear the kids shushing each other. She could see them fidgeting in her peripheral vision, all in their brightly-colored festival clothes except one. She stood still and waited, and Teal'c didn't move or look up, though his left hand dropped to his side.
Daniel asked in a low, calm voice, "How long has Iat been dead?"
Teal'c's left hand closed into a fist. "More than forty years. Bra'tac was First Prime then. She was of no real importance, controlling only a few worlds."
Daniel nodded. "There's an expression among our people that I think Jack would have wanted us to remember. Living well is the best revenge."
Teal'c's shoulders shook with what might have been a laugh, but his voice was steady as he said, "That may take some time."
"We'll stick with it, though," Sam said, suddenly certain she could speak for her team. "As long as it takes."
Daniel's nod was quick and determined. Teal'c's was barely perceptible, but it was there. Sam took a deep breath and then dialed home upside down, one-handed.
Jack was disoriented for a few seconds upon waking, but Carter--Sam--reoriented him pretty quickly. By the time he was completely awake he was too busy to worry about what to say, and after that, he was feeling too good to worry about much of anything.
Carter, however--he had to cross his eyes to see her face, she was lying with her chin propped on his chest--Carter was apparently thinking. Jack knew that because that was what Carter did--even at moments like this, apparently--but also because she said so.
"I keep thinking about the other me," she said, sounding like she did when she was working on some interesting theoretical problem.
"Dr. Carter?" Jack asked. But Carter didn't refer to Dr. Carter that way.
Carter shook her head. "She's not really me, the divergence is way further back. No, I mean--the me you set out to find originally. The one who was exactly the same until she went to 247. The one who lost you but still has Teal'c and Daniel."
"Ah," Jack said. He... hadn't been thinking about that Carter too much lately. But he couldn't help picturing the poor bastard on the ventilator, in the medically induced coma. Did he even know yet that his Carter was dead? Were Daniel and Teal'c still sitting beside his bed, waiting for him to wake up? "Yeah."
"Do you think she does still have them?" Carter asked. "I mean--do you think the team would be kept together without you?"
Jack snorted, and reached down to run his fingers through Carter's hair. "I might have the highest rank, Carter, but no one ever claimed I was the brains of that outfit. Of course they'd keep the team together. Anything else would be a waste."
As soon as that came out of his mouth, he tensed, because that would be easy to take the wrong way--as if Carter's other work, Daniel's other work, everything else Teal'c could be doing, was a waste. But compared to being SG-1....
Carter just said, "Hmm," in a skeptical-but-not-offended sort of tone, and Jack relaxed a little.
"Who would have command, do you think?" Carter asked next.
"You would," Jack said, stating the blindingly obvious. "She would. Whatever. You've taken command before when I was incapacitated, and there are Majors in command of half the other teams. Hell, I think we've got two captains commanding some of the high-number teams now. Who the hell would they put over your head?"
Carter shrugged. "Somebody who's legally allowed to enter a combat zone, probably."
Jack rolled his eyes. "Bullpucky, Carter. If Hammond tried to move any other ranking officer onto SG-1 over your head, he'd have a white mutiny on his hands. Nobody else wants to try to ride herd on you and Daniel and Teal'c, trust me."
Carter lifted herself up to meet his eyes, and this time--for this--Jack didn't have any trouble holding her gaze despite distractions. "So you're saying I would get my first command because no one else would want it."
"SG-1, Carter," Jack said, shaking his head. "We're not like other teams. If I died and left the rest of the team behind, you'd have command because you're the ranking member of SG-1 and that's how it should go, and everybody else knows enough to respect that, from Hammond on down."
Carter looked at him in silence for a moment, then lay down beside him, pressed close, but with her head level with his.
"Huh," she said after a minute of silence. "So, if you go find that team, you're going to find Major Carter in command."
Time would keep moving for them, and there was no guessing where they were--the team that needed Carter wasn't even two days out from 247 yet, but it had been closer to two weeks for Jack; he didn't know how long it had been for Carter. A three-quarter team would have had a seven-day stand down and then been sent back into the field. Carter would've been told to find a new fourth man for the team--she'd be trying to make some bright-eyed lieutenant or ambitious captain get along with Teal'c and Daniel. They'd be stuck on milk runs while they sorted things out.
"Yeah," Jack said slowly. He'd find her again, in command of his team while he himself had been dead for weeks, maybe even months, depending on how time--
Time. Carter's team.
"Hey, Carter, you said something before, about if we got the Gate--"
That was as far as Jack got before the sudden pain hit, pain and the horrible sensation of coming apart--not parts of his body from other parts, but all of himself disintegrating, dislocating in some way that wasn't as simple and fixable as joints out of place, unspeakably more terrifying.
When he snapped back into place he was gasping for breath, and the pain lingered, the way pain did. Carter was kneeling over him, wide-eyed and horrified. "Oh, God," she said. "There must be another you back at the cave."
Jack nodded. Entropic cascade failure. It hurt to do it even more than it had hurt to watch Samantha suffer it, which was startling--but this Carter, his Carter, had never felt it.
"It hasn't been anywhere near forty-eight hours yet," Carter added, standing up--naked, which he sort of appreciated, as a purely aesthetic distraction. "Something is intensifying the effect."
Jack thought about the cave for a minute, thought about the beach, the pack and duffle he'd left behind....
"If another me came through there," Jack said. "He found supplies. And if he's--if he hasn't found you and he thinks it's going to be trial and error, he might--he might be really discouraged. He might go outside the cave to think it through. If another one came in--"
Carter turned back to look at him, eyes wide all over again. "Three of you in one universe could definitely accelerate the effect."
Jack nodded, because, yeah, no kidding, clearly something was accelerating the effect.
Carter said, "We have to get out of here."
"I have to get out of here," Jack corrected, and Carter froze, but it couldn't be a shock, not really. It was what they'd both just been talking about--what they'd both been saying all night and into this morning. They'd been saying goodbye, because they both knew they had a team waiting for them. There was a team out there that only he could complete, a team out there that needed their Carter back.
"We have to get dressed," Carter said, and started sorting through the tangled pile of fatigues on the floor. The sizes weren't so different. She was checking tags.
Jack thought Okay, now. Now. two or three times before he found himself actually moving, rolling off the low bed and hobbling over to Carter. She handed him his underwear and stood up to step into her own. She had her bra tossed over her shoulder, and by the time Jack had gotten into his shorts and found his socks she was fastening it. Pants, t-shirts, boots. Carter was ready first.
"I'm going to have to show you how to use the controller," she said, and her voice was very calm. "It's partly Ancient tech, like the mirrors themselves. The Asgard told us that Ancient technology tends to respond to intention, but you have to concentrate on some kind of visualization of where you need to get to."
"Visualize, sure," Jack said, like that made sense. "What do I visualize?"
"A metaphor," Carter said, and offered a hand to drag him up to his feet, handing him a controller. It had the same little plastic-tape labels stuck on next to the lights. All of the lights were dark, but when he ran his thumb over them they lit up, just like the trail blazes on the trees.
Only one light was green.
"Carter," he said, but she'd seen it too--the red light next to DANIEL. She turned and ran out the door, and Jack chased her across the clearing to the mirror.
"I'm using the selector on the left side," Carter called to him. "That one navigates among the mirrors within a single universe."
Jack was still a couple of yards away as the mirror lit up to show the cave, and Daniel kneeling there in fatigues--not just in fatigues, but in blues matching his and Carter's.
Daniel waved his hands frantically when he saw Jack, and Jack raised his hands--he wasn't going back to the cave, for sure. That would probably just make it worse.
Daniel reached for the mirror. Carter took a couple of quick steps back, and then Daniel was standing there next to her, grabbing her in a hug.
"Sam," he was saying, "Sam, oh God, you're all right."
He tore himself away from her abruptly, turning to Jack, and said, "You can't come through, there's another Jack there somewhere. I got the one who was in the cave with me through the mirror to another universe with the mirror in a cave, but he was suffering entropic cascade failure, so--"
"Daniel," Carter said. "We're in the same reality. Jack suffered entropic cascade failure here, too."
That made Daniel the third human to use the mirrors for interstellar travel, Jack realized. Just like he should be.
"The same--" Daniel turned back to look at the mirror, at Sam, at Jack again. He took the last step to Jack, put a hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right? How is this the same--"
Jack hauled Daniel into a hug, even as Carter said, "The mirrors were made for travel through space, not alternate realities. The controllers we found with the mirror were set up wrong. We're on the Nox homeworld now--if you find the reality you want from here you can Gate home instead of having to go through a dark mirror."
"Oh," Daniel said, and broke away from Jack to look at Sam, "hey, if we leave the mirrors on, they'll stay connected--wait, but then Jack can't get back."
"If you go to the universe with the sign that says 'Welcome Friends', they've got a Carter who can make you one of those," Jack said, nodding toward the controller Carter held. "The one who came to us for help a while back."
"There's a Daniel, so you wouldn't have much time, but she knows what to do," Carter added. "But--Daniel, how on Earth did you...."
Daniel threw up his hands. "Does no one remember that I was the first one of us to travel through a mirror? Jack couldn't believe I did it either. The other Jack," Daniel added, flapping a hand at Jack, although now that Jack thought about it he wouldn't have believed it either.
"Oh we of little faith," Jack said with a shrug.
Daniel rolled his eyes. "I had McKay build me this," he said, fishing out a controller that looked like a cross between Carter's first one and the original.
Carter raised a hand like she wanted to take it from Daniel--she probably wanted to dissect it--but she didn't, and said only, "How did you get him to do that?"
Daniel shrugged, looking slightly uncomfortable. "I told him I was going to get a new SG-1 put together and that I'd request him for it. I made him believe that General Hammond would give me whoever I wanted because I was The Great Dr. Daniel Jackson."
Daniel waved his hand and rolled his eyes, but Jack shot a look at Carter and she smiled, sharing his estimation. Daniel hadn't been lying to McKay, no matter what he thought, except probably about wanting McKay on his team.
"Anyway, he was convinced that getting me out of his universe was a safer bet than exploring the universe with me, so he built that. I found Jack pretty quickly, and we were just, um, just figuring out how to find Sam and Teal'c when he--"
Daniel stopped short and looked at Jack, searching his face. Not just searching to see if he was all right.
That had been a pretty interesting place to put the um in that sentence, now that Jack thought about it.
Jack closed the distance between him and Daniel again, reached out and put his hand on the back of Daniel's neck. In his peripheral vision Carter was standing very still, watching.
"Let me ask you something," Jack said quietly, and Daniel's eyes were wide and focused entirely on him.
Daniel nodded very slightly. Jack nodded back, leaned in and kissed him, slowly and thoroughly.
Daniel broke the kiss, gently, just tilting his head back. He kept his eyes closed--Jack's were open instantly, searching Daniel's face. He didn't dare yet look at Carter, wondering whether he'd just broken things for himself, for others of himself.
Daniel's expression wasn't quite decipherable, but he said, "Oh. I. Oh."
Then Daniel's eyes flashed open and he turned to face Carter, and Jack had to look at her--and found her watching them intently, lips slightly parted.
Daniel took a step toward her and she closed the distance immediately, throwing her arms around his neck with her controller still in hand, and Jack stood still and watched them kissing. It was somehow completely different from Samantha and her Daniel. They were SG-1, they were his team, and they knew he was here. He was supposed to be here, that was the point. Well. Part of the point.
Daniel and Carter parted and looked around at the same time Jack was thinking it, and all three of them said, "Teal'c."
Carter said, "Do you think he...?" and Daniel said, "We really don't know enough about the Jaffa," but Jack said, "He's one of us."
Daniel only shrugged at that. Carter looked thoughtful.
Jack said, "You think he's going to turn up, too?"
Daniel shook his head. "Rya'c, and the Jaffa. I think we'll have to go to him."
Jack winced, and Daniel did at the same time.
"I mean," Daniel said, gesturing toward the mirror, toward that Jack he'd seen go through entropic cascade failure and moved to safety, but Jack shook his head.
"I was just leaving," Jack said. "I gotta go find the team that's missing me."
"Oh," Daniel said, and turned to Carter, "But--"
Carter shook her head and handed back Daniel's controller. "Me too. But there have to be more of me out there--you'll find one. Tell her I've got this. She can choose you."
Daniel looked from one of them to the other and then nodded firmly. "I have to go get Jack, then. You guys--good luck. And I think I speak for all near versions of me when I say, yes."
"Yeah," Jack said. "I mean, we might need some time to get our heads around it, but me too."
"Me three," Carter said promptly, without any caveats, and then "Hey, leave some of those chem lights."
Daniel nodded again, took one more long look at him and Carter, and then touched the mirror. They had only a glimpse of him before it went dark.
"Right," Carter said, in the sudden silence. "Okay. You have to--visualize."
"Visualize," Jack repeated. "Right. A metaphor?"
"Think of the multiverse as a river," Carter said. "247, what happened there, is like a rock that the river divides around in an infinite number of directions. You need to get from your side of the rock to a different side of the rock."
"Carter," Jack said, abruptly remembering what he'd been about to ask her when the entropic cascade hit. "What you said before, about time travel."
Carter shook her head. "It was an analogy. I don't think solar flares would affect the mirrors in the same way, and...."
"Yeah," Jack said. "But--Daniel got a warning to us about Apophis, the first time. Shouldn't we try to warn somebody, so they don't have to do this? So there aren't actually infinite numbers of us running around entropically cascading each other?"
He'd almost been in time for Carter's team. If he could get to another team, he could stop them hitting that rock at all.
"Oh," Carter said. "Yes. That might help."
Jack nodded. "Can these things tell time? Tell me when I am, when I come through?"
Carter frowned down at hers. "It should be relatively trivial--touch here, and think about needing to know when."
Jack put his fingers where Carter put hers and closed his eyes and thought about calendars and clocks, and when he opened his eyes again there was a readout hovering above his fingers. He glanced over at Carter's, and found to his relief that they matched up.
"About two months later than my timeline," Carter remarked.
Jack tried to remember where the hell his timeline was. "Three for me, I think."
Carter's eyebrows went up. "That's a lot of slippage even between our universes. It may be possible, then, to--"
Jack fell to his knees as the cascade hit, and couldn't make sense of anything until it was over. Then he realized that Carter was kneeling beside him, her arms around him too tight, like she was trying to hold him together with her hands.
"Carter," he gasped.
"I know, you need to go. Now."
She got to her feet, pulled him up to his feet again, and kissed him, fast and hard.
"Concentrate," she said, and then stepped back.
Jack stepped up to the mirror, put his finger on the spot that was apparently the control, and thought about a river with a big, lethal rock in the middle of it, breaking everything up into rapids and eddies that were all frantically crossing each other, trying to rejoin.
A kind of diagram actually appeared on the pale, glossy surface under his finger, and Jack dragged it back to just above the separation. The image shifted--once he was above the rock, above 247, then the stream ran alongside a lot of other streams that led other places. But Jack focused on that spot, right there, and the mirror flashed to life on a meadow just like this meadow, but empty.
"Check first," Carter said from behind him. "Throw the controller through and see what colors come up. If you go through with it--"
"I'll always come up as present in the universe, yeah." Jack tossed the controller, like a much more advanced chem light, and it appeared on the other side of the mirror, maybe six inches away. The lights blinked for a few seconds and then all four turned red. All of SG-1 was alive and well on the other side of that mirror. He'd be facing entropic cascade again, if he stayed very long at all, but he could get to them and warn them, stop them from going through any of this.
He turned back. "Should I tell Carter anything from you?"
Carter waved a hand at the mirror. "Just this, what the mirrors really are. Everything else--she already knows everything that's--she knows."
Jack nodded. He wouldn't have appreciated pointers on what he'd never done before his life hit that rock. He'd known as much as it was safe to know. The things they'd never talked about, they'd never talked about for a reason. "Go get 'em, then. Remember, the chem light is pointing to twelve o'clock."
"Be careful," Carter said. "Don't go through dark mirrors if you don't have to, okay? You could get detained, you could--"
That was how Samantha had wound up going into entropic cascade failure, right. She'd been held too long by Area 51 security procedures. And even if the universes close to theirs seemed to have that figured out, there was no telling when he'd hit a universe where it was all messed up for some reason. He was in no hurry to risk going through that again.
"I promise," Jack said. "I'll be careful. I'll go your way."
Carter nodded, blinking quickly. "Chem light. Twelve o'clock."
Jack reached out and slapped his palm against the mirror. He bent down to pick up his controller, and by the time he looked up, the mirror was dark, and Carter was gone.
He stared at the dark surface for a moment and then stepped around the mirror and reached up the tree to touch a trail blaze and set it glowing. He didn't have a lot of time.
The sudden spike of rage hit Sam between one breath and the next, and she stopped walking and stood still, jaw clenched and hands knotted in fists. Fuck you, fuck this, she didn't say. I am so fucking done with this, do you hear me, I know I'm not really angry and I refuse to keep feeling angry, you idiot, stop feeling angry--
"Sam." Her eyes opened on Teal'c's words, and she found him standing facing her. He'd already dropped his pack and staff weapon and settled into a sparring stance.
Sam looked around automatically for Daniel, but he was standing several yards away, in profile to Sam, looking forward along the path from this clearing.
"Sam," Teal'c repeated, and Sam realized that she hadn't actually moved except to look to the side. Her ears were ringing from the tension in her jaw. Her whole body felt like it was vibrating with the impossibility of containing her anger.
Teal'c was telling her she didn't have to contain it. It didn't have to be a real fight, she could just--get it out. Sam moved fast, ditching her MP5 and her pack. She hesitated one last second, and Teal'c raised an eyebrow in challenge.
Sam didn't think before she jumped at him. It was maybe a little bit real when she threw the first punch--and when it smacked into Teal'c's palm she thought only dammit and lashed out twice as hard. Her fists only ever landed against his open hands, and her kicks caught nothing, and Teal'c, damn him, was grinning.
A particularly wild kick left her standing on one foot with Teal'c's hand gripping her leg behind the knee. He grinned, then tipped his head back and caught the fist Sam aimed directly at his teeth, spinning her around somehow so that she was standing on one foot with her back against his chest, one arm pinned between their bodies and the other wrist held tight in Teal'c's grip.
"We can do this all day," Teal'c murmured in her ear, in a low voice that usually promised something other than sparring. "As long as you help me maintain situational awareness. Daniel makes a very poor sentry."
Sam looked around for him, and found Daniel leaning against a tree and staring toward them with a visibly dazed expression.
Before Sam could think anything of it, Teal'c spun her around and pushed her away, feinting forward so that she had to lash out again. She felt off-balance now, not so furiously driven but still caught in the momentum of fighting and still grimly determined to actually land a blow on Teal'c before she would give up.
Teal'c caught and held both her hands in rapid succession and then said in an urgent tone, "Listen."
Sam listened, straining her ears to catch anything other than her own rough breath. She could hear Teal'c's--he wasn't really breathing hard, but she was only a foot away from him. She heard a little crackling noise from Daniel's direction, but a quick glance showed that that was, in fact, Daniel, shifting his weight as he looked around. Aside from the three of them the woods were quiet.
"All right," Teal'c said, and let go of her wrists with a shove, and then they were fighting again, until Teal'c yelled, "Look," and Sam wrenched her gaze away from him to run her eyes over the trees before she dodged away from a feint that would have been a punch if she'd let herself be any more distracted. Teal'c kept it up until the fight had completely dissolved into a training exercise and Sam was entirely out of breath.
"I'm good," she gasped, "I'm good, let's stop."
Teal'c smiled and gave her a shallow bow, and Sam rolled her eyes and checked that Daniel was still where she'd last seen him, standing about ten feet away, watching.
"We're good," Sam said, unnecessarily, because Daniel was already coming closer, offering her his canteen even though her own was right there with her pack. She accepted it anyway, drinking and then handing it over to Teal'c.
Daniel rolled his eyes but smiled and said, "See, this is why we need a fourth, right here. Because I'm pretty sure that was disturbingly hot, and I need someone to back me up on that."
Sam grinned, and Teal'c said, "But then we still would lack a sentry."
"Hey, we managed," Sam said, and picked up her gear. "Come on, guys. Places to go, people to see."
The path led out into the broad valley he remembered, and Jack could see the Gate about a klick away. He hesitated there, looking up over his shoulder to where that floating city had been, but it was invisible today, like the rest of the Nox.
"Just passing through, guys," Jack said aloud, just in case. "Not even armed. All I want is to go talk to my team."
Nothing happened, and Jack nodded slightly and struck out across open ground toward the gate.
As he walked, he held up the controller and thought about clocks and calendars until the date popped up, making him stop short. It had worked, really seriously worked. He had traveled in time. SG-1 wouldn't leave for P5X-247 until five days from now.
Five days before 247, his team had been headed to P3X-398, following up on an unusually vague report from SG-12 that they'd encountered something weird in some ruins. 398 had featured a lot of rain, a lot of rocks, and a lot of standing under a tree with Teal'c while Daniel and Carter ran around with scanners. After about two hours they'd determined that the rain had the scanners on the blink, which Jack had suggested in the first five minutes after the sky opened up, but did they listen to him? Of course not.
And five days later they were dead.
But they didn't have to be. They didn't even have to get rained on. Jack broke into a run, and didn't stop to catch his breath before he dialed in to 398, hoping like hell he had the address right, hoping this clock was right, hoping he wasn't in the universe where they all had goatees except Carter, who wore a lot of eye makeup. But even if he was, he'd warn them. In any universe, they were his team, and in this universe they didn't have to die.
The wormhole rushed out and settled, and Jack ran through.
He was still blinking and taking his first deep breath on the other side when he heard himself say, "What the hell?"
"It's just me," he called back. "Jack O'Neill, the Ghost of SG-1 Future."
Another Jack O'Neill--in green fatigues, just like Jack remembered wearing to 398--broke cover, popping up at Jack's two o'clock from behind a crumbled pillar. Daniel followed him just a beat behind, and then Teal'c and Carter appeared at ten o'clock as Jack spread his hands.
"Don't go to P5X-247," Jack said. "It's important. Don't. Don't let anybody go, ever. Take it out of the dialing computer as soon as you get home."
He couldn't help looking from side to side as he spoke, even though it had to make him look somewhere between shifty and crazy. This was his team, the team he remembered, the team he would never have again. The indestructible team who shook off death and kept going, never really buried each other, never had to choose what they regretted most now that they'd lost everything.
They never would, either. They would just keep rolling on, unbroken. Jack would see to that.
The other O'Neill was studying him, head tilted. "From the future? How'd you pull that off?"
"It's not your future," Jack said. "Doesn't have to be, anyway. Carter," he said, turning to speak to her, "the last Carter I talked to wanted me to tell you that the quantum mirror hasn't been destroyed--it's in secure storage at Area 51. Turns out we're using it wrong. It's a transport system, like the Gates. The alternate reality thing is some kind of failure state."
Carter's mouth dropped open, and then shut firmly, her whole face screwing up in concentration as she prepared questions. Jack raised his hands. "I don't know how it works. Carter got some help from Dr. Carter, you remember the one with the--" Jack made a long-hair gesture. "Except she cut it all off, so it's harder to tell the difference now. Anyway, the Asgard helped her and Carter figure it out."
Jack raised the controller and waved it. Carter slung her weapon onto her back and walked over to him with her hand out for it, frowning curiously.
Jack watched as the other three closed in, following her like magnets, like orbiting bodies whose gravitational fields all intersected and interacted, amplifying each other at periapsis.
"Jack," Daniel said, as Jack handed off the controller to Carter, who immediately muttered something about quantum entanglement and entropic cascade detection, "what happened on P5X-247? You said--"
"I'm not really the ghost, obviously," Jack said. "They are."
Daniel opened his mouth but didn't speak, looking unnerved. Teal'c raised an eyebrow. Carter glanced up sharply from the controller and then looked back down at it. O'Neill stepped forward, as if he could interpose himself between Jack's words and his team, and so protect them.
Jack focused on O'Neill, who was somehow the easiest to face. "The Gate is mined. I was the only one left. I found out about the quantum mirror and I left to find the ones who survived in other realities."
He saw it in the other O'Neill's eyes, the confirmation that this course of action made sense to another one of him, even when it was only theoretical. O'Neill said, "You found a Carter already?"
Jack nodded. "She's going to find her team, I'm going to find mine, the one where I died instead of them. But we met a Daniel who was planning on rounding up strays. I figure if I warn you guys, there won't actually be infinite numbers of us having to go around looking for each other."
"Yeah," O'Neill said slowly. "Gotcha. 247 is off the menu. Hey, are you okay being here? Is your face going to--"
O'Neill made a quick shaking gesture.
Jack winced. "I have a little time. Lemme tell you, that is also something you don't want to try if you don't have to. I don't know how Dr. Carter didn't fall down screaming every time it happened."
"We're tougher than we look," Carter said, without looking up. "Where did you come through the mirror? Not the one at Area 51, or you'd be in custody right now, like she was."
"Yeah, turns out the Nox have a mirror," Jack said. "Seems like more their style than a Gate anyway. I guess the Asgard have got one somewhere too, but I have no idea where that'd be."
"There could be one on Cimmeria," Daniel said idly, looking over Carter's shoulder. "There was a high concentration of their technology there, and we'd be more welcome to go poking around for interesting technology there than on the Nox homeworld."
"Hello Sam," Carter said suddenly, but the her who'd spoken was hovering Princess-Leia-style above the controller, which Carter was holding upside down. "I'm recording this between programming tests--"
Carter touched something and the recording froze; even as she looked up Daniel was offering her the video camera, and she moved over into the shade of a tree before starting it up again, Teal'c trailing after her. Teal'c would watch over her, Jack knew, because Carter would be lost to the world while she communed with her recorded self.
Jack cleared his throat and turned his attention back to Daniel. "I could use some advice. I was thinking I might be able to find my team in the field, if the timing's right--easier than going into the SGC and getting detained and all that malarkey. I need to figure out where they'll be if they're on milk runs, or back on regular duty."
"By your team," Daniel said slowly, "you mean, the team in the reality where you died."
Jack shrugged, then nodded. "The team I'm planning to join, yeah. My team."
Daniel nodded. "Uh. Well. At some point they'd probably resume the scheduled list of missions. I know the Gate addresses for the next five or six on our list, I think. I could make some guesses about where else we'd go, if we were--" Daniel's eyes flicked from Jack to O'Neill and back, "down a man."
"Thanks," Jack said, as Daniel pulled out a notebook and pen, already frowning in concentration. "I appreciate it."
Daniel nodded absently, already writing down Gate addresses, and Jack stood with his hands in his pockets, watching Daniel, and, past him, Carter and Teal'c. And Carter.
O'Neill cleared his throat, reminding Jack that this team was already spoken for. He turned and faced himself, and O'Neill jerked his chin back toward the ruins where he and Daniel had taken cover. Jack followed him over and sat down beside him on the broken stone.
"Do we know who mined 247?" O'Neill asked, looking away.
Jack shook his head. "Best guess is it was the last shot in some Goa'uld war, not the first shot in a new one. Last I heard, we hadn't found any sign of mines anywhere else since then, nothing that seemed like a follow-up to a first strike. Didn't even set off any more of them recovering the bodies, although scans showed they were there. Just a damn accident."
"Well, hell," O'Neill muttered, and Jack nodded. It'd be easier if there were somebody to blame. Acts of God took on a whole new meaning when the galaxy had that many gods running around, but in the end it didn't make a difference. His team was dead.
"There's a guy at Area 51, McKay. He gave me the idea to come looking for others. Helped Daniel, too. Pissed Carter off, I think. Keep an eye out for him, he might be useful."
"McKay," O'Neill repeated, and nodded. "Anything else I should know? Want to tell me what happens here? If SG-12 sent us chasing marsh gas again, I'm gonna...."
Jack remembered, because he had, in fact, written a few really biting reflections on SG-12 into his report from 398--he'd just finished typing it up before the briefing where they got their final go for 247. After everything, he hadn't even bothered sitting on it for his customary few weeks before submitting it, just sent it off in proper form. He really hadn't given a damn anymore whether Major Kreider thought twice the next time he flagged something for SG-1 to check out. SG-1 wasn't going to be following any more false leads ever again.
Jack remembered 398. The rain, yeah, and the hours of standing around, and Carter and Daniel refusing to listen to sense about their scanners. He remembered Teal'c's quiet patience at his side, the small smile he'd won from Teal'c at the two-hour mark--he couldn't remember what he said, but he remembered Teal'c smiling. He remembered the sight of Daniel standing on some particularly treacherous bit of rubble, arms pinwheeling wildly for balance--he remembered the pride he'd felt in his hapless geek when Daniel caught himself and jumped down safely. He remembered the grin that had bloomed on Carter's face when she briefly thought she'd finally found the source of her anomalous readings. He remembered how good it had felt to walk back down the ramp in the Gate room with his team, soaked to the skin but home in one piece again, as always.
"Nah," Jack said, looking up at the sky where the clouds were just starting to roll in. "I don't want to spoil it for you."
Carter and Teal'c rejoined Daniel, both looking over his shoulders at what he was writing. Teal'c pointed at something, Daniel shook his head, and Carter suggested something. Daniel scribbled. All three of them looked up at Jack, or maybe at O'Neill. Hard to tell.
"Sir," Carter called, and Jack looked at O'Neill, who was looking back.
"You're messing with my chain of command, Colonel," O'Neill muttered, getting to his feet, and Jack grimaced an apology as he followed. He was going to be messing with everybody's chains of command, if this worked.
"There's a Gate address we're not sure about," Carter said.
Jack shrugged, "Well, what's one out of--how many have you got there, Daniel?"
"Sixteen," Daniel said. "But the one we're not sure about is the Nox homeworld. Do you know how to get back there?"
Jack blinked. He knew he'd seen the Gate address sometime during the whole thing with the Tollan, it was on the tip of his brain....
"Yeah," Daniel said. "I was kind of afraid of that. It's been a while."
"I think this is it, though," Carter said, tapping her finger on Daniel's notebook. "Probably."
"And if it's not," Jack said, "where exactly am I going to end up?"
"If it's not, it's probably not the address to anything," Carter said quickly. "The wormhole just won't form. We tried thousands of random combinations--"
"But this combination is not random," Teal'c said. "This is an address which you remember. It could easily be the address for another world, one much more dangerous for Colonel O'Neill."
Carter bit her lip. Daniel said, "I still think it's this one."
Teal'c and Carter both shook their heads.
"Oh, for crying out loud," O'Neill said. "Send him home. O'Neill, tell the Gate tech you need to get to the Nox homeworld quick before your face melts off. Problem solved."
Jack ran a hand over his face. He hadn't shaved since two universes ago--maybe twenty-four hours back, probably a little less. He was wearing the wrong color fatigues, which was exactly the kind of thing someone might spot right before they decided to detain him until his face started melting off.
Jack beckoned for Daniel's notebook, and Daniel handed it over. Jack squinted at the two Gate addresses at the top of the page, and then said, "That one. Almost. Except the last two symbols are wrong, it's--"
"Yeah," O'Neill said, looking over his shoulder, and reached past him to scratch out the last two and write in exactly the symbols Jack was thinking of. Well, of course they remembered it the same way.
Jack tilted the notebook back toward the other three. Sam frowned. Daniel raised his eyebrows and looked back and forth dubiously from Jack to O'Neill.
Teal'c said, "If this address connects, I will go with you."
"Good plan," O'Neill said. "You can report back to us that he's safe."
"And find out where the mirror is," Sam added. "We could make an unarmed trip--I wonder if the Tollan have found the mirror?"
"If you're sure," Daniel said slowly. "Maybe we all should go."
"Hey," Jack said. "I didn't ask for anybody--"
"I will accompany you," Teal'c repeated firmly.
"You're outnumbered," O'Neill added, and Jack wasn't sure who it was directed at, but it was obvious who had won. "Come on, let's dial it up, we're on the clock here."
All five of them went over to the DHD together, and Jack dialed with only a quick glance at Daniel's notebook. The wormhole connected with a whoosh, and Jack held out his hand to Carter, who reluctantly handed back the controller.
Daniel tore out the notebook pages and said, "I hope this helps."
"Me too," Jack said. "Hey, Daniel, do you know any stories where something like this works out?"
Daniel blinked. "Orpheus and Eurydice? Um. Don't look back, whatever you do. Don't lose faith. Once you find them, just don't look back."
Jack waited for Daniel to say something coherent. Daniel shrugged and said, "You've come this far. They logically must be out there somewhere. You'll find them."
"Yes," Jack said, pointing at Daniel. "Yes. That story. Okay."
"Good luck," O'Neill said, giving him a hard slap on the shoulder that was possibly meant to move Jack away from his team.
Jack nodded, and took one last look around at them--Daniel still squinting dubiously at the wormhole, Carter already watching playback on the camera, O'Neill looking eager for him to leave, Teal'c stationed at his shoulder.
"Take care of each other," Jack said, even though it was the last thing that needed saying.
They all nodded, and Jack turned and headed to the gate, Teal'c sticking close to his side. Their strides matched automatically, and they didn't hesitate before stepping through.
The air on the other side was warmly humid, and a big valley rolled away at their feet. The floating city was still invisible, but Jack knew exactly where he was. Teal'c did, too.
"Mirror's that way," Jack said, pointing. "Want to come and see?"
"Major Carter wishes to know," Teal'c said, looking around warily. "But perhaps it is best if I...."
He lay down his staff weapon with an almost courtly gesture by the gate and then set his zat beside it.
The weapons disappeared as soon as Teal'c straightened up, and Teal'c took a hasty step back to Jack's side.
"Just going back to the mirror," Jack said to the air. "Teal'c will pick up his stuff on his way out."
There was no sound, no sign, and finally Jack said, "Mirror. Right. Come on, T."
They struck out across the valley and walked in comfortable, familiar silence all the way to the trailhead. Jack had missed this easy quiet, this rhythm they fell into offworld. They were both watchful in complementary ways, and they could trust each other to be watching. It made everything else simple, having Teal'c at his side. Jack felt some knot of tension relax that he'd been carrying around since that infirmary bed, that day in the morgue.
"Good to see you again," Jack said randomly, because it was so overwhelmingly true, halfway to the clearing with the mirror.
"I am always glad to see you, O'Neill," Teal'c said calmly, like it wasn't weird at all. "I have never met an alternate version of you before."
"No?" Jack said. "No, I guess not. Well, I'm not that far off. Should be just about exactly the same. I mean, up until half an hour ago, that was me."
"I do not think that you are the same," Teal'c said, and Jack stopped short and looked up to meet Teal'c's gaze, which was as steady as ever.
"What's that supposed to mean?" He had to be the same. The whole point was that he was the same here. He could fit into his team again. All he had to do was find them.
Teal'c tilted his head. "You have experienced what our O'Neill has not. You have seen your team die. You look at us differently now."
Jack thought, not-really-irrelevantly, that it was only hours since he'd woken up naked with Carter, less than that since he stood and kissed Daniel, watched him kiss Carter. Neither of them had been sure about Teal'c, but Jack had been, back there where it was still sort of theoretical.
"Yeah," Jack said, looking away. "I guess I do."
He started walking again, and neither of them said anything until the path opened up to reveal the mirror, the clearing, the little hut beyond that had to be there just for the convenience of travelers. It wasn't the hut where he'd gone to bed with Carter, but it was almost exactly the same.
"O'Neill," Teal'c said, and Jack made himself look. There was an expression Jack didn't recognize on Teal'c's face, and Teal'c reached out and set a hand on his shoulder. "You look at us differently, but when you find your team, they will look at you the same way."
Jack nodded. His mouth had gone horribly dry, but he had to know. And, hey, Teal'c was unarmed, so there was no time like the present.
"Hypothetically," Jack said, shifting his weight closer to Teal'c without actually taking a step in. "If you were on my team, and you were looking, would you be looking at anything in particular? Team-wise?"
Teal'c cracked a smile. "The Tau'ri do everything differently."
"Ah," Jack said, because Teal'c was smiling and he was pretty sure that that had to mean he was right. Teal'c was a smart cookie, and he'd been around them all long enough to know what Jack meant. Probably. "Yeah. Well. We have all these rules."
Teal'c nodded slightly. "One does not ask. Nor does one tell."
"Yeah," Jack said. "Makes things sort of complicated."
"On the contrary. Silence simplifies." Teal'c tugged Jack closer.
Jack threw his arms around Teal'c as Teal'c's hand slid from his shoulder to the back of his neck. Jack raised his mouth to Teal'c's in a tentative but undeniable kiss, and after the first few seconds he got the feeling Teal'c was going easy on him, not really pushing.
He couldn't stand for that, could he? He had to uphold the honor of the Tau'ri.
He felt Teal'c smile, and then Teal'c got his other hand on the back of Jack's head, and suddenly Teal'c wasn't going easy anymore.
When Teal'c let him breathe again, he hid his face against Teal'c's shoulder. "Okay," Jack said, gasping. "Okay. Yes."
"Indeed," Teal'c said, and pushed Jack away gently. "Your time grows short."
"Yeah, yeah," Jack muttered. He thought time to go at the controller, and the river appeared again on the control surface. He picked a different spot, sideways in the stream. The mirror lit up on an identical meadow, and Jack looked down at the four red lights on the controller and then tossed it through.
Teal'c raised his eyebrows at this, and Jack said, "Tells me who's alive over there. Ask Carter, I think she had it figured out."
In the grass in another universe, the four red lights blinked, and then all four turned green. SG-1 had been wiped clean over there, or maybe never existed at all.
"That's a go," Jack said, and Teal'c nodded gravely. Jack stared at him for a minute, and then realized there was nothing he needed to say. Teal'c would take care of his team, in every way there was, and he wouldn't do it for Jack's sake; he'd do it because they were his team.
Jack forced himself to turn away, and slapped his hand down on the mirror.
Teal'c was on the other side now. He bowed to Jack, then turned and walked away. Jack looked down at the controller and shut the mirror off, rather than watch Teal'c leaving.
"Right," he said aloud, in the silence of another new universe. "Time to go."
Sam shouldn't have been surprised that Daniel and Teal'c were good cooks--Daniel had had to fend for himself for most of his life, and Teal'c had been around long enough to pick up practically any skill out there. Still, it had never come up before (before 247, in their old lives) and she couldn't help seeing it as something as delightfully secret as anything else they did at her place at night with the shades drawn.
They were both dubious about her cooking skills, to the point where it would have been insulting if it wasn't sadly accurate. They occasionally let her chop something, although Teal'c tended to remind her how sharp the knives were and watch her fingers the whole time. Sam had long since decided to find it fun, acting like a little kid in her mother's kitchen, doing the little chores she could be trusted not to mess up. She got good food out of it, and she got to stand at the kitchen island with a beer and watch Daniel and Teal'c dance around her kitchen and bicker about spices.
Tonight was different, though. Tonight Daniel was being weirdly agreeable. Teal'c offered him the spoon to taste, and he closed his eyes in thought, forehead wrinkling, but then said, "Yeah, that's good."
Teal'c lowered the spoon slightly, looking baffled, and Daniel smiled and leaned in and kissed him.
Teal'c turned his head as Daniel moved away from him to peer into the fridge, and raised an eyebrow at Sam. Daniel didn't normally stop arguing about the making of the food--any food, Daniel could argue about macaroni and cheese, he could argue about brownies from a box--until it was at least half-eaten.
"Lemme taste," Sam said, and came around to the stove. Daniel normally enforced her banishment, but Daniel was pulling the makings of an enormous salad out of the fridge and humming softly. Teal'c dipped the spoon and offered it to Sam, but she grinned and dodged past it for a kiss of her own. Teal'c allowed that--deftly getting the spoon out of the way--but then shoved her gently in Daniel's direction.
Sam draped herself over his bent back, trapping him half in the refrigerator, and said, "What's going on, Daniel?"
"Um," Daniel said, twisting to try to look at her. "Dinner? Salad?"
"You're being nice," Sam said. "You haven't threatened to stab Teal'c with a fork or tried to sneak more chili powder into the pot once tonight. What's going on?"
"Oh," Daniel said. "That."
Sam felt the little sag in his spine, which was surrender in principle. He'd admitted there was a that, which meant it was all over but for a couple of hours of talking. Getting Daniel to spill was never really the problem. It was just a matter of pointing him at the right topic. Or set of topics, given Daniel's encyclopedic approach to conversation.
Daniel returned the stuff in his hands to the fridge shelf, and Sam let him straighten up and shut the door. Then he opened it and returned the salad fixings to the fridge--that was fine, they had plenty of food and wouldn't need it. Sam returned to her side of the counter and retrieved her beer, which she probably would need. Urgently.
"I haven't committed to anything yet," Daniel said, leaning against the fridge.
Teal'c turned off the burner under the pot with a decisive click, and straightened up into a stance of full attention.
Daniel winced. "I wouldn't, obviously, without talking to you two. That's the whole point. But Collins is putting in for transfer--"
"Collins?" Sam said, startled. She knew she'd been distracted lately, but the women's locker room gossip was usually better than that, especially as far as the female airmen. Collins was one of their best tech sergeants.
"No, the other Collins, the captain who just transferred in last year, on SG-8. He got infected with something a few weeks ago. He's physically fine now, but he's Gate-shy, so they're going to have to send him to a regular command. It's kind of hush-hush because of the C word." Cowardice, with its specific legal connotations, was a dangerous word for any airman to have mentioned in conjunction with their performance. Gate-shy was safer, even if it was only barely a euphemism; anybody who used the term understood. "I only know because Dr. Montoya is going to buy Collins's house."
Dr. Montoya lived two houses over on the next street from Sam's; he was the nearest SGC employee in Sam's neighborhood, which was one of the reasons she didn't worry too much about people noticing when Daniel and Teal'c came and went. A civilian in Daniel's department was way down the list of people likely to cause them trouble.
"So," Daniel shrugged, and turned around to look into the fridge again. "So I told him I was interested in buying his place. I said I could maybe rent a room to Teal'c and make the mortgage that way, and he--" Daniel waved a hand, "made a joke about the three of us car-pooling and then looked a little worried until I laughed and said, yeah, it was all about team efficiency."
There was a silence, and then Teal'c said, "That would indeed be efficient."
More to the point, Montoya had felt semi-safe joking about it, and Daniel had toed the line of plausible deniability. So far, so good.
Sam took two steps to the left and squinted through the gap in the blinds. "I can see Montoya's house from here."
"Yeah, there aren't even any fences, although I don't know what the neighbors would think of me--us?--anyone--cutting through all the time. But directly adjoining yards seemed a little too polygamous compound, and anyway neither of your next-door neighbors wants to sell."
Sam raised her eyebrows at Teal'c and took a sip of her beer.
Teal'c said, in a measured voice, "Although you have taken advantage of a coincidence, you imply premeditation."
Daniel looked up from the fridge, blinking blankly in the way that Sam had realized, by now, was almost always pure instinctive defense mechanism. "Uh. Yeah. Yeah, I guess this is premeditated. I don't know, we can't logically all move in together, we need space and eventually someone would officially notice something. But the next street is safer and this is--I mean, it's only been a month, except it's been three years. This is for the long haul, isn't it?"
And there it was, with dinner still half-cooked and Daniel holding the fridge door open and Teal'c wearing a KISS THE COOK apron in all sincerity.
Teal'c nodded with every appearance of calm, and Sam still wasn't sure how often that was a front. "It is."
They both turned to look at her, and Sam hastily moved her beer bottle away from her mouth to say, "Yes! Of course, yes. I just--you're buying a house, that's. Wow."
Daniel shrugged, closing the refrigerator and leaning against it. Sam didn't even have to follow his gaze to know what he was looking at, as he studiously avoided looking at her or Teal'c. From right there he could see the coat rack by the door, where four coats were hanging up in a row. Only three of them were ever gone.
"I want a house," Daniel said. "I always wanted one, as a kid, you know. A place to stay that was mine, all year round, that no one could take away, or take me away from. The last few years, it's been all temporary--I was always waiting to find Sha're. I decorated my place thinking, she'll like this, she won't think this is too strange, when I find her we'll be packing it all up anyway. Since she died, I just--I couldn't move, I couldn't do anything. But that didn't make it permanent either, that was just inertia."
Daniel moved then, looking around the kitchen and then coming over to Sam; she offered him her beer as soon as he was within arm's reach, and he knocked back half of what was left and then handed it back to her. He leaned against the counter there, coming no nearer.
"This is permanent," Daniel said, shrugging. "I want to stay here. I want things to stay like this except with less worrying about who will have to drive where and when. And a bigger bed."
There was a short silence, and then Teal'c turned the burner back on. The hiss of gas was the only sound for an instant before he said, "Agreed."
"Yes," Sam said, because I do wasn't actually a coherent answer and amen hadn't fallen easily out of her mouth since she was fourteen years old.
Daniel nodded firmly, decision made, and then frowned and headed back toward Teal'c at the stove, saying, "Wait, let me taste that again, what did you put in when I wasn't looking?"
Jack turned on the mirror and used the left-hand control to click through the mirrors until he saw black. That would be Area 51--the corresponding Gate in other realities would be in the cave. Jack tried visualizing the river again, reaching toward the side-channel he'd camped out in before, where he'd left his pack and the chem lights, one of them broken and buried in the sand.
Dragging his finger across the glowing control interface, he came to a mirror with a sign propped up in front of it on the sandy cave-floor. It was Daniel's messy scrawl (on a flattened MRE box, not an empty Kleenex package, but it was close enough to give him a jolt of recognition and a feeling of time looping around again).
Jacks please check in and out. Entropic Cascade danger here. Do not stay more than 24 hours under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
He wasn't going to need 24 hours, but he did want his pack, if some other him hadn't already walked off with it. Jack tossed the controller through, just to see how it came up, and wasn't really surprised when his light and Daniel's both turned red.
Jack slapped the surface of the mirror and was there in the cave, nearly standing on the sign, the controller resting against his toe. He pocketed the controller, then stepped away and propped up the sign again. Just to one side of the mirror there was a tidy pile of flattened cardboard and a marker. He wrote 2 JACKS HERE and set it up against Daniel's sign.
"Daniel?" he called out, but there was no reply. There were tracks in and out of the cave, but it was a well-trampled muddle. Daniel had probably gone looking for the hidden Jack who was causing the rest of them to cascade. Of course Daniel would go looking for the stubbornly lost sheep; Jack just hoped Daniel had some kind of plan for what to do with him when he found him.
He paused for a second, suddenly seized with an idea of what Daniel might have planned to cheer up the Jack O'Neill who'd gone off into the woods to die. He felt weirdly jealous--he'd hardly gotten to touch Daniel. Weirder, he felt glad that some other him, whoever he was, had a Daniel looking out for him, in whatever way that turned out to be.
Meanwhile, Jack needed to get ready for a search. He had sixteen Gate addresses on a couple of sheets of paper in his pocket, and there was no knowing how long it would take him to track down SG-1.
He was, once again, in a universe that was going to try to break him down to atoms if he didn't get a move on. Jack moved over to the side of the mirror and stopped short. There were four field packs lined up in a row. One of them had JACKSON written on it in Daniel's block capitals. The other three, Jack guessed, were more or less interchangeable. He opened one up and found it just how he'd left it, and didn't check the other two to see if they were exactly the same, remembering the time he'd opened up the mirror and seen his own note in his own handwriting and thought it looked different. This was his pack, and that had been his universe, and he just wasn't going to think about the alternatives. He had places to go. People to find.
He glanced down at himself and then dragged the pack over to a corner of the cave and opened it up again, taking out the last clean change of clothes, brand new green fatigues. He'd probably be searching for days, maybe weeks, but he could at least start out well, and maybe in a different color from the other hims running around here.
Back at the mirror he knelt down beside the signs and moved the one he'd made back to the stack of cardboard--any Jack could use the same sign to show his presence, no need to waste cardboard until somebody had to put up a sign for three.
He pulled out the controller and looked down at the fuzzy, meandering line on the display. He thought of the rock, the disaster on 247. The display snapped into focus, and Jack remembered it the way it could have happened, the way it did happen, somewhere else. He had stepped out first, leading his team into unknown territory. He triggered the mine, and he took the worst of the blast, leaving his team alive.
The display got sharper, and a single strand of the river glowed brighter. Jack tapped it with a fingernail, and on the other side of the mirror the view went black: Area 51 again. Jack turned the other control until he saw the same old meadow on the Nox homeworld, and then he tossed the controller through.
Three red lights, and one green. JACK.
"...Pot," he muttered, and reached for it.
Daniel had to be specifically medically cleared before every mission, and Sam and Teal'c trooped down with him to stand around and kibbitz while Janet listened to Daniel's lungs.
"Nope," Daniel said cheerfully. "Still breathing fine except when I step through a Gate."
"You're sure about that," Janet said, but it wasn't a question. Her stern look took in Sam and Teal'c as well. Patient confidentiality never meant very much inside a team. "You would tell me if you had had an asthma attack under any other conditions."
Daniel nodded. Teal'c nodded. Sam, whose gaze Janet held the longest, nodded twice. "They're getting shorter, anyway."
Janet's official diagnosis of Gate-induced asthma--which, Janet had assured Sam, was an actual thing that had happened to a few people over the last three years--had kept Daniel from having to go ten rounds with Mackenzie over his trauma. It also kept Daniel under her close medical supervision, which meant she was keeping an eye on Sam and Teal'c, too.
Sure enough, as soon as she'd run Daniel through the obligatory checkup, Janet turned to Sam and said, "Let's see your hands."
Sam held them out, knuckles up--she still had a couple of lingering scrapes on her right hand from the spot where she had managed to punch Teal'c while he was wearing Kevlar. She'd had to resort to trickery, but she'd landed a hit and it had made Teal'c laugh, so it was worth it.
"This looks like it's healing well," Janet said. Sam nodded, and Janet squeezed her hand and then let go.
"You have about a week," Janet said, and Sam stared for a few seconds, then looked around at Daniel and Teal'c and got it, all at once.
"A week," Sam repeated. "And then...."
"And then the general is going to put somebody on your team," Janet said, nodding. "You could get away with this when you were walking wounded, but now that everyone's met the Iatrians--" Janet shot a look at Teal'c, because no matter how often Sam insisted that she'd made a command decision, everybody knew whose idea it had been, "and Daniel is getting better, it's time for you to be back at full strength. I suggest you make up your minds."
"Thanks for the advice," Sam said, and stepped in to give Janet a quick hug before they left. Just in case.
"As your doctor," Janet said, stepping back, "I have to recommend it. You'd all get more sleep."
Sam held very still, feeling herself turn red, unable to look at Daniel or Teal'c.
Janet raised an eyebrow and said, very dryly, "Four watches instead of three. It's better for you. Go on, now, you're fine for today."
As soon as he arrived back on the Nox homeworld, Jack pulled out the controller and checked the date. If it was early--the first week after 247--he'd have to go back to the dark mirror, go to Area 51 and try his luck. But if it was later, if his team was past their stand-down and might be up and around, he could keep his promise to Sam and try to find them in the field.
He couldn't remember anymore how long it had been for him--three days since he'd left his own reality? maybe less?--but where he stood it had been a little over six weeks since they'd stepped through the Gate to P5X-247. Subtracting a week's stand-down, five weeks was still five to ten missions, depending on how things went. Milk runs would push them toward the high end of that number.
Five weeks on, Hammond would just be starting to push them hard to add a fourth. He'd be letting Carter find her feet in command. But after five weeks she'd be chomping at the bit for something interesting, and Daniel and Teal'c would be getting used to following her. She'd want to prove that they were a real team, ready to handle real missions, and Hammond would be giving her a little room to run.
Jack traced his finger down the second notebook page, and finally he gave up and chose the Gate address that made the best numerical pattern and dialed it up.
At the gate, Jack hesitated and looked back. "Thanks for everything, guys. I shouldn't be bothering you anymore."
A Nox he didn't recognize--not Lya, but maybe Lya's cousin--appeared back beside the DHD and said, "It has been no bother."
"Oh," Jack said, and the woman waved cheerfully and disappeared again.
"Right," Jack said, and backed through the Gate without taking his eyes off her--so of course the Gate on the other side had a tilted platform, and he stumbled backward, almost catching himself but not quite, before he landed on his ass in the grass on top of his pack.
He kept still for a minute, looking around, but no one had seen that. Another Gate, another world full of trees and blue sky and no one around; he wondered what they'd wanted to come here for.
Jack got up, straightened his pack, and looked around. He'd have to try to figure out what the mission target would have been, so he'd know where to search for some kind of sign that SG-1 had already been there or not. If there was an occupied settlement or other feature of local interest near the gate, there should be a path.
Jack made it three steps toward the tree line before he heard the unmistakable sound of the Gate turning behind him. He turned and watched as the first chevron engaged, and his heart began to pound. He felt suddenly nervous, first-date or first-day-of-school nervous.
The second chevron engaged. His palms were damp and he couldn't breathe, couldn't move. The third chevron engaged. It could be anyone, he told himself. Some Goa'uld could walk through that Gate and pick you off without even batting an eye. The fourth chevron engaged. You're going to feel like an idiot when it's some new, green Gate team and they freak out and shoot you by mistake.
The fifth chevron engaged. Please. Please, please, please.
The sixth chevron engaged, and Jack's training--so much easier to rely on than hope--finally took over and forced him to run for cover. It could be anyone. He didn't really know.
"Or Lieutenant Ortiz," Daniel said, as they started up the ramp to the gate. They'd all realized, without saying anything about it, that being in the middle of a conversation helped distract Daniel as they went through the gate.
"You know," Sam said, timing her words to her stride, "I know what you two are doing--"
And then they were through, and a quick glance showed that 821 was another forested world, showing no signs of the anomalous readings the UAV had picked up six kilometers north of the gate.
Sam turned to face Daniel and Teal'c as she finished, "And I really don't know what to think of the fact that you're only suggesting female officers for the team."
"I like Lieutenant Ortiz," Daniel said, almost pulling off an innocent look and barely breathing wrong at all.
"And as I said, Lieutenant Zhou demonstrates excellence in hand-to-hand combat," Teal'c added.
Sam rolled her eyes. "If you guys think I couldn't command a male Air Force officer, you should say so."
"I will not say so," Teal'c insisted blandly, and Daniel shook his head wildly.
Sam decided not to make a joke about them already wanting to trade her in for a younger model; it was much too close to the real fear, the what happens to us when we add someone else to the team fear.
"Yoo-hoo," a voice called from behind her back, and Sam was already grinning as she turned, before she even registered what she was recognizing, because she'd been waiting so long to hear it.
For a moment everything stopped: her breath, her heart, maybe even the actual passage of time. Colonel O'Neill was standing next to the DHD with his hands on his hips, like he'd been waiting for them to stop talking and catch up with him. All this time. Standing there, looking just fine, green fatigues matching theirs, squinting at them with a half-smile. He was always thinking he wouldn't need sunglasses when the MALP showed a forested area.
Sam's arm shot out before she'd completely comprehended the motion she saw in her peripheral vision, but then she had her hand on Daniel's arm, holding him back. She broke her gaze away from the colonel--from somebody who looked impossibly like the colonel but couldn't be him, because Colonel O'Neill was dead--and met Teal'c's eyes. Daniel was staring at the colonel, but didn't struggle against her grip. Teal'c had him, too, by the back of his collar.
"Jack," Daniel yelled, in a voice so full of naked emotion that Sam couldn't even parse it, though she knew that she felt the same, that her voice would sound like that if she trusted herself to speak. Could joy go all the way around and come out as agony? Or was that just the sinking feeling that this couldn't possibly be true, no matter how badly she wanted it to be?
"Daniel," the colonel drawled, and started walking toward them. Sauntering. There was no name over his pocket, Sam noticed, and he was unarmed. "Long time no see, huh? Six weeks ago, 247?"
"Six weeks ago, Colonel O'Neill was killed on P5X-247," Teal'c said, and Sam thought even he sounded rattled. "I saw it with my own eyes. You are not he."
"Nah," the colonel said, coming to a halt about five feet away, still squinting up at them, even though the sun wasn't that bright. Like looking at them hurt a little, Sam thought. Like it was the same for him as it was for her, for all of them. "Not quite. When I went to 247, I was the only one who survived."
The quantum mirror, Sam realized, but that shouldn't have been possible. "The mirror was destroyed."
Supposed to have been destroyed, anyway. General Hammond had ordered it, Sam remembered. She'd never seen a final disposition report from Area 51, not final-final. If there had been one, it was probably buried in a stack of papers in her office somewhere. But even if it hadn't been destroyed yet, it was locked down.
"A mirror," the colonel said, raising a single finger in correction before shoving it back into his pocket to return to that casual pose, "and no, it wasn't. They couldn't find a way to get rid of it completely."
"Wait," Sam said, blinking, "there's more than one?"
The colonel reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a hand-sized device with an obviously alien aesthetic and tossed it to her. "A couple of Carters I ran into made that for me, to help me find you. It's got a message for you recorded in it somewhere."
It had labels attached next to four red lights. JACK, SAM, DANIEL, and TEAL'C. Sam turned it over, running her fingers over the surface, testing for a casing-edge, somewhere to start. A holographic image popped up--hard to see in the bright sun, but she didn't have to see it very well to recognize her own face.
"Hi, Sam," her doppelganger said. "I'm recording this between programming tests in the lab so you won't have to try to piece together everything about this device and what we've learned about the quantum mirrors from whatever random things Colonel O'Neill remembers."
"Hey," the colonel interjected, "I remember a lot."
Sam tapped her thumb against the same spot she'd just touched, and the hologram froze, then winked out. Sam shoved the device into her pocket for later.
"You came looking for us," Daniel said wonderingly, almost reverently, the way he rarely got about fascinating alien artifacts anymore. He had come for them after death, across universes. After all they'd seen in the last three years, that was still deserving of wonder.
The colonel looked away then, shrugged, looked down, rubbed the back of his neck. "I lost you. My team. I couldn't... I had to find you again, once I realized you were here to find. I thought you might...."
He trailed off into silence, didn't move, didn't look at them, though Sam couldn't take her eyes off him.
"Of course we want you," Sam said, realizing that he couldn't quite bring himself to ask.
His head came up sharply at that, something too hopeful to be really a smirk twisting his mouth. "That a fact?"
She could say on the team, she could save it somehow. Sam looked over at Daniel and Teal'c. Teal'c raised an eyebrow. Daniel made a little after you gesture.
Sam handed her MP5 to Daniel, ducking out of the carrying strap, took two deliberate, careful steps down from the gate--the platform was tilted, she had to go slowly--and then launched herself bodily at the colonel. At Jack.
She managed not to quite knock him down, though he exhaled sharply against her mouth. His arms came around her, holding on hard and leaning into her, but she could feel the nearness of her guys at her back by the time she landed a kiss. His hand slid up to the back of her head, cradling the almost-naked curve as he kissed her back eagerly, without hesitation, without restraint.
When she leaned her head back to catch her breath, she could see Daniel grinning to her right, Teal'c watching intently to her left. Jack frowned a little even as he smiled, running his hand over her short-cropped hair. "This is a look."
"Standard team haircut," Daniel said, shoving his hat back, and Jack's eyes went to him. She felt as much as saw when Jack spotted the scars, still visible as raw tracks through Daniel's short hair; Jack's whole body jerked as if he'd been hit.
"Oh, hell, Daniel," Jack said, stepping back from Sam and reaching for him. Daniel silently tilted his head, offering his scars to Jack. He only ever allowed her and Teal'c to touch them, but they could learn to share.
Sam missed the first touch--she glanced at Teal'c to see what he thought, and saw Teal'c's eyes widen a little--and when she looked back Jack's hand was on the side of Daniel's head. Not just tracing the scars, but holding him, looking into his eyes, and Daniel was looking back with his lips slightly parted. The moment was electric, filled with anticipation.
Sam put her hand on the back of Jack's shoulder and gave him a little push, and that was it; he and Daniel snapped together like magnets. Teal'c's hand found hers as they watched the two of them kissing, and Sam didn't have to look away again to know he was seeing what she was seeing.
Jack stopped short all at once and twisted in Daniel's--white-knuckled--grip to look at Sam. "You pushed me."
Sam shrugged. "We're a team. We share."
Jack tilted his head and looked back at Daniel, who said blandly, "Actually we just do what she says. We live in terror of her."
Jack turned back and said, "This isn't an SG-7 thing, is it? Because those guys are kind of--"
Sam and Daniel's simultaneous, "No," overlapped with Teal'c's very firm, "It is not."
Jack smiled. "Okay, then. Following orders. What next, Carter?"
"Call me Sam," Sam said, though she couldn't quite bring herself to say Jack out loud, and she wasn't sure how much he was joking about following orders. He'd be back in command once everything was sorted out back at the SGC.
"Sam," he said easily, raised his eyebrows and glanced curiously over her shoulder at Teal'c before focusing on her again. "Anything else?"
Sam looked over her shoulder. "Teal'c? Anything else?"
Teal'c shouldered gently past Sam, already reaching past her for Jack. Daniel let go of him, and Teal'c tugged him around and studied him for a moment--nothing like the tension of that moment with Daniel. Teal'c was calmly intent, and Jack looked back at him with a little smile at the corners of his mouth.
Jack opened his mouth like he was going to speak, but then stopped short and smiled wider, open-mouthed, and tilted his head, question and invitation. Teal'c smiled a little himself, took a half-step forward, and ducked his head to receive the kiss Jack offered.
Sam bit down hard on her lip to keep still and let them have this moment, and her eyes darted back and forth from watching them to watching Daniel watching. When Daniel met her eyes she grinned helplessly, and in the next instant thought, We would be the easiest people in the galaxy to ambush right now.
She looked around quickly then, but the galaxy had apparently decided to give them a pass, this once. The trees were still, everything quiet around them. The UAV had picked up no signs of human habitation within ten klicks of the Gate in any direction.
She looked back to find her guys--all three of her guys, and she felt herself grinning again--watching her.
Jack straightened up to attention and clapped his hands together. "So, what are we here for, anyway? Cryptic ruins or weird power readings?"
Sam actually laughed. "I think we've already found the most interesting thing we're going to see on 821. We're taking you back to the SGC. Right now."
Jack wrinkled his nose. "Aww, come on, Carter. Sam. Have a heart. Soon as I go back it's going to be all needles and MRIs and sixteen straight hours of debriefing. Can't we do one little mission first?"
He still hadn't ordered her to do anything, Sam noticed. He was actually asking.
She shook her head. "If we go home at the end of the mission and tell General Hammond we waited hours to bring you back, we'll all be getting our heads examined."
"The good of the many," Teal'c intoned solemnly, "outweighs the good of the few."
"Yeah, yeah, or the one," Jack grumbled. "I showed you that movie, T, don't try to pretend that's ancient Jaffa wisdom."
Teal'c tilted his head and raised an eyebrow in acknowledgement.
"Anyway," Daniel added, "we're going to need supplies."
Jack ran his hand over his hair and gave all three of them a speculative look, maybe a little worried.
"Don't worry, Jack," Sam added, feeling giddy and daring. "We'll go easy on you."
"Initially," Teal'c added.
Jack turned on his heel and faced the Gate, hands on hips again. "The things I do for you people."
He still didn't give an order. He just waited.
"Daniel," Sam said. "Dial us home."
Jack turned back again and followed Daniel to the DHD, to pick up the pack he'd left stashed behind it. Teal'c stayed at her six as Sam moved back just behind the splash-out zone, and as soon as the wormhole stabilized she sent her IDC. Jack and Daniel waited at her side until her radio clicked on and said, "We've got your IDC, SG-1, come on in."
When she stepped forward all three of them moved with her, like birds on a wire.
They all came through the gate together, but she could still pick out the sound of their first steps onto the ramp. Self, two, three four. They were all complete now.
She led her team to the bottom of the ramp, and looked up to the glass where General Hammond stood waiting. For a moment--despite the unscheduled-activation klaxons--everything was still, suspended, strangely normal. SG-1 had come home from their mission, early but all in one piece.
Then all happy hell broke loose.
Jack couldn't stop running his hand over the top of his head. He'd had to spend a night under the Mountain--in visitor's quarters, at least, and not the infirmary--and his team (his team) had refused to leave without him. The celebratory beers had actually been a bigger surprise than the clippers. By the time all four of them crowded into the bathroom for Jack's haircut he'd been feeling pretty pliant and beyond worrying that he'd do something stupid and be seen.
He'd have cut off an arm to have them back, anyway. What was a little hair?
The laughs and murmurs that had followed them around the mess this morning had sounded good. Fond. Knowing only in a possessive way. The SGC was with them. They might just be safe enough.
Still. Something was going to have to give, and Jack was about to find out what it was going to be.
He ran his hand over his hair one more time, brushed his palms dry on his pants, and knocked.
"Come in," Hammond called.
"Sir," Jack said, and Hammond waved him into a seat, bypassing the exchange of salutes, which saved him from having to make that decision.
"So," the general said, when Jack was settled, "from everything I'm told, you're almost but not quite our Jack O'Neill."
"I also hear that even if we had managed to destroy our quantum mirror, you'd still have come here. I can't really regret having you back, Jack, but you're going to be a hell of a paperwork headache."
Jack tried to look apologetic, and Hammond waved at the phone. "I spent ten solid minutes trying to explain it to the president, and he's approved whatever we need to do to reinstate you, but he's still convinced that you've been raised from the dead. And what am I going to tell my granddaughters? They attended Jack O'Neill's funeral a month ago, and now here you are."
Jack winced. "Sorry, sir. You don't have to tell them...."
Hammond shook his head. "It's good news. I guess it was just easier with Doctor Jackson."
"Both times," Jack added, but from Hammond's expression that wasn't really helping. Jack cleared his throat. "Speaking of paperwork, sir."
Hammond gave him a wary look and settled back in his chair. "Yes?"
"General, you know I'm not the same guy who died. Colonel Jack O'Neill was killed in action, and he doesn't deserve to have that un--unwritten, ignored, just because I showed up with the same name and the same face."
Hammond nodded slowly.
"I'm--sir, I'm a different person. I would have resigned after my team died, but your counterpart wouldn't have accepted it--"
"Quite rightly," Hammond said, giving Jack a sharp look.
Jack raised his hands. "But I still left the SGC, sir. I came here."
There was a pause, where neither of them said that he'd deserted, disregarded orders and lawful authority, and that as an Air Force officer he belonged in Leavenworth.
Slowly, Hammond said, "From our perspective, Jack, you're a volunteer. A very welcome volunteer."
Jack nodded and said, "Sir, I want to be back on SG-1 literally more than I want anything in any universe. But I don't think I belong in the Air Force anymore. If you're going through the paperwork hassle anyway to make me Jack O'Neill, living person, couldn't you just...."
"Just forget to put down your commission as an officer in the United States Air Force?" Hammond's voice was strangely mild--not the gentleness he remembered from the days after his team died, but not the outrage his suggestion logically deserved.
"Something like that. Sir."
Hammond studied him for a moment while Jack tried to keep perfectly still. When he looked away, it was somehow not a relief at all.
"You know, I had plans for you," Hammond said quietly.
Jack winced again. "I know, sir. I figured. What, maybe five more years?"
"Four," Hammond said. "Four years and I could leave this place in your hands and retire with some peace of mind."
"But then I went and died on you," Jack said quietly, without humor, but standing his ground. Things had changed. He had died, his team had died, and he wasn't going to pretend that things were going back to how they were. He had the haircut to prove it.
"One of you did, anyway," Hammond said wearily.
"She might not be ready in four years," Jack said. "But you should consider Carter, sir. She'd be good at it."
Hammond gave him a small smile. "I figured you'd notice that in time to leave it in her hands when you were ready to go. We'll manage, Jack. We always do."
"Yes, sir," Jack said, an immense relief starting to bubble up through his chest. This was going to happen. He could have his team and not have to worry (much) about frat regs--or about the eventual promotion dangling over his head like a guillotine.
"There's someone else who deserves an explanation about what's happened to you," Hammond said, going entirely serious again. "If you want out of the Air Force, I understand, but if you want to stay on SG-1, I want you to fill out complete paperwork for your resignation along with some kind of proper proof of life, and I want you to send it back through the mirror to my counterpart. He deserves to know that he didn't fail you by letting you go, Jack."
Jack nodded, trying to summon words, and couldn't. He stood, instead, and for one last time he drew up to attention and offered a perfect salute. Hammond stood as well and returned it, and then said, "Go on, Jack. Go find your team."
"Sir," Jack said, nodding, and turned on his heel. He didn't have to go far to obey that last order; his team was waiting in the briefing room, not even bothering to act casual. They were all in civvies, and Teal'c and Daniel were both wearing hats.
"Congratulations, Carter," Jack said, biting his tongue on asking where they were headed. "You're keeping your command. SG-1's going to be fielding three civilians."
Sam blinked, opened and closed her mouth, and said, "Sir?"
"Yes, Major Carter?" Hammond said from behind him, and Jack hastily stepped out of the way. Carter didn't say anything, so Hammond said, "Mr. O'Neill and I were just discussing how strange it is that our realities are identical in every way except that he joined the SGC as a civilian."
All three of them gave Jack equivalent baffled looks, and Jack gave a quick of course not but we're going with it hand-flap.
"Mister O'Neill," Daniel said, with a familiar flat tone. Jack could already see the razzing about being the non-doctor on the team coming.
"Teal'c's a mister," Jack pointed out, then hesitated. "Aren't you? Are you still First Prime Teal'c?"
"I reject that title," Teal'c said blandly. "I require none. I am a Jaffa warrior and a member of SG-1."
Jack pointed firmly at Teal'c. "Yes! See, that. I don't need a rank. I'm a member of SG-1."
"You're going to need a ride, though," Daniel pointed out. "Janet just told us you're officially out of quarantine and observation, so pending the general's approval you're free to leave the base."
Jack looked over at Hammond, who said, "I'll expect that paperwork to go through first thing on Monday. The mirror's being brought down to a secure lab tomorrow so Major Carter can resume her research on it. In the meantime, I suggest you get out of here and enjoy being alive again."
"Sir," Jack said, and Hammond smiled and went back into his office, shutting the door firmly behind him.
It occurred to Jack abruptly that if he refused to actually be the new version of the other him, he didn't have anywhere off-base to go. He didn't have any stuff, even, beyond a couple of changes of fatigues and the gear in his pack, and even that belonged more to the quartermaster than him. He looked around at his team, and found Sam looking from Daniel to Teal'c, who both made small deferring gestures.
She picked up something off the conference table and offered it to him--his own leather jacket, which he was pretty sure he'd left behind half a dozen realities back. It was here again, waiting for him, like everything that mattered.
"Come on," Sam said. "For this, you can stay at my place."
Amaunet--Sha're, wife of Daniel Jackson--proved easiest to force through the final gateway of Thor's Hammer. Her screams were terrible, and after the first minute, Klorel--Daniel Jackson, husband of Sha're--was suddenly fighting toward the gateway against the grips of the Jaffa who restrained him. He was quickly trapped beside her in the glowing field of energy, adding his screams to hers even as he fought to take hold of her hand.
Kekusatet was very still in Teal'c's grip, but Teal'c was not fooled. She was awaiting the perfect moment of distraction to escape him. Her hands were already bound and she could not escape the tunnel system, but Teal'c knew she was much too dangerous to underestimate.
Sure enough, at the moment when the field suddenly ceased its activity, and Sha're and Daniel Jackson were free to crawl weakly, still sobbing in pain, to the outside, Kekusatet's head slammed back against Teal'c's face.
"Kawalsky!" he shouted, and he heard the overloud percussion of Tau'ri weapons at the same moment he felt the pain rip across his legs. Kekusatet--or perhaps Samantha Carter--howled in rage and pain, having taken the brunt of the gunshots. Teal'c staggered forward and thrust her into the gateway, where she collapsed, bleeding and screaming. He fell to his own knees just out of its reach and stayed there, watching another false god die.
When it was over she lay still, not even trying to remove herself from her place of torment. Teal'c could have touched her--Samantha Carter now, and in danger of death without a Goa'uld parasite to heal her body--if he were not so aware that it would be fatal for him to extend his hand to her.
Instead, in the sudden silence, with twenty chosen warriors at his back, Teal'c called out, "Daniel Jackson. Daniel Jackson, we require your help."
There was a scrambling noise, a man moving over rock on his hands and knees, and then Daniel Jackson was there, getting to his feet. Sha're stood beside him, one handon her swollen belly, the other reaching out to take his. "Is she--Captain Carter? Samantha? Is it you? Are you--"
He did not reach into the gateway either. Teal'c couldn't blame him.
"Daniel Jackson," Teal'c repeated, and Jackson's attention fixed suddenly on him.
"You know my name."
"I know another name as well," Teal'c said. "Jack O'Neill. He told me of this place."
Teal'c reached into his armor and withdrew the healing device he had hidden there, with the precious paper wrapped around it. "He tells of how you may save us, if you choose."
Teal'c tossed the device and Jackson caught it, staring from Teal'c to the device in his hands to Samantha Carter.
"You should hurry," Teal'c said wearily. "Your sister needs your help."
"She's not--I'm not--I can't--" Jackson said.
It was Sha're who he took the paper from around the healing device and slid it onto his hand; even from where he was Teal'c could sense the moment it activated.
"Oh," Daniel said. He and Sha're reached together into the gateway to grab Samantha Carter by the shoulders and pull her out.
Kawalsky came and sat down next to him, and they watched as Daniel Jackson healed Samantha Carter, Sha're guiding his hand. They both saw the moment she regained consciousness. She pulled away from Daniel Jackson as soon as she was able, looked back at them both with wide, horrified eyes, and then turned away, folding into a ball, arms over her head. Sha're--who had been her mother a moment ago--knelt beside her, murmuring something in her ear.
They were no longer gods, for a certainty.
"Captain Carter," Kawalsky called out. "It wasn't your fault, kid. It was the snake."
"It was me." Carter's voice came back muffled. "My ideas, my--"
She lifted her head, revealing the tears on her cheeks. "Kawalsky, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I--the SGC--the Earth, I can't--"
"It wasn't you," Kawalsky repeated doggedly. "None of us can go home again."
Carter got suddenly to her feet. Despite the blood still livid on her thighs, she stood steadily, offering a hand to help Sha're to her feet. "But you're--you're all trapped."
"No," Daniel Jackson said. He was still kneeling, reading O'Neill's message, and he passed it to Sha're, who frowned intently at it.
"A staff weapon will free them," she said, and Teal'c saw that though they were not youth and queen, not son and mother, still Daniel Jackson would not take any great action without Sha're's approval. He had learned his role that well, in his years as host to a child of the gods.
"Once the passage is opened," Sha're reported, "we can go down the mountain and contact the Asgard for help."
"Don't you see," Daniel Jackson added, given license. "Captain Carter, we can save the Earth. We can set them free."
Carter came back to the very edge of the gateway and knelt, looking Teal'c in the eye.
"Teal'c," she said. Her eyes were very blue, and full of a concern Kekusatet could never even have feigned. "We need a staff weapon."
He nodded, and held up his hand above his head. He'd briefed a few of the Jaffa he'd chosen, and one laid a staff weapon in his hand immediately.
"I spoke to O'Neill at the mirror," Teal'c said, as he carefully lowered the staff weapon through the gateway without letting his hand cross the line. "He told me that in another world, he and I and you, and Daniel Jackson, all fought side by side. He said that we saved the world and defeated the false gods."
Carter gave an uncertain smile as her hand closed on the staff weapon, and she used it to lever herself up to her feet.
"Well," she said, taking aim on the gateway, with Daniel Jackson's hand on her shoulder and Sha're steadying her grip. "I guess we're about to do it again."
Sam knelt in the sand before the mirror, an open box of a hundred chem lights at her side. The new controller shouldn't require much trial and error, but the chem light Jack had left was bound to be burned out by now; she'd have to throw another through to find it.
She studied the controller and reached for the reality Jack had described to her, the one in which her guys had lived while she died. The reality Jack had visited. The one where they were going to be fine. The one where they were waiting for her. The one with a chem light pointing to twelve o'clock.
The timestream on the controller parted into dim strands and a single one that glowed brightly--faintly green, like the chem light. Sam tapped it with a fingernail, and there was a faint sound of the mirror connecting.
She looked up and felt a moment's disorientation, because there was a chem light on the ground on the other side of the mirror, but it was burning brightly. It was the last in a row of chem lights, all arranged parallel to each other. Two beside the fresh one glowed dimly. Four more had gone dark.
Sam looked up to see what the green light revealed, and found Teal'c sitting cross-legged, facing the mirror with his hands on his knees, his eyes closed in kel-no-reem. Beside him, Jack and Daniel leaned against each other in sleep. She thought for a moment that the green light was casting strange shadows, but--no, that dark crease down Jack's--the colonel's--cheek was a fresh scar, and so was the shadow that crossed Daniel's throat where it was bared as he leaned his head against the colonel's.
Sam looked back to Teal'c and found that he'd opened his eyes, and she started to turn even as she reached out and touched the mirror. She was in the act of turning to face him as she materialized in their reality, and by the time she got there Teal'c was on his feet, gathering her into a tight hug.
"You left a light on for me," Sam whispered.
"Daniel Jackson believed you would come," Teal'c whispered back. "We chose to believe in him."
Sam squirmed away from Teal'c--her Teal'c, their Teal'c, not the First Prime she'd seen in another world--and knelt with Teal'c's hand still on her shoulder. "Daniel. Sir. It's me, I'm here."
She didn't see either of them wake up; she was just suddenly tackled back against Teal'c, with Daniel saying, "I knew that was what she meant, I knew you were coming," and the colonel saying, "Carter, you have to save us from your dad," and Teal'c holding her up with steady hands.
"I found you," was all Sam could say in return. "We're all going to be fine. I found you."
EPILOGUE 3: DANIEL
"Okay," Daniel said, when he could breathe enough to talk. "I feel... really welcomed to this reality now."
"Exhaustively," Jack added, from the other side of Sam. "Exhaustively welcomed."
Sam yawned agreement and cuddled closer to Daniel, causing Jack to roll over and cuddle up behind her. Teal'c pressed up against Daniel's other side and stretched his arm across them. Jack reached out, too, and they clasped each other's wrists, holding the whole team together.
Daniel wasn't normally much of a cuddler, but he didn't think any of them were ever going to get enough of being close to each other, in any way. They'd all been left alone, all seen the others die, all been set adrift when they lost their teams. He and Jack and Sam had found each other wandering, and then with Dr. Carter's help they'd been able to find a Teal'c in the same state.
They'd all been a little worried he wouldn't miss them as much--he had a son, he had the Jaffa--but instead they'd been made... really very welcome here.
Teal'c kissed the back of Daniel's neck, and said, "Shall we return to Earth and be as we once were?"
Daniel tightened his grip on Sam instinctively. He wasn't actually sure he could do that--go back and pass for normal again, risk the others day in and day out and do it all while upholding the kind of emotional façade that would let them pass in a military culture.
"Yeah, I've been thinking about that," Jack said. "I mean--no offense, Teal'c--but why should this universe be the one that gets us? Mine doesn't have an SG-1 anymore, Sam's doesn't, Daniel's doesn't."
"How should we choose, then?" Sam asked, but Daniel saw what Jack was getting at.
"We don't choose," Daniel said. "We don't go back to the SGC. We still have the controller--we can use the Nox mirror, or go to Cimmeria and see if they've got one there, or ask the Asgard to let us use theirs, wherever it is. We can be freelancers, and move around the realities that don't have an SG-1."
"We should be able to move intel enough that we won't have to fight the fights ourselves all the time," Jack added.
"By choosing no one world, we may help all more effectively," Teal'c agreed. "Some wars can only be won by not fighting them."
Jack let go of Teal'c's wrist to shake a finger at him. "I watched War Games with you, T, don't try to pass that off as a Jaffa proverb."
Daniel felt as much as saw Teal'c's smile, and loosened one arm from Sam to reach back and hold on to him as well.
"For now, though," Daniel said. "For now we're on vacation, right?"
"I need one," Sam agreed immediately, and Jack said, "A well-earned rest."
Teal'c said, "We could all rest more easily in silence," which was as close as he was ever likely to come to saying shut up so I can go to sleep, especially since he didn't sleep.
Daniel closed his eyes and shut his mouth, but even when he fell asleep he didn't let go.
John stared down through the glass at his inexplicable new command. One motor-mouthed Canadian scientist, one brainy anthropologist who told people he was from Canada but really came from another planet, and one teenaged really not even human alien warrior with a whole other kind of alien in his gut. Oh yeah, and the giant metal ring that was going to send them to other planets together.
Ten days ago he'd been in Afghanistan, facing a court-martial for a doomed rescue mission with some of Holland's blood still trapped under his fingernails. He'd figured his best case scenario was an assignment to one of the horrible armpits of the service: the DMZ, or Antarctica. Maybe recruiting, if he'd pissed off everyone so much that they cared more about making him suffer than about his influence on the next generation of airmen.
And then he'd gotten word that he was urgently needed for an assignment classified above secret, and there was his choice. Take an assignment they wouldn't even describe to him before he'd accepted it--and since when did he get to choose whether to accept his missions?--or take his next best chance. He'd flown out of Kandahar a week ago, reached Colorado two days later, and spent pretty much all of the time since having his mind blown--and that was just reading the reports. They hadn't even gone anywhere yet.
He heard a door open behind him, and snapped to attention as he turned, bringing his hand up into a sharp salute as he turned to face the base commander. "Sir."
General Hammond smiled as he returned John's salute, once again giving John the disconcerting impression that he was now being commanded by the kindly old grandfather he'd never had. "Come in here, son. I think we need to talk."
John headed obediently into the general's office. He meant to just glance around--he'd had a lot of COs, and he'd learned to decode office furnishings pretty accurately--but his gaze got stuck on the framed snapshot on the wall, placed where anyone walking in would see it.
It showed SG-1--the real SG-1, whose mission reports he'd been reading for five days, O'Neill and Carter and Jackson and Teal'c. They were in green fatigues, all crammed close to each other and grinning--and they all had buzz-cuts. John had seen photos of them, even watched some of the stored surveillance footage from a few different missions, up to their departure on their final mission. He'd never seen any of them with that haircut, let alone all of them. Teal'c had always been bald, the rest had had longer hair.
"Have a seat, Major," the general said, and John hurried over to the chair in front of the desk and dropped into it, though he couldn't help sneaking another glance at SG-1--heroic, three-quarters dead and one-quarter who-the-hell-knew, and grinning cheerfully in a framed photo on the general's wall.
He forced his attention back to the general, only to catch him looking at the photo himself. When he looked back to John he was still smiling. "They're big shoes to fill, Major, but I have faith in you and your team."
John blinked. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
John leaned forward. "Sir, with all due respect, I have no idea why."
The general raised his eyebrows. "Dr. McKay is an incredibly brilliant scientist, and I see no reason why he won't adjust well to field work."
John could see lots of reasons, like allergies and being scared of everything and the general inability to shut up ever, but McKay wasn't really the problem.
"Nyan is also very bright; he was Doctor Jackson's assistant, and he'll be a valuable asset to the team in making contact with new cultures."
Nyan was fine, John didn't mind Nyan even if he was an alien. Sort of.
"And Rya'c is a Jaffa warrior in his own right, now. It's at his teacher's request that we're reinstating the SG-1 designation so that Rya'c can serve on his father's team. The Jaffa are our best allies, and Master Bra'tac is a friend to us here personally as well as politically."
Rya'c was actually an alien, and a teenager, but he was the quietest one on the team other than John, and John thought they were going to get along fine. Plus, he was the odds-on favorite to be the first to punch McKay for referring to him and Nyan interchangeably as "Ryan". John had already realized that Rya'c would never stoop to that; the nice guys at the commissary who'd taken his tip were going to win everything when Nyan finally snapped and decked McKay.
Betting pools on Canadians versus aliens: welcome to the new SG-1.
"Sir," John said. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but most of SG-1 died on P5X-247."
"Except Colonel O'Neill, who I'm replacing, who is listed as missing in action, presumed dead, from his assignment at Nellis AFB."
Hammond nodded again, still looking like he didn't get why this was weird. O'Neill had been working in a lab, and now he was MIA.
"And then that same SG-1 showed up twice in the last three years to avert major catastrophes," John added. That team had had matching blond dye jobs the first time they all showed up together--including Teal'c and Colonel O'Neill's facial hair--but not buzz cuts.
Hammond shook his head slightly. "Technically a different SG-1, Major. A different isotope, according to Dr. McKay's analogy--doppelgangers from a parallel reality. You got the file on the quantum mirror, didn't you?"
"Yes sir," John said, giving up on getting any kind of explanation. "I did. Sir, I just don't understand why I'm here. SG-1 is important. I don't know why you think I can replace Jack O'Neill."
Hammond looked toward the photo on the wall again, and said, "Major, I'm going to tell you right now the reason I requested you for the SGC, and the only thing you really need to know about being in command of SG-1. Everything else, you'll learn out there, but this one thing, I already know you know."
"SG-1," Hammond said, "never leaves anyone behind."