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All Her Colors

Chapter Text

There’s not much about Carter he’s allowed to notice – regulations being what they are. But he figures there’s no real harm that he notices her colors.

********

Jack O’Neill didn’t have the first clue what Carter was rambling on about, though it wasn’t out of sheer disinterest on his part the way it normally was with Daniel’s briefings. With Carter, Jack found himself quickly left in her metaphorical dust when the subject veered toward science.

But damn, she was smart.

Lesser men might be intimidated by a brilliant woman on their team – a woman who ran intellectual circles around them. Not Jack O’Neill. He took pride in his major’s intelligence, boasted of her cerebral asset to the team as if he’d had anything to do with it. He liked to pretend he’d never tried to spurn her from joining his team on the grounds she was a ‘geek’ and he had a problem with their ilk.

Besides, that generalization didn’t hold up anymore. For one, Jack would have to admit that Daniel Jackson, geek extraordinaire, was his best friend. Special ops, career military Jack O’Neill’s closest friend was a peace-loving (his zeal to fight the Goa’uld notwithstanding), polyglot archaeologist. Oh, how times – and Jack O’Neill – had changed.

So ultimately, Carter had been right. He did like her once he got to know her.

Actually, he was right. Fair to say he adored her.

Not that he could say as much. The Air Force fraternization regulations strongly discouraged his even thinking it. All he was really allowed to do was watch her, but at least he had the excuse of ‘friend’ and ‘commanding officer’ to excuse his attentiveness.

Major Carter was standing in front of the white board explaining to General Hammond why they should visit P4X-whatever on the grounds it was a unique opportunity to study planetary conditions of a world that was… something. Jack wasn’t sure if she hadn’t gotten to that part yet or if she had and it flew right over his head. It could easily have been either one. He didn’t let that kind of thing bother him anymore, not after so long on a team with Carter’s geek-babble sailing right over his head so often.

The general, bless him, looked like he was trying to act like he was following Carter’s train of thought. The man was to be commended for trying. A for effort.

Long ago, Jack had found it better to just trust Carter implicitly on all matters science-related and only step in when a situation turned hostile. She could serve the US Air Force and Stargate Command with her brain; Jack would do his part with his P-90.

As far as mission briefings based on the merits of their scientific value were concerned, Jack was content to watch Carter in her element, radiant like a gemstone in sunlight. Gold and pearl and azure standing there in blue BDUs with smears of red dry-erase marker ink on her hands.

“The planet,” Carter drew a small circle on the line of an already-present oblong oval, “is one of very few worlds that we’ve been able to observe from Earth, and using the transit method of detecting planets by tracking its orbital path across the face of its sun, we concluded it had a very long ‘year’,” Carter lifted her hands to do the air quotes. Jack smirked. She’d definitely picked up that habit from him.

General Hammond looked like he was fighting to keep his eyes from glazing over.

“But!” Carter held up a finger with the same hand holding the dry-erase marker, her expression bright with excitement, “according to astronomical observations SG-9 made on their last mission to P63-645, we realized we were completely wrong about this planetary system. What we thought was a complete year on this planet is actually alternate years as seen from Earth.”

“I see,” Hammond droned in a tone that said he most certainly didn’t.

Jack spared a look across the table at Daniel. The archaeologist was intently looking between his briefing notes and Carter, his brow furrowed in concentration. Despite their expertise being in different areas, their inherent nerdiness was a common denominator between the two, and Daniel could usually follow Carter longer and farther than either he or Teal’c could.

Of course, eventually even Daniel got thrown off the cart as Carter careened into the roughshod world of astrophysics, but so far Daniel looked like he was holding on for dear life.

“And that’s significant,” Daniel prompted, nodding when Carter looked his way.

“Well, yes,” Carter said. She made a hasty gesture that communicated she needed to back up, that she’d clearly left out something pertinent. “You see, this system has three suns – it’s a trinary star system.”

Jack briefly entertained the notion of jumping to his feet and yelling ‘no way!’, just because it would shake up the briefing and because Carter clearly expected her news to be shocking to someone.

“I thought the presence of more than one sun in any given system was actually pretty typical,” Daniel countered politely. “Aren’t most star systems in the galaxy binary star systems?”

Carter’s face lit up even more to realize Daniel had actually retained one of her mid-mission lectures. “That’s right, and just the fact that this system has three isn’t all that remarkable.”

“But…” Jack prodded, waving Carter on with a ‘while we’re young, Major’ gesture when she looked his way.

“But our calculations of available gate addresses, taking into account the adjustments for planetary and stellar drift, of course, show that one of the planets with a Stargate listed on the Abydos cartouche is on a planet within this trinary system. This planet,” she jabbed at the little red dot she’d drawn on the oblong orbit on the white board.

“And how is that significant?” Hammond asked.

“That is significant in itself, sir.” When the announcement didn’t seem to move the room to awe, Carter hastened to add, “Now, near as we can tell, most Stargates were placed on planets with one or two stars at most. Until now, we haven’t encountered a planet with a Stargate on it within a trinary system.”

“Any idea why that is?” Hammond questioned.

Carter looked baffled and fascinated all at the same time as she shook her head and shrugged. “We don’t know, sir. Maybe the conditions on a planet in a trinary system were unsuited to the race of Ancients who originally built the Stargates, or maybe timing travel to a planet while having to take into consideration its movement between three near suns was too risky. Or it could be that competing gravity from three stars made establishing a wormhole to a planet within a trinary system too difficult for regular interstellar travel.”

“Which begs the question,” Jack began in his ‘reining in the scientists’ voice, “why you want to go to this one.” Sounded awfully dangerous for the sake of an astrophysicist’s curiosity. Even if that astrophysicist was Carter.

“Well, sir, this system has a Stargate. And if it does in defiance of all the reasons the Ancients typically had for avoiding putting Stargates on other planets within trinary star systems… well, there must be a good reason that made it worth the risks in this case. Plus,” Carter turned back to the board and added more ovals and solids dots to represent orbits and suns. The drawing was sloppy, messy in her eagerness to get to the point (and Carter’s notorious lack of artistic ability). “Remember what I said about our Earth-based observations only recording every other year of orbital behavior for this planet?”

Vaguely.

Carter lifted the marker off the board, scratched at an itch on her nose, and turned to address the room at large again. Jack’s mouth twitched in a smile. When she’d scratched her nose, she’d left a red smudge on the bridge of it, sweeping down to just under her right eye.

“SG-9’s temporary observatory was in a position that gave it a back-end view of this star system, at least from an Earth perspective – positions in space being relative, of course.” She looked amused by her own pun, but ploughed on when nobody else appreciated the witticism. “SG-9 recorded a planet of identical size and speed tracking across the sun nearest to P63-645, which would be farthest from Earth, at a time that would put it exactly one year after our observations of the planet we see from this side.”

General Hammond sighed, a sure indication he was reaching the end of his patience.

Carter noticed the cue and hurried to finish, “General, we think this planet is shared by two suns. Something about its orbit, the gravitational forces exerted by the two suns in tandem, we believe this planet is ‘jumping’ suns every year, swinging into orbit A one year, then being grabbed into orbit B the next.”

“Red Rover, Red Rover, send Pluto right over?” Jack offered.

Carter’s mouth tightened as she tried not to overtly smile, though her eyes still did. Jack felt inordinately proud of that glimmer in her eyes.

Hammond looked unimpressed.

Almost forlorn, Carter continued, “General, this might not seem all that remarkable, but I assure you it is. The odds of a planetary body doing this, swapping suns every orbit, it’s…”

“Let me guess,” Jack quipped, teasing in the bottom layers of his tone, “astronomical?”

Carter cast him a fleeting look of sparkling humor, even though he’d effectively stolen her thunder on one of her favorite jokes. Jack let a half-smile slip at the glaring red mark on her face, pretending it was a smile for the joke he’d hijacked.

“Is that safe?” Daniel asked, wiping at his own face with exaggerated movements. “I mean, how can a planet that does that be habitable?”

“Do we, in fact, know that it is habitable?” Teal’c asked.

“Well, there’s a Stargate on it,” Daniel turned his hands over in a ‘so there’s that’ gesture. “From what we’ve seen, the Ancients weren’t in the habit of putting Stargates on dead rocks.”

“Could not the planet have once been capable of sustaining life but be unable to do so any longer?”

“It’s possible, Teal’c,” Carter answered, regaining control of the briefing, “but our research into the planet so far suggests it theoretically can support life. In fact, I’d be surprised if it didn’t.”

So…” Daniel gestured for Sam to get back to his original question and wiped at his cheek deliberately, “how can a planet like that be habitable?”

Carter looked pleasantly perplexed by the question, practically salivating at the puzzle this planet posed (and also utterly oblivious to Daniel’s pantomime hint about the mark on her face). “From what we can tell, this system has very few planets or satellites in it. In fact, this planet is the only one large enough to even be observable from Earth – we didn’t know it had any smaller bodies until SG-9’s observations. So even though this planet is in the farthest orbit of either sun, it’s not so far from what we call the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ for either star that life would be contraindicated. But I would imagine there are periods of deep winter, maybe even micro ice ages, when the planet escapes one sun’s gravity and gets grabbed by the other.”

“So, are we talking core samples?” Daniel asked, again rubbing at his nose meaningfully.

Carter nodded eagerly. “I’d like to take some geological equipment and take a drilling of the planet surface and look for signs that this planet is doing just that… going through mini ice ages every year.” She directed her next words at Hammond. “Because if it is, sir, and life does survive on this planet, it could provide us with useful information about how living organisms survive deep cold. There are species on Earth that live in polar environments that have amazing adaptations to survive subzero temperatures for long periods – certain microscopic organisms and even some insects and reptiles that literally freeze and then revive when they thaw out – but those species are so dissimilar from humans that the mechanisms and adaptations aren’t all that applicable to people. However, if there are mammals on this world and they have similar adaptations to survive extreme cold, that could benefit the field of cryogenics here on Earth. It may even have medical applications – hypothermic conditions have been proven to keep humans in a state almost suspended animation until resuscitated, but not without the risk of tissue damage from the cold. By studying lifeforms on this planet, we might find a way to induce hypothermic rescue stasis without the side effects of frostbite and gangrene.”

“There’s also the question why the Ancients put a gate on this world in the first place,” Daniel chimed in, giving up on cluing Carter in about the mark on her face and turning to address the general. “I mean, if it’s such a pain in the ass to put Stargates in trinary star systems, well… it has to mean something that they did here, right?” He looked over at Jack and Teal’c in turn, expression open and child-like.

It was Daniel trying to get his way. Jack pointed a finger at him. “You’re hoping to find more meaning of life stuff on this planet, aren’t you?”

Daniel didn’t even look abashed to get called out on it. “If the Ancients thought this planet was extraordinary and worthy of special exceptions, it’s not too strange to think they might have held it in some high regard. Maybe it has ceremonial significance, and what better place to build something, a monument or a temple, that would reflect that?”

Jack knew he was outnumbered. Even if it was the military and SG-1 was not a democracy, when both of his scientists were champing at the bit, it was pretty much useless to fight them.

Jack looked helplessly at Hammond, who was gamely trying not to laugh in Jack’s face.

“Major,” Hammond turned to Carter, “you said gating to a world that was moving between so many stars could be dangerous – that it might even be why Stargates aren’t put on worlds like this in the first place – are you certain you can safely gate to this planet?”

Carter nodded eagerly. “Yes, sir. Between SG-9’s data and ours, we can calculate when a clear path opens up between Earth and P4X-103.” Her expression flickered. “However…”

“I knew it,” Jack grumbled. “Here we go.”

“No, sir, we can absolutely safely time a trip through the gate to P4X-103… it’s just that the next window to safely travel to the planet is in two days… and the next window to gate safely back isn’t for another week after that.”

Jack raised his eyebrows. “So we gate there and we’re stuck for a week, is that what you’re saying?”

Carter looked distraught at the tone Jack had taken. “Yes, sir. The third star in the system is here,” she added a third solid dot on the board, creating an obtuse triangle, “and Earth is here,” she drew another dot off-center of the trio of stars. “Essentially, this third star ‘blocks’ our view of the planet for a week, until it reappears on the other side of this tertiary sun.”

“I don’t like being cut off from Earth, Major,” Jack pointed out bluntly.

Carter nodded somberly. “I know, sir, but I think this might be worth the risk. In my opinion, the unique nature of this planet in several respects warrants further investigation.”

“General,” Daniel chimed in, “if it’s possible this planet had any kind of importance to the Ancients, we can’t afford not to check it out.”

Mood soured, Jack looked toward General Hammond to make the final call. When the general looked his way, Jack gave a fatalistic ‘your call, I just follow orders’ hand wave.

Hammond nodded. “Very well. Major, if you can convince me your calculations on the days and times when it is safe to gate to this planet are correct, SG-1 has a go.”

Jack fought back a scowl. Sometimes he still hated scientists… even his own. But Hammond gave the order, so Jack would do his job. This time, it looked like it was going to be babysitting two overeager eggheads. Usually, it was the three of them babysitting Daniel while he lost his shit over some rock with squiggly writing on it or a primitive native looking for dinner or a friend (or both). But other missions (like this one seemed to be shaping up to be), Carter was almost just as bad, and it left Jack and Teal’c looking after the children.

Unfortunately, Carter and Daniel had both figured out how to get back on Jack’s good side at warp speed years ago. He wouldn’t even get to pull the grumpy CO card for long before they’d buffalo him into a better mood. And everyone knew it.

And as much as he liked to bitch and moan about his nerds going nuts over some artifact or doohickey or what have you, their wonder at the universe and passion for their work was also part of what Jack liked about each of them. It was hard to hold genuine joy against someone.

Especially when it made them shine so brightly, like it did Carter.

Oh well.

When Hammond dismissed the team and returned to his office, Jack stood and approached Carter. She was practically bouncing on the balls of her feet, eager to rush off and double-check her calculations before presenting them to Hammond. When she saw Jack walking toward her, she valiantly stayed put.

“Sir.”

“Carter. I can’t help but wonder if, in your obvious enthusiasm for this mission, you really made a proper risk assessment. So I’m going to ask… you sure about this?” After all, he didn’t understand half of what she’d talked about during the briefing – he had only his trust in her. And if she said that she had considered the risks objectively and seriously and still considered the mission worthwhile, well… that was that. He trusted her.

And she knew that.

Carter beamed. With the general out of sight, she didn’t try to rein in her ‘obvious enthusiasm’ or curb her friendly camaraderie with the colonel. “Colonel, the chance to stand on a world that’s part of a trinary star system is quite literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. Pardon my boldness, sir, but how are you not excited?”

“I try to limit my excitement to the Stanley cup finals and firefights with the Goa’uld. Stress thing, you know? It’s not healthy to be too excitable. Have you ever seen a mellow Chihuahua? I don’t think so.”

Carter pressed her lips together to hold back a chuckle. “Well, to answer your question, yes, sir, I’ve carefully considered the potential risks involved with this mission. I know a lot of criterion have to be met to even make gating to this planet possible, but the sheer volume of knowledge we could gain from visiting this world is too good to pass up.”

Jack was listening to Carter talk while staring at the red smudge on her face, vivid against her fair skin and a bright contrast to the blue in her eye. When the temptation became too great, he reached up toward her face.

Carter’s voice faltered mid-sentence when she saw him reaching a hand toward her, but testament to their comfort and trust as a team, she didn’t flinch away. Instead, she froze uncertainly and her brow furrowed in confusion.

Jack swiped at the red ink with his index finger (thrilling privately at the chance to touch her face, a privilege he so rarely got) and pulled it back to show her the color he’d rubbed off. “Got a little something on you, Carter.”

Carter’s eyes widened and she groaned in embarrassment. “Oh, god… how long was that there?”

Jack smiled and wiped the ink off on his pant leg.

“Just since you started talking about the planet switching suns,” Daniel said from his place at the table where he was collecting his notes.

“Why didn’t one of you tell me?” Carter groused, rubbing stubbornly at the mark.

“I believe Daniel Jackson was attempting to do so in gestures,” Teal’c intoned with warm amusement in his voice.

Carter huffed and narrowed her eyes at Daniel and Teal’c… she probably wanted to give Jack the stink-eye, too, but chain of command and military propriety meant she excluded him. “Next time say something! For crying out loud, don’t let me brief the general with marker on my face!”

Jack smiled involuntarily at his usual catch-phrase slipping out of Carter’s mouth. It was a small, illicit pleasure, and he would hoard it jealously.

“Did I get it all?” Carter looked up at him, leaning in and turning her head slightly to give him a better view. It gave Jack a rare excuse to stare at Carter close-up, and he let his eyes linger longer than necessary under the guise of checking for marker ink.

“Yeah, you got it.”

“Thanks. Sir.” The noted pause between words was his clue that she was irked at him, though she couldn’t show it.

It shouldn’t delight Jack so much when he could rile Carter up, but god did it. It was so much fun to watch her struggle to contain some acerbic comment when Jack annoyed her. He wondered, if their ranks didn’t exist, what Sam Carter would do in such a situation. Would she swear? Give him a playful shove? Rip him apart verbally? Try to exact retribution with some complex prank? He could imagine so many reactions on her part, he would probably adore each and every one, but sadly he’d never get to see Carter really unleash.

Mores the pity.

As Jack strolled out of the briefing room, he overhead Carter speaking to Daniel… to whom she felt no great need to censor herself. “Thanks a lot, Daniel. Would you have said anything if someone drew a dick and balls on my face?”

Jack didn’t hear Daniel’s flustered, indignant response because he was too busy laughing.

Yeah, he legitimately kind of adored his second-in-command.

********

Lucky for Carter, Jack continued to adore her even when he wanted to tear her a new one.

The week on P4X-103 wasn’t the worst week Jack had ever had, but he’d also been an Iraqi POW, so that really wasn’t saying much. His measure of what constituted a bad time stretched all the way to the seventh circle of Hell. In any case, the week on P4X-103 was easily in the top five of shitty weeks for Jack O’Neill.

And it had started out so well… as most snafus do.

Performing their due diligence, initial recon (via MALP) of P4X-103 looked promising. Atmospheric readings showed breathable air, the video footage showed a mossy-green world as far as the eye could see, there was an intact DHD near the Stargate, and in the distance what looked like a structure or building of some sort.

Daniel was practically knocking his teammates out of the way to get up the gate ramp. If Jack hadn’t grabbed Daniel back by the handle on his tac vest, he really thought the archaeologist would have done a cannonball through the event horizon in his haste.

Carter wasn’t a whole lot better, but at least she followed orders and heeded Jack’s stern look when she attempted to ease past the two men in the gate room while they performed their version of a perturbed father restraining his unruly toddler in a toy store.

Just to make a point, Jack let Teal’c go first.

P4X-103 had been kind of squirrely from the word go, though it was not quite anything Jack could put his finger on. It didn’t have that creepy ‘enemies hiding in the trees’ feeling to it… mostly because there were no trees. In fact, there was no vegetation much taller than a hip-high bush. It reminded Jack of pictures of farmland in Ireland: very verdant, very green, very hilly, and very close-cropped.

Though cultivation and agriculture weren’t the reasons that P4X-103 was so trim. The plant life was wild and patchy and thick. It made Jack feel like he was walking on the bottom of an aquarium in need of a thorough cleaning.

Since Carter had to set up her drilling equipment for taking samples (while Daniel practically did the pee-pee dance of impatience, wistfully eyeing the distant structure), Jack spent a lot more time looking at the ground than he normally would. The surface of P4X-103 was spider webbed with fissures and cracks. Jack would have compared it to a drought-stricken lake bed, but it was far too lush with greenery to be cracked from lack of moisture.

He noticed Carter frown meaningfully at the series of cracks they had to work around, and in hindsight he should have pounced on that. But he didn’t. He blamed Daniel’s increasingly likely escape attempts for distracting him.

But it planted the seed of unease in Jack’s gut that he damn well knew he should have heeded. He had two scientists practically vibrating with excitement, and he let that influence him. He ignored his instinct because Daniel and Carter were so keen on this mission, and there were no actual signs of danger.

He swore it was the last time he’d ignore that sixth sense, even if it did make him the asshole CO pulling them out for no god damn reason. Better to deal with two pissed scientists than suffer the consequences if he didn’t.

Or to have his team suffer them.

As it turned out, their arrival was in late evening on P4X-103, so by the time Carter had taken the samples she wanted, it was starting to get dark. Daniel, fit to burst, wanted to press on with flashlights.

Jack refused.

“Negative. No point stumbling around in the dark in unknown territory. We’ll head out at first light.”

“But, Jack…”

“Set up base, campers.” Teal’c and Carter nodded and began to go through the familiar motions of setting up their camp for the night. They would normally find some kind of cover, just in case hostiles were in the area, but P4X-103 offered a big fat goose egg in the way of cover. Instead, they’d have to make camp near the Stargate. Not ideal, but obviously the best they’d be able to do.

Daniel opened his mouth to protest.

“Zip it,” Jack cut him off.

Daniel pouted.

“And so help me, Daniel, if you even think of sneaking off in the middle of the night I will zip-tie your hand to my ankle.”

From the corner of his eye, Jack saw Carter fight back a smile.

“That’s insulting,” Daniel groused.

“I’m not joking. You want to see that building so badly, you can just drag my ass the whole way.”

Daniel looked like he was actually considering it.

“Ah!” Jack snapped, finger raised in warning. He could never decide if handling Daniel was more like minding a small child or training a dog.

Daniel’s shoulders drooped. “Fine. But we’re not even tired. It’s like two in the afternoon back on Earth.”

He did have a point there.

“Hazards of gate travel,” Carter chimed in, gamely taking Jack’s side to try and subdue Daniel.

But P4X-103 didn’t give a damn what time it was on Earth in Colorado Springs.

Nights on P4X-103 turned out to be spectacular. There wasn’t a damn thing available to make a decent fire, and they’d yet to find any signs of civilization beyond that one lonely building in the distance, so the night sky was unimpeded by light pollution. The sister stars of P4X-103’s current sun were bright points in a sky already bejeweled with alien constellations. A rich blue swath cut through the sky, arching down toward the horizon like a cerulean ribbon.

“It’s just a different view of the Milky Way,” Carter explained. “Although technically speaking, the Milky Way isn’t a formation in itself, like say an asteroid belt or a nebula, rather it’s the diffuse light of distant stars that are too far to be seen clearly.”

“Could Earth be one of them?” Daniel asked, clearly putting aside his bitterness of earlier.

Jack took a seat next to Carter, letting the darkness be his excuse to sit closer than he normally did. His knee came to rest against her thigh, a reassuring point of contact in the dark of night. The stars of P4X-103’s solar system were bright enough to make out faces, but details like the blue of Carter’s eyes were lost.

Carter was shaking her head. “Remember I told you in the briefing this system is among the few in the Stargate network observable from Earth?”

“Right,” Daniel plucked at the mossy vegetation next to his sleeping bag. “If we can clearly see this sun from Earth, we can clearly see Earth’s sun from here.”

Carter nodded again, dragging her pack up behind her and leaning back against it. The repositioning took Carter’s leg away from Jack’s knee, to his chagrin. When she’d gotten as comfortable as she was likely to, he felt her leg move back to rest against his knee.

Jack allowed a small smile, trusting the night to hide it. Carter had feelings for Jack the Air Force would not like, same as he had feelings for her. It made it a little easier to endure the Tantalus-like nature of their friendship to know it was a curse they bore together.

“Do you know which star is ours?” Jack asked.

Carter tipped her head back further, starlight painting her throat and highlighting her cheekbones. Jack had never wanted to dance his fingertips over skin so badly in his life.

“I could probably figure it out. I know P4X-103’s relative position to Earth, although getting my bearings with completely different constellations would be tricky. I think Orion’s belt stars should still be more or less in alignment from this angle, so if I could find them…” She sat up eagerly. “If I got out some of my equipment, I could…”

“And have you staying up all hours on a school night?” Jack scolded. “Nothing doing, Major.”

“Yes, sir,” Carter answered with a quick grin, the scant light putting a hazy glow on her teeth.

Teal’c, keeping one ear on their conversation while listening and watching the night for attackers, spoke. “There is no moon.”

Carter’s smile vanished and a shadow squatted between her eyebrows. “Ah, no… it wasn’t likely there would be. I imagine switching orbits between two suns like it does would cause the contending gravities to tear a moon to pieces.”

And that was the second hint of not all being well in the land of P4X-103 that Jack should have paid closer attention to.

********

The building seen in the distance from the Stargate was tall, maybe the tallest thing on P4X-103 at roughly four stories high. It looked almost like a castle tower missing the rest of the castle. A circular structure spearing into the sky.

That the material the tower was made from was the exact same gray mineral as the Stargate confirmed it was built by the Ancients before they even got inside.

Daniel was in geek heaven. While it was pretty obvious the contents of the building had been taken when the builders left the site, there were still panels upon panels on the walls of the Ancient language.

“Jack!” Daniel breathed in wonder, gaping at the floor-to-ceiling writings.

“Pace yourself, Daniel.” Jack put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We’ve got a week here.” ‘Whether we want it or not,’ he thought sourly.

“We should look for anything that might give us an idea what this place is,” Daniel said. “If this is a memorial or historical marker there could be some kind of identification, like a commemoration plaque.”

“Why do you say memorial?” Carter asked, turning to look at him from examining a string of block letters on the wall.

Daniel shrugged. “I don’t know, a hunch? It’s out in the middle of nowhere, no town or city nearby, so it clearly wasn’t part of an active community. A place to visit, but not tied to everyday function for the residents. A memorial or monument would make sense, wouldn’t it?”

Carter frowned. “I don’t know… that set-up sounds more like an observatory to me. You know, like the way we put astronomy observatories in the desert to escape light pollution from population centers.”

Daniel nodded thoughtfully. “Possibly. It could be anything, really. We should explore this place top to bottom.”

“Right,” Jack sighed. “Everyone look around. Keep your radio channel open, check in every ten. And nobody stick their head into anything!”

While Daniel took pictures and video of the writings on the ground floor, Jack, Carter, and Teal’c made their way to the winding stairwell to search the other floors.

Teal’c took the second floor and Jack peeled off at the third.

It was pretty boring for being part of an Ancient tower on an alien world. Jack figured he’d found personal quarters, though with all the tenants gone (and taking their belongings with them) it was just a series of empty rooms, uniform in shape and layout as they fanned around a circular corridor wrapped around the stairwell.

“Colonel,” Carter’s voice came, scratchy through the radio.

“Go ahead.”

“I’m on the top floor. You should come see this.”

He found Carter standing in front of a window in what looked like a lab with long tables, vast space, and a few pieces of equipment left behind (by virtue of being built into the walls) that Jack was not going to get his head near for all the tea in China.

“What have you got, Carter?” Jack asked, heading toward his 2IC and giving one Ancient device a wary eye.

His second was a play of saturated hues in the midmorning light spilling through the window. Even olive drab looked vibrant on her. Carter sure could make BDUs look good.

She pointed out the window. “There’s an ocean, sir.”

He looked. She was right. From the vantage point of the top floor, he could see the coast and the expanse of water beyond. He was surprised they hadn’t smelled the sea for being so close to it, but at ground level the algae-like smell of the pervasive moss plant was pretty overpowering. Like sticking one’s head in a stock tank.

There was also not a hint of civilization, even from the elevated view.

“I think this was a scientific observatory, sir,” Carter said.

“You might be right about that.” He looked around at all the equipment. “Any idea what any of this… stuff… does?”

Carter, usually not one to be daunted by any technology, went wide-eyed. “Sir… I couldn’t even begin to guess what any of this does. We have time, so I’ll give it my best try, but so far we’ve not had a lot of luck understanding Ancient technology.” She gave him a rueful look. “Best you don’t expect too much, sir.”

“Major, I’ll be happy if we can all get out of here with our brains unscrambled. See what you can make of this, but use extreme caution.”

“Yes, sir.” She paused. “You know, sir… it might be helpful if you looked through this equipment with me.” She gave him a careful look, a mixture of concern and caution and a little bit of awe. “Ancient technology does respond favorably to you.”

Favorably isn’t quite the word I’d use,” Jack grumbled.

“Right, of course not, sir.” Carter looked around at the hodge podge of advanced alien technology and bit her lip. Longing and wanting and pining were naked in her face.

It really drove home the point why the fraternization regulations existed, because Jack crumbled at the sight of her wanting something so badly. Something he could give her, and really it was like he didn’t have a choice in the matter.

“Fine, whatever. I’ll touch anything you want me to touch, see if it’ll light this place up like a Christmas tree, but I swear to god, Carter, if I go home speaking Ancient…”

“Extreme caution, sir, remember?”

“Yeah, right.” Because scientists were so good at adhering to ‘extreme caution’ when a discovery was at their fingertips.

********

Carter was not the only one who tried to recruit Jack for his proven sensitivity to crap left behind by the Ancients. Carter’s use of Jack as the molester of all things Ancient had not turned on any of the machines upstairs (which was fine by Jack), but his tenure as a guinea pig was far from over.

“Jack, could you take a look at this?”

“I don’t read Ancient, Daniel!” Jack snapped. He was sure it was the one hundredth time he’d said that in the last two days. They’d spent two days in the tower, camping on the foyer floor, and Daniel had been like a squirrel on cocaine for the entire two days. Jack didn’t even know if the linguist slept anymore – he gave up trying to enforce a bedtime for Daniel when disobeying that order was as easy as rolling over and aiming a flashlight.

“Could you just look at it?” Daniel pleaded, caressing a carving on the wall like it had heard Jack bark and needed to be reassured.

“Between you and Carter, I feel like a circus monkey,” Jack growled as he marched over to Daniel’s side and gave a perfunctory glance at the mark Daniel was fondling. “Nope, not a clue.”

“You didn’t even try.”

Jack gave Daniel a dirty look.

“Why don’t you try touching it?” Daniel suggested.

“Because I have touched, fondled, pet, jiggled, jimmied, held, and caressed every damn inch of this place by now! For crying out loud, I’ve had lovers I didn’t know as well as this building!”

A strangled snort from the direction of the door hauled Jack’s attention to Carter, standing just outside and taking some kind of reading of the sun with a handheld device. She was trying not to openly laugh, hiding behind her sunglasses, but the press of her lips and the flush in her cheeks gave her away.

So, yeah… she was thinking about what he did to his lovers with his hands. Good to know.

“Jack,” Daniel sighed in exasperation and reached up under his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. As if Jack were being the unreasonable one! “The Ancients clearly took everything important with them except what couldn’t be taken.” Daniel gestured at the writing on the walls. “This is all we have!”

“And if I knew how to read this crap, I would gladly tell you,” Jack countered, though his tone cast doubt on the ‘gladly’ part. “But – and I cannot stress this enough – I don’t read Ancient.”

Daniel looked aggrieved.

“You are the linguistic expert on this team, are you not, Daniel Jackson?” Teal’c jumped into the conversation, as ever a voice of calm. “Is there anything that you have been able to decipher with your vast knowledge on the subject of languages?”

How Daniel, communication expert, did not see the ego stroke for what it was baffled Jack, but he was just glad it derailed Daniel. Just like that, he perked up and turned to face Teal’c. “Actually, I think this part here,” he strode to a different section of the wall, “is some kind of calendar. I don’t know what they were tracking, but there are three distinct events that they seemed to be chronicling. These symbols recur throughout the ‘year’… of course, I have no idea what they symbolize. All I can tell is that whatever they were tracking, they were frequent occurrences. Two seemed to be correlated. These two symbols appear together many times.” Daniel threw up his hands in defeat. “I just don’t know what they were making marks of.”

Jack was so utterly, monumentally bored he actually started to sway on his feet, like his brain was contemplating complete shutdown to avoid the conversation.

Then he realized he wasn’t swaying, the ground was.

Just as he realized what was happening, the to and fro rocking became stronger, turning into a violent shudder.

Shit.

Earthquake.

Daniel was thrown into the wall he had been studying so fondly.

“Daniel Jackson!” Teal’c staggered over to him and pressed Daniel to the wall with his massive Jaffa body, shielding the archaeologist should the ceiling start to come down. Jack could see Daniel peeking out from beneath Teal’c’s bracing arm, reduced to something small and fragile in the large man’s protection.

So one member of his team was safeguarded. His attention turned toward the other.

“Carter!” Jack struggled toward the entrance with the major just beyond it.

It was strange how quiet the earthquake was. On Earth, Jack associated seismic events with the sound of destruction, buildings shaking apart, car alarms going off, and loose objects crashing to the ground. There were none of those noises on P4X-103 as the planet shuddered. There was a nearly subsonic rumble that Jack could feel in his bones more than hear in his ears, but otherwise the only sounds were those made by him and his team.

It was eerie. Like they were bugs being shaken in a jar.

The ground heaved strongly, causing Jack’s right leg to torque, and his knee gave out with a sickening crack. Cursing, Jack went down in a heap on the hard naquadah floor. He looked up at Carter and saw her eyes blown wide, locked on him from the other side of the door as her shape rattled in jerky, jumping focus.

Sam dropped to her knees deliberately and crawled into the doorway. She reached for him just as Jack dragged himself toward her, and they met in a frantic grab of hands. Together, they hauled Jack into the doorway, where Jack roughly folded Carter into his lap and draped his upper body over her. Carter struggled at first, no doubt intent on doing the very same thing to protect him, but Jack pinned her between his chest and thighs tightly, giving her no chance to squirm free.

They rode out the earthquake (was it even an earthquake if they weren’t on Earth?) like that, Teal’c plastered to Daniel against the wall and Carter trapped in a Jack taco.

Eventually, the shaking subsided. Then it stopped.

For a few seconds, none of them moved. When Jack finally popped his head up, he scanned his surroundings for signs of damage. Remarkably, there was none. There were no trees outside to uproot, and inside the building had remained intact.

Teal’c was doing the same thing Jack was, assessing the situation and obviously just as amazed that there was no rubble to contend with after the strength of the quake.

Jack became acutely conscious of Carter’s weight in his lap, the heat and solid presence of her, her breathing causing the arms he still had draped over her to rise and fall.

He was also very aware of the fiery agony in his knee, and that Carter’s weight on it was not helping.

“You okay, Carter?” Jack sat back, taking his weight off her.

Carter sat up immediately. “Yes, sir. Your knee…”

Jack winced and touched his right leg. “Crap… hope this won’t mean surgery again.” He looked over toward Daniel and Teal’c. “You guys okay?”

“We are unharmed,” Teal’c reported as he pushed slowly away from the wall, releasing Daniel like a baby bird scurrying out from underneath its mother.

“Well, that was fun,” Daniel said sarcastically as he spun to survey the wall of Ancient writing, arms opened wide and hands touching the carvings like he wanted to be sure they were undamaged.

Geeks.

Jack tried to shift positions and his knee burned. Jack swore under his breath.

Carter started to reach for his leg (to do what, Jack had no idea, she wasn’t that kind of doctor) when a low, loud beeping sounded from upstairs.

Everyone froze and looked at one another.

It seemed to be coming from the lab, where they had thought all the equipment was dead. Apparently not. Something was working now, and it sounded like a strange bell.

Or an alarm.

Carter jumped up and dashed for the stairwell.

“Carter!” Jack struggled to his feet, hissing when his right knee protested taking any weight. It was only by sheer bullheadedness that Jack soldiered on and limped quickly toward the stairs to follow Carter. How he was going to get up the stairs was a problem he’d tackle once he made it that far.

Teal’c and Daniel met him at the first step, and his need to get up to the fourth floor ASAP outweighed his pride. He let Teal’c and Daniel move to either side of him without a word. He slung his arms over both men’s shoulders, and they all but carried him up the stairs.

Carter was standing in the lab in front of a wall-mounted machine that was the source of the deafening toll. Lights on the panel were flashing, and the room was fairly shaking with the force of the alarm.

“What is it?” Jack yelled over the deafening alarm. Teal’c passed supporting Jack duty on to Daniel and slipped away to check the rest of the room for anything else that might have activated.

“I don’t know, sir!”

“O’Neill!” Teal’c bellowed from the window.

The rest of SG-1 made their way to Teal’c’s side and saw what he had.

“Oh, shit.”

A tidal wave was racing in from the sea, monstrous and swelling as it hurtled toward them, eating up ground and swallowing the world in its path.

“Can we make it to the gate?” Daniel squeaked.

“We can’t gate home,” Carter said. “Our next window doesn’t open for another four days!”

Crap, crap, crap.

“Teal’c!” Jack grabbed the man’s arm tightly. “Get down to the first floor and grab as much of our gear as you can. That lower level’s going to flood. Go!”

Teal’c nodded and bolted down the stairs.

“I’ll help!” Daniel all but threw Jack at Carter and rushed after Teal’c.

Jack hobbled and hopped to try and retain his dignity (and his balance), but Carter still ended up catching him. She tucked up under his left arm and pulled him tight against her in a heartbeat, leaving him no choice really but to let her support him. Rather than fight her, he curled his arm protectively around her shoulders and took weight off his right leg, listing toward Carter to let her fill in where his bum leg was shirking its duties.

He stared out the window at the tsunami crashing over the land, eating up distance at breakneck speed. Even if it was within their window to return home, there was no way they could reach the gate before the waves did. Not even if Jack’s knee had been ship-shape. They couldn’t outrun the water.

“Will this building withstand that?” Jack asked, nodding at the sea surging closer.

“I believe it will, sir. Naquadah’s pretty tough stuff. It survived the earthquake unscathed.”

“Let’s hope you’re right, Major.”

Daniel and Teal’c came stumbling up the stairs laden with all their gear, sans their sleeping bags that had been too cumbersome to carry and too time-consuming to roll up (but really, as far as survival went, losing sleeping bags was not a disaster).

“When we were on the ground floor, the main door began to close on its own,” Teal’c reported while Daniel was stacking Carter’s pack and his own next to a table.

“The building’s probably wired into sensors that detected the earthquake,” Carter said, “which obviously ‘woke up’ the building from the dormant state it’s been in so far. It must have triggered the alarm, which in turn activated the door to keep out the floodwaters.”

“The two ‘events’ on the calendar they were tracking,” Daniel mused aloud in wonder.

Carter gave a grim nod.

“Well, seeing as how this building is thousands of years old, I’m not going to bet my life that the door will hold,” Jack said drolly.

Daniel rifled through the packs until he found the first aid kit, leaping up with it and running over to Jack and Carter.

Only to stop and stare, horror-struck, out the window as the water roared toward the tower.

It made no sense, but Jack reached out to the wall and braced himself.

The water crashed into the tower like the whole of the sea had been thrown at it. The structure rocked, trembled ominously like an aftershock, the weight of the water around it a crushing pressure they could feel in their ears, in their bones.

Everyone held their breath, waiting to see if the tower would come crashing down.

It didn’t.

Everyone exhaled.

The water swirled angry and fast around the base of the tower, clawing and leaping at the walls, but the naquadah held, an artificial mountain in the water’s path.

Of course, given enough time, even mountains succumbed to the relentless power of water. They just had to hope they hadn’t shown up just when the mountain decided to crumble.

Carter leaned out the window to peer down at the raging rapids around the tower until Jack grabbed her collar and yanked her back. She gave him a contrite look when he gave her his overprotective CO scowl.

The blaring alarm fell silent and the auditory void was immediately filled by the sound of surging water.

“Jack,” Daniel prompted gently, “we should take care of your knee.”

Because they were in for a wait. All they had to do was make it through the next four days, find a way to the Stargate in the middle of a flood, and gate home.

Sure, no sweat.

********

The waters swirled ferociously around the base of the tower for a day while the planet was gripped by aftershocks from the earthquake. Jack felt his stomach knot every time the floor swayed underneath them… he felt like a fishing bobber, every time waiting for the monster below to yank them down. He also hated being on the fourth floor of the tower when the ground was unstable, like they were inviting the tower breaking in half and sending them all plummeting to their deaths, but he wasn’t keen on drowning, either. Teal’c had ventured down the stairs and said the water had not invaded the building, but just because it hadn’t yet didn’t mean it wouldn’t.

“We should be all right, sir,” Carter insisted. “I think this building was designed specifically for this purpose. I’m fairly certain now this observatory was built to study this exact phenomenon.”

That’s when something Carter had said earlier rushed into the forefront of Jack’s mind.

“This planet has no moon,” he said, tone dangerous.

Carter ducked her head. “No, sir.”

Jack narrowed his eyes. “Major, did you know this planet was unstable?”

“Know, sir? No, sir.”

He was not letting her off the hook for being cute, much as he loved a well-bandied word. “But you suspected.”

She winced. “It’s a matter of science, sir. The way this planet switches which star it orbits… that would have to have planetary consequences. Gravitational forces would be extreme.”

Jack was furious. “Major Carter, care to tell me why you didn’t mention this in the briefing before Hammond gave us the green light for this mission?”

Carter looked panicked, like a teenager caught sneaking back into the house after midnight. “Colonel, sir, we had every reason to believe that the Ancients would have been able to stabilize this planet, otherwise why bother with a Stargate? What’s the point of putting a gate on a world constantly trying to tear itself apart?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jack said acidly, “maybe the Ancients had the same insouciant curiosity that you do?”

Carter blinked in surprise, like that possibility had genuinely not occurred to her. Then she had to forcibly stop herself from looking delighted that she shared a personality trait with the advanced species.

Had, Carter,” Jack stressed. “The Ancients are dead, so don’t be so proud of yourself for having the same crazy streak.”

Carter hunched her shoulders, chastised.

“Well, I don’t think all the Ancients died here,” Daniel chimed in. At Jack’s withering glare, Daniel mumbled. “If that makes any difference, which I suppose it doesn’t.”

Jack’s ire was not tempered in the least by the conversation.

Carter sagged dejectedly.

“For what it’s worth,” Daniel continued, “I’m sure the Ancients could have easily stabilized this planet if they wanted to. If they could build Stargates, I imagine countering the gravity tug-of-war between two stars would have been well within their power.”

“So why didn’t they?” Jack demanded.

“Well… they wouldn’t if their whole purpose for putting an observatory here was to study it, would they?”

“Great, so we gated to an Ancient science experiment.” Jack gave Carter another skewering look. Which might have been a little unfair to Carter, Jack knew, but his team was trapped and he was hurt. Grouchy Jack O’Neill was the only option on the menu.

“Everything I told Hammond was true, sir,” Carter said in her own defense. “The chance to study a world like this is one in a trillion, and the things we could learn from such a rare planet are beyond value.” She gestured at the building around them to illustrate her point. “If we had more time and knew more about Ancient technology or their language,” she shot Daniel an apologetic look, “we might learn ways to build structures on Earth that are better able to withstand earthquakes.”

“Well, that’s not going to happen, is it, Carter?” Jack snarled.

“No, sir.”

“In fact, fair to say we’ll be lucky if we get out of here alive, agreed?”

“Yes, sir.” Carter took the dressing down with grace, he’d give her that.

Daniel shifted away from the argument sullenly, like a kid forced to watch his parents fight. Although honestly, Daniel and Carter were more like siblings, the mischief-prone science twins turning Jack’s hair gray.

Carter got up, crossed the room, and hunkered down against the wall next to Teal’c, blatantly going to him for safety. Jack was too mad to care. Even if it was all speculation, Carter damn well should have mentioned the chance this planet was trying to come apart at the seams.

********

It was three more ugly days of waiting with Carter walking on eggshells around the colonel, Daniel keeping quiet when his efforts to keep the peace failed, and Teal’c diligently remaining neutral (no doubt because he agreed with Jack but was also determined to be a comforting presence for Carter).

During their second night trapped on the top floor of the tower, Carter suggested that they could gate to another world from P4X-103 and from there safely gate home, but the idea came too late, because the water was still at least hip high and the current rushing back toward the sea too dangerous to risk. Their best bet, now that they were in this mess, was to wait for their original window for safe return home and hope the situation calmed down by then.

Which it did. The waters receded and the aftershocks eased, though by the time they were facing a return trek to the gate they were still contending with both.

The only upside was that the forced downtime had given Jack’s knee some time to heal. Though it still hurt like a bitch, he was confident he could at least limp his way to the gate without one of his teammates (namely, Teal’c) having to carry him.

When they reached their window, they packed up and headed downstairs. The door at the ground level was still tightly shut, still gamely keeping out the floodwaters, but potentially posing a huge problem. They had to actually get out of the tower.

It was, in fact, the only time during the whole mission that Jack’s ‘knack’ for Ancient technology made a damn bit of difference. Everyone on the team went to the walls flanking the door and ran their hands over the glyphs carved into the naquadah. Now that the building was ‘awake’, Daniel swore up and down there had to be a control for it somewhere. If they couldn’t genius their way into reading it, they’d just have to luck their way into finding it.

Whether Jack was the only one who hit on the door release or the others had and only Jack’s touch activated it would be a matter of debate his nerds would no doubt ponder later, but in any case a mark under Jack’s hand lit up and the door swept open.

Water spilled in, curling like so many snakes around their feet and seeking to fill every available inch of the ground floor in an instant. It rushed in frantically, spilling through the doorway until it crashed against the walls and rolled over itself. In the end, it stopped midway between the floor and their knees.

“Let’s move out!” Jack ordered.

The trudge to the gate was miserable. Carter may have been right about the planet being prone to ice ages, because the sea water was freezing, and after a while their feet were numb. Add to that the fact that running in water was difficult as hell, slow-going, and wreaking havoc on Jack’s bad knee. The proliferation of cracks in the ground they’d seen upon arrival (and easily avoided on their first hike) were now hidden beneath about a foot of water and causing everyone to stumble and trip. Jack hissed every time his right leg came down wrong on the broken terrain. His teammates kept casting him worried looks, checking their pace, but Jack gave them an angry look and ordered, “Get to the gate!” He didn’t need them slowing down on account of him. He’d tough it out and keep up or he’d fall behind, but he wasn’t going to put his team at risk on this shithole of a planet a minute longer than necessary.

They made it to the gate. They dialed home. They even punched in the GDO code once the wormhole established before the second major earthquake hit.

The water at their feet danced with surface tremors as the ground beneath rumbled and shook. Any hope it was just another fading aftershock from the first quake was dashed when the shaking quickly intensified, growing in strength until it easily rivaled the first earthquake.

“Let’s go!” Jack yelled and stumbled forward, trying to herd his team toward the Stargate.

Daniel and Teal’c were a few feet away to Jack’s right. Carter was directly in front of Jack, propelled by her commanding officer’s hand between her shoulder blades. They were all fighting through water and tremors to reach the Stargate’s raised platform which seemed to taunt them with the promise of safety, so close and yet so far.

A squawk and a splash had Jack twisting to look toward his guys, his balance canting dangerously and his knee threatening to give out at the unstable motion. Jack staggered and flailed and looked toward what had been the source of the distressed noise.

Daniel was in the water, trying to get back to his feet but pointedly not using both of his arms. Teal’c, braced with legs wide for stability and using his staff weapon for balance like a cane, reached down with one hand and lifted the archaeologist up. Daniel was dripping wet and cradling his left arm to his body.

“Daniel!”

“Oh god, I think it’s broken!” Daniel called back to the unspoken question.

“Teal’c, get him home!” Jack barked and turned back toward Carter just in time to see it happen.

The ground gave a mighty heave and Carter went sprawling forward, cracking her head on the base of the Stargate platform. The sound of skull and stone connecting was gut-wrenching and Jack didn’t know the urge to vomit could hit so suddenly. She slumped down the stone and ended up wedged awkwardly against the base of the gate, twisted in such a way that her head never went underwater.

“Carter!” Jack yelled and lunged for her. His knee buckled painfully under him at the sudden movement, twinging in that distinct burn of deep tissue and muscle injury, but he ignored it and scrambled the few feet separating him from Carter. He hauled her over on to her back.

He was struck by the colors. Dazed blue eyes, brilliant in the sunlight even with mismatched pupils. Her skin pallid from the cold and wan from shock. Her hair soft yellow-gold in the sun with a bright streak of crimson where the cut at her temple was bleeding freely.

His brain latched on to that detail, the gold and red.

“Sir,” Carter stammered groggily, in turns weakly pushing at him, splashing in the water at her side, and grabbing on to him in the uncoordinated dance of a head injury. She was visibly struggling with the extra weight attached to her back, not coordinated enough to deal with her own mass, let alone dead weight, so Jack unclipped her pack and tossed it one-handed onto the platform.

Then Jack pulled Carter into him and cradled her head to his chest, not in the expectation that it would help but because he was scared to think how bad she could be hurt and he needed to hold her. Moments like these were the only times he could. He wanted to always, but he only let himself when injury was involved.

He contemplated the chances he could carry her to the gate, but his knee was pulsating fire, and he had enough experience with knee injuries to know what he could and could not do on them. It killed him to admit it, but if he tried to carry her right now he would just drop her.

Continuing to hold Carter close, he looked up and saw Teal’c had manhandled Daniel onto the gate platform and shoved him through the event horizon none too gently, quickly followed by his staff weapon and pack, both tossed through like cheap luggage.

Carter was squirming against him, one arm locked around his back as if to hold on, the other shoving at his stomach to win some freedom. “Jack?”

Jack’s stomach dropped. She was out of it if she was calling him by his name on a mission.

“Teal’c, a little help!” Jack called out.

The Jaffa was at their side in an instant. The tremors were finally dying down and it was no trouble to pass Carter off to Teal’c. The Jaffa hefted Carter into his arms like she were a child, like the effort was nothing at all for him, and strode toward the gate with his precious cargo.

Jack climbed painfully to his feet and limped toward the gate. He grabbed Carter’s pack on the way, and that added weight alone was almost too much for him. His knee was a white-hot center of pain. What he’d really like to do was ditch the pack and just go home, but if he left Carter’s samples behind she would have a fit when she was better.

Because she was going to be fine. He wouldn’t stand for anything else.

Jack made sure Teal’c and Carter were through the Stargate before he stepped after them and left behind the hell that was P4X-103.

********

Within hours of being home, Janet Frasier and her staff had SG-1 patched up, drugged up, and tucked away in three infirmary beds, and Jack was too grateful to even do his usual complaining. His knee was propped up on a pillow with packs of ice all around it, sucking the fiery heat out of the injury. When the inflammation was under control, Fraiser would be able to make a better assessment of the extent of the damage. That plus the pain medication were doing wonders. Not to mention the happy sedative he’d received to let him sleep through the worse of it.

He was fading fast, but he would not lose consciousness until he had an update on his team.

“Colonel,” Janet sighed in annoyance when she approached his bed. “Will you stop fighting the sedative and go to sleep?”

It was a common complaint with the infirmary staff. Jack was notorious for not staying sedated like he should.

Although this time, honestly, he was ready to go to Lala Land. He just needed to know if the others were okay.

“Daniel? Carter?” he croaked.

Janet’s face softened. “Daniel fractured his left radius. We set it and put a cast on him. It was a clean break, so he should heal without any trouble. It will just be an inconvenience for about six weeks. Lucky he’s right-handed.” She smiled warmly.

Jack gave a weak nod. “Carter?”

“She has a concussion and she needed five stitches, but she’s going to be fine too.” When Jack visibly relaxed, Janet reassured him, “I promise, it looked worse than it was; you know how head injuries bleed. She’ll have one hell of a headache for a while, but she’s going to be fine, sir.” Janet reached out and gently laid her hand on his arm. “Everyone’s okay, Colonel. You can go to sleep.”

So he did.

********

Jack woke to muffled voices. He blinked his eyes open slowly and took a moment to get his bearings. Infirmary. His internal clock said it was early morning, and the low lights and minimal staff supported that conclusion.

Gradually, his memories of the last few days crept back through the drug-induced haze of his brain.

Then the voices came again, low-pitched and obviously taking care not to wake him. He knew those voices. He woke to them off-world so often that they had penetrated his psyche, calmed him before his reflexes even had a chance to jump at the thought they might be a threat.

Carter and Daniel.

When they’d reported to the doctor yesterday, the infirmary staff had separated them to better focus on treating each individual, so Jack hadn’t seen either of his injured teammates since they were brought in. That fact suddenly was not sitting well with Jack O’Neill. The last time he’d seen his friends, Daniel was soaked and cradling a broken arm and Carter was dazed and bleeding.

Time to do something about that.

No doubt triggering psychic alarms in Janet Fraiser’s brain wherever she was, Jack sat up and carefully swung his legs over the side of the gurney. His knee was tender as all get out, but the swelling was down and it felt much better than it had on the planet (where all they’d had in the way of medical intervention was aspirin and a wrap bandage). He wouldn’t be surprised if he got the news there was some serious damage or maybe even surgery in his near future (hardly his first knee-injury rodeo), but he was confident he could at least gimp his ass over to his teammates.

Which was exactly what he did, though he was grateful no one was witness to the spectacle.

Jack swished aside the curtain separating him from the next bed and found Carter propped up in her bed with Daniel perched on the edge of it on the far side of her, his broken arm resting in his lap. They both looked up at him, surprised, and Jack took immense pride that even crippled his stealth abilities were working.

Carter had a blood-spotted white square of gauze taped to her right temple, the skin around the bandage mottled an ugly purple and blue. The dark colors were a sharp contrast to everything light about Carter, from her fair skin to her blonde hair.

They were all dressed in blue hospital scrubs, making them look like they were having the shittiest pajama party ever.

“Daniel,” Jack chided as he subtly took a hop-step forward and braced himself on the back of a visitor’s chair, evidence Teal’c had stopped by. “What are you doing pestering Carter? Pretty sure she needs her rest.”

“I’m fine, sir,” Carter insisted. “I asked Daniel to keep me company. I was bored.”

“And you didn’t expect me to make Sam go to my bed, did you?” Daniel asked, the perennial wiseass.

Jack bit back the knee-jerk (ha) response to say something about preferring Carter in his bed (damn the pain meds for making him loopy) and studied them both closely. All joking aside, he asked, “You two all right?”

Daniel brandished his plaster-encased left forearm and said, “I was right, it’s broken.” He shrugged. “All things considered, could have been worse.”

Carter nodded gingerly. “My head hurts, but Janet said I’ll be fine.” She eyed Jack and the way he was holding onto the chair for support. She shifted closer to Daniel and patted the empty side of her bed.

Since he had injury and medication to excuse his behavior, he limped over and perched on the edge of the bed opposite Daniel with Carter sandwiched between them. He stretched out his right leg as much as he could and propped himself on his left arm, hand planted on the thin mattress next to Carter’s hip.

Carter’s eyes flicked toward his hand and she oh-so-casually dropped her left hand down to her side, letting it come to rest between Jack’s wrist and his hip. Her thumb reached out and brushed against the inside of his wrist deliberately.

Jack’s heart did a fair imitation of P4X-103.

These stolen moments were not nearly enough, but they were all they had. The only proof he had that Carter felt the same unprofessional attraction he did. He gave her a blink-and-you-miss-it smile, one Carter echoed, then the moment was past. Except she continued to periodically graze her thumb along the soft underside of his wrist, because they were positioned in such a way that the gesture was hidden from prying eyes, and anyway Daniel was there to chaperon. No one would think anything untoward was happening. Besides, they’d all had the week from hell, and what monster would begrudge them a little reassurance and physical comfort?

“I was just telling Daniel how sorry I am about all this,” Carter said lowly.

Jack sighed. He’d been so angry before, but now that everyone was home and they were all going to be fine it was too much work to stay mad. “Carter…”

“We really did believe the Ancients had conquered any instability on P4X-103. We were sure the presence of a Stargate meant it was safe.”

“Yeah, well, I think you and your nest of eggheads in the science department give those Ancients too much credit,” Jack answered. “You know they weren’t gods, right? No more than the Goa’uld are?”

Carter blushed, the pink flooding her pale cheeks and giving a strange background to the dark bruises. “I guess I do see them as godlike in a way. Through the lens of science, of course. I mean, any race that could build the Stargate system…”

“You’re gob smacked, I get it, but they weren’t infallible. Maybe keep that in mind from now on?”

Carter’s thumb came to rest against his pulse point and she looked up at him. “You’re not still mad?”

“I’ll only be mad if you don’t learn something from this, does that sound fair?”

Carter nodded and her thumb started moving again. “Yes, sir.”

“Guess we know who the favorite is,” Daniel grumbled playfully. “I never get a pass after I screw up.”

“That’s because you never learn from your mistakes,” Jack countered.

“Trying to do the right thing is never a mistake,” Daniel argued.

Jack groaned and gestured at Daniel with his free hand. “See? Look at what I have to deal with.”

Daniel gave Jack a petulant look.

Carter smiled and overtly, unselfconsciously, reached up and touched Daniel’s bicep with her right hand. Jack kind of hated all the reasons Carter could be so free with Daniel where she couldn’t be with him. “It’s okay, Daniel. You know we need your optimism to balance out the colonel’s doom and gloom.”

“Doom and gloom!?” Jack squawked. “What, because I don’t believe the world is full of puppies and rainbows, suddenly I’m a curmudgeon?”

“I’m pretty sure I remember you yelling at me to get off your lawn once,” Daniel teased.

“That’s because you were trying to put in a birdfeeder without asking me!”

“Who doesn’t like birds?”

“People who don’t get their jollies cleaning bird shit off their truck every morning?”

Carter giggled. It totally derailed Jack’s train of thought. Basically any time Carter giggled, it brought his world to a halt. It was why he told her to quit it every time she giggled – it completely knocked him on his ass, and floundering for words was not a good look on an Air Force colonel.

Luckily (or not), Janet chose that moment to interrupt.

“And just what is going on here?” she asked sternly, giving all three of them a piercing look. “I believe I ordered all three of you to rest.” She looked reprovingly at Jack. “Colonel, I know you didn’t walk over here.”

“Umm…” Jack scratched at the back of his neck. “Technically, I don’t know that it would qualify as ‘walking’.”

Janet sighed. “Why is it SG-1 never lets me do my job? Do I have to put the three of you in private rooms?”

Why did that sound so much like a time-out?

Daniel gave her the puppy-dog eyes.

“Please, Janet,” Carter cajoled sweetly. “We’ve had a terrible week, and now that we’re home, safe and almost-sound, we just want to celebrate cheating death together.”

He could actually see Janet give in seconds before she spoke. “Fine. But I want you in a wheelchair with your leg properly supported, Colonel.” Jack opened his mouth to protest when Janet cut him off, “It’s either a wheelchair at Sam’s bedside or you get back in your own bed. Which is it going to be?”

Knowing when to concede a battle, Jack nodded. “Wheelchair.”

“Good. Daniel, I’ll be releasing you later today and I won’t restrict your visiting hours, but if you become a nuisance…”

“I won’t, I promise!”

“Right.” She sounded dubious. But also resigned to her most frequent and troublesome patients. “I’ll be right back with that wheelchair.” She left them with a shake of her head.

Jack sat up and pulled his left hand back, trailing his fingers ‘accidentally’ over Carter’s hand in the process. Her fingers caught at his briefly and let him go without fanfare. It still had an uplifting effect on his mood. “Hey, think we could get Teal’c to smuggle some cake in here?”

“And blue jello?” Carter asked hopefully.

“I could go for some ice cream,” Daniel said.

“Really?” Jack asked incredulously. “After hiking through miles of icy water, you want ice cream?”

“It’s Sam’s fault! She kept talking about ice ages…”

Carter smiled and it did just as much for Jack’s well-being as Janet’s drugs.