Jack always suspects there will come a day when he runs out of time. He has catalogued all things Sam Carter from a distance for so long, and part of him knows his gamble on ‘someday’ could be stolen from him far too easily. It’s a risk he accepts because Sam doesn’t want things to change, or can’t accept the consequences of change, so he pines and covets and watches her back in a desperate attempt to keep her safe.
But he knows one day an enemy will catch them on a bad day. Or will simply be better than they are. That’s just the way war is.
It’s a constant heartbreak to live knowing that that grisly future is likely – to know he will never have Carter the way he wants to – but he’d rather be out in the field with her as a friend than being the lover left behind.
It’s just hard to bask in all her colors and know he will probably never hold her.
Because Jack suspects the way Carter would light up in his arms would put all her other colors to shame.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Jack whispered to Carter as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the gate room, “but I almost wish we were going to look at some of Daniel’s rocks.”
Carter’s mouth twitched at the corners, a smile denied full bloom, and she looked up at him. The rest of the smile was in her eyes. There was warmth in her gaze that should not be there, affection not so neatly held in check anymore, and Jack should be more worried than he was.
They’d come back from their trip to Minnesota and dutifully resumed the roles of colonel and major, but something was different. Jack couldn’t forget the side of Carter he’d seen at his cabin. He’d gotten a taste (literally) of Sam, and he couldn’t help seeing her every time he looked at Carter.
The look in her eyes was proof she was having the same problem. She was seeing Jack.
It meant they were in big trouble, and they should be panicking, but they had plunged headlong into that abyss months ago.
“Teal’c feels pretty strongly about this mission,” Carter commented.
“Teal’c always feels strongly about anything to do with the Jaffa rebellion,” Jack groused. “And hey, don’t get me wrong, I am all for the backbone of the Goa’uld armies taking a collective hike and leaving the snakes high and dry, but…” Jack threw a look over his shoulder toward the control room. Within, he could see Teal’c talking with General Hammond, one last attempt on the Jaffa’s part to ditch the rest of SG-1 and go on the mission alone. “I think Teal’c’s got a blind spot when it comes to this stuff.”
“The rebellion will never gain traction if its leaders don’t take a few chances,” Carter hedged, as if she agreed with Jack but felt obligated to defend Teal’c’s passionate support of the free Jaffa movement.
“Bra’tac’s already handling this one. I don’t see why Teal’c has to get involved.”
Daniel joined the conversation. “As a former First Prime, he’s famous – or infamous – among the Goa’uld for renouncing Apophis and joining us. I’m sure any rebel movement tied to Teal’c’s name has a better chance of succeeding.”
“Then we’ll make campaign buttons and pass them out.” His teammates seemed unamused by the quip. Possibly because they were as edgy about the mission as Jack was. “I guess I have a hard time believing an entire battalion or squad or whatever a group of Jaffa are called up and abandoned this, who was it? Segment…?”
“Sekhmet,” Daniel corrected instinctively. “The Egyptian goddess of war and destruction.”
Jack gave Daniel a flat look. “Now see, you telling me that doesn’t make me feel better about the mission.”
Daniel shrugged. “According to Bra’tac, Sekhmet’s armies were at war with Ba’al’s when Ba’al managed to repel Sekhmet’s forces… cutting off this particular patrol of Jaffa from retreat.”
“Strategically,” Carter added, “they were too entrenched in Ba’al’s territory for a rescue to be practical. Especially if Sekhmet already saw them as expendable.”
Daniel nodded. “The Jaffa lost faith in their deity when she didn’t come to rescue them. I guess we should count ourselves lucky they didn’t just pledge their loyalty to Ba’al and join his army like most Jaffa trapped on the wrong side of enemy lines would.”
“Oh yes, that’s us,” Jack said sarcastically, “lucky ducks.”
Daniel narrowed his eyes at Jack briefly, then continued his account of the Sekhmet Jaffa, tacitly ignoring Jack’s flippant remark. “The abandoned Jaffa fought their way to the planet’s Stargate, gated to PK3-348…”
“At which point someone just happened to know how to track down the leader of the Jaffa rebellion. Once again, how lucky.”
Daniel lifted his hands in an ‘I have no explanations for that one, and also I give up trying to have a conversation with you’ gesture.
“It’s just so damn suspicious,” Jack groused.
“All due respect, sir, but isn’t that why you said Teal’c was doing this mission solo ‘over your dead body’?” Carter did the air finger quotes on the last four words, a habit she had undeniably picked up from Jack.
“Don’t remind me this whole thing was my idea,” Jack grumbled. He rolled his shoulders to try and loosen the tense muscles. He was all knotted up, and the mission hadn’t even started yet… great. “You know, I consider Teal’c family, and I’m pretty fond of ol’ Bra’tac, but so far every other Jaffa we’ve dealt with hasn’t exactly given me the warm fuzzies.”
Carter gave a half-nod that Jack would interpret as agreement.
“Well, consider this from the Jaffa perspective,” Daniel said in his maddening way. “A lot of these Jaffa have faced SGC personnel in combat. They’ve probably lost friends because of us. And even if they’ve never gone up against an SG team, the Jaffa are used to dealing with Goa’uld.” When Jack appeared unmoved by that, Daniel pressed on. “Think about that. They’re used to raging megalomaniacs. I would hazard a guess that they just don’t have the first clue how to deal with us.”
“Thank you, Alien Whisperer.”
Daniel rolled his eyes and flapped his hands in resignation.
“Personally, I’m with you, sir,” Carter said in the wake of Daniel’s surrender to Jack’s intractability. “I find this large a contingent of Jaffa turning against their god highly suspect.”
“But if it’s legitimate… the ranks of the Jaffa rebellion would almost double overnight. That’s worth a little risk.”
Or a big risk, as it would seem, but that had been Jack’s call. Bra’tac had requested Teal’c gate to PK3-348 alone because Sekhmet’s Jaffa didn’t trust the Tau’ri. Teal’c had been ready to drop everything and go the second Bra’tac asked. It was Jack who informed Teal’c that there was no way in hell he was walking into a situation that heavily outnumbered without backup.
Jack didn’t have a lot of fights with Teal’c, but Jack’s refusal to let Teal’c go alone had been an ugly battle of wills. A battle Jack won in the end, though Teal’c was appealing to Hammond at that very moment trying to overturn the decision.
Fat chance. Hammond trusted the rebel Jaffa about as much as Jack did.
Their conversation was brought to a screeching halt when the side door opened and Teal’c all but stormed into the gate room, staff weapon in hand and a thunderous expression on his face. Looked like the rest of SG-1 was going with, and Jack was going to have a moody Jaffa on his hands for the duration of the mission. Yippie.
“Okie dokie, kiddos, let’s get this party started.” He turned to the control room and gave Walter a vague hand signal that the tech knew meant ‘dial her up’.
As the Stargate began to spin, Carter sidled up closer to Jack and whispered, “I don’t know about you, sir, but I’d rather be fishing.”
Teal’c, damn his bat ears, shot Carter a withering look.
Jack looked down at Carter while struggling not to smile. She was looking up at him with dancing blue eyes, her irises shimmering like the gate event horizon while the device itself continued to lock in chevrons. One corner of her mouth twitched, drawing Jack’s eyes to her lips. He was bowled over by the memory of kissing them. It was scary how much he wanted to taste them again – for a nanosecond, he considered doing it right there and then.
But of course he didn’t, because they couldn’t. They shouldn’t have in the first place.
The gate whooshed to life in a cascade of blue light and not-water, unbelievably managing to dull Carter’s shine.
Jack glanced up at Hammond through the control room window and saw the general scowling down at the two of them. As Jack had presciently warned Carter, Hammond had been watching them even more closely since Minnesota. And always with that grim look on his face, like he was watching a disaster unfolding before his eyes.
Jack had the nagging feeling they were running out of time before Hammond broke up the team.
Jack didn’t wonder if he and Carter both secretly hoped Hammond would do what they couldn’t.
Jack turned at Carter’s voice and saw her halfway up the ramp standing alone, Teal’c and Daniel having already gone through to PK3-348.
She cocked her head at him in silent question before she turned and resumed her ascent of the ramp.
Jack followed her.
Like he always had.
Like he always would.
It turned out Bra’tac had good reason to call in reinforcements… and he was also smarter than Jack had given him credit for. When they got to PK3-348, they met only briefly with Master Bra’tac because he had to go through the gate almost immediately to get back to his batch of Jaffa.
There were so many of Sekhmet’s deserters that Bra’tac realized the danger of keeping that many unproven allies together. He split them up into four groups and put them on four different planets – Bra’tac oversaw one group, a trusted apprentice manned another, a third was under the watch of a recently-sworn rebel out to prove his loyalty, and Teal’c would get the group on PK3-348. It still left SG-1 outnumbered, four to one, but it was better than having the whole rabble together where they could start trouble.
Then began the tedious process of trying to bring the newly-unshackled Jaffa into the fold and to heel.
Since Sekhmet’s Jaffa wanted nothing to do with the human members of SG-1, the Earthlings found it wiser (for the sake of keeping the peace) to keep an eye on Teal’c from a distance and let their friend handle the Jaffa.
For Jack, it was a strange combination of on edge and bored.
He was pacing the outskirts of the Jaffa encampment for probably the hundredth time, watching Teal’c bicker with a particularly querulous Jaffa named Uandor, when he turned his attention to his other teammates.
Daniel and Carter were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a crate, heads bent together in conversation. If circumstances were different, Jack would have smiled. It reminded him of the early days, when his two scientists had been thick as thieves.
Jack wandered closer. “Whatcha up to, kids?”
Carter looked up first, the brilliance of her irises in direct sunlight a captivating net of color that tied Jack’s tongue. “Daniel was just telling me about Sekhmet.”
“The ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, of course,” Daniel amended. “I don’t know anything about the Goa’uld.”
“Let’s hope she’s not as bad as the Egyptian goddess version,” Carter said drolly.
“When have we ever been that lucky?” Jack asked rhetorically. Then he winced. “Bad?”
“The Powerful One? Goddess of war, destruction, and plagues? I’d say so, sir.”
A silence fell over the team as they all gravitated toward watching Teal’c try to wrangle the newly-emancipated Jaffa. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
“Teal’c seems to be having a hard time with Sekhmet’s Jaffa,” Daniel noted as he frowned at Teal’c squaring off with Uandor. There was a lot of that going on lately. Uandor was the worst by far, definitely the repeat offender, but Teal’c had gone toe-to-toe with nearly every Jaffa on PK3-348 in the short time they’d been on the planet. Every one of them wanted to test Teal’c, to what end Jack dreaded to speculate.
“They’re like a pack of attack dogs without a master for the first time,” Jack noted sourly. “I don’t trust any of them.”
That statement caused Daniel some kind of injury judging by his expression. “Teal’c’s going to have a hell of a time getting anywhere if you have that attitude. I thought we were here to back him up.”
“And the second one of those yahoos goes for a weapon, I will.”
Daniel gave Jack a flat look. “I actually thought the concept ‘back him up’ meant in all possible interpretations of that phrase.”
“Yeah, no. I’m not about to make teaching these Jaffa how to integrate into a civilized galaxy my responsibility.” Talk about a waste of time.
Daniel looked toward Carter, as though for support.
She shrugged. “Is the galaxy really all that civilized?”
“Touché,” Jack allowed. “I’m still not adopting these psycho orphans, though.”
Daniel looked wounded while Carter looked like she agreed with Jack, even if she kept quiet so as not to take sides against Daniel.
“Jaffa! Hear me!” Teal’c bellowed, calling the attention of the restless Jaffa surrounding him like an agitated beehive. His next words were not shouted, so all that SG-1 could hear was the stern tone of his voice as he launched into yet another speech.
“Teal’c’s going to need a vacation after this,” Jack said.
Carter nodded then grimaced. “I should probably apologize to him for what I said in the gate room.”
“What did you say?” Daniel asked.
“I whispered to the colonel that I’d rather be fishing than go on this mission and Teal’c overheard me.”
Daniel’s eyebrows shot up, probably as much for her new affinity for fishing as her gall to say something so callous. “Wow… um, that was pretty insensitive, Sam.”
“This rebellion means a lot to Teal’c.”
“I know.” Carter looked guilty about the flippant remark, but in her defense, she hadn’t meant for Teal’c to hear it.
Seeing Carter’s remorse, Daniel eased up on her, playfulness tugging at the corner of his mouth as he said in mock-horror, “You’re turning into Jack.”
“Hey,” Jack protested.
“Which isn’t a good thing,” Carter added.
“Hey,” Jack said again. “I’m standing right here, you know.”
“I think what Sam’s trying to say is we only need one ass on this team, and you’ve cornered the market.”
Carter fought back a laugh, and Jack was so gone that he almost wanted her to laugh at him just to hear the sound.
“All right, that’s enough,” Jack growled instead, but he was only pretend-angry. Because Carter and Daniel were ducking their heads and smiling at each other like two kids caught at mischief, and honestly their bond like family – his family – warmed his heart too much for genuine anger.
Which should really be ample justification for Hammond to split all of them up. The Air Force wasn’t supposed to be sending families through the Stargate.
For all that Jack loathed the mission, PK3-348 really was a beautiful planet. It looked like Vermont in the throes of fall, the trees a riot of red, orange, yellow, and maroon. When the sun began to set and threw the sky into a kaleidoscope of pink, lavender, and cobalt blue, it was enough to make Jack long for a camera.
Especially when he came upon Carter sitting on the ground looking out at the painter’s dream of a landscape. As far as Jack was concerned, she was part of it. The gold of her hair, the ivory of her skin, the olive of her BDUs, and the benitoite of her eyes wove her into the tapestry of color, and Jack wished he could capture it. Or maybe it was just her he wanted, but he would have settled for a photograph. Something to frame and put on his wall, an image of Carter as he loved her best – a born galactic traveler.
She became aware of his approach and looked over her shoulder at him. Her expression softened. “Time to come in?” she asked.
“Nah,” Jack said as he dropped down to the patch of grass beside her. “The street lamps aren’t even on yet.”
She smiled and looked back out at the sprawl of fall splendor. Jack just looked at her. He used to be better about guarding his glances, stealthier for fuck’s sake, but something in him just didn’t care anymore about discretion. At least not here, millions of miles from home and anyone who would begrudge them. Because Teal’c and Daniel wanted them to be happy, not compliant with regulations. And clearly the two were mutually exclusive.
At the thought, Jack glanced over his shoulder toward the camp SG-1 had pitched on the outskirts of the Jaffa base. Daniel had paused in rolling out his sleeping bag around the as-yet-unlit fire to steal a look toward Jack and Carter. When Jack caught his eye, Daniel flashed a brief but supportive smile then turned back to his nightly preparations.
“I can’t imagine ever giving this up,” Carter mused lowly as she tipped her head back to peer at the first array of alien stars breaking through dusk. The hues of nightfall were tinting her skin a tantalizing bedroom shade, her pupils swallowing blue in a tormenting mimicry of arousal.
“Who says you have to?” he asked, voice pitched low to match hers.
Carter gave him a pointed look.
“Ah.” General Hammond and the Air Force if they ever wanted to be together, that’s who. Jack draped his elbows over his knees and clasped his left wrist with his right hand.
“I’m sorry,” Carter breathed miserably.
“I wish this didn’t mean so much to me. If we actually were working with deep-space radar telemetry… well, let’s just say I would have walked away a long time ago.” Regret lanced through her features. “But I…”
“Sam… stop. It’s okay.”
“It’s really not.”
“Okay, it’s not. But you love what you do, it’s who you are, and I would never ask you to change who you are. I…” He stopped himself before saying ‘I love who you are’. That went without saying, anyway. “Besides, you don’t see me touting a ‘retired’ after my rank, do you?”
Carter gave a humorless smirk.
“And Earth would be screwed if you gave up the program. So if it’s on anyone to give up gate travel, it’s on me. And there’s not a chance in hell I’m letting you do this without me.”
Carter frowned at that and turned a look on him. “What does that mean? Do you not trust me to do this alone?”
He couldn’t tell her the truth – that he didn’t trust anyone else to consider his own life expendable in the defense of hers. He had no right putting that weight on her. “I mean I’m not sitting back and letting you have all the fun.”
She studied him a moment, then she smiled. “It is a hell of a lot of fun.”
Even with all the Goa’uld, Tok’ra, Jaffa, Unas, angry natives, local wildlife, inclement weather, long hikes, nights sleeping on the hard ground, MREs, and the roadblock it put between them being together… “Yeah, it is.”
Carter shifted closer to him, not even pretending it was for warmth against the falling temperature.
“And who knows? Maybe someday.”
Neither one of them was willing to voluntarily surrender their position on SG-1, but that didn’t mean circumstances couldn’t preclude one of them from active duty. If Jack had to lay odds, he’d say Hammond was probably a pen stroke away from reassigning one or both of them.
Which would be a disaster in one sense but a blessing in another.
Carter nodded distractedly. “Maybe.”
Jack stole another glance at Carter, debated the action only briefly, then let go of his wrist so he could put his arm around her shoulders. She tipped into him and laid her head on his shoulder. Once upon a time, they would only dare so much if Carter were sick or hurt. Now they allowed it because, given what they truly wanted from each other, a shoulder was downright Victorian.
“Hey, Teal’c,” Daniel’s kind voice drew them both from their quiet solace.
Carter lifted her head from Jack’s shoulder and they both looked back to see Teal’c approaching SG-1’s camp. The Jaffa looked exhausted… and displeased. Jack took that to mean the day spent trying to win the Jaffa to the rebellion cause had not gone well.
“So how’d it go?” Daniel asked needlessly.
Teal’c scowled. “These Jaffa care nothing for freeing their brothers and sister still under the yoke of the Goa’uld.”
“Then why did they seek out Bra’tac in the first place?” Daniel wondered aloud, obviously offering Teal’c the chance to vent his frustration more than truly asking.
“They fear the idea of complete freedom. They do not want to help the rebellion, they just want the structure the movement offers to free Jaffa.”
“I guess I could see how being on their own after a lifetime in service could be daunting at first,” Daniel allowed.
“They have a responsibility to their brethren to fight the oppressors of our people!” Teal’c snarled. “They are cowards if they will not take arms against the Goa’uld, and I have no time for cowardice. I am trying to free all Jaffa, and that cannot be done if others are not willing to fight.”
Daniel winced. “I’m sorry, Teal’c.”
Teal’c looked at Daniel, tensed, then sighed. “It is not your fault they are afraid, Daniel Jackson. I apologize for speaking harshly to you.”
“It’s fine. You’re frustrated. I get it. I want to see an end to the Goa’uld as much as you do. Not everyone is cut out for doing the right thing, especially when the right thing is so hard.”
Teal’c seemed to consider the wisdom in that. “You are correct, Daniel Jackson.” A cruel smirk twitched at Teal’c’s mouth. “I wonder how these Jaffa would react to know a Tau’ri has far more courage than they do.”
Daniel lifted his chin proudly, bravely. As well he should – Daniel had stood before gods and defied them without fear, something these Jaffa couldn’t do even with an army at their backs. The universe really did underestimate Daniel Jackson.
“So, what say you, Teal’c?” Jack asked from his spot on the ground. “Do we throw in the towel and head home tomorrow?” Jack was all for declaring the Sekhmet Jaffa a lost cause and getting the hell out of Dodge.
Teal’c pondered the suggestion, then he shook his head. “There may yet be some among this group who will come to realize the importance of the rebellion’s cause. I cannot give up until I am certain there is no hope.”
“Then we stay,” Jack decreed. He might not like it, but the rebellion was important to Teal’c, and he would stand behind his friend.
Teal’c nodded in thanks.
“Teal’c,” Carter said as she got to her feet and approached the Jaffa. “I want to apologize to you for what I said this morning…”
Jack turned his back on his friends – he knew how the rest would play out. Carter would tell Teal’c she was sorry, Teal’c would forgive her, and the two would embrace like family more than coworkers.
Sometimes Jack wondered at the confluence of events that led to SG-1. The universe had a strange way of taking family away only to give it back in unexpected ways.
The planet was awash with shouts and weapons fire.
Jack wished he could say he was surprised that the Jaffa turned on them, but that would be a lie. The only surprise was that some of Sekhmet’s Jaffa stood with SG-1 against their own. Jack cared only insomuch as it made the two sides more equal in number and gave SG-1 a fighting chance.
The first shot was fired late that morning by Uandor. Within seconds, it became an all-out battle.
SG-1 was crouched behind crates, fallen Jaffa, and downed trees sporting their glorious caparisons of autumn. The red leaves were challenged by the patches of blood-soaked earth.
The crates were only large enough to cover one man, two at most, meaning SG-1 was spread out on the west end of camp. Sekhmet’s Jaffa were holding the east. The Stargate lay between them, mired in a no man’s land that each side fought to win control over.
Staff blasts sang through the air and exploded against trees, threw up clods of dirt, or found an unlucky victim and burned through flesh and bone. Bullets raced toward targets, pinging off armor until a lucky few found weak spots and burrowed into bodies. Screams of pain and battle cries blended together to make the soundtrack of war.
Jack knew the symphony well, the music in all its variations buried in his bones.
He played his part, a percussionist of combat with his P-90.
A strange split tore a person in half during a firefight. Some details were laser-sharp while others fell into a black fog. Some sounds rang clear in his skull, while others melded into a muffled background noise. Jack was hyper-aware of his heart and his pulse in his neck and his hands on his weapon, but the exact placement of his legs and feet were less certain.
He was highly attuned to the exact position of each member of his team, but the rest of the Jaffa were a moving mass of strange faces.
The battle had been raging either five minutes of five millennia.
In that moment, Jack felt like he’d been living this war forever. His life outside of now was a dream, a utopia without death and pain that he could not fathom. He was never a father, a husband, a friend, a lover, he wasn’t even a man… they all paled to this, the real Jack O’Neill, the instrument of war.
Jack became the gun, the knife, the grenade.
He became war to save his friends.
Jack peppered an enemy Jaffa with bullets, doggedly firing until the Jaffa fell, then he scanned the battlefield. Between the fires started by the staff weapons and the reds and oranges of the foliage beyond, it looked like the entire planet was aflame.
“Sam!” Jack heard Daniel cry out, and Jack snapped his head to the left to find his 2IC.
Carter dove out from behind her half-destroyed crate when a concentrated volley of staff weapon blasts plowed into it, shattering the object that had been providing cover for Carter and throwing shrapnel and smoke into the air.
Carter scrambled in a combat crawl along the ground, then got to her knees with her weapon at the ready as she searched for new cover.
Jack caught movement in the corner of his eye and looked.
A Jaffa was taking aim at Carter.
Jack jerked his weapon toward the Jaffa and put the man in his crosshairs.
The Jaffa’s staff weapon continued to point at Carter, but the Jaffa’s eyes flicked to Jack a split second away from shooting him. From across a warzone, Jack could see the Jaffa weighing his choices: shoot her or shoot him.
In that instant, Jack thought this might be the day. The day when their luck ran out and he died. Or Sam did.
Battlefield revelations were breathtakingly brutal, and Jack was bombarded with regrets. He should have kissed Sam. He should have held her. He should have made love to her every chance he got. At the moment of staring down death, regulations seemed like such a stupid reason not to love her unreservedly.
For all that the thing between them had been too much, it hadn’t been enough.
He hoped if one of them had to die, it would be him. If it saved her, he would be okay with that. Maybe this was why he hadn’t died after Charlie, or on Abydos that first time, or on all the missions off-world since… maybe it was to be here, now, when his death could save Sam.
Because it couldn’t be her.
She couldn’t die while he lived.
He couldn’t go home after losing her and find all her things in his house. Her clothes in his hamper, her cup in his cupboard, her shampoo in his bathroom, her dog on his couch. He couldn’t stand it. It would break him. Jack had lived through so much in his life, but he couldn’t live through that. The straw that broke the camel’s back.
The Jaffa’s finger moved to fire, and Jack’s did, too.