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Hard Day's Night

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Jack wakes in a clearing, staring up at trees moving gently against a blue sky. Squinting up against sun, he can hear the familiar and comforting hum of Daniel and Teal’c’s voices in the distance.

Arguing over the proper way to make pancakes, he thinks.

He rolls his head to the side. Carter stands a short distance away with her pants rolled up to her knees, her bare feet in a small stream. She’s got a very familiar looking baseball cap on her head, only a few glittering spikes of blond hair sticking out around it.

“Hey,” Jack says, patting his own bare head. “Never took you for a thief, Major.”

She turns, smiling at him, and he isn’t sure if the sun glinting off the water is more blinding or just that damn smile. She steps carefully out of the stream, picking her way to shore until she’s firmly back on ground, the grass curling around her toes.

She’s standing over him, blocking the worst of the sun from his eyes, her fingers sliding smoothly along the bill of his lucky cap. “I was just keeping it safe for you, sir,” she says.

Reaching for her foot, he slides his hand up her ankle, her flesh cool and damp under his fingers. “That’s thoughtful of you.”

He can’t quite remember what the purpose of this mission is, but isn’t too worried about that. Daniel’s voice is still audible in the distance as he explains perfect flapjack flipping techniques to Teal’c.

Carter crouches down next to him, her knee bumping up against his hip. “Jack.”

He blinks, refocusing on her face. “What?”

She has the gall to look a little worried. Doesn’t she see what a nice day it is? “I need you to wake up.”

He frowns.

She reaches out, touching his face. “Wake up."

Jack’s eyes snap open, a wheezing breath echoing in his ears as he sucks in air. He barely gets a full lungful before he’s hacking and coughing, pain blazing across his chest. The trees are gone, Carter with them, and now he’s staring up at broken puzzle pieces of grey debris that don’t make any sense. He tries to move, to sit up, but his vision blurs, his head pounding, so he lies back down.

He reaches for his radio and only gets a fistful of dust-encrusted dress blues instead. What the hell?

He closes his eyes, just to make the pounding stop, but he feels the tempting pull of oblivion and knows what it means. Wake up. Dragging them back open, he forces his eyes to focus on his surroundings. Grey, grey, grey.

Turning his head slightly, he can just make out the darker bulk of his desk, its spine broken by a heavy beam. Right, he thinks, drawing in another breath, still half-surprised when it doesn’t smell of evergreens.

Earth. Homeworld security.

A quick inventory of his surroundings reveals dust trails from the ceiling and dried blood on his cheek (and that’s doubly bad, one that he’s bleeding and two that he’s been lying around long enough for it to dry). He can’t see into the situation room, the glass shattered and what looks like the entire floor from above slanting viciously to the ground through it.

He listens carefully, but there is nothing more than eerie silence and the slight groan of a suffering building trying to find equilibrium. No alarms, no voices, no sounds of rescue. Which means there is probably nothing to do but rescue himself.

He isn’t sure how long it takes to work his way free of the debris, the task complicated by the fact that he may black out again, though he likes to think of it more as taking a brief nap. It sounds more benign that way.

He finally gets unsteadily to his feet, the damn shattered remains of his desk releasing his foot at last. He always knew that desk was going to be the death of him, just not quite so literally.

Once he gets upright, he heaves over to one side, dumping the contents of his stomach rather unspectacularly on top of the dusty debris.

Rack up another one for the ‘not good’ column. Though surprisingly enough the mystery meat midnight special actually looks improved for having been partially digested and then upchucked.

Clearly he has a nasty concussion, but there is nothing he can do about that right now, so he just keeps moving as best he can. He tries the phone near his desk, but isn’t surprised to find it dead. His cell seems to have met a nasty end with a piece of concrete, so that’s out too.

Roughly orienting himself in a room that is now completely unfamiliar in its destruction, Jack eventually locates his safe. It’s one of those crazy, end of the world, steel encased, fireproof deals, and has luckily remained completely intact. It takes him two tries on the pass code, but it usually does anyway. Inside, under a harmless looking stack of paper files is a secret cache of radio, weapons, and various other necessary objects he’s in the habit of always having near him, being on Earth or not. It may seem paranoid to some people, but he knows far too well how quickly things can go sideways.

Case in point.

He pulls on his utility vest, slipping the weapons into their comfortable, familiar places, and it helps focus everything a bit. At the very bottom of the safe is a soft white crystal chunk. He knows Thor is long gone, but he’s held on to it just the same.

He picks it up, giving it a squeeze.

“Hello?” he says, his voice little more than a croak.

It’s not really a surprise when nothing happens, but he still slips it into his pocket.

He tries the radio next, and maybe that’s backwards, but whatever. It’s a bit more worrisome when the radio doesn’t work either, despite having fully charged batteries. No matter what channel he uses, he only gets static.

“There is only one reason the radio would fail to function, O’Neill.”

Jack turns to see Teal’c sitting nonchalantly on top of the nearest chunk of concrete and rebar. He’s sporting the black tank top and utility vest that make his arms seem even more massive than usual, with a P-90 strapped to his chest.

Jack blinks. “Teal’c?”

Teal’c merely stares back at him, and Jack notices how suspiciously dust-free he is. There’s also the small fact that Teal’c is currently halfway across the galaxy. Isn’t he?

Jack picks up a small piece of debris and tosses it at Teal’c. It sails right through him, rattling down the other side of the pile.

Definitely a concussion, Jack thinks, carefully fingering the throbbing wound on his temple. Or worse.

“The radio,” Teal’c reminds him, his voice chastising as if Jack is a child who has let his attention wander.

“You aren’t real,” Jack says, double-checking the fit of the holster around his thigh. Peeling off his jacket, he tosses it back towards the remains of what once was his desk.

“Clearly,” Teal’c replies. “But my point is no less valid.”

Jack sighs and turns back to look at Teal’c. Ignoring him clearly isn’t going to make him go away, the hallucination as stubborn as the real damn thing. Plus, seeing as there isn’t exactly anyone else around, Jack figures talking to a figment of his imagination can’t hurt. “You think the radios are being jammed on purpose.”

Teal’c nods.

“Meaning there is someone here who wants to keep this quiet.” Intruders, more than likely.

“You must prepare yourself for that possibility.”

“Wonderful.” As if having the building blown up around him weren’t bad enough. He can only be thankful they moved their (supposedly) top-secret operation to a more remote location. Close to the president, but also just far enough to not risk collateral civilian damage. Jack can tell them ‘I told you so’ for not building it underground like he said to when he gets out of this fiasco.

But first, he has to get out of his office and figure out just what the hell is going on.

The door to his office doesn’t so much open as list to the side with a groan. The hallway outside hasn’t fared much better than Jack’s office, the emergency lighting flickering eerily. It does wonders for his head.

Crouching down near the wall, Jack closes his eyes and listens, trying to pull out any sounds that may be contributed to people moving around. Luckily it is still rather insanely early, or it had been. Unlike the SGC, they don’t pull round the clock complete shifts, the place functioning on a skeleton crew. People out here like to sleep when they can. It means minimum casualties, he hopes.

Still, there should be some people somewhere. Security at the very least.

Then he hears it, a low mewling sound like a small kitten, the garbled sound of a voice calling out for help.

Cautiously moving through the debris, Jack locates the source of the noise. It’s a woman, fussy black suit now liberally coated with dust and blood. He watches her a long moment, finally recognizing her. Not the enemy, he decides. At least not the one he is concerned with at the moment.

Jack kneels down by her. “Are you okay?”

She looks up at him with real relief, nodding her head.

She’s been riding his ass all week about expenditures and budgets and ‘we’re in a recession in case you hadn’t noticed’s. She was the one to insist on an early morning meeting. She’s probably regretting that right about now.

See? Jack thinks, turning to regard Teal’c. It’s all coming back now.

He’s gone. Jack thinks Teal’c would be properly impressed with how well his brain is functioning. You know, if he bothered to stick around.

Jack shrugs and looks back at the IOA rep. Annie something.

Together, they manage to shift the debris trapping her foot, and luckily the bones seem intact.

“Well,” Jack says, scanning the hallway for any other movement. “You wanted to know why the money is so important. Now you--.”

She grabs his chin and turns his face to hers, holding it firmly. He winces against the pinch of her fingers, but idly acknowledges that at least he knows she’s real. If not odd. (Definitely odd.)

“What are you--?”

Impatiently, she points to her eye and then his lips.

Right. Shit. His fuzzy brain recalls the skinny kid who had been attached to Annie’s side, being her voice.

Jack makes sure he’s looking straight at her when he speaks, slowly and clearly. “Where is the kid?”

Her brown furrows in confusion.

“You know,” he says. “The…kid.” He holds up his hands and wiggles them.

She takes a deep breath as if trying to keep her temper before shaking her head. She wipes the palm of one hand with the back of the other, pointing down the hall. Gone somewhere, apparently. Of all the times to jaunt off to take a pee.

This whole situation just got a whole lot trickier.

“I don’t know ASL,” Jack uselessly reminds her.

Her lips twitch, almost looking amused before she shifts to pull something out of her pocket, pain flashing across her face. Jack thinks she must have a bruised rib or something. It’s the something that he has to keep an eye on.

Annie digs out a dusty notepad from her jacket pocket, a pen attached to it by a string. She writes something down, turning it so Jack can see.

BSL.

Jack frowns. “What?”

“I’m British,” Annie says, voice garbled, but understandable. All the more so for her underlying ‘you’re an idiot’ glare that is apparently universal.

Jack stares at her with blatant disbelief. “Is that really the most pressing detail right now?”

She takes a breath as if to snap back, but then looks around their surroundings, her entire body seeming to deflate. She lifts one trembling hand to her hair, slowly shaking her head. Clearly she’s in shock, and Jack regrets losing his temper.

What do we do? she writes in her book.

He touches her shoulder and gives her his steadiest gaze, the one he uses to talk people into doing crazy things. “We find a way out.”

She nods, looking slightly mollified. It’s good to know he hasn’t lost his touch. Reaching across him, she taps a finger on his radio.

“They’re jamming all incoming and outgoing signals,” Jack explains.

Her brow furrows.

He rubs his shoulder, feels the small reassuring bump under his skin. “They would have already beamed us out if they could.” He imagines Carter in orbit for a moment, no doubt cursing his stubborn hide for refusing to cooperate. The alternative explanation (that there isn’t anyone out there to save their asses) doesn’t even bode consideration. He has no idea what this is, after all. An accident? An attack? Just one part of a much larger offensive? Jack relegates that particular chain of thought to the back of his mind. He can’t control anything beyond what is happening right here, right this moment.

And since he has Annie in tow, he should probably try to find an exit as quickly as possible.

She opens her mouth to say something else, but Jack’s head whips around, hearing the shift of rubble in the distance. Grabbing Annie’s arm, he pushes her down behind a slab of concrete, crouching down next to her. He presses his fingers across his lips, and she nods her understanding, one hand fisted against her mouth as if to hold back any rogue sounds.

The clatter of movement gets closer and Jack lifts one arm across Annie, holding her back against the slab.

He pulls out his little binocular to peer up over the edge, and thank god he decided to keep all this shit around.

Two guys in strange space leathers with non-Earth weapons and a large crate carried between them are easing down the hallway.

“Lucian,” Daniel mutters.

Jack looks up to see Daniel sitting on the edge of the slab, his brow furrowed thoughtfully.

“The tattoos, Jack,” he says with some impatience. “They’re typical of the Lucian--.”

Jack sighs, because there is no way in hell he’s actually listened enough to Daniel to know this.

“You keep telling yourself that, Jack,” he says, crossing his legs.

More rubble falls as the…, hell, Lucian goons move closer, and clearly they have no fear of being caught.

“I swear I heard something down here,” one of them says.

The other one huffs with annoyance. “Does it matter? Let’s just get this done.”

“Hey, I’m not the one who crashed the damn ship into the building. This was supposed to be a simple drop and go, not a life sentence!”

“The coordinates must have been off! That bastard couldn’t even get that right. We’re just lucky it wasn’t worse. We still have a little bit of time to find a way off this backwater planet.”

The voices pass by, fading into the distance once more.

Not so paranoid after all, Jack thinks.

“It’s not paranoia when they’re all out to get you,” Daniel chimes in.

“Yes,” Jack says. “Thank you.”

Annie gives him a strange look, but Jack just waves it away.

Daniel laughs. “Don’t worry. She already thought you were crazy before this. Talking to me will just confirm it.”

Jack carefully scans the rest of the hall for movement. “That’s a real comforting thought, Daniel,” he mumbles into his sleeve.

Daniel sobers. “What do you think they’re after?”

Jack shrugs. Probably the usual stuff. Power, leverage, revenge. Decimation. They aren’t the Lucian Alliance’s favorite people after all. They’ve cut far too effectively into their kassa profits time and time again.

So much for a quick exit.

He needs to know what the Lucian goons are up to. Not to mention that he’s got that itchy feeling at the back of his neck that says there is a lot more going on here.

Nope. Annie is going to have to come along for the ride.

Jack gets to his feet, only swaying slightly at the change in position. Annie frowns at him, though to be fair, that very well may be her default expression. He gestures for her to follow him, working their way as quietly as they can in the direction he saw the Lucian whiners disappear into.

They don’t have far to go until they catch them coming back towards them. They very conveniently pause in an intersection of hallways that are more or less intact. Jack leans back against the wall next to a very useful hole. He should talk to someone about leaving these when they rebuild.

He’s too far away to hear anything, but not so far that he can’t see Annie’s aide coming down the hallway from the other direction with one hand pressed to his bleeding head. Right toward the Lucian.

There’s no way to warn the kid without blowing their own cover, so Jack’s left watching him stumble into enemy hands.

Only he doesn’t look particularly surprised.

In fact, now that he’s looking, the kid has a weapon in his hands, which he jabs angrily at the two guys. One of the Lucian rolls his eyes, but doesn’t shoot him, so Jack can only assume they aren’t strangers.

Interesting.

Leaning back from the hole, Jack turns to regard Annie. He gestures for her to look.

She watches for a moment before sliding back down to sit next to Jack. She makes a sign he’s pretty sure is rather profane.

“How long has he been with you?” he asks.

She holds up two fingers, frustration furrowing her brow. Jack thinks she can’t decide who to be more upset with, her aide for being a traitor, or herself for having hired him.

“Months?”

She nods.

The guy must be the one sending coordinates of their supposedly top secret base, though to judge from the state of the building, he didn’t do a fantastic job. That still leaves the question of what exactly they were supposed to ‘drop’.

“How the hell did he learn ASL?” Jack muses.

Annie’s eyes narrow at him. “BSL.”

Yeah, yeah, Jack thinks, waving it away.

But her chest is heaving with indignation, her cheeks flushing red as something seems to occur to her.

“What?”

She scribbles on her pad. My old interpreter.

“Yeah?”

Her hand is shaking as she writes.

Car crash.

“Jesus,” Jack mutters under his breath.

She tugs at his sleeve.

He turns to look at her. “We can’t know.”

“Seems a bit of a coincidence, doesn’t it?” Daniel says.

That her interpreter turns out to be a fucking plant? Yeah. That’s the kind of coincidence that makes Jack lose sleep. He’s going to write a very long letter to the IOA when they get out of this.

On the plus side, at least he doesn’t have to worry about rescuing the kid.

Daniel’s lips twist. “Always the optimist.”

Jack doesn’t bother to hide the rude gesture he shoots Daniel because Annie is peering back towards the faint rumble of voices.

He touches her arm, trying to lead her away. There really isn’t time for her to beat herself up about this.

“Wait,” Annie says, Jack wincing as her voice carries a little louder than he would have liked.

She grimaces apologetically. She points to her eyes and then at the Lucian and back to her lips.

Jack gauges the distance to the guys at the end of the hall. That’s a damn useful skill. She watches a bit longer before writing on her pad.

He is angry. Yelling about clumsy, ruin plan. Too early. Too dumb to fly ship without crashing.

She lifts up again, watching. Then she spins to him, her face pale, rapidly enough for Jack to reach out for her, fearing that she’s about to take a face plant into the rubble. She shoves his hand off her, reaching for her pad again.

BOMB.

“In the building?”

She nods.

Shit. “I need you to keep watching what they are saying. Find out everything you can about it.”

She peers back up over the edge.

Jack glances behind him, not terribly surprised to see Teal’c standing in Daniel’s place.

“So this is not simply an incursion,” he says.

“No,” Jack says. “And if they just wanted to blow this place up, they’ve already done a rather thorough job.”

It’s probably a big fucking bomb, to judge from the Lucian goons’ agitation. He just can’t catch a break today.

Jack feels his head swim, pleasant blackness pressing in.

“O’Neill,” Teal’c intones.

Jack takes a breath, tugging on Annie’s sleeve to get her attention again. “Any idea where it is?”

She shakes her head. The crate?

As in the one they were lugging when they first passed by but now mysteriously no longer have.

Right.

Pushing to his feet, Jack makes sure the way is clear and then slinks down the hall, Annie right on his heels.

Jack comes around a corner and nearly smacks straight into someone. Whoever it is lashes out, Jack barely dodging a very well placed hit. Plus, he’s got a concussion and maybe a broken rib or two, so he tries not to feel too bad that the other person gets the jump on him.

He aims for their legs, trying to subdue them, but he catches an elbow in his back, his chest smashing into a piece of debris with a crunch that he really hopes is not his bones. Twisting back around he manages a glancing blow, shoving them back away from him in an attempt to get his footing enough to orient himself.

Just as quickly as the other person attacked however, they stop.

He still totally could have won, he thinks, leaning forward on his knees and breathing raggedly.

“Sir?”

It’s an airman, just as bloody and dusty in her uniform as he is. Clearly from a field unit, Jack thinks, to judge from the way she looks not quite at ease in her dress blues. He remembers those days.

She’s beginning to look horrified. “I thought… Are you all right, sir?”

“Peachy,” Jack says, his head swimming more than he cares to admit.

“There were intruders,” she says. “I was following them.”

“Yeah,” he says, “so were we.”

Her eyes dart past him to Annie who is watching both of them with her brow furrowed.

With a wince, he straightens back up. “Speak so she can see your mouth,” he says.

She looks confused, but follows the order easily enough. “Uh, okay.”

A quick inventory of his body reveals that the crunching sound had been the death of his radio and not his bones. Damn. He drops the smashed unit to the floor. Not like he needs to worry about littering.

“You’re not usually here,” he says to the woman.

“No, sir.” She starts to look away, but catches herself, turning her face back to Annie. “Just lucky enough to choose today of all days to hang around.”

Jack snorts.

“Sergeant Stephanie Wilson, sir,” she says, body straightening.

He hooks a thumb at Annie. “Annie. IOA pain in my ass.”

The airman blinks, as if uncertain how to take that, but nods firmly in Annie’s direction.

“Sergeant Wilson,” Jack says. “Sounds familiar.”

He watches her consider it, rolling the dice and bluffing. She sighs. “I’m here for a disciplinary hearing, sir.”

Potentially criminal, but honest, at least.

Annie’s eyes widen as if they’ve found themselves in the company of a murderer. Her paranoia seems to be growing to rival Jack’s. Though after finding out about her interpreter, he can’t really blame her for that.

“Did you do anything to endanger this planet or your unit, Sergeant?” Jack asks, grabbing his shoulder, rolling it gingerly. “You know, other than assaulting a superior officer?”

Her back straightens, indignation barely reined in by stubborn control. “No, sir.”

Jack nods and hands her his zat, keeping his side arm for himself. He’s concussed, not stupid.

“Debatable,” Daniel mutters from behind him, and when exactly did he become such a smartass?

Daniel snorts derisively.

Annie tugs at his sleeve, holding her hand out expectantly.

“Sorry,” Jack says. “Fresh out.”

She mutters something he’s pretty sure he wasn’t meant to hear, so he ignores it.

Thankfully neither their scuffle nor conversation afterwards seems to have attracted the attention of their Lucian buddies. The three of them continue in the direction they last saw them, Jack taking point, Wilson following up in the rear with Annie safely (somewhat) tucked between them.

They proceed slowly, both out of caution and a need to go around and over debris. Though the damage at least has the benefit of eliminating certain areas from their search. In fact, they know they’ve found the right place when they find a door with debris recently shoved out of the way.

Jack and Wilson flank the door, Jack giving a silent count before they sweep in together. Fortunately, the room is empty, the Lucian being either stupid or confident enough to leave the damn thing on its own.

Because there it is, the bomb.

God, he hates these damn things. Of course it’s nothing like anything he’s ever seen before. All he knows for certain is that it’s surely loaded with naquadah. Or worse, naquadria. Other than the bomb-y bulk of it, there is a lit panel with lots of words and symbols scrolling by.

But not in English. Typical.

“Any chance you’re a linguistics expert, Sergeant?”

She shakes her head, staring at the writing without any comprehension. “Sorry, sir. Not my specialty.”

Of course not. He’s never that lucky.

“What is your specialty, dare I ask?”

She turns to look at him, and this time she’s smiling grimly at him, something so damn familiar in it. “Munitions, sir.”

Well, thank god for that. “I know you probably won’t agree, Sergeant, but I’m sure as hell glad you were here today.” He waves his arm towards the bomb in permission, and she hunkers down in front of it.

Jack watches her futz. Well, to give her credit, she is working much more carefully than that, because, bomb, so that’s a good thing.

“Carol Weterings,” Jack says at the back of the sergeant’s head.

Wilson’s head whips around so fast Jack fears for her neck. “What?”

It’s always best to hit a scientist when they are up to their elbows in something. It’s usually just enough to give one split second of honest reaction before they remember themselves. Sure enough, she blinks. He registers grief and anger before she recovers.

“That’s the file you were trying to access. The illegal breach you’re being brought up on charges for.”

For a second she looks thrown, and then her eyes narrow. “You knew all along who I was.”

Jack shrugs. He has a lot of bits and pieces floating around his rather woozy head. But, yeah, he knows who she is. What he’s not sure is why he wanted her to know it.

Wilson turns back to the bomb, fingers once again pulling at panels, but her neck is tense. He knows her type. Being on edge will only help focus her.

Annie gives him a look like, Was that really necessary?

He shrugs, moving back to the door to watch the hall.

“Sir,” Wilson calls after a while.

He moves back in the space. “What have we got, Sergeant?”

She shakes her head. “Without a lot more time and a lot more help, I think the most I can do is deliberately set it off.”

“Not particularly useful,” Jack says.

“Actually, it is, sir,” she says. “We have to detonate in place before the countdown finishes, sir. It’ll still go boom here, but it won’t trigger the payload. It’s the only way to avoid half of the Eastern seaboard getting blown into atmosphere. Of course, that hinges on us actually having anything to set off a smaller blast with.”

Jack flips up a velco pocket on his vest. “C4 do it?”

Her eyes light up, hands lifting in a gimme gimme motion. God bless gear heads.

“How long do we have?” Jack asks.

She watches the scrolling ancient text. “Now that, I have no way of knowing.”

They stare at the writing incomprehensibly. Jack glances around, but of course Daniel has made himself scarce. Asshole.

Annie tugs at his sleeve and thumps herself on the chest.

He gives her an incredulous look. “You speak an obscure Lucian dialect?”

She rolls her eyes and points at the flickering display. Numbers. I know numbers.

Thank God for pencil pushers.

He gestures expansively. “See what you can do.”

She sits for a while, pen ticking away on her notepad. She glances at her watch every once in awhile, her foot beginning to tap out a steady rhythm.

Jack jerks his chin at Wilson. “Let’s make sure the hallways are clear.”

Out in the hall, things are quiet. Wilson slides him a sideways glance. “This building isn’t going to survive this, even the smaller blast.”

“Probably not,” Jack agrees.

“And us?”

He doesn’t bother answering.

Her lips twist, something hard in her eyes. “Everyone is expendable, right?”

“Yeah,” Jack says. “But I thought instead we could knock out the jamming signal and get beamed out of here right before it blows.”

Her eyebrows lift in surprise. “Yeah,” she says, nodding. “Much better plan.”

Annie is still working when they get back, and Jack tries not to feel the impatient tug of time, knowing this thing could go off at any moment. He catches Wilson eying him.

“What?”

Most people would bother to look at least slightly discomforted by his tone. Wilson just eyes his forehead. “That looks bad.”

Jack shrugs. “Had worse.” 

Annie’s face lifts with a jaunty edge of victory and she says something that Jack misses.

“I’m sorry?”

She looks back down at the pad and writes two big numbers, holding it up for him to see.

38.

“Minutes?”

She flips her hand over a few times in a manner that Jack supposes is meant to mean ‘more or less.’

Jack touches her shoulder. “Really great work.”

Her lips press together, but he doesn’t miss the tinge of her cheeks. Someone around here should know what they are doing, she writes.

His eyebrows fly up. “Stop trying to make me like you.” He holds out his sidearm. “Think you can manage not to shoot yourself or Wilson with that?”

Setting aside her pad, she gingerly takes the weapon.

“Wilson can show you how it works.” He pulls off the rest of his gear, leaving him in nothing but dust stained dress blues.

Both women frown at him. Luckily he has a lot of experience with that or his feelings may have been hurt.

“You two have that figured out,” he says, pointing to the bomb. “Now all that’s left is me taking care of the jamming signal. So set the charge and give me twenty minutes.” It’s the most time he can risk. If he can’t get the jamming signal down by then…well, the Eastern Seaboard is more important than the three of them.

He’ll just have to get it done.

“How will we know you’ve done it?” Wilson asks, wincing. Maybe remembering how nice it would be to have that damn radio right about now.

“Ideally?” Jack asks, pulling a knife and slicing open his sleeve. “You get beamed out of here.”

Digging the tip of the knife into his shoulder, he pries his locator beacon out.

Annie grimaces back from the blood, looking at him like he’s lost his mind. He wipes it off best as he can on the edge of his shirt, and then forces it into her hand.

He glances at Wilson. “You two stick close together.”

“What about you?” she asks.

Jack smiles. “Don’t worry. I have a plan.”

She glances at his temple, the arm he has tucked in close to his body. She opens her mouth, but seems to think better of it.

We’re all expendable.

Even generals.

She nods at him, her back straightening, shoulders back. “Yes, sir.”

“Good luck,” he says, holding a hand out to her.

She shakes it. “To all of us.”

He gives Annie a jaunty little salute and leaves them.

“That was chivalrous of you,” Daniel comments, falling into step next to Jack in the hall. “I mean, suicidal, but chivalrous.”

“I’m not dead yet,” Jack says, almost twisting his ankle as he loses balance on a loose piece of rubble. “Stop distracting me.”

Teal’c stands ahead at the next corner. Jack doesn’t suppose he could do a little scouting or at least something useful.

Teal’c’s lips curl. “I can only know what you know, O’Neill.”

Well, that’s completely useless. He darts a glance around, his head fuzzy enough to make his first mistake. He thinks, Bet if Carter were here she would be helpful.

Digging in with his fingernail, he reopens the wound on his forehead, blood once against trickling down into his eyes. He weaves dangerously down yet another debris-laden hallway (and much less of this is pretend that he would like). Bumping his shoulder into the wall, he causes an avalanche of debris, the sound amplifying and echoing down the hall.

“Here they come,” Carter says.

Finally she shows up.

“Is this a good idea?” he asks her.

“Not particularly,” she says. “But do you have a choice?”

He leans back, looking up at her. “Really wish you were here, Carter.”

Not in the sense that she would blow up with him or anything, but he knows she gets that.

She smiles. “Me too, sir.”

As footsteps near, Jack lowers himself to the ground, doing his best to look injured and harmless.

A boot nudges his leg. Jack groans and peers up straight into the barrel of a weapon.

“Wait,” the translator-turned-traitor says. “I know him.”

“So?” the other goon asks.

“So,” the first says in a ‘god-why-do-I-have-to-work-with-idiots’ tone, “he runs this god damn place. If anyone can get us out of here it’s him.”

Jack lets them drag him to his feet and walk him down the hall. Unsurprisingly, they take him back to their lair, and thank god they seem to lack any imagination at all. Clearly they were not chosen for this mission for their ability to think things through.

“Look who we found,” they announce.

The last of the goons is waiting there. He turns, giving Jack a once over. “The janitor?”

“It’s the General, idiot,” the traitor says.

He looks mildly interested, only to snort derisively. “So this is the great Jack O’Neill,” he says. “A doddering old fool.”

Jack lists to the left, his eyes scanning the room. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

Carter helpfully points at a blinky box. He gives her a wry glance. Amazingly enough, he probably could have figured that one out on his own. Carter wrote this really, really long report on Lucian equipment once. He even read it. Mostly.

Carter puts her hands on her hips, head tilting to one side in disbelief.

“Where is the Stargate?” the tall one is demanding.

Jack blinks up at them, wondering if his concussion is even worse than he thought. “Excuse me?”

He grabs Jack’s collar, shaking him a little. “The Stargate,” he bites out.

It takes Jack a moment to realize the guy is actually serious. The Stargate.

Jack begins to laugh. God, it hurts, like his ribs are going to explode, but they are all about to blow up in less than five minutes, and this bozo is so in over his head that Jack can’t believe it.

“He’s cracked,” goon number two helpfully supplies.

“Is that what they told you?” Jack says, hiccuping. “That the Stargate is here?” This totally isn’t the time to lose it, but dammit, he can’t help it. It’s been a long ass day.

Carter gives him a stern look.

He waves his hand at her in a ‘yeah, yeah’ motion.

“If you value your life, O’Neill, you will tell me where the Stargate is.”

“Sure,” Jack says. He points towards what he assumes is a westerly direction. “It’s that way. About 1600 miles.”

Mr. Evil But Out Of His League frowns.

Jack can see it all so clearly now. These Lucian flunkies were never supposed to land the ship at all, let alone get safely away before the bomb went off. They were set up to be kamikaze pilots and never even realized it. God, that’s funny.

“Why are you laughing?” he demands, giving Jack another shake.

Carter points at her watch.

Jack smiles. “Because we are all going to die here and there is nothing you can do about it.”

The punch is predictable, but that is what Jack is banking on. The hit catches Jack in the chin, so he rolls with it, falling towards the blinky box.

He sprawls back on the floor and now, now he’s finally within reach. All humor draining away in an instant, Jack gathers up every last ounce of adrenaline, feeling it like a buzz building in his ears.

Carter opens her mouth as if she’s going to explain how to disarm it.

Grabbing a rock-sized piece of debris, he drags himself the last few feet and smashes it into the top of the blinky box. It gives off a really satisfying shower of sparks before going dark.

Not humming anymore just has to be a good thing.

But he doesn’t have time to gloat, the three assholes screaming in outrage. Jack scrambles behind cover, but it won’t hold them off for long. He glances at his watch. Not that it will matter.

But at least Annie and Wilson should already be clear. Carter’s efficient that way.

She hunkers down next to him, smiling sadly at him. Even inside this dusty, close space, her hair seems to sparkle with reflected sunlight. “So this is the great Jack O’Neill,” she says, voice heavy with affection and pride.

Jack smirks. “Old, but not quite dead yet.” He reaches for her hand, but his fingers just pass through. She’s not really here, but out there somewhere. Hopefully exactly where he needs her to be.

He pulls the white crystal out of his pocket and gives it a squeeze. “Carter,” he says. “If by some miracle you can hear this, get me the hell out of here now.”

Carter smiles at him from under the brim of his favorite cap, a breeze gently rustling her hair. “Goodbye, Jack.”

The countdown hits zero.

*     *     *

The next time Jack wakes, he isn’t in a nice pleasant meadow with the smell of pancakes in the distance. Or even a torn hellscape of concrete and rebar. Instead he has the unpleasant burn of antiseptic in his nose and absolutely everything hurts.

“Sir.”

All he can make out of the person leaning over him are kind eyes over a white mask.

“You’re bleeding in your brain,” Daniel helpfully supplies, standing just behind her in an absurdly ugly sweater. As if his head didn’t hurt enough without that assault on his eyes.

“Ah,” Jack says. “Make sure they do a little cleaning while they’re in there.” There’s more than a few things he’d love to forget.

“I believe your brain is quite fine just as it is, O’Neill,” Teal’c says, watching with interest as the mask-wearing figure injects something into his IV.

“Guys,” Jack says, as the drugs start pulling him down and under. “Thanks for being there.”

“You bet,” Daniel says.

Jack closes his eyes on the sight of Teal’c nodding, eyes warm and reassuring.

*     *     *

The next time he wakes, Carter is back. But she doesn’t look right, her blue BDUs exchanged for a flight suit, her spiky blond hair now long and pulled back in a bun. Even the color is duller somehow, and yet, she looks more beautiful than she ever has, all wide eyes and soft flesh over a steel core.

Against his better judgment, he grabs at her hand and it nearly hurts, the way his skin unexpectedly slams into firm flesh. He fumbles, her fingers rescuing his.

“Carter,” he says, voice coming out as a rather unattractive croak.

Her fingers squeeze around his. “You had us worried there for a while, sir,” she says. 

“Yeah, well,” he says, closing his eyes. “You know how I like to be the center of attention.”

He can feel the thick pressure of gauze on his head and wonders how much of his brain can even be left at this point.

He opens his eyes. “Annie? And Sergeant Wilson?”

“We got them out, sir. Both of them.” Her brow creases and Jack wonders just how pissed she was when she locked onto his locator beacon and got an IOA rep and a rogue NCO instead. “They’re fine. Just a few bruised ribs and a sprained ankle.”

Jack relaxes back against the bed. “You heard me.”

She nods, looking away. “I always monitor known Asgard frequencies. I mean, even if they’re gone… I had my comm officer write a program that--.”

Jack squeezes her hand. At least she’s delegating. “Good job, Colonel,” he says, his eyes closing. Whatever energy he may have had is now quickly fading. “Good job.”

Her other hand covers his, feeling warm and steady. “You just rest, General. I’ll take care of everything here.”

He nods, knowing she will. Things are going a little fuzzy now, but a good fuzzy, a safe fuzzy. He licks his lips, every movement feeling like it’s in slow motion. “I want…hazard pay,” he mumbles.

Carter laughs, a surprised huff of air, and Jack smiles.

“I mean it,” he says. “And like a huge bonus and an extra week of vacation.”

Something brushes his forehead, her voice close to his ear. “I’ll let the President know.”

“I did keep the Eastern Seaboard from blowing up, after all.”

“Yes. Yes, you did.”

“I’m gonna sleep now.”

“Okay.”

*     *     *

Carter isn’t there the next time he opens his eyes, and that’s sad on many levels.

“For the record,” an unfamiliar voice says, “there are still a lot of money issues we have to iron out between us.”

Jack blinks at the unfamiliar woman standing at the foot of his bed. “What?”

Maybe they didn’t fix his brain as well as they thought they did, because who the hell is this?

“I’m over here,” the woman says.

Obviously, as Jack is staring straight at her.

Still, her eyes dart a bit to the side.

The sound of fingers snapping brings Jack’s head around, and there at the side of his bed is Annie, giving him that oh-so-familiar ‘you’re a bit of an idiot, aren’t you?’ glare.

“What?” Jack says.

“Just because you saved my life and kept everyone from blowing up doesn’t mean I’m going to let you just spend money without any sort of accountability.”

Jack wonders if the drugs are talking, or if that almost sounded like a thank you. “No blank check,” Jack says, smiling. “Got it.”

Annie’s lips twitch as well, and then there is a full-blown smile he wasn’t sure she was capable of doing. A moment later, she’s biting her lip, looking uncomfortable as if her entire daily quota of emotion has been expended.

British, after all, he thinks.

“You have someone check her out?” he says, gesturing at Interpreter version 3.0.

Annie rolls her eyes, her hands flying.

“Yes,” the interpreter says. “She has been fully vetted by the IOA.”

Jack stares at the interpreter. “Of course, you would say that no matter what Annie actually signed.”

“Jack,” Annie says.

He looks over at her. “I might not be there next time to save your ass, after all.”

She lifts an eyebrow. “And I might not be there to save yours.”

Jack grins, holding out a hand. He has to admit she was a good person to have around in a crisis.

After a brief pause, Annie takes it.

“I can only hope you will be,” Jack says. “It was kind of fun, wasn’t it?”

Her expression shifts, clearly thinking he really may be insane.

He glances at the interpreter. “No need to translate that one.”

Annie lets out a huff of air.

*     *     *

They keep him trapped in the damn hospital for ages before they finally let him go home. Considering how little his brain is worth, he’s a little surprised they seem so worried about it. Carter and Daniel just glare whenever he mentions it.

The real ones, that is. He hasn’t seen the other ones since they did whatever it is they did to his brain. He thinks it’s probably pathetic that he misses them a little bit. He doesn’t need a head shrinker to tell him why. He just knows that when he needed his team most, they didn’t let him down, cranky old general stuffed away on the other side of the continent or no.

The door to his bedroom opens, Carter easing into the space. “You’re awake.”

Jack nods, noting that his head doesn’t even feel like it may roll off when he does it. “I plan on managing it for at least five whole minutes this time.”

She smiles, twisting something in her hands.

“What you got there?” he asks.

She sits on the edge of the bed. “You kept asking for your cap.”

“I did?”

She nods. “It seemed rather important.” She hands it to him.

He smiles, rolling the fabric between his fingers, enjoying the rough real texture of it. “I knew you were looking out for it.”

Carter drops her eyes, but not before he sees it, flashing in her eyes.

This whole thing has spooked her a bit. He was supposed to be the safe one, relatively speaking. “C’mere,” he says, tugging on her hand.

She stretches out next to him, her head coming to rest on his shoulder, arm wrapped across his stomach. He saw how hard it was on her, keeping her distance on The Hammond, and later in the hospital. But here in this space, there are no appearances to keep up.

She breathes in deep, fingers pressing gently into his side as if trying to remind herself that he is really here. They lie like that for a while, and Jack even manages to stay awake. This is way better than sleep anyway.

“I think you may have made another conquest in the IOA,” Carter mumbles into his shoulder.

He grimaces. “I doubt it. Between the two of us we’ve saved Woolsey’s hide how many times? And he’s still a giant pain in my ass.”

“Good point,” she says, shoulders shaking with amusement. It’s good to see that she can laugh about it now.

The Hammond isn’t Atlantis, it never will be, but the ship has given her one thing Atlantis never could have: a greater sense of autonomy, a fresh command, and far less politics. And she even gets to save his ass still from time to time.

Plus, he gets to see her a hell of a lot more these days. He must be getting selfish in his old age. He’s just tired of some things being expendable.

Of course, that brings up one of the other worries on his mind. He hasn’t had the chance to see Sergeant Wilson again. But her hearing was pushed back to next month at his request.

“Jack,” Carter says, fingers brushing the hard line of his jaw. He’s clenching his teeth without even realizing it. “What is it?”

He turns his head towards her, catching her fingers and touching them to his lips. “Could you get Teal’c over here at some point? I need to talk to him about something.”

“Sure,” she says. “Of course.”

He pulls her closer, his lips brushing her forehead.

*     *     *

By the time Jack argues his way back out of bed and into his uniform, they’ve temporarily moved operations back into the Pentagon. But only while they build a nice, completely underground new installation for them out in the mountains.

God, Jack loves telling the President how wrong he is.

“Here’s the file you requested, General,” his aide says, placing it on the table.

Having spoken extensively with Teal’c, he is more than familiar with the contents of this particular file.

“Thanks,” Jack says, scooping it up. “Everything else set up?”

“Yes, sir. She’s already been brought in.”

Stepping into a small conference room, Jack waits for the airman seated inside to look up.

Her eyes widen as she does, popping up to her feet. “Sir,” she says.

“Sergeant Wilson,” Jack says, closing the door behind him. “Take a seat.”

She hesitates only slightly before sitting back down. Jack has read a lot more about her since he last saw her. An impressively ambitious, if not slightly reckless record.

Jack sits down across from her, laying the folder on the table in front of him. “So, why don’t we pick up where we were before someone crashed a ship into my office?”

She’s sharp enough to look wary. “Is this part of the official inquest, sir?”

Jack shrugs. “Does it matter?”

She leans back in her seat, crossing her arms over her chest and looking mulish, like she has no intention of playing his games.

“Why Homeworld security?” Jack asks, deciding to cut all the bullshit. “Because of Weterings?”

She lets out a breath. “It took me almost seven years to get a transfer into a posting with even the slightest access. Another three to figure out what the program even was.”

“You wanted to know how and why she died,” Jack says. He knows perfectly well that she wasn’t looking to sell secrets or breach security. Or she never would have gone looking for a file as thin and nearly forgotten as this one. As insignificant.

“Yes,” Wilson says, her jaw set.

Jack considers her for a long moment. “Who was she to you?”

Wilson’s face automatically shutters, her posture shifting. No doubt years of deflection and self-preservation kicking in.

Jack lifts a hand. “Never mind. Don’t answer that.”

Her lips twist. “I thought I was allowed to tell now,” she says, voice hard. Only a decade too late.

“You are,” Jack says. “But it’s honestly none of my damn business.”

She blows out a breath, looking down at her hands.

“And it also doesn’t really change what you did,” he points out.

“No,” she agrees. “It doesn’t.”

“I put a good word in for you, but I’m not sure that matters either.”

“I know, sir.”

Jack picks up the file. “But I figure if you’re going to pay the price, you might as well get the prize, right?”

Her head lifts with a jerk, staring at the file in his hand with something like starvation.

“I hope it helps,” he says, holding it out.

She darts a glance at his face, like maybe trying to figure out if this is a trap. After studying his expression for a long moment, her head tilts to the side. “But you don’t think it will.”

Jack shrugs. “Loss is loss.”

She glances down at the file. “Why are you giving me this? Because I blew up a bomb for you?”

“No,” Jack says. “Because it was my fault.”

He always thought the name sounded familiar, but it wasn’t until he talked to Teal’c that he really realized why. He isn’t sure if it’s worse that his decisions led to her death or that he forgot all about her.

“What?” Wilson says.

Jack shrugs. “Isn’t that what you wanted to know? Whose fault it was? It was mine.”

She doesn’t look like she believes him.

He flings it across the table towards her, Wilson slapping her hand down in it to keep it from falling off the table. “Open it. You’ll see. All the gory details.”

She hesitates, her hand still flat against the top of the report. “Do you regret it?”

Jack clenches his jaw. He could lie to her, but he won’t. His only other choice would have been to let his superiors send a bomb through to Abydos. He never could have known Apophis would come back though the unguarded gate and grab an unsuspecting woman playing a card game. He never could have known any of this was going to happen.

It doesn’t make it any less his fault.

“No,” he says. “I made the best choice in an impossible situation. And Weterings was part of that price, even if I didn’t know it until it was too late.”

She regards him for a long time, her gaze steady and assessing, and Jack forces himself to look back. “I understand, sir.”

“Do you?”

“Yes.”

As if to prove it, she pushes the folder back towards him.

It’s Jack’s turn to look surprised. “You’re sure?”

“It’s like you said. It doesn’t really change anything, does it?” She pulls her hand away from the file as if it physically hurts to do so, her finger grazing the name on the tab almost gently. “Just… Can you tell me--.”

“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Jack says, knowing that won’t necessarily make her feel any better. “But she didn’t stop fighting until the very end. She wanted to come back.”

She closes her eyes. “But she didn’t.”

“No,” Jack says. “She didn’t. But not because she was expendable.”

She nods, her hands pulling back into her lap.

She doesn’t thank him, and he’s glad.

Scooping up the file, he knocks his fist on the table. “See you around, Wilson.”

Doubt it, her expression seems to say. “Goodbye, sir.”

He’ll check in on her again once her trial is done. He has a feeling she’ll still be around, and he has just the place for her.

“General O’Neill.”

His aide is in the hall waiting for him, looking slightly harried.

“A representative from the IOA is waiting in your office.”

Jack shakes his head, darting a quick glance up at the ceiling, very carefully keeping himself from wishing for any sort of emergency to get him out of the meeting. After all, he’s just been rather rudely reminded that this damn job may very well be the death of him in the end.

But not yet.

.fin.