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Finding Solid Ground Trilogy

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Part 1: Rock Bottom

It seemed surreal to be back.

Jack O'Neill glanced around the infirmary again as though to check he really was there. The institutional walls stared back at him, filling him with a sense of security. He breathed in deeply, filling his lungs with the antiseptic smell that always lingered. The faint sounds of nurses performing medical rituals somewhere down the corridor in another room filtered through the heavy silence.

He smoothed the top cover on his bed and closed his eyes. He was safe. He was in the infirmary. Back home at the SGC. He had made it; against the odds, he had made it home.

He wasn't sure how or why. He barely remembered the run from Ba'al's fortress; his mind had settled into some kind of battle fugue. He had shot Jaffa after Jaffa, clearing the way to the Stargate. He had all but dragged Shallan, Kanan's lover, through the wormhole, stumbling into the bright light of the new Alpha site. He had fallen then; tired beyond belief. He'd woken up twice; once in the Alpha site infirmary to Janet Fraiser's voice and a litany of questions which he'd answered robotically, and once on the journey to the Stargate; the blue sky above him dotted with drifts of cloud as he gazed up from his position on the stretcher.

He was broken.

Jack's eyes blinked open at the thought. He stared up at the endless ceiling tiles until his eye caught on a familiar smudge.

'I know you have your doubts because you've been through something no one should have to go through. I guess what I'm trying to say is…you're going to be alright.'

Daniel Jackson's final words seeped back into Jack's consciousness like a soothing balm on a raw wound. Daniel had thought Jack was going to be OK but Jack could admit he still wasn't so sure.

Ba'al had taken him apart. He would have told the Goa'uld everything he had asked to know; anything to die one last time and not to wake up again. Anything to make the endless torture stop. It didn't matter to Jack that he had lasted longer than anyone else would have done; had perhaps held out longer than anyone else ever had if the Goa'uld was to be believed. It didn't matter to him that he had kept Kanan's secret; kept his own secrets from the Goa'uld. The knowledge that he had would have spilled them all in his very next session nagged at him.

He felt weak; impotent.

It wasn't something Jack was used to feeling. He'd felt something like it once before after his spell in a prison in Iraq.

Bound, beaten, broken.

His body had healed but Jack wasn't sure he had ever truly recovered. He wasn't ever sure he'd faced the truth of that. He'd taken on even more dangerous missions after Iraq...done more distasteful things as though to simply prove he could. Until Charlie had died and he'd stepped through the Stargate to Abydos. The SGC had become his second chance; an opportunity to redeem himself.

'You're a better man than that.'

'That's where you're wrong!'

Maybe Ba'al had been a punishment for past deeds...karma. Jack closed his eyes. He'd never believed in that crap before but now...

He knew his body was strong; physically the sarcophagus had healed everything Ba'al had done. There was no trace of the knives that had plunged through his muscle and flesh; no sign of the acid that had burned through his blood. He had the sarcophagus withdrawal ahead which meant, given he'd watched Daniel go through it, he wasn't looking forward to the next few days, but he figured he'd get through it and come out of his experience physically whole.

He wasn't sure about his mind.

Everything inside felt fragile; as though it had been shattered into a tiny million pieces and his body was simply a shell holding it altogether.

'...you're going to be alright.'

'How do you know?'

'You're just going to have to trust me.'

He could trust Daniel. Maybe his Ascended friend hadn't blown Ba'al to bits with his newly acquired powers or whisked Jack away when he'd been captured in the first place but Daniel had been there for him; had stayed with him; had ultimately given him hope just as Jack was ready to give up.

'You were right. There's always a way out.'

Had Daniel helped SG1 find a way to give Jack that fighting chance he'd needed? Jack figured Daniel would never tell even if he had and maybe it was for the best if it kept Daniel out of trouble.

He missed his friend. He missed Daniel every day. He'd lost team-mates before but Daniel's death had been different, more so in that it hadn't truly been a death. But it had been a loss and one Jack had felt sharply. All of SG1 had struggled in the other man's absence. Having Daniel beside him again had felt like a piece of the puzzle had been returned albeit temporarily. He wished Daniel could have stayed.

He wished Carter could have stayed.

His eyes flickered open and landed on the glass of water Samantha Carter had left before she had departed. He'd almost asked her. The words had hovered on his tongue. But he had kept his mouth shut and she had left him to rest.

As her CO, he wasn't meant to want her to stay; wasn't meant to want to wrap himself around her, fill himself with her scent and touch to forget Ba'al. Jack closed his eyes again resolutely. Carter had moved on from their once mutually known feelings and she had done it at Jack's behest, he reminded himself. She was unaware he hadn't been able to do the same, and Jack wanted to keep it that way. He had his pride even if he still loved her.

The sound of someone approaching had him tensing. A hint of perfume hit his nostrils; a floral, orangey scent he recognised as Carter's shampoo; the one she'd started using just after Daniel had died. He heard her pull up a chair, quiet as she tried not to disturb him.

She had come back.

Jack swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. It didn't mean anything. It was the act of one concerned team-mate for another; a friend staying by his bedside to offer a familiar face and comfort. That was all.

He didn't care. She was there. He wasn't alone. Her fingers struck the keys of her laptop and the familiar rhythmic sound relaxed him. She was there and he was safe. He slipped back into sleep.

o-O-o

The Colonel looked incredibly untouched by his experience. Sam couldn't help notice that as she continued to work on her laptop. She hadn't been able to settle in her lab after leaving him. She figured she could work beside him without disturbing him.

She glanced at his sleeping visage; all the lines on his face relaxed in repose, the way he was curled up under the blankets. He looked pale but that was to be expected after almost a month spent within the Tok'ra base and more days spent in Ba'al's fortress.

A shiver went through her.

They didn't know the full details of what had happened to the Colonel only that he had been repeatedly tortured and subjected to the sarcophagus. It sounded bad. Sam knew the Colonel had shared some of his ordeal with Janet, enough to determine a course of treatment, but the full debrief would only happen once the CMO had declared him fit to take part, and even then Sam believed General Hammond would offer the Colonel the opportunity to do it in private. She shifted on the chair.

She wasn't sure she wanted to know the details. It was bad enough knowing it had happened. She felt slightly nauseous every time she thought about it. She had experienced some of Jolinar's memories on the various methods of Goa'uld torture and they had all made her shudder. And she couldn't help feeling guilty.

Sam pushed the thought away and tried to focus on her work. She keyed in some new data and set the programme running; looked over the latest report on the X303 engine, another on the spaceship discovered in Steveston. Her blue eyes went immediately to the Colonel as he made the briefest movement.

He looked back at her, blinking as though in confusion. 'Carter.' His voice was a whisper.

'Sir.' Sam fumbled to place the laptop to one side so she could move to stand beside him but paused when she realised his eyes were already closing again. She shifted back to her original position and tried to focus on the text that was inextricably swimming across the monitor. She blinked rapidly to clear her vision.

Her gaze sneaked back to the Colonel. She knew he wouldn't appreciate or tolerate any hint of pity. It was one of the reasons she had been so matter-of-fact with him when he had woken earlier; one of the reasons why she had ushered Teal'c and Jonas out.

She rubbed the back of her neck and tried futilely to consider the latest data on the naquadria projections. They'd already pretty much exhausted their small supply and they really needed more of the substance if they were to make progress on developing shields and defences. She sighed. It was a problem for another day.

Her hand strayed back to her neck. The scar she had acquired from being implanted with a Goa'uld symbiote during her previous mission had gone and she had noticed that it had faded as though by magic. Janet had theorised that it was a side-effect from the absorption of the dead symbiote in her body; an increased healing and regeneration ability. Sam couldn't help but be creeped out by the whole thing despite going through the same experience with Jolinar. Her eyes went back to the Colonel.

His meagre report had indicated Kanan had left him for dead. At least, he wouldn't have to deal with a symbiote dying inside him. He would have to deal with the other side-effects of being a host though; she could feel the faint trace of naquadah that coursed through his blood. It was nowhere as strong as the feeling she got around Teal'c or an active host but it was there. Perhaps he'd be able to use the Goa'uld devices, Sam mused.

She wondered how much he remembered of Kanan. Jolinar's memories had once intermingled as naturally as her own until Selmak had placed protective barriers in her mind. She could still access them; was aware of their presence; but the flashbacks that had once taken her by surprise on occasion no longer happened. Kanan had promised to keep the Colonel in a deep sleep yet she knew it was possible that information had been exchanged on a subconscious level.

The Colonel stirred again, his face creasing into a frown. She bit her lip as she waited anxiously in case he woke. He settled with a sigh and Sam gave up the pretence of working. She set aside her laptop.

Did he blame her, Sam mused. She had asked him to take the symbiote and regardless that it had been his decision to accept it, would he assign some responsibility to her for what had happened? She sighed deeply. She very much doubted that the Colonel's decision had anything to do with her personally. Whatever feelings Jack had once felt for her had been set aside when he'd shot her to save the base. He had moved on. Yet she couldn't shake the feeling that she was to blame. If she had just told Thoran and the General that the Colonel would never want a symbiote...but then she would have lost him to the illness that had ravaged his body after Antarctica.

She had almost lost him anyway. Tears filled her eyes and Sam blinked them back again. She wouldn't cry. She couldn't risk the questions it would prompt. If the Colonel saw her...he would know she still loved him, and that was just unacceptable. She had more pride than that. Sam closed her eyes. She would just rest...just for a little while.

o-O-o

Hell was white. It was filled with a bright light that blinded him. Jack could feel his wounds healing again; the knit of muscle and flesh as they stitched back together and reformed his physical shell.

He didn't want to be there anymore.

Beyond the light was pain.

Endless pain.

Pressure crushing him from the inside out.

Knives.

Acid.

And questions. So many questions.

He'd wanted to answer them so badly...

So badly.

He was weak.

Useless.

Anger stirred...

o-O-o

Sam frowned in her sleep. Something was wrong. Something...

A sound intruded; a low moan.

The Colonel.

Her eyes snapped open and she jerked into an upright position. The Colonel was clearly agitated; he'd thrown off the blankets; he was shivering and groaning. His face was contorted in pain.

Sam reached for the call button and pressed it. She hovered uncertainly by the bed. She didn't think it was a good idea to rouse him from whatever nightmare was holding him hostage by herself. He was Special Ops trained and was recovering from serious torture. She remembered how she had reacted to being woken abruptly after her experience with Adrian Conrad. She figured the Colonel's reaction was bound to be worse.

The clip-clop of heels across the linoleum sent a wave of relief rushing through her and she turned to meet Janet who had a nurse following at her heels.

'I just woke up and he was...' Sam waved at the Colonel in explanation.

Janet gave her a reassuring nod. She walked up to the Colonel's bedside and took his pulse quickly and efficiently. 'He's going into withdrawal.' She moved to prepare a shot of something and looked at the nurse. 'I'm going to administer a strong sedative. When it takes effect, I want the Colonel moved to a private room, restraints applied.'

'Yes, ma'am.' The nurse nodded.

'Janet?' Sam questioned concerned.

'I thought we had more time before the withdrawal would kick-in.' Janet admitted succinctly. 'He's going to need close monitoring and given how violent Daniel became, I'm don't want to take any chances.'

Sam sighed but she didn't argue. She remembered Daniel's reaction to the sustained sarcophagus use all too well; he'd been very violent and had assaulted Janet and some guards before the Colonel had managed to contain him. If their mild-mannered former team-mate could act so violently during withdrawal...she really didn't want to think what the Colonel would be capable of doing.

'Stand back, Sam.' Janet ordered and Sam moved a few steps away to give the petite doctor room.

The Colonel's eyes suddenly flew open. His hand came up to snare Janet's as it descended towards him with the syringe.

'Colonel.' Janet's voice shook a little but she attempted to remain calm. 'I'm just...'

He didn't wait for the explanation. He moved before any of them could react. He sat up and twisted Janet's arm towards her in one smooth move; the syringe stabbed into her thigh and he rammed the depressor home. Janet slumped to the ground with a small cry.

'Colonel!' Sam shouted as he sprang off the bed, dressed only in the pants of his infirmary pyjamas.

'Call for back-up!' The nurse yelled as he moved to intercept the Colonel in a tackle. The two men went skidding across the floor.

Sam hurriedly pushed the alarm button and reached for the phone. 'Security to the infirmary.' She slapped the receiver back into the cradle.

The Colonel had gained the upper hand in his wrestling match with the nurse. He tossed him across the ward into a cupboard. The nurse hit his head and went down hard.

'Colonel.' Sam started to run towards him and stopped as he grabbed a scalpel from a nearby tray and swung to strike her...

Her heart jumped in her chest as she froze. The scalpel stopped its arc towards her throat: its lethal point directed at her jugular.

The Colonel stared at her; no hint of recognition in his brown eyes yet he blinked as though she had struck a chord in his memory and he was struggling to remember.

The stampede of feet had his head jerking around. The SFs and Teal'c entered at a run with General Hammond and another doctor just behind. The SFs raised their weapons...

'No!' Sam shifted, heedless of the consequences, placing her own body between the Colonel and the weapons. The scalpel followed her.

Jack frowned as though her action in protecting him had confused him.

'Major Carter.' Hammond sounded nervous.

'I'm OK, sir.' Sam assured him even though her voice shook with nerves. She met the Colonel's gaze firmly. 'Colonel. It's me; Carter. Put the scalpel down.'

'Carter.' Jack repeated.

'Carter.' Sam confirmed.

It was as though she'd ripped a veil from his mind. He shook his head and the scalpel wobbled before it fell to the floor. He stared at her horrified, breathing heavily.

'It's OK, sir.' She assured him in a rush.

His eyes rolled back.

'Teal'c!' Sam yelled as she moved to catch the Colonel. The Jaffa was quicker. Teal'c caught him before he hit the floor.

'I have him, Major Carter.' Teal'c assured her.

The SFs lowered their weapons as Teal'c carried the Colonel back to bed.

'Major?' Hammond questioned as Doctor Brightman rushed to examine the Colonel, briefly pausing to check on Janet.

'The Colonel has begun suffering withdrawal symptoms.' Sam explained as she went to check on the nurse. 'He's not in control of his actions. Doctor Fraiser was attempting to give him a sedative when he woke and...' she paused as she registered the nurse's injuries, 'he injected Doctor Fraiser. Nurse Peters attempted to subdue him but...' she gestured at the prone form. 'I think he's just bruised and knocked out.'

'Can I have all non-essential personnel out of the infirmary, please?' Doctor Brightman eased Sam out of the way as she knelt by the nurse. Her colleagues were hurrying in to assist and Sam could see Janet was already being lifted onto a nearby gurney.

Hammond gestured for her to follow him out. They glanced at an immovable Teal'c beside Jack's bed but nobody was arguing. Teal'c was probably the only person on the base who would be able to restrain the Colonel if he woke again before they could treat him.

'That was a helluva move you pulled, Major.' Hammond said in a low voice as they got far enough away not to be overheard.

Sam couldn't prevent the heat that surged up into her cheeks. 'I knew he wouldn't hurt me, sir.'

'You took a huge risk.' Hammond corrected. He held her gaze for a second before he gave a weary sigh and ran his hand over his bald pate in acceptance.

Sam allowed herself a small breath and nodded.

Brightman emerged from the infirmary ward and a second later, the Colonel's bed trundled out and down the corridor, Teal'c faithfully following it.

'I'm having the Colonel transferred to a private room with an observation window.' Brightman informed them briskly as she hooked the stethoscope around her neck. 'I'm admitting Doctor Fraiser for observation; she was injected with a substantial dose of sedative but she should just sleep that off. It will be several hours.'

'I'll check on Cassie.' Sam murmured out loud.

'Peters is also being admitted. He took a blow to the back of the head. I want to perform a MRI to rule out any brain swelling.' Brightman continued.

Hammond nodded. 'Anything else, Doctor?'

Brightman seemed to hesitate momentarily before she straightened. 'Doctor Fraiser had all of us review Doctor Jackson's file in preparation for the Colonel going through the same experience.' She plunged her hands into the deep pockets of her white coat. 'We believed that the Colonel might suffer a milder version given he was injured when he entered the sarcophagus unlike Doctor Jackson. However, the onset of the withdrawal suggests the Colonel's withdrawal is more extreme and given that...'

'Get to the point, Doctor.' Hammond said firmly.

'Have you ever seen someone go through a cold turkey withdrawal from heroin, sir?' Brightman rejoined.

Hammond and Sam exchanged an anxious look.

'I'm concerned the severity of this withdrawal is going to place an enormous stress on the Colonel's body. I want to place him in a drug induced coma. Hopefully, he won't fight the physical pain and the stress will be less.'

Hammond nodded gravely. 'Do whatever you feel is necessary, Doctor.'

Brightman's eyes lighted with relief. 'Then with your permission, General?'

'Of course.' Hammond waved her away. The General turned to Sam who had taken a step after the doctor. 'Major.'

Sam stopped and gave an apologetic smile belatedly realising she hadn't been dismissed. 'Sorry, sir.'

Hammond looked at her understandingly. 'You won't do anyone any good if you don't get some rest, Sam.'

The use of her first name surprised her but she sighed in acquiescence to the General's suggestion.

'I'll just check in with the Colonel and Teal'c, sir.' Sam said neutrally. 'And then, I'll rest.'

'Very well, Major.' Hammond departed and Sam was left alone in the corridor.

She ran a hand through her dishevelled blonde hair. She turned on her heel and walked in the direction of the disappearing doctor.

o-O-o

Jonas watched as Teal'c gathered food. It was late in the commissary. The SGC night shift was in full swing; the corridor lights muted and the sounds hushed despite the stark concrete. There had been only one SG team departure that night: SG13 heading out under their newly assigned leader Colonel Dixon. Jonas had watched them and wondered when SG1 would be back in the mission rotation. He immediately felt guilty.

Colonel O'Neill was clearly going to need time to recover. It wasn't his fault that he'd fallen sick with the Ancient virus nor that the symbiote given to him so that he would heal had ostensibly abducted him and left him to be tortured by Ba'al. Jonas shook his head. It was a miracle that the Colonel had even survived one part of what he'd gone through never mind that he had made it home.

Jonas mopped up the last of his gravy with a piece of bread and stuffed it into his mouth as Teal'c made his way to the table and sat down opposite him. Jonas hurriedly swallowed. 'How is he?'

Teal'c paused in shaking salt over his meal. 'O'Neill has been placed in a deep coma to reduce the physical strain on his body from the sarcophagus withdrawal.'

'Is Sam with him?' Jonas inquired.

'Indeed.' Teal'c picked up his knife and fork. He began to eat.

Jonas leaned back in his chair. 'Is it true that the Colonel held a scalpel on her?'

'He was not in control of his actions at the time.' Teal'c replied calmly.

'It sounds like it got tense there for a while.' Jonas commented.

Teal'c didn't answer. He continued eating.

'Was I supposed to be there?' Jonas blurted out. He raised a hand from the table as Teal'c looked at him. 'I mean, Sam was there and you were there.' He pressed his lips together. 'I've noticed everyone usually stays with their team-mates when they're in the infirmary.'

'I do not believe Colonel O'Neill would expect your presence.' Teal'c replied.

'Maybe not expect it,' Jonas agreed, 'but maybe I should be there anyway.'

Teal'c lowered his cutlery. 'In certain circumstances I have observed that human males do not wish their weakness to be on display to others.'

Jonas raised his eyebrows. 'You think the Colonel wouldn't want me there?'

'Doctor Jackson only allowed Colonel O'Neill to be present during his withdrawal and he had a longer standing relationship with myself and Major Carter at that time than you do currently with O'Neill.'

Jonas slowly nodded his head. 'So I should keep myself scarce?'

'I believe Colonel O'Neill would appreciate your discretion and distance until he is stronger.' Teal'c confirmed.

'I guess I understand that.' Jonas said. He was disappointed but he understood. He and the Colonel had barely started to develop an understanding before the mission to Antarctica. He doubted the older man wanted him to witness him in a weakened condition. 'Perhaps you can tell him I'm thinking of him when he's feeling better?'

Teal'c inclined his head in agreement.

The klaxons sounded loudly, startling Jonas. Teal'c got to his feet and Jonas followed as the Jaffa made his way to the control room.

Walter Harriman acknowledged them with a sharp nod. 'Incoming wormhole.' He announced calmly.

Hammond clattered down the stairs to join them. 'What have we got?'

'Receiving IDC, sir.' Walter responded. 'It's the Tok'ra.'

'Open the iris.' Hammond ordered, heading to the stairs. Teal'c moved to join him and Jonas followed.

Garshaw stepped out of the wormhole onto the ramp. She waited until Hammond approached before she made her way down to meet him.

'General Hammond.' Garshaw's eyes swept over Teal'c and Jonas. Jonas gave a small wave and an embarrassed smile. He'd only met the Tok'ra Councillor a few times during their brief time on the Tok'ra base when they had delivered the Colonel for his implantation.

'Garshaw.' Hammond looked at her quizzically. 'What can we do for you?'

Garshaw made a small face. 'I am afraid it is not good news, General.' Her eyes met his gravely. 'The Tok'ra Council has sent me to inform you that we have determined Colonel O'Neill must be brought to account for Kanan's death.'

Jonas's mouth fell open and as his eyes darted to Teal'c's glower and Hammond's red face, he knew he wasn't the only one shocked by the Tok'ra's announcement.

o-O-o

Hammond had never felt more like throwing one of their allies off his base than he did at that precise moment. He felt his blood rising; temper heating; his hands curled into fists. He stamped down hard on all of it.

'I think this discussion is best done in private.' Hammond bit out. He turned to Teal'c. 'Ask Major Carter and Doctor Brightman to come to my office immediately.'

The Jaffa bowed and departed, Jonas beside him. Hammond marched out of the gate room and back up the stairs to the small space that served as his. He directed Garshaw to a seat.

'May I get you some refreshment?' His tone was polite but his face was stern and Garshaw shook her head.

'General Hammond...'

He held up a hand as he took his seat, sinking back into the leather cushions oblivious to their comfort. 'I would prefer to wait until Major Carter and the Doctor in charge of the Colonel's treatment join us before any explanation.'

Garshaw's mouth tightened but she nodded in acquiescence. 'Very well.'

Hammond leaned forward, his elbows resting on his desk as he clasped his hands over the blotter. His mind raced. He couldn't understand what the Tok'ra hoped to achieve with their action. Relations had been frosty over the incident with the Colonel and his symbiote. They had forced Thoran into giving them the mission reports; had informed Yu of Ba'al's location and research against the Tok'ra's wishes. But he couldn't believe that they would hold the Colonel accountable for the death of the symbiote.

There was a thud of footsteps and Hammond was unsurprised to see the Major reach the office door first, the slim form of the acting CMO just behind her with Teal'c and Jonas bringing up the rear. He gestured for them all to enter. The doctor took the remaining visitor seat and SG1 stood off to the side. The Major's silver dog-tags glinted against her black shirt as she assumed an 'at ease' pose.

'Garshaw.' Hammond motioned at her. 'You know Major Carter. This is Doctor Brightman.'

Garshaw nodded.

'Briefly,' Hammond said, addressing the Major and doctor, 'Garshaw has brought a message from the Tok'ra Council indicating they wish to formally hold Colonel O'Neill responsible for the death of his symbiote.' He couldn't quite keep the incredulity out of his voice.

'If I could explain?' Garshaw jumped in before the others reacted. She wet her lips. 'The Council met earlier to discuss recent events. We received two motions from angry members. One came from a new member of the Council who wished to lodge a formal protest concerning the decision by your people to inform Yu.'

'I can understand that.' Hammond said striving for a neutral tone. He had been half-expecting something. He had knowingly pushed the boundaries of their treaty. He would do it again but he believed the Tok'ra would protest, the President would claim plausible deniability and Hammond would receive an official reprimand. It was just business as usual politics as far as Hammond was concerned. What was more of concern was the Tok'ra's decision on the Colonel.

'The second motion was made by Thoran.' Garshaw sighed heavily and placed a hand on the polished surface of the desk as she leaned forward. 'He had spoken with Shallan...'

'The girl the Colonel rescued?' Hammond checked. 'The one this Kanan had a relationship with?'

'Yes.' Garshaw confirmed. 'He claimed that she told him that Kanan informed her that he had come to realise his mistake in leaving her behind after blending with his new host; that it was this singular instance that caused him to act so irrationally.'

'Host and symbiote do influence each other.' Sam broke in. Her eyes glittered defiantly. 'That's a natural part of the process.'

'Thoran believes that the Colonel impressed his own values on Kanan until Kanan felt unable not to act.'

'I'm sorry,' Brightman cut in, 'but my understanding is that the Colonel was unconscious throughout the majority of the blending?'

Garshaw hesitated. 'We cannot know for certain that this took place.'

'Kanan said it did at the time of the implantation and the Colonel has confirmed it since.' Sam argued.

'Regardless,' Garshaw said, 'Thoran believes that Kanan would not have acted in such a way on his own and he has convinced a number of the Council. The Council is asking for you to voluntarily deliver the Colonel into our custody so a formal hearing can take place and the Colonel brought to account.'

'For something you have yet to prove.' Hammond pointed out briskly.

Garshaw's head dipped. Her host Yasouf appeared with a shy smile. 'I apologise for the change in personnel, General, but perhaps if I could explain this is not Garshaw's choice. She argued most strongly that the Colonel could not be held accountable as did many others.'

'Then why was the motion allowed?' Jonas asked.

'One of our kind is dead; the Colonel lives.' Yasouf gently noted.

'So they want to blame someone?' Jonas said. 'And the Colonel is a handy scapegoat?'

'He is also known to be deeply cynical about blending; to abhor the idea of our kind. Can you not see how this may look to some?'

'That he led Kanan into some suicidal mission?' Sam bristled. 'The Colonel would never make the tactical errors Kanan evidently did.'

The Tok'ra's head dipped again. 'Perhaps not and perhaps a full accounting will bring to light this fact.' She looked at Hammond. 'I will need to return with the Colonel.'

'I'm afraid that isn't possible.' Hammond said crisply. 'The Colonel is in a drug-induced coma. His body may not survive the effects of undergoing extreme withdrawal from the sarcophagus.'

'Of course.' Garshaw breathed in deeply. 'We should have realised.'

'We're estimating it may take days for the Colonel to recover enough to make a full debrief.' Brightman added. 'There is certainly no way I would release him to stand some kind of trial any time soon.'

'I see.' Garshaw frowned. 'I would suggest the hand device but we have found it useless in such cases.'

'Then you can see that what you ask is currently an impossibility.' Hammond said.

'Yes.' Garshaw tilted her head. 'But if the Colonel survives – and I sincerely hope he makes a full recovery – the Council will expect him to be delivered to us.'

Hammond shot Sam a look before she could protest. 'And I will certainly take your request under advisement. However, given the circumstances, you won't be surprised to hear that we intend lodging a formal protest of our own over the treatment of Colonel O'Neill, both during his time in your care when a symbiote took possession of his body without his consent, and in allowing that symbiote to leave your base unopposed on a personal mission which endangered both the Colonel and this base. And let's not forget this latest outrage.'

Garshaw flinched at Hammond's hard tone.

Jonas cleared his throat in the awkward silence and raised a hand as though in school.

'Jonas.' Hammond indicated for him to speak.

'If I may offer a suggestion,' Jonas said, 'I think what both parties are seeking is an explanation of what happened. Perhaps we can agree a more informal hearing where the Colonel would be allowed to debrief both parties?'

'I'm not certain that would satisfy Thoran.' Garshaw admitted.

'What if the Colonel used the Tok'ra za'tarc device?' Jonas suggested. 'As I understand it, it would prevent the Colonel from lying about events, right?'

Hammond watched the small grimace flit across Sam's face. It was an uncomfortable reminder to her of being accused of being a za'tarc, of the events that had transpired afterwards with Martouf's death. He had a suspicion of the confessions that had cleared her and the Colonel of being za'tarc's but he knew he didn't want to look to closely at it; still didn't.

'Perhaps that could work.' Garshaw mused out loud. 'I would have to discuss it with the Council.'

'And I will have to discuss everything with my own superiors.' Hammond agreed.

Garshaw nodded. She reached for her abandoned scarf and Hammond stood up. He waved at SG1 and the doctor to remain where they were as he escorted the Tok'ra down to the gate room and gave the order for the gate to be dialled. They stood in awkward silence as the wormhole engaged.

Garshaw turned to him. 'I hope relations between us can be repaired, General. You have been a tremendous ally for the Tok'ra.'

'I feel the same way.' Hammond said. 'But I won't allow one of my people to be sacrificed to make it happen.'

'I understand and I hope it doesn't come to that.' Garshaw took a step toward him. 'Thoran's host was brother to Arden, Kanan's previous host. I believe he is grieving. If time passes, I believe so too will his anger towards the Colonel.'

'Let's hope so.' Hammond murmured.

Garshaw clasped Hammond's hand lightly before she strode up the ramp and disappeared into the blue. Hammond made his way back to his office slowly. He closed the door behind him softly and retook his seat.

'Thoughts?'

'Permission to speak freely, sir?' Sam asked.

'Granted.' Hammond wondered if he was about to regret his agreement when he saw the lightening flash of anger zig-zag across her delicate features.

'Are we really going to put the Colonel through this after everything he's gone through already?' Sam demanded.

Hammond's lips twitched and the Major looked at him quizzically.

'Sir?'

'My apologies, Major.' Hammond gestured. 'I thought you were going to tell me this was all bullshit.'

The tension lifted in the room and he was pleased to see a fleeting smile drift across Sam's lips.

He looked around the room. 'Is there any chance the Tok'ra could be right? After all, it was your own theory that Kanan was influenced by the Colonel's code of ethics that led us to the conclusion of where he was being held.'

'Unlikely, sir.' Sam said firmly. 'The symbiote may have been influenced by the Colonel's ethics but there is no way the Colonel would have had the ability to force the symbiote into an act it was unwilling to make. It's more likely that the Colonel's viewpoint simply allowed Kanan to do something he had wanted to do but couldn't justify before the blending.'

'And according to both Kanan and the Colonel at various times, the Colonel was unconscious and unaware of events from the moment of implantation to waking up on Ba'al's planet.' Jonas chipped in.

'The use of the za'tarc machine will enable us to prove that, sir.' Sam confirmed.

'Sir,' Brightman drew their attention swiftly, 'I have to make the point that there are a lot of steps before the Colonel will be in any position to take part in any debriefing and I would advise against it.' She waved a hand expressively. 'Even if the Colonel survives the physical withdrawal, there is still the stress of the trauma he has endured to consider. Reliving his experience through the debriefing would endanger his recovery.'

'I'd like you to write that up in an official recommendation, Doctor.' Hammond said thoughtfully. He sighed and leaned back. 'Unfortunately, I think we will need to give the Tok'ra some kind of concession here even if it's only access to our own debriefing.'

They looked about as pleased as he felt.

'I have some calls to make.' Hammond said. 'Let's focus on getting Colonel O'Neill through the withdrawal.'

He watched as they filed out of the room. The anger he'd repressed bubbled up as he went back over the conversation with Garshaw. If it was his decision, he knew he would be tempted to tell the Tok'ra where to shove their alliance. If they thought for one moment he would allow one of his people to be simply handed over like a common criminal when they were innocent...

He took a deep breath.

It wasn't his decision though and Hammond knew he would need all of his political nous to convince the Pentagon and the President that sacrificing Jack on the altar of the Tok'ra alliance wasn't the thing to do. For that he needed a calm head. He set aside his anger for the second time and picked up the red phone.

'This is Hammond. I need to speak with the President.'

o-O-o

Daniel watched frustrated as Hammond argued coolly against agreeing to the Tok'ra's demands. The General was well versed in politics and he watched as Hammond argued determinedly for not setting a precedent; for supporting a highly valued, highly respected officer who had saved not only Earth but the Tok'ra on several occasion; for the notion that perhaps with the Tok'ra in so much disarray that they needed Earth more than Earth needed them right then. It was an impassioned argument and one that Daniel itched to make himself.

He felt Oma settle beside him in the office. She said nothing for a long moment. She simply stood beside him, as equally invisible to Hammond as Daniel was himself, and listened.

'Your friend is in trouble.' Oma commented.

'Yes.' Daniel agreed shortly.

'What do you intend doing?'

Daniel turned to face her. Oma looked serene. Her graceful beauty settled into a knowing expression that made Daniel look away guiltily.

'Nothing.' He muttered. 'I'm not allowed to interfere.'

'And yet you already have.' Oma pointed out, revealing just how much she did know.

If he had been human, Daniel figured he would be blushing brightly. 'I nudged.' He had tried to follow his grandfather's advice and think outside of the rules.

Oma reached out and clasped a hand on his shoulder. In an instant their surroundings changed. They stood on another planet; a wide lake before them. Oma walked over to sit by the glassy water and patted the rock to indicate Daniel should join her.

'I don't need another lesson.' He began awkwardly.

'Do you want to be Ascended, Daniel?' Oma's blunt question caught him by surprise.

Daniel blinked. 'You know I do.'

'I know you helped your friend escape from Ba'al.' Oma said firmly. 'You broke our rules.'

'I bent them!' Daniel insisted. 'Sam, Teal'c and Jonas had already worked out where Jack was, it was just a matter of coming up with a strategy to rescue him.' He sighed. 'Teal'c was the one who came up with the idea; he only needed to be...' he winced, 'nudged into taking it to Hammond.'

'And you also nudged Yu into acting on the information from the SGC.' Oma continued relentlessly. 'He had not considered moving against Ba'al before you whispered in his ear.'

Daniel held his tongue. He was busted. He knew it and she knew it.

Oma stirred and pushed a hand through the water creating ripples that travelled out over the surface. 'Each action you take has an impact, Daniel. Today Ba'al is attacked by Yu; tomorrow he will be courted by Anubis to be his spy amongst the System Lords.'

'Because of what I did?' Daniel felt his heart sink.

'Every action has a reaction.' Oma repeated. 'You thought only to save your friend.'

Daniel lurched to his feet. 'I couldn't just sit there and watch Jack lose his soul! Do you know how many times Ba'al tortured him? The pain he went through? The pain he's going through?' He pushed a hand through his hair and whirled around to face her again. 'I have all these powers and I couldn't do anything!'

'You made that choice when you agreed to be Ascended, Daniel.' Oma got to her feet and walked over to him. 'I can undo this. I can return you to your friends.'

Daniel held her quiet gaze thoughtfully, suddenly uncertain. He enjoyed being Ascended. The knowledge that coursed through him; that he could access at his fingertips was incredible. He was learning so much about himself; about humanity; about the universe. He had told Jack he couldn't imagine being anything else other than what had chosen to be...

But.

And there was a but. He hated the sense of isolation he felt. He hated having so much power and not being able to use it to save the people he loved no matter how much he had tried to justify it to Jack. God, it was a miracle Jack was talking to him after his refusal to help the other man out of his predicament. His offer of Ascension had been sincere but a part of Daniel knew he had only hoped Jack would accept and embrace the idea because he didn't want to be alone. And even as he had made the offer he knew Jack was too rooted to Earth, to his past, to his duty to ever agree. Jack would never leave the others behind the way that Daniel had left them.

Oma's lips twisted as she registered the rush of different emotions across his face. 'Perhaps you need to think more on your journey.'

'Oma,' Daniel reached out to grasp her hand, 'I love them. They're my family.'

'You were told you must release your burden, Daniel.' Oma said, her eyes intent on his. 'That did not just mean your physical shell and the past but also your ties to your physical world including the relationships you formed there.'

'I know that,' Daniel returned, 'I know it, and I'm trying, I am. I just seem to, uh, be having some trouble actually doing it.'

Oma's face softened. 'You have a big heart and a soul capable of much compassion, Daniel, but to hold on to those you once loved and who loved you is not fair.' She laid a hand on his chest above his heart – or rather where his heart had once resided in his physical body. 'It is not fair to them or to you.'

She moved away but Daniel kept hold of her hand preventing her from leaving. 'Will you get into trouble for what I've done?'

She smiled. 'The universe is vast and we are so small. Sometimes our actions go unnoticed.' She squeezed his hand gently and let go.

He tracked her white energy form as it floated away and disappeared. He sat cross-legged down by the pool and gazed at his reflection. He looked confused; he felt confused. He breathed in deeply, trying to find the sense of peace that had eluded him ever since Kanan had walked Jack's body into a wormhole and onto Ba'al's planet.

'If the Daniel Jackson I knew was really here...if you were really my friend and had the power to stop it, you'd stop it!'

Jack's words drifted through his head. Daniel sighed. Perhaps the trouble was that he wasn't that same Daniel Jackson but he really had no idea who he was as an Ascended being. All he knew was that he wasn't sure he liked himself very much anymore.

Part 2: Vertical Climb

Some part of Jack was aware he was shivering; moaning. Voices clamoured around him; instructions shouted.

Pain.

A gasp. His.

He tried to move; restraints bit into his wrists and ankles.

Muscles contracted in agony.

His stomach spasmed; hot, bitter vomit surged through his gullet and out through his mouth and nose.

He was choking.

There were hands on his skin; painful hard rubs urging him to take a breath.

He finally managed to suck in air and the faint orangey-scent of a shampoo filled his senses.

Carter.

He stopped struggling. And as suddenly as his awareness had come to him, he felt himself floating as the drugs rushed back through him.

There was a cool cloth on his face, cleaning and soothing him.

Safe.

He was safe.

Another breath of orangey-goodness...and he drifted back into darkness.

o-O-o

Janet wasn't wholly surprised to find Sam in the observation room or that Sam's attention was focused completely on the man in the infirmary room below. She stepped inside and closed the door softly. Sam didn't even look up as Janet slid into the chair next to her and placed the latest report on the small ledge in front of them.

'He's doing much better.' Janet commented. The Colonel looked pale but alive. The last three days had been touch and go; he had coded twice even with the coma and had almost regained consciousness the day before thanks to the negligence of a nurse who was no longer with the SGC. Luckily, Sam had been in the room and had acted promptly to get him the medical assistance needed to put him back under.

Sam nodded quickly. 'Yes.' Her eyes didn't leave the Colonel's still form.

'We're going to bring him out of the coma tomorrow.' Janet continued.

The statement finally wrenched Sam's attention away from her CO. 'Are you sure?' Sam sighed impatiently and waved a hand before Janet could answer. 'Of course you're sure; you wouldn't be doing it otherwise.'

'I'm glad you realise that.' Janet said mildly.

Sam grimaced. 'Sorry, it's just...'

'You're tired and you need to rest.' Janet replied. 'When was the last time you had something to eat?'

The blonde Major shrugged. 'Earlier; toast, I think.'

'Sam.' Janet sighed heavily. 'You're not going to do the Colonel much good if you collapse.'

Sam blushed. Janet could see the red flush travel over her face and neck.

Janet took a deep breath. 'You know the Colonel may not want you or Teal'c with him to witness the next stage of his recovery.'

Sam flinched almost imperceptibly. 'I realise that.' She looked down. 'Daniel didn't want us there either.'

'He was scared of hurting you.' Janet countered.

Sam's eyes narrowed suddenly on Janet and Janet realised she was unconsciously rubbing the bruised area where the Colonel had injected her. She stopped abruptly.

'Are you OK?' Sam asked gently.

'I'm fine.' Janet claimed, settling both hands on the ledge. She pulled a face. 'It was my own fault. I should know better than to approach a highly volatile patient without taking the usual precautions.' A faint shudder ran through her. It could have been worse. The Colonel was trained to kill and Janet figured she'd had a lucky escape. Her eyes went back to Sam. If the reports of the way Sam had stepped in front of the Colonel were true, they'd both had a lucky escape.

'Why don't we get something to eat while Teal'c's with him?' Janet suggested. 'I missed lunch myself.'

Sam nodded reluctantly and, with a final look at the Colonel, she followed Janet out and into the bright corridor.

The two women made their way to the commissary in silence. Janet watched as Sam randomly chose the chicken dish and picked up a dessert glass of Jello as she made her own selections. They carried their trays to an empty table and sat down.

Janet unwrapped the cutlery she had picked up from its paper napkin and began eating. 'So how's Jonas?'

She could see her question surprised Sam who paused in pushing her chicken around her plate.

'Fine, I think.' Sam shrugged. 'I haven't seen him much.' She nudged some food onto her fork. 'I think he's trying to give the Colonel some privacy.'

'That makes sense.' Janet agreed. 'They don't know each other very well yet.'

'Teal'c said he's been helping with the discussions with the Tok'ra.' Sam added. She finally put the fork in her mouth and Janet watched as her friend struggled to chew and swallow. It was clear that Sam didn't really want to eat.

Janet focused on the subject Sam had raised. 'I believe Major Davis is confident we'll be able to broker a deal.'

'They shouldn't be blaming the Colonel at all!' Sam shook her head. Her fork stabbed into another chunk of chicken.

'I agree.' Janet scooped up mashed potatoes. 'And I think they know that too.'

'He's been through so much already.' Sam muttered. 'He doesn't deserve this on top of everything else. I wish...' she stopped abruptly.

Janet swallowed her food and gestured at her with her fork. 'You wish?'

Sam dipped her chicken in a puddle of sauce. 'I just...I sometimes wish I hadn't asked him to take the symbiote.'

'If you hadn't asked him, it's likely the decision would have been taken out of his hands entirely.' Janet pointed out. 'And if he hadn't taken the symbiote, he wouldn't be alive, Sam.'

She nodded jerkily.

'You couldn't have known what would happen.' Janet reiterated. 'No-one could.'

Sam sighed and pushed another forkful of food into her mouth.

Janet wondered for a moment if she should say something else. She wasn't certain her friend ever would hear the words of reassurance she needed from the person she needed most to hear them from; the Colonel. Moreover, she was becoming increasingly concerned that Sam's feelings for the Colonel were entirely too personal for Sam to be objective even if he did say something.

The doctor lowered her gaze to her food and concentrated on eating. She had already tackled Sam once about whether there was something more going on between the military officers and Sam had denied it, claiming that the feelings she and the Colonel had once professed for each other were over. Or more accurately that the Colonel didn't feel the same way about Sam so ergo...Janet stopped the thought before it could reach a conclusion.

There was a point to the 'don't ask, don't tell' rule and if she pushed Sam into the confession Janet assumed she'd make if she did push, there would be official repercussions. There weren't supposed to be any inappropriate feelings between officers especially those serving on the same team even if they were one-sided. On the other hand, Janet knew both Sam and the Colonel had continued to act with the utmost honour even when they had both had shared feelings. She'd taken the decision once not to report them and she would do it again.

It was also different this time, Janet thought, glancing at Sam with compassion. The Colonel had apparently moved on. Sure, he had been intent on finding Sam when she'd gone missing some months before and attentive in supporting her through the aftermath, but nothing she couldn't ascribe to his protectiveness over his team-mates generally; all of SG1 was close. Or rather had been close before Daniel's death.

She noticed absently that Sam had given up on the actual food part of her meal and had moved onto the Jello. Janet missed Daniel. The archaeologist had been a good friend and one that she wished was around to help them through the latest disaster. He could have reasoned with the Tok'ra; he could have helped Jack through his recovery; been a shoulder to cry on for Sam; been a support to Teal'c in understanding the responses of his human team-mates...Jonas was a good man but he just wasn't Daniel.

Janet pushed her own plate away and reached for the juice she had selected. She couldn't really be too judgemental about Sam's feelings for the Colonel when she had come very close to falling for Daniel, her patient. Not that anything had happened between them. Daniel had acted as nothing more than a good friend to her and Janet could accept that's all he had felt despite her own thoughts and wishes drifting along different lines. In any case, his death – Ascension – had rendered the whole thing moot. She grieved for the loss of what might have been but she knew she had to move on. Her dark eyes settled back on Sam. She wondered if Sam was having similar thoughts about the Colonel.

She searched around, determined to change the subject and blurted out the first thing that came into her head. 'Cassie broke up with Dominic.'

'Again?' Sam queried, interest flaring in her blue eyes.

'She's says it's for real this time.' Janet countered, rolling her eyes.

'What happened?' Sam asked. 'The last time I talked with her everything was going well.'

'Eliza Sharpen apparently told Chrissie Smith that Dominic had told her that he was bored with Cassie.'

'So it's all rumour and supposition?'

'Well, Dominic didn't deny it when Cassie confronted him so...' Janet shrugged. 'Dominic told her that if she believed Chrissie and Eliza then maybe they should break up.'

'Ah.'

Janet smiled. 'It makes me all nostalgic for high school.'

Sam smiled back but didn't comment.

'Cassie told me I wouldn't understand because I hadn't dated in eons.' Janet added.

Sam's delicately arched eyebrows rose. 'She actually said that to you?'

'Oh, yes.' Janet nodded.

'And she's still alive?'

Janet grinned. 'She's grounded.' Her smile fell away. 'The worst thing is she's right.'

'Huh?' Sam's spoon paused mid-way to her mouth.

'She's right.' Janet repeated. She took a sip of her juice. 'I can't remember the last time I went on a date.'

'Me either.' Sam admitted with chagrin.

They looked at each other and burst out laughing.

'It's not even funny!' Janet said, wiping her eyes.

'Maybe not,' Sam said, 'but I needed that.' And Janet could see she had. The white tension lines that had bracketed Sam's mouth and eyes had eased; there was a smile hovering around her lips.

Sam pushed her tray away and looked at the clock with a small flicker of guilt. 'I should head back and relieve Teal'c; let him get some lunch.'

Janet nodded. 'I'll come with you.' She stowed her tray and followed Sam out of the mess and back through the corridors. Maybe she would suggest a girls' night out to Sam when the Colonel was discharged from the infirmary. Maybe it would help Sam move on...and maybe it would help her move on too, Janet thought determinedly.

o-O-o

Teal'c watched as Jonas entered the mess with Major Davis. He was relieved to see his team-mate looked animated as the two men conversed as they secured food. A kernel of guilt lingered in Teal'c's gut from insisting the newest member of the team keep his distance during O'Neill's recovery but he was certain that it was necessary.

Jonas smiled happily as he approached the table and Teal'c surmised the Kelownan was harbouring no ill feelings towards him. He inclined his head as Jonas took the seat opposite and Davis sat down beside him.

'How's the Colonel?' Jonas asked immediately.

Teal'c shook salt over his potatoes and frowned. 'He is still in the coma, Jonas Quinn.'

Davis cleared his throat. 'That might be the best place for him right now.'

Teal'c looked from one to the other. 'Are discussions with the Tok'ra not proceeding as planned?'

'They're proceeding. We've agreed to meet face to face off-world in a neutral location to agree terms.' Davis said cagily. 'But they're fairly insistent on talking with Colonel O'Neill as soon as he's conscious again.'

'I never realised that talks between allies could be almost as difficult as talks between enemies.' Jonas commented, loading up his fork with an impressive amount of food.

Teal'c hid his surprise that Jonas fitted it all into his mouth.

The Kelownan chewed enthusiastically before waving his cutlery at Davis. 'Is this usual?'

'Very.' Davis agreed. 'Actually, I've found it's sometimes more difficult to negotiate with an ally than with an enemy.'

'Because you don't want to upset them?' Jonas questioned.

'Because there's usually more to lose.' Davis countered. 'The benefits of the alliance; the shared information, technology.'

'I get that.' Jonas nodded. 'But in this case we're in a stronger position right now than the Tok'ra?'

'Anubis has centred most of the attacks on them.' Davis said, cutting his meal up into precise bites. 'They're reduced to a few bases and the majority of them are on the run. We're an emergency exit not to mention somewhere safe they can go to for provisions and weapons.'

'Doesn't that make their protest...' Jonas struggled to find a word, 'risky?'

'Indeed.' Teal'c answered.

'Then why do it?' Jonas asked.

Teal'c and Davis shared a look.

'Pride.' Davis answered. 'The Tok'ra have lost a great deal over the past few months. I think this is just their way of showing they're not completely powerless.'

Jonas pulled a face.

'It's unfortunate that they are using Colonel O'Neill in their power play.' Davis continued.

'It is more than unfortunate.' Teal'c growled. 'It is dishonourable.'

'I don't agree with it, Teal'c,' Jonas said, 'but I understand why they're doing it.' He looked away shame-faced. 'My people did the same with Daniel Jackson.'

'Which puts you in an unique position to help us.' Davis jumped in swiftly. 'You'll be able to provide an objective view-point in the discussions.'

Jonas gave an uncertain smile. 'I'm happy to help in any way.'

'Any news on when the Colonel will be brought out of the coma?' Davis asked Teal'c.

'Doctor Fraiser informed Major Carter and I that it would be tomorrow.' Teal'c said. He mixed some beetroot into his potatoes, ignoring the look of horror on Davis's face and the curiosity on Jonas's. 'He is not expected to regain consciousness immediately however and Doctor Fraiser believes it will be many days of recovery before he is ready to submit to a debriefing.'

'Well, that works for us.' Davis said firmly. 'General Hammond did say that Garshaw believes the guy making the demands in regards to the Colonel...'

'Thoran.' Jonas supplied.

'Is grieving.' Davis continued. 'If he has some time to get past his grief he may see how ludicrous this is.'

'I hope you are correct, Major Davis.' Teal'c murmured. He believed O'Neill did not need to be put through the trauma of reliving his ordeal.

Davis nodded with a wry smile. 'Me too.'

o-O-o

Awareness crept in slowly. A sound. A wisp of movement beside his bed. A scent of antiseptic.

The infirmary.

The pain came a heart-shattering moment afterwards. His body convulsed. The seizure left him breathless and gasping.

'Easy, Colonel. Slow breaths.' Janet's voice soothed him.

'Doc?' Jack snapped his eyes open and took in the formless blur with a frown.

'You're in the infirmary, Colonel.' Janet assured him. 'You're through the worst of the withdrawal.'

'Beg to differ.' Jack managed to push the words out as he tried to focus.

Janet placed a hand on his shoulder. 'Your body is going through the final stages. You may feel some nausea and mild seizures but believe me you're through the worst.'

Mild, his ass, Jack thought derisively. He could make out the blob that was Fraiser but other than that...his heart pounded. 'Carter?'

'I wasn't sure you would want an audience, sir.' The doctor said quietly. 'She's waiting outside with Teal'c. You want me to send them both in?'

An audience? Right. He wasn't supposed to want anyone to see him – correction: he didn't want anyone to see him. He'd been through withdrawal once before and it hadn't been pretty. Nobody needed to see him that way especially not...he should be grateful the doc -

His body shook; muscles contracting painfully before he could complete the thought.

'Colonel?'

Jack sought the darkness again; the unconsciousness where he didn't have to feel. He wasn't aware of Carter's name slipping from his lips again.

o-O-o

Sam pushed off the corridor wall as Janet waved her forward. 'Just the Major, Teal'c.'

Teal'c bowed his head understandingly. Sam sent him a sympathetic smile knowing he would be disappointed even if he didn't show it.

'I will assist Jonas Quinn.' Teal'c said.

And I'll take care of the Colonel. Sam's words were unspoken but shared nonetheless. Teal'c inclined his head and departed.

Sam hurried into the infirmary room and paused at the side of the bed when she realised the Colonel was unconscious. Her eyes darted to Janet worriedly.

'Don't worry.' Janet said indicating she should take a seat. 'He's going to be in and out for the next few days.'

Sam bit her lip but nodded.

'And Sam?' Janet waited until Sam looked at her before continuing. 'He may change his mind and decide he doesn't want you here and if he does, he may not break that to you in a sensitive way.'

'I understand.' Sam was just inwardly pleased that he'd asked for her initially.

'Don't read anything into it, OK?' Janet cautioned.

Sam nodded again. She'd experienced for herself how brutally blunt Daniel had been when he had been going through withdrawal, she was prepared. Mostly. She wasn't entirely certain she wouldn't feel some kind of hurt if the Colonel threw her out. There was a gnawing fear in the pit of her stomach that at some point in his distress he may very well blame her for his predicament. Her lips firmed. She could take whatever he dished out.

She hoped.

She watched as Janet finished up her observations and hung the chart on the bottom of the bed. The doctor gave her an encouraging smile and stepped out, leaving the door open.

Sam manoeuvred the stool a little closer to the bed and let her gaze roam freely on over the Colonel's form. He looked thin; the dark shadow of his jaw highlighting the drawn unusual pallor of his skin; so unlike his usual tanned, healthy self. There were bandages around his wrists where he had been restrained and leads snaked out of the bed and into various monitoring equipment. One beeped steadily with his heart-beat.

She let herself breathe out slowly.

He was alive. He was safe. They just had to help him recover.

She wondered not for the first time how they did that. How did someone recover from what Jack had endured? They'd all been tortured, and she remembered being experimented on like a worthless lab rat herself with less equanimity that she would have hoped for months after the event, but...somehow the Colonel's experience felt worse. Being tortured to death only to be revived and tortured again...how had he withstood it?

'Carter?' Jack's whisper had her head whirling around to meet his unfocused gaze sharply.

'Sir?' She slipped off the stool and moved closer. 'You need some water? Ice chips?'

He stared at her for a long moment as though he couldn't believe it was her. 'Ice chips.'

She picked up the small carton the nurse had left and awkwardly spooned some into his mouth. He swallowed them down and gestured for more. She did it again. And a third time until he pushed her hand away. She wished she knew what he was thinking; his dark eyes were shadowed and guarded. Her stomach clenched as he opened his mouth; she was sure he was about to send her away.

'I can feel you.' Jack said bluntly.

Her eyes widened.

'Tingles.' Jack explained. He frowned. 'Unless that's the...'

'No, no.' Sam gave a sympathetic smile. 'It's the naquadah, sir.'

He grimaced.

'You only have trace amounts. Less than me or Cassie.' Sam continued. 'It's unlikely that you'll be able to use the Goa'uld technology but you may be able to sense the Goa'uld and past hosts like we can especially in close proximity.'

He didn't reply; his dark eyes intent on hers for a long moment.

'If I, I mean, if it makes you uncomfortable,' Sam began hesitantly, indicating the door. He followed her gesturing hand. For another heart-stopping second she thought he would send her away and looked down so he wouldn't see her disappointment. She was oblivious to the indecision that flashed across his face, the brief glimpse of raw need.

'What day is it, Carter?'

Sam raised her eyes in surprise and took a deep breath, feeling slightly light-headed that he had decided to let her stay. She had to think about the answer to his question; she'd lost track. 'Tuesday, sir.'

'Tuesday.' His dark eyes held hers. 'How long was I out?'

'Just over three days.' Sam told him.

'And what about before that?'

'You were gone for three weeks and some days with the Tok'ra and then three or four days, uh.'

'With Ba'al.' Jack forced himself to say the name.

'Yes.' Sam wiped her palms on the sides of her BDUs and placed one hand on his bed beside his arm. Not close enough to touch him but closer. 'You need anything else, sir?'

'Talk to me, Carter.' Jack invited gruffly.

'What about?' Sam said, suddenly unsure why she had thought she could be there for him; could help him.

'Anything.' Jack's eyes closed. 'Just...talk.'

'OK.' Sam pulled the stool up closer and slid onto it. 'I've been working on the X303 designs. We think we have a way of capturing the naquadria power burst and funnelling it into a buffer which will help us calculate the power usage more accurately. And we think the ship at Steveston will help us do that...'

'Ship?' Jack questioned without opening his eyes.

'Yes.' Sam's lips twisted. 'We had a mission while you were gone. Apparently, Adrian Conrad's project was ongoing although we didn't know it. He had some geneticists cloning the Goa'uld symbiote he eventually used. They actually were successful in genetically modifying the symbiotes and finding a kill switch for them. Anyway, the clones got loose and took over the population of a town called Steveston to build a ship intending to leave Earth; we were alerted and investigated.' She sighed. 'Actually the NID already knew about it.'

'Figures.' Jack whispered.

Sam gave a small smile at the familiar caustic tone. 'They were waiting for the ship to be finished or so they claimed.'

'You shut it down.' There was no hint of a question in Jack's voice and she looked back at him to find him looking at her with nothing but pride.

She nodded. 'We did, sir. The ship is being taken apart and transported back to Area 51.'

'How was Jonas?' Jack asked.

'Good, sir.' Sam commented, knowing he wanted to know how their newest team-mate was adjusting. 'It was his observations that led to the discovery of the ship.'

Jack looked at her evenly. 'What aren't you telling me?'

She shifted on the stool. 'I, uh, well, I might have been taken briefly as a host by one of the Goa'uld symbiotes, sir.' She grimaced. 'It's fine. The kill switch worked perfectly so it was only for a few minutes.'

Jack's eyebrows shot up. 'And you were going to tell me when?'

'I was waiting until you were conscious, sir.' Sam pointed out.

'Ah.' Jack's lips twitched. 'I guess I have been out of it for a couple of days. The last thing I remember is you bringing me some water.'

She smiled sadly in response.

'So you got snaked?' Jack gestured at her, his gaze filled with a warm concern that flooded over her like sunshine. 'You OK?'

'Surprisingly good.' Sam admitted and tried a smile. 'It's not like it's the first time.'

'We do seem to be making a habit of it.' Jack said. 'We should really stop that, Carter.'

'You know we've both been a host to a Goa'uld and a Tok'ra symbiote.' Sam murmured.

Jack grimaced. 'Weird.'

'Definitely.' Sam agreed. 'Weird.'

'So...' Jack's face suddenly contorted and his muscles tensed.

'Sir?'

He reached out and grabbed her hand. 'Talk, Carter. Anything.'

'Shouldn't I...' Sam motioned toward the door as though that would explain her intent to get the medical staff.

'No!' Jack gripped her hand tightly. 'Just talk, damn it!'

She searched for a topic as she wrapped her free hand on top of his, watching as he helplessly shuddered. 'I think we might need to focus on redesigning the X302's hyperspace engine to incorporate the buffer idea so we can still include the technology in our gliders. Oh, and Teal'c's been checking progress on the Alpha site every week so you don't need to worry...'

She felt Jack's grip slacken as the convulsions eased but kept talking – anything and everything that came into her head. Eventually, Jack slipped back into sleep and Sam stumbled to a halt.

Tears sprang into her eyes and she hurriedly blinked them away in case he woke and saw her. She had wanted to be there for him so much but she wondered if she had the strength to continue. She frowned heavily at the thought. He had wanted her there so she would stay. It was the least she could do for him. He had kept hold of her hand and she loathed to pull it away. She settled on the stool and waited. She would be there when he woke up and she would talk to him again. She would continue talking to him as long as he needed her.

o-O-o

The planet Oma had left him on was peaceful and Daniel had taken the opportunity to explore it; primarily to have something to occupy his thoughts and keep him away from Earth. He'd found ruins on the other side of the lake. A tall white temple had once stood proudly on its banks. It was a mess of half-crumbled walls and broken glass. Daniel treated it like a normal excavation. He hunted and dug through the dirt and debris, lining up objects, cataloguing in his head what they were.

The ruins had belonged to the Ancients; to the builders of the Stargates. He had found some interesting writing carved on white marble tiles in what appeared to be a central courtyard. It was a covenant of some kind; an agreement to self-determination and free will; it denied something called Origin.

Daniel theorised briefly that the temple had been raised to the worship of science rather than to any God; that Origin was some kind of religion. Perhaps the Ancients had endured a religious fractioning of their society similar to the turmoil that had once almost torn Europe apart when Christianity had found itself at odds with science.

His fingers traced over the word Origin. What was the religion? What did it espouse that had rendered such a condemnation of its views? There was nothing else in the ruins to explain.

The marble wording drew his eye again: 'we seek that all should hold their own destiny in their hands and none shall interfere.'

A shiver darted down his spine. It sounded so similar to the non-interference directive that the Other Ascended Beings ascribed to that he couldn't help wonder if there was a connection. He spoke the words aloud again in Ancient.

'That they will succeed or fail on the strength of their own wits and talents; that they will seek not power but knowledge.' A woman's voice continued when his fell way.

He turned around, trying hard to hide his surprise. Another Ascended Being sat on a rickety stone bench just behind him. She appeared a forty-something year old woman with sharp, intelligent features. His heart pounded uncomfortably. Had she come to punish him for helping Jack? Why else would he be approached? The Others kept their distance and he'd only made the acquaintance of Orlin because he was as much of an outcast as Daniel.

She patted the bench and he moved to sit beside her. Her white dress glowed with her power; her pale skin luminescent. 'Welcome to the Isle of Apples, Doctor Jackson.' Her smile flashed at him, knowing and secretive all at the same time as he took a seat. Her dark, inscrutable eyes waited on his expectantly.

'The Isle of Apples.' Daniel searched his memory. 'Said to be the one of the domains of Morgan Le Fay in Arthurian legend.' His blue eyes widened on the woman. 'Are you suggesting you're Morgan?'

She lifted a shoulder brushing the edges of her brunette hair. 'It has been one of my names.' She breathed in deeply, her face turning towards the silvery lake. 'It has been many years since I was here. It was my home once.'

'It must have been beautiful.' Daniel commented. His gaze strayed back to the building. He could almost imagine the ivory towers at each corner; the quiet serenity of the courtyard in which they stood.

'There was an archway through that wall.' Morgan pointed. 'It provided a picture window of the lake. I would sit here at sunset and watch as the water turned to gold and silver.'

'You miss it.' Daniel realised.

'It was another life.' Morgan answered. 'But yes.' She smoothed her skirt. 'You have questions, Doctor Jackson.'

'Call me Daniel, and yes, I have lots of questions.' Daniel said prompting them both to smile. His mind raced with questions about her; was she really Morgan? Had she lived in Arthurian times? And what about the ruins and the connection between the Ancients and the Ascended Beings? Not to mention...

'You're struggling to understand our rules.'

'Not so much struggling to understand them,' Daniel admitted, 'as...'

'To abide by them?' Morgan supplied with twinkling eyes. 'It is a hard task to bear when one has not released all ties to those left behind.'

'Yes.' Daniel didn't even try to deny it although he wondered if he should.

Morgan sighed. 'Ah, an honest man.' She looked at him speculatively. 'Tell me: did you Ascend for knowledge or power?'

'I'm not sure.' Daniel frowned; unsure why he felt so compelled to confess all to her. She continued to regard him evenly as though she had guessed at his uncertainty and was waiting for him to make a decision. He sighed heavily. 'Sometimes I think it had nothing to do with either.'

'Ascension was an escape from your old life.' Morgan surmised.

He couldn't deny the charge. 'And sometimes, I think it was for both.' He answered, directing them back to the question. He leaned forward, his gaze on the lake. 'I'm an archaeologist. Or I was.' He waved a hand. 'My previous life was all about the search for knowledge, trying to understand where humanity came from; why we're here.' He stopped. 'But the last five years of that, I was part of something...a mission to protect my world and that was about finding both knowledge and power.'

'And now you're Ascended you realise you have knowledge but cannot use the power it brings to further your mission.' Morgan surmised.

Daniel nodded. 'Or to help the people I care about.'

'Tell me, Daniel,' Morgan said quietly, drawing his attention back to her, 'do you believe everyone should have the right to choose their own destiny?'

'Theoretically.' Daniel agreed.

'Because practically, the choice is more often assumed as real than real.' Morgan supplied his argument. 'It is a rare individual who holds enough power and knowledge that they are free to determine their own destiny.'

Daniel nodded, rising to the intellectual debate. 'Governments encroach on the rights of the individual; other individuals encroach on each other. A wife may determine a destiny for her husband,' his eyes saddened as he remembered Sha're, 'and vice versa.'

'Those with power whether political or emotional determine the destiny of those they hold power over.' Morgan agreed. 'Those of us with power must always question whether its use is justified.'

'I get that.' Daniel argued. 'I do but...' he gestured at her, 'shouldn't we also question whether its non-use is justified? What about when the choice is black and white? When we don't use our power, when we stand by and do nothing, and we allow someone, or something, to determine a destiny for an individual or whole society who ends up with no choice at all? How is that right?'

Morgan tilted her head. 'Things are generally never completely black and white, Daniel.'

'But when they are?'

'A pebble may drop into a lake so deep that the ripples only travel under water.' Morgan murmured.

Daniel's lips twisted at the cryptic answer. 'So because we can't see the ramifications we shouldn't act?'

'Do two wrongs make a right?' Morgan countered.

'Before I joined the Stargate programme I would have said no.' Daniel mused. 'But now...I would say sometimes.' He thought of Jack; of Ba'al. At what he, Daniel, had done; what he hadn't. 'I guess I believe in the maxim that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'

'Then you have the answer to your struggle, Daniel.' Morgan said softly.

Daniel blinked as he tried to go back over their discussion and see where she had determined his course because he just felt the same deep sense of confusion. 'I do?' he smiled shyly. 'Maybe you could explain it to me again.'

Morgan gave a laugh. 'I believe you know why you agreed to Ascend, Daniel, and when you realise the whole truth for yourself, you will have your answer. Let me ask you this: have you ever wondered why Oma Ascended you?'

Her question arrowed through him. He hadn't questioned Oma's decision to help him. He had simply assumed she'd seen something in him; potential – just as the Asgard saw potential in Jack.

Morgan's eyes suddenly shifted to the side of him and Daniel turned his head. Oma stood there silently; watchful.

'Oma.' Morgan said respectfully.

'Ganas Lal.'

The two women exchanged a deep look and Daniel flushed. He had an idea that they were having an entire conversation about him that he really didn't want to know about.

Morgan turned back to him as she rose to her feet; her form shimmering and giving way to pure white energy. 'I believe I shall enjoy our acquaintance, Daniel.' She disappeared into the lake without another word, leaving Daniel alone with Oma.

Daniel turned to her, Morgan's last question at the forefront of his mind. 'Why did you Ascend me?'

'What do you believe?' Oma countered.

'I asked first.' He didn't care if he sounded like a petulant child but he wanted a straight answer.

Oma looked at him for so long he thought she wouldn't answer and when she did, she disappeared a heartbeat later, leaving him with only one word echoing in his mind and through the small desolate courtyard. Balance.

o-O-o

Jack shrugged on the soft cotton shirt and winced at the remaining soreness in his muscles. He was whipcord lean; barely muscle over skeleton. Fraiser had ordered him to put on weight but he had yet to regain his appetite. He wasn't sure he ever would. He was filled with a restless listlessness that made him twitchy and apathetic at the same time.

Withdrawal really sucked, Jack thought succinctly. The only bright spot had been that he'd spent most of it with Carter. It scared him a little how close he had been to sending her way. He could remember the moment he'd decided to hell with it; she'd had been standing in front of him, staring at her feet and looking as though she had known his intention and then he'd caught the faint scent of her shampoo; that orangey scent that filled him with security and the sense that he was home and he just couldn't do it.

It had worked out even if Jack remained a touch embarrassed at how much she'd seen. Not that she hadn't already seen him in the field throwing up his guts before or in pain...it was jarring to realise that really he had few secrets where she was concerned apart from the obvious ones; that he loved her, needed her, wanted her. Jack grimaced and did up the remaining buttons.

For three days, Carter had talked and he had listened. He really had no idea what she had been saying most of the time. It had just been soothing to hear her voice talking him through the seizures; lulling him to sleep, with her scent anchoring him to reality and keeping the nightmares at bay. It had been like a moment out of time; just the two of them. It had slowly eked away like bubbles disappearing on bath-water. He had grown stronger and she had returned to the work she had ignored since his return.

The tell-tale clip hop of Fraiser's heels had him turning to the door to greet the doctor. He felt a frisson of guilt as he set eyes on her petite form. He'd heard about his attack on her, Peters and Carter. It chilled his blood every time he considered it. Something else he would have to discuss with Mackenzie, Jack thought wryly.

'Colonel.' Janet held up the clipboard she held and ran her eyes over him assessing him objectively as thought to confirm her decision. 'Your discharge papers from the infirmary.'

'Great.' Jack said brightly. 'No offence, Doc, but I can't wait to blow this popsicle stand.'

'You're officially on medical leave, sir.' Janet said, ignoring his comment. 'Your first session with Doctor Mackenzie is scheduled for a week tomorrow; oh-nine-hundred. Please be on time.'

'Wouldn't miss it.' Jack muttered, trying hard to ignore that a large part of him wanted to miss it. If he never cleared the psych eval he would never have to go back; never risk falling into Ba'al's hands again...

'Are you sure you don't want to stay local, sir?' Janet asked suddenly.

'My cabin is the perfect place for R&R, Doc.' Jack countered. 'Trust me on this.'

Janet sighed. 'I want you to call in for the first two days.' She held up a hand. 'Just one call every twenty-four hours. I'm not convinced shutting yourself off from civilisation is the way to go here, Colonel, and unless you want me restricting you to base...'

Jack glowered at her, more for effect than in truth. 'You drive a hard bargain.'

She simply smiled and departed.

Jack buttoned his cuffs and stuffed his feet into the waiting boots. He'd just finished tying up the laces when Hammond and Carter both entered.

'General.' His eyes drifted left to Carter. 'Major.' He waved at them as he pulled on his leather jacket.

'I just wanted to stop by and wish you a good journey, Jack.' Hammond tilted his bald head. 'And to let you know the talks with the Tok'ra are proceeding.'

Jack pulled a face. Hammond had informed him of the Tok'ra's request to hand him over to be brought to account for Kanan's death. It would have confirmed everything he had ever suspected about their so-called ally if Kanan's blatant use of his body hadn't already confirmed it for him. 'Jonas and Teal'c still keeping Davis company?'

'They are.' Hammond agreed. 'I'll be heading off-world myself to join them in a few days.'

Jack shrugged. 'Let me know how it turns out.' He stated dryly.

'You'll be the first informed, Colonel.' Hammond promised with an understanding smile. He reached over and Jack shook the proffered hand. 'Car's waiting for you on top. Take care of yourself, Jack. Enjoy the fishing.' He left before Jack could make any further comment.

He found himself alone with Carter.

'I hear you're off to Area 51.' Jack commented, reaching for his small leather bag. 'Checking up on McCoy?'

Sam smiled. 'They've made some good progress on the engines and I want to go over the designs for the shields and defences.'

His lips twitched; she hadn't denied his assertion or corrected his deliberate mangling of McKay's name. 'Walk me to the elevator?'

She nodded and they walked out of the infirmary room.

'So,' Sam said brightly, half-turning to shoot him a teasing look, 'fishing?'

'Fishing.' Jack confirmed. He was looking forward to it; he was. The solitude; the beer; the familiarity of his routine there. It was only missing one thing. 'Shame you can't come with.' The words left his mouth before he registered he'd even said them.

They both came to a stumbling halt in the corridor, thankfully and serendipitously in front of the elevators.

Jack hastened to reassure her seeing her blue eyes widen impossibly as though she couldn't quite believe she'd heard him. The last time he had invited her fishing, his invitation had been fraught with other connotations and they both knew it. 'I mean, as a friend; colleague.' He hurriedly pushed the call button. 'Obviously.'

Sam gave a pained smile. 'Of course, sir.'

'But then I'm sure you'll have fun with your doohickey.' Jack commented. He pushed the call button again, and hoped the action didn't look as frantic as it felt.

'It's the X303, sir.' Sam pointed out as though a spacecraft as large as the Titanic didn't qualify as a doohickey.

'Your big doohickey.' Jack corrected. He gave a sigh of relief as the elevator doors opened. 'Bye, Carter.'

'Bye, sir.'

It was only as the elevator doors slid shut that he realised how disappointed she had looked. He froze. Was she disappointed that he had brought it up again and alluded to what they'd once had or was she disappointed that she couldn't come with him – and if so what did that mean exactly?

Damn it! Jack stared up at the floor counter. He had to stop thinking about Carter that way; had to stop wanting more. The temptation to ask her fishing had been so strong he had almost tasted it. And he wanted her with him despite his very real need to metaphorically lick his wounds in private.

No.

It was best he didn't let himself get carried away by the friendship and care she'd given him since his return. He wasn't unaware that some of it was based on Carter's guilt about asking him to take the symbiote. And on some level, he wasn't quite ready to admit to, he knew he had agreed to it because it had been Carter who'd asked. He probably should talk to her about that.

Guilt. That's all it was. And friendship. They were friends. Colleagues. Team-mates.

But what if she felt more?

The question hung tantalisingly in his mind as though suspended on gossamer wings.

What if the last few weeks had resurrected her feelings for him? Jack hovered in the compartment as the elevator doors slid open. He wanted to press the button to go back down, to hunt her out and ask her.

He stepped out of the elevator and watched as the doors slid depressingly closed behind him. Even if Carter's feelings had resurfaced, it was madness for him to encourage them or to show her they were reciprocated as he had done before. They'd just end up back where they'd been almost two years before and he couldn't do that. He'd learned his lesson the last time; he'd failed to protect her as a senior officer, as a man, and had ended up with Carter lying on the floor dead and the weapon that killed her in his hand.

He nodded at the SF as he leaned down to sign out. No, if some of Carter's feelings had resurfaced better to ignore it. She would move on again just as she had before. After all, he was still ostensibly her CO even if he was having difficulty thinking about returning to the programme...

What if he didn't come back?

The thought arrested him mid-step.

'Sir?'

The SF looked at him with concern and Jack shook himself, waving away the young man's concern. He took the final elevator out of the mountain. He strode out to the waiting car. It would take him to Petersen and the helicopter which Hammond had arranged to take him to the cabin. He wasn't sure he deserved the special treatment but he wasn't saying no; Fraiser had made it clear it was the only way she would countenance his travelling.

The driver moved swiftly on Jack's approach opening the back seat of the car and reaching for Jack's bag. Jack allowed him to take it and got in. He settled back on the cushions as the driver retook his seat and the car pulled away from the entrance. He closed his eyes.

Maybe it was time to consider retirement again, Jack mused. God knew he couldn't go through what he'd gone through with Ba'al again. The thought of it had the ability to steal his breath; to make him shiver; to turn his stomach. He shuddered and swallowed to rid himself of the metallic taste of fear that coated his suddenly dry mouth.

How could he lead if he was scared to the bone? How could he protect his team? Retirement sparkled like a shiny temptation. Maybe it was time to call it day. He'd done more for his country, heck – world, than most. OK, so it had been partially, mostly, his fault that they'd begun the war with the Goa'uld but he'd fought them for over five years since, taking them down one by one, and trying to pretend there wasn't another one always waiting to take their place. Maybe he'd done his share; his penance.

Daniel had moved on. He'd taken his way out. SG1 had already been broken apart so it wasn't like Jack would be responsible for dismantling the team. Despite Jonas's inclusion and the solid performance the Kelownan had contributed in his short time with them, SG1 wasn't the same without Daniel. Jack couldn't pretend that for him it didn't quite have the invincibility factor anymore. He had once thought SG1, the unique combination of the team, was vital to winning the war but maybe it wasn't. After all, they hadn't won an all-out victory when Daniel was on the team and maybe they never would. Maybe it was time for him to make an exit too. His fingers tapped restlessly against his thigh.

Retirement.

He could retire.

And perhaps, maybe, possibly, that might create an opportunity for him and Carter. If she still felt something for him. Which she probably didn't. Why would she? He was a mess. Tortured; battered. What could a vibrant woman like Carter possibly see in him? He was probably just making too much of her friendship over the past few days.

Jack sighed.

It seemed he had a lot of thinking to do during his week at the cabin.

Part 3: Solid Ground

General Hammond was a brilliant shade of red. Jonas wasn't certain it was usual and from the worried look on Doctor Fraiser's face neither was she. Both the General and the CMO had joined Major Davis, Jonas and Teal'c at the agreed neutral base of the Land of Light the day before.

The talks had actually proceeded smoothly that morning while the first of the Tok'ra's grievances – informing Yu of the intelligence they had on Ba'al – was discussed. Hammond had graciously conceded that the decision to inform Yu had not been agreed with their allies and had served only Earth's interests in a singular matter. The Tok'ra had conceded in vague terms that there had been no real reason to keep the intelligence from Yu; only that they had now lost the opportunity to have done it themselves at an opportunity of their own making.

It had been a polite and careful dialogue that had taken Major Davis and Jonas days to construct. Both parties had broken for lunch with a faintly pleased air that they would get through the current chill in relations.

However, within moments of resuming for lunch, any positive vibes had been thoroughly stamped on by the arrival of Thoran. His impassioned argument against Colonel O'Neill was the reason why the General had gone so red. Jonas could understand why. He might not have the easiest relationship with the Colonel but Thoran's accusations painted the Colonel as some maverick rebel who didn't care who he hurt in the pursuit of his own interests. It was not a description of Jack O'Neill Jonas recognised.

Teal'c vibrated in anger beside him. Clearly Thoran's words had dishonoured a man the Jaffa considered a brother. Jonas was given to understand that on Jaffa worlds, Thoran's actions would have allowed Teal'c to challenge him in combat. Jonas was half-sorry they had agreed on neutral territory.

The doctor frowned in concern at the red-faced General and looked across at Davis with a pointed expression.

Davis evidently got the message. He leaned forward urgently as Thoran wound to a halt. 'Perhaps a short recess is called for before we respond to Thoran's charges against Colonel O'Neill.'

Garshaw stood up eagerly. 'I would like to second that idea, Per'sus.'

The Supreme High Councillor bowed his head. 'Agreed. A short recess.'

The Tok'ra filed out and the small Tau'ri delegation made their way to the private ante-chamber they had been assigned. SG3 immediately moved to guard the door as the rest of them took seats at the small table.

Janet poured some water into a glass and pushed it in the direction of the General. 'Sir.'

Hammond glowered at her but took the drink and swallowed a large gulp. 'Options.'

'We cannot allow Thoran's accusations against O'Neill to go unchallenged.' Teal'c growled.

'And we won't.' Davis assured him. 'I personally don't believe the Tok'ra High Council believes Colonel O'Neill culpable. I think they are trying to find a way to a compromise.'

'They're not making it easy for us, Major.' Hammond commented dryly.

'That they even allowed half of what was said to be said...' Janet sighed. 'I'm just pleased the Colonel isn't here to hear it.'

'Well, some of the accusations are easily dismissed.' Jonas pointed out. 'We can show that the Colonel's record; his pattern of honesty and integrity. The Tok'ra Korra has come forward to provide a character reference following the events where the Colonel helped save his life.'

'And Shallan is prepared to testify that Kanan told her his host was unaware of the rescue.' Davis added. 'The fact that the Colonel followed through on Kanan's mission and rescued her has to count for something.'

'Thoran has already used that against us.' Janet pointed out. 'He's argued that it's a sign that the Colonel was the one who pressed for the mission.'

'Shallan can testify however that the Colonel found her accidentally and rescued her. He wasn't looking for her.' Davis responded.

'She's also agreed to talk about the torture Colonel O'Neill endured.' Jonas added. 'It may help the Council to set what has happened to the Colonel into context.'

'You mean for them to realise he's been through enough?' Janet said dryly. 'Let's hope so.'

'Any news on Jacob?' Hammond asked.

Davis shook his head. 'Garshaw continues to claim that he was sent on a vital mission and can't be disturbed.'

'Korra thought he might be able to find out where but he wasn't hopeful of Jacob returning in time for Selmak to testify on the matter of how much a Tau'ri host can influence a symbiote.' Jonas murmured, gesturing with a pen.

'Are you comfortable on how you're going to respond to Thoran, sir?' Davis tentatively asked.

Hammond swallowed down the rest of the water in response.

There was a respectful knock on the door and Hammond called for the person to enter.

Major Pierce stuck his head around the door. 'Sir, they're requesting your presence in the Council chamber.'

Hammond sighed and put the empty glass back on the table. Jonas was relieved that his colour had gone back to normal.

'Let's get back to it, people.' Hammond ordered.

Jonas fell into step beside Teal'c. 'You OK?'

Teal'c inclined his head. 'I will not dishonour General Hammond by killing Thoran where he stands.'

'Good to know.' Jonas said under his breath as they retook their seats.

Per'sus gestured at Hammond. 'You may respond to Thoran's charges.'

Hammond stood. His uniform provided him with an air of gravity; the formal blue suit such a contrast to the pale beige and sand colours favoured by the Tok'ra. The medals he wore hinted at his own bravery and courage. He was the picture of a leader.

Jonas felt a moment's pride that he had the opportunity to metaphorically stand beside him.

'I will respond.' Hammond stated, his Texan accent rolling through the short, sharp words. 'We refute every accusation Thoran makes against Colonel Jack O'Neill.'

His pale blue eyes glittered. 'Colonel O'Neill is a decorated officer who has risked his life several times both on behalf of the Tau'ri and the Tok'ra. There is not a man nor woman nor symbiote in this room that does not owe their lives to the bravery and the courage of the Colonel and the rest of SG1.' He waited until they all looked away shame-faced and uncomfortable. 'I fail to understand why these charges are even tolerated.'

Thoran sprang to his feet.

'I haven't finished, son.' Hammond bit out. 'You had a lot to say.' He took a breath as Thoran subsided unhappily. 'Colonel O'Neill does find the idea of blending difficult. Unsurprising, since he saw a close friend taken as an unwilling host and forced to act in a threatening manner to loved ones and colleagues.' He glared around the chamber and stabbed a finger on the table in front of him. 'That incident involved a Tok'ra symbiote not a Goa'uld.'

Hammond drew himself up as he let his words sink into the gathered Tok'ra. 'While Jolinar did eventually save Major Carter, Colonel O'Neill was witness to her struggle to recover in the aftermath; as was I. Believe me when I say that no-one should have to go through that.'

'Perhaps if you had seen her pain and distress as he did, you also would think twice about blending. And Colonel O'Neill was quite clear: he would not take a symbiote to save his own life.' Hammond said passionately. 'We have video evidence we can supply of his conversation with Major Carter if you so wish but I was present and can confirm his refusal. Yet on hearing that a symbiote required a host to impart vital intelligence he agreed.'

Thoran glowered at Hammond. Jonas noticed the studied way Hammond ignored him, focusing instead on the Councillors.

'This is the type of man Jack O'Neill is: one who puts duty before self, before his own needs and wants.' Hammond suddenly turned and stared straight at Thoran. 'That is who he is.'

Hammond let his gaze roam for a moment. 'Yes, I have seen Jack O'Neill disobey an order; I've seen him disobey my orders but never without reason and never for selfish purposes.'

He shifted; his chin going up. 'Let's set aside the fact that we were promised, and that both Kanan and the Colonel confirmed that the Colonel spent his time as a host mostly unconscious to prevent the exchange of information between host and symbiote.' His cutting tone gave away his views on the Tok'ra's sudden retraction of the fact.

'You accuse him of pressurising Kanan into going back for Shallan because it was what Jack wanted. I put it to you that he would never have risked the safety of Earth or its allies on such a strategically risky operation and, further, if he had agreed to the mission, he would have ensured he was not caught and certainly not caught alive.'

Jonas let his own gaze roam over the gathering. He could see some nodding; others were looking down as though uncomfortable having been faced with the truth. There were still a few though who looked perturbed and a few who looked angry. Thoran's supporters, Jonas surmised.

'But he was caught and tortured repeatedly; killed repeatedly; brought back to life in the sarcophagus repeatedly.' Hammond stabbed his finger at them with each statement. 'And this is the man who you now want to put through further torment.'

Thoran stood up suddenly. 'He dishonours Kanan by claiming he acted against O'Neill's will. I will not stand for it!'

'Thoran!' Per'sus cautioned him but Hammond was already replying.

'And because you can't live with the truth of that, you want to blame Jack.' Hammond glared at Thoran. 'I'm here to tell you I won't let you do that!'

'And neither will I.' Jacob Carter's voice rang out from the entrance of the Council Chamber. He looked around as the Council stirred anxiously, a babble of noise breaking out amongst the members at his unexpected arrival. 'Just what the hell is going on here?'

o-O-o

He was tired. He was sick of fawning over the pretentious Goa'uld yet he knew he must if Ba'al was to remain unsuspicious and, one day, hopefully to trust him. He knew the information he sought was in Ba'al's chambers but the question of access remained somewhat sticky.

He entered his quarters and paused at the sight of the woman in his bed; tousled short blonde hair, wide inquisitive eyes and a slim body that he had already explored all too thoroughly for the past week. The firelight cast its gold and red flames across her skin, painting her in the stripes of a feral animal.

Ba'al would kill them both if they were discovered.

He threw off his robes and walked to the bed; she rose from the tangle of sheets and blankets to meet his kiss; their bodies pressing closer...

'Carter.' He whispered her name as his mouth moved to her jaw, suckled on her neck and moved downward.

She gave a sigh and shifted, arching. 'Kanan.'

Jack woke abruptly, eyes flying open, heart pounding in his chest. He stared up at the familiar ceiling in his bedroom at the cabin and waited for his breathing to return to normal. He rubbed his hands over his face.

Damn it.

That was the third night in a row he'd had the same dream...nightmare...flashback. God, it – he – was a mess!

It was a memory. Jack knew that. It was one of the few memories of Kanan's that he remembered, and he could remember the exact moment he had recalled it for the first time...

'Tell me why Kanan brought you here.' The whip struck his back; the lance of pain horrific with the acid already burning through his blood. Ba'al almost sounded bored.

'I don't know.'

'Why the girl?' Two strikes.

'I told you; I don't know.' His voice was little more than a whisper.

'What could be so important about her?' The third stroke drove the breath from Jack's body and the memory rushed through him in its place; Kanan and Shallan, their bodies entwined, pleasure that wasn't his humming through his veins. Kanan loved her: that was why she was important, why he had come back for her...she had betrayed Ba'al for him.

Jack sat up in the bed and stared at the shadowy forms of the furniture: the old chest of drawers that took up the wall opposite; the large oak wardrobe that his grandfather had built; a love seat by the window with a view of the lake.

He pushed the covers back and dressed only in his boxers, headed for the kitchen. The small space was lit up by a patch of moonlight and Jack didn't bother with an artificial light. He pulled out a beer from the refrigerator and knocked the top off using the edge of a counter. He took a long swallow before he wandered out of the cabin and onto the dock.

It was cold. Not as cold as it could have been but cold. He could see the remains of the ice on the surface of the pond. His skin burned with the wind chill but he ignored it and continued down to the edge of the dock. He sat down, knees bent and drawn up, elbows resting over them, his hand dangling the beer with a steady grip on the bottle.

He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.

Better than a cold shower, Jack mused with some semblance of the wry humour that always accompanied him in the field as one of his survival tools. That he was employing it on Earth at his cabin where he should have felt safe was something he didn't want to look at too closely.

He picked at the label on the bottle. Every time he considered Kanan's memory, he felt like a voyeur. He knew what it was like to make love to Shallan as though he had been the one lying in a bed with her yet he knew the memory wasn't his. He wondered briefly if Carter had felt the same way about memories of Jolinar and Martouf before he pushed that thought away rapidly; he really didn't want to know, didn't want to consider Carter and the Tok'ra being intimate in any way shape or form.

Jack took another long gulp of beer.

Of course, the problem wasn't that he was dreaming about Kanan and Shallan; the problem was that somehow his subconscious brain was substituting him and Carter in the memory.

His jaw clenched. It wasn't the first time he had dreamed about him, Carter and a bed. There had been times before he had loved her when he'd dreamed about her, fantasises that seemed all too possible when they'd discovered their feelings were mutual, and dreams since despite his insistence on publically being nothing more than friends and team-mates. He was an adult; he was a man; dreaming about sex, making love, was a healthy, normal state of being. But these dreams...

It seemed wrong; perverse. He didn't want to dream about Carter in Shallan's place; he didn't want to dream about Shallan. And he sure as heck didn't want to assume Kanan's place or dream that Carter called him Kanan.

Jack drank down the rest of the beer and set the bottle aside. The chill cooled his flushed face and made him shiver. He slowly got up, grimacing when his limbs and joints protested with stiffness. He realised he couldn't feel the wood beneath the soles of his feet they were that numb with cold as he walked back to the cabin.

He burrowed back into his bed and let the blankets warm his body. He closed his eyes. Mackenzie would probably have a field day with the symbolism, Jack thought miserably. Not that he had any intention of talking to Mackenzie about the memory, and certainly not about Carter's role in his little remix of a dream.

Jack pulled the blankets closer. He wasn't stupid. He could figure out all too easily why his mind had swapped him for Kanan, Carter for Shallan. The comparison was too stark and he knew, thanks to Ba'al's memory prompting, that Kanan had only arrived as his insane plan to rescue Shallan after the symbiote had been exposed to Jack's feelings about Carter; to the memory of Carter being one side of a force-shield and facing certain death with him on the other, and knowing he wouldn't leave her.

Not that it excused Kanan's actions but Jack understood the symbiote's decision to go back for the woman he loved more than he wanted to admit; more than he was ever likely to admit. What Kanan hadn't been exposed to was the harsh truth that sometimes duty had to come before love; that sometimes actions had to be taken that went against every feeling felt, every desire wanted.

Carter stood in the corridor, hands raised to the ceiling, eyes glaring at him because she wasn't Carter; not really. His fingers squeezed the zat, firing the shot that would kill her.

He sighed and turned over restlessly. It was a pity Kanan hadn't seen that memory; maybe it would have made a difference. And maybe not. Jack absently scratched his bicep. He wasn't sure Kanan would have been dissuaded; the symbiote had wanted to rescue Shallan; Jack's code of ethics and his own actions in regards to not leaving Carter at the force-shield, had simply given Kanan the excuse he'd needed.

He was beginning to wonder whether his nagging urge to retire wasn't rooted in the same selfishness that had determined Kanan's actions.

It was different, Jack thought, pressing his lips together firmly. He'd been through hell with Ba'al; tortured, killed. So what was new, his conscience threw back at him without hesitation. He'd been tortured before; brought back to life before. He'd continued to fight. Why did he want to down tools this time? And what made him so special?

Carter had come through her experience with Conrad; Teal'c had been almost tortured to death by a Goa'uld himself; Daniel by Ammonet; hell, they'd all been tortured by Apophis during their brief visit to Netu.

It was different, Jack thought insistently. But was it, the voice in his argued back. Yes, he'd been tortured and badly with creative techniques that he'd never been subjected to before; it was without question the worst experience of his entire life beyond the moment he'd heard the gunshot that had killed his son. But was it any different really to any of the other times?

Maybe the only difference was that he was older and tired of the fight. Daniel's death had hit him hard; changed things irrevocably in terms of the team; smashed to pieces the illusion of a secure family unit. He'd concluded once that he deserved more in his life than simply burying himself inside the SGC; had tried to build something outside of it with a warm woman who had been great except for the one problem: she wasn't Carter.

Jack almost groaned out loud. It all kept coming back to Carter. And perhaps the reason why he was dreaming of her instead of Ba'al and his torture tricks was because he'd spent the last three days thinking about nothing but her.

He wanted her.

He wanted her more than he ever had before. He was tired of pretending he didn't love her; tired of constantly putting his duty before his feelings for her. He wanted to kiss her; hold her; love her...lose himself in her comfort. He wanted to be with her as selfishly as Kanan had wanted to be with Shallan.

Carter still felt something for him too. He was sure of it. He'd seen more than simple friendship in her expression while she had cared for him during his withdrawal. It wouldn't take much encouragement to fan the flames, reignite what she had felt for him.

Yet if he went to her right that moment, he would go to a broken man. Carter didn't deserve that. She deserved someone whole; someone without his insane baggage.

Which left him exactly nowhere.

And maybe, Jack thought tiredly, he was focusing on his feelings for Carter because he couldn't face the nagging fear that Ba'al had broken him and he was scared he couldn't function as a soldier anymore; couldn't be Colonel Jack O'Neill, SG1 leader anymore. And if he couldn't, who the hell was he? Maybe Daniel had been wrong; maybe he was never going to be OK again. The thought kept him awake until the dawn filtered through the curtains and bathed the bed in sunlight.

o-O-o

The mood in the chamber assigned to the Tok'ra Council was tense. Jacob waited impatiently for them all to get settled so they could begin.

I think it would be best for me to talk, Selmak pointed out dryly. He assented to his symbiote without a word. He was too furious to speak and if he did speak he was only likely to say something that would be detrimental to Selmak's standing on the Council. As it was many of the Council members were clearly avoiding his stern and accusing gaze.

Per'sus gathered his robes around him and held up a hand. The quiet murmur of voices petered out. He cleared his throat. 'Jacob, Selmak. We had not expected to see you here.'

'That much is evident, Per'sus.' Selmak responded caustically. 'Tell me: have I been voted off the Council?'

'Selmak...'

'Because I do not understand why such a major issue which affects our relationship with our ally, the ally to whom I was appointed liaison, would be decided upon without my opinion being sought and my vote counted.' Selmak spoke over the Supreme High Councillor without remorse. Jacob's eyes flashed as she vented her anger.

Maybe I should have been the one to speak, Jacob noted as he registered that Selmak was vibrating with rage.

Selmak ignored him and continued to glare at Per'sus. 'Have you all taken leave of your senses?' Inwardly Jacob winced; he really should have been the one to speak.

'Selmak,' Per'sus sighed, 'we believed that this matter would be a conflict of interest for you...'

'And what about Thoran's conflict of interest?' Selmak retorted.

'We are aware Thoran had a close relationship with Kanan,' Per'sus began.

'He was his brother.' Selmak corrected frostily. 'His accusations are rooted in his grief.'

Mardok, a younger Councillor with bright red hair and a crooked smile, raised his hand. Per'sus recognised him and waved for him to speak. 'Selmak, perhaps some of Thoran's arguments are without foundation but the central concern is valid.'

Selmak looked at him evenly. 'And what would this central concern be exactly?'

Mardok smiled as though Selmak had walked unknowingly into a trap. 'That our alliance with the Tau'ri leads to nothing but trouble and death; that we cannot trust them as hosts.'

Jacob was as stunned as Selmak as they assimilated the accusation.

Well, that is new, Selmak murmured inwardly.

Do you think they all feel that way, Jacob asked concerned.

Selmak sighed. We shall see. She sat forward. 'You all feel this way?'

'No.' Garshaw gave an apologetic smile to Per'sus but stood. 'I believe our alliance with the Tau'ri has been beneficial and I see no evidence that they cannot be trusted as hosts.'

'The evidence is before your eyes.' Mardok claimed. 'Shallan has admitted that Kanan told her he was influenced by O'Neill's belief that no-one should be left behind.'

'Hosts and symbiotes have been influencing each other for centuries.' Selmak countered. 'It's hardly an argument that the Tau'ri cannot be trusted as hosts. And as we all know, it is possible for a symbiote to resist the wishes of a host; it is impossible for the host to resist the wishes of a symbiote.'

'But if Kanan was so heavily influenced that he acted against his own beliefs...' Mardok continued.

'Then he was weak.' Selmak stated baldly. She gestured. 'Based on Thoran's evidence, either Kanan lied about O'Neill being rendered unconscious which was the stated wish of the host, and so was influenced unduly during the blending, or O'Neill was unconscious and Kanan was influenced only marginally and still used his host's body for his own purposes.'

She looked from Mardok around the rest of the assembled Council. 'We cannot have it both ways, and in either case, whether Kanan was influenced or not, it does not matter: the hard truth is that Kanan broke our highest law: he acted against the agreement of the host and O'Neill suffered for it.'

Per'sus inclined his head. 'You are correct, Selmak.' He looked chagrined. 'I regret to say that we had not followed Thoran's evidence to its proper conclusion in regards to Kanan's actions.'

A murmur broke out around the Council.

'And perhaps in which case, we can put this matter to rest.' Garshaw jumped in. 'I believe that the original decision was flawed and we should withdraw the charges against the Colonel.'

'There is still the matter of how much a Tau'ri host can influence its symbiote.' Mardok said quickly.

Selmak levelled her gaze on the young Councillor. 'I can assure you, Jacob influences me no more or less than any of my previous hosts.'

'Frankly, I'm more bothered about their continuing reluctance to be hosts.' Garshaw added.

'That is also a concern.' Per'sus agreed. 'While I doubt Kanan was influenced entirely by O'Neill, I wonder if blending with such an unwilling host didn't contribute to a,' he struggled to find the words and paused, 'to an imbalance in his judgement.'

'The Tau'ri value freedom and independence.' Selmak said. 'They have no recollection of Ra's rule; they do not know what it is to be born and live under the rule of a Goa'uld.' She gestured at the assembly. 'Our hosts have usually known only slavery. They see a blending as an opportunity as a way to gain freedom. The Tau'ri see symbiosis as a loss of freedom; as a loss of independence. And they will do much to protect that freedom. It is why they fight against the Goa'uld.'

'And perhaps that obsession leads them to fight the Goa'uld recklessly.' Mardok asserted. 'At a cost of Tok'ra lives.'

'One could argue our alliance has led us to recklessly endanger the lives of the Tau'ri when it has suited our purpose.' Selmak pointed out coldly. 'And when they see our symbiotes take hosts by force and use their hosts without regard perhaps it is no wonder that blending with us remains an anathema to them.'

Per'sus held up a hand. 'Let us vote: all those in favour of continuing to charge Colonel O'Neill with unduly influencing Kanan?'

There were a handful of arms raised but a small minority. Jacob felt something inside him unwind with relief.

'All those in favour of withdrawing our protest?' Per'sus nodded at the vast show of hands. 'So be it.' He stood up.

Selmak stayed seated as others followed Per'sus. 'There is still the matter of the Tau'ri's formal protest at O'Neill's treatment.' She said loudly over the rising voices.

Silence descended abruptly.

Per'sus blinked and sank back down. 'What do you suggest?'

'I would suggest a full apology.' Selmak replied evenly. She looked at him coolly. 'Perhaps in our grief over Kanan some have allowed their feelings to cloud them to the fact that at present Earth is our only ally; the only place we have to run to in the immediacy of Anubis's continued attacks; the only one who provides us with weapons and supplies.'

'Actually, Selmak,' Garshaw said with a darting look toward Per'sus who had flushed a bright red, 'I think perhaps it was all too much in our minds how reliant we have become on the Tau'ri.'

Politics, Jacob thought derisively; it seemed the Tokra were just as susceptible to posturing as the Tau'ri.

'We will issue a full apology.' Per'sus said tersely. 'Is there any other business?'

Selmak bowed her head slightly. She stayed seated as the others left.

Garshaw paused beside her. 'It is good to see you, old friend.'

'And you.' Selmak replied. It was Jacob who took control and placed his hand on Garshaw's preventing their friend from departing. 'We wish to speak with Thoran.'

'I will arrange it.' Garshaw promised.

Selmak let out a slow breath as the room emptied and they were finally alone.

Well, that went well, Jacob mused. A frisson of the anger he'd felt when they'd arrived fluttered through him again and he didn't know if he still felt aggrieved or whether it was Selmak.

I don't know either, Jacob, Selmak admitted with a sigh. Her confusion and hurt at being cut out of the original discussions lingered.

A soft knock disturbed the thought.

'Enter.' Jacob called.

Hammond walked in alone. He nodded at Jacob. 'I saw everyone else leaving.' There was a question in his voice.

Jacob waved at him to sit. 'They're going to drop the charge against Jack and issue an apology, George.'

His old friend slumped into a seat with a huff of air. 'I can't tell you how relieved I am to hear that, Jake.'

'I'm just sorry that it took so long for the news to reach me.' Jacob sighed. 'I was buried in a science project in the Risa system.' He looked at Hammond. 'How is Jack?'

'He's alone at his cabin, recovering.' Hammond noted.

'You really think he's going to come back from this?' Jacob asked pointedly.

Hammond sighed and Jacob noticed for the first time how tired George looked beyond the facade of his uniform and parade ground posture. 'I hope so, Jake, because we can't afford to lose someone with his skills.'

'It never seems to get any easier, does it?' Jacob noted with a sigh.

'No.' Hammond grimaced. 'It never does.'

o-O-o

Sam looked up as Jonas entered the elevator.

He smiled at her widely. 'Hey, I heard you were back. How was Area 51?'

'OK.' Sam said shrugging her shoulders. In truth it had been irritating. She'd spent the whole week distracted, thinking about the Colonel and whether he was OK, wondering how he was getting on at his cabin. McKay had finally snapped at her the day before, bluntly pointing out her lack of focus. It galled her to admit that he'd been right although she would rather eat glass than ever admit it to McKay.

'They're making good progress with the engines.' She rolled her head, to ease the tension gathered in her neck muscles. She was tired. Home, she thought longingly. She'd just made her report to Hammond and he had dismissed her. His mild comment that they'd see her in the morning hadn't quite been an order to get her butt off the base but it was close enough. 'I think we're going to have to rethink the shields and defences. We're almost out of the naquadria.'

'Really?' Jonas's smile fell away. 'I guess I never considered how much would be needed.'

He looked so despondent that Sam couldn't help but reach out and touch his arm gently. 'Hey. You brought us more than we thought we'd ever have. We wouldn't have even made the progress we have without you.'

Jonas attempted a smile and Sam realised he was doing it more for her benefit. 'I realise that but it's still disappointing that it wasn't enough.' The thought of whether he had betrayed his world for nothing could have been written across his forehead.

'Whatever we come up with, Jonas,' Sam said firmly, 'whether we use the naquadria or something else, we will share it with you.'

'Thank you.' Jonas said sincerely. 'I appreciate that.'

Sam nodded. She searched around for another topic. 'Congratulations, by the way.'

He glanced across, his uncertainty at why she was praising him written all over his confused face. His openness brought a pang to her heart. Daniel had once had the same inability to hide his thoughts; she wondered when her Ascended friend had learned to mask his feelings, when she'd stopped being able to read him.

She dragged herself back to the present and waved at Jonas. 'You helped get the Tok'ra to drop the charges against the Colonel.'

Jonas lifted the folder he held. 'I think your father and Selmak had more to do with it than us.' He smiled ruefully. 'General Hammond made a great speech though.'

'Which he couldn't have done without all the prep work you and Major Davis put in.' Sam pointed out.

'Maybe.' Jonas allowed. He gestured at her. 'Have you heard from the Colonel?'

Sam shook her head, unwilling to acknowledge the disappointment that he hadn't tried to contact her in his week away or her own confusion on whether she should have checked in with him. 'He's due back tomorrow to begin the psychiatric evaluation but he won't be on duty again until he clears it.'

'I understand that it's usual procedure?' Jonas's natural curiosity shone from his eyes.

'It is.' Sam assured him.

The elevator slid to a halt.

'This is me.' Jonas said. He took a step out and turned to place a hand between the doors to prevent them from closing automatically. 'Hey, if you see the Colonel, can you let him know I'm thinking of him?'

Sam nodded and Jonas let go of the doors. She gave a breath sigh of relief as they slid shut and she was alone.

She clasped her hands behind her back and stared up at the floor indicator. The Colonel had been due to arrive back earlier that day in Colorado Springs. Maybe she should stop by on her way home, check that he had everything he needed. She'd taken care of the house in his absence but maybe there was something she'd forgotten...and maybe she just wanted to have an excuse to see him.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Sam closed her eyes briefly. She had a horrible feeling she was more in love with Jack O'Neill than ever. Everything he had endured; everything he had gone through had just increased her admiration and her respect for him.

Stupid.

He didn't feel the same way. Sure he had accepted her support during his withdrawal but she had a feeling that had been more for her benefit than his. She shook herself slightly. She had to pull herself together before she made a complete fool out of herself.

The elevator slid open and she stepped out almost colliding with Teal'c.

'Major Carter.' Teal'c allowed the elevator to move on without him as he bowed in greeting.

'Teal'c.' Sam gave him a wide smile. 'It's good to see you.' She had missed the Jaffa's steady presence both during the Colonel's withdrawal and during her week away.

'It is good to be seen.' Teal'c confirmed, his stern features softening. 'You look well, Major Carter.'

She pulled a face. 'I look terrible, Teal'c, but thank you.' She gestured at him. 'General Hammond mentioned you'd spent some time out at the Alpha site?'

'Indeed.' The lines on his face settled into a look of deep satisfaction. 'There has been much progress. I believe O'Neill will be pleased.'

Sam nodded. 'I'm sure he will be, Teal'c.'

'It is my understanding that O'Neill would be home this evening.' Teal'c said. 'Perhaps you would join me in visiting him?'

Visiting on her own would provoke questions but visiting with Teal'c? That would be OK, wouldn't it? Sam bit her lip as Teal'c patiently waited for her answer and caught a glimpse of something in his eye. He really wanted to spend time with the Colonel, she realised. A flush of shame washed through her. It wasn't just about her, Sam reminded herself. And maybe Teal'c needed to see Jack more than she wanted to. Maybe it was best if she didn't see the Colonel at all until she had rebuilt her defences again.

'Actually, Teal'c,' she replied, 'Cassie called me when I was away and she wanted to see me when I got back.' It wasn't a lie. The teenager had called, upset about her break-up from Dominic. 'Maybe you could visit with the Colonel on your own and just pass on my regrets and that I'll see him tomorrow?'

Teal'c inclined his head. 'If you are certain.'

Sam attempted a smile and feared it was more of a grimace. 'I'm certain, Teal'c. Oh, and can you let him know Jonas sends his regards too?'

'I will, Major Carter.'

They went in opposite directions and Sam paused as she reached the women's locker room. It was for the best; no matter how much it hurt.

o-O-o

Teal'c parked the base car outside of O'Neill's home and reached for the square bakery box he had carefully stowed on the passenger seat. He made sure his grey hat still covered his Goa'uld brand and made his way to the front door, knocking solidly on the wooden surface.

A faint sound of movement inside the house assured him he had been heard. The door swung open.

Jack looked at him blankly for a moment as though unsure whether to believe his eyes. He lifted his beer in greeting. 'Teal'c.'

'O'Neill.' Teal'c's eyes ran over the SG1 leader noting how the clothes hung loosely from O'Neill's frame; the deep lines that bracketed O'Neill's pale, unshaven face and the listless dull look in his brown eyes. Teal'c was suddenly pleased that Major Carter had declined to come with him. He raised the bakery box. 'I have brought doughnuts.'

Jack swept an arm towards the den and Teal'c accepted the invitation to enter. He removed his hat and placed the box on the table, aware that O'Neill had disappeared into the kitchen after closing the door. He looked around. There was an air of disuse about the place; to be expected given O'Neill's long absence from the house. He glanced at the muted TV; pictures of yellow cartoon characters filled the screen.

He sat down and O'Neill reappeared. He placed a ginger ale in front of Teal'c, snagged a doughnut covered in powdery sugar and took the seat on the far side of the room.

Teal'c carefully chose a chocolate dipped doughnut from the selection and bit into it.

For a long minute the only sound in the cold den was their chewing.

Jack sucked the sugar off his thumb and washed away the sweetness with beer. 'So what brings you here?'

'I wished to welcome you home, O'Neill.' Teal'c said without pretence.

Jack seemed startled. 'Thank you.' He shifted uncomfortably. 'It doesn't seem real.' He murmured, indicating the room with a wide sweep of his arm, perilously close to sloshing beer on the floor.

Teal'c searched for a safe topic. 'Did you enjoy your time fishing?'

'It was fine.' Jack's thumb rubbed at the label on the bottle. 'You?'

'I was able to spend some time at the Alpha site.' Teal'c informed him. 'Progress is being made on the training programmes between the Jaffa and Tau'ri warriors there.'

Jack nodded uninterested. 'Thanks by the way.' He gestured at him. 'The whole Tok'ra thing. Hammond called me to tell me the charges were dropped.'

'It is Jacob Carter and Selmak to whom you owe your thanks.' Teal'c corrected. 'I am not certain without their intervention we would have been successful.'

Jack's gaze strayed back to the TV.

Teal'c saw him glance at the ordered pile of videos stacked on the floor. 'Major Carter ensured your TV show was recorded during your absence.'

'She did?' Jack looked up sharply, a spark in his eyes for the first time since he had let Teal'c enter his home.

Teal'c inclined his head.

'She had other plans tonight then or did you get the short straw this time?' Jack remarked caustically.

Teal'c got the reference. Daniel Jackson had once teased O'Neill unfairly that he had drawn the short straw when he had gone to see him during a period when O'Neill had briefly left the SGC on an undercover sting operation.

'I am not Daniel Jackson.' Teal'c said mildly. He waited a beat. 'He would not have brought doughnuts.'

Jack's eyes widened in surprised before he burst out laughing. He shook his head and raised his beer in silent salute to Teal'c.

'Major Carter is visiting with Cassandra.' Teal'c continued. 'She sends her regards and looks forward to seeing you tomorrow. As does Jonas Quinn.'

'Tomorrow.' Jack repeated with a grimace.

Teal'c debated whether he should say something. He fervently wished for a moment that he was their former team-mate; Daniel Jackson may have known the words to pull O'Neill from whatever mood was upon him. Humans were perplexing to Teal'c at the best of times. He took a deep breath and determined to plough on. A Jaffa never backed away from a challenge. 'Something troubles you, O'Neill.'

Jack paused, the bottle millimetres from his lips. He lowered it again. 'You mean apart from being tortured and killed over and over again?'

'Indeed.' Teal'c took the sarcastic reply at face value.

Jack's lips quirked and he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. His eyes went back to the stack of videos. 'Have you ever thought about giving it up, Teal'c?'

'I have not.' Teal'c replied. He mused if O'Neill was truly contemplating such an action.

'Never?' Jack queried.

'Never.' Teal'c confirmed.

'Daniel gave up.' Jack muttered as though to defend his own thoughts.

'Did you yourself not say that Daniel Jackson believed he could do more as an Ascended being?' Teal'c pointed out.

'He got snowed by the sales speech.' Jack replied incongruously, staring at his bottle. 'It's not like he can blast us out if we get caught by a Goa'uld or strike the bastard down.'

Teal'c frowned, wondering at O'Neill's certainty.

'To all extents and purposes, he gave up.' Jack summarised, gesturing with the beer.

'Are you seeking permission to do the same?' Teal'c asked bluntly.

Jack winced but sat back, his dark eyes guarded as they met Teal'c's. 'Maybe I'm seeking a reason why I shouldn't do the same.'

Teal'c felt ill-prepared and ill-equipped to respond. He wished again that Daniel Jackson was still alive. 'I do not believe now is the time to make decisions of this nature.'

'If not now, then when?' Jack asked.

Teal'c considered his friend seriously. 'Have you considered that your actions may be being influenced by your blending with Kanan, O'Neill? That his desires are influencing your own?'

Jack grimaced. 'Yes. I have considered it.'

Teal'c looked at him expectantly. For a brief moment he thought his friend would not reply.

'I don't know.' Jack admitted. 'I want to say no...' he shrugged as though to dismiss the thought.

'Perhaps,' Teal'c suggested, 'you would be better to discuss this with Major Carter.'

Jack's head snapped around and he coughed hard as the swallow of beer he had just taken went down the wrong way. 'What?' He managed eventually.

'Perhaps as an ex-host she may be able to guide you into determining what of what you feel is Kanan and what your own true thoughts are.' Teal'c responded evenly, intrigued by O'Neill's reaction.

'Right.' Jack's thumb worried at the bottle label again. 'The ex-host thing.'

'Unless there is another reason why you think you should speak with Major Carter.' Teal'c added, unable to resist the opening. He was not unaware of the feelings his two team-mates hid from each other.

Jack shook his head, stopping when his gaze hit the video stack. 'You ever watch The Simpsons, Teal'c?'

Teal'c registered the change in subject and acknowledged that O'Neill no longer wished to speak of the questions that were clearly preying on his mind. 'I have not.'

'How about a marathon?' Jack suggested. 'I'll order pizza.'

Teal'c inclined his head in agreement. Jack gave a smile and raised his empty beer bottle.

'Another ginger ale?'

'I am fine, O'Neill.' Teal'c waited until the other man had departed for the kitchen before he allowed his own gaze to rest on the video stack. He believed a conversation with Major Carter would enable O'Neill to move forward but he also believed that O'Neill had no intention of ever conducting such a discussion. He pressed his lips together and reached for his ginger ale. Perhaps if O'Neill would not go to the Major, the Major could be persuaded to approach O'Neill. He knew one thing was certain: he would need a superior strategy either way.

o-O-o

Daniel looked up as Oma settled beside him in the darkness. The lake lapped at the nearby shore; it was a shimmering silver mirror cutting through the black swathe.

They sat in silence for a long time. Both of them watched the night; the sparkle of stars long dead in the sky, the rush of the wind with its scent of flowers and water, the rustle of grass around them.

'It's beautiful here.' Oma said softly. 'It was one of my favourite places as a child.'

Daniel's eyebrows shot up. 'You were a child?'

'We were all children once.' Oma smiled at his shock. She nodded at the lake. 'I remember swimming with my sisters in the moonlight as young women.'

'Sisters.' Daniel looked at her with puzzlement. 'You and Morgan were sisters?'

'Once.' Oma nodded, her dark hair brushing her shoulders. 'Many moons ago.' Her hand moved through the grass and disturbed a butterfly that perched on her finger a second before it flew away, fluttering into the darkness. 'I remember my previous life, Daniel. I remember the bonds I once held.'

'But you don't have those bonds any longer?'

'Morgan and I...' Oma shrugged. 'Our paths went in different directions so long ago and there has been a universe to explore since we last met.'

'And it has been enough?' Daniel pressed. He had a feeling he was about to receive another lesson.

'I always thought so.' Her eyes gazed out at the lake serenely. 'And I came to believe this should never be our knowledge alone.'

'You want to share it with others.' Daniel surmised. He let out a slow breath. 'Like me.'

'There are many who seek Ascension; who only seek knowledge and enlightenment.' Oma said. 'Yet only a few who can achieve it alone.'

'So you help.' Daniel concluded.

'So I help.'

'Against the wishes of the Others.' Daniel pressed.

'Against the wishes of the Others.' Oma agreed without heat. She raised her face to the sky. 'We are not without flaws, Daniel. We are capable of making mistakes and when we do...the consequences can have a reach far further than we can see or anticipate.'

'I know you disagree with what I did,' Daniel began.

'I was talking of mistakes I have made.' Oma interrupted with a smile.

Daniel's mouth dropped open slightly and he shut it again. 'I guess I never considered that.' He wet his lips. 'Do you consider helping me a mistake?'

'I believe I am only beginning to understand why I helped you.' Oma confessed with a sigh.

'If you immediately know the candle-light is fire, the meal was cooked a long time ago?' Daniel teased, to cover the unease he felt at Oma's answer.

She smiled in response. 'And what of you, Daniel? You have stayed many days here.'

Daniel nodded. 'I needed to think.' He admitted. He sighed as he thought how best to explain himself. 'I need to do this; be this.' He waved at himself. 'I don't know why but it feels important somehow; like there's something here I have to learn, or do.' He gestured at Oma. 'I'm not sure I can explain it.'

Oma nodded in understanding.

'But I also don't believe I was wrong to help Jack.' Daniel blurted out. He turned away from her. 'I get that I shouldn't use my powers in judgement; that I'm not a God; that I don't get to choose who lives and who dies but...' his voice trailed away and he took another breath. 'I can't stand by and simply watch my friends suffer. I'm not sure I'm going to forgive myself for letting Jack suffer as long as he did and I'm not sorry that what I did helped to end it.'

He looked up at Oma. 'I want to be Ascended and I will strive to work within the rules but I can't give up the bonds I have.' He held his breath as she regarded him thoughtfully. Would she send him back? As much as he missed his SG1 family, he didn't really want to go back not just yet, not when there was so much more for him to learn...

Oma transformed; her body blurring into her energy form. 'Then I believe we will both have an interesting journey ahead, Daniel.' She departed and Daniel found himself alone again, relief rushing through him.

He found his thoughts returning to Oma's words. She had once been human herself, Daniel mused. What did that mean? Were the Ascended beings simply Ascended humans like him? Or were they related to the Ancients, the builders of the Stargates, he theorised, remembering the writing in the temple. And what about her admission that they made mistakes? Daniel frowned. He guessed he'd already known that because of Orlin.

Daniel pushed a hand through his hair and flopped back on the grass to stare up at the endless sky. He hadn't asked Oma about the balance thing, he realised, and given her comments about not really understanding why she had helped him, he wasn't sure she would have been able to give him an answer.

Did it matter, Daniel wondered. He had what he wanted: he was still Ascended and he even had her tacit understanding that he would remain bonded with his friends but...the question of why Oma had helped him Ascend nagged at him.

He shook it away determinedly. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that he made the most of his Ascension; learned what it was that he was meant to learn. He allowed his form to dissolve into energy and floated away into the night.

o-O-o

Jack stared at the base psychiatrist. He noted the careful press of Mackenzie's uniform; the absence of the white coat. He knew it was a ploy to make him more comfortable; to make him forget they were in the middle of a formal session that would determine whether he made it back to the field or not. The uniform was meant to denote that Mackenzie was just another officer; one of the guys; someone Jack could confide in. Jack noted the strategy and sighed.

He was dressed in blue BDUs. The uniform felt strangely uncomfortable as though it knew Jack wasn't yet committed to wearing it again. The rough collar of the shirt scratched at the back of his neck; the pants felt confining. He longed for the worn-denim jeans and soft cotton shirts of his downtime.

Mackenzie was waiting for Jack to speak. The sharp-nosed, perceptive-eyed, dark-haired shrink had waved Jack into the visitor chair in the small office and simply said: 'When you're ready.'

Jack wasn't sure he'd ever be ready. He sat stiffly in the chair, legs splayed, arms folded. He was sure Mackenzie was noting the body language and drawing conclusions.

The psychiatrist shot him an understanding smile. 'Perhaps we should begin with the last week.'

'What about it?' Jack shot back immediately.

'Tell me about your cabin.' Mackenzie invited. 'It's in Minnesota, isn't it?'

'Yes.' Jack's chin lifted as he regarded Mackenzie suspiciously. 'I'm not really...' he flicked his hand at Mackenzie, 'I don't want to talk about my cabin.' And it had nothing to do with the continuing dreams he'd had there or that it hadn't brought him the sense of peace he craved.

'I understand.' Mackenzie said soothingly.

'What?' Jack snapped back.

'That the cabin is a place of safety for you.' Mackenzie answered evenly, ignoring Jack's anger. 'That you want to keep it private; that you don't want it to become the property of the US Air Force even in words logged on a report.'

'Yes.' Jack looked away from Mackenzie focusing on a spot on the far wall where someone had evidently scratched the paintwork. 'That.'

Mackenzie waited again.

The silence grew longer.

Jack's skin crawled with tension. 'I'm thinking about retirement.' He blurted out.

The psychiatrist didn't even blink. 'I think that's a perfectly natural reaction.'

'You do?' Jack's eyebrows shot up.

'I would be concerned if you displayed an eagerness to return to the field given your experience.' Mackenzie said.

Jack assimilated the quiet statement. He'd been gung-ho after Iraq; determined to ship out again ASAP. The Special Ops shrink had signed his papers and he'd been on the next flight out. He'd thought he was being a man; facing up to his fears...he was beginning to realise all he'd done was bury them. Maybe there just wasn't any more space in his head to bury anything else.

Mackenzie shifted as though he'd guessed Jack's thoughts. 'Tell me about last week.'

o-O-o

Sam checked her watch surreptitiously and tried to focus on the report on her monitor. The Colonel was in with Mackenzie; had been for two hours. Clearly, his experience called for an extended session. She'd seen him briefly when he'd arrived; he'd stopped by the mess where she, Teal'c and Jonas had been breakfasting, declined to join them and said he was already running late and would catch them later.

She hadn't been able to stop herself noticing that he'd looked tired and thin as though he hadn't rested the entire week he had been away. She gazed blankly at her monitor before turning away with a muttered curse.

God, she had to stop thinking about him!

Her phone rang and she picked it up grateful for the distraction. 'Major Carter.'

'Sam? It's Jonas.' The Kelownan said cheerfully. 'Teal'c and I are going to head to the mess for a snack. We thought you might want to join us?'

A snack sounded tempting and it wasn't as though she was going to get any work done, moping about her lab, Sam mused. 'Sounds great.'

'We'll meet you there.' Jonas said.

Sam hung up the receiver and turned off the monitor before she exited the lab and walked over to the elevator. She briefly gazed at the stairs; it was only one level...she pressed the elevator call button.

The sound of footsteps had her turning to look down the corridor and her heart leaped at the sight of the Colonel. He slowed as he caught sight of her but continued to approach until he stood next to her.

'Carter.' Jack nodded at her.

'Sir.' Sam gestured at the elevator. 'I was just on my way for a snack with Jonas and Teal'c.' She bit her lip. 'Would you like to join us or...'

'I'm...' Jack waved a hand at her, 'you know. Maybe tomorrow.'

The elevator arrived and the two of them entered the small compartment.

'So, how was the fishing?' Sam asked brightly, trying to cover the awkward silence.

'Fine.' Jack stared up at the floor indicator. 'It was...'

The compartment shuddered; the lights flickered and with a screech the elevator suddenly fell, throwing Sam into Jack as the lights went out completely.

He caught hold of her as just as suddenly it jerked to a halt and their momentum carried them into a wall. Jack turned them without thinking and took the brunt of the blow as they hit the solid surface and bounced onto the floor. The emergency red light flickered on bathing them both in a scarlet flush.

'Sorry, sir.' Sam said as she extracted herself from his arms.

'Not a problem, Carter.' Jack gestured with one hand at the emergency phone as he rubbed his new bruises with the other. 'You want to do the honours?'

Sam moved gingerly to her feet and over to the phone. She picked it up and frowned. She tried again but replaced it when there was still no dial tone. 'It's not working, sir.'

'Of course it isn't.' Jack said dryly.

She pressed the alarm; nothing happened. She looked at the panel and dived into a pocket to pull out her key-ring with its assortment of tools. 'I think the power is out, sir.'

'Of course it is.'

Sam glanced at him, noting the caustic tone. 'You OK, sir?'

'Let's just say I don't have as much of an appreciation for small, cramped spaces as I used to.' Jack muttered.

She grimaced in understanding. His time in the sarcophagus had evidently left him with some claustrophobia issues. 'I'll see if I can reroute the telephone, sir.'

'Have at it.' He waved at her as he manoeuvred into a more comfortable position, wedged in a corner.

Sam pressed her lips together and focused. She would get him out; she would.

o-O-o

Jack watched as Sam became absorbed in her task. He let himself stare at her unashamedly, knowing she was usually oblivious to everything else around her when her mind was focused on something. She had eschewed the BDU shirt and her long sleeved black undershirt skimmed over her body, accentuating her modestly enough. There was a glint of metal at the back of her neck; the chain holding her dog-tags, Jack mused. He let his gaze roam downwards. She wore the same blue BDU pants. They covered her legs, hiding them from view but hinting at the long length, the shapely derriere and the curve of her hips.

He looked away abruptly. Damn it. It was bad enough he was dreaming about her every night without adding more detail to it. He rubbed a hand over his face; through his short hair. His gaze drifted back to her; he could only see her face in profile but he knew there would be a line between her brows as she concentrated. Her lower lip was pulled between her teeth. Her nose wrinkled as she hit a problem.

God, he had it bad. Jack closed his eyes. The image of her filled his mind along with a familiar scent. He breathed in the orange fragrance and filled his lungs with it. Somehow his muscles relaxed; his stomach unknotted.

The session with Mackenzie had been long and tiring. Jack was surprised how much he had told the psychiatrist but he hadn't told him everything – nothing about his feelings for Carter and how they played into all that had happened – and Mackenzie wasn't dumb; he knew Jack was keeping something from him.

Strangely, Mackenzie had also suggested the same course of action as Teal'c: talking to Carter to gain her advice as an ex-host on sorting out his emotions from Kanan's.

'You seem uncomfortable with the suggestion, Colonel.' Mackenzie peered at him speculatively.

'That would be because I am.' Jack retorted.

'Why is that?'

Jack pressed his lips together. 'I'm not talking with her about this.'

Mackenzie leaned forward. 'If your positions were reversed, would you not want her to feel comfortable that she could come to you.'

'That's not the point!' Jack snapped. 'And it's different.'

'Because you're her CO.'

'Exactly.' Jack agreed.

'Yet you allowed her to remain with you during your withdrawal.'

Jack flushed. 'Yes. Well. That wasn't the plan.'

'But you did allow it?'

Jack sighed. 'She's already seen me sick as a dog and in pain. She's our field medic; it's hardly news to her.'

Mackenzie regarded him thoughtfully. 'Which are you more afraid of, Colonel? That you'll discover your desires influenced the symbiote or that the symbiote is influencing you right now?'

'Ouch!'

His eyes snapped open. 'Carter?'

She turned briefly towards him and he took in the sight of her sucking on her finger with raised eyebrows. 'Just a shock, sir.'

No kidding.

She waved her uninjured hand at the panel. 'I can't reroute the power.'

Of course she couldn't.

He sighed and patted the floor next to him. 'Pull up a seat, Carter. You might as well get comfortable.'

She eased back along the wall and slid down to sit beside him. 'Sorry, sir.'

'Not your fault.' Jack murmured. None of it was her fault. Not his taking the symbiote; not Kanan's desire to rescue Shallan; not his inability to leave her at the force-shield two years before nor his inability to move on. He eased his head back until it made contact with the wall. He figured they could be stuck for a couple of hours before they were rescued.

She shivered beside him.

'Cold?' He asked, concern welling up as he took in her pale face.

'A little.' Sam admitted, hugging her middle tightly enough that Jack knew she meant a lot.

'The power outage must have taken the heating out too.' Jack noted. He unceremoniously unbuttoned his shirt and handed it to her.

She took it and frowned at him as she registered his short-sleeved t-shirt. 'Don't you need this, sir?'

'I'm fine.' Jack said. He sighed at her uncertain expression. 'Just put it on, Carter. I can always demand it back if I get too cold.'

She shrugged it on without any further argument. It swamped her and he reached over without thinking to adjust the twisted collar.

She blushed faintly. 'Thank you, sir.'

He nodded and withdrew his hand smartly.

Silence filled the small compartment.

It was his turn to shiver. He ignored the pointed look Carter levelled at him and rubbed his arms.

'Sir, we could sit closer and share body heat.' Sam suggested sensibly.

'Right.' Jack didn't move and Sam gave a sigh and shifted position herself. She pressed into his side and he shifted his arm, draping it across her shoulders as her head came to rest awkwardly on his shoulder. He looked at where to place his hand: did he cup her shoulder, or simply rest it on her arm or...he fisted it, leaving it dangling a good two inches from her body.

Jack breathed in. The orangey scent was stronger now she was all but curled up in his lap. He looked for a neutral topic. 'How's Cassie?'

'She's OK, sir.' Sam replied after a brief hesitation. 'She broke up with Dominic.'

'Should I be doing my happy dance?' Jack asked dryly.

'He called just as I left last night.' Sam said. 'So I wouldn't get my hopes up.' She paused. 'Sir.'

His lips twitched.

She shifted subtly against him and he tried to ignore the feel of her in his arms. 'I'm sorry I didn't make it over last night, sir.'

''S OK.' Jack reassured her. 'Although you did miss a Simpsons marathon.' He added trying to keep it light-hearted.

'So Teal'c said.' Sam murmured.

'I should thank you for recording them all.' Jack continued.

'You'd do the same for me, sir.' Sam replied.

And he would. It's what friends did for each other, Jack reminded himself. Friends. Team-mates. He sighed. 'Teal'c said I have Dad to thank for getting the charges dropped.'

She nodded, her hair brushing the underside of his chin. 'They should never have pressed charges in the first place.' She sounded so disgruntled on his behalf, he had to smile.

It faded as Mackenzie's question nagged at him. Ask her, a voice whispered in his head; just ask her. He sighed heavily.

'Sir?' Sam murmured.

'What if they were right?' Jack pushed the question out almost stumbling over the words. 'What if I did unduly influence the snake?'

Sam moved so swiftly to look at him, she took him by surprise. 'With all due respect, sir: bullshit.'

He searched her fierce gaze; the mutinous set of her jaw and felt the wall he'd built around him in the previous week crack wide-open. 'It's possible, Carter.' He looked away from her. 'He loved her. He didn't want to leave her behind.'

He felt her stiffen with realisation as she worked out what he believed had influenced Kanan. 'It's still bullshit, sir.'

Jack looked back at her almost amused at her ferocity.

'Sir,' Sam moved again to look at him fully, 'the key word here is unduly. All hosts and symbiotes influence each other but they determine what they act on. Even if Kanan did see...' she waved a hand at him, 'you choosing not to leave someone behind, he didn't have to act on it in regards to his own situation.' She held his gaze. 'He certainly didn't have any right to use you to make the rescue without your consent. That was just pure selfishness.'

Jack nodded slowly. He motioned for her to resume her previous position. She curled up immediately.

'You know if he had woken me up; asked me; I'm not sure I would have said no.' He confessed into the silence.

'You would have said no.' Sam said confidently, contradicting him. 'It was tactically too dangerous, sir, and put Earth and the Tok'ra needlessly at risk. Maybe you wouldn't have left, uh, Shallan, behind in the first place but you wouldn't have gone back for her just out of guilt; not when the safety of others was at stake.'

There was another silence as he assimilated her words. He felt humbled. He wasn't sure he deserved her unquestioning belief in his honour; not after the last week and his thoughts of retirement, of pursuing something with her.

'It's a weird thing, isn't it?' He mused out loud. 'This whole snake sharing thing.'

'Weird.' Sam agreed. She paused. 'Dreams?'

'A few.' He admitted without expanding.

'They go away.' She assured him.

'Good to know.' Jack said sincerely. He waited a beat. 'When?'

She chuckled for a moment but sobered. He saw her fingers wrap around one of her knees. 'You know after Jolinar it took a long time for me to feel like myself again.'

'I'm beginning to get that.' Jack murmured. But he could feel the confusion in his own mind easing in the empathy of her confession.

Sam shifted again; easing up to look at him with intent blue eyes so dark in the dim lighting. 'You're you, sir.'

He knew he had his selfish side; something that was all Jack O'Neill. A part of him that selfishly wanted out; to ignore his duty and his honour; to take the excuse being tortured offered him and head back to his cabin away from the war and the losses. But Carter believed him to be so much better than that, and he wanted to be better; for her, to be worthy, to be the man she believed him to be.

Kanan's own selfishness was a part of him too; Kanan wanted to be with Shallan and he wanted to be with Carter. That's probably why he'd been dreaming about them, Jack realised. But Kanan had gone after what he wanted and, well, Jack didn't really want to look at the outcome.

It would be so easy, thought Jack; so easy to close the last few inches between them; to kiss her; taste her; lose himself in her touch. But Carter deserved more than a kiss, or even a relationship borne out of his own selfish needs; she deserved his protection. It was her job on the line if he kissed her; her life on the line. And it was his job on the line, his life on the line, if he failed to keep her safe. He knew that all too well. And so, he hesitated, held back like he always did and nodded.

'I'm me.' He said lightly, and for the first time since he'd woken in Ba'al's fortress, he believed it.

Carter smiled at him.

The elevator juddered, grabbing both of their attention, and it began to move slowly.

'They must have fixed it.' Carter slipped out of his loose hold and got to her feet.

Jack staggered up, supporting himself on the wall. The elevator stopped and the doors opened on the commissary level. There was a reception committee: Hammond, Fraiser, Siler and the remaining members of SG1.

'Colonel. Major.' Hammond grimaced at them. 'Are you OK?'

'A little cold, sir.' Jack said breezily. He gestured as he stepped out. 'Carter received a small electrical shock trying to fix the phone.'

'I'm fine, sir.' Sam said immediately even as Janet reached for her hand to check. 'Really.' She turned to Siler. 'What happened?'

'An unexplained power outage, Major.' Hammond replied. 'It seems the power conduits to the entire elevator system shorted out somehow.'

'I'll look into it, sir.' Siler promised.

'Do that, Sergeant.' Hammond ordered. 'I don't want this to happen again.' He nodded at his two officers and departed.

'I am pleased to see you are both well.' Teal'c murmured.

'Me too.' Jonas broke in cheerfully. 'We were worried.'

He could see it on their faces; they'd been concerned and probably about more than him and Carter just being trapped in an elevator.

'So.' Jack said, his gaze settling on the rest of SG1 as Sam retrieved her hand from the doctor. 'I hear there was talk of a snack?'

Sam's smile lit up her whole face, and Jack saw her delight reflected in Teal'c's quiet gleam of approval and Jonas's wide grin.

'Mess, sir?'

'Lead on, Carter.' Jack said.

Janet cleared her throat. 'If I could just have a moment, sir?'

Sam hesitated mid-step and Jack gestured for her and the others to continue. 'Carry on. I'll meet you there.' He turned to the petite brunette and shoved his hands in his pants' pockets. 'What's up, Doc?'

Her eyes narrowed on him. 'I just wanted to check you're alright, sir. Getting trapped in a confined space given your recent experience...'

'I was fine.' He took in her sceptical look and responded with a raised eyebrow that challenged her to disbelieve him.

Janet nodded slowly and walked away in the opposite direction, heading for the stairs, Jack noted with amusement. He spun on his heel and went after his team. He caught sight of Carter waiting for him at the entrance, still wearing his shirt, the sleeves almost swamping her arms. He should probably get that back from her before too many people saw it and jumped to conclusions, Jack mused.

Something inside him settled as he fell into step beside her and he let go of his doubts. For the first time since Daniel had said the words to him, Jack finally let himself believe it: he really was going to be alright.

fin.