One Too Many Planets Part 11 (Conclusion)

Storming back to her room Sam muttered under her breath about insolent men lacking the manners of civilized society. For a moment, when he had almost smiled at her, she had felt her senses melting, his admiration, so clearly apparent, warming her very soul. And then, in the next instant, he was treating her like a …! The conceit of the man was intolerable and next time she promised herself he would feel the sting of her ire on his handsome jaw.

'Handsome? Had she said handsome? And what about next time? Why should there be one? Should she not be attempting to return to her home, to her mother, to her rightful place, to…?'

A pair of dark brown eyes pushed through her thoughts stopping her free flow. She rubbed her temples again, willing the pain and the intruding picture to fade.

'But,' she thought pensively, 'he had noticed her new garment and, in his own strange manner, had indicated that it pleased him.'

She found herself smiling then frowned because she was smiling. Enough! He had erupted into her life as a most unwelcome manner, trying to trick her into believing she lived another life even as he forced her from her real existence. What effrontery!

Chastising herself for wasting time on such a wild, foul tempered ingrate, she turned her thoughts to the evening ahead, rather intrigued at what lay before her.

She 'was' enjoying this, she tried to convince herself, and if it hadn't been for those dark, liquid eyes intruding on her thoughts, she would have been having a wonderful time. Seeing the ladies entertaining their partners with music, poetry and dancing of the most proper kind, Sam's eyes had been opened wide at the innocence of it all. Even her own partner was being the perfect gentleman, unlike someone she knew she thought wryly, listening to her every word, not finding a need to challenge or argue with her, simply enjoying her company, as she was his.

And so it annoyed her, annoyed her beyond all measure that she was unable to blank out that look Grey Hair had given her when she had answered him perplexedly, "I could not leave you behind." She didn't even know what that meant, for goodness sakes, but it seemed to satisfy him, her Colonel. Her Colonel? She shuddered. Now she was in trouble.

"My lady?"

Sam started, realizing her partner had been speaking to her and was awaiting her reply. Returning to the present she stared into the courtier's puzzled eyes then dropped them in embarrassment that she had not been paying attention.

"Forgive me, Lord Diago, I…I am afraid my mind is trying to inform me that it is time to retire." She rose to her feet, her actions swiftly duplicated by the handsome courtier whose admiring green eyes had never once wavered from her face the whole evening they had been together. She recognized the disappointment, and trying to make amends continued, "Would you be so kind as to escort me to my quarters?"

The man's confusion grew. "Quarters?"

Momentarily flustered, San wondered why she had spoken such a strange word. "I…I mean, my room," she corrected.

The confusion disappeared as a broad smile of delight lit up the man's features.

"It will be my pleasure, My Lady."

And now, as she opened her door and turned back to bid Diago goodnight, his hands gently took hold of her shoulders and his lips lowered to hers. Just for an instant she stiffened, but his gentle persistence won through and she felt her senses warm to the feel of his touch and she felt herself respond in kind.

In his embrace Sam hadn't quite realized that she had been turned until she opened her eyes and met a pair of dark cynical eyes observing her from within her room.

Startled, she jumped away as if scalded, while Diago yet again regarded her with bewilderment, unaware he was being watched by another.

Breathless, she managed to splutter, "I…I again beg pardon, My Lord. I…I…the hour is late. Your charges will wonder of your presence. I bid you goodnight, Lord Diago."

And with a short curtsy she had seen the novices perform, she hurried past the man, shutting her door. She remained facing her closed door, eyes shut tight, waiting, knowing something derisive would be said. She didn't have to wait long.

"Enjoying yourself, Carter?" His voice was cool, detached.

Sam swallowed, moistening lips that had suddenly turned dry. Slowly, unaware of how appealing she looked at that moment, she turned to face Jack, who was still lounging on her bed fully clothed in his BDUs.

She glared at him, wondering why she should feel so ill at ease. "What are you doing in my room, and what are you doing in those?" She indicated his clothing. "How did you get them?"

"Wanted to, wanted them and that's for you to find out," he rolled off smugly in quick succession.

Sam's eyes flashed with irritation.

Jack didn't take his eyes off her. "So, the guy whose tonsils you were admiring, who's he?" Again, Jack's tone was completely neutral though the glint in his eyes belied that fact and in a second, intuition made her pause and she smiled calculatingly.

"Lord Diago? He is a man of good breeding…" Jack's eyebrows rose. "…and gentle manners, who knows well how to treat a lady."

"Yeah, saw that." His voice dripped with sarcasm.

"You could learn much from a man of his rank and nobility."

Raising himself from the bed, Jack snorted in exasperation. "I have my rank, Carter, it serves me just fine."

It was Sam's turn to snort and Jack's head shot up, his expression dark.

"And what the hell does that mean?"

Her smile was so very superior. "Nothing, simply nothing," she replied sweetly.

"The guy probably doesn't have a brain in his head," he sneered caustically, angry with himself for wanting to take her in his arms and give her a concrete lesson on how kissing should be done.

"Is that so?" Sashai was appraising Grey Hair in a highly pretentious manner making Jack feel ever so slightly uncomfortable. "Then naturally," she continued coming to stand at the base of her bed, "you will have no interest in the strange metal circle of which he has spoken." Her blue eyes, a lighter shade than her dress, sparkled triumphantly until his hand shot out grasping her wrist and before she had time to react, she felt herself jerked against his firm body.

"The Stargate? What did he say? Did he mention its exact location?" he demanded gruffly.

Smugly, she answered, "Yes, much, and that is for you to find out."

She felt his grip tighten further but she maintained her cool poise staring into his irate dark eyes until, with a growl, he thrust her away shoving both his hands deep into his trouser pockets. The force in him was unmistakable and yet, Sam knew she had no reason to feel fear. She knew, without understanding why, that this man would never harm her.

"I don't do the bended knee begging thing, it just doesn't suit me." His manner was self-deprecatory as he attempted to lighten the atmosphere, yet the underlying tension still remained.

Sam chuckled. "Oh, I do not know."

His scowling eyes shot up to meet hers.

"Mayhaps a simple entreaty would benefit this situation," she continued, smiling all the more engagingly.

Looking as if he would prefer to play ball with a Goa'uld System Lord, Jack mumbled something inaudible.

Her head tilted engagingly as she encouraged, "Beg pardon, Colonel, but I failed to hear your words."

Jack's eyes smouldered, his lips tightly compressed as he glared back at her. She held her ground.

"I will make you pay for this, Carter. You do know that?"

She grinned at him in a way only Sam Carter ever had. "If you say so," she answered smugly, "yet in the meantime…?"

"Please!" He ground it out as if the very word offended him.

"I think you may need to work on your social skills, Colonel."

"Carter!" It was a clear warning and Sam understood she had gone as far as she dared without eliciting some form of repercussion.

She smiled indulgently. "Remember if you will, how you told me we should follow a route to a lake north of this town?"

Jack nodded, his eyes riveted to her.

"Well, it seems there is an area close by in which it is forbidden to enter on penalty of death. There, is found a sacred metal circle which, it is said, has brought forth spirit travellers from strange lands. But this, according to Lord Diago, is hearsay only. He himself knows of no one who has seen such wonders and yet, such is the belief that one of his duties is to ensure the townsfolk stay well away – for their own safety, he assured me."

Jack's eyes rolled at her last words. "The guy can do no wrong in your eyes, eh Carter?" But still his dark eyes burned with excitement at what he had heard. "I knew it had to be here. I just didn't know how we got transported without the darn thing."

She watched him, smiling to herself having never seen him so elated.

"We've got to go. Now!"

Sam was rooted to the spot, hardly daring to meet his eyes. She shuffled her feet uncomfortably.

"Carter?" Jack's voice had risen in volume.

'How could she tell him?' she wondered frantically. 'How could she destroy the light which burned so brightly in his eyes, shatter that look which would stay with her long after he had gone? No, let him have his dreams for a while as she had her own.'

She stilled her fears and faced him, hiding from him what she knew must be hidden.

"I…I need to change my attire and I will make my farewells to Christa."

"No goodbyes, Carter – can't afford to jeopardize the home run."

"Home run?"

He failed to hide his exasperation. "For crying out loud, Carter – we're almost home…They'll run out the red carpet when they see you and it might just save me from a court martial."

"A what?"

"It's a long story. Doc'll want to sort out your memory loss ASAP so the sooner we get back…

She had tried persuading him to wait another night to build up his strength but the necessity to be moving could not be prevented and, in the end, she had 'borrowed' two horses from the stables.

They had ridden cautiously, aware of sentries and evading any signs of people once they left the darkened town.

As they rode at a steady canter, Sam checked her riding companion and noted he was favouring his side. Her offer to stop for a rest was met with a curt shake of his head, his gaze remaining fixed on the moonlit road ahead.

Meanwhile, the intensity of her headache had steadily grown and she rued having drunk the alcohol which she felt was aggravating her discomfort.

Holding the reins in one hand, she gingerly massaged her temples hoping to ease the stabbing pain and, at that moment, a picture flashed into her mind of herself in the same attire she had on now, walking side by side with Grey Hair and two others, one large and dark skinned with a strange gold symbol seemingly attached to his forehead. She was laughing at something said and turned back to speak with the remaining member whose blue eyes shone with merriment behind rimmed glasses. And then the image disappeared, leaving Sam confused and dejected by something she felt was out of her control.

She turned her head observing Grey Hair as he sat partially hunched over the neck of his mount. He was in pain, she was sure of it, but he refused to acknowledge the fact, would, she was sure, lie to her if she called him on it. She cast her mind back to what he had told her when they had first met, about her being a part of some strange sounding group – SB-1? And there were two others who were also a part of this group. 'Could the picture in her mind be them?' she wondered. She grimaced, wishing the ache would just go and allow her to think clearly. Now, more than ever, she needed her head to be clear.

In the end it was decided to leave the horses tethered to a place where they would easily be spotted in daylight and they made the last part of the journey on foot, Jack ever cautious that their presence be concealed.

Slowly, cautiously they made their way through the shadowed countryside undistinguishable from that of earth until it was Sam herself who hissed excitedly, "There!" She dropped down naturally, Jack following her with less fluidity in his movements.

He grimaced as the pain in his side became more pronounced and his left arm lay across his stomach, a hand protectively held over his semi-healed wound. He was fairly certain his injury had reopened and was bleeding. He shook his head and realized that even as his own situation was deteriorating, all was not well with Sam either. Every now and again he had seen her put a hand to her temple and rub it gingerly. There was a tightness round her eyes and mouth that attested to discomfort, though when he'd questioned her earlier she had in true Carter fashion simply frowned and said, "Nothing to worry about, Sir."

Stiffening as if shocked, Jack had demanded, "What did you say?"

She had looked surprise then muttered, "It's nothing."

Clearly irritated, he had snapped testily, "No, not that."

And she had looked perplexed.

"Sir. You said 'Sir'!" But if he thought this was going to bring enlightenment he was to be sadly mistaken.

"I did?" She obviously did not understand the deeper meaning behind this word, though she could see Grey Hair was indeed excited.

"Yes, you did." Even with his increasing weakness he knew that if Sam tried to deny what he'd heard, so help him, he believed he would give her a shaking simply to bring her to her senses. Her true self was attempting to come through but, as far as he was concerned, it wasn't happening fast enough.

"Okay."

"Okay?" Jack was beside himself. "Carter, don't you understand?"

He was giving her one of those 'Are you really that dense?' looks Daniel usually reserved for him. He hoped she'd get the meaning. "Your memory must be returning if you call me 'Sir'."

The look she threw him was pointedly sceptical which drove Jack's blood pressure to new heights and tempted him sorely to carry out that shaking thing except he knew that trying to force Sam's hand would not do good in the long run. He just had to accept that this was one positive sign and more would follow. After all, wasn't he Mr. Optimist and Mr. Patience combined? He shook his head resignedly then told himself they were nearly home. Not much further and he could relax and let Doc's happy juice work its wonders knowing he'd got Sam safely home.

The guards weren't even remotely interested in their duty. And why should they? Nothing of import had, to their knowledge, ever occurred at this supposedly magic circle in their life time. And now, sprawled some distance from the Gate, their weapons were strewn on the ground and Jack was happy to see they were nowhere near to hand. A picture of dereliction of duty and one he was delighted to see in any opposing forces. But woe betide anyone under his command who was caught napping on duty – there was only one outcome, a fast track ticket to the dullest, longest posting on earth

He knew there had been times when he'd been more than relieved to see the Stargate, but this had to be one of those all time highs and as he was about to punch in the co-ordinates he hesitated. Sensing Sam at his shoulder he held back, acutely aware of the danger in wasting time. He held the GDO, ready to send SG-1'S own personal ID as soon as the wormhole was activated.

Sam had been having more and more trouble holding herself together as the pain in her head had grown unbearable. She had made the decision that she would promise to follow Grey Hair through the magic ring and then simply not do it. She would hide in the copse nearby in the hope that neither Diago's men nor Grey Hair, should he return, would find her. Of course, her plan depended on the fact that the wounded man would go through the circle first. If he insisted on being a gentleman, she would have to fall back on hoping he would be too weak to actually force her. She grimaced, the thought being almost too much to contemplate.

With all these wild ideas racing round her head, and trying to control the pain, she continued to watch as the man put his hand on the strange circular disc that stood near the circle. He had, she noted, pressed three of the seven strange signs encircling the large red circle in the centre in a seemingly random fashion when he abruptly clutched his side doubling over.

"Finish it, Carter," he gasped, eyes closed as he tried to ride out the pain lancing through him.

"Wha-at?" Her own discomfort forgotten, she glared at the man beside her, aghast that he was unable to complete what was necessary to allow a passage home. "I…I know not how!"

"That's crap!" Dark eyes opened and bore into her, the words uttered forcefully through gritted teeth. "Do it…you can remember!"

Doubt cast a sombre shadow over blue eyes bright with pain.

"Dammit, how am I supposed to-?"

'Yes, you're even losing that crazy speech!' "Remember, Carter, you can – please!"

It was, she had to admit, his vehement appeal that made her stop, made her pause and honestly think of the possibility that he just might be right; that all he had said was indeed the truth. She screwed her eyes tightly shut feeling the pull from two opposing sides.

Shards of pain tore into her temples and she whimpered from the torment, yet still she could hear this man demanding, appealing to her to get them home.

She shook her head, gasping at the movement, angry with the man's persistence. 'For God's sakes, all he had to do was…' Almost automatically, she felt her own hand move over the remaining symbols, her hand, of its own volition, depressing and activating four more hieroglyphics. Following this, her hand came down on the bright red circle.

She wasn't even startled when the whole circle lit up and produced a vortex of shimmering water, her eyes were on Grey Hair who was looking at her disconcertingly, the dark depths of his eyes swimming with such emotion that she found herself moving towards him.

"You did it, Carter."

He reached out a hand and she took it ascending the steps to the very shimmering door of the circle.

"You remembered…I knew you would. You've got us home."

She smiled then, her pain forgotten as she raised a hand and touched his cheek, her own eyes beginning to fill with tears.

"You have touched my heart, Colonel," and aware of the approaching guards continued, "now you are right, it is time to return."

He nodded, reaching into her caress, unaware that her other hand was already reaching behind him. She made to enter the shimmering mirror at his side, and as he moved forward in step, desperate to return, desperate to have his team whole again, he felt her falter. He tried to halt his propulsion just as the thrust on his back sent him hurtling headlong through the vortex.

"Sa-aaam!"

He was still yelling as he came flying out the other side of the Stargate, landing heavily on his weak knee and falling in a heap on the ramp. He swore with the pain, all too aware that his blonde 2IC was not at his side and that he'd been fooled, had fallen for a trick that any wet-behind-the-ears cadet would have seen through.

Cries of delight and the thunder of footsteps were followed by gentle hands turning him, but he pushed away their comfort and ignored their soothing words of reassurance, his sole intent being to get back through the wormhole.

"Sam!" He had to return, he couldn't lose her again, couldn't accept that her choice had been made and it wasn't him. He'd seen the look in her eyes, seen what he had only dreamt of – she was his in almost every sense of the word and there was no way, no f-cking way he was going to allow her to simply disappear again.

He pushed himself up, aware of the danger of appearing desperate and crazed. Controlling his breathing, holding in his pain, he stared into concerned eyes oblivious to the fact that he was surrounded by the General, Janet, Teal'c and Daniel.

"I'm fine, guys. I'm fine. Help me up, for crying out loud! Carter's back there – we need to go and get her – NOW!" And when the same comforting hands made no move to assist his leaden limbs, he pushed himself up paying no attention to the "Easy, Colonel", refusing to accept that his demands were being ignored yet again. "She's just there…" His head twisted back to the still open gate, straining to return. This nightmare scenario couldn't be repeating itself, not after all he'd been through. "You've got to dial back that planet's coordinates!"

He was vaguely aware of the sudden sharp pain in his arm and a black velvet blanket enveloped him into oblivion.

'What the-?' Dr. Janet Fraiser almost did a double take as she pushed aside the curtains surrounding the patient's bed. "Going somewhere, Colonel?"

'Crap. Busted!'

She was quick to note that her exasperated gaze bounced off an unrepentant O'Neill who had just managed to detach himself from the last piece of tubing attached to his body and was now in the process of pushing himself up and off the bed.

He swayed ominously, but ignored it just as he ignored the CMO's sharp order to lie down. He was determined to get Sam back even if it meant…he stumbled and felt his body start to fall until Janet's arms locked around his chest preventing any further damage to his abused body.

He found himself staring, much too close for comfort, into eyes of flint and groaned. Here was a challenge, not like the young nurse who'd been assigned to guard him and whom he'd coerced into going on a wild goose chase. Attempting to draw away, he felt the sharp pull from his wound at the same time as he met firm resistance and definite pushing.

"You can let go, Doc," he ordered.

'When pigs can fly!' "Not until you're back in bed, Colonel."

She recognized that stubborn glint in his eye and braced herself.

"Not gonna happen, Doc. As your superior, I'm-."

All too aware of how pale he was, she realized that the energy he'd expended was about to have a painful comeback and just as she felt his knees buckle she coerced and chivvied his protesting body back to the bed, where she allowed him to fall back none too gracefully. He gasped from the pain but turned it into a growl of protest.

"Damn it, Doc, I've got to-."

"You've 'got' to stay in bed, Colonel." And to accompany her firm words she swept the rails of the bed up, moving to the opposite side to repeat the action. "And I was about to bring you some visitors, but it appears various catheters have worked loose." She pinned him with an icy glare but seeing his misery she relented, her frown softening as she reached out to replace the IV in his left hand. "Come on in, guys; he's just about presentable."

"Doc, I-." His protest evaporated in the antiseptic air as his eyes fell on the wheelchair being carefully manoeuvred through the curtains by Teal'c, with Daniel bringing up the rear. He stiffened. "Carter?" Bruised eyes hungrily moved over the pyjama clad figure sporting a large dressing over her left ear.

He watched her with an intensity that would have done justice to a hawk on the wing. Too pale, too…what? If he didn't know better, he'd say she looked afraid? Crap!

"How are you, Sir?"

The agitation that had engulfed him since he'd stepped back through the Stargate, dissolved in an instant and he lay back against his pillows, eyes closed almost as if saying a silent prayer.

"I'm fine, Carter." His eyes had opened and were trying to search hers except that the moment their eyes met, Sam's darted away as if unwilling to meet his frank appraisal.

"O'Neill, it is good to have you back."

Jack's eyes reluctantly moved to the Jaffa and Daniel who was standing at his side, and he smiled weakly.

"Missed me?"

The reply was not what he'd expected.

"We did not," was the emphatic reply.

And seeing Jack's confusion, Daniel hurriedly went on to explain, "Er, the General wasn't too amused when he learned of our involvement in your off world exploits, Jack." Daniel smiled self-consciously whilst Teal'c merely assumed his superior air.

Janet snorted at the delicate approach and decided it was high time to make things transparently clear.

"Daniel and Teal'c have been getting acquainted with the brig, Colonel."

Daniel frowned at the memory; the General had even refused to allow him any books which had been a real blow. At least Teal'c had been able to do his kelnoreem, whilst Daniel had had to resort to twiddling his thumbs.

"Wha-at?" Jack was aghast and pushed himself painfully up on his elbows. And all the while his eyes were on his team mates, Sam's eyes were riveted on her CO.

"General Hammond was most upset when he was informed you had left, O'Neill

"He wasn't the only one," Janet interjected pointedly, making Jack squirm uncomfortably.

Aware that Sam's questioning eyes were on him, he swung back to meet her look only to find her gaze had darted away leaving him feeling unaccountably anxious.

"I'm sorry I got you into this mess. If I'd known-."

"Jack, you got Sam back for us." Daniel interrupted passionately, his blue eyes blazing with the intensity of his feelings. "We'd have spent a darn sight longer in jail just to have her home. Isn't that right, Teal'c?"

For anyone taking the trouble to look, Sam had blushed a deep pink and appeared to shrink into herself.

"I concur wholeheartedly, though I am of the belief that General Hammond has not concluded his disciplinary action."

Daniel rolled his eyes while Jack grimaced trying not to allow his overly creative imagination free rein on that subject. Still, he'd managed to bring Sam back –'That should surely be-. Wait a second.' He frowned. He hadn't actually brought her back. She'd given him a sharp push through the wormhole as if she'd had no intention of following. His dark, questioning eyes returned to hers and yet again, blue orbs flickered away and she shifted restlessly in the wheelchair.

"Okay, people, that's enough. Captain Carter looks as if she needs to return to her bed," and fixing Jack with a stern look, continued, "and Colonel O'Neill and I have to have a little discussion on a few issues."

"Aw, c'mon Doc, can't this-."

"Well, if you want Captain Carter around while I reattach all the lines…" And now she was gazing down at his nether regions, wearing a decidedly smug expression.

'Crap!' Jack blinked feeling the colour rise in his neck and face. He noticed Teal'c's studiously neutral expression and wished he'd stayed with that because Daniel looked as if he were ready to burst a lung. He carefully avoided his 2IC's expression and managed to give the archaeologist a look that was intended to promise severe retribution in the very near future, but to his consternation Daniel's colour merely grew redder and as he preceded Teal'c and Sam back through the curtains, Jack couldn't fail to hear the laughter.

Jack was not amused but, there again, when he met the CMO's accusing glare he realized she wasn't either. This was so not a good position to be in – at the mercy of a despotic medical officer, a severely pissed medical officer. He closed his eyes in the faint hope that he'd be allowed to rest in peace.

"And where, may I ask, is Lt. Fern?"

'Fat chance.' Jack grimaced and opened his eyes. "Er…she ran an errand for me."

"Did she now?" Janet was tapping her foot – not a good sign. The distinct glint in Janet's eye was having a disturbing effect, particularly as the CMO was taking out a fresh Foley and preparing to insert it.

"Doc, is it really neces-."

"Would you prefer that I permitted Lt. Fern do the honours?" Janet murmured menacingly, and seeing her patient's chastened expression, said sourly, "That's what I thought, Sir."

Once she had completed all the necessary checks she stepped back snapping off her gloves and disposing of them in a swing-top bin.

"Now, about that talk, Sir."

"I don't think I want to hear this."

"Rank does have its privileges, Colonel, and so, although this may come as a surprise," and here Janet smiled frostily, "I've decided that although you left the infirmary without permission, thereby causing me to reprimand every person on duty that night, I won't make an issue of it."

The blast of euphoria was suddenly replaced by a cold dread which Jack could feel coursing through his veins and it had nothing to do with the medication. And seeing the realization in his eyes, Janet smiled agreeably.

"General Hammond requested he be informed the moment you were fit and able to receive him," she said with an enormous amount of satisfaction.

Sucking in a sharp breath, Jack stared the Doctor straight in the eye.

"He was pretty mad, was he?"

"You could say that."

"Don't suppose it's worn off somewhat?" Jack's expression wasn't exactly hopeful while Janet looked ever more like the proverbial cat with the cream.

"You've got twenty-four hours, Sir, and then you can expect one seriously irate CO on your doorstep."

Jack shrank back onto his bed, realizing just how bleak his future was looking.

He'd suffered the indignity of a bed bath and a shave without so much as a word of complaint, though Lt. Fern did think Jack's clenched jaw spoke volumes and made her just that little more nervous. When she'd nicked his neck a second time, she'd been sure she'd receive a severe bawling out but, to his credit, Jack chewed his cheek to ribbons and wisely remained silent.

'One good deed deserves another.' The litany echoed round his head like a mantra so when General Hammond eventually pushed aside the curtains surrounding his bed, Jack had almost convinced himself that he was going to survive whatever it was his CO was going to throw at him.

The senior officer stood erect, his expression sombre. "Colonel, it's good to see you looking well."

Jack's shoulders stiffened. "General, it's good to be well." He grimaced at how lame he sounded but he was trying to be careful not to say anything that would put him deeper in the mire than he already was. Desperately trying to pick up on his CO's tone, he realized that neutrality was the name of the game. General Hammond was giving nothing away.

The stocky man looked down on the recumbent man now with an almost paternal expression which Jack found slightly disconcerting.

"You do know I can't let your insubordination go without redress?"

Eyes lowered in submission, Jack's irreverence wouldn't be smothered. "Oh, I don't know, General," And then seeing his CO's lips tighten ominously, Jack's tone dropped respectfully. "Yes, sir."

"No one is more delighted than me to have Captain Carter back, Colonel; however, the manner in which this was achieved leaves a lot to be desired."

'Oh, crap. This is not looking good.' Jack could feel himself holding his breath ready for the axe to fall. 'Court martial, dishonourable discharge?' He braced himself for what was to come, adamant that nothing would be revealed in his face. He'd already accepted that if he was out of the SCG it was worth it – Sam was back – it was enough, more than enough.

"Dr. Fraiser has informed me she expects you will be ready to return to full duties in three weeks. So with that time scale in mind, I expect you to report to me three weeks from today, 0800 hours."

"Dress uniform?"

"No." Jack's eyes widened in surprise. "BDUs will be fine; this is going to be a training exercise."

"Training exercise?" Jack couldn't suppress his astonishment nor his relief.

The General watched him carefully.

"That's correct, Colonel. A training exercise – off world. Duration, one month."

Working hard to keep his delight hidden, Jack met his CO's stern gaze with equanimity. At any other time, the thought of having to train up a group of fresh faced airmen would have had him cursing like a boot camp instructor, but he knew that this was a walk in the park compared to what he could have got.

"Sir, I assure you I'll do a great job."

"Oh, I know you will, Colonel, I know you will."

For just a moment, a glimmer of doubt entered Jack's mind as he observed the General's expression. 'Was he hiding something?' But just as quickly he decided that wasn't the General's way. 'All that worry for the last twenty-four hours – all for nothing.' He shook his head at his folly.

"Anything wrong, Colonel?"

He snapped out of his reverie. "Er…no, no, not at all. Everything's hunky dory…Sir." Jack gave a clipped smile, still unable to take in just how well he had escaped the wrath of his CO.

"Very well, Colonel. Now that that's taken care of, I'll take a seat, if you're up to having a social visitor."

Jack grinned in relief, resorting to his usual facetious self. "Draw up a chair, General – not the most comfortable you'll admit, but hell, Sir, my scintillating company will take your mind off your bu- …er, the discomfort."

It was only much later that Jack realized that the General hadn't even demanded an apology. Once again the grey haired man thanked his lucky stars that he had such an understanding and civilized CO. However, in retrospect he should have known it could never be that easy – that there was going to be payback – big time. But for the moment, he had Sam Carter on his mind and until he sorted things out with her, he wasn't too hot on clear, rational thinking.

As General Hammond walked out of the infirmary doors, his momentum was momentarily halted by the whoop of victory that had so obviously emanated from behind Jack's closed curtains, and for an instant the blue eyes hardened stonily.

'Let's see if you'll be whooping in three week's time, Colonel.'

"What? Is that it?" Daniel looked positively aggrieved and he wasn't made to feel any better by the supercilious look on his friend's face. "You mean to say he didn't threaten you?" Eyebrows raised, Daniel clearly doubted what Jack had just told him, though Teal'c appeared to find no difficulty in accepting O'Neill's version of events.

"Threaten?" Jack sounded puzzled.

"Yea, you know, like…" Daniel could feel his face reddening as he faltered, pushing up the glasses on the end of his nose.

"You mean with the brig?... Nah."

"No, not the brig." Daniel was definitely sounding affronted as he stood in defensive mode, arms wrapped tightly around himself. "Kind of…er, well…the, er, the physical thing." His eyes dropped to the toes of his shoes, unable to meet Jack's puzzled gaze.

"Physical?" Jack sounded even more perplexed.

Teal'c decided he had had enough with the prevarication. "What Daniel Jackson is trying to say, O'Neill, is that General Hammond threatened him with physical chastisement."

"Wha-at?"

Daniel's glare was stony as he raised his eyes.

"I believe you Tauri call it a 'thrashing'."

"Thrashing?"

Daniel stiffened as he sensed the laughter simmering in Jack's eyes.

"Aw, c'mon, Daniel – the General? You've got to be kidding."

"I assure you, O'Neill, General Hammond was not in the least humourous when he was addressing Daniel Jackson. I believe he was quite ready to take on the paternal role in the light of such juvenile behaviour."

Jack's eyes narrowed. "And don't you figure in this quote juvenile unquote behaviour?" he asked dryly.

"Indeed I do not." Teal'c's tone had exceeded supercilious, and with his nose in the air he continued, "General Hammond was of the opinion that I could not allow either of you to take such undertakings alone – of necessity I would be at either yours or Daniel Jackson's side."

"And so, magnanimously, you accompanied Daniel to the brig." Jack's sarcasm was bone dry, yet it appeared Teal'c chose to ignore it, merely nodding his head majestically.

Jack turned back to Daniel. "And, so how come you escaped General Dad's hiding?" This time he was relatively serious, attempting to appease his aggrieved friend.

"I…I had to promise to behave."

Jack's dark eyes looked distinctly baleful. "You? Behave? Hah, fat chance."

And now Jack understood why Daniel was so blisteringly annoyed – Daniel knew he could never live by the conditions set by the General. He was born to break rules as long as it meant solving a linguistic mystery. He'd had no compunction in disobeying Jack's orders in the past, didn't consider the consequences when he was on a quest. But all of a sudden, something unpleasant hung over the young linguist, forcing him to be aware of his actions, to never lose himself entirely in the nature of his work. Once again he had responsibilities – not to Share or the people of Abydos, but for his own skin. The thought of being treated like a three year old was too horrific to contemplate. And now the injustice was doubled, if not trebled. Here was Jack, the worst offender – who had got off with not even a simple slap on the wrists. It really wasn't fair and Daniel's hurt eyes reflected the injustice he felt so keenly.

Jack held his hands up in a placating manner. "Hey, don't blame me that you're not in the Air Force. Superior Officers are constrained not to lay hands on the men under their command…I suppose that's why I escaped the lecture."

Daniel was still not appeased, his sullen voice attesting to the fact. "It's alright for you, Jack. He doesn't treat you as if you were-."

"A spoilt brat? And can I help it if you look so young and vulnerable as to induce paternal protection?" Jack carefully failed to explain that Daniel could be an incredible pain in the butt and that the General was probably just returning the compliment.

"Protection?" Daniel was livid. "In no uncertain terms, I was promised a march to the woodshed." And seeing a clear lack of sympathy, Daniel glowered and turned away.

"Look at it this way, Daniel." The archaeologist paused at the curtains and looked over his shoulder. He was to wish he hadn't. "Having General Hammond as a father figure could prove to be beneficial – and if you give me a few weeks, I'll come up with one of those many benefits, for sure." At this point Jack burst out laughing, leaving Daniel to stomp off in high dudgeon.

'One down, one to go.' Now that he was alone and meant to rest, Jack was able to turn his attention to the overriding concern in his life. And as Lt. Fern entered his enclosed area, he gave her a warm, welcoming grin which sent her own internal alarm system ringing for all its worth.

Having listened to his request, the junior nurse looked definitely doubtful. "Sir, Dr. Fraiser warned me about this. She said you'd try-."

"Me?" Jack's theatrically aggrieved voice should have gained him an Oscar nomination at the very least. Then adopting a contrite expression, he pushed another button. "You know what it's like to want to help one of your team, Fern? And I promise I won't be long. You can take me to the Captain's room. I promise I'll wait there until you come and get me."

The young lieutenant's eyes showed hesitation, yet there was also understanding. For some unaccountable reason, she had a soft spot for the one patient almost all of the SGC medical staff tried to stay well clear of when he was a patient. Being a relatively new member of Janet's nursing staff, she had only been given the duty of watching the Colonel while he was unconscious. Janet had certainly not expected her patient to rouse so soon on the occasion she'd found him disconnecting himself from all the medical machinery, when he'd easily been able to get rid of Fern. However, the lieutenant had forgiven the Colonel this indiscretion and seemed willing to be in his company permitting Janet to give the other members of her staff a reprieve whilst filling in the fresh-faced young lieutenant on the wiles and ways of one stubborn, cantankerous Air Force colonel.

"Ten minutes, Fern, that's all I'm asking." And adopting the little boy lost routine, so familiar to both the CMO and General Hammond, the young woman was lost.

"Sir?" Sam's surprise was all too evident as she watched her CO being wheeled into her room and the nurse retiring.

Jack smiled happy to see that she was at least doing her usual thing – working on her laptop. It made him feel a little less anxious until he looked closer and saw her doing something he was so extraordinarily talented at – putting those barriers up, giving a great show of indifference.

'Oh no you don't, Captain!' "Thought we'd have a chat, Carter – talk about our little escapade."

Deliberately, she kept her eyes on her laptop screen.

"Nothing to talk about, Sir," she mumbled, her eyes flickering up to his then bounding away nervously.

Jack refused to be averted from his course of action. "Oh, I don't know – you got my butt out of a sticky situation." He patted his still heavily bandaged side. "Doc says I'm lucky to be around. She also told me they'd found some something strange in your blood which could account for your memory loss." He frowned more to himself, "though it doesn't explain why those people would try and make you think you were someone else."

Sam smiled weakly. "I…I don't really remember all that much." She wouldn't meet his gaze.

"Yea, well, I do know that if you hadn't found Christa I might not be here now. Imagine." His eyes twinkled, but there was no answering smile. "Carter?" His voice had dropped to a whisper.

Reluctantly, she raised her eyes, the wariness in her expression mirrored in her grave eyes which seemed to have lost their entire colour.

"Hey," he spoke softly. "I'm trying to say thank you, Sam."

Just for a moment he thought he caught a fleeting glimpse of such bewilderment that the breath caught in his throat and he stilled. Manoeuvring his chair closer, he reached out and took Sam's chin in his hand so that she had to meet him eye to eye.

"If you're pissed with me I'd rather you told me – I can take it." 'I think.'

She attempted to wrest away but his hold tightened. "Ah ah – not gonna happen – come on. Out with it."

He could see a darkening of her eyes just as her lips tightened and the stubborn glint lit up the darkness.

"What do you want me to say, Colonel?"

Accustomed to an amenable 2IC, Jack was slightly taken aback by the bite in Sam's tone – it seemed she'd retained more of Sashai's ways than he'd expected. Hell, he'd have to watch her temper.

"I just want you to tell me how you feel, and so help me, if you dare say 'fine', I'll…" He froze. 'Way to go, Jack. Threaten her and expect her to spill her guts.'

Carefully, he leaned back in his chair. The hard edge left his voice and he held his hands up in a conciliatory way.

"I just wanted you to know that," Jack grimaced, not feeling all that comfortable himself and hesitating as he stumbled to find words suitable to express his feelings, "hell, Carter, we're okay aren't we?" 'Oh, such eloquence, Jack,' he chastised himself grimly.

Slowly, she looked up searching for something he wasn't sure was there for her.

"I don't know, Sir. Are we?"

For a moment his legs tensed to push himself out of his chair and to reach out for her, but the years of discipline were ingrained into his very core and what his soul told him to do, he simply didn't – gripping the armrests of his chair until his knuckles turned white.

"Why did you come back?" he demanded softly. "I knew you weren't going to after you gave me that 'helpful' push through the Gate." He noted her flush and allowed his features to soften. "Hey, you can talk to me. Lighten up."

Something in his tone made her eyes, that had refused to meet his, now lock with his and he stilled at the painful vulnerability he saw in their depths.

"Carter, if you don't talk, I can't help you!"

The hint of a smile touched her lips. "I never took you for the talkative type, Sir."

He had the grace to look sheepish and grabbed one of the smaller manuals on her bed, instinctively flipping through the pages, the simple act of allowing his fingers to be occupied somehow reducing the tension within him. Keeping his head lowered, he said softly, "I promised myself there was something I'd do once we got you back."

He sensed her eyes on him and quelled the urge to fidget even more.

"Nothing mind blowing like saving the world or eliminating another System Lord. Just…I…" 'Ah crap, just get on with it, O'Neill.' "I wanted to apologise."

He stilled the moment he'd spoken the words and looking up, he found Sam's eyes fixed on him. He knew there could be no half measures.

"I didn't mean to kiss Kelly. I'm still not sure how it happened. I…I guess I was angry."

"Angry?" Sam echoed the word in surprise.

"Hell, yes." He could feel the thumping of his heart increasing.

"Why?" She couldn't contain her incredulity.

"Because I couldn't…" He could feel his irritation levels increase at his own lack of communication skills. He was sounding more and more like a goddamn adolescent going through puberty. "…give me a break here."

"Why?" Sam pressed, almost holding her breath.

"Do you really need to ask that, Carter?"

Her eyes burned into him and he felt an intense need to fidget. Exhaling a shaky breath he knew the answer to that and rubbed a hand across his face.

"When I lost you on PX…," His face scrunched up as he tried to remember, "…whatever, I felt…I felt."

She saw his eyes darken as memories assailed him and a haunted desolation swam in their depths.

"It's okay, Sir," she whispered, gently bringing him back to reality.

"Is it, Carter?" His words conveyed far more and she knew it as he smiled sadly. "So, why did you come back?" he repeated, staring her straight in the eye.

And for the first time, the faint hint of a smile showed. "Do you really need me to tell you, Colonel?"

And understanding the answer, Jack smiled, feeling the tension seep out of his body.

"You know, Carter, I've got a cabin in the lakes where you can fish to your heart's content and never-."

The door flew open as Lt. Fern's agitated face peeked through.

"Sir, Ma'am, Doctor Fraiser has just reappeared and if I don't get you back to your bed…" She left the rest to their imaginations.

"Guess this will have to wait, Carter."

His expression was both wistful and full of promise as the wheelchair was propelled backwards and he just managed to raise a hand in farewell before the door closed on him saying, "You know Lieutenant, your timing sucks big time."

Hands in pockets, whistling merrily, Jack O'Neill was a welcome sight as he strolled the corridors of Cheyenne Mountain and personnel acknowledged his return with welcome smiles, warm nods and energetic salutes.

Jack's bravery had never been in question with any person who worked in Stargate Command, but it was felt he had gone well beyond that call of duty when he absconded and eventually returned with Captain Carter. And while Jack's military feats were admired, Captain Carter's popularity was, without exception, heartfelt by everyone and so Jack's popularity had been raised significantly by this extraordinary exploit and had gone down in the annals of SGC history.

And as General Hammond waited patiently in his office, being an astute man, he was well aware of the feelings of the personnel under his care. Hell, he had to admit he joined in those feelings of intense relief, happiness and admiration. However – and this was where his path diverged from the daisy covered meadows and passed into thorny wilds – his job was to ensure the smooth running of an organization so unusual it defied description, with a cast of personnel that fell into the same highly atypical category. It took careful handling and limitless patience to ensure all went according to military dictates. And while he welcomed and encouraged his 2IC's often unorthodox behaviour in handling the many crises facing the world, he could not, would not, tolerate the sort of disobedience exhibited by Colonel O'Neill. And now, as his eyes strayed to the Jaffa Master looking down onto the Embarkation Room, his blue eyes narrowed coldly at the chain of events he had brought into play.

"It's not going to be easy Master Bra'tac."

The tall, regal warrior, head encased in a close fitting metal helmet, cape thrown back over his shoulders, turned slowly, his black eyes full of sympathetic understanding.

"I have found that anything worth fighting for never is Hammond of Texas." And sensing the Tauri's hesitation, Bra'tac's voice grew gentler still. "O'Neill means much to you?"

"He's the best 2IC I've ever had and I'd want no other man to lead SG-1, my premier team."

Sensing there was more, the warrior encouraged, "And?"

The bald headed man frowned in irritation, not enjoying the probing.

"He is like a son?" Then seeing the look in the general's eyes, he continued acerbically, "Then punish him…argh, yes, now I remember. Teal'c explained these absurd regulations you have that prevent you from dealing with wayward, insubordinate gretchens." And seeing the confusion he'd caused in using a Chulak expression, he explained, "What you Tauri would call a brat."

A faint smile touched Hammond's lips as he decided 'gretchen' was a good word. He wasn't so sure his 2IC would agree.

Just at that moment a firm knock was heard on his door. He straightened. "Enter."

Jack's smiling head appeared and when he saw the General wave him in, he entered.

"General, reporting as ord-." He fell silent on realizing there was a third person in the room. Suddenly a wary look appeared in his previously confident, brown eyes. "Bra'tac – I…er hadn't realized you were going to be here."

The Jaffa warrior inclined his head whilst remaining silent.

"Colonel, Master Bra'tac is going to be part of this training exercise."

"General?" Jack's unease was evident in both his expression and the tone of his voice.

"Take a seat, Colonel."

Slowly, Jack did as bid; his feeling of euphoria having dissipated for no reason he could put his finger on. He turned his head to the Jaffa, but Bra'tac ignored the officer and kept his eyes pinned on the General.

"Colonel O'Neill, I've called you here to brief you on the coming training mission."

And suddenly Jack thought he understood, and although he had every respect for the tall Jaffa warrior he had no intention whatsoever of being part of a joint training session which included green Jaffa rebels. And yet, as he met the eyes of the older warrior he couldn't help but feel he was being assessed and what was even more disconcerting – find he was wanting.

His head jerked up almost as a challenge.

"General, I must have missed a memo, or something?" Jack's eyes never moved from Bra'tac's. "Otherwise I would have made my position clear that I've no wish to train Jaffa rebels, no offence Bra'tac."

"Well, I have to say, Colonel that suits everyone, "the General had a satisfied glint in his eyes," because that's not your brief. This time round you are going to be the trainee and Master Bra'tac will be in command."

Jack froze. Having heard the words he was unable to accept their import and a frown of puzzlement marred his fine features. This had to be a joke.

"Sir, I don't understand."

"Oh, you will, Colonel. Master Bra'tac has kindly offered his services-."

"Services?" Jack was unable to stop himself from interrupting.

The General frowned. "That's right, Colonel. I happened to mention to Master Bra'tac my dilemma in finding a suitable punishment that would be an effective deterrent for one particular officer who had the uncanny ability to drive me to distraction." Hammond's burning gaze had Jack squirming in his seat in all too obvious discomfort. "Then he came up with the perfect solution."

Jack knew with a sinking heart that what he was going to hear was not going to be to his liking.

"General, you can't do this!"

He knew it was a mistake the moment the words left his mouth and he saw the icy determination in his CO's glare.

"I already have, Colonel."

"Sir, with respect, Standing Orders do not-."

"Stand down, Colonel."

"Sir, permission to-." He started to rise to his feet in protest.

"Denied, Colonel." The General held up a finger in warning. "You press me any further, Colonel, and one month can easily become two."

The threat was not an idle one and Jack clamped his mouth shut, his face burning uncomfortably.

Turning to the Jaffa, the General's eyes warmed. "Well, I think we've said all that needs saying, Colonel O'Neill is all yours."

Sending a conspiratorial grin that was instantly repressed the moment Jack looked his way, Bra'tac spoke sternly, "Have no fear, Hammond of Texas, you Gretchen will learn the meaning of obedience before I am through with him." And taking Hammond's cue to stir the embers to an uncomfortable heat, he continued more sharply, "O'Neill, you should know we Jaffa have no qualms when inflicting discipline. Flout the laws and it will result in harsh punishment. Cross me and you will feel my wrath."

Jack wasn't known to plead, but he came close to it now as his eyes searched the General's sending a silent S.O.S. message. Softening his stance, General Hammond offered his 2IC an encouraging look which had Jack hoping…

"General, I promise-."

"Kree!" The Jaffa's staff weapon whistled through the air, stopping a centimeter from Jack's midriff. "Next time," he thundered, "I will not hesitate. Hear me and hear me well, O'Neill – you are now a trainee and you will listen, learn and obey. Any hesitation will be unpleasant. Disobedience will result in painful consequences. Do I make myself clear?"

Jack's eyes burned with resentment as he met Bra'tac's gaze, master warrior to pissed off trainee warrior.

The whack on his shoulder dropped him unceremoniously to his knees and he cursed in pain and anger, only to freeze as the staff weapon made to repeat its movement.

Bra'tac smiled chillingly, aware of the General's unease.

"You will do well to learn this lesson quickly, O'Neill – I will have no hesitation in administering punishment. Insolence will also not be tolerated."

The younger man's eyes dropped, aware the Jaffa would read his mind, wary of being at the receiving end of another painful blow. He resisted the urge to rub his aching shoulder.

"Now go. Await me at the Chappai." The Jaffa nodded when he saw the last flicker of disobedience wilt and as soon as Jack had left the room continued, "The first lesson is always the hardest." And noting the General's unease. "Rest assured, he will be returned to you in the same condition that he left."

As Jack stood waiting for the wormhole to open, he couldn't help but consider the price he was being made to pay for his insubordination. He shook his head thinking how Daniel had complained at the unfairness of their respective treatments by the General. 'Well,' he thought grimly, 'he would be feeling way better when he found out…Hell, there was no time to get word to any of them. No time." He groaned softly, hardly able to believe his fate. One whole month of boot camp, Jaffa boot camp at that!

As Bra'tac came through the blast doors, Jack automatically stiffened to attention, his face a mask of neutrality.

"You are ready, Gretchen?"

Jack stared ahead, unmoving, knowing better than to speak. 'Gretchen, hell, what was that, for crying out loud?

As the wormhole engaged, Jack glanced up to see the General's eyes fixed on him anxiously, and in that second the understanding that had always existed from their first moments serving together strengthened, and under Bra'tac's watchful eye he brought his fingers up to his head and flicked his customary non-regulation salute, giving a wry grin which sent a message to his CO, which had the General replying to the gesture in kind.

He'd do his time, submit to the restrictions and do his best. After all, he could do no less when he had his team back whole and united – and a better team there had never been.

FIN