Title: Finding Faith

Author: Su Freund

Email: su_freund@ficwithfins.com

Website: http://www.ficwithfins.com/

Category: Friendship, UST/pre-ship, angst and a pinch of action/adventure.

Content Level: Age 13+

Content Warnings: Some use of O'Neill like language.

Pairings: Jack & Sam friendship and UST

Season: Future

Spoilers: References to various episodes up to S10

Summary: The retired General Jack O'Neill has moved on to a new line of work, one that comes as a shock to everyone who thought they knew him. Did the old teammates he's now pushed out of his life ever really know him? And is it too late for the original members of SG-1 to be reconciled?

Sequel/Series Info: None

Status: Complete

Disclaimer: Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author. This story may not be posted elsewhere without the consent of the author. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. Copyright © 2006 Su Freund

File Size: 296 KB

Archive: My site, Jackfic, SJD yes, Gateworld, FanFiction Net

Art Credit: The artwork illustrating this story was created a couple of years ago by Katsugo, the Darkgate Web Diva. I loved it, asked if I could use it sometime, and it's taken me a long time to write a suitable story for it. The planet described in this story was inspired by this artwork. So thanks to Kate for agreeing I could make use of her wonderful creation. I do so hope she doesn't hate the story! The artwork can be seen at this URL: http://www.ficwithfins.com/AA3_1/archive/2/findingfaith.html or in the art gallery on the site. Kate can be contacted at katsugo@darkgate.ws

Author’s Note: This is my entry for the Jack-fic-athon Challenge 2006. The plot bunny provided for the challenge can be found at the foot of the fic, but don't go there first unless you want to be spoiled. Thanks to the person who provided this plot bunny, whoever they may be. I had a lot of fun writing it. Many thanks are due to Flatkatsi who beta read this story, picking up my many errors and forcing me to improve. The story is much better for her invaluable input. All remaining mistakes are, of course, entirely down to me.


Finding Faith


This job required stealth and when he needed to be, you couldn't get much stealthier than Jack O'Neill. Except maybe Teal'c, when he wasn't wearing that confounded Jaffa body armour that clattered and thumped in an attempt to scare folks into submission and subjugation. But that's quite another story. This story is about Jack. Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, and there's something about candlesticks in there somewhere, although who knows why so don't even bother asking.

Hence, there he was being stealthy, slinking forward, acutely alert to each movement and sound: every nuance of the rustling breeze, and the chirruping and twittering of birds. The only movement going on right then was his. He could detect very little through the darkness of the lush, dense trees. As silently as possible, he crept onward, shrouded by the oppressively thick forest surrounding him.

It was a running gag with SG-1 that O'Neill hated trees. That wasn't in the least bit true, but he'd always let his team think so through his flippant or sarcastic remarks. He loved them, but was kind of partial to the familiar foliage of Minnesota. This forest was different – dark, dank and eerie - and that was creeping him out.

If he looked up he could see just a little of the sky that hovered menacingly overhead. The heavens were laden with a heaviness that added great weight to the repressive forest. Jack thought in all his travels he'd never encountered a sky quite like this one. Its greens, pinks and dark greys reflected ominously on the surrounding unnatural terrain, merely adding to the O'Neill mental illusion of spooksville central.

The increasing dampness underfoot told him he wasn't far from the lake, and the welcoming sight of the Stargate, and O'Neill glanced at his watch. It was getting late. Where were the others?

The surroundings reminded him of tropical rainforests back on Earth, but this place was eerily different and alien. Go figure! They were on an alien world, after all, but there was something menacing about this planet that unnerved him. O'Neill wasn't a man who was spooked easily, he wouldn't have lasted long in the Air Force if he had been, particularly at the SGC, but spooked might have been one word he would use to describe his disquiet.

Was his unease borne from being all alone out there? It wasn't the first time he'd been alone in harsh and portentous surroundings, but now it worried him. This place wasn't meant to be that threatening. The mission should have been simple and straightforward, so why did his skin prickle? His hand ran around his neck scratching at the itchiness, and Jack knew the irritation had little to do with the planet's humidity. It was that warning sign he'd gotten so used to over the years. There was something, possibly danger, lurking here, and it wasn't coming from his pursuers. It was something else. Jack just couldn't put his finger on it yet, but he would.

The surrounding forest suddenly felt even more oppressive and he fingered the radio attached to his vest but it remained ominously silent. O'Neill kept glancing at it as if wishing it would crackle and pop into life, but he'd ordered radio silence on this one so wasn't really expecting it. Silence was necessary, although he didn't cherish being alone, feeling exposed and just a little vulnerable. No way did he want these guys to catch up with him. It was unthinkable that such a thing should happen. Jack wondered how Carter and the others were doing, and where they were. But he wasn't breaking the silence anytime soon to go finding out.

A sudden noise broke that silence and he melted into the undergrowth, crouching behind the closely packed ferns and bracken to become almost invisible and staring carefully upward – not that it was likely they could see him through the density of the domineering trees. Leastwise, not from above.

P4X-928: the stuff nightmares were made of. And it looked like the nightmares were just about to get worse. Squatting to watch the unfamiliar ships as they swooped overhead, he cursed. Crap! Looked like he might be stuck there for a while. How the heck had he got himself into this fine mess? As he silently hid and waited, O'Neill gave some thought to that question. He was getting too old for all this crap.

*****************************

Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, a few months earlier:

The cadet stood before O'Neill somewhat uneasily, Jack thought, and he waited in silence for the young man to speak, one eyebrow arched quizzically. Cadet Thompson was wondering if he would ever learn how to do that. It was a neat trick. He'd tried practising in front of the mirror but could still only raise both eyebrows simultaneously. That kind of bugged him but he didn't have the nerve to ask the old general how he did it.

"Didn't you used to work with a Colonel Carter, sir?" Thompson asked after the longest of pauses.

"Yeah, what of it?" O'Neill wondered how the cadet knew. Had he been digging up the dirt? What dirt he could find that is, which wouldn't be much, let's face it, given most of Jack's working life was classified. He never had gotten around to writing that book.

"The colonel is a guest lecturer today. Something to do with quantum physics and wormholes."

Jack tried to look casual about that revelation, wondering how the hell he'd missed the fact she was coming to the Academy. "Ah! She's quite the expert in that field. Are you going?"

"Will it be worth it?" Thompson asked a little cheekily.

"Worth it? Carter's always worth it. She's a genius."

"Really, sir?"

"A national treasure. You should be honored to listen to what she has to say. Listen and weep at your own stupidity, Thompson," he said, noting the cadet wince slightly at his turn of phrase. "You'll learn a lot."

"Then, as you recommend it, I'll go, sir."

"Well, it's not my area of expertise."

"But you know a lot. You've been there and done that, sir."

Jack eyed him curiously, pretty sure Thompson couldn't be referring to travelling through wormholes to distant planets, and realised he should probably reprimand the cadet for his gall, but just continued to look him in the eyes and felt gratified the young man was discomforted by that silent reproach.

"I know an awful lot about a lot of things, Cadet, but working with Carter for years didn't teach me much about physics I didn't already know. She was always way over my head."

"I find that hard to believe, sir."

O'Neill was conscious of the fact Thompson had a minor school boyish crush on him and knew he could do little wrong in the cadet's eyes. It was simply one of those student/teacher type crushes and it happened all the time. Jack hadn't worked out what to do about this one yet, but he would, and Thompson would come out all the better for it, he hoped. That happened all the time too.

One thing Jack liked about this job was watching the kids grow and develop into more than they might have been. Wasn't that what all teachers wanted? Maybe not everywhere, or maybe that's how it all started, but the old cynicism generally kicked in to give a swift one up the butts of the overly idealistic.

Jack had come to this job with no real idea of whether he could succeed and, so far, he'd had both successes and failures. Failure was much a part of life as success and he tried not to take it personally. It sucked, but it would always be so.

"You have too much faith in my abilities, Thompson. Why do you think I teach what I teach?"

"You teach it very well, sir."

"I'm flattered and all that, but what happened to the apple?" Jack joked with a half-grin on his lips.

"I-I…"

"Spit it out, cadet."

"I, um, I'm pretty sure there's a whole lot of other things you could be teaching us, sir."

Jack eyed him sternly. "But I teach the one thing I want to teach, Thompson. The past is the past and there's no going back. Life's too short to do the things you don't want to do."

"Yes sir," Thompson replied, taking the hint from the general's eyes and deciding not to push it.

"Okay, so run along then. I need coffee."

"Yes sir," the cadet replied turning to leave. "Are you going to the lecture, sir?" he asked as he reached the door.

"Might," O'Neill replied thinking, 'Yeah, I might just do that.' He hadn't seen her for a very long time, despite living in the same city. 'The past is the past.' He sighed heavily at the thought and pondered what to do. It sure would be good to see her again. Or not. He wasn't really too sure but it gave him a lot to think about.

*****************************

O'Neill was as surprised as anyone to find himself in this place, doing what he did. Sometimes he'd be staring out at a sea of faces, many of them bearing bored expressions and probably wishing they were elsewhere: aerodynamics, engineering, communications, military tactics – anywhere but where they were right then listening to an old general droning on about a subject a lot of them didn't give a damn about. That could be pretty scary stuff, particularly first time out. They were all so young.

It gave him a thrill of pleasure on those occasions he spotted a spark of interest light up the eyes of a cadet, although Jack wondered how very many more times he'd asked himself if he was getting through.

Much better were the smaller groups, sitting with the eager young folks who took an interest in what he had to say, having the gumption and enthusiasm to enjoy debating with him and learning to think for themselves. They got the old blood pumping in Jack. It wasn't quite like going out in the field and outwitting or fighting an enemy, but nothing was ever going to be the same as that and he would never get those chances again.

Touring around the universe and saving the planet on a regular basis - how do you top a career like that? You can't, it was as simple as that. Jack still missed it but it seemed as if all of that had been another lifetime ago. That O'Neill was still inside, yearning to break free, longing to come out and show himself. There were those people who thought of that Jack O'Neill as a hero. Jack thought the notion was bullshit.

Lucky maybe, well trained for sure, but not a hero. The exhilaration and excitement, the adrenaline rush, the fast and hard pumping blood, and possibly even the terror - Jack had loved that. Damned near getting killed on a regular basis was a side effect worth suffering for all of it. The closest he came to that these days was when he saw that light in a cadet's eyes and knew he'd found a special one.

These young cadets were the future of the Air Force, the next generation of heroes, and they had no real inkling of what O'Neill was or had been, or what they might become. But Jack knew, he was good at knowing, and that gave him a rush. It also made everything worthwhile.

'Life sure is strange,' he thought. 'Who'd have ever guessed I'd end up here?' Jack had figured he'd leave the Air Force in a box. His death should have come while defending his country, planet and universe, as befitted a man with the heart and soul of a warrior. That or he should have taken himself off to the cabin in Minnesota years ago. He'd promised himself he would. If he lived through it he'd spend his days pottering around fishing for no fish, playing cards or chess with the guys, going for long walks in the beautiful forests that surrounded the cabin.

'Just goes to show how wrong you can be,' he thought. They wouldn't let him go. It wasn't that he had no choice but, well, he didn't have much of one. 'Looks like I'll die a death I never wanted and leave this world with a whimper, not a bang.' That notion gave Jack no joy, but life was filled with regrets.

As he quietly sneaked into the back of the lecture hall, he was confronted by one of them – Colonel Samantha Carter. She was as beautiful as the day they had met and probably twice as sassy, but as confusing as ever. Jack, however, didn't really care much about what she was saying, just enjoyed listening to the sound of her voice and watching. 'Cat can look at a queen, can't he?' O'Neill asked himself.

He wasn't sure he even wanted Carter to know he was there, and considered just watching and listening, and then beating a hasty retreat as she finished. Then he could avoid talking to her. It had been, what, a year, year and a half, more like two since he'd last seen her? Jeez, where did the time go? Jack wasn't sure what he would say anyway after all this time and he couldn't imagine she'd find anything he had to say remotely interesting. Would she want to talk over old times and play catch-up? Why should she?

His maudlin mood was making him regret coming, but as he watched her Jack realised he couldn't allow himself those regrets. She was still special, still important in his mind if not his life. 'Get a grip!' he told himself.

She looked up in his direction, saw him and caught his eye, hers widening with surprise, and she stumbled over her next words, turning her head away to stare steadfastly at another section of the audience.

Jack knew now he'd been spotted there was no escape. He had to stay behind and say hello. It would be downright impolite not to. When Sam turned back to look at him and smiled, he remembered how much he had always loved that smile, and been warmed and comforted by it. It reminded him of old times, of better days. Before… before… so many things.

He nodded back an acknowledgement and noticed that many of the cadets had turned around to look. Jack suddenly wanted to turn tail and run but wasn't going to let anyone accuse him of being a coward, especially not himself. His stern look could quail the hardest of hearts and the audience shied away from it as one. Jack relaxed a little, briefly basking in the smile before she turned away again.

Sam had been one of those people who'd considered him a hero. O'Neill wondered what she thought of that these days, admitting he wouldn't mind a bit of hero worship from her right about now, but he knew everything had changed. A lot of water had passed under that proverbial bridge he'd never crossed - a whole damned ocean's worth.

As she continued her lecture, Sam had to admit to feeling slightly flustered. The last thing she'd expected was for O'Neill to turn up to a lecture. Back in the day, he'd hardly been able to listen to her for more than two minutes without getting jittery. She'd believed that if she wanted to see him she would have to seek him out and had been arguing the toss with herself about that for days now. To see him or not to see him? That was the question.

It seemed Jack O'Neill had taken the choice out of her hands and Sam was feeling slightly affronted by that. As if the infuriating man had ever taken any interest in astrophysics. Yeahsureyabetchya! Sneaky old bastard. 'Thinking about collaring me to reminisce, General? Been a while. Too long,' she thought slightly bitterly, wondering what he'd have to say for himself after all this time. 'Dammit, Sam, control these thoughts and focus.'

Then it struck her how mortified she'd be if he didn't stay behind to say something to her. What if he left without saying a word? The notion struck fear into her heart and once again she stumbled over her words. 'Damned if you do, damned if you don't,' she thought.

Her ex-CO's current occupation more than perplexed Sam. The man was a tactical genius, knew more about survival skills than many of the cadets would ever learn in their lifetimes, and he'd ended up teaching literature. Who would have ever known he had that in him? It might be worthy in its own way, but she considered it wasteful of O'Neill's talents and couldn't help but believe the US Air Force must be thinking the same thing.

She couldn't imagine how he'd got away with it, or what had prompted him to do it, although she'd heard he was extremely good at the job. The most intellectual thing she'd ever seen him read was Mad magazine, so it had her stumped. Jack O'Neill was a puzzle within a conundrum, and clearly way more intelligent and educated than he'd ever let on. Sam had always known there was a lot more to her CO than he cared to reveal, but she would never have guessed at that. Literature? It beggared belief.

As she had a secret desire to discover another Jennifer Hailey while there, Sam shook these thoughts from her mind and concentrated on the job at hand. She could give the lecture without breaking a sweat, but she wanted to observe and find that special someone with a spark. However she was still looking as the lecture and questions wound up and the cadets started to leave the hall.

As the cadets filed out, Jack remained where he was while Sam started to wipe the white board clean and pack away, trying her best to ignore his eyes drilling into her back. When they'd all gone she turned to look up at him and he slowly rose from his seat and made his way down the steps towards the stage.

"Well, this is nice," he said in a voice laden with sarcasm as he stopped to stand beneath the podium.

'I won't bite you idiot,' Sam thought, already angry before they even started to talk. She was disturbed by the hint of bitterness in his voice.

"Sir?" she queried.

"Sam, I think we're way past the sirs, don't you? I'm just plain Jack now. Have been for a while, don't you know?" The ironic smile, eyes dancing with merriment, was all too familiar to Carter.

"Yeah, I'd noticed. We've missed you." She bit back a sigh of regret at the admission, but it was true - they had missed him; she had missed him.

"Well I'm here!" he declared jocularly, waving his arms and hands in the air in a typically O'Neill gesture. "Been here for quite some time too."

Sam detected the tinge of sadness and cursed to herself. They had so let things slip and for the life of her she was at a loss as to why. What had happened to those deep friendships and bonds they'd forged over so many years? Here he was working in Colorado Springs and he never got in touch, in fact he had appeared to deliberately push his old friends out of his life, for whatever reason. None of them could fathom it, but it was his choice.

"You could have called any time," she commented tartly. 'Two can play at the blame game,' she thought snarkily, realising she still understood at least some of what he was thinking. He expected her to call him? What was wrong with Jack making a move or two, for crying out loud? She almost laughed aloud at the unspoken use of one of her ex-CO's favourite phrases.

"Yeah, you too."

They regarded each other silently for a while before Sam broke the spell. "I'm surprised after all those years that none of us ever caught onto this thing you have with literature," she said, not yet willing to tackle those trickier barriers that lay between them.

"Not as dumb as I look huh?" he said smiling thinly.

"I never thought you were dumb."

"Just not the literary type?"

"I would have thought military history or tactics were more your kind of thing."

"I've retired from all that."

"How can you ever retire from saving the world, sir?" she retorted with a small mocking smile and O'Neill couldn't help but grin.

"I wanted to get away from it," he said seriously. "In fact I insisted on it. Sometimes I cover for absences on that kind of thing, but I stubbornly refuse to get drawn in."

"So I've heard. Fancy yourself as Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society? 'Captain my Captain' and all that?" she asked and he looked at her blankly. "Please don't insult me by pretending you don't know what I'm talking about."

O'Neill shrugged and chuckled. "I guess maybe I do want to see myself a little like that. Inspiring the heroes of tomorrow. What could be nobler than that? So not me, I know, but I kinda like being full of surprises." A small ironic smile was left behind, etched on his lips and glinting in his deep brown eyes as he stopped talking.

"Not quite the normal career path for a retired Major General," Sam commented with a curious frown, still unable to move from her spot on the stage. It irked her that he hadn't bothered to walk up the few stairs to join her, and his standing at the foot of the podium staring up at her was vaguely discomforting.

"No," he agreed, eyes pulling away from hers and looking down at his feet. Sam wasn't sure exactly what that signified, but it was pretty obvious he felt as awkward as she did. The fact gave her a small measure of perverse self-satisfaction.

"I would have imagined your experience in the military would be more inspiring to the cadets."

"Yeah? And how the hell would you know? It's not like you've been in touch lately." Sam flinched at his scorn and he immediately regretted the sharp retort.

"We all figured you didn't want to know! You pushed us away!" she snapped back angrily and defensively, annoyed she was allowing herself to get irritated by the exasperating man. "You were always such a private person, difficult to be friends with. Making us feel like we were intruding. So I'm sorry if you're pissed and feel we abandoned you or something but get over it - get over yourself!" Sam turned and started to stalk over to the stairs. "Maybe I'll see you around," she added over her shoulder.

Jack's heart sunk at the notion she was leaving, particularly with those parting words. "Sam, don't, please. I'm sorry." She stopped in her tracks and turned, eyeing him with anger still written on the tautness of her lips, but taken aback by his apology. "I figured it was you who didn’t want to know me. I guess there's fault on both sides."

"There's sides?" she retorted.

"No, I mean... aw crap!" Jack sighed heavily and ran a hand through his short grey hair, realising he wasn't the only one who was pissed. He guessed he deserved her ire, just as she deserved his. Daniel and Teal'c probably thought the same way too. "Can I buy you a coffee?" he asked suddenly, wanting to make peace with an old and dear friend. "Let's talk a little, huh?"

The tight lines around Sam's mouth smoothed out and turned to a smile. Screw it! If he could back down a little, so could she. "Coffee? Yes, you can buy me a coffee, Jack," she said, placing an emphasis on the use of his forename. "Coffee and cake would be nice."

"Cake? I could get into that," he said, face lighting up at her acceptance.

She made her way down the steps and, as they silently left the lecture hall side by side, Sam shocked and flummoxed him by linking her arm with his. Jack said nothing, just looking down at her with a surprised expression on his face and the hint of an arched eyebrow.

"So, how have you been?" she asked, acting as if this was the most normal and natural thing in the world. Jack figured he liked that and gave her arm an affectionate squeeze, which prompted a big smile.

"So, so, you know. The knees are shot. As for the back…" He grinned when he noticed Sam roll her eyes indulgently. "Same old, same old."

"No, not at all the same old," she asserted, noting the heads turning towards them as they walked along the hallway in their suggestive pose.

"You're angry with me," he stated.

"Yes," she agreed.

"Because I never got in touch?"

"Yes, and lots of other things. I have a whole list," she joked, trying to keep the mood light and breezy.

"What? I abandoned the SGC? I never told you what I genius I am in my own small way?" He would have continued to second-guess her list but she interrupted.

"Actually I've heard you are more than just a small genius, Jack. But yes, both of those things, and more."

"What else have you heard?" he asked inquisitively.

"I've heard a lot of the cadets in your tutorials respect you, adore you actually." Jack beamed at that idea. "So maybe you are Robin Williams after all, Captain my Captain." If it hadn't been Jack O'Neill she was talking to, Sam might have sworn she heard a quiet giggle, but as it was she figured she must have misheard.

"Been keeping tabs on me, Sam?" he asked, more than simply curious. He was pleased she'd taken some interest in his life, even if he hadn't known it.

"Let's just say I've made enquiries."

"I'm flattered, but you never thought of asking me? Am I that unapproachable?" The thought bothered him and Jack wondered why he had protected himself so much, hidden himself away and lost good and dear friends. He didn't have to think too hard, he knew. Was he wholly to blame? Maybe… aw, crap!

"Maybe I thought you should do the asking," she replied, determinedly meeting his gaze. Jack wasn't sure if he interpreted her meaning correctly, but was starting to get the general idea.

"I should have." How could he disagree? 'Shoulda, woulda, coulda…' he thought remorsefully.

"Yes, you should."

They had both paused their stride to stare at each other in silence, until Jack spoke. "I wish I had." he gave her a slight tug and they started moving again, neither meeting the other's eyes but seemingly concentrating on the steps they were taking.

Pleased that he might be willing to admit to that, Sam probed further. "So, why didn't you?"

"Maybe I'm a coward."

"Jack O'Neill? You're kidding, right?" she said, pausing briefly before adding, "It isn't too late."

Surprised, he hesitated again briefly before plunging on towards the commissary. "No? That's good. I'll bear it in mind."

"Yeah, you do that," she said, turning her head to look at him but feeling ill at ease and uncertain as to what they'd just agreed. She was fairly sure they'd agreed something.

Jack merely nodded, looking thoughtful, and nothing more was said until they walked into the commissary. It wasn't particularly crowded at that time of day, and he got coffee and two gigantic portions of chocolate cake, leading her towards a table far away from where anyone else was sitting.

"Congratulations on the promotion, by the way, Colonel," he said eyeing the eagles on her shoulders as they sat down. "I'd heard… should have called I guess." His tone was regretful and, although she might have picked him up again on what had happened in the past, she didn't. They needed to break the ice a little more before raking over the recriminations and regrets. "You deserve it."

She wanted to tell him how much she'd wished he'd been there to see it, maybe even to pin the eagles on her uniform, but she didn’t do that either. "Thanks. Dad would have been pleased." Her smile was wistful as she pondered that neither of the two most important men in her life had witnessed the ceremony that had given her so much pleasure, but which had been diminished by their absence.

"He would have been very proud."

"I still miss him," she admitted.

"Of course you do." Jack reached out a hand, grasping one of hers and squeezing gently, and Sam smiled weakly. Her ex-CO had always had a way of making her feel better when she was down. The touch of his hand was still more comforting than almost anything else she could think of.

Lord, how she had missed this man: the smile, the sarcastic and self-deprecating wit, but most of all that reassuring presence. There had been many times over the last couple of years when she had felt the need for it. When he withdrew the hand she felt its absence keenly and they fell silent for a while until Sam spoke.

"I always thought after you retired you'd still hang around, maybe as a consultant to the SGC or something, or maybe get into the training side of things," she said as they sat down. "You know, the cadets we take on at the SGC. I'd have thought we'd be grateful to use your expertise."

Jack regarded her oddly. 'She really doesn't know,' he thought. "Why do you think I'm here, Sam?" he asked aloud.

She looked at him with wide-eyed curiosity. "W-what do you mean?"

"Things aren't always what they seem, that's all I'm saying."

"You mean you're here under cover?" she asked, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.

Jack laughed mirthlessly. "Not exactly, but kinda. You think they let me go from the program that easily?"

"I-I… the thought crossed my mind. None of us really know what happened." She dared to capture his eyes, knowing she was on shaky ground because his resignation had been the trigger for everything to fall apart. Or maybe it had started before that, when Jack had been in DC and saw them all so infrequently. Now she thought about it, things had started to drift a little back then, even while he had still maintained contact with the SGC.

Jack looked uneasy, breaking away from her gaze, eyes drifting down to his coffee cup, fingers caressing and kneading the china while his other hand combed through his short grey hair. He seemed unsure of what to say. Jack was a man who rarely expressed his thoughts and feelings. Indeed, he always claimed he was hopeless with words, and it might have seemed that way to many that knew him.

This made his current job even more incredible to imagine. If he was a good teacher then he had to be good with words, right? Maybe he just found it easier with a bunch of strange youngsters than with close friends. That wouldn't have surprised Sam in the slightest and she wondered what he was fearful of exposing about himself. This was a subject she'd considered many times over the years. Men!

She waited patiently for him to say something and eventually he looked up and met her eyes again.

"How could you know? I never said," he muttered in a low voice.

"Precisely."

"One of the things on your list, right?"

"You betchya," she replied with a smile, willing him to continue. Would he talk to her, tell her why he left, why he hid himself away?

"Can you imagine me in DC?" he asked, but didn't seem to be expecting a reply. "Sam, I was pissed off with sending people to die in alien lands with only the flourish of my signature on yet more boring paperwork. A bit hands off, don't you think? I wasn't able to do much about it because I wasn't there, so I wanted to leave. I didn't want to do it anymore so I gave up on it."

"That's it?"

"You think there's more?" He eyed her with surprise. Damn her, yes there was more. If she didn't already know, Jack wasn't sure he wanted to tell her. She nodded an affirmative but he merely lapsed into silence, wondering how much he should say. "Anyway, they wouldn't let me go unless I continued to do something for the program," he said eventually, deliberately moving the conversation back the original topic. "This is it."

Sam tracked the discussion back and realised what he was saying, deciding not to press about the other more thorny issues and wait for another chance. "So you assess these kids for the program?" She was surprised no one had ever mentioned it. Landry had to know but he'd never said anything.

"That about sums it up." He picked up his coffee and took a sip, keeping the cup raised to his lips, but not continuing to drink. Sam was pretty sure he was using the cup as a prop. Jack O'Neill was very good at hiding, but now they'd got this far she wasn't going to let the subject drop.

"B-but literature?" she queried. "Wouldn't you be better assessing them by teaching something else?"

"Possibly, but I'm a stubborn son of a bitch, you know that."

"In other words, you teach it to spite them? Still sticking it to the man?" she said with a laugh.

"Something like that." Putting his coffee down, he reached for the cake, taking a huge bite.

"Wouldn't you be happier…?"

"No!" he exclaimed, nearly spitting the cake out all over her. Hurriedly he tried to swallow, taking another sip of coffee to wash the cake down. From his irritated tone, Sam took the hint not to go there. Another time perhaps.

"You really are full of surprises, Jack O'Neill."

"One of 'em being that I'm way more intellectual than you ever dreamed possible?" he queried with a self-deprecating smile.

"That's no surprise. You always were a clever man, but just even more clever at hiding it."

"Very astute, Sam."

"We worked together for a long time. We were friends."

"I hope we still are."

"Then why…?"

"Isn't it a little late for a post-mortem on all of that." In an attempt to detract from the subject, he picked up the cup again. Sam felt like snatching it off him and forcing him to expose himself, but didn't.

"Is it?" she asked, persistently.

"We are where we are. Nothing we say is going to change it. Let's… can we just move forward?"

"I'm not sure," she said with a shake of her head, tearing her gaze from his at last and starting on her own slice of cake.

Surreptitiously, Jack watched from behind cautiously lowered lashes as she closed her eyes and made a small appreciative noise while the cake melted in her mouth, savoring its dark chocolate taste and soft crumbly texture. As she stuck out her tongue to lick up a small morsel that had escaped onto her lips, he shivered with pleasure, making a conscious effort to stop a sigh freeing itself from his mouth.

Oblivious to his rapt attention, Sam enjoyed the cake's rich dark flavor while wondering exactly what he meant by moving forward. She didn't have the courage to push it and returned to a slightly less personal topic.

"So why didn’t you come back to the SGC? Put them through their training paces?"

"What, go through all those awful training scenarios like in the old days?" He smiled, sucking in a breath and raising his long lashes to look up. "We could have done better."

"We could have done worse. Besides, we've improved all that since then."

"I know. I created most of the new scenarios."

"You did?" she questioned, taken aback, but Jack merely shrugged and said nothing. "Another surprise."

"I'm full of 'em."

"So why don't you get more involved? Why the back seat?"

"That kind of thing is for the young."

"You're not that old," she objected and he sighed, looking at her askance.

"Take a look around this place. They all think I'm old. Did you know a lot of them call me the old general? Age is relative."

"The old general?" she queried with an expression that made it seem as if it was a personal insult to her. "They have no idea, they're just kids. Sure age is relative but a lot of it is in the mind. Jeez, you're still in your fifties. That's not old, you've just given up."

"No I haven't. I'm here, aren't I?"

"Don't deny it, Jack. Why?"

"Sam I…" He didn't get the chance to finish the sentence as a small cough interrupted them. "Ack! What do you want, Thompson?" Jack asked, turning to face the young cadet.

"Ummm… I-I just wanted to tell the colonel how much I enjoyed her lecture. You were right, sir."

"Was I indeed? That's gratifying."

"You enjoyed the lecture, Cadet?" Sam asked, giving Jack a dirty look for his sarcastic manner towards the young man.

"Yes, ma'am!"

Sam talked to the boy about wormholes for a short time, while Jack sat back and let it wash over him, munching on cake and playing with his coffee cup. By the time the pair had finished, Jack was almost out of time and cursed. He could have happily strangled Thompson for hijacking some of the precious time he was spending with his old friend, although had to admit the interruption had saved his ass from her uncomfortably probing curiosity, for now.

"That boy's got a crush on you," Sam said after Thompson had left.

"How the heck do you know that? He wasn’t even talking to me!"

"It was pretty obvious. Cute!"

Jack rolled his eyes. "One of the pitfalls of doing this job. Never can work out why they pick me."

"I could tell you," she responded in a teasing tone.

"Really?"

"But another time, Jack, another time."

He grinned and nodded, thinking about how to engineer that other time.

"Ummm… I've got a tutorial so I guess I'm gonna have to run," he said, wishing he had more time. He got up to leave but didn't turn away, leaning over her instead. "Just one thing. I'm not doing this to stick it to the man."

"You're not?" she asked, looking up to meet his eyes and trying not to get flustered by his proximity and imposing manner. He certainly still had it, whatever it was he had. She wished she knew.

"You know what Einstein said about imagination being more important than knowledge?" he queried, thinking she must know the quote.

"You're quoting Einstein?" she said with a small laugh.

"You prefer dumb Jack?" he asked curiously, arching an eyebrow.

"No, I think this one's starting to grow on me," she responded with a smile. "Yes, I know the quote. 'Imagination is more important than knowledge…"

Jack interrupted to complete the quote "For knowledge is limited to all we know now and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

"He was thinking of science."

"But it applies to anything, and literature is great for the imagination. I'm not qualified to be looking for scientists that might fit into the SGC. I'll leave that to the experts like you. I'm looking for future leaders of men - cadets with the balls to make good use of their imaginations. The SGC requires the extraordinary, not the ordinary. Teaching literature is perfect. Besides, I know my stuff and I'm good at it. And more to the point, I enjoy it. When I see that spark…" He tailed off wondering if she thought he'd cracked, but was gratified to realise she understood exactly what he was talking about.

"That spark. Yep, I get it."

"You always had it."

A faint flush appeared on Sam's cheeks at that comment. "You too," she said.

As he lifted his fingers to run them briefly over her soft cheek, Jack smiled gently. Sam shivered. Oh man! There was that 'it' again. And with a capital I and T.

"W-we'll see each other again, right?" he asked with a hint of nervousness, withdrawing his hand. Despite her chaotic thoughts, Sam's eyes didn't waver from his gaze.

"Call me."

"T-tell Daniel… Teal'c…" He tailed off, feeling awkward and looking slightly ashamed. They hadn't abandoned him, he'd abandoned them.

"I will." She squeezed his arm affectionately and stood up to kiss his cheek, shocking him yet again by her behaviour. Not that Jack was complaining. "You will call, won't you?"

"I promise."

He turned, walking towards the door and his tutorial without looking back, although that was tough, and leaving them both with a lot to think about.

*****************************

On P4X-928:

The craft were small and when the noise of their engines stopped, Jack realised they must have landed, but the ships were outside of his limited visual range and he cursed that, half inclined to scout around and see what kind of aliens they might be.

"Damn this radio silence crap!" he muttered aloud, pulling the radio close to his lips and signalling.

"Carter? Come in? You okay?"

"Sir? I thought we weren't supposed to be using these things."

"Yeah, well plans change. Did you see the ships?"

"I heard something but couldn't see what it was."

"Bogies have landed. Not any kind of ship I've ever seen before. I'm not sure we should hang around long enough to say hello, do you?" He didn't wait for a response. "This mission is a bust. Get to my position. We need to get out of here."

"Copy that. Where are you?"

"By the lake, close to the Stargate, exactly where I'm supposed to be." He smirked at the gasp coming from Carter's lips when he revealed his location. "Where are you?"

"Um, a few clicks south of your position," she sighed wistfully, aware she had failed in her mission. "You haven't lost your touch then, sir." She smiled into the radio.

"It seems that way, Carter." He grinned, exultant with his success. "Did you think I had? O'Neill out." He clicked off the radio, not wishing to say more than he had to, and hunkered down to wait for her and the others to arrive.

It wasn't long before he got restless, and curious. Who were these aliens and what the hell did they want on this godforsaken world? O'Neill thought with some stealth and a little bit of luck, he might be able to find out something useful and be back before Sam and the others arrived. He'd missed that off-world, potential peril rush and here was a perfect opportunity for a little excitement. Jack knew he shouldn't, not with the kids heading his way, but decided to risk it.

Cautiously he moved back into the darkness of the forest, melting into the trees as if he wasn't there and making his way towards the place he figured they must have landed the ships. Landing in these parts was a problem as there was very little open country, but Jack knew where he'd have parked the car and headed in that direction.

As he got close to the clearing O'Neill kept low, squatting behind some large fern like plants to spy on the aliens. He'd been right, of course, this was where they'd landed. Where else? Peeking out from his hideaway he noted the aliens looked human, well mainly, which didn't mean they weren't dangerous. Jack was in a good position to know exactly how dangerous humans could be and didn't want to take any chances.

He tried to make out what they were doing and it appeared they were collecting lots of plants. Alien botanists? Then he saw one of them press what looked like a remote control and out of the ground popped a large metallic rectangle of flat metal that stopped at ground height. Another movement of the alien's finger and a couple of human height metal poles appeared to grow from the rectangle, at which point the alien stepped into the object, grasping a pole, and promptly disappeared underground, leaving no sign of its presence behind.

'Whoa!' Jack thought, 'what's that, an alien elevator?' His curiosity was boosted almost 100%. Nothing the SGC had learned about this planet suggested there might be technology hidden away underground, and these humanoids were well advanced. Was this place inhabited, or maybe a science station? Sam was so going to love this. But he shouldn't take risks, not while they were babysitting.

With this in mind, he watched quietly for a short time, but was unable to discern much from what little he could see. Glancing at his watch, O'Neill realised the others would probably reach the rendezvous soon so quietly reversed his course and returned to wait for them, apparently unseen and unheard in the glowering and eerie forest.

*****************************

Elsewhere on P4X-928:

Sam pushed through the dense forest, two of her charges taking point and two coming up behind. Major Smith and Lieutenant Alexander followed at the rear, protecting their backs. Jack's report of unknown alien ships had her worried. They had deliberately chosen the planet for this off-world acclimatisation, training and testing exercise because it was uninhabited and relatively safe.

It was also pretty alien, and it was important for these young graduates, who might one day become the future leaders at the SGC, to comprehend just how alien the environment could be, to unsettle and throw them off balance slightly and test how they dealt with it - but they hadn't brought them there to get the trainees killed.

The idea had seemed a good one at the time. Jack's scenario was they play a game of fox and hounds with an experienced field officer, in this case him, as the fox and the trainees as the hounds. Take them miles from the gate, give Jack a head start and then find and capture him before he reached the gate. The scenario involved part tracking and hunting, leadership skills and lots of teamwork. It had started well, but O'Neill had been way too wily.

Sam had realised a long time ago that Jack was going to win, but had said nothing. The trainees were running this show. She and the others were there to keep a watchful eye, keep score, and make sure they didn't do something stupid enough to get themselves hopelessly lost or even killed. You can't simply let trainees run riot on alien planets without supervision and protection.

This group had screwed up and they knew it, but they would learn from the screw up and hopefully mature as a result. If they captured the fox, that gained maximum points, but what they did along the way was probably more important and Sam, Smith and Alexander noted the good, bad and indifferent. She had formed an opinion of each of these four young trainees, and her assessments included a lot of positives, but she despaired at the negatives.

Jack had won by reaching the gate without the group capturing him, a pretty tall order in the first place and they'd both known that before they started. Nevertheless, he would never let her live this down. She could imagine him giving her a major league headache with his gloating. And then there was the side bet to consider. She'd lost, sheesh!

"How the heck did the old general do it?" Sam heard one of the graduates in front whisper to his companion. She pretended not to hear but her ears pricked up at Taylor's words. "It must be years since he's been in the field. The guy's got to be rusty, and he's way old. I can't figure how he evaded us to get back to the gate."

"Ack! He's not so old and youth isn’t everything! We lost, he won. He's obviously better than you think." Sam smiled. Taylor's companion was the faithful and lovelorn Thompson. She wasn't happy about the references to Jack's age, as if he were an old man, which he wasn't, but she figured from the perspective of these youngsters he probably seemed old. Jack had been right about that. Someone in their thirties would seem old to some of these young graduates.

"But he teaches literature, for god's sake. If he's any good what's he doing at the Academy teaching a nothing subject like that?"

Sam felt her hackles rise at this assessment of her ex-CO. The arrogant young pup needed to learn a few hard lessons about judging books by their covers. Older he might be but Jack hadn't lost his touch just because he immersed himself in a pile of books rather than being out in the field. Although if they'd known aliens were coming, none of them would be there, especially not Jack. She'd had a nightmare getting this whole thing set up in the first place, particularly using Jack as the fox rather than a currently active officer.

No one could deny that O'Neill had been good in his day, but it wasn't his day anymore and some people had emphasised that point in no uncertain terms. Sam had pushed for Jack because she knew he'd love the chance to go off-world again, albeit on a relatively safe training scenario, and seeing the light dance in his eyes when she told him they'd agreed had been worth the fight.

Now, she wondered if she would live to regret it. If anything bad happened her career prospects wouldn't be worth a dime. Maybe they should have brought another SG team along for the ride too. Sam cursed herself for being so dismissive of that notion when Jack had raised it. Should have known better. Always listen to O'Neill – O'Neill's instincts are always right. He'd gone along with it but, being a worse case scenario kind of guy, he'd had doubts about the safety of the trainees. She'd probably never live that down either. Sheesh!

"Hey!" Thompson objected, voice raised in anger with Taylor this time, "there is nothing wrong with literature." He'd loved the subject. O'Neill made it really interesting.

"It's for cissies," Taylor retorted and, although she was pleased to hear Thompson defending her ex-CO's honor, Sam decided to ignore him no longer, calling a halt. Thompson and Taylor turned to face her.

"That's enough Taylor. You think I'm deaf?" she said, feeling angrier then she appeared. Instead she was the stern colonel, in charge of the mutinous troops. Taylor was dismayed that she'd heard but started to open his big mouth, although Sam didn't let him get any further.

"You want to know how he evaded us, Taylor? He's got more guile in his little finger than you have in that well trained but inexperienced body. And if you ever get half the experience, or become half the leader and hero he is, you'll be a lucky man, and maybe you'll finish your career as a general too, although I seriously doubt you'll do any of those things. If I hear you disrespecting General O'Neill again you will be out of the program so fast that you won't even have time to pack. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes ma'am!" Taylor responded, looking suitably chastised.

Sam seemed satisfied with that response. "Let's rest up a little and have some water and an energy bar," she suggested.

"Aren't we nearly there, Colonel?" one of the trainees queried, and Sam threw her a dirty look.

"Sit, Velasquez," she ordered, following her own orders and joining Smith and Alexander to perch on a dry log. Taking a drink from her canteen, she swallowed and glowered at the four trainees. "Can any of you think of a good reason why I made this suggestion when we're so close to our goal?" she asked. Thompson's hand shot up eagerly. "You're not at the Academy now, Thompson, speak up."

"Because we don't know what we might have to face when we get back to the gate. What if it's been taken by the enemy?"

'Yeah, definitely should have had a team guarding the gate,' she thought ruefully. "Good response, Thompson," she said aloud. "We might need that energy. So eat up, and rest."

Sam hoped that gave them something to think about and watched as they each took an energy bar out of their pockets and started to munch, washing it down with water from their canteens. After exchanging a few quiet words with Alexander and Smith to agree a change of plan now they knew Jack had reached the rendezvous, she opened up a bar for herself and took a bite, spotting something out of the corner of her eye.

"Taylor, are you a total moron? Didn't anyone ever teach you to pick up your trash?" Gingerly, Taylor picked up the wrapper he'd so casually tossed aside, realising regretfully that he wasn't making a particularly good impression on this woman who was such a power at the SGC. "It's bad enough to do that on Earth but this is an alien planet. It doesn't belong to us, so treat it with some respect. And never leave such an obvious trail for your potential enemies." He looked suitably cowed and ashamed and she turned her attention to one of the other trainees, who appeared to want to ask a question.

"Ma'am?" Velasquez ventured, "With all due respect, aren't these guys with the ships just part of the training scenario?"

"If they were do you think I would tell you, Velasquez?" Sam retorted, despairing that if these were the best of a bunch, the future of the SGC was at risk. "But they aren't. This is real, so keep your heads out of your butts." Noting the look of fear in Velasquez's eyes, she softened her tone. "The general is the best. He won't let anything happen to any of you, and neither will I." They all nodded, but some of them looked doubtful.

"Is he really a hero, Colonel Carter?" Thompson asked with an eager cheekiness, hoping she might reveal something about his adventures in that life he'd left behind.

Sam nodded and smiled. "Oh yeah, he's definitely one of those, many times over. I was there - served with him for over eight years. The best of the best." She noticed that Thompson looked expectant. "But you'll never hear him brag about it," she added. "Jack O'Neill doesn't consider himself a hero. He thinks he was just doing his job."

"And wasn't he?" Taylor queried.

"And way more, Taylor. A lot, lot more. Saving lives, the planet, and the universe. That's what SG-1 did – still does occasionally." Her lips bore a wistful smile as she spoke. So many memories…

"Sounds kinda romantic," Velasquez said dreamily.

"That's the sort of notion that will get you killed," Sam stated matter of factly, and Velasquez blushed, embarrassed by her faux pas. "It's not romantic, that I can promise you. Killing people never is. And damned near getting killed isn't either. Always remember that." Velasquez nodded, mortified, but hopefully all the wiser for those words.

"With all due respect, ma'am, can't you tell us just one little story?" Thompson probed hopefully.

"I don't think so," she replied with a small grin. "If the general won't, you think I will? SGC missions are classified, Thompson, but maybe one day you'll get to read the files."

"Yes, ma'am," Thompson replied, smiling happily at the thought he might gain access to these adventures one day. "I'm not at all surprised he beat us, Colonel," he added with a look of adoration in his eyes as he pondered his hero O'Neill.

"Ha! That's all right for you to say but I bet him the price of a good meal that we would get him," Sam retorted good-humouredly. "Okay. That's long enough. On your feet and let's get going. And try to remember stealth. It might be a real enemy out there."

The price of a good meal, oy! She owed Jack. Not a princely sum, but it was the principle. He'd won, damn it! On the other hand, she thought she might enjoy the night out. A lot had changed in the last few months, since that fateful cup of coffee and cake after her lecture.

*****************************

Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, a few months earlier:

Of course Jack didn't call her, or not quickly. He'd planned to, but every time he reached for the phone he lost it. He was more than surprised, therefore, when someone knocked at the door during one of his smaller tutorials and it was Sam who entered the room.

"Colonel Carter! Nice surprise," he said in an attempt to be nonchalant, politely standing to greet her while the cadets stood to rigid attention.

"At ease," she ordered the youngsters and they obeyed. "General O'Neill," she nodded towards him, a perky smile on her face. "I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but do you mind if I sit in?"

Jack was stunned. What could he say? Refusal would seem churlish, and in his own mind, very cowardly. Butterflies rose into the air and flew around in the pit of his stomach. He so didn’t want to seem like a jerk, either to Carter or to his students.

"Sure, Carter, come in. Sit." He indicated a chair with a wild wave of an arm. Sam could tell he was nervous and smiled inwardly. She was so going to enjoy this. "And the rest of you, sit."

"I'll be quiet as a mouse, I promise," she said.

"Well, join in if you wish. I'm sure the cadets won't mind." There was a murmur of agreement from the assembled gathering. Jack sat, trying to turn his attention back to the discussion she'd interrupted.

Sam was curious to see Jack in action and relaxed, determined to observe. Literature was so not her area and Jack could probably wipe the floor with her in a discussion around a book or poem. The irony wasn't lost on her after all of those years blinding him with science, although as far as that was concerned, Sam realised Jack wasn't quite the dummy he'd pretended to be. Full of surprises. She smiled to herself at the thought.

"Now, where were we?" O'Neill said as if reminding himself, but actually giving himself a few seconds to adjust to her presence. "Ah yes, Jenkins, I think you were saying something about Hemingway?"

"Um, y-yes sir. He thought The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the book from which all modern American literature came. What do you think?"

"What I think doesn't count for much, Jenkins. What do you think?" Jack prodded and the young cadet's eyes lit up as he warmed to the notion of airing his views. Jack smiled inwardly. He so loved to see that spark in these young cadets. This was the very thing he wanted to encourage – they had to think for themselves as well as learn to follow the rules and obey orders. That was quite some tightrope to learn to walk.

"These days it could be considered as racist," Jenkins ventured tentatively.

"Sure, there's been controversy over the years, but…?"

"But you have to put it into the context of its time, right?"

"And…?"

Sam warmed to the theme, getting wrapped up in the discussion and thoroughly enjoying it. At least she'd read Huck Finn and some other Twain, so had an inkling of what they were talking about. Jack was a good facilitator. Once they'd warmed up, he let the students lead the discussion with as little prodding as he could get away with, and the odd comment to get them thinking and take them off on another tangent. It was fascinating to watch.

She'd known he wouldn't call, or if he did it would take weeks rather than days, so had decided to catch him off guard and wrong-footed. Intrigued to see him teach, she made enquiries about his timetabling and had chosen to drop in at this moment deliberately, realising he would shine at his best with the smaller group – the cadets who took a genuine interest in the subject because they were majoring in English and not just there because they were obliged to be there.

Her ulterior motives for coming would reveal themselves in due time. She had more than one reason for turning up, and was taking advantage of one of those right now merely by listening and watching.

As ever, Jack spoke volumes with his hands and eyes. She could tell he was enjoying every minute, the temporary nerves having disappeared into thin air to be replaced by boyish enthusiasm. Sam loved it. The experience revealed so much about him that had been deliberately hidden. The man had an astute brain, and for way more than leading a team and all those other military attributes she'd always admired in him.

"So, what did you think?" he asked, remaining in his chair once the students had left. Sam also stayed in her seat, unable to bring herself to move closer to O'Neill.

"Imagination, I get it," she replied with a nod and grin, and he returned the smile, pleased by her words. "You seem to bring out the best in them, Captain my Captain." Jack chuckled, amused by the reference. Apparently this was going to become a standing joke.

"I hope so."

"You have a way of doing that."

"Do I?"

"Worked with me."

"You were always my best student."

"Thank you… I think."

They both smirked but then an awkward silence fell between them and they kept glancing at each other and then finding something else with which to occupy their eyes, although the room wasn't particularly diverting.

"So why'd you come, Sam?" he asked eventually, breaking that self-conscious silence.

"You didn't call," she answered, her eyes boring into his. Jack took a breath and hastily looked away, distinctly uncomfortable.

"Um, I, um… no." He stared down at his thumbs as they wove around each other restlessly.

"I'd like for us to stay friends," she ventured. "I don't want to lose you this time."

"You never lost me. I was always there," he said, this time deliberately meeting and holding her gaze, his thumbs coming to rest at last.

"Well next time, you might tell me that."

"I thought I had." His eyes pulled away from hers again and he picked up a pen from the desk next to him and started to fidget. Sam couldn't help but stare at his restless hands. They were irritating and fascinating to watch, in almost equal measure. Silence dragged on until she pulled her thoughts together for something to say, turning away from the subject they'd strayed on to.

"I wanted to see you in action. I wanted to witness something I'd never even dreamed was possible."

"Professor O'Neill?" he quipped wryly.

"Somewhat akin to Professor Indiana Jones," she joked.

"No, that's more Daniel's thing," he riposted jovially.

"Talking of whom, he's having a small party. He'd like for you to come." There, that was another ulterior motive dealt with. Jack looked both surprised and unnerved by the notion.

"Oh, I don't know…" he tailed off, chewing on his bottom lip. "Daniel wants me to go? I thought he'd be angry with me."

"I think he is."

"Then…?" O'Neill looked at her with a question in his eyes. Why? Sam could see he couldn't fathom the reasons why his old friends would wish to get in touch when he had pushed them out of his life so completely for so long.

He'd been thinking about this a lot since he'd last seen Sam. For quite a while, Jack had resented the loss of their friendship, blaming his old team for its demise, but her words had made him reconsider and realise what a difficult man he was to be friends with. They had expected more from him and he hadn't given it, so they'd given up. Friendship couldn't be one-sided, it had to work both ways – give and take, not just take, take, take.

Jack could recall the many attempts Daniel had made to insinuate himself in his life, and he had thoughtlessly pushed him away. It wasn't that he didn't crave the friendship, but he guarded his privacy and personal life so fiercely that he made it damned near impossible for people to get too close.

He'd had his reasons, but Daniel couldn't have known them because he hadn't been forthcoming. Closed up like a clam as ever. The same thing with all his friends. No wonder he lost them. Jack wasn't sure he was capable of giving the kind of friendship Daniel had appeared to want. He wasn't a 'confide your closest secrets to a best friend' kind of guy.

As for Sam and Teal'c, the Jaffa had been so busy with his off-world activities, and Sam… Jack had always been tentative about that particular friendship and wasn't sure what either of them wanted from it anymore. He hadn't been for a long time and had feared he'd left it too late to make amends. But he hadn't tried, had he? He'd been cursing himself for being an old fool for days but frankly wasn’t certain what to do about it, or about any of his old friends.

"W-what?" he queried when he realised that Sam had been speaking and he hadn't heard a word. She sighed and shot him a reproving look but didn't chastise him for his inattention. This was Jack and if he was acting Jackish then go figure! You took Jack as is, or not at all. She preferred the as is to the not at all.

"I said Daniel is like the rest of us, he's missed you. And don't start with that he could have called nonsense."

"I wasn't going to, honest!" Jack exclaimed defensively, using an appropriate gesture to emphasise the point.

"You'll come?" She could see and understand his reluctance to commit to such an act, but had to press. Daniel had been insistent, and she wanted Jack to be there.

"When is it?" he asked after a lengthy pause during which he'd been lost for words. Denying Sam anything was hard, but the idea of seeing Daniel again, and the accusation and recrimination in his old friend's eyes, filled him with dread. On the other hand, he wanted this. He wanted it more than he had imagined. He'd missed them, all of them.

"Next Saturday night."

Jack's eyes briefly widened in horror before he quickly suppressed the reaction. "Next Saturday? It's…" As he paused to find the words, Sam noticed a slightly lost and confused look in his eyes. "I haven't seen him for a long time."

Sam realised Jack was anxious about meeting his old friend after so long, uncertain of what reaction might greet his sudden reappearance in Daniel's life. Guilt weighed heavily on her ex-CO – guilt about losing touch and shutting them out.

"Then maybe it's a good place to start," she commented.

"At a party full of strangers?"

"It's strictly SGC only."

"And that's better because…?" He'd lost touch with so many people from the SGC that he'd respected and admired, if not been friendly with. Would they all be accusing and recriminatory? Jack now believed he was at fault but that didn't necessarily make facing up to these people any easier. He genuinely wasn't sure why any of them might want to see him again.

Sam understood this much more than Jack imagined she might. Rising from her seat she approached him, sighing heavily as she neared his chair. Not wishing to be in the more vulnerable position, Jack got up too so he could meet her eyeball to eyeball.

"We aren't gonna bite your head off, Jack, not even Daniel," she said, trying to use a tone of reassurance, although Jack didn't appear to be reassured. "And you can hide in a crowd."

"Why would I want to hide?"

Sam didn't reply at first, simply pursing her lips and eyeing him impatiently. "Isn't that what you've been doing?" she asked after staring at him disconcertingly for a while.

"I told you, I've been here the whole time, just around the corner. That's not hiding."

"Yeahsureyabetchya," she replied in a tone laden with sarcasm and Jack looked at her sharply, then remembered he wasn't her CO anymore so couldn't pull her up on it. She was right of course. He had been hiding, in plain sight, but hiding nonetheless.

Thinking this was the opportunity she'd been waiting for, Sam sucked up a sharp intake of breath to steady her nerves before plunging on. "I need to know what happened Jack. Something... anything." Her eyes showed confusion, doubt and, worst of all, pain.

He gulped, rubbing his hands over his face to hide his consternation. "Decided you can't just move forward?" he asked, referring to the conversation they'd had in the commissary. When his hands moved away, he was avoiding her eyes.

"I just need… don't I deserve something?"

Jeez, she knew how to play him and he wasn't used to it. She'd been his subordinate, and as such she could never have pushed him like this. Now she wasn't she could be Sam. Jack decided he kind of liked that even though she was leading him somewhere he didn’t really want to go.

"Yeah, I guess you do," he replied, worrying his lip with his teeth. Urging her back into a chair he sat beside her groping for words, forcing himself to look at her while he spoke stumblingly. "S-something happened and it brought the nightmares back."

"Post-traumatic stress?"

"I guess." He tried to keep his hands still and concentrate on Sam. If this were important to her he would make himself tell her. Jack didn’t want to lose what they'd found again, however small that was. "I just… I needed to get out Sam, but it wasn't easy. I tried to deny it for a long time, fought hard. Eventually, although I knew I had to, I resented having to go."

Sam was shocked to hear him confess he'd been cracking up. He might not have said it in so many words but, fundamentally, that was the story, or at least part of it. He'd had enough; it was as simple as that. After all, how much can one man be expected to take in a lifetime? She got it.

"You were hurting so you pushed us away because you didn’t want to show it, or for us to know. You never did like anyone to think you might just be human, Jack. Did you believe we'd think less of you?" He was startled by her swift grasp of his situation and regarded her open mouthed.

"A-am I that obvious?"

"I didn’t work with you for all those years without learning a little something about the O'Neill psyche." His hands were clasped together on his lap and she placed one of hers on top of them.

"It wasn't so much to do with you thinking less of me, Sam, or maybe that was part of it. It was… you-you reminded me of everything I'd lost."

"Oh, Jack, I'm so sorry. I wish I'd known." She wondered what he'd think if she put an arm around his shoulders in comfort, just as he had done for her many times, but she thought better of it as he might just believe she pitied him. So instead she squeezed his clasped hands gently.

It hurt Sam to imagine how it must have been for him, having to leave something he loved and unable to face his friends. He'd needed time. If only he could have told them, but Jack would never have done that. How could he?

"I guess I always thought I'd be okay, and once I was everything would get back to normal again, with you, Daniel, and T, that is. I never thought you'd give up on me, but you stopped trying, or that's the way I saw it."

Sam's heart broke. It was hard to hear this from him. He was right, they had given up because they thought he didn't want them around, and they'd left him to deal with his nightmares alone. They should have been there for him.

She couldn't quite believe he was being so open now when he had been so closed only a couple of years before. Jack might not have said very much but what he had said explained everything. Poor Jack. She wondered what had sparked it all off and if he would tell her if she asked.

"I'm sorry," she said weakly, "And now?"

"I'm fine. Great!"

"Really?"

"Would I lie?" he countered, his mouth creasing up with an ironical grin, and then he straightened up, pulling his hands away from her grasp, and the intimate moments were gone. "Anyway, that's how I ended up here. The rest you know, I guess."

Sam seemed to be considering everything he'd said, and Jack could see he'd upset her. "I didn't mean to hurt you, Sam, not then and not now. You know I'd never want to do that don't you?"

She nodded feebly, but her eyes were watering a little and she was trying to hold back the threatening tears. Jack wanted to pull her into his arms but knew that would only make things worse. Sam was desperate to maintain control, he could see that.

"I didn't mean to make it sound like I was blaming you for anything," he said.

"But you did, didn't you?"

He nodded and he heard a gasping sob, but she kept hold of herself.

"Not anymore," he said, trying to reassure, "I should have called when I was ready, but I didn't."

"Because you thought it was too late?" she queried and he nodded again. "It's not too late, Jack."

He smiled and reached a fingertip up to her hair and tenderly brushing the long fringe out of her eyes. "So you said. You need a haircut, Colonel."

She chuckled, his joviality helping to reassure her, and it was so typical of Jack to try escaping from a subject he didn't feel comfortable about like that.

"Yes sir!" she exclaimed with a small salute, pleased she'd got this much from him. It was way more than she'd expected. "So, what about Daniel's party?" she asked, going along with his need to get away from that subject. "He'll be so disappointed if you don't go. We all will. Please say you'll come."

Jack drew in a deep ragged breath. "Will you rescue me if things get a little… too much?" he asked with a quirky smile. Although the response was spoken in a light-hearted manner, Sam knew there was some genuine need in the question. She resolved to speak to Daniel about keeping his behaviour and questions in check for Jack's sake. Daniel could press Jack too hard, and his hurt feelings and anger might make his penetrating interrogation worse than normal. Sam empathised with both of them and realised it would be Daniel's probing and censure that Jack would wish to avoid most of all.

"Yes, I'll rescue you. I'll stick to you like glue if you want, make sure you don't get hassled," she said with an affectionate smile.

Jack reached out and squeezed her arm, his head cocked to one side and a small half smile on his lips. Then he nodded. "Okay, I'll come."

"Good. I'll look forward to it."

"Me too, I think."

Now they were both back on an even keel Sam looked at her watch, clucking to herself. "Damn, I was hoping we might have more of that chocolate cake, but I've got to get back to the SGC."

Jack was disappointed she couldn't hang around for a while and watching her leave was so much harder than he thought it would be. As the door closed behind her, he sprung into action, catching up with her in the hall.

"Um, I'll walk you to your car?" he said with a slight query in his voice as if seeking permission.

"That would be nice," she replied, more than happy to accept that gesture of friendship, and pleased by it.

They didn't talk much but Jack tentatively placed his hand in the crook of her back as if to steer her to her destination. She smiled up at him as his hand touched, stirring memories from their shared past. Sam had always loved when Jack did that as her CO, steering her gently through the corridors of the SGC with a gentle touch that was close to forbidden – normally about as far as he could push it to show his affection for his second-in-command.

It had been a long time since he'd done that and the feel of his hand on her back made her shiver with a frisson of delight. It told her much more than Jack himself would say. It was his move in this game of chess they seemed to be playing.

When they reached her car door, Jack caught hold of her jacket to stop her. "Um, Sam, don't tell Daniel or Teal'c what I told you. I guess I'll have to tell them myself one day, just… not yet."

She agreed, flattered he'd confided in her while thinking Saturday night might be easier if Daniel knew, but she understood. "W-what sparked it all off Jack? What happened?" she ventured to ask.

He pursed his lips considering his response. At first she thought he wouldn't answer and Sam was quite taken aback when he finally spoke. "Let's just say I put myself in harms way and got harmed. It's classified."

She eyed him in amazement. "What? You went on some kind of mission? Not off-world, I'd have known."

"Of course not. Two star generals don't go on missions. It wasn't like that. But there's still plenty of danger right here on Earth. I, um, went missing for a while."

"Oh my God, I think I remember! We thought you were on vacation."

"Don't think the Pentagon wanted people to know one of their generals was missing." His tone was sardonic and his face bore a cheeky grin.

"Someone kidnapped you, captured you, what?" Her curiosity was overwhelming. She had to know.

"Sam, don't ask!" he cried, but when he saw her expression he sighed and decided to tell her a little more. "There was some pain and a sarcophagus involved," he said emotionlessly. The memory of it was painful to him but he fiercely tried to suppress that anguish.

"What? On Earth?" she asked with astonishment, and then considered further. "It can't have been Ba'al."

"No, it wasn't Ba'al. Way more sinister than that."

"Not Goa'uld at all," she replied, catching on quick to his hints. "Human. Trust, something…"

"Like that," he finished for her and she looked at him aghast. No wonder it was classified. Someone on Earth had got hold of a sarcophagus and, reading between the lines, was using it pretty much like Ba'al had when he'd captured Jack a few years ago.

She grasped his arm, looking worried. "They tortured you." Jack said nothing to confirm or deny. He'd already told her more than he'd imagined he ever would and it was actually quite cathartic, which surprised him.

He'd been taken, badly tortured and then resurrected again in the sarcophagus, just like had happened with Ba'al. Not as bad or as long-lasting as the Ba'al experience, but bad enough, and made worse by the fact that the atrocity had been carried out by humans with their own sinister agenda. They'd wanted information, just as Ba'al had, and they'd wanted to test the power of the sarcophagus that had fallen into their hands from who knew where. Jack knew almost everything there was to know about the Stargate program, so he had been their choice as guinea pig.

Ironically, it had been the NID who had come to his rescue. Jack dreaded to think what might have happened if the NID hadn't already been looking into the group of bastards who had taken him. His captors had become the captives and Jack had ensured the sarcophagus was destroyed, much to the annoyance of the NID, and O'Neill's superiors. No way, no how, had he wanted that dangerous temptation to become the subject of human experimentation. Too dangerous, too tempting.

Jack considered the experience to be the nail in his coffin as far as his career in the Air Force and his close involvement with the Stargate program were concerned. In the end the sarcophagus withdrawal and the later PTS, had proved to be too much. He had fought one last time, himself, his demons and nightmares, and the folks in DC, but this time he had lost the fight with himself, and as a result he'd lost everything that had been dear to him.

Jack still wasn't sure he'd fully recovered from that experience or loss yet and thought he probably never would. But one of the most precious things he'd lost was sitting right here now, talking to him about it and he realised he should be grateful for small mercies because he'd been given a chance to find something he'd believed had disappeared forever.

Sam loosed his arm and scrubbed her hands through her hair, stunned and tormented by his revelation. No wonder he'd got an acute case of PTS. "Final straw?" she asked, her voice quivering with pent up emotion, and he nodded almost imperceptibly. "And now? Are you all right now?" Her obvious deep concern touched him in a way he thought he'd never be touched again and he let out a shaky sigh.

"Physically I'm fine, better than ever. All that crap about my knees and back, forget it!" he admitted with a small curve of a smile on his lips. That unsought outcome had been one of the ironies of his situation.

"But mentally?" she dared to probe, knowing it was this issue that was so hard for Jack to take, or talk about.

"I'm okay now. Mostly," he confessed in a small voice that moved her almost beyond words.

The urge she had to take him in her arms was almost overwhelming, but she resisted the impulse. She didn't dare to touch him. He'd exposed himself enough and she knew he wouldn't be able to take much more. Sam found it almost unbearable to imagine what he'd gone through, and what she was putting him through now. Although she was grateful for his confidence, that he had been willing to give her so much just because she'd asked, enough was enough.

When she thought back to what had happened between the small group of friends, Sam was filled with deep guilt and regret.

"Oh my god, and we just… if we’d known… we should have known something was… we were your friends and we abandoned you. You were right to be angry with us."

"Sam, stop already. We've been over this. Fault on both sides, remember?"

She frowned ruefully. "Seems there were sides after all. Jack, I'm so sorry. We should have been there for you."

"Don't," he responded, "it doesn't matter anymore. You're here now." Jack was more concerned with moving forward than raking over the ashes of the past. This was a fresh start and it meant a lot to him.

Sam gave him a weak smile. "Why are you telling me all this? It's not like you." She thought she'd ask that one final question while she was on a roll as she might never get this opportunity again.

A ghost of a smile appeared on his lips once more. "You're my friend aren’t you? What else are friends for?" he said, grasping the tops of her arms gently and leaning in to kiss her forehead softly before stepping back to let her go. She nodded as if she understood, but wasn't sure she did. Was this friendship or the start of something more? That question would nag at her for many weeks to come.

Out of the car mirror she could see him standing still and watchful as she drove away. He didn't move until she was out of his line of sight, and for all she knew he could have stood in the parking lot for a long time after that, deep in thought.

*****************************

Daniel Jackson's house in Colorado Springs:

It was an emotional reunion, way more emotional than Jack might normally have liked, but on this occasion he was moved by it.

When Daniel opened the door to find Jack standing there holding a crate of beer, his face broke out into the biggest grin Jack thought he'd ever seen. Taking the beer from Jack's arms, he placed it on the floor and then gave Jack a huge bear hug, accepting him back into his life as if he'd never been away. Initially, the stiffly nervous Jack was a reluctant recipient of that hug, but after a few awkward seconds he willingly allowed himself to relax into it, and return the compliment.

"It's good to see you, Jack. I'm glad you came."

"Nearly didn't."

"Yeah, I figured that." Daniel stood back and looked Jack up and down. "Come in! You're looking well," he said as he led him through the hall.

Jack was dreading the moment of walking into a room full of SGC members he hadn't been in touch with for way too long. They probably all thought he was a standoffish, arrogant jerk, but he'd come because he had to face up to them, and face Daniel's wrath. He was surprised, therefore, when he walked into the living room and Sam and Teal'c were the only people there.

"Um-er…" Jack stuttered, "I-I thought…"

"Sorry, I lied about the party," Sam confessed and Jack looked at her in amazement but his witty and sarcastic riposte was left unsaid when Teal'c approached and bowed his head.

"It is good to see you again, O'Neill." A glimmer of a smile crossed his lips as he rose from the bow, and Jack grinned.

"You too, old friend."

The two hugged briefly, thumping each other on the back in a manly fashion, which made Sam smirk with amusement, and Jack turned to face her. "So there never was a party?"

"No. I'm sorry I had to lie to you, but we thought you'd never come if…"

"If I thought it was just the three of you instead of a whole room of people?"

"You can't hide from just the three of us. In a room full of people you could play avoidance for hours," she explained truthfully.

Sam had expected him to be angry but to her surprise Jack laughed and, because laughter is contagious, in the end all of them were laughing in their individual ways. When the mirth died down, Jack demanded a drink from his host, who got him a beer, and he sat down at last.

"What?" Jack asked when he realised all three of his ex-team mates were looking at him.

"We got the band back together, as Mitchell might say," Daniel replied with a smile.

"Glad it makes you go to your happy place, Daniel."

"And what about you, Jack, how do you feel about it?"

'Here we go with that feelings crap again,' Jack thought. 'Daniel just loves to ask the awkward questions, but then he wouldn't be Daniel if he didn't.'

"It's good to see you all," Jack said aloud.

"Don't overwhelm us with your enthusiasm," Daniel quipped sarcastically.

"I mean it," Jack replied earnestly. "It's me who's overwhelmed."

Hiding behind his beer can, just as he had a cup of coffee a couple of weeks earlier, Jack tried to conceal the turbulent emotions this reunion had stirred up. Why had he kept away for so long? He'd just let things fall apart and then it had seemed too late to pick up the broken pieces.

In keeping with her promise, Sam sat next to Jack as if to protect him from too much scrutiny and too many questions. Jack was grateful and wondered what she'd said to Daniel that stopped the flow of questions he might normally have expected in this situation. The three members of SG-1 sensed Jack's unease and the conversation was too light and bright at first, with Jack remaining mainly silent but just watching the interactions of his old teammates.

"What's this?" Daniel asked with a grimace as he fished something out of Jack's beer crate. "It's soft and squishy." Whatever it might be was wrapped in aluminum and Daniel started to unfold it gingerly.

"Oh!" Jack exclaimed, "I forget. I brought that along for Sam." He snatched it from Daniel's hands. "Thought you might like it," he said with a shy grin, handing it to her. Curiously she unwrapped it and squeaked with delight.

"Chocolate cake! Thanks," she said with a bright beam, leaning to whisper in his ear conspiratorially. "If you behave yourself tonight I might even share it with you later." Her wink was exaggerated and Jack laughed, watching with a smile as she carefully wrapped the cake up again.

"Chocolate cake?" Daniel enquired, hoping to be let in on the joke. Cake had been a private joke between the original members of SG-1 for a long time, but he didn't get the chocolate cake reference at all. Jack and Sam just looked at him, said nothing, and then exchanged secretive little smiles.

"Oh for Christ's sake you two, get a room!" Daniel exclaimed, rolling his eyes.

"Daniel!" Both Jack and Sam cried out in unison, and Sam blushed a delicate shade of pink.

"I'm sorry, did I say that out loud?" Daniel replied, the picture of innocence.

"Stop! This isn't funny," Jack retorted, angrily. "There's nothing… Sam and I… Aw crap! I need a pee," he declared and sauntered out of the room as casually as he could in the circumstances.

"Told you he's still got it bad," Daniel said, turning towards Sam, a smirk on his face.

"How could you, Daniel? That was so… so embarrassing."

When Daniel realised the extent of her mortification he knew he'd humiliated both his friends. What had he been thinking? "I'm sorry, Sam, I thought…"

"Then don't think. Mind your own business," she snapped crossly.

"I'm sorry," Daniel repeated, rising from his chair, "I'll go apologise to Jack."

Sam was close to trying to stop him, but anger made her think better of it. If Daniel wished to encounter the wrath of O'Neill, that was his problem. There was only so much she could do to protect any of them from each other. She wanted them all to be friends again, but maybe it simply wasn't possible anymore. If not, she would deeply regret it, although if Daniel screwed up the progress she'd already made with Jack, O'Neill's wrath would be the least of his problems.

She exchanged a look with Teal'c and shook her head in answer to the question in his eyes. Clearly he was having similar thoughts about stopping Daniel, but it was no more his responsibility to make things go smoothly than it was hers. This was Daniel's house and he was host. Let him live with any consequences of his actions.

Meanwhile, in the bathroom Jack doused his face in cold water and took a few deep breaths. Sam had promised to protect him, but he should have been protecting her. What the hell was Daniel playing at for crying out loud? How could he think…? Sam had been as embarrassed as hell, and who could blame her? They were friends and that was all they ever would be. His thoughts on the subject were somewhat rueful but he decided he shouldn't dwell, and dried his face, knowing he had to return to face the music, despite his almost overwhelming desire to cut and run. He owed it to Sam to make an effort, just as she had.

Jack figured he shouldn't have been surprised to find Daniel lurking outside waiting for him and sighed resignedly to his fate.

"I'm sorry Jack. I shouldn't have…"

"You embarrassed Sam. Sometimes you can be such a jerk."

"Look who's talking. Why the hell haven't you asked her out? All this time outside of her chain of command and you never even called her. Who's the jerk?"

"Daniel, it really is none of your business," Jack snapped.

"That's what Sam says, but you are both friends…"

"But are we friends anymore?" Jack countered snarkily.

"I hope so. I'd like us to be. Wouldn't you?"

Jack was taken aback by the sorrowful and regretful look in Daniel's eyes and it knocked the anger right out of him. "Yes. Yes, I would," he admitted, surprising Daniel with the open and raw truthfulness in those few words.

"Then why didn't you…?" And despite the question remaining unspoken, Jack knew what he was asking. Why didn't you make the effort? Why did you push us away?

"It's complicated. Don't ask. One day I might tell you all about it, but not today," he replied in a firm but conciliatory tone.

The younger man smiled winningly. "I guess it doesn't really matter anymore. You're here now," he said, thinking of the conversation he'd had with Sam about how they should tackle this encounter. She'd advised him not to press for answers, not to push Jack away again through accusations born from his hurt feelings. She'd been right.

"I-I just want you and Sam…" he added, tailing off again. Push, press. Sheesh, he couldn't seem to help himself.

"That's never going to happen. Why would it?" Jack responded, immediately defensive again.

"Why wouldn't it?" Daniel replied and Jack simply regarded him archly, and said nothing. Maybe that was a good question, but he wasn't going to answer.

"Just leave it," Jack said after a lengthy pause and Daniel nodded agreement. Silently, they returned to join the others and tried to pretend Daniel's comments had never been uttered.

It was Teal'c who turned the conversation to Jack's current profession with a perfectly innocent question. "What is this literature that you teach, O'Neill?"

Jack hesitated before answering, slurping some beer during the pause. "The art of the written word, Teal'c." Out of the corner of his eye, Jack could see Daniel was itching to say something, but his Jaffa friend beat him to the punch.

"What manner of written word?" he asked, perfectly seriously.

"Books, T, many different kinds," Jack said, wondering if Teal'c really didn't know or was being polite. "Classical, nineteenth century American, Shakespeare…"

"Why do warriors need to learn of such things?"

Jack smiled, prepared to defend his corner. "Leadership starts with effective communication. Can't communicate and you're screwed. Great literature is communication as deliberate human endeavour. Imagination is key, as are skills in analytical and argumentative writing and thought, research methodology, critical reading. That's what literature is all about."

Teal'c looked thoughtful and while he hesitated, Daniel leapt in. "You sound like an Academy brochure, not Jack O'Neill, except maybe for the screwed part." His tone was slightly sarcastic.

"The Air Force is more than just brute force, Daniel, you know that," Jack retorted.

"Sure it is. I just can't believe my old friend Jack O'Neill is saying that. Did we ever really know you?"

"Ah, I see, you're pissed with me for never letting on about my brain, huh?" Jack responded, riled by Daniel's words. "Is that all you ever thought I was capable of, brute force?"

Sam intervened quickly, worried about how the exchange might escalate. "I'm sure Daniel didn't mean…"

"To infer he always thought I was stupid?" Jack interrupted acerbically.

"No I didn't mean it like that!" Daniel said hastily, and he hadn't. "I never thought you were stupid." Jack glanced at him accusingly and Daniel looked shamefaced. "Well, maybe a long time ago I did, but… Okay, you're right. I'm pissed you never gave us a clue." Jack smirked knowingly at Daniel's capitulation.

"I do not recall seeing any great works of literature in your house, O'Neill," Teal'c said, catching Jack by surprise.

"What, are you ganging up on me now?" he whined. "I do Warrior as Hero and some other war literature related tutorials, if that makes you feel any better."

"Guys, please!" Sam exclaimed, her protective instincts kicking in. "Stop giving Jack such a hard time." Her hand grasped Jack's lower thigh, squeezed, and then withdrew, and Jack found his heart thudding at the touch. Recovering quickly, he turned to face her and smiled.

"It's okay, Sam, I've had worse hard times. More beer, mien host?" he asked, eyeing Daniel, who decided a change of subject might be more diplomatic. Now they'd found Jack again, he had no wish to drive him away. This evening was about reunion and reconciliation – explanations, arguments and recriminations could wait for another day.

After that, the conversation turned to more light-hearted and safer topics, like base gossip, The Simpson's, movies and the like. Jack was at his wittiest best and his warmth melted any remaining frosty resentments. It was good to have him back.

*****************************

On P4X-928:

Sam's mind was on training programs and what they could do to teach these trainees to be more furtive. To her ears they sounded like a herd of small elephants as they trekked to the rendezvous with O'Neill. She thought they must be close now as she could see the shimmering of the lake beyond the trees and the edge of the Stargate's ring.

A tall lean figure slid out gracefully from behind the trees and stood in their path, looking at them irately. "For crying out loud Carter, did you guys plan to wake the dead? I could hear you five minutes ago," he said in a loud whisper, eyeing the trainees disdainfully. "What is it about the word stealth you don't understand exactly?" he asked and the four looked pained.

"Sorry, sir…" Taylor started to say but Jack raised his hands to silence him.

"Shut it, Taylor, I think they probably heard that all the way to Earth." He signalled for Carter to approach.

"Have any trouble?" he asked in a low voice.

"No sir, everything's fine."

"Apart from the fact that they lost and I won you mean? You owe me dinner!" A satisfied smirk appeared on his face and Sam couldn't help but grin back. "So, home, Jeeves?" She chuckled at his reference to that classic English comic literature featuring the slightly dim Bertie Wooster and his ever-resourceful and intelligent manservant Jeeves.

"Yes, Bertie," she agreed with a wink and Jack was pleased to realise she had understood his reference, and meaning.

O'Neill heard nothing until they were right on top of them and his sixth sense told him they were there. He raised his weapon but knew it was too late. They were surrounded, a fact that was confirmed when the aliens stepped out of their hiding places. There were six of them, all armed with something that looked like it might have been a prop ray gun in an episode of Flash Gordon, but Jack figured it was probably very much more lethal. Oh shit!

The aliens said nothing but it was clear from their demeanour they intended Jack and the others should surrender. Standing in a defensive position with his P-90 pointing towards one of the enemy, Jack briefly considered options and if it hadn't been for the presence of four wet-behind-the ears Academy graduates he might have put up a fight. As it was, he and Sam exchanged glances. They came to an unspoken agreement so he slowly raised his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender and the other followed his lead.

"We could fight our way out of this, sir," Taylor said.

"Can it, Taylor!" Sam ordered and she heard him mutter something to Thompson.

"Gee the old man gave up easy enough didn't he?" His tone was derisive and Jack didn't seem to hear it, or if he did he ignored it, but Sam's anger flared. However, she said nothing because the aliens gestured for them to throw their weapons to the ground, which they did.

'Crap!' Jack thought, wondering if it was his pesky curiosity that had been their undoing. 'Now we're in trouble." O'Neill was responsible for those graduates and now he might have endangered them all. 'Jeez, just when you think you've got out, they drag you back in. It's all Carter's fault. If she hadn't come to the Academy for that lecture… oh yeah, Jack, blame it all on Carter, you moron.'

And that was virtually the last thought he had as his body spiked with searing agony and he collapsed in a heap on the forest floor. An alien had shot him with the Flash Gordon ray gun. In fact his very last thoughts were something along the lines of, "Aw shit, that hurts!"

*****************************

Jack groaned as he came back to consciousness, all the nerves in his body still painfully on edge from whatever it was that had hit him. He knew his body was in a sitting position, but that was about all he could figure out through the residual pain. He needed more information. Cautiously he opened his eyes a fraction. The light hit and he closed them again rapidly. O'Neill so hated those moments of acute photosensitivity. Crap!

He wondered where he was, in one of the ships or in the mysterious underground domain of these aliens. Were they friend or foe? And he was concerned about the others. Were they okay? Jack figured there was only one way to find out the answers and forced his eyes to open, squinting as pain shot through them from the sudden influx of light. He blinked to adjust and looked around, overriding the pain through sheer force of will.

A couple of the aliens were standing close-by, backs turned and deep in discussion, so they didn't notice he had awakened. Jack tried to move, fighting the agonising after-effects of the weapon. Way worse than a zat. 'I'll take a few hundred of those,' he thought ironically. He was firmly fixed in place, by what he didn't know as nothing seemed to bind him and he was just about able to move his head from side to side to view his surroundings. O'Neill's eyes widened with surprise as he attempted to take in the vastness of the cavernous expanse, clearly carved out of rock. At least he knew he was underground. Every little bit of knowledge helped.

He could see the others, all seated, but unmoving. As far as he could tell they were okay, but still unconscious. This suggested they too might have been shot with the weapon and he didn't envy their awakening to the heap of pain he was currently experiencing, or the weird sensation of being unable to move. That feeling of helplessness was reminiscent of something he was reluctant to think about: the gravity device used by Ba'al each time he tortured him to death. He forced back the bile that rose in his throat at the memory, and the other bitter recollections that forced to mind.

'Damn, if I start with the flashbacks again I'll be no help to anyone,' he thought, shuddering at the notion.

To distract himself, Jack looked around as far as his limited view would let him. Clearly, the cavern was deep under the forest. At first getting some perspective was hard, until he spotted the elevator making its slow progress down from above. He couldn't figure what was holding it up, as it seemed to float in mid-air. Its occupant held one of the poles but as he drew closer, Jack could not discern any discomfort caused by this mode of transport.

As far as he could see, admittedly not far, it was the only way out and it looked pretty scary as the occupant was almost totally exposed. Escape looked like it might be difficult, but Jack would never give up thinking about it, no matter that he knew his legs might turn to jelly on the way up. Getting him and seven other people out of this place wasn't going to be easy and they would make easy targets on that ascent.

Turning his attention to what else he could see, Jack noted what looked like a lot of activity some distance away, and much alien scientific equipment. As far as he could fathom, the activity seemed to consist of doing something with the plants gathered above ground. Maybe this was a manufacturing plant?

He thought Sam would probably have it figured in minutes flat, and glanced her way to see her eyes scrunched up against the same assault by light he had suffered. She was coming around, and so were the others it seemed. 'Give 'em a little time', he thought.

Briefly, he wondered what kind of trouble this little side adventure was going to cause for all of them back home and hoped it didn't spell both the beginning and the end to this training program they'd devised. His first trip off-world for who remembered how long and this happens. Oy!

The elevator reached ground level and the alien alighted and approached with some armed guards who met him at the bottom. He was greeted with deference by them and similarly by the other two aliens who stood close by. 'Some kind of leader then?' Jack guessed, unsure whether that was a good or bad thing. He figured he'd find out soon enough. Straining his ears he tried to eavesdrop on the conversation but the voices were too low and distant. All he could make out was a low rumbling that signified speech and he wasn't even sure if he would understand their words if they bothered to speak to him. Where was Daniel when he needed him?

When the aliens approached, they said nothing and Jack remained uncharacteristically silent, waiting for their move. The leader walked amongst his captives, checking each one, and seemed pleased with what he found. As he leaned over Jack, noting his state of consciousness, Jack tried to fathom something about the man by searching his eyes for some shreds of humanity, but he found nothing he could hang on to or use.

"She will do," the leader said nodding towards Sam and one of the other's approached, handing him a device that Jack couldn't make out. They were going to do something to Sam. He didn't know what, but no way were they going to hurt her or any of the others. He had to stop them.

"No!" he cried out before they could touch her. "Not her, me!" The alien leader turned to face him.

Although she was scared for herself, uncertain of their fate, Sam baulked at that gut-wrenching cry which seemed to come straight from Jack's heart. She couldn't allow anything to happen to him, especially not after what he'd told her about PTS. But she knew Jack. He would stop at nothing to protect her and the rest of them. He'd give his life for them, and his sanity too if that was what it took.

"Jack, don't!" she shouted, her tone filled with anguish. This might destroy Jack and she could never live with herself if that happened. "Please don't do this to yourself. Not again."

"Sam, I have to do it, you know that."

"No, not after what happened before, you can't, I won't let you. You're a civilian, damn it, I'm giving you an order!"

"Screw that!" he exclaimed. Civilian he might be but he was still the same old Jack O'Neill. The leader had approached Jack, obviously curious about this behaviour, and he looked up into the man's eyes with a plea in his own. "Whatever you're gonna do, do it to me," he begged.

The man showed no emotion but gestured to one of his companions, who approached with the unknown device.

"No!" screeched Sam.

"Ignore her," Jack spat emphatically, not even sure if the alien understood his words. "I'm the leader here. It's me you need to question." That's what he assumed they were going to do, probably with the help of a little pain.

"That's a lie. I'm the leader," Sam countered.

"She has ideas above her station," Jack quipped. He could see Sam struggling to no avail, and she was trying to persuade the alien leader to leave him alone, but Jack continued to fight her. Boy was he gonna be in trouble, that was if they got out of this in one piece.

The trainees looked on fearfully wondering what was going to happen, fearing for Jack, fearing for themselves. Sam realised her pleading had probably inflamed their dread.

"Most interesting," said the leader, looking from one to the other. "This one is older," he added. "Perhaps he is the better choice after all." He looked round at the others. "You will observe."

Sam found her head was released from the grip of whatever held them in place, although she still couldn't move her body, and she looked around at the others, noting they seemed to be in a similar position. She knew there was probably nothing she could do to save Jack now, but was desperately trying to think of a plan to get them out of this alive.

"Are you all right?" she asked her companions. The four trainees looked scared and she couldn't blame them. "Try to keep calm. We'll be okay," she said, trying to be reassuring.

"Are you all right, ma'am?" asked Major Smith. She couldn't see him properly from where she was, only a small part of him.

"Yes, Major, I'm fine. General!" she cried out as she saw the alien adjust the chair so that Jack was moved into a horizontal position, and reach his fingers towards Jack's temple with a device that looked something like the Goa'uld memory enhancer.

Jack tried to struggle without success. "Now wait just one damned minute!" he cried, but they ignored him and the leader pressed the device into his skull. "Ouch!"

He thought it hurt enough going in but didn’t know what pain really was until they operated the device. The leader placed what looked like one of the remote control devices he'd seen earlier close to his temple and depressed a button. Jack screamed as his brain seemed to explode. Now he knew what a sealed can of beans felt like in a microwave. His head was on fire, he could have sworn to that, and the fire started to spread through the rest of him, starting from his neck until it reached the tips of his toes and his whole body was ablaze.

Torture. He'd figured it would happen. Better him than Sam or one of the young trainees, but he'd rather it wasn't him either. What he couldn't understand, when he could think at all through the pain, was why torture without any questions? What did these aliens want?

Sam looked on helplessly, distraught about Jack's anguish and agony on the inside, but struggling to appear the perfect model of a calm soldier on the outside. Blaming herself for Jack's predicament because she knew if she hadn't persuaded him to do this he would be safely buried in academia back in Colorado, Sam realised she would spend a long time beating herself up over these awful moments. If Jack experienced any long term damage she would never forgive herself, and she wasn't certain he would ever forgive her either, which would be intolerable now they had grown so close. She didn't know if she could handle being pushed out of his life again

The trainee's faces were masks of horror as they watched Jack's body arc and convulse, and heard his unrelenting screams when the pain hit him in wave after wave. Sam thought she saw streaks of tears running down Thompson's face as his hero suffered. Watching Jack's torment was agonising and Sam wanted to scream, cry, kill, anything to make it stop. It scared the hell out of her that this torture might tip him over that edge he had obviously been so precariously balanced upon.

"Stop it!" she cried out, but her plea was ignored.

Velasquez had started to sob and Sam snapped at her to pull herself together, somewhat unkindly she thought afterwards, but she was having enough trouble with her own grief and powerless frustration over Jack's suffering.

Looking at the alien leader, she realised he too seemed to be in pain, as if feeling Jack's. She tried to force her scientific and logical mind into gear, wondering precisely what it was they were doing to her friend. Sam couldn't understand why they weren't asking him anything, why there was no relief from his agony for them to question him. Not that he would tell them anything but, nevertheless, he needed some respite.

"Please stop," she begged, realising her voice sounded pathetically feeble. 'Buck up soldier,' she admonished herself. Glancing at the others, it seemed they hadn't noticed. They were all too morbidly fascinated and appalled by the scene of torture playing out before them. Taylor was looking distinctly green around the gills, but made no move to shift his eyes away from the horror.

This was a hard lesson for the trainees to learn so early in their careers. Going off-world wasn't a walk in the park, it was dangerous and real. People could get hurt, or killed. They might never see Earth or their loved ones again. And by witnessing Jack's pain, they were learning a lesson about what it was to be a hero, and sacrificing yourself for your fellow man.

They would never know how much Jack had risked or sacrificed in the past, although Sam knew a lot of it, but they could see for themselves what he risked and sacrificed now - for all of them. She hoped they learned something from it and briefly thought that maybe even Taylor might feel some respect for the "old general" now.

Jack felt his body seizing with the pain but was unable to move to minimise it, and he could hear his anguished screams, albeit that they seemed disembodied. He was disgusted with himself for his inability to control these extreme and obvious reactions and appearing so weak to his enemies and companions.

The pain seemed to continue incessantly, strengthening as time passed in ways he hadn't imagined were even possible. Vomit rose in his throat and out of his mouth, trying to choke him, and he couldn't breath. He was going to die on this godforsaken world. On a training exercise? How dumb was that?

Mercifully he passed out, but came too only seconds later to find he was still very much alive, shockwaves of agony undulating through him. He was going to throw up again. Shit!

He thought he could hear Sam's voice asking if he was all right, but it seemed unreal and distant. "Sam," he murmured aloud. The alien was removing the device from his skull and silently gave some directions to one of the others with another head nod. Jack felt cold metal pressed to his neck and instant relief from his pain, and the nausea abated slightly. With considerable effort, he suppressed the urge to vacate any remaining stomach contents all over himself.

The alien wiped away the vomit, cleaning him up with what seemed like care, and then they stepped back to regard him. Jack didn't think he was yet capable of coherent thought, never mind speech, so remained silent, but he attempted to stay alert to every movement. Easier said than done when totally discombobulated, presumably a side effect of the torture, or the cure.

The leader pressed another button on the remote and Jack realised he was no longer bound by whatever had been binding him. He could move at last, but didn't try moving anything but his head. His vision was blurred and he couldn't see much beyond the alien faces, which appeared out of focus. He blinked in the hope of clearing that vision but gave up when that didn't work and simply closed his eyes. The smell of vomit on his clothing made him want to throw up once more, but again he managed to resist the impulse.

"Is he all right?" he heard a voice that sounded like Sam's saying, "Tell me, I demand to know what you've done to him!"

Jack opened his eyes to try and focus, uncertain as to whether he had imagined her voice, and the leader bowed his head towards O'Neill, who cautioned himself to watch, wait and learn. Besides, at that moment he wasn't sure he was capable of anything more.

"I apologise if I have caused you pain, Jack O'Neill, but it was necessary," the alien said. "Do not concern yourself. We will not hurt you again, or your companions."

Shit! "You know my name," Jack croaked, trying not to appear unnerved. He was pretty sure he hadn't introduced himself.

"I know a great deal about you. I needed to know so I used the device that caused you pain."

"W-what? You read my thoughts?" Jack asked, catching on quick. Now he was able to think a little straighter he could remember the alien pressing into his mind, pulling out what he wanted to know piece by painful piece: digging, mauling, and gouging out his thoughts, knowledge and memories as he tried to fight the awful intrusion.

"I walked in your mind, yes, and I felt your pain. Much pain, both in body and spirit. It would have been easier on you if you had not fought me so vehemently. But you are a fighter, that is your way." The man bowed his head again as if in deference and respect. "I am very sorry." Jack couldn't decide if he was sorry for the pain he'd caused by using the device or for what he'd discovered as result.

"Carter, the others…!" Jack exclaimed with concern for his comrades.

"They are unharmed, and right here with you, Jack O'Neill," the alien said in what appeared to be an attempt at a reassuring tone, although Jack found it had the opposite effect as he realised Sam and the others had witnessed his humiliation. A pang of regret for that washed over him.

"General?" Carter's enquiry was cut short by something and O'Neill's eyes tried to seek her out but still couldn't focus.

"Shut her up!" the alien leader snapped at one of the others and Jack saw movement out of the corner of his eye.

"S'okay, Carter," he muttered but she didn’t respond and he imagined she might simply be a hallucination. Maybe everything was a hallucination. If it was he wished it would pack its bag and move out, leaving him alone to get on with life. So far he didn’t like this nightmare one little bit.

"Perhaps you should sit." The man nodded to a companion who adjusted the chair so that Jack was upright again. O'Neill felt surprising strong after his ordeal, but still a little unsteady and confused. His head spun with the shift of balance involved in the movement. Now he was sitting up and his vision became slightly less blurred, Jack could make out the others, still imprisoned in their chairs.

"Jack, sir, are you okay?" Sam asked.

In an effort to obey the earlier command that he keep her quiet, one of the aliens hit her on the side of her head with the butt of his ray gun before Jack had the chance to respond to her question. Jack winced as if he had been struck.

"No, don't hurt her!" he implored, not wanting his nightmare to go there. "Don't hurt any of them. Please. Haven't you done enough?"

"Stop! Do not harm them," the alien leader ordered his man. "Yes. We have done enough, Jack O'Neill, for now."

"Carter?" Jack queried, his confused mind slowly realising this experience was truly real.

"I'm okay sir," she replied, more concerned about his well-being than she was by the knock to her head. Deciding perhaps it was better to stay silent for now, she said nothing more, but remained alert and watchful.

The alien leader passed Jack a glass of something that looked like water. His mouth and throat were parched, and he could taste the vomit, so Jack wanted to drink but was cautious about taking gifts from strange aliens. He sniffed at the contents of the glass, raising it to his lips and taking a very small sip. It seemed innocuous enough and Jack thought he was pretty choice less anyway as the aliens had him right where they wanted him, so he threw caution to the wind and took a larger gulp. Ah, cool and refreshing! It helped.

"I am called Stephen, or at least that is what I have named myself in your language," his torturer said.

"Well, if what you say is true, you know my name and everything else about me so I guess we don't need to chat, huh?" Jack retorted acerbically.

"Perhaps, but I would be honored if you would consider it." Stephen's words appeared genuine and caught Jack by surprise.

"Honored?" he questioned in a sarcastic tone. 'What the hell is this guy on?' he thought. 'Torture and then a little intimate chat? Yeah, like that's going to happen.'

"I would hope our people might be friends in the future," Stephen continued, surprising the heck out of Jack once more.

"Friends?" Jack responded venomously. "Generally speaking I don't expect my friends to hurt me," he said bitingly, realising his speech was slightly slurred and wondering how long it would be before he felt normal again, if ever.

"You do not? That is not my understanding Jack O'Neill. I told you I saw the pain in your memories," Stephen replied and Jack recoiled from his unflinching and knowing gaze, briefly and subconsciously glancing at Sam. He was appalled by the notion that she might learn some of his thoughts and fears through listening in on this exchange. What the hell would she make of that comment?

"Yeah, well you read my mind all wrong," Jack said bitterly. "I don't expect my friends to torture me." He rubbed his temples and then the back of his neck in an attempt to clear his fuzzy head and concentrate.

"The pain of emotion is more acute than the pain of the body," Stephen said but Jack didn't reply to that profound statement because he knew too well how true it was. "You have suffered much loss and pain."

"What else did you see in my head?" he asked sullenly. "Can't figure you'd find anything worth knowing."

"I found much worth knowing. Much about your people and your world."

"And me," Jack spat out, resentful that this alien might know his inner secrets and thoughts.

"I understand," Stephen replied in a sympathetic tone. "You are a very private individual and understandably resent my intrusion, and my knowledge of your thoughts and feelings. Once again, I apologise. I assure you it was nothing personal. I have to consider the safety of my people, just as you concern yourself with the safety of yours, Jack O'Neill. I needed to ascertain the measure of your people, and you were my means of doing so, that is all."

"All? I kinda like keeping my thoughts to myself."

"Sometimes to your detriment, it seems."

Jack glowered at Stephen. He had no idea how much the alien knew but, whatever, it was too much - a violation, a mental rape. The empathic and sympathetic look in the Stephen's eyes tore into Jack soul and he could no longer meet the alien's eyes. Looking away, he grasped his head in his hands, unnerved and disheartened by the notion of someone knowing so much about him.

"Do you still feel unwell?" Stephen asked with concern.

"I'll be fine," Jack replied without looking up.

"A well used phrase, I fear."

Jack released his head and looked up sharply. "Damn you to hell!"

"Hell is not a concept my people ascribe to, but I understand your meaning," Stephen responded calmly.

"No heaven either?" Jack asked, his curiosity aroused.

"Indeed not. We have no gods."

"That's nice for ya," Jack muttered sarcastically. Daniel would have loved this, trying to learn more about the culture of these people, but Jack wasn't so sure he gave a damn. Right now his concerns were centred on feeling sorry for himself, along with thoughts of retribution for the all too intimate violation. Mixed in with all this were notions of escape and concerns for Carter and the others. Jack's head was spinning with competing emotions and thoughts.

Stephen stared at Jack silently for a while as if considering his next move. "Release them all. Give them water," he said abruptly to his colleagues and then turned to speak to the other captives.

"We wish you no harm." Jack noticed the trainees relax just a little at those words and made a note to tell them something about being too trusting of the spoken word. Hadn't they learned anything from what they'd just witnessed? "You are still my prisoners, however, for now." Jack was pleased to see all four trainees become more alert at that. "We must leave you for a while, but do not be misled; you cannot escape from this place."

With those words, Stephen turned and walked away with the armed guards and attendants, and Jack was left alone with his companions in their small corner of the cavern. Disbelieving that they had been left unguarded, he said nothing, fighting his unsettled stomach and fuzzy head to get up, but his legs betrayed him and he quickly sat again. "Crap!" he exclaimed aloud.

"Sir?" Sam queried with alarm, swiftly standing and moving to his side, followed by the rest of their companions, who crowded around Jack's chair looking anxious. She squatted with her hands grasping his arms. "Jack!" Her teeth worried her lip and her eyes signalled grave concern.

"Are you okay?" he asked, ignoring her anxiety for him. She had blood caking in her hair from where the alien had hit her with the butt of the ray gun. Deciding she could be worse he pulled his eyes from her to scan the others. Smith and Alexander nodded the heads slightly as if to tell him they were fine and ready for anything. The trainees merely stared in silence, cowed by what they had witnessed and the whole notion of being held captive by aliens.

"We're fine," Sam replied on behalf of all of them. "Are you?" she asked in an apprehensive tone, her eyes piercing him disconcertingly.

"Peachy," he replied with a quirky smile.

The trainees looked relieved, willing him to be okay. As they'd watched his suffering, filled with nausea and horror, each of them had realised he'd made a sacrifice, taking the heat to keep it off them. It was an eye-opening experience for them all. Even Taylor's opinion of the old general had done an about face. No longer did he consider the man old or out of touch. There was way more to General O'Neill than a lot of musty old books.

"Jack…" she started but he interrupted.

"Not now, Colonel," he said in a quietly authoritative voice and she knew he was right although that didn’t stop her from worrying.

"Thompson, Taylor, Velasquez, Fletcher?" he queried, and the trainees met his eyes and nodded almost in unison. "Everything will be fine. I'm not gonna let anything happen to you, understand?" They looked pathetically grateful for those brief words of reassurance and Jack hoped he could keep that promise.

"S-sir…" Thompson ventured, visibly shaken and upset. "I-I…"

"It's okay, Thompson, I'll be all right, I promise," Jack interrupted in a soothing tone.

"B-but…"

"Have I ever broken a promise?"

"No sir."

"Well I don't intend to start breakin' 'em now." He smiled reassuringly and Thompson sniffed but he nodded and said, "Yes sir."

Noting Sam's continuing concern he unflinchingly met her eyes again. It took some effort, but he was determined she should stop worrying and get on with the job. "I'm okay, really," he said, shaking his head to clear the muzziness, which had returned. "Just some nasty side-effects."

"Side-effects?" she queried incredulously. She had seen his agony. "Jack…"

"Later. What do you think? Invisible force-field?" he asked, eager to assess their situation. Sam pulled herself back into military mode, nodding towards Smith and Alexander who moved off to cautiously check it out, both meeting resistance when they reached a point a few feet away.

"Yes, sir," Alexander reported. "Can't get beyond this point."

"Or past here, sir," agreed Smith.

"Figures," Jack responded caustically, indicating for Sam to sit next to him. She signalled the others to sit and gather around and they all pulled the chairs closer to the two leaders.

"So what do we know already?" Sam queried, looking at Jack.

"Okay, let's have a brief re-cap. The elevator seems to be the only way out, or I haven't seen any alternative. Have you?" He looked round at everyone and when they shook their heads he sighed. "Hard to believe they don't have a fire exit, but it's one hell of a long way up. The weapons appear to be similar to a zat. Knocked me out and it hurt like hell. Did they use them on you too?" he asked and they all nodded. "Don't know more than that but we have to assume they can kill too. I don't think much of our chances with the elevator even if we can get through the force field.

"Stephen is obviously the leader and if he's read my mind he knows way too much and that doesn't bear thinking about." Out of the corner of his eye his saw Sam wince at the implications, but he didn't acknowledge it and pressed on. "It seems he got enough to learn all he needed to know about Earth and us humans, so I don't know if that's good or bad, but he said something about being friends in the future, so I guess not all bad." Jack stopped talking and smiled ironically, wondering what positives Stephen could have discovered through the Jack O'Neill world's eye view of things.

"Any of you got anything else?" he asked and they all shook their heads.

"So we don't really know for sure if they are friend or foe, do we?" Sam said.

"I think the jury's still out on that one, don't you?" Jack replied bitterly. "But after that experience I'm inclined to file them in the foe category."

"I agree," said Sam. "I suppose we have to assume they can hear everything we're saying now."

"Good assumption to make, Carter," he said turning to look her in the eye. After a lengthy pause he added, "I got nothing," and shrugged.

"No plan?" she asked.

"Not yet."

"You will."

"Happy to have your confidence, Colonel, but aren't you the one in charge?"

"Old habits die hard, sir."

"Yeahsureyabetchya."

"We'll get out of this," she declared confidently.

"That's what we do, always did," Jack agreed. They smiled at each other and turned back to face their charges. For some reason the open, yet also private, exchange seemed to have reassured them and they were also smiling.

"So, we wait, and watch. Any one of you who sees anything remotely useful report it to me or the general," Sam ordered and the trainees, along with Smith and Alexander, nodded agreement. "We need you all to be alert. You heard the general, we don't know if they are friend or foe, so exercise caution. Assume they are foe until we know for sure, but don't endanger yourselves or the rest of us by trying to prove you're all heroes in the making. Clear?"

The four youths nodded again and there were low rumbles of "Yes, ma'am."

"Okay, relax a little. Reserve your energy," she suggested, "and let's give the general a little room." The trainees moved their chairs back in a huddle further away and started to whisper amongst themselves excitedly with a mixture of exhilaration and anxiety. "Major, lieutenant, check around to see if you can find anything useful in this small prison, okay?" The two SG officers got up to scout around their confines, not very hopeful of finding anything but eager to try.

Sam turned her attention back to her friend. "Jack…" He took a hand in his and squeezed gently, but immediately disconnected from that brief touch.

"I told you, I'm okay. We've got more important things to worry about." She didn’t look entirely convinced.

"T-they hurt you, they tortured you. After what happened…"

"Let's not think about that right now, huh?"

"You shouldn't have..." she started angrily. "If you hadn't suffered enough already I'd kill you, Jack O'Neill!" She was pissed with him, and worried about him, but the look in his eyes told her it was pointless to pursue it at the moment. "Read your mind? That's…" She continued more calmly, peering at him. He met her gaze steadfastly.

"Yeah, scary, huh?" His eyes were filled with unexpressed emotion and Sam longed to wrap him in her arms soothingly, just as he would if it was her. Now was not the moment and this was not the place.

"I'm so sorry, Jack. It must be unsettling," she said, biting her bottom lip edgily.

"You bet," he agreed in an even tone.

Sam was used to Jack's utilization of understatement when upset by something and understood he would abhor the notion of anyone learning his deepest thoughts and feelings, or about his entire past. Any person would think that was an alarming infringement of privacy, and feel exposed and vulnerable – perhaps Jack more than many.

The flat of her hand briefly brushed over his wrist in a subtle gesture of comfort and he noticed the question remained in her eyes. "I'm fine," he stated.

"Fine as in Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional?" she probed.

"W-what?"

"Saw it said in a movie once. It reminded me of you."

He chuckled, couldn't help himself, despite the physical and mental roller coaster ride brought on by the distressing and painful invasion of his thoughts.

"Been waiting for an opportunity to use it?" he joked and she smiled, but when she looked into his eyes more closely her expression became serious again.

"Jack…" she started to say but he looked at her sharply and Sam bit back what she'd planned to say, sighing. "Sometimes I wish you opened up more."

"Do you make a habit of wishing for the impossible?" he countered, although with an unexpected warmth and jollity. Sam laughed softly.

"Actually, I tend to make a habit of achieving it," she said with a humorous smirk and Jack grinned.

"That's for sure," he agreed, but her amusement had disappeared to be replaced by what looked like guilt. Without even asking Jack knew what she was thinking. "Sam, don't. This isn't your fault,"

"Yes it is. If I hadn't persuaded you to come back… shit! I should never have considered it after what you told me. I thought…"

"You thought it would help me, didn't you?" She nodded, on the verge of tears and he grasped her arm in earnest. "Don't blame yourself. Keep a grip, for the kids' sake, and mine. I need my best girl, Colonel Carter. I need you, hear me?" She nodded again, sniffing and clawing back her emotions. "I'll be okay, I promise."

It wasn't a promise he was sure he could keep but he made it anyway. PTS could hit him now, in a couple of months or even years down the line, and Jack had suffered a lot of trauma in his life. He was a prime candidate and he knew it. In fact he was surprised he'd got through as many years. He'd never escaped the nightmares, never would. It was fighting them and winning that counted. Jack had always won, right up until he lost. But he could win again, he was confident of that.

"I'm scared for you, Jack. I don't want…" She shook her head as she considered the possible consequences. "Please talk to me. Tell me more about what it was like when he used the device. I'm not asking for feelings, just information, like a report." She urged after a long silence, hoping that would encourage him to say something, however guarded it might be. Jack could play the unemotional, tough soldier card very well, but she knew he felt things very deeply despite the facade.

Jack eyed her narrowly and decided to answer for Sam's sake, but used a dispassionate tone to convey the words. "It was pretty obvious it hurt, wasn't it? I seem to remember squealing like a stuck pig. When the alien was using the device it burned like the fires of Netu." He saw her wince at that memory and what it provoked. "I could feel him inside my head, tearing my brain apart looking for information. Rummaging in the drawers, poking into all the corners and peering into the nooks and crannies. But I'm good, really," he added hastily when he saw her look of alarm.

She peered at him as if trying to ascertain the truth of his words and he eased his grip on her arm, running a finger down her soft cheek affectionately. "You all right?" he asked. Once again she nodded mutely. If he could hang on in so could she.

Jack looked distant and thoughtful for a few moments. "I wish you could have got the others back through the gate and just left me here. They should never have witnessed that." His face bore a sorrowful expression and he wondered what the trainees were thinking and feeling.

"Jack, that's ridiculous. Even if we'd had that chance, how could I have left you behind?"

"With consummate ease?" he said with a grin.

"Never that. You're a civilian, remember?"

"Yeah, us pesky civilians. What a pain in the ass babysitting is, huh?"

Sam chuckled, momentarily warmed by his humor, and for Jack's benefit moved away from the subject, becoming more business like. "Are these people going to let us go or are we going to have to fight our way out?"

"I haven't made up my mind yet. Besides, you're in charge. Your call." She looked at him askance after his earlier claim of leadership but he chose to ignore her reproof. "They are way advanced, Sam, you can see that. Mind reading devices, for crying out loud." In his peripheral vision, a movement caught his attention and he looked towards it. "Ack, here comes Saint Stephen. No rest for the wicked."

Feeling way better, he decided to test his legs and stood, finding he could balance without nausea or dizziness, and even walk. "I think the side-effects have worn off," he informed Sam and she acknowledged the words with a small nod. "Back to business, I guess." He stretched to get his circulation and muscles moving effectively and stood calmly awaiting the arrival of the alien leader, hoping these people were friends rather than foe, and he could get them all out of this mess and back to the SGC in one piece.

*****************************

During the intervening months:

Sam had worked hard trying to persuade Jack to get more closely involved with the trainees. She'd tried almost every trick in the book short of seduction and, although he might not have objected to that, she wouldn't allow herself to stoop so low. If any seduction was going to happen between them, then it had to be for the right reasons. For now, she was happy they were friends and had grown so close over the previous few months. No dating, just a couple of friends getting together to talk, maybe for a beer and food, or perhaps over coffee and cake, sometimes alone, sometimes with their ex-team mates.

The brief exchange he had with Daniel about Sam on the night of their reunion had frequently played around in Jack's head. Why wouldn't it happen, why wouldn't it? Could it? As the friendship flourished, Jack began to wonder if it was possible after all. He just hadn't got a clue what to do about it, thinking that one of these days he would just kiss her to see how she reacted. Yep, that's what he'd do all right – one of these days. On the other hand…

His head and heart were fearful of the consequences, good or bad. Jack couldn't decide what would be worse, a rejection or acceptance. Rejection meant more heartache and possibly the loss of a good friend. Acceptance meant… he wasn't entirely sure what it meant.

The unknown had never truly disturbed Jack in his job, but as far as changing the status of his relationship with Sam Carter was concerned it troubled him deeply. Jack couldn't get his head around that so as a result nothing changed, except the deepening and strengthening of a friendship that meant a great deal more to him than a romance or sex that might be fleeting and never work out.

Although there was opposition to her plans for Jack's greater involvement, particularly any notion of him going off-world on training missions, Sam caught the attention and approval of many, some of whom had always wanted O'Neill to stay more involved in the program than he had been of late. He had a great deal to offer, a wealth of experience that could be used for the greater good of the Air Force, and the future of the SGC and off-world activity.

In the end his detractors lost the battle, although the war probably wasn't over by a long way. Eventually it came down to persuading Jack, and getting him passed as fit for the planned activities.

Of course, Jack didn't know any of this was going on in the background, although wouldn't have been in the least surprised by the opposition and infighting. He'd been in DC for long enough to understand the politics with both a capital and lower case P. He and Sam discussed his involvement, arguing the toss many times, but his reluctance was deep rooted. Ultimately it was his renewed friendship with Sam and the others that drew him back in.

Jack passed the physical with flying colours. Apparently he was still very fit, particularly for a man of his age. He'd never doubted it, so wasn't surprised, but was gratified by the surprise of others, particularly the quacks. Sure, he tried to keep himself fit, jogging, the gym, walking and the like, but he knew why he was still fitter than many who were way younger than him. The sarcophagus! It was an upside he'd never anticipated until it happened, first with Ba'al and then later in DC.

There was some debate about reinstating him into the Air Force, but Jack fought that. He couldn't fathom how he could go back to being a general in active service and still do the things he was doing and what he and Sam had planned for him to do. Generals don't do that kind of thing, he maintained. Retired generals might get away with it, particularly maverick ones like Jack. So he maintained his civilian status, but with some privileges and fringe benefits.

The first day he walked into the SGC after so long away from its confines, he was excited and anxious, unsure of what the reaction to his occasional presence might be. He had commanded these people, and now he was back after what might be seen by some as abandonment. Most of them knew nothing about his continuing efforts on their behalf, albeit in such a relatively small way.

Sam, god love her, met him in the parking lot of Cheyenne Mountain determined to alleviate what she knew would be his fears. Having discussed it beforehand, they easily reverted to the "Sir", "Carter" mode they both deemed appropriate to this venue and the work at hand.

Her presence eased his fears as intended and he was surprised to find willing and cheerful acceptance as he entered and walked though the halls of the SGC. Jack was greeted with nods and smiles and quick words of greeting almost as if he'd never been away. He couldn't have been happier than he was in those moments.

Jack was back!

*****************************

On P4X-928:

Jack detected no indication that the force field had been switched off but Stephen walked right up to him and bowed his head.

"We must have refreshments. I have good news," he announced, turning and expecting Jack to follow. When the general failed to move, the others followed his lead. "Come," Stephen said with a beckoning finger when he realised his captives had stayed put.

"What's the good news?" Jack asked, still refusing to move.

"We must eat and I will tell you." The alien smiled and then paused, looking thoughtful. "Of course you are suspicious, Jack O'Neill, it is in your nature. In my culture, the sharing of food is a gesture of friendship, an overture of more to come. I promise you no harm will come to you or your companions."

Jack's eyes narrowed as he searched Stephen's eyes for truth and considered what Daniel Jackson would say now. The younger man would probably whisper in his ear that they shouldn't insult their hosts, and Jack knew he'd probably be right – most of the time. But Jack was pissed with this man and wanted him to know it. He'd crossed a line.

"My people don't normally eat with torturers and people who rape minds," Jack said acidly.

"Sir?" Sam gasped, worried he insulted their hosts and lost them a chance at freedom.

"Carter!" he snapped, giving her a killing look. She was about to protest that she was in charge when Stephen spoke, obviously taken aback.

"I am uncertain what I can do now to apologise and made amends, Jack O'Neill. Tell me how I can reassure you."

Relieved the alien didn't appear to be affronted, Sam said nothing but shot Jack a warning look. He had to think about getting them all home, not his fury at what these people had done. Jack nodded, understanding her concern, but he answered Stephen's question, still not sure what he was looking for. Sam thought he would probably never be satisfied. How could he be after his experience?

"You can answer a couple of questions," Jack said and Stephen inclined his head. "Can you read my thoughts now, or theirs?" Jack asked, indicating his companions.

"No. Only with the device." Jack was pleased to hear that but was doubtful.

"How can I know you speak the truth? How can I trust you?"

"I cannot prove this to you, but even you are capable of faith, Jack O'Neill."

Jack arched an eyebrow quizzically. "Faith? After what happened? You're kidding right? Besides, I'm a pragmatist, not a dreamer."

"Actually, you are a bit of both," Stephen responded knowingly, making Jack cringe inside as he wondered exactly what this man knew about him to say such a thing. "But if you are a pragmatist, then we should go and sit, eat and talk. I am sure I can answer all your questions to your satisfaction. We can get to know each other."

Jack considered the alien leader for a while before replying. "I have a solemn promise that you won't hurt my people, or use the device on them?" His tone was dangerous and Stephen knew it. Jack O'Neill would fight to protect his people, and with his last breath if necessary. Stephen had seen this very clearly in his walk through the man's mind and it was a trait he admired and, perhaps, envied.

"I have no need," he replied reassuringly. "I know everything I need to know about your people and your world from my walk in your mind. I promise you, Jack O'Neill, on my own life."

Jack made a mental note to consider if, after all this time, he still knew any secrets that might threaten Earth. A couple of iris codes and the like could be changed, but this mind reading alien would have learned a lot about Earth's defences and that was a major worry. What had Stephen said about being friends in the future? Great! Time for a peace pipe.

Jack wasn't prepared to trust the alien, probably never would be, but he knew that talking was the right thing to do and might be their way off this rock and back home. It beat the alternative, which might end up getting them all killed. Besides, they had to know if these people were likely to use any information found in his mind against Earth. It was the only practical and logical thing to do.

He glanced at Sam and she nodded so slightly that if he'd blinked he'd have missed it. Jack decided they should take the chance. Besides, as he kept having to remind himself, Sam was in charge.

"Colonel Carter is the leader here, Stephen," he said in an effort to correct the man's misconception of his status. Although if the alien had read his mind he must know this already.

"Indeed? My apologies, Colonel Carter, but I do not believe Jack O'Neill is correct in that statement. Perhaps technically correct, but I read him differently, particularly after his earlier protestations that I deal with him and not you. Am I wrong?"

"Whoa!" Jack was eager that Sam didn't get the wrong impression. "What the hell did you read in me, Stephen? I'm retired. I teach and you know it."

"But you are here, and you are still a warrior at heart and a leader of men. You gave yourself up to be sacrificed on behalf of these others without consideration for your own well-being because you see yourself as a protector and leader. Your title, status and profession are irrelevant. You will always be a leader of men, will you not?"

Jack opened his mouth to speak but Sam got in first, grasping the top of his arm to silence him. "I'm not insulted, sir. He's right isn't he?"

If it had been anyone else she might have been more annoyed, but Jack had earned deference. She was pissed with him, but for different reasons that had little to do with him usurping her leadership and more to do with Jack deliberately placing himself in harms way, and many of her concerns about that were far more personal.

"Do not misunderstand me, Colonel Carter," Stephen added to explain further, "I do not wish to insult you and know that Jack O'Neill would not wish to either. I have walked in his mind and he greatly admires your skills. I have no doubt you are worthy of respect, and are an admirable leader in your own right, but I care nothing for your command structures in your armed forces, or your world. I listened to Jack O'Neill's thoughts and choose to deal with him, even if he is distrustful, guarded and unforgiving."

Sam still held Jack's arm and she squeezed gently, causing him to look at her. His eyes sought the permission he didn't venture to request out loud, and hers gave it.

"You're right, I am distrustful, guarded and unforgiving. But you're also right about my pragmatism so let's go eat," Jack agreed and walked off alongside Stephen followed by the others.

Stephen led them to an area off to one side of the main cavern, where food awaited, laid out on a large table adequate to accommodate all of them. He insisted Jack sit next to him, and Sam sat next to Jack out of habit, although it also meant she could listen in on the conversation and join in, as well as surreptitiously whisper in Jack's ear, if needed. The trainees stuck together at the opposite side of the table, and Smith and Alexander sat watchfully, like two protective bookends, at either end of the table.

Cautiously at first, Jack nibbled something that looked like a fruit or vegetable. It not only tasted good, but it didn't seem to have an immediate adverse effect, so he thought 'what the heck?' and took a larger bite, but without any real enthusiasm. His companions followed suit and started to eat a little, but they were all maintaining a watchful and suspicious vigilance in keeping with Jack's demeanour and lead. None of them felt that hungry after the earlier events they'd witnessed, but the aliens expected them to eat so they did it, just not very wholeheartedly.

"You said you had news?" Jack queried with Stephen as he ate.

"I have spoken to the Council of Ministers back on our home world and they wish us to talk."

Jack's immediate thought was to say something sarcastic like, 'I thought that's what we were doing,' but he bit back the retort, asking evenly, "About?"

"Becoming allies."

"Um, why?" Jack asked sceptically. He wasn't used to the idea of advanced civilisations rushing to be friends with the more primitive Earth, the Asgard being an honorable exception.

"As I said, I hope we can be friends in the future. You might not yet be ready."

Jack paused slightly, noting the 'future' and 'not yet be ready' elements in Stephen's statement. "And, as I said, why?"

Stephen took a bite of some kind of meat, chewing and swallowing before he replied. "You are wary, Jack O'Neill, as a good warrior should be. When I discovered you had the heart and mind of a great warrior I was fearful at first, but as I dug deeper into your thoughts I discovered a good, brave and honest man. A leader of men like me. A killer yes, but with a purpose and a self-imposed code of honor, and a compassionate, gentle and kind man as well. A hero of your people but a hero who now teaches the warriors of tomorrow not of war but of the great literature of your people and thus tries to teach them to be imaginative, thoughtful and compassionate too. I hope they learn their lessons well. There is much to admire in such a man."

Stephen peered around at the group of trainees and Thompson kicked Taylor under the table as if to say I told you so. Taylor's face flushed and Sam smiled to herself, thinking maybe he was catching on to that not judging a book by its cover notion she'd thought he'd need drummed into him. Along with the other trainees, she thought she could detect a hint of hero worship in his eyes as he watched Jack. 'Not so old or foolish then?' she thought, mentally rubbing Taylor's nose in his earlier words. She got some childish satisfaction in thinking it even if she might never say it,

The trainees were hanging on every word and movement, clearly excited by events now General O'Neill seemed recovered and they believed they were safe from harm. Their first contact with aliens was a first contact for Earth. They were right to be thrilled, despite the earlier horrors - assuming they all made it home. Apart from what had happened with Jack, so far the aliens seemed pretty friendly and Sam was quietly confident.

Jack sighed, kind of flattered by Stephen's description of him, but doubtful. "That's your interpretation of me, Stephen, not necessarily me. Besides, not everyone on my planet is like me, thank god," he said. "I'm not so great."

"You are wrong about that, Jack O'Neill, but you are a most unique individual I think, although I am sure your planet could benefit from many more men like you." If Jack had been given to blushing his face would have reddened, but as it was he merely looked ill at ease with the compliment. "What I see in you tells me there is great hope for your people in the future and maybe our people will be ready to be friends one day. The Council concur. Therefore, I make this overture of peace and friendship by sharing our food so when that day comes, your people will remember it."

"So the time isn't here yet, right?" Jack asked, still determined to ascertain the intentions of these aliens.

"No, not yet." Stephen replied honestly and Jack nodded acknowledgement, unsurprised. In fact, the alien's prudence somehow made him feel easier about the situation, slightly less suspicious and more accepting. It was what he had come to expect, but he was still wary.

Jack kept wondering what Daniel would have done in this situation. He'd always been the diplomatic one, the talker, the listener, the peacemaker. It was difficult for Jack to put himself in that place, which didn't mean he couldn't learn what he needed to know. But, he still wished Daniel were there with them, just like in the old days.

*****************************

Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, a couple of weeks earlier:

Daniel Jackson arrived at the Academy without calling ahead first to tell Jack he was coming, or to check his whereabouts. He knew where his old friend was meant to be, at the SGC going over his training plans with General Landry and a few other important people, including Sam. They were all angry about his failure to appear and Daniel wondered what could be so important that Jack had missed the appointment, so he'd decided to pay a house call to find out.

Woolsey was up in arms about Jack's discourtesy, making all manner of threatening noises about the Oversight Committee and talking about pulling the plug on a certain retired general's increased involvement with the SGC. Daniel knew that, with a little tact, diplomacy and schmoozing, the man's ruffled feathers could be smoothed. The reasons behind Jack's failure to be there, however, might play an important part in smoothing them.

After some enquires, he found himself standing in front of a closed door, poised to knock and enter. Pressing his ear against the door, he could hear the low hum of a voice, but learned nothing about what was going on beyond. So he decided to risk it, rapping on the door, opening it, and poking his head around. Jack looked up and frowned, annoyed at the disturbance. He was sitting close to a young cadet who appeared to be very upset.

"Daniel? So not a good time," Jack said with barely suppressed anger, the flash in his eyes more pointed than his tone.

"Sorry. I-I… you missed an appointment," Daniel ventured, aware Jack could bite his head off. He'd disturbed something important; he could see that with his own eyes.

"I know, but I'm a bit tied up right now with something way more important. Give me some time. Meet you in the commissary?"

Daniel nodded and withdrew, leaving Jack to finish whatever he'd started. On his way to the commissary he considered the changes wrought on the original SG-1 team members and their friendship over the previous weeks, since Jack had appeared back in their lives. They'd grown close again, and Daniel was pleased with that outcome, although he never had got to the bottom of why Jack had pushed them all away in the first place - figured maybe he never would now but wasn't sure he cared anymore. Jack was back and that's what counted.

When Sam had outlined her plans to get Jack more involved, and back at the SGC in some capacity, Daniel had supported her wholeheartedly, fighting in her corner at every opportunity. When Jack had been in DC, his appearances back at the SGC had brightened a bleakness left behind when he'd gone. His total absence had been difficult for all of them, and for more than just the original members of SG-1.

Many SGC members had respected and admired the hell out of Jack, and many of them missed him when he'd gone. Landry was a good man, and a decent commander, but it wasn't the same without Jack hanging around the place. His absence had left a hole in many hearts. Daniel, therefore, greeted the idea of getting him back in some small way with Dr Jackson like enthusiasm.

A sprinkle of O'Neill could do wonders to the place, when he was in a good mood that is. But one had to take the rough with the smooth because the smooth was so worth it. Daniel had learned that lesson very early on in his dealings with Jack, and he wasn't the only one, not by a very long way.

Upon reaching the commissary he got a coffee, immediately spying some chocolate cake that looked very much like the cake Jack had brought for Sam on the night of their reunion. So this was their little secret? He got two pieces, one to try and one for Jack, and found a place to sit and contemplate while he waited for his friend.

Having seen the clearly distraught cadet, Daniel's mind ranged over what might have happened to stop Jack from making it to the SGC. He was tossing up between Jack telling the young guy off for something in that inimitable O'Neill manner, or giving comfort to one of his students in a time of need. Daniel came out in favor of the latter. Jack might be emotionally anally retentive at times, but he could be pretty good at that comfort thing in his own quiet way, particularly with youngsters.

Jack could be very protective and if that had been one of his students, this was probably exactly what he was being. His friend would consider that way more important than a 'trivial' meeting at the SGC, which could be rearranged at a more suitable time.

He felt the presence before he saw the shadow, and looked up to see Jack looming over him.

"More coffee, Daniel?" he asked and then, seeing the cake, his face grew into a huge grin. "You got me chocolate cake? Cool!" Without waiting for a response, he stalked off, to return a few minutes later with two steaming cups of coffee. Jack placed the coffee on the table and sat down opposite Daniel.

"Am I in trouble?" he asked.

"When aren't you in trouble? Trouble is your middle name," Daniel replied with a smile.

"I seem to have a lot of middle names," Jack quipped and Daniel's smile broadened into a grin.

"What happened?" he asked.

"One of my students. His mother died in an accident. Hit and run. Poor kid." A sorrowful expression darkened his features as he spoke.

"Thought it must be something important. You didn't even call."

"It didn't seem right to interrupt to make a call. Jackson is pretty upset."

"Jackson?"

"No relation I assume," Jack said with one of his quirky smiles, immediately brightening the darkness that had lurked there before. "How much trouble am I in?" he asked sheepishly.

"Landry is pretty pissed, but Woolsey went ballistic."

"I can handle it." Daniel was surprised to note Jack's apparent lack of concern.

"He's threatening to get you thrown out."

Jack merely chuckled. "I don't think so," he said in that sarcastic O'Neill manner he had, eyeing the cake with glee and taking a bite. "Woolsey's okay and he kind of likes me. Some minor grovelling should do the trick. Think I can pull it off?" he asked, mouth filled with melting chocolate.

"I'm beginning to believe you can pull almost anything off. Woolsey should be a cinch."

"You've known me for all these years and you're just beginning to think I can pull almost anything off?" Jack said in a joking manner, making Daniel laugh.

"You sure have pulled off more than your fair share of miracles over the years, Jack."

"You too. Haven't we all? That's what we did, wasn't it?"

Daniel merely grinned and started on his own piece of cake, taking a bite and making appropriate noises that demonstrated his appreciation. "Wow, that's good cake!" he exclaimed once he'd swallowed the bite, "So this is what you and Sam have been keeping a secret, huh?"

"Wouldn't you keep such a cake secret? Wouldn't want everyone finding out now, would we? There'd be none left."

"I'm sure you could persuade them to keep you a piece, just like you used to at the SGC."

"In those days I could order them to keep me a piece."

The men sat in companionable silence while they both munched on their slices of cake. Once finished Jack removed his cell phone from his jacket.

"Think I should call Hank, don't you?"

"Probably a good idea. When you explain, I'm sure he'll understand."

Jack took a while to get through and then even longer apologising and explaining his absence to his old friend Hank Landry, who rescheduled the meeting for later that day, before Woolsey could decide to leave Cheyenne Mountain to return to DC.

"Think you should call Sam?" Daniel queried once Jack had completed finished the call.

"Is she pissed too?" Jack said with a wince.

"What do you think? Jack, if only you realised how much hard work she's put into persuading some of the sceptics to give this whole idea a chance. She's worked her butt off."

"Really? I didn't know. She never said anything."

Jack's apparent ignorance of the situation only served to irritate Daniel. "She never did say anything, did she? You always took it for granted. But she always did it anyway."

Jack was taken aback by Daniel's comment. "You think I never appreciated her enough? I always appreciated her," he argued defensively.

"You never told her that very often, if at all."

"I didn't have to. I was her CO. She was doing her job." Although Jack said that, he was starting to feel an uncomfortable guilt. Daniel had such a bad habit of pointing out Jack's bad habits. It was damned annoying.

A couple of cadets approached close to their table and Daniel said nothing until they had squeezed by, acknowledging Jack as they passed. "You know she often did a whole hell of a lot more than just her job," he then responded, getting slightly irked on their friend's behalf.

Jack sighed heavily, accepting the truth of Daniel's words. "You think she expected more gratitude?"

"I doubt it, or maybe sometimes, but you should have given it anyway. She would have appreciated it I'll bet."

"I'll be back," Jack replied enigmatically, abruptly rising from his chair and stalking off. When he returned he had two more cups of coffee and was holding something wrapped in aluminum, which he placed in front of Daniel. "Give her that from me, okay?"

"Chocolate cake?" Daniel queried and Jack nodded. "You'll be coming to the SGC later. Why don't you give it to her yourself? Apologise in person."

"I haven't got anything to apologise for, Daniel. I did the right thing. Jackson came to me, I couldn't turn him away, now, could I?"

Daniel nodded agreement almost imperceptibly. "I guess not. I still think you should be the one to give it to her. Isn't it time you did something about you two?"

Jack shot him a killing look. "That subject is not up for discussion," he said fiercely.

"For Christ's sake, Jack, I just want to see two of my friends happy," Daniel snapped back irately.

"Let's not get into an argument about it," Jack said more calmly, trying to diffuse what could so easily turn into an explosive Jack/Daniel argument. He didn’t really want one of those any time of day, never mind about right there in the Academy commissary in front of some of his students.

"Why not?" countered Daniel. "You're such a pig-headed, short sighted son of an Irishman about her, Jack."

"That's a little unfair." He was trying to maintain his equilibrium but was annoyed. "We're good friends. It's more than enough and way more than I deserve."

"Don't tell me you don't want more than that." Daniel's tone was close to accusatorial and Jack picked at the crumbs of cake left on his plate so he could force his eyes away from Daniel's.

"Wanting and doing are two entirely different species of animal," he said in a low tone, and Daniel leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, realising how fruitless a public argument would be, and how embarrassing for Jack, which would do nothing to help anyone.

"Does it ever occur to you to think about what she might want?"

"I don't know what she wants but I'm not going to do anything to jeopardise our friendship. It means a lot to me," Jack said earnestly.

"If you're worried she'll reject you then you're a bigger idiot than I give you credit for. Or maybe you're more worried about what will happen if she doesn't reject you. Is that it?" Daniel watched Jack's face and manner carefully and could see he'd hit the nail on the head. "For a man who has lived his life taking risks, that's one hell of a lot of caution, Jack."

"I told you I don't want to talk about this," Jack said in a warning tone, although he was wondering what Daniel actually knew of Sam's thoughts on the subject or what he simply surmised.

"Okay, have it your way." Daniel said resignedly, biting back a number of snappy retorts that entered his head and deciding he'd probably said enough for now. Maybe Jack would think about it. "Look, I should probably go. What about Jackson?"

"He went to pack some things. His aunt is coming to pick him up. Not surprisingly, the father is too distraught to come for him."

"I guess at least he's got his dad."

It was then Jack recalled how Daniel had lost both his parents at the same time. That must have been one hell of a blow.

"Yep, he's got his dad," Jack agreed with a nod, turning a sympathetic eye on Daniel as he knew he was thinking about his own loss. "You okay?" he asked.

"Sure, fine."

"Walk you to the parking lot?" Jack asked with a smile, thinking it was getting to be a habit with one or other of his old teammates.

"Wanna make sure I leave the premises?" Daniel replied with a small smile.

"Something like that."

The two men walked in silence towards Daniel's car, until they reached it.

"Has she said anything to you?" Jack asked, unable to resist the temptation to ask a question that had been on his mind since Daniel had raised the issue of his relationship with Sam. Daniel was surprised by the question, and the unexpected return to a subject Jack claimed he didn't want to talk about.

"Not much, but we talk some, sure," Daniel replied cautiously. He didn't want to betray anything Sam might have considered as a confidence. "Jack, you'd have to be blind and deaf not to realise what she wants."

It was Jack's turn to be surprised. "Bullshit! Guess I'm both blind and deaf then."

"No you're not. You just don’t want to see it because it scares the crap out of you." He opened the car door, thinking the conversation was over, but Jack surprised him again.

"You're right," he admitted, and Daniel stilled, eyebrows shooting towards the heavens.

"I'm right?" he repeated, disbelieving of Jack's capitulation.

"Yeah, you're right. Surprised?" Jack's face bore an ironical smile.

"You might say that."

"I'll think about what you've said, Daniel."

"You will?"

"Thanks."

Daniel was thinking Jack was full of surprises today. "Thanks?" he queried.

"For being a friend."

"I, um… you're welcome." For once Daniel was slightly lost for words, but the smile on his face said a lot, and Jack returned it with one of his own.

"See you at the SGC later?"

"Yeah, see you later," Daniel replied and watched his friend walk back to the building before he eventually got into the car and drove away.

*****************************

SGC, later that day:

Jack reached the SGC early and immediately made his way to the place he figured Sam would be, in her lab.

"Knock, knock," he said, lurking in the doorway.

"Jack!" she looked up, greeting him with a warm and welcoming smile, "Um, come in sir," she added, remembering what they had said about how they should address each other in the confines of the mountain. He entered and sauntered towards her.

"I'm sorry about this morning. Daniel explained?"

"Yes. I understand. It's okay."

"I should have called. Peace offering, apology, call it what you will." He handed her the cake still wrapped in its aluminum and she smiled, reaching to take it from him. As her hand touched his he grasped it, taking her by surprise.

"I don't think I ever thanked you," he said.

"For what?" She looked puzzled.

"For everything. Everything you've done over the years. All the hard work. The comradeship. Saving my butt many times. Keeping me sane. All of it."

"Oh! I-I, there's no need to thank me, sir."

"Yes, there is. I'd never have made it through without you."

She looked awkward and embarrassed, squirming uncomfortably under his relentless gaze, and when she tried to extricate her hand from his grasp Jack refused to let go. Instead he raised it to his lips and briefly kissed it. Sam shivered with anticipation, but then he released it.

"Somehow, I don't think cake is enough," he said with a cheeky grin.

"If it's chocolate cake it might be," she replied jauntily, still trying to recover from the all too brief intimate moment.

"Of course it's chocolate cake. Nothing else would be good enough."

"Wanna share?" she offered, unwrapping his gift with a flourish.

"I bought it for you."

"I don't mind sharing. It's a large piece."

"You're sure?"

In response she broke off a piece and stood up to face him, moving her hand towards his mouth, urging him to open it and placing the cake inside with her fingers. Grabbing her wrist before she could remove the hand, Jack captured her eyes.

"Half of it's still on your fingers," he said, taking the tips of her fingers into his mouth and sucking them clean. Sam gasped, closing her eyes, and Jack regarded her momentarily, drinking in her rapt expression before removing the hand and placing an arm around her back to pull her close.

"Sam, I'm so sorry. I've been a total jerk," he said as he swayed her gently in his arms. Still uncertain about his intentions, she took a chance and leaned closer into him, one of her hands reaching to stroke his neck. When he reacted by kneading her back, she spoke, more confident of his purpose.

"Not a total jerk. Just a bit of one."

"Why are you interested in a such a jerk?" he asked.

"He's a very handsome and charming jerk."

"Handsome and charming?" he queried with a self-deprecating laugh. "You're kidding, right?" Jack started to pull back, but Sam clung to him.

"Just a moment more, please Jack," she said, and they held onto each other for a good while longer.

No kisses, no promises, no plans, no words - just a huge honkin' hug, complete with bells and whistles. By the time they got to the rescheduled meeting Jack had to suck Woolsey's ass in a big way, but it was so worth it.

*****************************

On P4X-928:

Jack was still angry and upset about what Stephen had put him through but was quietly determined to try and keep those feelings to himself. Not for Stephen's sake, but for his colleagues, and Earth. The trainees needed reassurance and he had promised he was okay, so he had to be okay. Showing them anything to indicate he wasn't would be poor leadership and crap for morale. As for Earth, as he wasn't sure about the intentions of these aliens, he needed more information to determine them. He didn't want to jeopardise the security of his planet for selfish reasons. That wasn't the Jack O'Neill way.

"I, um, hope you don't mind me asking, but are you guys human?" he asked out of the blue and Sam looked at him askance. Jack might not be the diplomatic type but he phrased the question much less bluntly than he might have in the past, particularly in the present circumstances. He'd changed, evolved, but hadn't they all? Stephen smiled, unperturbed by the question.

"You mean are we the same species as you?" he asked and Jack nodded. "I think perhaps we are. The Goa'uld took us from our home world many hundreds of years ago. I saw them in your thoughts - what they did to humans. It was the same with us. I suppose you are wondering how we can be the same species when most of these peoples you have encountered have been primitive and we are so advanced. We had good teachers. The saviours of my people."

"Oh?" Sam prodded.

"You have heard them spoken of but have never met them. The Furlings."

Jack and Sam looked at each other and then at Stephen. "The Furlings? They rescued you from the Goa'uld?" Sam asked in wide-eyed amazement. This was the first encounter they'd ever had with humans who had met the Furlings.

"Yes, Colonel Carter, and they taught my people many things before they left us."

"The Furlings, huh?" Jack asked rhetorically. "So, were those guys cute and fuzzy?"

"No, Jack O'Neill, they were not like the, um, Ewoks in Star Wars movies," Stephen responded with a small chuckle. Jack was taken aback and disturbed that the man had dug that image out of his mind. It proved the depth of detail Stephen knew about him.

"Ack! Another illusion shattered," Jack joked, covering his deep distress at having his thoughts known to this man. He felt exposed and vulnerable and didn't like it one little bit.

"It makes you uncomfortable that I can conjure such detail from my walk in your thoughts?" Stephen asked.

'Go figure!' Jack thought but said nothing, merely meeting the alien's gaze unflinchingly and hiding his fear.

"Do not be alarmed. Your secrets and dreams are safe with me, Jack O'Neill."

"I sure hope that's true."

Sensing Jack's well-hidden but understandable disquiet Sam butted in, trying to draw them away from that thorny subject. "What were the Furlings like, Stephen?" she asked.

"A great race, but I think that is a story for another time."

"We're curious…" she pressed.

"Of this I am aware, but I cannot discuss the Furlings further at this time. I am sorry."

"Okay, how about this? Humans can't read minds," Jack commented thoughtfully. "How can you have developed that ability?"

"It is not a natural ability, Jack O'Neill. We make it happen with a mixture of technology and drugs."

While they talked, Sam had been keeping a watchful eye on activity in the cavern. A thought occurred and she made one of her intuitive, although informed, leaps.

"A drug made from a plant? That's it isn't it? Bet you can't grow it on your own home world or you wouldn't have to come here. That is what this place is, isn't it?" Sam asked after some consideration. "You make the drug here. It comes from plants on this planet."

Stephen nodded. "You are right, Jack O'Neill, she is a very clever woman. Beauty and brains is indeed a fascinating combination. I understand why you admire her so greatly."

Jack winced that Stephen openly relayed his thoughts about Sam right in front of her. So much for keeping his secrets and dreams safe, although he wasn't sure it very much mattered anymore. She probably already knew how he felt, but the pair were taking things so slow they were nearly standing still, so nothing was a given as far as Jack was concerned.

He wasn't happy about such exposure. If anyone was going to expose anything about his feelings for Sam it should be him. The alien leader, however, was unaware of his discomfort and spoke to Sam.

"That is why your people must never come to this planet again, Colonel Carter. You must delete its address from the dialling computer of your Stargate. You are not ready for such a thing. Now we know it has been discovered, we will post a permanent guard here to protect this place from the unwary or greedy. We cannot allow the Furling's gift to be misused or abused."

"The Furling's gift?" Sam asked.

"One of many," he responded to her, but turned back to face Jack. "Can you make a promise on behalf of your people that you will not come here again, Jack O'Neill?"

"I can't speak for my superiors."

"Of this I am aware, but I trust that you can persuade them. They will listen to you. Your superiors risk making us an enemy if they fail to listen to your wisdom."

Jack nodded agreement. "I promise I'll try." In Jack's humble opinion the occupants of his home world should keep well away from these aliens - people who forcibly read minds and didn't mind hurting someone to do it. That was wrong on so many levels. He'd do way more than just try.

"Then that is good enough for me."

It seemed there were some small advantages to having his mind read. Didn't mean he liked it, but at least Stephen knew what he was like as a person, and he'd made a judgement call about trust. The ever-cautious Jack wished he could have the same confidence in Stephen and he picked at his food thoughtfully, while the others remained silent too.

The four trainees hadn't dared open their mouths, merely listening and taking everything in - and hopefully learning something as well. Jack had decided a while back that Taylor had to learn there was more to this job than using the barrel of your gun and he hoped he was taking mental notes. There was some promise there but only if the young man could learn to calm that gung-ho attitude he sported. He should probably be a Marine.

Thompson would be fine, although in Jack's opinion put way too much faith in him. He could feel the boy's adoring eyes boring into him and realised this experience would probably encourage the schoolboy-like crush further. Thompson, however, was pretty astute. More of a Jackson than an O'Neill, which was nothing to sniff at in Jack's humble opinion, even though Daniel could be a severe pain in the ass at times.

Velasquez could be mouthy, and sometimes seemed slow on the uptake, despite being bright. Jack figured she never forgot a lesson once learned, although she might have to learn some of them the hard way.

As for Fletcher, Jack was hesitant to hazard an opinion. The young man was quiet as a church mouse, but seemed to soak up everything like a sponge. Jack made a mental note to ask Sam what she thought and how he'd behaved as one of the team of 'hounds'.

"Why do you use ships? Why don't you travel here by Stargate?" Major Smith asked, speaking for the first time since they'd sat down to eat. Good question, Jack thought. He didn't know either Smith or Alexander very well, although Sam had vouched for both. Her word was good enough for Jack. He looked towards Stephen as he replied.

"Although not created by them, the Stargate system became a symbol of the Goa'uld, who oppressed and enslaved us until the Furlings intervened. We have not had a gate on our world for many years, and have no desire to travel through them. We have ships that are more than adequate to take us wherever we wish. Fast, agile ships. And the Goa'uld have never bothered us for years, nor are they likely to now, it seems. The Council were pleased to learn that the two of you played a major role in their defeat," he said, smiling at Jack and Sam.

"So, is there a mothership waiting up there in orbit around this planet?" Smith queried, pressing for more information, more intelligence.

"The small vessels we arrived in are more than adequate for our purposes."

The simple answer told them a lot. Either the alien's planet was close, or the ships were very advanced to be that small and travel huge distances. The tone of Stephen's reply made him suspect the latter. Useful intel to have, although Jack wasn't yet sure what use they'd make of it.

Smith continued to ask Stephen about their ships and Jack took the opportunity of the alien's distraction to whisper to Sam. "Am I doing okay?"

"You're doing great."

"Not bad considering I'd like to kill the guy?" He winked but she realised there was more than a mere element of truth in those words. She frowned and he continued. "I just want to get us out of here in one piece. If I have to make nice to do it I will."

"Diplomatic O'Neill?"

"Old dogs can learn new tricks and I learned a few in DC, and at the Academy."

"I think he expects you to loathe him, Jack. If he read your mind he must have an inkling of how you'd feel about it."

"Think he expects me to kill him?"

Sam narrowed her eyes and glared at him. "Like me, he knows you well enough to realise that you'd never risk the rest of us just to get revenge."

"Well, to be honest, I hadn't thought of that." He smirked to indicate he was kidding, as if Sam didn’t already realise that.

Then Jack drifted, apparently deep in thought. There was something he had to ask, albeit it reluctantly. Too many bad memories, but he had to know. He took the chance during a lull in the conversation.

"When I woke up down here I couldn't move. What was that? Some kind of gravity device?"

Stephen noted Jack's uneasiness at asking the question and knew his reasons for that very well. Images of O'Neill's torture and despair flashed though his mind – trapped in a gravity field like a fly in a spider's web, unable to move or help himself in any way as he suffered agony after agony, death after death, only to be brought back to life to suffer all over again. No man should have to live through such a thing. The notion was unbearable to Stephen, whose response was soft toned and sympathetic.

"I am afraid it was. I am sorry to have caused you so much pain, and raised those memories in you once more." Jack nodded a response and Stephen leaned in to whisper in his ear so the others couldn't hear. "You have suffered much, lost much, and despaired much and most of the time fought hard to live through it all, Jack O'Neill.

"Your instinct for survival is admirable, as is your overwhelming desire to protect and willingness to sacrifice yourself to do so, despite that instinct. If you listen to and obey your heart after all this time, you can be a much happier and less solitary man. You should allow yourself to live, not merely survive." Stephen's eyes turned to look at Samantha Carter and back to Jack, who was unable to stand up to that knowing gaze. The man knew way too much.

'All right already,' he thought, 'I'm working on it!' But Stephen's words made him realise it was time to take the relationship with Sam to another level, way beyond that hug of understanding a couple of weeks before.

Jack wondered why Stephen was telling him this? Why did he give a damn? And it suddenly occurred to Jack that Stephen did give a damn. He'd rummaged in Jack's head and the man cared. He began to think he might have misjudged these people. Jack didn’t like thinking it, didn't want to think it, but he thought it nonetheless.

Stephen observed Jack's continuing disquiet and understood very well what the man might be thinking about the intrusion into his private world. "Do not be alarmed that I know your thoughts and dreams. In all likelihood we will never meet again, and I will never use them against you."

He hoped Jack would be reassured but when he peered into the man's face realised the words hadn't helped alleviate his trepidation and resentment. Stephen thought it was unfortunate that such a man had to suffer his invasion and, because of what he had seen in Jack's mind, wondered if the woman might have accepted it with more equanimity. Too late now, he could not change the past.

Meanwhile, although Jack had stopped eating a long time before, had hardly touched anything in fact, he was playing with the leftovers on his plate, feeling awkward and needing the distraction. Stephen decided he should attempt to avoid referring to Jack's thoughts and feelings, which only served to remind the man of something he would probably rather bury in those dark recesses of his mind. And some of those recesses were very dark indeed, which Stephen found both disturbing and fascinating.

The human psyche as experienced by Jack O'Neill would make an interesting topic and he thought he might try to write about it when he returned home. His people would remember Jack O'Neill, and Stephen thought that fitting for such a man. When the time came for their races to become friends, his name would be known, although the man himself would probably be long gone. Stephen would ensure he was not forgotten, even if his own people didn't.

There was much Stephen was not telling Jack and the others about his people. It would be wrong to reveal too much. These humans probably assumed his entire race could read minds with the aid of drugs and technology. This was not so, but the humans could not be made aware if that. Stephen was in a privileged position on his home world, one of only a small percentage of the population who possessed the capability. The percentage grew, and one day the ability might be more commonplace, as might the other unique abilities possessed by his race. The humans were unaware of them and would remain so.

"Excuse me Mr Stephen, sir, but may I ask what your race is called, and your planet?" This time it was Lieutenant Alexander who asked the question.

"It is simply Stephen, not Mr Stephen," Stephen corrected, "but of course. My people are called Krustians and the planet on which we dwell is Boldera. It is very far from here."

"Is it a long journey?" Alexander pressed.

"Long enough."

There followed a lengthy exchange between the diners during which Jack and the rest tried to glean as much information from Stephen about the Krustians and Boldera as possible, and Stephen deftly sidestepped the questions he did not think it wise to answer. Jack was vaguely amused to witness the ingenious way the alien evaded answering questions that would reveal too much and thought even he could learn from it.

As far as he was concerned, he'd got what he needed to know from the conversation. That was, of course, if anything Stephen said could be trusted. Jack figured the alien was right, he needed a little faith even if he hadn't thought he'd got much of that left. His earlier realization that Stephen cared had changed Jack's perspective slightly and he found he was more open to finding faith.

It seemed the Krustians were not a race of warmongers or conquerors. Nor did they use the Furlings gift for evil ends. Jack's personal experience of that gift might be negative, but Stephen described how it was used to help people on his home world, soothing their nightmares and insanities. Jack ironically thought he could do with a little of that treatment himself, although no way in hell would he willingly undergo it.

If anything, the Krustians appeared more concerned that the people of Earth might be the aggressors. This is one reason Stephen's people didn’t believe they were ready to be friends. Jack had to suppress an urge to laugh out loud when he realised this. He was pleased he could feel like laughing.

Although they had stopped eating a long time ago, the party had remained seated at the table while they talked. Given his recent thoughts Jack was warily relaxed, if there could be such a thing - and if there was, he could be it. Sam had been watching him closely and was relieved by what she'd observed of his apparent state of mind, although she realised Jack was a master of subterfuge. She thought he might almost be described as sanguine, although that might be stretching it a bit. Even the trainees had started to loosen up, one or two of them venturing to open their mouths without putting their feet in it when they did.

"I hope you will speak well of us when you return to Earth," Stephen said.

"So you are letting us go home then?" Jack asked, seeking confirmation.

"Of course! Why wouldn't we?"

"Just making sure. You said we were your prisoners," Jack responded pointedly.

"So I did, but I also told you many times we wish you no harm. I want your people to think well of us, so I hope you will feel able to present a good report of our conduct when you return, despite the unpleasant experience we put you through, Jack O'Neill."

'Unpleasant? Sheesh, that's what I'd call an understatement!' Jack thought but he nodded, no sign of emotion on his face. "I'm thinking about it. Does this mean it's time for us to go?"

"It is nearly time."

"I guess it is." He glanced at his watch. "We're overdue and the folks back home will be starting to get antsy."

"And of course they would send more of you on what you call a search and rescue?"

"Yep. I'm pretty sure you don't want that to happen. I don't want it to happen either. We'll probably be in enough trouble when we get back." Jack was concerned about the impact on the training program, and his active involvement. He turned towards Sam. "What do you think, Carter?"

"I think we ought to get the kids home, sir."

"I meant about the trouble we might be in." He gave her a wry smile and she grinned back reassuringly.

"We'll work it out."

He said nothing and looked at Stephen expectantly. "What about our stuff?" he asked.

The alien paused for thought. "I am reluctant to provide you with a weapon, Jack O'Neill. My walk in your mind showed me how lethal you can be."

"In that case you know I could wreak a fair bit of damage with these if I wanted to," Jack replied holding up his hands.

"Not before my men stopped you."

'Wanna bet?' Jack thought coldly but didn't say. "I thought we'd made peace," he said aloud.

"And so we have, but I do not want to place temptation in your path. We will return the weapons and other equipment to you at the gate." Jack nodded acquiescence because, in reality, he had no choice. Besides, Stephen was doing the right thing. Jack wouldn't have given himself a weapon if he'd read his mind either.

Stephen ushered them towards the elevator, which Jack mounted with some trepidation, declining to look down on the way up. It was a long way down, although Stephen assured him it was impossible to fall. It had something to do with gravity and anti-gravity, which Sam happily discussed with the alien leader as they rose. Jack tuned out.

When they reached the gate, Jack viewed his surroundings wistfully, wondering whether this would be his last off-world trip. When considered in this light, the eerie P4X-928 suddenly seemed like a magical place. The previously oppressive pink, green and dark grey sky was spectacular and he said as much to Sam as she dialled Earth and sent the signal. She agreed, saddened that they would never see this planet again.

The gate stood on a pathway out on the lake, and the small group of humans walked towards it, turning before entering the event horizon to give a final farewell to Stephen, who bowed. Then they were gone and Stephen sighed regretfully, having enjoyed the company of Jack O'Neill and his companions. He longed to see the planet Jack saw in his head but knew he never would. Despite his cynicism, Jack loved his home world and saw much beauty and good there, so Stephen did too. With those thoughts, the alien turned and walked away, back to his duties and the mundane.

*****************************

The SGC, later that day:

Jack just wanted to get home to his own bed to sleep, hopeful he might get through eight hours without being woken by nightmares – if he was lucky. Not having slept for hours, he was tired, but there was still a lot to do before he could leave the mountain. The initial medical checks and debriefings seemed to take an age and Jack realised this was probably only the start of it.

While the group of recently returned travellers dawdled in the infirmary waiting to be given a clean bill of health, the trainees clamoured for Jack's attention, although clamoured might not be quite the right word to describe their relatively quiet and respectful approaches. Amused, Sam was tempted to tell them to form an orderly queue for his autograph.

Patiently, Jack talked to them for a while and Sam was awed by how he handled them. She knew Jack must be tired and wishing he could just get home to lick his wounds alone. It was the Jack O'Neill way and it worried her, but she doubted he would welcome her interference. Although this time, Sam was determined he wouldn't push her out. She'd give him some O'Neill time if that was what he wanted - for a while.

She dreaded to think what was going on inside his head, but he made time for the small group of trainees, putting them at ease when he probably wasn't. Once they were dismissed from the infirmary, Sam broke up the group to let Jack have some peace so he could shower and change before the debrief, but Taylor contrived to stay behind.

"General O'Neill, sir?" he ventured warily, fidgeting awkwardly.

"You want to ask me something, Taylor?"

"Um, I'm sorry sir."

Jack was puzzled by the apology. "What? What for?"

"I, um," he looked a little pained and eyed Sam. "Um, oh nothing sir," he continued, apparently losing his nerve and suddenly looking like this was the last place on Earth he wanted to be.

"Carter?" Jack queried with a quirky eyebrow, wondering if she knew what it was all about.

"With all due respect, you really don't want to know, sir" she said, suppressing a small smirk and taking pity on the young trainee. "Another time, Taylor. The general has a meeting now. Dismissed."

"Yes ma'am," he said in a gratified tone, turning tail and leaving quickly.

"What the hell was that all about?"

"Like I said, you really don't wanna know."

Jack peered at her curiously and then shrugged. At that moment he was too tired to give a damn. "Okay, I'll take your word for it. Think I need to hit the showers."

"Me too. Look's like you've got yourself a small fan club," she said.

"Oy!" he exclaimed, rolling his eyes, the corners of his mouth turning up in a flicker of a smile.

Feeling more refreshed after his shower and change of clothes, Jack joined Sam, Smith and Alexander for the debrief. The verbal reports were greeted with some dismay, along with concern for Jack's welfare, which being O'Neill he tried to dismiss casually. He didn’t fool anyone but they played along with him, for now.

Sam caught the look of deep concern on Landry's furrowed brow and an exchange of glances told her they'd be having a private discussion about Jack real soon. Landry wouldn't just ignore what had happened to his old friend, that much was clear.

The negative fallout O'Neill had anticipated was not immediately forthcoming but, once reports reached DC, he was pretty sure that would change. Jack knew how those guys' minds worked. He figured the next few days were going to be filled to capacity with reports and post-mortems, as well as the planned trainee assessments, and had no doubt he'd be referred for counselling just to add to his headaches.

Wondering how he was going to fit all of that into his scheduled routine at the Academy, he pressed to be sent home to rest and, eventually, the request was granted. Despite having perked up with his earlier shower, Jack O'Neill was now exhausted. He argued the toss with himself about staying on base that night so he could hit the sack quickly, but decided the need for his own home and bed was even more pressing than his fatigue.

"Crap, I've got some essays to mark," he commented to Sam as they walked towards the elevator to go topside at last.

"You need to sleep."

"I know. Me and paperwork, always leaving it until the last minute," he said with a grin and Sam chuckled appreciatively. "I think it's gonna have to wait though. Screw it, I'll do them in the morning."

"It is morning."

The elevator came and the doors closed in front of them, leaving them alone. Jack pressed the button and turned to face Sam.

"So, um, Carter…?" he started, tailing off hesitantly and sucking in a deep breath while he bounced on his feet nervously, hands placed firmly in his pockets because he knew they were a little shaky.

"Sir?" she looked at him with wide-eyed expectation and he wondered what she was thinking.

'Now so isn't the right time,' he thought, 'but it will be, and soon.' Having changed his mind about asking her on a date, he visibly relaxed and Sam was left on edge, hopeful and then disappointed. "I won, you lost. You owe me dinner," he taunted, smiling cheekily.

She sighed, relieving some of her inner tension. "I bet you're never gonna let me live it down, are you?"

"Probably not. So where you taking me?" His tone was teasing and Sam was relieved he seemed light-hearted rather than glum.

"I'll send you an engraved invitation," she joked but almost immediately frowned, suddenly fearing his behaviour might be part of a Jack O'Neill charade. "Jack, I-I… are you okay?"

Instead of him fidgeting and looking at anything but her as she expected, he met her eyes. "I'll be better when you stop askin'," he quipped but, noting her glare, continued. "Don't worry about me so much, I'll be fine. Can't say the idea of someone out there knowing all my thoughts is something I would have wished for, but I can't do anything but live with it, can I? Get back to work, teach, inspire…" He smiled winningly and Sam searched his eyes, feeling vaguely reassured by what she saw.

"Fine as in…"

"Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional? Yeah, as I said, fine." His eyes danced with merriment and, as those dark brown depths often said more than he did, Sam was almost inclined to believe them, but not quite. She couldn't believe it was going to be so easy for her friend to shrug off recent events.

"Jack, I worry because I care. I care a lot."

Smiling, Jack briefly grasped her chin and rubbed a thumb over her cheek. "I know, and it helps. It's good to have someone in your life who cares," he answered with refreshing honesty.

As his hand moved away she seized it, unwilling to relinquish his touch. "And I am going to be in your life, aren't I?" The expression in her eyes made Jack's heart flutter. He resisted an impulse to pull her into his arms and kiss her face off.

"For a long, long time I hope," he said with a wistful smile. "Because I care a lot too."

"Good. I need you to care." They regarded each other in silence for a while, both deep in their own thoughts.

The spell was broken when the elevator stopped and they stepped out wordlessly, walking to the parking lot side by side, with Jack doing that thing with his hand in the small of her back again to steer Sam to her car.

"You're worn out," she said. "You shouldn't drive. Let me run you home?"

Jack seemed to consider her offer carefully and Sam thought he was going to decline when he surprised her by nodding acquiescence. "When you're right, you're right," he said grimly. "I'm bushed."

"Hop in," she replied, opening the door, and he settled into the passenger seat.

During the journey they maintained a peaceful silence and Sam smiled when she glanced at Jack and realised he'd dozed off. She wished she didn't have to wake him, but when they reached his house she shook him gently and whispered his name in his ear.

Jack started awake, initially disoriented, and then a contented smile appeared on his face when he realised where he was and who he was with.

"Thanks, Sam," he said, reaching up a finger to stroke through her hair.

"Anytime."

He was sorely tempted to ask her in and seek much needed comfort in her embrace, just to fall asleep with her arms around him, but thought it was probably the wrong thing to do. However, Sam surprised him.

"Want some company?" she asked as if she knew what he was thinking.

He loosed sighing breath. "Stephen isn't the only one who can read my mind." But when she reached for the handle to open her door, he stopped her. "No. Not tonight."

"I want to be here for you if you need me." Her eyes held a plea.

"I need you," he admitted and Sam gasped and held her breath at that telling confession, "and I want you to be there, but tonight… it just wouldn't be right."

She let out the breath with a heavy sigh and nodded, not necessarily understanding him but willing to fall in with his wishes. "I'll call you in the morning," she said.

"I'll call you."

"You've said that before."

"I promise. I won't let you down, Sam, not this time."

"A Jack O'Neill promise is as good as you can get," she replied and his lips turned upwards into a half smile and then he leaned over and quickly pecked Sam on the cheek, immediately backing off and getting out of the car.

"You will call tomorrow, won't you?" she queried uncertainly as he went to close the car door.

"You betchya," he responded and with a few long strides was gone.

She watched as he opened his door, but he didn't turn to look, and her heart was racing as she considered the implications of their semi-cryptic exchange. But she believed today everything had changed, and as Jack closed the door behind him, he believed it too. Jack O'Neill had found faith.


The End

Jackfic-athon plot bunny:

Smart!Jack fic- Jack is teaching at the Air Force Academy (or perhaps at some other institution if you really want, but it should be higher education). The field in which he is teaching has to be something unexpected though such as literature, history, or music. NOT hand-to-hand combat, coaching a sport, flying, or anything you'd expect to see Jack doing.

The fic could be set in that time between the movie and the series which could explain why he stayed in Colorado Springs instead of heading to Minnesota, it could be set earlier in his career (perhaps after recovering from Iraq), after he retires from the Air Force, or be completely AU. Really it's up to you. I just want to see Jack flexing his brain in an unusual way.

And if you really want to make me happy you can throw in a little Jack/Sam ship because that amuses me.